The finished rifle, minus the dot sight.

When the chips are down... 13 years on

By Richard Sowry

Thirteen, and then recently three years ago, I wrote an article on a ‘working’ dangerous-game rifle and the differences that certain aspects of its design made. In each case, it was based on my experience at the time. More than thirteen years have passed, and while most of my thoughts remain the same, some have changed because of field experience. What follows is a summary of what has changed for me, and, most importantly, why it did.

In 28 years of working as a field guide and game ranger, including many encounters with dangerous game, I have been fortunate to have met and worked with many experienced people in the field, and have gleaned all I could from them.

In 1994, I bought the first ‘stopping’ rifle I ever owned, a Brno ZKK-602 in .375 H&H. I used this rifle during the onset of my guiding career, and although I never used it on dangerous game, I trained for and passed my FGASA Level 3 SKS Dangerous Animals Exam in 1997 with it. This exam is based on several simulated situations that one as a guide might encounter. It puts you and the rifle through your paces, and fast, accurate shooting at short range is of the essence.

My Brno .375 came standard with most of the basic requirements – a fairly well-fitting stock, iron sights, and a strong Mauser-type action. To get the rifle right for me, Fritz Röhr, the Kruger Park instrument maker and gunsmith, customised the sights, shortened the barrel, and smoothed the action. I used this rifle daily for about four years, and then, needing something heavier, had a .458 Lott built on a standard-length M98 action. It was a light rifle, weighing in at about 8 lbs with similar sights to the .375 and a short 22” barrel. This rifle served me well – it was extremely reliable, and I never experienced a feeding problem.

There was a noticeable increase in speed when cycling the standard-length M98 action as opposed to the longer action of the .375. The step-up in power to the .458 Lott from the 375 was also noticeable, especially on problem elephant, which I started to deal with as I was by now a game ranger in Kruger National Park. I was never comfortable with the balance of the .458 Lott, though, and it was most noticeable when doing fast “point-and-shoot’ work – it never settled and strayed off-target. Although I used the .458 Lott for several years, I eventually sold it for this very reason.

Danie Joubert then built me a beautiful 416 Rigby on a re-worked Brno ZKK-602 action with a 23” Walther barrel, special sights, a custom magazine box, and with a custom-fitted stock by Faan De Vos. I used the .416 exclusively for 13 years and then, having witnessed the unbelievable performance of my colleague and friend Neels van Wyk’s .450 Rigby Rimless, decided to have one made.

The .416’s action and stock were utilized along with a Krieger 22” barrel and some minor changes to the iron sights and balance. The result was a work of art by Bjinse Visser, Danie Joubert and Faan de Vos. All the changes were those that I thought would be improvements on the 416 Rigby. For some unknown reason, however, I never shot this rifle as well as I shot the 416 Rigby. Recoil wasn’t the problem, but rather something to do with the balance that I could never understand.

A common trait amongst all big-bore ‘nuts’ is the desire to own a double rifle, and in 2011, I was fortunate enough to be in the position to be able to afford one. This happened shortly after an episode with a hippo on the Timbavati River with Prof Brian Reilly and a guest from Australia. The hippo bull in question was badly bitten by another bull and took exception to us on the riverbank. We were walking along when the hippo erupted from a pool and charged us. I immediately ushered Brian and our guest towards higher ground but the hippo, however, did not falter in his charge. At about five paces, I had no option other than to shoot it. I was using the 416 Rigby at the time, and the hippo dropped to a single brain shot. It was while reconstructing the day’s events around the campfire that Brian said to me: “Richard, you need a double rifle! I am going to ask Andrew to keep a look-out for one.”

It wasn’t long before Andrew Tonkin had stock of an Army & Navy .450 (3 ¼”) NE, which I bought. The gun was made in 1906 and was a boxlock non-ejector with 28” barrels. It regulated extremely well with S335 powder (roughly IMR-3031 equivalent) and 475-grain Dzombo monolithic solids at around 2150 fps. I used this gun for two years and was by then a converted double rifle man.

Thinking back now, there was something special in each of the five different rifles I owned, some little feature that made the difference in a tight situation. Consequently, the rifle I shoot today is a combination of all these guns, as I shall attempt to explain.

For the sake of modern engineering and reliability, I sold the Army & Navy and replaced it with a modern working double rifle, a Model 88B “Safari” in .450 (3¼”) NE, custom-built for me by Heym in Germany. I have been using this rifle for the past thirteen years and wouldn’t swap it for its weight in gold. It’s the tool I choose to use above all in a tight situation, it fits me like a glove, and handles like a wand. It has saved my life on several occasions.

The latest back sight with the silver centreline.

On the left, a 500-grain Dzombo solid, and on the right a 480-grain Woodleigh Hydro. Both were recovered from elephant.

I chose a double rifle for several reasons. Firstly, there is no big-bore firearm able to fire a second aimed shot faster than a double rifle. From my experience, at the distance where most charges start, a competent rifleman can get off one aimed shot with a bolt-action and two aimed shots with a double. This doesn’t mean that one starts shooting earlier with a double, as shooting too far out means more chance of missing. The distance to shoot at is where you get that feeling that you cannot miss. Although charges happen fast, they appear as if they are in slow motion when one is in control, and that “cannot miss” feeling occurs at that point in time where you can see your target, your sights are aligned, and you are able to hold on it, usually at very close range. If this shot fails for some reason, the immediate second shot of a double can be a lifesaver.

A perfectly expanded 500-grain Swift A-Frame soft-point, recovered from a buffalo.

A double rifle is also two rifles in one, and this is added insurance if the one barrel malfunctions. There is also no need to cycle the rifle’s action to be able to reload, and this eliminates any fumbling that can slow you down or cause a jam. A double rifle is also not necessarily slower than a bolt-action after two shots, it just requires practice. After enough practice of learning how to correctly load a double rifle fast, one can fire four aimed shots into a fist-size bullseye at 15 metres in about 7-8 seconds, and that’s as fast as anyone with a bolt-action.

When I say “correctly load” I’m implying that as a right-handed shooter, you should take the gun down holding the grip in the right hand, and at the same time break the action with the top-lever using the right thumb, while pulling the barrels down with the left hand. It makes little difference whether the rifle has ejectors or not, and if it doesn’t, it only takes a flick of the wrist, and the empty cases fall out. Once the action is open and clear, use the left hand to pull two shells from the ammo belt. The shells should be held between thumb and forefinger, in the V formed by the webbing of your hand, and then dropped directly into the chambers, which should be held around waste height. Then, bring the gun up and close it at the same time using the left hand. If you are wearing a glove on the left hand as cushioning from the hot barrels, you can continuously fire several shots. For a left-handed shooter, the procedure described will be exactly the opposite.

Having stated my preference for a double rifle, I must also mention that a poorly made double rifle does not compare to a well-made bolt-action. When selecting a suitable heavy rifle for dangerous-game work, the reliability, fit, and ammunition used, are far more important factors than whether it is a double or bolt action.

Calibre-wise, I like to use a cartridge with adequate stopping power, and for me this starts at .400”. Obviously, the bigger you go, the better the stopping power becomes, but this also comes at the price of heavier recoil and less penetration. All things being equal, the penetration one gets is proportional to a factor of the bullet’s momentum and frontal area.

I want enough penetration to reach the vitals of all large dangerous-game species from most angles, and elephant are in a league of their own in this regard. I often don’t get to choose the shot, and that narrows things down a bit for me as well. The angles are either incoming or, at best, quartering away, and sometimes even full rear-end. With this type of penetration required, one is basically left with a choice of the various .416’s and .404’s (with modern loads), as well as the hotter .458’s and the .500’s. From that group, I found that there was nothing to compare to the .450 Rigby Rimless with 600-grain Dzombo solids at 2150 fps. I have recovered several bullets from full-length shots on elephant, either brain shots ending up near the tail or anchoring shots travelling all the way from the tail to the trunk. This calibre is obviously not available in a double rifle, so I needed to compromise when ordering my double.

The massive penetration of the .450 Rigby Rimless may be handy at times, but I’ve also learned that placing that first shot correctly is more important, and that’s where the fast second shot of a double makes up for the lesser penetration. It allows you to get a second shot in the right place before the angles change.

Prior to ordering my double, I discussed a possible change in calibre to either the popular .470 NE or the .500 NE with Chris Sells of Heym USA. Having used the .450 NE for a year, though, I was very happy with the cartridge’s performance. It had already stopped an elephant attack at eight paces for me and done work on other species as well. There is also a great selection of .458” bullets available, in my opinion a better selection compared to what is available for the .470 or .500. Thanks to the likes of Craig Boddington championing the .450 NE, Hornady’s brass and reloading dies are readily available as well. The ballistics I achieve in the .450 NE are the same as those of the .470 NE, namely a 500-grain bullet travelling at 2150 fps. I was tempted to step up to the .500 NE but chose to stick with the .450 (3 ¼”) NE for two important reasons.

Some loaded .450 NE ammunition, from left to right: a 480-grain Woodleigh Hydro, 500-grain Dzombo solid, 500-grain North Fork Percussion Point, and a 500-grain Swift A-Frame.

Firstly, I had done several calculations and tests, and in all the 500-grain .458” bullets with their superior sectional density out-penetrated both the .470 NE and .500 NE. After all, it is bullet placement that is the most important factor in stopping a charge, and reaching the desired target is more important than any amount of stopping power.

The second reason I chose the 450 NE is one that many don’t understand. Being a slimmer cartridge with a smaller case-head diameter compared to both the .470 and .500, the .450 can be built on a slimmer, lighter action. With speed of handling being another critical factor in stopping a charge, I was adamant that the .450 was the better choice between the three cartridges, and after using the gun for some years, I still stand by my decision.

I’m a lover of Africana literature and one of my favourite reads is Ian Nyschens’s book, Months of the Son. Ian specialized in hunting elephant in the Jesse bush of the Zambezi Valley, one of the most dangerous environments to do this in. Ian used two .450 doubles during his career, a Rigby .450 No 2 NE which fell into the Zambezi River and was never recovered, and an Alex Henry .450 (3 ¼”) NE which he finished his career with.

The construction of my double involved a custom-fitted stock. As I lived far from Germany, however, it was impossible for Heym to measure me, but this obstacle was resolved by meeting Chris Sells as he was en route to a Mozambican safari. Chris was using several Heym rifles on that Safari, including a .450/ 400 (3”) NE double, and the minute I threw the .450/400 up, things just fell into place. I did this a few more times, and each time the brass bead settled right in the centre and bottom of the rear V-sight. We concluded then and there that my Heym would be built to these exact dimensions.

Being a classic British double, the Army & Navy .450 had had a splinter fore-end. At that time, Heym doubles came standard with a beavertail fore-end, which I decided to stick with. I wanted to see if the wider beavertail afforded more protection to my hand when the barrels got hot, and I knew that changing it to a splinter fore-end was a relatively simple job in any event. I chose the standard barrel length of 26” as the Army & Navy had been slightly cumbersome with 28” barrels. I also went for standard Heym iron-sights as these, too, could be easily modified if need be. I asked Heym to fit a wider-than-normal brass bead, 2 mm in diameter. This was something I had done initially on the old Brno .375 as it is faster to acquire and makes no difference in accuracy at the distances I use a heavy rifle.

With bolt-actions, where safety catches are concerned, I prefer two types, and both lock the firing pin itself and not just the trigger. My favourites are the Winchester Model 70 safety as well as the Mauser flag-type safety. Obviously, neither of these could be fitted to a double, but the safety on the 88B is as good as it gets in my opinion. Firstly, the Heym has intercepting sears, so the trigger must be in the rearward position for the rifle to fire. This is an excellent feature in a double and prevents the rifle from accidently discharging when bumped. Another advantage of the tang safeties found on doubles are that they are by far the fastest to reach, while still being able to reach the trigger and not having to adjust one’s grip. The problem, however, is that not all double rifles safeties were created equal. The various manufacturers make safeties that come in different styles, all of which need varying degrees of effort to disengage. I believe that the safety fitted to the 88B is perfect: it is a steep, hollow ramp that has been heavily stippled, and it’s almost impossible for a thumb to slip of the face of the safety.

I kept the engraving on the rifle simple, but I did ask Heym to copy the mopane leaf that Armin Winkler had executed on the .450 Rigby’s magazine floorplate. Obviously, a double rifle doesn’t have a floorplate, so I had it applied on the grip-cap. I sent a photo to Heym, and they did a great job of copying it. I choose a mopane leaf because to me, the mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane) represents all that is wild, untouched, and magical about the African bush. It is the habitat of old, heavy-tusked elephant bulls and those elusive, shy, and belligerent ‘dagga boy’ buffalo bulls. Also, it makes the perfect campfire wood, with an aroma that brings back good memories.

The Heym 88B in .450 NE fitted with the Aimpoint Acro C2 sight.

After many anxious months, the import permit was approved, and to this day I remember unboxing the gun for the first time. My initial impression was that Heym must have made a mistake and shipped the wrong gun as the gun was so slim and light that it had to be a lighter calibre and not a .450. I checked the calibre engraving, and it was indeed a .450 NE. I had certainly made the right choice of calibre!

Back home, I couldn’t wait to test-fire the gun, and I had some left-over ammo from the Army & Navy. At the range, this unfortunately didn’t work out quite so well. The Army & Navy was an old gun and had been regulated with cordite-loaded ammunition, and for regulation I had used S335 in it. The Heym shot these at around 2 250 fps, but the shots from the left and right barrels were crossing. Problems!

Having read my friend Graeme Wright’s excellent book on double rifles, I was well-versed in what was needed to regulate the Heym. I initially reduced the loads to 2 150 fps, but this made no difference. I knew that the ammunition used to regulate the Heym was Hornady factory ammunition, and the powder used would be something like H4350. The South African equivalent was S365, so I gave this a go. The first load I tried was 92 grains, but the velocity was 2 350 fps with the left and right barrels still crossing. I reduced the load to 88 grains and two shots from the left and right barrels printed neatly into one ragged hole. The muzzle velocity was also an extremely pleasing 2 250 fps with a Dzombo 480-grain solid.

It was at this time that I started testing 500-grain Dzombo solids, and I found that with the same load, the Heym also shot both barrels into one hole at 25 metres at a velocity of 2 200 fps. Preferring heavier bullets, this was the load I settled on. The gun shot slightly high with the 500-grain load, but some careful filing of the rear V-sight sight solved this, and suddenly I was in business. I also filed the face of the brass bead flat and then worked the angle slightly forward off the vertical. The bead now picks up more light and stands out very clearly.

Over the next few months, I found that when shooting fast I lost my grip, and when pulling the back trigger, I was getting cut on my trigger finger by the front trigger. This had never happened with the Army &Navy, and I realised that the Heym’s grip was not as slim as that of the old English double rifle, and that this was probably what was causing the problems: my grip on the slimmer Army & Navy stock was a lot stronger. I also determined that the beavertail fore-end made little difference in protecting my hand when the barrels heated up. It did, however, prevent me from grabbing the barrels which reduced the fast handling and pointability of the gun. The English definitely designed their rifles the right way!

To solve these issues, stockmaker Faan de Vos reshaped and refinished the stock, slimming the grip, and converting the beavertail to a splinter fore-end. He also changed the chequering from sharp to flat-top, another huge advantage. Faan also fitted a new Silver’s recoil pad with rounded edges. I prefer old-style English recoil pads made from urethane (as opposed to pure rubber) as they are less tacky and don’t snag on your clothing when the gun is shouldered or lowered. I also polished the recoil pad with furniture wax to make it even smoother. The finishing of a recoil pad is an often-neglected aspect. Have a look at most shotguns and you will find that the recoil pad or butt-plate is smooth with no sharp edges. This ensures that the gun doesn’t snag in the shoulder when mounted. By rounding and polishing a urethane pad, the same effect can be achieved.

Recently, I made a few more modifications to the rifle, namely the sights.

As one gets older it is inevitable that one’s eyesight deteriorates. With that comes the inability to focus on the rear V-sight. I visited Danie Joubert, and we discussed the cutting of a new V sight that was slightly wider and with a V cut at a very shallow angle, still keeping the silver centre line. The finished version worked well for very close shots, but my eyes still battled to centre the bead perfectly, which is imperative as the shots get longer.

At this stage, I started using a reflex sight with a red dot that I had originally ordered with the gun. I have used red-dot sights on other rifles for close to 15 years now, and I was aware of the advantages that they have over iron sights. I would say that at anything over 15 yards there is an absolute advantage of the red dot sight. It’s only at the very short range that “the jury is still out” in my opinion. It’s at these distances that one is usually in an extreme hurry and there is no time or possibility to focus on sights and then an incoming target. Here one shoots where you look, and hence the absolute necessity of a well-fitting stock. When shooting in this manner, having less in the way on top of the barrel is the advantage.

After using the red dot for a while, I became increasingly more convinced that this was the way to go, so I started experimenting with various mounting options to get the sight mounted as low over the barrels as possible to get the best fit with the stock that had been cut for use with iron sights.

Having used Aimpoint red dot sights extensively I also started exploring options to mount an Aimpoint, instead of the reflex sight. In my opinion, Aimpoint red dot sights are in a league of their own, for the following reasons:

  • They are parallax free which basically means that once sighted in, wherever the dot is in the sight window, this is where the bullet goes. This is a real advantage on longer shots, and it also enables you to shoot accurately even if the dot is in the bottom of the sight window (a real factor especially if you stock was cut with drop at comb for iron sights);

  • They have the longest battery life, so can be left on all the time, and only change the battery every year or two so there is absolutely no risk of failure;

  • The sight is sealed which means it works more reliably in harsh conditions especially where rain and mud are involved;

  • The optics glass is the clearest of all I have tested;

  • Lastly, they are the most robust red dot sights. I have exposed them to huge hardship and have never had one fail me.

I have used the Aimpoint Micro H-2 a lot and it works very well. But for the double rifle, it looked like I would be able to mount an Aimpoint Acro C-2 a little bit lower, so that is what I ended up buying. A master gunsmith and good friend from Sweden, PO Stenmark, kindly sourced me a base for the sight and custom machined it to fit on the rib. When the base arrived, Danie Joubert did the final fitment. I could not be happier with the finished product. And as you can see from the photos, it is right on top of the rib, the base is hardly visible.

One important note is where on the rib to fit the sight. One doesn’t want it in the way of where you hold the rifle, and it must also not get in the way when loading rounds fast.

To finish off, I would like to discuss another important topic: ammunition. It is after all the bullet that actually does the work. In over 28 years, I have extensively tested many types of solids and soft-point big-bore bullets. Concerning solids, I exclusively use flat-point bullets and their variants. From the many tests that friends and I have conducted over the years, it was shown time and again that they out-penetrate equivalent-weight round-nose solids and also make a substantially larger wound channel.

Because of this, I used nothing but the South African-made Dzombo monometal solids for 17 years. The Dzombo solid is excellent, it is not only the right shape for maximum penetration but is turned from a brass alloy that is the strongest construction for a solid. Added to this, the Dzombo has a superb bearing-surface design and pressure build-up is much lower compared to other bullets I have used. I can therefore achieve slightly higher velocities at lower pressure with the Dzombos.

Recently I started using the Woodleigh Hydrostatically Stabilised Solids, commonly known as “Hydro’s”. From tests that Graeme Wright did in Australia, the Woodleigh Hydro is the best “brush busting” bullet available. It deviates less when a branch or some other obstacle is inadvertently in the way. I have also found Hydro’s to make the largest and most destructive wound channel of any solid I have used. So far, they also seem to penetrate the same distance as a Dzombo solid. I remove the plastic caps that are fitted specifically for feeding in bolt action rifles, as these are not necessary, and don’t help to load a double rifle any faster. The bearing surface also works well, and I achieve the same velocity for a load as I do with the equivalent weight Dzombo solid.

For soft-points I prefer solid-shank, bonded-core designs, and I’ve found the North Fork to be the best. I prefer them because if all else fails and the bullet breaks up, you are still left with a solid (albeit a slightly lighter one). Next best are the partition types such as Swift’s A-Frame. I also like a round or large blunt nose as opposed to a sharp spitzer in a soft point intended for dangerous game as I have found that they expand faster and more reliably. The North Fork bullets also have a bearing-surface design like the Dzombo and one can also achieve slightly higher velocities at lower pressure with them. I believe the North Fork PP is in a league of its own on cats, as the grooves cut close to the tip facilitate very fast expansion. Unfortunately, North Fork are no longer easily available, so I have switched to Swift A-Frame’s.

The finished product of my double rifle and the diet that it is fed represents to me the epitome of fine handling and reliability. It is indeed a heavy rifle that one can rely upon when you find yourself in the thick stuff and the chips are down.

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