Big Bore Guns

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While I’m not certain where the line in the sand is for a cartridge to be considered a true big bore, I tend to peg it right at .375. Cartridges like the .375 H&H have long been considered the minimum for dangerous game in many parts of Africa and it has a pretty universal acceptance in the big bore family of cartridges.

While the big bores are pretty commonplace in continents like Africa, where there are lots of mean critters just looking to eat or stomp on an unsuspecting hunter, their use in North America is definitely far more limited. I’ve owned a variety of big bores over the years, including a 375 H&H, 416 Rigby and 458 Winchester, but have never really fallen in love with any of these rifles, that is until I recently had a custom .375 H&H built by Rocky Mountain Rifles. I had it built for a trip we were planning to Africa. I took several species of plains game with it, including a monster eland that I quite literally flattened right on the spot.

But, now that we are back in North America and planning our upcoming season, I’m looking for any excuse I can find to pull the big girl out of the safe.

While the .375 H&H is definitely the most popular of the big bores here in North America, Hornady, in collaboration with Sturm, Ruger & Co., took a serious run at the venerable H&H nearly 100 years after its launch with the 375 Ruger. The new Ruger cartridge was reported to not only match the performance of the H&H, but also exceed it and all in a shorter, non-belted cartridge that could be used in a standard 30-06-length action. This was all done by offering a fatter case, which packs about six per cent more powder volume. While the world wasn’t really clamouring for another .375 offering, this new cartridge did allow Ruger to offer it in its lower-priced Hawkeye line of rifles. No longer was the .375 just the choice of the safari set, but rather Ruger turned it in to a working-man’s calibre. Ruger also tailored much of its marketing around the North American market, making the new chambering very popular with hunters in Alaska and Canada.

The 375 Ruger has lived up to its hype and has become firmly entrenched in North American hunting circles. It offers up a slight velocity increase over the H&H, about 150 feet per second shooting 300-grain bullets. Although, if it’s speed you are after, it comes nowhere near matching the velocity of the 375 Remington Ultra Mag and the king of .375s, the Weatherby Magnum. But, nothing is free and both of the speedster .375s do have recoil to match. And, truthfully, few look at the .375 as a long-range cartridge, as is attested to by the loyal following the .375 H&H has had for 101 years. In fact, when the .375 H&H was created, bullets were of very poor quality and heavy and slow was the recipe for penetration on large game. However, with the advent of jacketed bullets and, more recently, bonded and mono-metal bullets, all of the old rules and theories surrounding speed and bullet size has pretty well gone out the window.

While the 300-grain bullet has long been the favoured choice for the .375, many hunters are switching to lighter mono-metals and achieving the same or superior penetration, with the added benefit of a slightly flatter trajectory with practical ranges. I’m currently shooting 250-grain Hornady GMX bullets out of my H&H at slightly over 2,800 feet per second. When I shot my eland a couple of months ago in South Africa, it blew through the shoulder bone on the near side and hung up just under the hide on the far side. Our Professional Hunter said it was some of the most impressive performance he’d ever seen out of a bullet in a .375. While old-school big bore shooters are reluctant to move away from heavy solids for dangerous game, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a cape buffalo with the 250-grain GMX. In fact, I plan to in 2015. When you combine the typical two-times expansion of today’s mono metals with nearly 100 per cent weight retention and superb penetration, they truly are deadly in the .375 for small to heavy game.

Another of the big bores that sees a lot of use in Canada, especially in the west and north, is the 45-70 Government. Developed somewhere around 1865 and standardized in 1873 when the US government ordered several thousand, the 45-70 was originally a black powder cartridge rifle, with the .45 denoting calibre and the 70 indicating the grains of black powder used in the cartridge. The standard projectile at the time was a 405-grain cast bullet, but by 1889 the use of the heavier 500-grain bullet became the norm. The improved ballistic coefficient of the 500-grain bullet offered a superior trajectory and the cartridge was commonly known as the 45-70-500. While considered a short-range cartridge by today’s standards, there was a time when the 45-70-500 was the long-range king. The army did test at 3,500 yards and found the bullet could penetrate a one-inch board. The bullet was reported to strike at a 30-degree angle with a flight time of nearly 21 seconds, but for the time it was impressive performance. Not much was ever said, however, regarding how many shots it took to actually hit the board.

Winchester and Marlin were quick to adopt the cartridge in sporting rifles, as early as 1885. It’s unclear when the 45-70 was first loaded with smokeless powder but it was likely around this same time, although initial loads were quite mild as most rifles were only built to withstand the pressures of black powder. Today, however, loads for modern .45-70s offer up some very impressive ballistics. Hornady lists some loads in their ninth edition reloading manual that see a 500-grain bullet doing a respectable 1,800 feet per second and 250-grain bullets leaving the muzzle at a whopping 2,300 feet per second.

While the 45-70 has been offered in single shots and bolt actions, it’s in lever actions where it seems to have found its home. The Marlin 1895 Guide Gun is certainly one of the most popular and, despite some very poor quality control for a few years when Remington first acquired Marlin, things seem to be back on track with the 1895. I had an opportunity to put one through its paces at a recent range day and I must admit that it left me wanting one. With factory peep sights, I had no trouble hitting pop-can sized targets at 100 yards off-hand. It is a very well balanced rifle that offers up some pretty impressive accuracy. Named Guide Gun because of their popularity among guides as back up bear rifles, the 1895 would make a great short-range, big game rifle for those with a fascination with lever actions. It handles bullets in the 250 to 350-grain range very well and not only makes a big hole, but also packs some impressive energy to allow the bullet to do its work. The 45-70 has certainly been a huge benefactor of more aerodynamic bullets designed especially for use in lever-action rifles. The .45-70 is definitely seeing a real resurgence in popularity.

There are certainly no limit to the other big-bore chamberings, with the vast majority originating with African dangerous game in mind. They all make a big hole and produce loads of energy. During our last trip to Africa, both Professional Hunters in camp carried rifles chambered in 505 Gibbs, just in case things went wrong.

Do we really need big bores for hunting in North America or to carry in case things go “wrong?” Likely not. But, do they have their place in North American hunting culture? You bet! If you can handle the recoil and shoot them accurately, there really is no reason not to own one. Undoubtedly you will meet with critics that claim shooting one is overkill or that they ruin too much meat, but the truth is, an animal can’t be too dead and depending on the bullet used, meat damage is typically far less than with some of the smaller/faster chamberings. Are you going to kill something deader with a big bore? Definitely not, but having that connection to some place a little more exotic does make them a lot of fun to shoot. There’s little doubt you’ll always find a big bore or two in my gun safe.

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