One early May morning, something caught my eye on a logging road five hundred yards across a drainage as I hunted bear on a ridge complex not far from home. A quick look through the binoculars revealed an immense cinnamon phase boar bear. As I planned the stalk, two loose dogs beamed in from outer space and alerted my quarry. He turned, walked up an eighty degree, fifteen-foot high road embankment as if it were Kansas prairie, and disappeared over a ridge into thick timber. I spent the next month hunting him, but never saw him again, and don’t even start with me about letting your pets roam the countryside.
Did I Bring the Wrong Gun?
Those ten minutes changed my opinion about how much gun is enough for bear. I had chosen a light Savage 111 in .300 Win Mag for that hunt and had left my heavy old .375 H&H Winchester Model 70 at home. My personal range limit for shooting things which can eat you is 150 yards; under 100 is better, and 50 ideal. Dangerous animals require precise shot placement and as much bullet energy as you can put on target. Both factors favor getting up close and personal with your potential dinner. Loaded with proven 180 grain PPU soft points, I had confidence in my equipment–until I saw that cinnamon boar.
Most hunters tend to overestimate a bear’s size. They’re bulky animals and even a mediocre specimen can appear twice as heavy as it actually is, so I stay conservative when looking at bears. My conservative estimate on this one? Three hundred pounds. Yes, a big bear for these parts, perhaps even heavier. This gave me pause.
I believe in contingency planning when hunting. You should always ask, “what if?” In this case, what if the .300 didn’t anchor Mr. Bear and he wandered off into thick cover with my bullet irritating his flesh? The obvious answer: I’d have to go in and get him which could lead to a charge from the carnivore.
My .300 Win Mag versus My .375 H&H
The .300 Win Mag is good, but it is not known as a charge-stopper, which is what I’d need in the worst way if things went up the spout. After that day, I carried the .375 H&H despite the extra weight. I wanted a substantial rifle in my hands in case things turned ugly. I had reservations about the ammunition, though. I’m down to some old Federal Cape-Shok’s with 260 grain Nosler AccuBonds which I have clung to bitterly for years since Federal dropped the load (thanks ATK—not).
The 260 grain bullets are magic on deer and are ideal for elk and moose-sized animals, but the .375 made its reputation in Africa and on Kodiak Island with 300 grain projectiles. They have excellent sectional density (.305), and penetrate deep into big critters.
The worst case scenarios still dance in my imagination: a head on charge, or a follow-up shot with nothing other than bear butt for a target as the wounded beast flees into the timber. Either situation demands a bullet which can go end for end through a tough animal. As good as the 260 gr. AccuBonds are, I still want those extra forty grains.
How Much Gun is too Much for a Bear?
The more research and thought I put into it the matter, the more I’m sure there’s no such thing as too much gun for bear. Given there are bigger black bears around than the one I saw, and ever-present grizzlies, I’ve considered moving further up the power scale.
The cheapest solution at the moment is to increase bullet weight in the .375. Swedish firm Norma now loads Woodleigh’s 350 grain bullets (soft points and solids) for the .375 H&H in their African PH line. The 350 grain has an outstanding SD (.356), and an excellent reputation in Africa, with many reports indicating they make the .375 hit more like a .458.
Move Up in Caliber?
There is another alternative, though (evil laughter ensues). Why not just move up to a larger caliber—a purpose designed, African Big Five stopper? Holland and Holland intended the .375 as a versatile round for large plains game such as Kudu or Oryx at 300 yards, and if needed, lion and Cape buffalo up close. There were other, better stopping calibers then, and H&H anticipated someone on safari would also have a classic Nitro Express double rifle at their disposal for the hairy work. Unfortunately, this locacarnivore can’t afford such a battery, nor the gun bearers to tote them. So, one gun it is, but which?
A double rifle is the best choice for dangerous game: two quick shots from a gun which points like an extension of the hunter’s arms. The least expensive on the current market sells for around $6000.00.Gulp.
Cost alone dictates a bolt-action rifle and there are many caliber choices. The .416’s (Ruger, Remington Magnum, and Rigby), .404 Jeffrey, or the .458’s (Win. Mag. or Lott). I’ll admit the .500’s, like the .505 Gibbs, are probably too much—they’re best suited to elephant.
Downsides to Moving Up in Caliber
There are two big downsides to this idea: recoil and ammunition availability. The ten plus pound Winchester slaps me with thirty-six pounds of free recoil energy. At the shooting bench, I can only fire about ten or so rounds before I’m ready for a shoulder ice pack and a nap. The bigger bores hit you with forty-five to over seventy pounds. That’ll leave a mark, sir.
Then there’s ammunition availability. At best, one might find one or two .375 loads on the local gun shop shelves at an average price around $80.00 per box. The bigger bores? Forget it—mail order only, and closer to $150.00 per box. That’s pain beyond the recoil bruises. While I could reduce the cost with my own reloads, I lean toward factory ammo for critters which bite back.
The debate will go one in my head and heart for some time since a new rifle isn’t feasible at the moment. Even with all the difficulties, I can’t deny the pull those classic African calibers have. Just picking up a .416 Rigby brings visions of sun drenched savannas and death in the long grass. Another vision pushes me toward a big bore as well: a wounded, annoyed bear exploding from dark cover intent on sending me to Valhalla. At that moment, all other considerations would disappear.
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