The Expert Safari Preparation Courses are the perfect how-to guides for your African safari.
Craig Boddington is a veteran outdoor writer who has published numerous magazine articles and books on hunting and shooting. He’s compiled decades of his experience, award winning video and top suggestions into these courses. Learn everything you need to know to make the most of your safari. The courses will take only a couple of hours each, and you’ll come out the other side a better prepared, more knowledgeable, and more successful hunter.
The Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety are stated variously by different organizations and are often presented in different order, but the meaning is consistent and universal, including in Africa. If these rules are followed, a firearm-involved accident is highly unlikely.
These commandments rely upon basic common sense. Implied throughout is the reliance on control of the direction the barrel is pointed—and the lack of reliance on the firearm’s mechanical safety. These rules don’t change in Africa. Most professional hunters (PHs) will attest that the most dangerous creature in the African bush is an excited visitor with a firearm!
The International Hunter Education Association (IHEA) reduces the Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety to four basic safety rules. They can be remembered by using the acronym ACTT and the statement “ACTT responsibly around firearms.” ACTT stands for:
Assume every firearm is loaded—Consider any firearm that you have not just unloaded to be still loaded, and treat it accordingly.
Control the muzzle—point guns in a safe direction. Decide what the safest muzzle direction is, and keep your firearm pointed in that direction. Never point a firearm at yourself or others.
Trigger finger—keep your finger off the trigger until ready to fire. The natural instinct when picking up a firearm is to put your finger in the trigger guard. Don’t! This could cause an accidental discharge if the firearm is loaded.
Target—be sure of your target and beyond. Never point your firearm at something you do not intend to shoot. Make sure you positively identify what you are shooting at and what lies in front of it and beyond it. Do not use telescopic sights as a substitute for binoculars when identifying persons, animals, or objects.
Basic firearms safety applies no matter where you are, and is often accomplished by certain basic and universal rituals or drills.
Checking the chamber. Whenever passing a firearm to another person or getting into a vehicle, the normal etiquette or protocol is to check the chamber to make sure it is empty—likewise when receiving a firearm from another person.
Negotiating an obstacle. Whether crossing a fence, boulder, log, or stream, or entering a stand or blind, it is almost unavoidable that the firearm’s muzzle can be temporarily out of control and a 100% safe direction cannot be guaranteed. There are two ways to handle the situation.
The buddy system. Two buddies (or you and your PH) take turns holding the firearms and negotiating the obstacle.
Unload the firearm! The standard procedure for crossing a fence is to unload the firearm and lay it down at the base of the fence with the muzzle pointing in a safe direction. Cross the fence, and retrieve the firearm. While this is the “school solution” for all obstacles, many will be negotiated simply and quickly by slinging the rifle. The point is that the muzzle is temporarily out of control, especially in the case of a slip or fall, so the chamber should first be unloaded.
Getting into a vehicle. Customs and laws vary. In some areas, it is specifically illegal to have an uncased firearm in a vehicle. Required or not, it is always a good idea to put a firearm in a soft case while in a vehicle—not only to reduce wear and tear, but also to reduce the chance of a scope changing zero. However, whether a case is used or not, when a firearm is in a vehicle (including a boat or aircraft) or in a saddle scabbard on a horse or ATV, the muzzle is temporarily out of control, so the chamber must be clear. The drill for getting into a vehicle or any similar situation is thus simple: Clear the chamber and check it!
We often call the African buffalo, genus and species Syncerus caffer, the Cape buffalo. But this isn’t always correct. The southern or Cape buffalo is the most widespread and has the largest horns. He’s also the largest in the body. He’s the most plentiful. And certainly, he’s the one that’s most commonly hunted. But he’s just one of several subspecies.
The Cape buffalo is found throughout Southern Africa and in East Africa, all the way to northwestern Uganda. From this point north and west, African buffalo become progressively smaller in both body and horn. Instead of uniformly black animals, northern and western races, show various shades of brown, red, and tan within the herds. Moving to the west, Nile buffalo are found in northwestern Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Central African savanna buffalo are found in the Central African Republic and northern Cameroon. From Nigeria westward above the forest zone, the buffalo are called West African savanna buffalo. To the south in the true forest zone are the smallest buffalo—the dwarf forest buffalo. Southern Cape buffalo bulls will weigh about 1,500 pounds. And dwarf forest buffalo bulls weigh about half that. And almost all are some shade of red.
Despite these significant differences, actual hunting of the buffalo is much the same. It really depends a lot on the thickness of the vegetation and the terrain. And the potential danger is exactly the same. Regardless of which buffalo is hunted, the thicker the cover the greater the danger because your encounters are simply going to be closer.
The African buffalo is primarily a grazing animal, although they’ll also browse from shrubs and trees. They have to have open water. And preferably, they’ll drink every day but certainly every other day. The two primary requirements for buffalo habitat are thus grass and water. Naturally, they were widespread over much of Africa excepting the great deserts.
Buffalo carry bovine diseases, which, of course, they spread to domestic cattle. So today, buffalo are mostly confined to wild areas. The exception to this is South Africa, where they’ve been working very hard for years to breed up disease-free buffalo. And they’re becoming much more plentiful down there. The total population is unknown. But even with today’s more restricted range, African buffaloes definitely range into the low millions.
The buffalo’s daily routine is also important to understand because it dictates hunting strategies. Actual distance buffalo travel depends primarily on available grass and water but also whether they’ve been harassed by predators, huh, whether lions or humans. However, buffalo have to ruminate, chew their cuds, for several hours a day.
Typically, they’ll bed from late morning until late afternoon. And then they’ll get up and start to graze. Through the night, they’ll alternately feed and rest and will usually go to water at some point from late afternoon to early morning. In the early morning hours, they’re usually moving and feeding but starting to move toward or look for a place to lie up during the heat of the day. In wooded areas, this will usually be in deep shade. But in open areas, they’ll often choose wide-open short grass savannas, where they can readily see the approach of any threat.
Buffaloes have good hearing, reasonable eyesight, and an extremely keen sense of smell. And this is their first and most trusted line of defense. Any stalk has to have favorable wind. But buffaloes are most approachable when moving and feeding. They’re least approachable when bedded because at least a few buffaloes, often older cows, are certain to have their heads up, watching at all times.
We most often call this large bovine the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), which is not always correct. The southern or Cape buffalo is the largest with the largest horns, and it is the most widespread, the most plentiful, and the most commonly hunted buffalo. However, the buffalo is just one of several subspecies.
The Cape buffalo is found throughout Southern Africa and from East Africa to northwestern Uganda. From this point north and west, African buffalo become progressively smaller in both body and horn. Instead of uniformly black animals, northern and western races show various shades of brown, red, and tan within the herds. Moving to the west, Nile buffalo are found in northwestern Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Central African savanna buffalo are found in Central African Republic and northern Cameroon. From Nigeria westward above the forest zone, the buffalo are called West African savanna buffalo. To the south in the true forest zone are the smallest buffalo—the dwarf forest buffalo. Southern Cape buffalo bulls weigh about 1,500 pounds. Dwarf forest buffalo bulls weigh about half that, and almost all are some shade of red. Despite these significant differences, actual hunting conditions and techniques vary primarily with the terrain, and the potential danger is the same. Regardless of which buffalo is hunted, the thicker the cover the greater the danger because encounters are at shorter distances.
The African buffalo is primarily a grazing animal, although they will also browse from shrubs and trees. They must have open water and, preferably, will drink daily but certainly every other day. The two primary requirements for buffalo habitat are thus grass and water. Naturally, they were widespread over much of Africa excepting only the great deserts. Buffalo carry bovine diseases, which are spread to domestic cattle, so today, the buffalo range has generally shrunk to wild areas. The exception to this is South Africa, where game ranchers have been successful in breeding disease-free buffalo. Total population is unknown, but even with today’s more restricted range African buffalo certainly are found into the low millions.
Older bulls (males) may be found solitary or in small groups with their peers. Hunters tend to call these dagga bulls. Dagga is a Shona word for mud, and all buffalo love to roll in mud. Dagga bull, however, connotes an older bull that has been kicked out of the herd and is probably past breeding. Younger bulls also form bachelor groups, but for the most part, the African buffalo is a herd animal. Herd size depends on local population and availability of grass and water. Forest buffalo tend to form smaller herds—20 is a lot. But under ideal conditions, herds often run into the hundreds and occasionally into the thousands. Most herds will contain at least one breeding bull, and larger herds may hold numerous bulls of varying ages. During the breeding season—most commonly June—older bulls will come and go into the herds, and they may “satellite” herds looking for a breeding opportunity.
From a hunter’s perspective, there are important things to understand. First, although they are clearly related to all other bovines, including domestic cattle, African buffalo are a slow-breeding animal. A cow (female) will normally give birth only every second or third year, so unlike species that breed annually even with the best management, herd growth is incremental and never exponential.
Bulls and cows have horns that at first glance can appear similar. And females can grow horns that reach extreme spread. However, bulls grow thicker horns, and only the bulls have the thick helmet-like growth at the base of the horns. We call this the boss, and only a bull will have that.
Now, even at full maturity many bulls don’t have horns that will actually come together in the center. There may well be a gap, so what you’re really looking for with maturity is not that the horns are closed in together, but the base of the horn is solid horn. This is in juxtaposition with the fact that younger bulls can have horns that are extremely wide and have long beautiful tips, but the base of the horns is still soft. And you look at it and your professional hunter will say that it’s soft or it’s green. And actually, it looks a little bit like moss with a lot of hair at the base of the horn and between the horns. And this is the mark of an immature bull.
Despite the length and beauty of a younger bull’s horn, it’s important to look for this sign of maturity, the complete hard horn at the base of the horns, because a bull is only going to achieve that at about 9 or 10. Now, this actually coincides with the time that a buffalo bull is most likely to be able to compete for mating right. So, while a young bull may have beautiful horns, he probably hasn’t yet had a chance to breed and pass on his genetics.
The buffalo bulls time as a breeding bull is fairly short, only two or three years. By the time a bull is around 12, he’s probably going to be beaten in a fight with a younger, stronger bull. And he may be kicked out of the herd or he may be allowed to remain at the rear of the herd, but his time for breeding is really short.
It’s important that young bulls, especially young bulls with exceptional horns, be allowed to become fully mature and breed. So, today’s professional hunters are going to ask their clients to pass up young bulls that aren’t yet fully mature and give them a chance to breed. This is really important to modern buffalo management. As difficult as it is, visiting hunters need to accept this judgment, and if your professional hunter says he’s soft or he’s green or he’s too young, accept that judgment and keep looking.
Bulls and cows have horns that, at first glance, can appear similar. Females can grow horns that reach extreme spreads. However, bulls grow thicker horns, and only bulls have that massive helmet-like growth at the base of the horns called the “boss.” Even at full maturity the horns of many buffalo bulls do not grow together—and the northwestern races almost never do. But the mark of full maturity is that the bases of the horns have solidified into hard horn. This is in juxtaposition with the fact that younger bulls may grow horns with extreme spread and long beautiful tips. But the bases, or bosses, are still obviously soft, with hair on the forehead and between the horns.
Despite the length of such beautiful horns, the reason ethical hunters avoid taking such buffalo is simple: The bosses are not fully hard until a bull is 9 or even 10 years old. This generally coincides with the age at which a bull is able to successfully compete for mating rights. So, a young bull may have magnificent horns—but has probably not yet had the chance to pass along his genes.
The buffalo bull’s time as a breeding herd bull is short, probably only two or three years. At 11 or 12, he is getting older. His horn tips are becoming blunt as horn wear exceeds growth, and he will probably be defeated by a younger and stronger bull in mating battles.
It is important that young bulls, especially young bulls with exceptional horn growth, be allowed to mature fully and breed. So, today’s professional hunters (PHs) expect their clients to willingly pass up young bulls that look really exceptional and visiting hunters need to accept their judgment.
The buffalo’s daily routine is also important to understand because it dictates hunting strategies. The actual distance buffalo travel depends primarily on available grass and water but also on whether or not they have been harassed by predators (e.g., lions or humans). However, buffalo must ruminate—“chew their cuds”—for several hours a day.
Typically, they will bed from late morning until late afternoon, then get up, and start to graze. Through the night, they will alternately feed and rest, and they will usually go to water at some point from late afternoon to early morning. In the early morning hours, they are usually moving and feeding but starting to move toward—or look for—a place to lie up during the heat of the day. In wooded areas, this will usually be in deep shade, but in open areas, they will often choose wide-open short-grass savannas, where they can readily see the approach of any threat.
Buffalo have good hearing, reasonable eyesight, and extremely keen sense of smell—which is their first and most trusted line of defense. Any stalk must have favorable wind, but buffalo are most approachable when moving and feeding and least approachable when bedded. This is because at least a few buffalo, often older cows, are certain to have their heads up, watching.
Most African countries, but not all, have established legal minimums for dangerous game, and this always includes buffalo. If in doubt, ask your professional hunter. Although we often state that the .375 is the legal minimum, this isn’t always true. In several countries, the actual minimum is the European equivalent, which is 9.3mm or .366 inch.
Some countries don’t have established legal minimum standards, and in some countries, the rules vary. Uniquely, Zimbabwe has a minimum energy standard which includes the 9.3x62mm Mauser. But this rule’s actually applicable only on government land and not on private land. Use of handguns and archery tackle is more restrictive, specifically illegal in many areas but allowed in some.
Whether one prefers the European 9.3mm or the more common .375 or a larger and more powerful cartridge or a big handgun or archery tackle, keep in mind that whether enacted into law or not, minimum standards exist for a reason. They’re based on decades of experience, and that experience can be both good or bad. The African buffalo is a large and extremely strong animal, and they’re always dangerous.
Always discuss your choice with your professional hunter, and if there’s a legal minimum, of course, it has to be adhered to. Remember that experience-based wisdom is that a 9.3mm or a .375 rifle is the accepted minimum, and that does exist for a good reason. If you wish to deviate from this and local law allows, discuss it with your PH, and make certain that he or she is willing and confident to conduct a hunt under such circumstances.
Most African countries (but not all) have established legal minimums for “dangerous game,” which always includes buffalo. If in doubt, ask your PH! Although we often state that the .375 is the legal minimum, this is not always true.
In several countries, the actual minimum is the European equivalent, which is 9.3mm (.366-inch). Some countries do not have established legal minimum standards, and in some countries, the rules vary. Zimbabwe, uniquely, has a minimum energy standard, which includes the 9.3x62mm Mauser. But this rule is only applicable on government land and not on private land.
Use of handguns and archery tackle is more restrictive, specifically illegal in many areas but allowed in some. Whether you prefer the European 9.3mm, the more common .375, a larger and more powerful cartridge, a big handgun, or an archery tackle—keep in mind that, whether enacted into law or not, minimum standards exist because of conventional wisdom developed over time and experience—both good and bad.
The African buffalo is a large and extremely strong animal, and it can be potentially extremely dangerous. Always discuss your choice with your PH! If legal minimums exist, they must, of course, be adhered to. But remember that experience-based wisdom is that a 9.3mm or .375-caliber rifle is the accepted minimum for buffalo. If you wish to deviate from this and local law allows it, discuss your decision with your PH, and make certain that he or she is willing and confident to conduct a hunt under such circumstances.
9.3s and .375s. The baseline for buffalo hunting is probably the .375 H&H, introduced in 1912. Recent proliferation of the .416s and .40-caliber cartridges has seemed to suggest that the .375 may be a bit light, but this is simply not true. The .375 H&H is perfectly adequate for buffalo under any and all conditions, and it has the advantage of fairly moderate recoil that most shooters can learn to handle. In any discussion of hunting buffalo, it’s important to remember that, beyond sensible minimums, shot placement is far more important than raw power.
.40s and .416s. .416s and cartridges such as the .450/.400 for double rifles and the .404 Jeffery are possibly more effective on buffalo than the .375s, depending on shot placement. Their disadvantages are that they are not as versatile for other game and that they produce more recoil. Specifically, for buffalo, however, these cartridges should be considered by experienced rifle shooters who can handle them.
Big bores (.450 and larger). The true big bores are certainly effective on buffalo. But they are extremely specialized and produce more recoil than many shooters are comfortable with. If you happen to have one you’d like to use, you can use it, but the most sensible cartridges for the visiting sportsman probably lie within the 9.3, .375, and lower .40-caliber cartridges. The PH will more often be armed with a big bore, but his or her job is safety, not cleanly taking a single buffalo.
Bolt actions. A bolt-action rifle is by far the most common and most sensible choice for the visiting hunter. Bolt-action rifles chambered to .375s are available in factory rifles in virtually all price ranges. The rifle is accurate and dependable, and it can be easily mounted with scopes or sights of your choice.
Double rifles. The double-barreled rifle is often the PH’s choice because of the instantaneous availability of a second shot. Its limitations are higher cost and versatility. Two barrels shooting together cannot be as accurate as one barrel, so even if mounted with a scope, the double rifle is limited in range (which applies primarily to other game, not to buffalo). It should also be mentioned that, although not impossible, it is often difficult and expensive to add an optical sight to a double—especially older double rifles.
Single shots. Several modern single shots are chambered in suitable cartridges for buffalo and certainly have the accuracy. The limitation is reliance on that one shot, which is often not enough to ensure a clean kill on a buffalo. The visiting hunter will almost never be alone when hunting buffalo. The PH will be there, ready to assist if necessary. There is no real reason not to use a single shot in adequate chambering, except that no matter how much a person practices, the second shot will be much slower than with a double or repeater. So, there is a greater chance the PH might feel obligated to shoot to prevent the escape of a potentially wounded animal.
Other action types. Of the other options—slide action, semi-automatic, or lever action, only the lever action has been factory chambered to “buffalo-capable” cartridges. These include the old .45-70, .450 Marlin (in modern actions with heavy loads), and .475 Turnbull. Provided an adequate cartridge, a lever action is perfectly suitable. Ultimately, the most important things are absolute reliability, total familiarity, and confidence in your choice.
Solids or expanding? Non-expanding solid bullets are designed for the deepest penetration on the largest game. A generation ago, African PHs almost universally recommended them for buffalo. Today, we have much better and tougher expanding bullets, and most PHs recommend their use on buffalo, at least for the first shot. Solids are almost universally recommended for backup shots and follow-up. So, the ideal situation is to have both types—loading an expanding bullet first in a magazine rifle or the first barrel in a double and then solids immediately available for additional shots.
Tough bullets. An expanding bullet used for buffalo must be very tough—designed to hold together while it penetrates thick muscle and heavy bone. Today’s top-quality expanding bullets will do this, especially in the large calibers intended for use on buffalo. An expanding bullet creates a larger wound channel and expends all or most of its energy within the animal. It will take a buffalo down more quickly than a solid, which will penetrate but will leave a smaller wound channel and will exit on most broadside shots.
Overpenetration. While most modern PHs recommend expanding bullets for buffalo at least for the first shot, in a recent survey, a number of PHs specified when certain bullets should be used: “expanding bullets in herds” and “solids for bachelor bulls.” Solids ensure penetration, which is essential but will often exit. So, they are extremely dangerous to use in herds because of the risk of a bullet going through and wounding another buffalo. Most expanding bullets will not exit, but the popular homogeneous-alloy (all-copper) expanding bullets may exit, so they must be used with extreme care.
Optical or open? The romantic vision of buffalo hunting is to use an open-sighted rifle. You can, and it’s fun, but realistically, buffalo are often found in herds. There are lots of eyes, ears, and noses, which may mean that the bull you want probably isn’t the closest buffalo. Shots at buffalo range from less than 20 yards to perhaps a maximum of 150 yards. It is impossible to define an average because only your shot matters to you, but most shots at buffalo are probably between 60 and 90 yards. Realistically and factoring in a dark animal that may be in dark shadow, this is probably approaching most hunters’ maximum effective range with open sights. Year in and year out, hunters take more buffalo effectively and have chances at bigger bulls with optical sights. This doesn’t rule out use of open sights at all, but they must be used with the understanding that some potential shots will probably have to be foregone. The bottom line on buffalo always is a shot must not be fired unless you are absolutely certain you can place your shot well. At extremely close range, traditional open sights are fine, but it’s impossible to guarantee that kind of a shot on the bull you want.
Ideal scopes for buffalo. High magnification is not needed. The target is large, and 150 yards is considered a long shot on buffalo. In extremely open country, slightly longer shots may be called for, but on buffalo a shot at 200 yards is generally unthinkable. Although they are uncommon today, fixed-power scopes of about 2.5X are excellent for buffalo. Most hunters, however, will probably choose low-range variables between about 1-4X and 2-7X. The light-gathering capability of a scope and its single focal-plane sighting is more important than magnification. Hunters will often consider other game that might be hunted with the “buffalo rifle,” and that’s valid. But it’s critical that the lowest setting be low enough so that very close shots may be taken if necessary. The largest variable that should be considered is probably 3-9X. Whatever scope is chosen when buffalo hunting, it’s important to keep the power ring turned to low magnification until more magnification is needed. Scopes with illuminated reticles are highly recommended for buffalo. There is something about dark animals, especially in dark shadows, that confounds the aiming point. A red dot in the center of the scope greatly speeds aiming and assists in shot placement.
Optical options. Traditional open sights (notch or V rear, bead or blade front) require the eye to focus in three focal planes: rear sight, front sight, and target. This becomes increasingly difficult as range increases, and greater precision is required. Also, open sights become more difficult for most people as middle age approaches and the eye becomes less flexible. The aperture, or peep, sight is an iron sight, but it is actually an optical sight in that the eye naturally centers the front sight in the aperture or circular opening of the rear sight. Thus, aperture sights require the eye to focus in just two focal planes: front sight and target. Most shooters can effectively use aperture sights for some time after open sights are completely “fuzzed out.” Aperture sights are also more precise than open sights and, with practice, are generally effective within normal buffalo hunting ranges. A disadvantage is that, in low light, all iron sights—open and aperture—quickly become hard to see. But an aperture sight is a valid option on a buffalo rifle.
Another extremely sound option is the red-dot or reflex sight. This is a non-magnifying sight that projects or reflects a red dot as the aiming point. Actual dots may be yellow, green, or blue, but on the black hide of a buffalo, a red dot is probably the most visible. The red-dot sight, like a scope, allows the eye to operate in one focal plane. As with a scope reticle, the eye simply superimposes the dot on the aiming point. Neither aperture sights nor reflex sights are as versatile as low-powered scopes if other game is to be hunted with the “buffalo rifle.” But for buffalo hunting, the reflex sight is very fast and perfectly adequate in range.
Scope mounts. While any mechanical device can fail, the scope mount is probably the likeliest to fail. Recoil is the great enemy to both scopes and mounts, so strong and rugged mounts must be chosen and must be assembled properly in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions. Modern detachable mounts are adequately strong. But even if iron sights are present on the rifle, make sure you have another option in case there is scope failure or a need to go into extremely thick cover. That said, it has been proven that low-powered scopes and red-dot sights are faster to use than any iron sights, even at very close range. So, you should think carefully before removing a functioning scope in favor of iron sights.
Quality. Both rifles and scopes take serious beatings in Africa, constantly bouncing over rough roads. Scopes should be rugged, and the best way to ensure that is to use one of the many high-quality brands and to avoid the most inexpensive scopes.
Protection. Dust is a major issue in Africa. Bring a scope cover or a lens caps. Leave it on your scope in the vehicle, and remove it when you commence a stalk. Using a soft gun case in vehicles will also save wear and tear on the scope as well as on the rifle.
Handguns, muzzleloaders, and archery tackle are legal in only some areas. If alternative methods are desired, they must be discussed with and cleared by your outfitter and/or PH.
Buffalo absolutely can be successfully taken with powerful handguns, such as the .454 Casull, .480, and .500 Smith & Wesson; with large-caliber muzzleloaders; and with both vertical bows and crossbows. The big “however” is that you are consciously selecting equipment that is marginal in power and, often, in penetration. Projectiles and broadheads must be selected with care to ensure the utmost in penetration. The shot must be close, and many “normal” shot angles must be foregone.
The ideal shot with marginal equipment is the very slight quartering-away shot, just behind the shoulder (thus avoiding the heavy shoulder bones) and angling into the chest cavity. The combination of needing to be close and obtaining ideal shot presentation means that many opportunities must be passed.
Hunting success is never assured, but the choice of alternative methods of take renders success more difficult. This is not a problem for dedicated handgun, muzzleloader, and archery hunters, but it must be understood. Also, the PH is morally and legally responsible for the safety of the entire party. If the PH deems it essential to shoot to prevent the escape of a wounded animal and to avoid a dangerous follow-up, then that’s a judgment call he or she must be allowed to make. Obviously, when equipment of marginal power is used, it is more likely that the PH will be required to fire backup shots.
While we all think about Africa’s dangerous animals and snakes, most professional hunters (PHs) and guides worldwide worry most about strangers with firearms. Statistically, nearly as many PHs and trackers are injured by accidental gunshot wounds as by dangerous animals.
One of the first events on any safari or guided hunt is to go “check zero.” Some PHs are astute “gun guys,” but many are not. Either way, they will endeavor to get you as close to the animals they hunt as circumstances (terrain, vegetation, etc.) allow. Long-range shooting on buffalo is out of the question, but the shot may be standing unsupported at close range or on shooting sticks at very medium range. PHs have a vested interest in making certain your firearms have survived the journey and are reasonably in zero, but they probably don’t care as much as you do that your zero is “perfect.” At the ranges buffalo are taken, an inch or two off at 100 yards makes very little difference. Zero does need to be checked, but the purpose of that range day is actually threefold. The PH and his or her team—including the trackers—want not only to ensure that the rifle hasn’t shifted during travel but also to evaluate your shooting ability and your gun handling safety.
Every day is “qual day.” In the U.S. military, an oft-used saying is “every day is qualification or ‘qual’ day.” Range day is like qualification day, and it’s not an exam you cram for. Basic gun handling safety must be practiced all the time, and it matters to your safari. The way you shoot and handle your firearm on range day has much to do with the way your PH and his or her team will conduct the safari—how they will try to set up your shots, what shots they will recommend (or in fact allow) you to take, and how much time they will have to devote to watching your gun handling when they should instead be focused on finding game and orchestrating stalks. Safe gun handling starts at home on your range, but it continues on range day and must be constant throughout.
In African hunting, three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal and especially common when hunting buffalo. There are several reasons for this.
They get you up off the ground. Low vegetation often precludes shooting positions commonly used elsewhere (such as prone, sitting, and kneeling) because the animal is often obscured.
Even when a low position is possible, everything in Africa has thorns, and biting ants are a common pest in many areas. Shooting standing off sticks solves the problem.
Sticks are ideal in the African situation. The lead tracker often carries them. During a deliberate stalk, the PH usually takes the sticks and the lead. But if an animal is suddenly spotted or encountered within shooting range, the lead tracker will customarily set up the sticks and fade to one side. The PH comes up to the other side to evaluate the animal. Your job as the hunter is to step forward, avoiding sudden movements, get the rifle on the sticks, and be prepared to shoot if the PH gives the go-ahead.
Shooting sticks require practice! It takes a bit of work to become comfortable and familiar with shooting sticks. The two primary secrets are:
Learn the right height for you! Usually, it’s about the level of the top shirt button, so you can lean slightly forward into the sticks.
Placement of your supporting hand. Never rest the barrel directly on the junction of the sticks (or anything else). The ideal is to grasp both the fore-end of your rifle and the sticks, tying them together. Not everyone has large enough hands to do this, so you have to find what works for you. This is another exam you can’t cram for! Don’t let range day be the first time you’ve ever used sticks. Make your own or get a commercial set, and practice with it on your own range. Then you can not only demonstrate your ability but also show your PH and your trackers exactly how you like the sticks set up.
Practice does make perfect! Sticks are not a perfect solution; slight horizontal wobble is almost unavoidable. However, with practice, most shooters can become adequately steady for perhaps 150-yard shots, certainly covering almost all shots at buffalo.
With shots at buffalo, the target is large and the range is not extreme. The shot must be placed well, but speed is generally more important than precision. Practice on your range until you can consistently hit a pie plate–sized target off of shooting sticks at 100 yards. That should prepare you for most shots at buffalo. However, there’s a lot of excitement in the air when you get your first shot at a buffalo, and you may be tired and overheated from long hours on the track. Here are two tricks you can practice on your range and demonstrate to your PH and his or her team on range day.
As in all things, listen to your PH, and follow his or her directions! Typically, the rifle will be carried with cartridges in the magazine but with the chamber unloaded until the PH directs. The PH will walk ahead of you, and in areas where dangerous game might be present, his or her rifle will usually be fully loaded and ready. Yours doesn’t need to be until you are “action imminent.” There is very little imminent danger while tracking buffalo. So, there is usually no reason for the chamber to be loaded until an actual stalk begins.
The basic rule is that the chamber should not be loaded unless you can absolutely control the direction of the muzzle. This means that if you are carrying the rifle slung over your shoulder, the chamber should be clear. In areas where dangerous game is present, most PHs don’t use rifle slings; they carry their rifles in their hands, and the rifles are always ready.
Most sport hunters do use slings, and that’s fine. But a fully loaded rifle should not be slung because it is impossible to control the muzzle in the case of a slip or fall, and many mechanical safeties can be brushed off by clothing while a rifle is slung. If in doubt, never hesitate to ask your PH if you should chamber a round.
The safety on your rifle is not a substitute for safe gun handling but serves as a backup for momentary lapses. Even if you are carrying your rifle at “port arms” ready, you may briefly lose control of the muzzle direction if you slip or stumble. But when glassing and tracking, whether carrying the rifle casually or slung, the muzzle is not under tight control, so the chamber should be clear.
Whether loaded or unloaded, the muzzle must be pointed in a safe direction. When the chamber is loaded, check the mechanical safety constantly to make sure it is engaged. African hunting is especially problematic for gun handling safety because it is normal for you, your PH, and your trackers to walk single file, and you as the hunter will be well back in the line. No matter how you carry your rifle and how often you check your safety, focus on keeping the muzzle in a safe direction: UP, DOWN, or SIDEWAYS.
As so often seen in photos and on television, it is very common in Africa to carry the rifle with the action balanced over one shoulder, butt to the rear, muzzle forward and grasped and controlled by one hand. This is not in itself unsafe, as the hand controls the direction of the muzzle.
In order to understand the “African carry,” it’s useful to know where it comes from. In the old days when trackers also commonly served as “gunbearers,” the normal situation was for the gunbearer to walk ahead—rifle balanced on one shoulder, muzzle forward, butt to the rear. When game was encountered, the hunter needed only to reach forward, grasp the pistolgrip, and take the rifle, quickly and efficiently.
Today, almost all African hunters—professional and amateur—carry their own rifles. The “African carry” persists because few PHs use slings, and the muzzle-forward carry is very comfortable (especially with heavy double rifles, with flat action bottoms and broad muzzles to grasp). The obvious problem is the muzzle points forward. Thus, when walking in line, it is almost inevitable that the person carrying rifle will “sweep” the person walking ahead. If the rifle is unloaded, this is merely unsafe and a display of terrible manners. If the rifle is loaded, the “African carry” is potentially deadly. It is not recommended, but it is a very comfortable way to carry a rifle, especially on long, hot tracking hunts. If employed, it is essential to concentrate constantly on muzzle control. Keep the barrel offset well to the side and away from the people walking ahead.
Listening to your professional hunter (PH) is the first and most cardinal rule of African hunting! It is essential that you never shoot until your PH gives the go-ahead. But even when he or she does, it’s still your shot and your animal. So, don’t take a shot unless you are comfortable, steady, confident, and certain that you and your PH are looking at the same
Listening to your professional hunter (PH) is the first and most cardinal rule of African hunting! It is essential that you never shoot until your PH gives the go-ahead. But even when he or she does, it’s still your shot and your animal. So, don’t take a shot unless you are comfortable, steady, confident, and certain that you and your PH are looking at the same animal.
Judging horns is your PH’s job, not yours. Most are very good at it, and no one is ever perfect at it. However, your PH will do the best job possible to find you a good, mature buffalo bull that is at least representative of what the area is capable of producing. You can help by reading about and watching videos of buffalo hunting before you go.
As previously discussed, your PH will probably be focused first on finding a mature buffalo bull with fully hard bosses. In your initial encounters, you will probably see cows with impressive horns, and you may see young bulls with spectacular horns. It may be vexing, especially at first, but your PH will probably ask you to turn down buffalo bulls that look really good because they’re too young. From a management and thus ethical standpoint, it’s important to judge buffalo first by age and then by horn size and shape.
One of the best and most complete references is Safari Club International’s record book, available online (www.scirecordbook.org). It includes both pictures and descriptions of African buffalo. Various field guides to African animals are also available, and there are specific publications and pamphlets helpful not only for trophy judgment but also for shot placement on buffalo.
As with mule deer, moose, and a few other species, the width of a buffalo’s horns is the most common general reference—with the holy grail being a 40-inch bull, meaning total width of 40 inches. Unfortunately, width says nothing about age, and buffalo bulls tend to reach their maximum width long before they are fully mature. It’s also important to understand that the width is just one aspect. Of equal importance to trophy quality are shape and thickness of the bosses. Most hunters agree that a bull with horns that drop down and then curve back up are more beautiful than bulls with wider, fairly straight or “flat” horns. Exceptionally thick bosses are also extremely attractive.
Selection depends on genetics in the area, time of year, and, of course, luck. Realistically, in most areas, the average southern Cape buffalo bull will be about 37 inches wide. If fully mature, such a bull is a fine trophy. If his horns have a lot of curve and heavy bosses he may be a spectacular buffalo. Bulls with wider horns exist in most areas (as do bulls with narrower horns), but bulls with horn widths of 40 inches and greater are uncommon everywhere. Your PH will try to find you the best mature bull that the area and hunting conditions allow. But not every hunter on every safari can find a monster bull. Listen to your PH!
Although record books are excellent references, try to avoid “record book fever.” It’s a good idea to take a measuring tape, and at some point before you depart, you should rough measure and write down the dimensions of your buffalo’s horns. On a day-to-day basis, however, leave the measuring tape in camp. Trust that your PH is trying to do the best job he or she can. And accept that, with most animals but especially with buffalo, age is more important than measurement.
Most buffalo are going to be in a group. And bulls may be in a very large herd. They’re all big, they’re all black, and all buffalo, both male and females, have horns. Especially in herds, it can be very difficult at first to tell the bulls from the cows. But you’ll pick up on this very quickly after you’ve looked at a few buffalo.
Older bulls tend to be found solitary or in small groups with their peers. Hunters tend to call these dagga bulls or dagga boys. Dagga is simply a Shona word for mud. So, a dagga bull or a dagga boy is an older buffalo that's usually covered in mud. Dagga bull tends to connote not only an older bull, but a bull that's past his breeding and, of course, is the kind of bull that, ideally, is what you’re looking for.
Professional Hunter: That one on the left is a beautiful buffalo.
The hardest part, especially if you’re a hunter inexperienced with buffalo, is to make sure that you’re focused on the same buffalo that your professional hunter is looking at. It’s easy to make a mistake, and the consequences can range from very expensive to tragic. You have to be absolutely certain you're aiming at the buffalo your PH is trying to point out. And you must not shoot until you’re absolutely certain.
In small groups, you can count from right to left. In larger or packed herds, it’s more common to work from a landmark, such as a bush, tree, anthill, even from the white cattle egrets that often accompany buffalo herds. A cow or young bull may be impressive at first glance, but there’s no mistaking the hard, heavy bosses of a mature bull. It’s wise to confirm and double-check based on how the animal is standing—the one facing left, the one facing right.
Sometimes, there are physical characteristics, such as a lot of caked mud or visible scars from fighting or lions. It’s also important to make certain the shot is clear of other buffalo—in the constant moving and shifting of herds, another buffalo isn't walking into the shot. The first and cardinal rule applies. Listen to your PH.
It’s essential that you never shoot until your PH gives the go-ahead. Even when he does, it’s still your shot and your buffalo. So, you have to be sure. Don’t take the shot unless you’re steady, comfortable, and confident, and you’re certain that you and your PH are looking at the same bull.
Lone buffalo bulls are encountered, but most buffalo bulls will be found in groups—whether small bachelor groups or larger mixed herds. They’re all big and they’re all black, and all adult buffalo—male and female—have horns. At first, they all look much alike!
Most buffalo hunts have four phases: locating buffalo, the approach, selecting a bull, and taking the shot. Depending on the circumstances, African buffalo are generally located by tracking or glassing.
Tracking buffalo is one of the most traditional and interesting of all African hunting techniques, and it is pure magic to watch African trackers do their work. It starts with a search for fresh tracks, which can mean days of covering ground, usually done by a combination of driving and walking. Fresh tracks will often be found crossing a road or track, and water sources are often critical. By examining tracks and dung, African trackers can determine the age of tracks. This is critical information.
Successful tracking depends on the time of day. Early in the morning, it is perfectly acceptable to follow tracks made during the night, even 12 hours earlier. Buffalo alternately feed and rest during the night, but they usually don’t move very far unless disturbed by predators (which the tracks will also show). Obviously, if the herd kept moving you would never catch up, but it’s almost certain buffalo will lay up from late morning to late afternoon, giving trackers a chance to catch up. As the day wears on, tracks must be fresher because you have fewer daylight hours to catch up. In the late afternoon, when buffalo are moving and feeding, tracks must be very fresh to be worth pursuing.
At the start, you never know how long you might track or where the tracks will lead you—which is part of the excitement. In hot weather, it can be physically challenging, but it takes time to track. So, the walking is generally slow and methodical. Absent severe physical limitations, most hunters will find it enjoyable rather than exhausting.
In very open or hilly country, buffalo are sometimes located by glassing. Often, you don’t actually see the herd, but you see white egrets swooping and diving. Depending on terrain and wind, once a herd is located, you might circle to intercept or make a direct approach and then take up the tracks.
There is always the possibility of simply running into buffalo while looking for tracks or hunting for some other animal. This may happen while you are in the vehicle. If there’s a good bull, there will be a strong temptation to take the shot, which may be legal in some areas. Whether legal or not, resisting the temptation is strongly recommended! You may take a fine buffalo. But you may have robbed yourself of the experience of closing with your buffalo on foot. Better to let the buffalo drift away, then take up the track.
The buffalo hunt really starts almost at the end of the track, when a herd has been located. This may mean the sign is very fresh. Experienced PHs and trackers develop almost a sixth sense for knowing when buffalo are near. Tracks may be the first sighting of the group, but signs can also come from auditory clues: sticks breaking as buffalo feed or a buffalo lowing or grunting. Buffalo are often extremely vocal, especially in a herd.
Following tracks is fairly straightforward. Although if the wind is unfavorable, experienced trackers will often deliberately leave the tracks and try to circle the wind. But now, with buffalo nearby, it is absolutely essential to get the wind right. Most trackers carry ash bags—cloth sacks filled with fine ash—that will show wind direction when shaken. This is usually the time to load the chamber of your rifle. Don’t hesitate to ask your PH if you should “load up.” But make sure your safety is engaged, and pay close attention to keeping your muzzle in a safe direction.
From this point, movement will be much slower and must be as quiet as possible. Depending on the cover, you may be able to walk upright, you may need to crouch, and at some point, you may need to crawl or butt scoot. Often, you’ll do a combination of all! Follow your PH’s lead, and concentrate on stepping as quietly as possible.
You could call this “sorting the herd.” This is perhaps the most exciting phase of any buffalo hunt! You could be seconds from getting a shot, or you may still be long hours away. Or there may not be a worthy bull in the group. But now, you must find out.
Depending on the range, you may be in a shooting position while you’re “sorting the herd.” But a big herd may be spread over several hundred yards, and it takes a lot of luck for the bull you want to be the closest buffalo. So often you will have to do some creeping and crawling to get into position.
You are excited and a little bit scared. This is the time when firearms safety habits become critical. Your chamber will certainly be loaded by now. Check it one last time. Check the power ring on your scope too. Depending on the terrain, you may want some magnification—or not—but make sure it’s where you want it. As you’re creeping and crawling, check your safety repeatedly. Keep your fingers away from the trigger guard, concentrate on keeping your muzzle in a safe direction, and follow your PH’s lead.
If a final approach is needed, it will usually now be just you and the PH. The trackers will stay back to reduce noise and movement. Your PH will carry the shooting sticks, and when an appropriate position is reached, he or she will set them up—either high or low depending on the cover.
Your PH’s default method will almost always be to set up the shooting sticks, but this requires both time and motion. There are situations when, often inadvertently, your stalk carries you so close to buffalo, that the extra movement necessary to set up the sticks is almost certain to spook the animals.
With buffalo hunting, it is essential that you can make an accurate shot from an unsupported standing position. This is not a desirable situation. Always seek a rest if possible. But with buffalo, be prepared to stand up and shoot at a very close range. This is another exam that cannot be crammed for. Practice shooting standing on your range. Again, pie-plate accuracy is good enough. You should practice so that you can raise the rifle, snicking the safety as you raise it, find the sight picture quickly, and achieve consistent pie-plate accuracy within about 50 yards.
In the final moments of a stalk, the rifle will almost always be fully loaded, cartridge in the chamber, safety on—not only will you be ready, but also to avoid the metallic noise of working the action in proximity to game. Again, muzzle control is essential, with the mechanical safety only a backup system.
No matter when your PH tells you to chamber a round, you’re probably not going to be in the exact position to shoot. Often, you’re going to have to move with the animals or move to get in a little bit better position. Now your rifle is fully chambered, and you’ve got to start being really careful.
But so many times, you run out of cover and it’s time to start crawling. Hey, this is really, really difficult. It’s also dangerous. You’re not going to be the first person in line, and yet, you have to crawl with your rifle. When you’re doing hands and knees, you want to move one hand and both legs and then pick up the rifle and move it in front of you.
And since you’re not first in line, you want to be very, very careful to keep that muzzle offset to the side so that the muzzle is absolutely not sweeping anyone at any given moment. It’s a real problem. And you also have to be very, very careful not to get debris into the rifle.
And of course, make sure that the trigger doesn’t snag. Of course, your mechanical safety is going to be engaged, but as we’ve said before, don’t trust the safety. Watch that trigger, and make sure it stays clear.
Now, I’m going to give you two tips that you may thank me for some day. First of all, in my African daypack, I've always got gloves and I’ve got light rugby kneepads. And when it’s time to crawl, I’m not ashamed to put them on. It really helps a lot.
I used to think that only wimps wore knee pads, but now, I’m sure that kneepads are for real men.
The other tip is that an alternative to crawling on your hands and knees is what we call butt scooting. You simply sit down with your legs in front of you. You put the rifle out on your lap at an angle. This keeps debris out of the action, out of the barrel channel, and it also keeps that muzzle pointed either to the right or left in a completely safe direction.
Butt scooting is easier on the body than crawling. Yeah, it’s painful, too. But it’s easier on the body than crawling on hands and knees. It’s a little bit slower, so it really depends on how far you have to go. But butt scooting is a wonderful option to crawling, and you’ll find that it’s a lot less painful to cover some ground that way.
In the final moments of a stalk, the rifle will almost always be fully loaded (cartridge in the chamber and safety on)—not only to be ready, but also to avoid the metallic noise of working the action in proximity to game. Again, muzzle control is essential, with the mechanical safety as only a backup system.
Crawling. Depending on terrain and vegetation, a lot or a little creeping and crawling is often required to get into a final shooting position. The biggest safety challenge comes when crawling is required. And this is potentially one of the most dangerous situations because many mechanical safeties can be brushed into firing position by grass and twigs. The trigger can also be snagged. Natural excitement doesn’t make it better! It is essential to focus on the muzzle, step by step, and ensure it is pointed in a safe direction. The muzzle can be offset to one side, or if you are in the rear of the line, the muzzle can be reversed.
Butt scooting. An alternative to crawling on hands and knees is to sit flat with legs forward, knees bent, and feet flat on the ground. The rifle is laid across the lap with the muzzle to either side in a safe direction and with arms straight and hands to the rear. Using legs and arms, you scoot forward a foot and then repeat. Although slow and uncomfortable, butt scooting is safer from a muzzle control standpoint. If any significant distance must be covered, it is also less strenuous than hands-and-knees and creates much less wear and tear on hands, knees, and rifle.
The African buffalo is one of the tough ones, deserving of its reputation. Poorly hit, a buffalo seems to get a major surge of adrenaline and can be extremely hard to put down. That said, buffalo are not bullet proof, and they will succumb readily if an adequate cartridge and a bullet of adequate weight and penetrating qualities are used. Actual shot placement differs little from most other animals, and taking a buffalo cleanly is all about placing that first shot properly.
The African buffalo is one of the tough ones, well deserving of his reputation. Poorly hit, a buffalo seems to get a major surge of adrenaline and can be extremely hard to put down. Now, that said, buffaloes are not bulletproof. And they’ll succumb readily to a bullet of adequate construction and caliber that’s put in the right place. Actual shot placement differs little from most other animals, so taking a buffalo cleanly is all about placing that first shot well.
Though instantly fatal, these shots are rarely taken because the target is small and the risks of a non-fatal wounding shot are high. Although nearly essential in stopping a close-range charge, these shots aren’t recommended for initial shots on buffalo.
This is the shot American hunters often prefer because it offers the largest target while ruining very little edible meat. Most professional hunters prefer the shoulder/heart shot, but a central lung shot is effective and may be used if vegetation obscures the shoulder.
With a broadside presentation, come up the back line of the foreleg, divide the animal into horizontal thirds between belly line and back line. Right behind the shoulder in the middle third will be a central lung shot. With this shot, extreme care must be taken to avoid hitting too far back.
This is the shot preferred by most African professional hunters. The margin of error is not so great as with the lung shot, but the target area is still maximized. This shot will break one or both shoulders. And even if the heart isn’t penetrated, it’ll take out the massive blood vessels leading to the heart, causing instantaneous and catastrophic loss in blood pressure.
With a broadside presentation, come up the center of the foreleg one-third the body width into the shoulder, essentially aiming for the center of that big black shoulder. This shot will break heavy shoulder bone and take out either the top of the heart or the vessels above the heart. A hit slightly higher back will still be solidly in the lungs, but it’s important to stay below the horizontal halfway point. The greatest risk with this shot is hitting too far forward catching nothing but brisket.
Obviously, game animals don’t always stand perfectly broadside. It’s essential that the shooter be able to visualize exactly how the animal is standing and then visualize where the vitals lie and adjust the sight picture accordingly.
On quartering angles, try to visualize exactly where the center of the chest lies. On angles other than broadside, both front legs will be visible. And there will be light showing between them. Divide the space between the front legs in half. Divide the light. The center of the chest cavity lies between the front legs. Come one-third to no more than one-half the horizontal width end of the body. Envisioning the center of the chest, aim behind the shoulder for quartering-away shots and from the point of the shoulder to inside the shoulder between the shoulder and neck for quartering-to shots.
On buffalo, quartering-away shots should only be taken if the angle is very slight. Acute angle, or raking shots, are unwise on buffalo because the rumen or stomach is like a 35-gallon drum stuffed with packed grass. It’ll stop most expanding bullets. This is especially true on the left side because the stomach lies more to the left on buffalo.
The frontal, or facing shot, is extremely common because buffalo often face a perceived threat with that famous “you owe me money” stare. The frontal shot is always tricky because the target is small. If the bullet slips to one side or the other, there’s the risk of the bullet sliding along the inside of the shoulder without entering the chest cavity. However, if the distance is reasonable and the shooting position is steady, the frontal shot is deadly.
Aim at the center of the chest, one-third up from the brisket. The greatest risk is slipping to the side. And while the target is fairly narrow, there's a lot of room up and down. A shot too high is likely to catch the spine where it dips down toward the shoulders. Centering the chest should hit the top of the heart or the major vessels leading to it. Perfect. But a shot a bit low should still hit the heart. The immediate reaction of the frontal shot is usually for the buffalo to run forward several steps. This is not a charge, simply a normal reaction to the impact, but it often opens up an opportunity for a fast follow-up shot.
On unwounded buffalo, never. However, to prevent the escape of a wounded animal, the going-away shot is not an uncommon option. This is because after receiving a bullet, most buffalo will instinctively turn away to escape.
A central Texas heart shot is unlikely to penetrate to the vitals on a buffalo, so it’s better to try to break every bone. Aim for the spine at the base of the tail or from either hip. The hips are located just about the level of the anus.
Once an initial hit is made, recovery of the animal is essential, and potential loss of the animal and following up a wounded animal are to be avoided if at all possible. So, while the going-away shot is unethical and risky on unwounded buffalo, it’s a common option on a buffalo once he’s been hit once. And you should take that shot if you possibly can.
Brain and neck shots. Though instantly fatal if placed correctly, these shots are rarely taken because the target is small and the risks of a non-fatal wounding shot are high. Although nearly essential in stopping a close-range charge, these shots are not recommended for initial shots on unwounded buffalo.
Behind-the-shoulder lung shot. This is the shot that American hunters often prefer because it offers the largest target while ruining very little edible meat. Most PHs prefer the shoulder/heart shot. But a central lung shot is effective and may be used if vegetation obscures the shoulder.
With a broadside presentation, come up the back line of the foreleg.
Divide the animal into horizontal thirds between belly line and back line. Just behind the shoulder in the middle third will be a central lung shot.
Extreme care must be taken to avoid hitting too far back.
Shoulder/heart shot. This is the shot preferred by most African PHs. The margin of error is not so great as the lung shot, but the target area is still maximized. This shot will break one or both shoulders and, even if the heart is not penetrated, will take out the massive blood vessels leading to the heart, causing instantaneous and catastrophic loss in blood pressure.
With a broadside penetration, come up the center of the foreleg and one-third the body width into the shoulder, essentially aiming for the center of that big black shoulder. This shot will break heavy shoulder bone and take out either the top of the heart or the vessels above the heart.
A hit slightly high or back will still be solidly in the lungs, but it’s important to stay below the horizontal halfway point.
The greatest risk with this shot is hitting too far forward, catching nothing but brisket.
Obviously game animals don’t always stand perfectly broadside. It is essential that the shooter properly visualizes exactly how the animal is standing—envisions where the vitals lie, and adjusts the sight picture accordingly.
Adrenaline is surging, and that’s good. But that’s not the time to throw away safety. After firing a shot, immediately make ready to shoot again if needed. Sometimes, you will remain in position and observe for a time. Other times, you will rush forward, depending entirely on your PH's judgment at that moment. After the shot or shots, you should reload your chamber and be ready. But before you move forward to check the buffalo or look for sign, be certain you engage your safety, and maintain full control of your rifle with both hands. Before you move is the right time to top up your magazine, especially if you have fired more than one shot.
Approach any downed buffalo with caution, and do not rush ahead of your PH and trackers. Approach with caution with your PH. Ideally, you should approach from behind, avoiding eye contact with the buffalo. Check the animal carefully for any sign of life—rifle ready. And be fully aware of where your trackers and PH are. Trackers will often throw sticks before approaching. Depending on the circumstances, it is common and customary to fire a final “insurance shot” into the buffalo and observe its reaction before approaching closely. Once it is certain the animal is deceased, unload your chamber.
Follow-up shots. On the range, practice firing additional shots from sticks and while standing unsupported. It is rare for a buffalo to succumb immediately to even the best placed shot. Despite the best intentions, most of the time you can’t immediately know if that first shot was perfectly placed or not. And even if you’re certain of it, you can’t be certain that the bullet performed as you desired. So, with buffalo, additional follow-up shots can be extremely important.
Practice working your action or using the second barrel of your double without changing position or losing your sight picture. Speed is of the essence! Things happen fast after the first shot is fired, so it’s unlikely that a follow-up shot will be as well placed as the first shot. But it can be extremely important in shortening tracking, ensuring recovery, and reducing danger.
It is, however, essential to understand that follow-up shots aren’t always possible. Buffalo are herd animals, and a stricken buffalo will often be masked by other buffalo before an additional shot can be fired. Follow-up shots are good but only if you are absolutely certain you are on the right buffalo and the shot remains absolutely clear.
Backup shots. These shots are commonly thought of as being fired by your PH at your buffalo. Most competent PHs prefer not to fire, following the ethic that it is your buffalo and your long-awaited adventure. Some, usually with limited experience, are too anxious to assist. On the other side, some hunters may specifically request that their PH fires immediately after they do, and others feel very strongly that the PH should not fire unless safety is a clear issue. This is a subject that you must discuss with your PH before the hunt commences.
Ultimately, the PH is responsible for the entire party’s safety, including yours. It is the PH’s responsibility to recover wounded game if at all possible, and this is clearly essential with wounded dangerous game. It is recommended that the PH be allowed to use his or her judgment as to whether or not to fire. The necessity for the PH to fire is greatly mitigated by accurate initial shot placement and by follow-up shots when they can safely be made.
Combining typically thick cover and the stamina of the animal, it’s relatively unusual for a buffalo to immediately succumb to even a perfectly placed bullet. In open cover, some PHs will immediately dash forward trying to keep the buffalo in sight. It’s more common to stand still and listen for the death bellow.
Now the death bellow is common. And it’s reasonably certain, but it’s not always definitive. I’ve heard of buffalo that gave a death bellow and then got up. So, one never throws caution to the winds. Either way, follow your professional hunters lead. And before moving, engage your safety and keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction. And be ready.
Professional Hunter: That is buffalo hunting.
Your professional hunter and, perhaps, the trackers have observed the hit or hits. And based on experience, they’re going to have a reasonable idea of the situation. But some hits are better than they look and others are worse. Unless it’s believed the shots weren’t well placed, the initial follow-up is generally conducted with the hope, and perhaps belief, that the buffalo is down. This doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. Your professional hunter is in charge. And he’s done this before.
Professional Hunter: Well, what I’d like to do is we’ll walk out there, shoulder to shoulder. It’s always the dead ones that kill us. So, let’s just show them some respect out there. And we’ll always give an insurance shot as well. But I’ll show you exactly—
Hunter: Tell me when.
Professional Hunter: Yeah. And if he does come, just take your time and make sure of your shots. And if we have a little bit of distance, one straight in the chest first. And then load your second round nice and calmly, and wait for a really close brain shot.
Hunter: Very good.
Place yourself where he tells you and proceed carefully. Rifle fully loaded, on safe, controlled by both hands, muzzle in a safe direction. When the buffalo is spotted, whether standing or down, shoot again on your PH’s instruction. And place your shot as well as you can. If the buffalo is still standing within 100 yards or so of the initial hit, you can generally assume that he’s hit hard. But now, there’s an extreme likelihood of a charge if he sees you approaching and if he has enough stamina remaining.
Hunter: I’ve never seen anything like it. I never thought I’d be in a vehicle and have a buffalo charge us. But that’s sure as hell what happened. I’d hated to have been on foot.
If the buffalo is down when spotted, that's good news. But that doesn’t mean he can’t get up until you’ve made absolutely certain that he can’t. Approach from the rear of the animal if at all possible. Avoid eye contact. When you get close enough and you can see the angle, this is a good place to put an insurance shot in, into the neck or into the spine or into the chest from the brisket.
A hunter fires a follow-up shot at a buffalo.
Professional Hunter: Good. That’s it.
Don’t approach the animal closely until you’re absolutely sure that he’s down and out.
Two hunters approach a downed buffalo.
Professional Hunter: Well done, Donna.
Hunter: Thank you.
Professional Hunter: Well done. Excellent. You’ve got yourself a fine buffalo. Whoo.
It is relatively unusual for a buffalo to succumb immediately to even a perfectly placed bullet because of the thick cover and its stamina. In open cover, some PHs will immediately dash forward, trying to keep the buffalo in sight. But it’s more common to wait a bit and listen for the distinctive death bellow, which often signals the buffalo’s death. Either way, follow your PH’s lead. But be sure to engage your safety, and keep your rifle muzzle in a safe direction. And be ready!
Depending on cover and spoor, after you’ve followed for something between say 100 and 200 yards, the assumption now has to be made that you're following a wounded buffalo. This is a dangerous situation, but it’s also heartbreaking. Because despite everything you’ve heard and everything you’ve read, the most likely outcome of following a wounded buffalo isn’t a charge but that that buffalo will never be seen again.
Some buffaloes do circle the wind and lie in wait. And of course, that’s a deadly situation. But it’s more common for a wounded buffalo to just keep going. And eventually, you’re going to lose the trail. This is another reason why it’s so important to place that first shot well. And it’s also another reason why, if you possibly can, you should get another shot into that buffalo. I don’t even know how many buffalo I’ve seen taken, several hundred. I’ve seen quite a few wounded and lost. But I have yet to see a buffalo wounded and lost that was hit more than once in the initial exchange.
Of course, a wounded buffalo must be followed as long as it’s possible for the trackers to hold the track. Although it’s rare, I've seen wounded buffalo recovered after three and even four days on the track. And in Zimbabwe, a really great professional hunter was killed by a buffalo on the fourth day that they followed that buffalo.
In the case of a wounded buffalo, the PH is absolutely in charge. And one of the things he worries about most is an inexperienced and very nervous hunter with a rifle. Some PHs prefer to follow up alone with their trackers. Others will invite the hunter to come along based on their evaluation of his or her coolness and safe gun handling. If it’s your buffalo and you’re invited, you need to do exactly as your PH directs. Usually, they’ll have you walk to the side rather than to the rear if the cover permits.
You have to be careful and alert at all times. And this is the time to be very careful with your safe gun handling. This is serious stuff. Pay attention to where the PH and trackers are at all times. Keep your rifle on safe. And monitor your muzzle direction. This is a good time to load up with solids. In the case of a charge, you have to be absolutely certain that your shot is clear. Until the last, when he drops his head to hook, a buffalo comes in with his head up.
So, there are really just two shots. And either has to be certain. With the head up, the brain is essentially between the eyes. If there’s time, the other option is to fade slightly to one side and shoot just under the curve of the horn at the base of the neck. Either the brain shot or that neck shot will stop a buffalo. But they have to be certain.
Depending on cover and spoor, after you’ve followed for about 100 and 200 yards, the assumption must be made that you are following a wounded buffalo. This is a dangerous situation but also heartbreaking.
Despite all the tales, the most common outcome when a buffalo is wounded is that it is never seen again. Some buffalo do circle the wind and lie in wait. The result can be deadly. But it is more common for a wounded buffalo to just keep going—another reason why it is so important to place the first shot well. The outcome is unknown, but of course, a wounded buffalo must be followed as long as it is possible for the trackers to hold the track. Buffalo have been recovered after three or even four days on the track. Wounded buffalo can still be dangerous during this time. An experienced Zimbabwe PH was killed by a wounded buffalo on the fourth day he tracked it.
In the case of a wounded buffalo, the PH is absolutely in charge. One of the things he or she worries about most is an inexperienced hunter with a rifle following behind. Some PHs prefer to follow up alone with their trackers. Others will invite a hunter to participate based on evaluation of his or her coolness and safe gun handling.
If invited, walk as the PH directs—usually to the side rather than the rear—and concentrate. This is serious stuff. Pay attention to where the PH and trackers are at all times, keep your rifle on safe, and monitor your muzzle direction. This is a good time to load up with solids!
In the case of a charge, you must be absolutely certain your shot is clear. Until the last, when he drops his head to hook, a buffalo comes with his head up, so there are just two shots, and either must be certain. With the head up, the brain is essentially between the eyes. If there is time, the other option is to fade slightly to one side and shoot under the curl of the horns into the base of the neck.
Anticipation is part of the fun of any safari, but smart preparation will make any safari more successful.
For further study:
Buffalo hunting is not marathon running or sheep hunting, but it may require a lot more walking (and crawling) than many other African hunts. The best exercise for walking is walking. Tracking is conducted at a slow, steady pace. But it isn’t unusual to be on tracks for several hours, and at the end of the hunt, the vehicle may be several hours away.
Shooting accurately is a key to the success of any hunt. The more practice time you can manage in the months and weeks before the hunt will be beneficial. There is no formula. But if an unfamiliar heavy rifle is acquired for a buffalo hunt, a minimum of 50 (better 100) shots should be fired through it prior to the hunt to build familiarity and ensure absolute reliability. Because of recoil, these goals cannot be met in one or two sittings. You can use a .22 to practice shooting off sticks and while standing. Shooting the buffalo rifle should be limited to 5 to 10 shots per range session to avoid acquiring a recoil-induced flinch.
Always consult your doctor before planning any distant hunt or before beginning a training regimen for any hunt. That said, medical preparations for most buffalo safaris are minimal.
Temporary firearms importation and visa requirements vary with countries (and visa requirements vary depending on your country of origin). Both are subject to change. Discuss these requirements with your outfitter well ahead of your safari, and be clear as to what actions are required and who (you or your outfitter) is supposed to do them.
Traveling with firearms is increasingly difficult. Some carriers no longer carry firearms, and many carriers require advance notice. Some interim destinations require special permits to transit with firearms. The simplest and safest solution is usually to use a “firearms-and-hunting-savvy” travel agent to help sort through the labyrinth, but if you book your travel yourself, speak to an airline representative and make sure all requirements are fully understood.
With current baggage restrictions, it’s advisable to pack light. This is generally possible on an African safari because weather is usually mild and, unlike hunting camps in many areas, laundry is done on a more or less daily basis.
Camouflage is becoming more common in Africa, and restrictions against wearing it have generally been lifted. Whether camouflage or solid, neutral green is the preferred color. You should have at maximum three changes of clothing.
Fabric chosen should be quiet to avoid scratching noises in brush and should be rugged enough to withstand vigorous handwashing. Cotton is always a good choice.
Whether you wear short or long trousers or sleeves is a personal choice. Most PHs wear shorts. Shorts are quieter in brush and cooler during the heat of the day but mean more exposure to the sun and (probably) more scratches from thorns.
Do not underestimate how cold it can be during the African winter (June to August), which corresponds with the peak safari season in southern Africa. In addition to layered outerwear for cold mornings and rapidly cooling evenings, bring a warm watch cap or balaclava and gloves.
Rain is extremely unlikely between June and October, but it is not impossible. Light rain gear can also double as an extra layer.
For buffalo hunting, bring along gloves and rugby kneepads. Keep them in your daypack. If you have to crawl after your buffalo, you will recall this recommendation!
Binoculars are mandatory, likewise good sunglasses. Most PHs, but not all, have rangefinders, so a compact rangefinder is handy. In buffalo hunting, it is most likely to tell you when it’s too far to shoot!
Cleaning kit. Africa is hard on firearms. Dust is the major issue, but once in a while, insects nest in gun barrels (overnight). Bring minimal cleaning gear: oil, solvent, patches, and a jointed cleaning rod.
Rifle sling, scope caps, soft gun case, belt ammunition pouch, hearing protection. Especially if the decision is made to bring just one rifle, consider bringing a spare riflescope set in rings, along with necessary tools to switch in case a scope fails or is damaged in a fall.
Ammunition. Required amounts vary depending on length of safari and size of bag, but running low isn’t fun, and running out is a problem. Think about two to three cartridges for each animal you plan to hunt along with spares for zeroing and checking zero periodically. If a specific rifle is brought primarily for buffalo, then 30 rounds is plenty—20 expanding and 10 solids. Weigh your total ammunition, and make sure you don’t exceed the international 5-kilogram or 11-pound baggage limit for ammunition.
Firearms must be packed separately in sturdy locked cases. Make sure your hinges are secure and the hasps allow the case to be securely locked. Always declare firearms and ammunition when you approach any ticket counter.
In the United States, up to 5 kilograms or 11 pounds of ammunition in original factory containers can be in checked baggage, separate from firearms. In Europe and South Africa, the same weight limit applies, but ammunition must be checked separately in its own locked case (wood, metal, or plastic). The simplest approach is to get a small, sturdy ammunition case and pack it in your duffel bag with locks inside but not locked when you leave the United States. In this fashion, you are ready to comply if required during a plane change or stopover.
While baggage handling is generally reliable, delays and lost bags do occur everywhere in the world. Pack your carry-on bag as if it were the only bag you will receive! You can usually borrow a rifle and ammo and purchase basic clothing articles, so mandatory in the carry-on are binoculars, camera, extra prescription glasses, all prescription medications for the full period of your hunt, one change of clothing, and anything else you simply cannot live without for 10 days or 2 weeks.
Luggage must be rugged and waterproof, but soft duffel bags are better than hard-sided luggage because they are easier to fit into vehicles and smaller final transport to camp.
SIGN UP FOR OCCASIONAL INSIDER INFO FROM CRAIG AND HIS ENDORSED OUTFITTERS