The wanderings of an elephant hunter: Pursuing the world's largest game with Karamojo Bell

The wanderings of an elephant hunter: Pursuing the world’s largest game with Karamojo Bell

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W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell, a Scottish big-game hunter and adventurer, developed a reputation as one of history’s most preeminent elephant hunters. His unique observations and techniques provide a clear snapshot of hunting the world’s largest land animal at the turn of the last century.

Most of us will never experience an elephant hunt in our lifetime. Today, a guided hunt for one of these mighty creatures could cost as much as $50,000, but in the early 1900s, things were a little different. Elephants were much more ubiquitous throughout Africa, poaching for ivory had not yet become the pervasive cancer it is today, and the unmapped areas of the continent outside of colonial rule meant men like W.D.M. Bell were able to freely take innumerable specimens with little reservation.

Although one can hardly look upon Bell’s approach to hunting as that of a pioneer in conservation (his hunting ethos began and ended with the collection of ivory en masse), the accounts of his exploits do provide a fascinating glimpse into the past and some valuable guidance for today’s hunters—even the non-elephant-hunting variety.

In addition to big-game hunting, W.D.M. Bell served as a sailor, pilot, and soldier during the Boer War and WWI.

It’s grisly work, but it’s worth it to learn your game’s anatomy.

Finding that conventional shot placement produced deficient results on elephants, Bell pioneered what became known as the “Bell Shot,” a specialized technique for quickly taking down the colossal animal with a single shot by firing from a position diagonally behind the target.

Determining this optimal shooting angle came from his understanding of the elephant’s anatomy, which he acquired through crude, but apparently effective, experimentation. “When everything had been got out, except the lungs and heart, I had spears thrust through from the direction from which a bullet would come. I meanwhile peered into the huge cavity formed by the massive ribs and when a spear pierced a lung or the heart, I immediately examined its situation and tried to commit it to my memory.”

You probably don’t need to go to such lengths, but it’s invaluable to have a clear idea of where to place your shots for the swiftest and most merciful kill. The next time you’re field dressing an animal, get your high school science class on and conduct a dissection. Familiarize yourself with your quarry’s composition, and you’ll know exactly how to hit an animal’s off switch.

Accuracy beats horsepower every time.

Bell hunted with a .400 Jeffery Nitro Express double rifle and (considerably) smaller .275 Rigby/7×57mm Mauser. He found that, when an elephant was hit in the correct spot, it didn’t matter which rifle he used—both were equally effective. Conversely, a bad shot was still a bad shot even when made using the larger caliber, and the elephant wouldn’t go down.

What does he do to prove this concept? He wires the two triggers on the massive .400 together to fire both barrels at once, because that’s the kind of innovation real men come up with when they’re left alone in the African savanna too long. “By doing this I obtained the equivalent of 800 grs. of lead propelled by 120 grs. of cordite. The net result was still the same. If wrongly placed, the 800 grs. from the .400 had no more effect than the 200 grs. from the .275.” One can only imagine the kaleidoscopic hues of the shoulder bruise Bell earned from that experiment.

Choose your bullet wisely.

Perhaps even more important than a firearm’s caliber is the type and weight of the projectile it fires. For instance, a FMJ bullet (full metal jacket) shot from a .30-06 won’t deliver nearly the damage on a deer that a properly expanding partition-type round, fired from a smaller caliber such as a .243, would.

For heavy-boned and thick-skinned animals like elephants, however, penetration—not expansion—is essential if the vitals are to be reached. Bell wrote, “For the brain shot only bullets with an unbroken metal envelope (i.e., solids) should be employed; and those showing good weight, moderate velocity, with a blunt or round-nosed point, are much better than the more modern high-velocity sharp-pointed variety. They keep a truer course, and are not so liable to turn over as the latter.”

Tailoring your bullet type to your game and hunting conditions can make the difference between a wound-loss and a decisive kill.

Want better hunting opportunities? Cajole local landowners.

To find elephants and safely navigate the various tribal boundaries he needed to cross, Bell knew that he would have to start by appealing to tribal chieftains. That often entailed lavishing them with gifts. In one instance, Bell bestowed an extraordinary amount of goods on a particularly stubborn chieftain in order to get his blessing to hunt on his tribe’s land.

“The usual compliments passed between us and the customary present was duly presented by us. It took the form, on this occasion, of a case of liqueur brandy and a little banker’s bag containing fifty golden sovereigns. [Then] we looked about and finally decided to give him one of our sporting rifles. Next day, after arranging to call on him, we duly presented this beautiful weapon together with a lot of cartridges. More hope was doled out to us, without anything definite happening. And so on it went for three weeks.”

By the time Bell finally convinced the chieftain to permit him to hunt the land, he’d given the man eight mules, 15 camels, several firearms and cases of liquor, and the gifts mentioned above. Obviously Bell approached this from a business perspective—the value of the ivory he harvested as a result of this agreement more than paid for the gifts—but the underlying principle of showing kindness and appreciation to those who allow you to hunt their land still applies today.

When it comes to dangerous game, you must keep your cool if you’re to survive.

As one might imagine, a charging 13,000-pound battering ram of pure muscle and bone is enough to make even the bravest hunter feel weak in the knees. In stressful moments like that, humans tend to react hastily and make critical mistakes. “An angry bull elephant is a magnificent sight, but an extremely difficult animal to deal with, even for the practiced shot,” wrote Bell. “The natural inclination of most men is to fire and fire quickly, straight at the beast, anywhere. This must be resisted at all costs.”

Instead, in his totally pragmatic fashion, Bell insisted that your best bet with such dangerous game is to simply stand your ground and make a deliberate shot. “Never turn your back to him. While you can see him you know where he is. And besides, you cannot run in thick stuff without falling. Always stand still and shoot whichever animal threatens you most is what I have found to be the best plan.”

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