Well, I sold my big gun.
Following one great hunt, the bolt-action rifle rested unfired in my gun safe for seven years. I figured it deserved better. Now, maybe another hunter will put it to good use.
It was — is — a Winchester Model 70 Safari Express chambered for .416 Remington Magnum. The rifle weighs nine pounds without a scope. Fully tricked, with the low-profile 2-1/2X to 8X Leupold, Talley mounts, Dick Murray leather sling, and three rounds of 400-grain cartridges, it scales closer to 11 pounds.
And you need every ounce to absorb the punishment when you light up that boomer at the bench rest. The recoil can only be described as violent, sharper and more concussive than that of a big shotgun. Maybe velocity has something to do with it.
You snug the stock tight and struggle not to panic as the finger pressure increases on the four-pound trigger. You know what’s coming. So, incidentally, does everyone else on the firing line.
You want to hold steady and hit dead-on at 100 yards. Most spot-and-stalk shots at Cape buffalo are well inside that distance.
Once the rifle is dialed in at the bench, you practice the real stuff — sticks, offhand, and fast follow-ups inside 50. But I don’t think anybody does a whole of shooting with a .416.
You fire eight or 10 times during a range session then walk away before your eyes start crossing. Too much shooting can be counter-productive as Mr. Flinch joins the party. I ran maybe two 25-cartridge boxes through the rifle during the two months or so prior to the 2006 safari to Zimbabwe.
I felt reasonably comfortable with the big gun by the time we departed. I liked the heft of the heavy 24-inch barrel and the cool barrel band sling swivel and the solid lines of the walnut stock and the no-nonsense oily snick-and-click of the Model 70 bolt action.
I really favored that big gun. It brought a surge of confidence — no small matter amid the thick tangles of mopane scrub and jesse in close-quarters Cape buffalo country.
The moment of reckoning occurred on the sixth day of a seven-day hunt. I was teamed with Professional Hunter Gordon Duncan of Shangaan Hunters Africa. We were on the 900,000-acre Save Valley Conservancy in southeastern Zimbabwe. For various reasons, not all of them geographical, I was a long way from a deer feeder in the Texas Hill Country.
Unseasonably cool, wet weather kept the buffalo moving rather than keying on the water holes and bedding down during the afternoon heat. The first few days were slow, several busted stalks and various passes on younger bulls.
The morning of the sixth day, as we drove a sand trail, tracker Augustin Goromondo spotted a big bull with heavy horns and solid bosses. We turned a blind corner, parked, and Duncan handed down the big gun.
“Load with solids,” he said. Nothing you ever hear defines a serious big-game safari like that simple statement.
I flipped open the leather belt pouch and ran three Federal Trophy Bonded Sledgehammers into the rifle. I confirmed that the variable scope was turned to its lowest setting for quick target acquisition.
The bull had been standing maybe 300 yards away. Closing for a shot should have been easy but, as we circled back against the wind, the animal had disappeared. That’s saying something about the thick mesquite-like cover. The typical mature Cape buffalo bull is black as night and weighs between 1,500 and 1,800 pounds — hard to misplace.
The brute was restless and moving. We tracked for six straight hours. By “we,” I mean Duncan and Goromondo and fellow tracker Cohn Rwanda. I trailed in their wake through soft sand and across tangled ridges, the whole time carrying the 11-pound boomer.
If I faced a quick chance, I did not want the rifle way over there on a tracker’s shoulder. Under such charged circumstances, a distance of two or three yards might constitute “way over there.”
Abruptly, it happened. The two trackers stopped, pointed straight ahead, and dropped to their knees in the yellow grass. Duncan motioned me alongside. I sank to my knees and held the big gun in the ready position. My thumb was on the three-way safety.
Duncan nodded to a close opening in the green and gray screen of mopane. There, moving right-to-left at 29 paces, was the Cape buffalo. The bull sensed the nearness. It turned to face us and stopped.
I was looking up at the head and deep-curled horns. The wet snout glistened, and the red eyes glowered. These huge beasts have an undeniably bloody record of killing and maiming hunters who screw things up.
“Now,” Duncan hissed. “Stick him!”
The big gun came up. The thumb pushed the safety and the crosshairs settled on the chest and I rocked back with the detonation of a center-punched hit. The bull fell within 100 yards.
Now the big gun is gone. It’s gone because I realized I’ll most likely never hunt another Cape buffalo. The bad boy from Africa is over my fireplace and I have no room for another one.
Or maybe that is just an excuse to cover one of the passages in life. I’m not sure I have the juice to hunt another Cape buffalo. To do it right, you have to go in there after them. You get close and then closer. It’s serious business, something to think about.
But, then again, you never know about these things. That’s also something to think about. Now I’m sort of regretting selling the big gun. I wish I had it back.