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On safari with a classic big-bore double rifle

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When European settlers first arrived in Africa, they brought with them trusty muzzleloaders that, though they may have served them well in the old country, proved far too anemic to dispatch the thick-skinned, heavy-boned dangerous game native to their new home. After a few close calls with cantankerous critters the size of pickup trucks, they realized they needed something more powerful in their arsenal to protect their crops, livestock, and themselves. But to develop a more potent gun during the time of black powder, they really only had one option: Make it fire a bigger bullet. Black powder, unlike modern propellants, can only develop a finite amount of pressure, which limits projectile velocity. Because kinetic energy equals half of an object’s mass multiplied by velocity squared, if the velocity can’t go up, the only way to improve the energy of a round (though much less efficiently) is to increase the size of the bullet. So they did. In a big way. These newly fielded big-bore guns—sold with rifled, smoothbore, or only partially rifled barrels—fired almost comedically enormous bullets.

Bore size of these behemoth guns was dictated by how many equal-sized projectiles could be formed from a single pound of lead. A 10-bore, then, would fire bullets that weigh 1/10th of a pound. Big-bore rifles were made as large as two-bore (firing a half-pound lead bullet) but the most common—and practical—were built in the eight-bore to 12-bore range. The former could be used to great effect on elephant. The latter, like the one shown in this article—hurling 700-grain projectiles at velocities approaching 1,300 FPS—proved well suited for large cats such as Bengal tigers. In fact, it’s known that John Henry Patterson used a 12-bore to dispatch the first of the Tsavo Man-Eaters. “I grabbed my double smooth-bore, which I had charged with slug, and waited patiently,” he wrote. “I fired both barrels practically together into his shoulder, and to my joy could see him go down under the force of the blow.”

Big bores of the mid- to late-1800s fired lead balls or truncated conical slugs hardened with antimony, tin, or pewter. Above: To the left is a 600-grain round ball topping a 12-bore cartridge; to the right is a modern 20-gauge slug for scale.

Big-bores became the preferred antidote for ferocious felines or enraged elephantidae, and they were often configured in double-barrel form. A double rifle’s second barrel proved a vital backup in dangerous game situations—both quick to engage and supremely reliable. With a bolt-action rifle, if a round fails to fire or stop a charge, a hunter must cycle the bolt to clear the problem, then reacquire the sights—hopefully before a lion, water buffalo, or elephant bears down on them. In a double rifle, the hunter must only pull the other trigger to engage the adjacent barrel, which can be done in a fraction of the time and without taking one’s eyes off the target.

On safari with the 12-bore double rifle
This 12-bore, manufactured in the early 1860s by R.B. Rodda & Co., features Damascus-steel barrels and a rotary underlever action.

Downsides of the big-bore double

Although a mainstay of safari hunters in the blackpowder era, big-bore doubles came with their fair share of drawbacks. The first: their price. A quality double rifle could cost (and this remains true today) five to 10 times more than a bolt action of similar quality. The process of regulating a double rifle’s barrels in a way that makes them accurate takes time and meticulous craftsmanship, and that comes at a high cost.

“This was rather a bone of contention between us, he being a firm believer (and rightly) in a heavy weapon for big and dangerous game, while I always did my best to defend the .303 which I was in the habit of using. On this occasion we effected a compromise for the day, I accepting the loan of his spare 12-bore rifle as a second gun in case I should get to close quarters.” — John Henry Patterson, “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo”

And regardless of how well regulated that double might have been, it would still only be suitable as a comparatively short-range weapon. Although capable of taking game at ranges up to 200 yards, most double rifles were regulated to hit at point of aim with both barrels at 50 yards. This, in tandem with firing heavy, large-diameter, slow-moving bullets, made them best suited to decisively stopping charging big game at close ranges.

But penetration remained problematic: Even as the size of the projectiles increased, they remained hampered by the limitations of black powder. Although they might deliver immense concussive force upon impact, their deadliness ultimately paled to more modern, smaller cartridges firing projectiles at much higher velocities.

Finally, with two thick steel barrels rather than one, a big-bore double could be a particularly heavy instrument. Assuming a hunter didn’t have a dependable gun bearer to carry it for them and pass it to them in their moment of need, they could end up lugging a 10+ pound rifle for miles through dense brush in sweltering heat—not an appealing choice when other, lighter and handier options were available.

Originally a pinfire design—as evidenced by the overarching hammer design and the small reliefs cut in the top of the barrel where the cartridge heel rests—this rifle was later converted to fire more modern centerfire cartridges.

The big-bore double rifles were eventually eclipsed by the “nitro era,” wherein potent smokeless cartridges such as the 375 H&H, .416 Rigby, or .450 Nitro Express came to be the preferred armament used by hunting guides and professional hunters. “I have only shot lions with two kinds of rifles, a 10-bore carrying a spherical bullet and six drachms of powder, and a .450-bore Metford rifle by George Gibbs of Bristol…in my opinion the .450-bore with the heavy 360-grain expanding bullet was the more deadly weapon,” wrote legendary British hunter F.C. Selous in “The Lion in South Africa.” Still, they remained in favor by a few old guard hunters well into the early 1900s.

Despite their eventual relegation to the gun racks of aristocratic gentlemen’s clubs and hunting lodges, there can be no doubt as to the foundational role big-bore double guns played in the formative years of safari hunting.

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