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African Elephant: Recovery Shots and Calibre Choice

If one has a rifle with considerably more penetration than a .458 Win, raking shots from quartering away are feasible, but should only be attempted on wounded animals, since the likelihood of the bullet being stopped in the stomach is fairly good. Having said this however, Roy Vincent brought down a wounded (cow) elephant with a Texas heart shot from his .460 Weatherby, that penetrated all the way to the brisket. On a bull this shot is unlikely to succeed, but a quartering away shot might. One still has to aim to hit the heart though. Raking shots into the lungs usually work, but there are too many well documented failures to be unreservedly recommended. One must bear in mind the animal’s speed for a raking shot, since it is only too easy to forget this and place the shot too far back. An elephant’s stomach has a phenomenal ability to stop bullets, and a shot that is stopped by it will do nothing to halt the animal.

Shot placement on an elephant moving directly away.
Fig 2:- Shot placement on an elephant moving directly away.
(From highest to lowest)
Aim point for spine shot.
Aiming area for a hip shot.

This entirely depends on a) how well you can shoot and b) whether you are being professionally backed. In most of the countries where hunting elephant is legal, there is a required minimum of either 9,3x62 or .375 H&H. Either of these two calibres are perfectly adequate for hunting elephant, with one proviso. They are too light for all but an experienced hunter to use in thick cover (see vol 5 No1). The .458 Win, is not, in many PH’s opinion, significantly better than a .375. With a good handload driving a 500 grain bullet at a genuine 2150fps, it is, of course fully the equal of the old British rounds such as the .450, .465, 470 etc. This will give a greater concussion effect on a missed brain shot than a .375, which is very useful in breaking a charge. Unfortunately, very few factory rounds produce anything like 2000fps, let alone 2150fps, and those that do usually sacrifice bullet weight for velocity. Experience is beginning to show that the .465 grain monolithic’s, even at 2200fps, do not have the penetration of a 500 grain steel jacketed solid at 2000fps.

Generally, for a sport hunter who is not being professionally backed, as big as you can manage is the only sensible advice. No amount of power will compensate for a totally misplaced shot, but from .404 up, the margin for error increases. The big bores may knock an elephant out on a missed brain shot, they will certainly make a larger wound channel on a body shot resulting in a quicker kill, and most importantly, they pack a greater blow which can be life saving if one has to break a charge or take a hip/spine shot. If you can genuinely manage a .505, go for it. With the rider that one MUST be able to handle the rifle well, and shoot it comfortably without flinching, it is impossible to be ‘over gunned’, especially when hunting alone. If nothing goes wrong, grandad’s 7x57 is perfectly adequate. But, on the basis that when hunting, ‘if something can go wrong, it will, especially if you are unprepared’, there is no reason to use a light rifle if you can manage something heavier.

Elephant skull from the rear. Fig 3:- Elephant skull from the rear.
(From highest to lowest)
Rear of brain where spine connects to skull.

For the sportsman who is being professionally guided, a powerful rifle is not really necessary. If you are going for a heart shot, a 9,3 or .375 is perfectly adequate. If you are set on a brain shot, a 30-06 with 220 grain solids (not actually legal in most countries) will probably serve you as well as a .460. If you fluff the shot, the PH will solve it for you, and you are much, much less likely to fluff a shot with a rifle you can shoot well with, has a low powered scope that will not bite you, and that you have fired a couple of hundred rounds in practice with. There is nothing that scares a PH more than a client arriving with a new shiny magnum rifle with which he cannot hit the proverbial ‘bull in the butt with a banjo’. Bear in mind that the vast majority of elephants that have been shot this century have been taken with cartridges smaller than 8mm. The Zimbabwean Parks department used 7,62x54R and 30-06 for almost all their culling (over 23,000 elephants in the 1980’s), whilst .303’s and AK’s (7.62x39) in the hands of peasant farmers and poachers have probably killed more elephants than any other calibre. In short, shot placement is everything.

Go to Page: 1 2 Related Articles: Hunting African Elephant Part 1
Hunting African Elephant Part 2
Fact File: African Elephant
Firearms: .375 on Elephant
African Hunter Vol.5 No.4 August 1999
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