10 Commandments of Firearms Safety
Basic firearm safety starts with the 10 Commandments of Firearms Safety. Now these 10 are stated differently by various organizations, and they’re often presented in different order. But the meaning is consistent and virtually universal, and it applies everywhere, including in Africa. If these rules are followed, a firearms-related accident is almost impossible.
- Treat every firearm as if it’s loaded.
- Control the direction of your firearm's muzzle.
- Be sure of your target and what's beyond your target.
- Be sure that the barrel and action are clear of obstructions and that the proper size ammunition is used. Now in Africa, there’s something special you might want to think about. Termites and other insects can very quickly build nests in your barrel, and it can cause an obstruction. So in Africa, you want to check your muzzle at least daily to make sure it's clear.
- Always unload your firearms when not in use.
- Never point your firearm at anything you don’t intend to shoot.
- Never climb a fence or tree or jump a ditch or a log with a loaded firearm.
- Never shoot a bullet at a hard, flat surface, including water.
- Store firearms and ammunition separately.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages and drugs before and during any shooting activity.
These 10 commandments rely upon basic common sense. Implied throughout is reliance on control of the direction of your muzzle and lack of reliance on firearms mechanical safety. These rules don’t change in Africa. Most professional hunters will attest that the most dangerous thing out there is an excited visitor with a firearm.
4 Basic Safety Rules: ACTT
The International Hunter Education Association, or IHEA, reduces the ten commandments to four basic safety rules, remembered by the acronym ACTT, A-C-T-T, as in, act responsibly around firearms.
It stands for:
- Assume every firearm to be loaded. Consider any firearm you haven’t just unloaded to be loaded, and treat it accordingly.
- Control the muzzle. Point firearms in a safe direction. Now you have to decide what the safest muzzle direction is, and keep your firearm pointed in that direction. Never point a firearm at yourself or others, under any circumstances.
- Trigger finger: Keep your trigger 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. Just don’t do it. This could cause an accidental discharge if the firearm’s loaded.
- Target: Be sure of your target and beyond. Never point your firearm at something you don’t intend to shoot. And make sure you positively identify what you’re shooting at, and also what lies in front of it and beyond it. Don’t use telescopic sights as a substitute for binoculars when identifying persons, animals, or objects.
I don’t really care if you memorize the ten commandments or reduce it to the four, the ACTT acronym. That’s not important. What’s important is that you pay attention to your firearm at all times when you’re in the field.
I believe in gun control, and gun control to me means muzzle control. What’s really important is you control the direction of the muzzle. Make sure that your firearm is unloaded, unless it's supposed to be loaded at that particular moment. And really pay attention to your target and what’s beyond your target, what’s in front of your target. If you follow those simple rules and use common sense, you’re going to be a safe hunter.
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!
The big difference with African hunting is the great variety. Plains game may not live on open plains, but may live in forests, hills, mountains, deserts, swamps, or thorn bush in varying degrees of thickness. Africa holds every imaginable habitat type, and many hunting areas offer a variety of habitats, which dictate shooting distances. The term “plains game” is a catch-all phrase that generally refers to Africa’s non-dangerous animals.
Characteristics of Plains Game
Plains game generally includes the many antelope species, plus pigs and zebras. Including races and subspecies, there are well over 100 varieties of antelope, plus a half-dozen each of wild pigs and zebras. There are also a number of small predators. No single area offers even a small fraction of Africa’s total variety. However, unlike the rest of the world, most regions in Africa hold at least a dozen different varieties, and some hold more than 20.
Size variance. African antelope range in size from the pygmy antelope, perhaps 10 to 30 pounds, on up to the eland, which might weigh a ton. Large antelope include wildebeest, up to 500 pounds, and kudu, perhaps 400 to 600 pounds. A zebra might weigh 800 pounds. On most plains game safaris available, animals will thus range from very small to fairly large.
Versatility is the key. On any given day, African hunting is often focused. You may go out looking for an impala for the camp larder or specifically hunting for kudu in likely habitat. Reality is that, with such variety available, you really don’t know what you might run into on any given day. The kudu of your dreams could turn up at any time. But while looking for a kudu, you may see a 25-pound steenbok with irresistible horns. The rifle or rifles you select must cover all the bases, from small animals to large, and all the shots you might encounter, from very close in thick cover to longer shots in open areas.
Rifles, Shotguns, and Handguns Transcript
The big difference with African hunting from hunting in most places in the world is the tremendous variety. I'll be honest, a lot of people don’t like the term “plains game” because it implies that these animals all live in the plains, and nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of these animals live in real brushy country, some live in open plains and deserts, others live in mountains, others live in swamps—a lot different than any place else. No single area offers even a small fraction of all the wildlife that's available in Africa. Africa is a very big place, but unlike most of the rest of the world, most areas in Africa are going to have somewhere between 10 and, in some cases, even over 20 different varieties of game.
What Caliber Should I Bring?
One of the big problems you have with rifle selection for Africa is the size variance. African antelope alone range from the very, very small pygmy antelope, the duikers, and the dik-diks and so many more, all the way up to eland, which can weigh 2,000 pounds. They’re much bigger than a buffalo. So, when you talk about African rifles and cartridges, you’ve got to think versatility. Now in Africa we don’t do a lot of long shooting, but even so, you may be shooting from very close and thick cover to considerable range in open plains.
How Many Should I Bring?
So, the big question to answer is how many rifles should you bring. Well, generally speaking today, two’s company and three’s a crowd. In the old days, when safaris were longer and Africa was really an infinite wilderness and bag limits were almost unlimited, the standard was the three-rifle battery. A light rifle for the smaller antelope, some kind of a medium for perhaps lion and the larger antelope species, and then a heavy rifle for the thick-skinned dangerous game. Today, safaris are a lot shorter, the bags are a lot more specialized, and bag limits are much lower than they used to be. So again, two is really the most that you want to carry and look after at any given time. And of course, it’s very easy to put two rifles into a gun case. You really don’t want to bring two gun cases.
The Two-Rifle Battery
It’s probably good to have some redundancy between the two so that you’re covered for any situation. And especially in case you have some kind of a catastrophic mechanical breakdown or a stock breaks or something bad happens like that. So, you can actually consider a second rifle to be primarily a spare, and that’s not really a bad plan. But now keep in mind that some African countries, including South Africa, don't allow you to bring in two rifles of the same caliber.
The One-Rifle Battery
The one-rifle battery is also always an option, and it can be a good one, provided you choose it with extreme care. It has to be absolutely reliable. You can’t take any chances on that because now you have no backup whatsoever. The other thing about a one-rifle battery is that one rifle has to be adequate for all the game you intend to hunt, from smallest to largest. And the scope that you put on it has to also be adequate for any shot you might encounter.
Let’s spend just a minute on shotguns and handguns. If you’re a serious bird hunter, and you take just one rifle, then a shotgun may be a good option for you. There’s almost always some good bird shooting in most African areas. Now in most camps, they’re going to have a camp shotgun. Your biggest problem with shotguns is going to be enough ammunition for a really good bird shoot. In some African areas, it’s really hard to come by, and in others it’s readily available. But if that’s of interest, please talk to your outfitter about that, because he can probably lay in a supply of shells. And with your baggage allowance, you’re not going to be able to bring enough to have even one decent day of bird shooting.
Handguns are another subject. Regulations vary widely. Hey, there’s a lot of great handgun hunting available in Africa, and you know there are places where it might be handy to have a handgun with you. I generally don’t bring one, just because it’s one more thing to carry, and one more thing to worry about. But again, regulations vary widely from country to country. So if you plan on bringing a handgun, be sure and discuss that with your outfitter, your professional hunter, or your booking agent, and make sure that it’s absolutely legal, and you won’t have any problems with it.
Firearms for Plains Game Hunting
Two’s company, three’s a crowd. In the old days, when safaris were longer, bag limits were higher, and most safaris included opportunities at multiple varieties of dangerous game. The most common African battery included three rifles, based around a light, medium, and heavy caliber. Things have changed. Today’s safaris are shorter, and bag limits are lower. Baggage weight limits have dropped, and some African countries allow temporary importation of no more than two firearms. Regardless of restrictions in today’s Africa and especially for the plains game safari, two firearms are the maximum that should be brought.
The two-rifle battery. Most hunters today bring two rifles. This allows for a bit of specialization in that you can bring a lighter rifle for the smaller animals and a heavier rifle for zebra and the largest antelope. However, keep in mind that it’s difficult to predict when an opportunity might arrive for any certain species, so the light rifle probably shouldn’t be too light and the heavy rifle shouldn’t be too heavy—since we are discussing options for plains game. It’s probably desirable to have some overlap or redundancy between the two so that you’re “covered” in case of a mechanical failure or something catastrophic, like a stock breaking. While you may consider a second rifle primarily as a spare, keep in mind that some countries, including South Africa, do not allow temporary importation of multiple rifles chambered to the same cartridge.
The one-rifle battery. This is always an option and may be a good one, depending on the animals you intend to hunt and the rifle/cartridge you choose. If one rifle is chosen, it must be extremely reliable! Equally important, it must be powerful enough for the largest game you intend to hunt, and its scope must be suitable for the full range of shots you expect to encounter.
Shotguns and Handguns
Shotguns. If one rifle is chosen, then serious bird hunters might consider taking a shotgun as a second firearm. Most African areas have some bird hunting, and in many places it can be spectacular. Also, in thicker country the pygmy antelopes and smaller predators are often hunted with shotguns. Shotguns are usually available in camp, but adequate ammunition for a serious bird shoot may not be available (and baggage restrictions won’t allow enough to be brought), so these are discussions you should have with your outfitter.
Handguns. Regulations regarding temporarily importing handguns vary widely with the country, and they are also subject to rapid change. Unless one is serious about hunting with a handgun there is no compelling reason to bring one, but if desired this is an issue that must be discussed with your outfitter.
Familiarity does not breed contempt!
- Many hunters are compelled to acquire a new rifle or rifles for an upcoming African hunt. This may be necessary, but consider your trusty old favorites first. Most good old American deer and elk rifles are perfectly suitable for the majority of African plains game!
- If a new rifle is to be used, be sure to acquire it far ahead of your trip. Plan enough range sessions so that you are completely familiar with it and certain of its absolute reliability well before you depart for your safari.
There are different types of rifle actions. The bolt action is by far the most common choice in today’s Africa. However, what is really important are the suitability of the cartridge and the hunter’s familiarity with the rifle. Chambered to adequate cartridges, lever actions, single shots, and slide actions can be perfectly suitable. Most African countries today do not allow the importation of semi-automatic rifles. If you wish to bring a semi-automatic, be sure to discuss this with your outfitter to ensure that it is legal.
A centerfire .22, such as the .223 Remington, is ideal for the smallest antelope and smaller predators. Lighter cartridges, such as the .243 and .25-06 (both very popular among local hunters in southern Africa), are excellent for medium-sized antelope up to impala and blesbok. However, the limitation on how many firearms can be brought suggests that if one rifle is either highly specialized or limited in capability, then the second rifle must be extremely versatile.
- Minimum choices. Most American favorites are African favorites as well. Sound and adequate minimums for most plains game include 6.5mm, .270, and 7mm cartridges. With good shot placement, which is always the essential key, these cartridges will be adequate for game up to kudu and zebra.
- All-around excellence. The most versatile choice is probably America’s favorite, the .30-caliber. The .308 Winchester, .30-06, and the several .300 magnums are fully adequate for almost all plains game.
- Larger cartridges? For plains game hunting, there is very limited need for cartridges larger in caliber and more powerful than a versatile .30-caliber. There are, however, two situations where a larger cartridge might be considered.
- If you decide that one rifle must be a very light cartridge, perhaps because it’s a favorite or you intend to do some serious predator calling, then the second rifle should probably be considerably more powerful. A .30-caliber is always a good choice, but a faster 8mm or .33-caliber cartridge might be considered.
- If you intend to hunt eland, Africa’s largest antelope, then a .30-caliber becomes an extremely minimalist choice. With that animal in mind, you might consider a fast .33 (such as the .338 Winchester Magnum). The traditional favorite for eland is the .375 H&H, not at all a silly choice for an animal weighing up to 2,000 pounds. Although the .375 is extremely versatile, its power level is not needed for any other plains game.
Cartridges for Plains Game Hunting Transcript
Let’s talk about cartridges for plains game hunting. Again, you can only bring two rifles. And maximum three and that’s really too many. So you can’t be too specialized.
We could theorize that something like a .22 centerfire would be ideal for the smaller African antelope. But really, too specialized and you can't bring enough rifles.
Suggested Rifle Loads for Small African Plains Game
So, the lightest rifle you should probably think about is something like a .243. That and the .25-06 are very, very popular with local South African hunters.
But again, those are, again, specialized rifles. You’re not going to be able to use them on a wide range of game. So, if you bring a very light rifle as the lighter of your two rifles, then your second rifle needs to be even more versatile.
For most of us, for minimum choices, you need to step up a little bit. You know what? Most of our really popular American hunting cartridges are also popular in Africa as well.
Suggested Rifle Loads for General African Plains Game
A good sound minimum for the general range of African plains game would be the good old .270 Winchester. You could make the same argument for 6.5mm and all of the 7mm. But somewhere in there, the good old favorite American deer cartridge is going to be just fine for most African plains game, up to certainly kudu and perhaps up to zebra as well.
Suggested Rifle Loads Best Overall for African Plains Game
For all-around excellence, the most versatile choices are probably America’s favorite, the .30 caliber. I’ll be honest. I don't think there’s a better cartridge out there for African plains game than our good old .30-06. It’ll take almost the full range. However, if you’re hunting in more open country and you don't mind a little bit more recoil, then one of the .300 magnums is perfectly suitable. And also, they're favorites of mine.
So, what am I saying? Well, I’m saying that if you have a .270, you’ve already got a rifle that’s suitable for the majority of African plains game. If you have a .30-06, you’ve got one of the best African rifles going for almost all African plains game. And really, the only exception to that is the eland.
Now, larger cartridges are obviously more quickly effective on the very large plains game. But the only African antelope that really needs anything larger than a .30 caliber is probably the eland. So, the upper limits of your African battery really depend on what you intend to hunt.
Suggested Rifle Loads for Large African Plains Game
If you plan on hunting an eland, then maybe you do need a larger cartridge. A .338 is a great cartridge for eland. Standard choice in Africa is a .375. But there’s really relatively few African antelope that need cartridges quite that large and powerful.
Bullets for Plains Game Hunting
The same rule for selecting cartridges for African hunting applies to bullet selection. The bullet must be of adequate weight and tough enough construction to ensure adequate penetration on the largest game you plan to hunt.
Accuracy versus velocity versus performance. American hunters tend to be addicted to accuracy and velocity. There’s nothing wrong with that, but genuine long-range shooting is unusual in Africa. So, neither the tightest groups nor the highest bullet velocities are as important as the terminal performance of the bullet. Some rifles produce their best accuracy with the toughest bullets at the highest speeds—but many do not. Consider the size variance of African animals and the toughness of some species. When compromises must be made among accuracy, velocity, and bullet performance, the latter should be the most important consideration.
Tough bullets. Most manufacturers offer some bullets designed to expand quickly. They also offer other types designed to expand either less or more slowly, retain more weight, and penetrate deeper. The manufacturers’ literature may contain some hyperbole but will generally accurately describe the design characteristics of their bullets. The latter types—tough bullets—are the better choices for African hunting. Adequate penetration must be assured on the larger animals. Rule of thumb: The smaller the cartridge in relation to the game being hunted, the tougher the bullet should be.
What about two types of bullets? In a perfect world, it might be ideal to have quicker-expanding bullets for the smaller animals and tougher, slower-expanding bullets for larger game. In our experience, this is a great idea but very difficult in execution. Because you never know exactly what animal might appear at any given time, it’s too complex—and there often isn’t time—to switch loads in midstream. Choose a bullet tough enough for the largest game you intend to hunt, and use it throughout.
Scopes for Plains Game Hunting
In today’s Africa, the telescopic sight is almost universal for plains game hunting. In some circumstances a case can be made for iron sights or red-dot sights for use on dangerous game. But for plains game the telescopic sight is absolutely superior because it allows the hunter to see better (especially in low light) and to place his or her shots better.
While long-range shooting is extremely popular in America today, this trend has not reached Africa. African trackers and professional hunters (PHs) go to great pains to get their hunters as close as possible. This is appropriate and important because most PHs have seen a great deal of terrible shooting, and because of terrain and brush, perfectly steady rests are often unavailable. Also, from a purely practical standpoint, African rules are different: A drop of blood means the license is filled and the trophy fee is payable. This means that the extra-large variable scopes increasingly popular in America are not needed in Africa and may be counterproductive.
Don’t forget the close shot! Most shooting at African plains game will range from something less than 100 yards to perhaps a bit more than 200 yards, which is considered a long shot by most PHs. There are some extremely open areas where shots as far as 300 yards may be required, but shots beyond that are extremely unusual and most PHs either will not recommend or will not allow shooting at such distances. However, in thick cover very close shots are sometimes offered. So, equally important to the highest magnification setting, a variable scope for African use must have a low enough power setting so that very close shots can be taken when necessary. For most of us this means a minimum power setting between 2X and maximum about 4X.
Ideal plains game scopes. The ideal scope for African plains game is probably a variable-power scope between 2-7X and 4-12X, including the ever-popular 3-9X and 3.5-10X scopes. On smaller animals and in open country, the higher magnification levels will make good shot placement much easier, but scopes should always be kept on a low magnification setting so that a close shot can be taken if a quick opportunity arises. Crank up the magnification when needed, but don’t forget to turn it back down!
Quality. Both rifles and scopes take serious beatings in Africa, constantly bouncing over rough roads. Scopes have to be rugged to stand up, and the best way to ensure that is to use one of the many high-quality brands, and avoid the most inexpensive scopes.
Protection. Dust is a major issue in Africa. Bring a scope cover or lens caps. Leave them on your scope in the vehicle, removing when you commence a stalk. Using a soft gun case in vehicles will also save wear and tear on the scope as well as the rifle.
Shooting Safety on Safari Transcript
Now let’s talk about keeping you, your professional hunter, and your tracker safe. You know, we all worry about dangerous animals and snakes and diseases when we go to Africa. But that’s not your PH’s greatest concern. Your PH’s greatest concern is strangers with firearms.
One of the first events on any safari is to go check your zero. Range day. Hey, some professional hunters are very astute gun guys, and others are not. To many of them, the firearm is just a tool. And they have very little interest in it. And the real purpose to that range day is to see how well you can use your tool and how safely you use it.
So, this is not an exam you can cram for. Yes, of course, your professional hunter wants to know that your rifle is reasonably close to zero. But he and his team are going to work really hard to get you very, very close to your animals. And they don’t really care if your rifle is an inch or even a couple of inches out of zero at 100 yards.
What they care about and what that range day is really all about is judging how safely you handle your firearm. How quick you're able to get into position and take a shot. And truth is, you’re probably going to be jet lagged. And you’re going to be a little blown away by being in Africa after dreaming about it for so long. So, you’re probably not going to shoot your very best, although you ought to try.
But firearm safety is a matter of lifelong habit. And how you handle your firearm and demonstrate that you’re a good, safe hunter, that’s going to have a lot to do with how that safari starts out. And in many cases, how the entire safari is going to be conducted and the success you're going to have at the tail end.
The Professional Hunter's Greatest Concern
While we all think about Africa’s dangerous animals and snakes, most professional hunters (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. As we have discussed, long-range shooting is rare in Africa. 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 most African game is 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.
Shooting Sticks Transcript
In Africa, the three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal. Now there’s some really good reasons for this. The first reason is they get you up off the ground. In Africa, a lot of low vegetation is going to obscure your shots. So, it’s relatively uncommon to use prone, sitting, kneeling, or other low positions like you might be able to in other parts of the world.
The other reason is that even if you can get down, all the vegetation in Africa has thorns, and there's biting ants, and whatnot. And so if you can get steady without dropping to the ground, you probably want to do so.
The other thing about it is that three-legged shooting sticks are just really ideal for the African situation. You’re almost never hunting alone. You’ve got your professional hunter with you, and you’ve got at least one tracker, and often two, so somebody carries the shooting sticks. And the way it works is that you’re usually not first in line. You’re walking second or third, usually the tracker in front, followed by the PH, and one of them is carrying the sticks.
So, you go down a trail, and you see a beautiful three-toed gazork or perhaps a unicorn. And the tracker is carrying the sticks, and he’s going to set them up, and he’ll step to the side. And the professional hunter is going to take a look with his binoculars, and he’ll say, “Aha, my dear sir. That is a lovely unicorn. I think you should take the shot.” Then it’s your place. Just come up and slip the rifle onto the sticks. Professional hunter is off to the side. The tracker’s to the other side. And when he gives you the go-ahead and only when he gives you the go-ahead, you take the shot. Shooting sticks are used in that fashion all across the African continent. Here’s what's really important. Do not let that range day—the sight-in day—be the first time you’ve ever seen three-legged shooting sticks. Get them, and practice with them at home. Here’s a little video of my daughter and I working out with sticks.
Craig and Brittany Boddington stand in a field beside a set of shooting sticks.
Brittany Boddington: Well, you know, shooting sticks can be a daunting thing if you’ve never used them before. In Africa, they’re super popular, and they’re becoming more popular in a lot of different countries. It’s great for a stand-up shot. It’s great for open plains when you don’t have anything to shoot off of. I grew up shooting with them. He taught me how for my very first time. That was how I learned. So, it’s super comfortable for me, but there are some tricks to it.
It’s critical when you’re seating the rifle that you keep the strap clear, and you grip the sticks and the rifle simultaneously. Then you can put some weight onto the sticks and create a really steady rest. These particular sticks are from African Sporting Creations.
Craig Boddington: What I like about this model is it breaks into three sections so that you can put it in your gun case easily. And then you can also use it short for a good steady sitting position. You can use it at two-thirds for a kneeling position or all the way up for standing shooting. Our buddy Jim Miranda, who makes them, he calls them over-engineered. But the joints are actually aircraft aluminum, and they’re totally repeatable. You have no problem putting them together.
And they’re universal in Africa. If you’re going on safari, you better learn sticks. But I carry them almost everywhere. I actually tie the legs together, and I use them as a walking stick. And then I’ve got them if I need them. And you know, it doesn’t matter what you’re hunting. If you have to make a standing shot, it’s a lot better than unsupported.
Brittany Boddington: Well you know, it’s great to have your own set. Because like anything else, practice makes perfect, and shooting sticks are no exception.
Craig Boddington: You bet.
Brittany loads a .318 rifle and prepares to fire.
Brittany Boddington: OK, let’s go 100.
Craig Boddington: All right.
Brittany Boddington: We got a nice high-powered scope. Why not use it?
Craig Boddington: Yeah. Yeah. That’s that good .318, got a lot of power.
Brittany Boddington: Yeah.
Brittany fires the rifle.
Craig Boddington: That’ll work. Dead pig.
Brittany Boddington: Hey, that’ll work.
Craig Boddington: All right.
Brittany Boddington: Cool.
Shooting Off of Sticks
In African hunting, three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal. 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 Techniques
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, which cover the vast majority of African shooting in most areas.
Shooting Sticks Enhancements Transcript
The more you practice with shooting sticks, the more proficient you’re going to get. At first, you may get terrible wobbles at even 50 or 60 yards. But if you practice with them, they’re good to 100 yards for almost everybody. And many of us can be very steady off sticks to about 150 yards. Well, that doesn’t cover the full range of African shots. But there are some enhancements to shooting sticks that will help you get a lot steadier and will really extend your range.
These enhancements are practical to use in Africa, and they’re also tricks that you can demonstrate to your professional hunter and your trackers on range day. Obviously, they’re going to be really impressed that you know what you’re doing with shooting sticks, and there may be some of them out there who haven’t seen these ideas.
The Buddy System
The first one’s what I call the buddy system. Now with the buddy system, the sticks are set up normally, and you get in position normally. But then, if you’re left-handed, it would be on the left side. If you’re right-handed, it would be on the right side. But your professional hunter or one of the trackers leans over and grabs the legs to the shooting stick. And then you’re able to rest your elbow on that person’s shoulder. And if you’re right-handed, of course, that’s your right elbow. If you’re left-handed, it’s your left elbow. But getting that shooting elbow stabilized makes an incredible difference. It can actually almost double your effective range off shooting sticks. So, the buddy system is a good one to practice at home and to show your PH.
The Chicken Wing
Now the next one is what we call the chicken wing. This is real popular with my friends at the SAAM shooting school in Texas. That’s where I learned this one, but it works. You know, you’re never hunting alone. And the trackers will usually have an ax or a panga, but they’ve got a free hand. You can carry two sets of shooting sticks. The first set, you set up normally with your fore-end rested on the fork of the tripod. But then the second set of sticks is set a little bit lower, and it’s set under your shooting elbow, right in your armpit—right-handed for a right-handed shooter, left-handed for a left-handed shooter. This takes the place of putting that elbow on your buddy’s shoulder. And it’s actually, with practice, even steadier. That’s the chicken wing.
The Standing Rest
The third enhancement is you can actually use two sets of shooting sticks to make what I call a standing rest. The first set of shooting sticks is used conventionally under the fore-end of your rifle, but the second set of sticks you set right under the butt of your rifle. So, your rifle is actually sitting there absolutely steady, absolutely firm. And you kind of squeeze in between the two sets of shooting sticks. And man, I tell you what. It is almost like a bench rest. There is really no limit to how steady you can be and the distance you can shoot with that kind of a rest. It really depends entirely on your rifle, your cartridge, and your confidence.
Given a choice, I prefer tripods or shooting sticks that can be broken down shorter because, in Africa, there are situations where you can sit down or you can kneel down. And I tell you what. If you can break that tripod down, and in many cases, you can also spread it very low so that it’s low to the ground, and then sit or kneel behind it. And you know, it’s no different than our famous NRA–shooting positions of prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing. The closer you can get to the ground, the steadier you are. So, if the vegetation allows and you can kneel or sit behind a lower tripod, you’re going to be a lot steadier.
Enhancements to Shooting Sticks
In Africa, you are almost never alone. There are some tricks you can practice on your range with a buddy and demonstrate them on range day.
- The buddy system. If the shot is a bit too far or if you’re shaky from nerves or exertion, a buddy, your PH, or a tracker can bend down and grasp the two rear legs of the tripod—right side for right-handed shooters or left side for left-handed shooters. This adds stability to the sticks, but the real secret is that you can then rest your shooting elbow on his or her shoulder. The increased stability from supporting that shooting elbow is simply amazing. With practice, this enables most shooters to nearly double their effective range off sticks!
- Do the “chicken wing.” A second trick is to carry a second set of shooting sticks in the party. This is very practical in Africa because there’s always a PH and at least one tracker, more often two. The height has to be right, so this is an evolution to be practiced on your home range. The first set is used normally as a fore-end rest. The second set—legs spread farther so the sticks are lower—is tucked into the armpit on your shooting side (left for left-handers or right for right-handers). Although it takes a few seconds longer—and more practice—the “chicken wing” is actually steadier than the “buddy system” and, again, can double your effective range off sticks.
- Make a standing rest. A second set of sticks that are set a bit lower can also be used under the butt of the rifle, just ahead of the recoil pad. This takes even more time, so will be used for only longer shots where time is not an issue but stability is everything. With practice, it creates stability almost on par with a bench rest, so range limitations fall to the rifle, cartridge, and your abilities—not to stability.
- Low tripods. Most shooting sticks can be spread low enough so the shooter can sit or kneel behind them, and many commercial brands are adjustable or have sectioned legs for lower positions. When the terrain allows, a lower position is always steadier. The closer you can get to the ground, the steadier you are! Again, these are positions to be practiced on the range. Some plains game hunting is done by waiting over waterholes—whether from a formal blind or an impromptu brush blind. Using sticks in a sitting position, including from a chair, is a great enhancement and can be practiced on your range.
Carrying the Rifle Transcript
As in almost all hunting situations, the big question is—when should your rifle be fully loaded? And when should you have shells in the magazine? And when should it be completely empty?
Hey, as in all things, listen to your professional hunter. Most of the time, when you’re walking, you’re going to have cartridges in the magazine. But you’re not going to load the chamber until your professional hunter suggests that it’s time.
And hey, you know what? They’re focused on tracking and stalking and looking for game. And they may even forget. So, it’s OK to ask now and again, "Hey, is it time for me to chamber a round?” There’s no shame in that. I do it all the time.
Unloaded or Unloaded
Controlling the Muzzle
Lots of times, you’re going to be carrying your rifle slung over your shoulder. And hey, my lifelong belief is that when the rifle is slung over your shoulder, you shouldn’t have a round in the chamber. You should only have a cartridge in the chamber when the muzzle is in full control.
That means you have both hands on the rifle. You’re able to absolutely control the direction of the muzzle. If you’re in country where dangerous game is present, your PH is almost always going to carry a rifle. And his rifle is probably going to be fully loaded. But you’re walking behind him, and so yours really doesn’t need to be.
A lot of professional hunters don’t use rifle slings for that very reason—because their rifle is always loaded. It’s always in their hands, and it’s always ready. Of course, again, in your case, that’s not absolutely necessary. So it’s perfectly OK to use a rifle sling, carry your rifle slung, but probably keep a round out of the chamber until you’re getting very close to action.
Knowing When to Use Them
I don’t trust mechanical safeties. To be honest, I’ve never had one fail. But a mechanical safety is not a substitute for safe gun handling. I view the mechanical safety as a backup for those momentary lapses when you slip or you stumble, and for just a second or two, that muzzle gets out of control.
Obviously, you want to keep that mechanical safety engaged at all times, especially in the final moments of a stalk, when the rifle is going to be fully loaded. You’re going to have a round in the chamber. But don’t rely on the mechanical safety.
Loaded or Unloaded?
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.”
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 hiking, glassing, and even 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
The African Carry Transcript
That brings us to the African carry. And of course, this is a very, very common thing in Africa. You see it on so many videos and in so many photographs, where the rifle is carried muzzle-forward, the action is resting on your shoulder, butt to the rear.
Hey, that is a wonderfully comfortable way to carry a heavy rifle. However, it puts the muzzle pointing directly at the person in front of you. And it is not safe. It really started back in the old days when trackers also actually served as gun bearers. And so, the tracker would walk in front, muzzle forward, butt to the rear.
Hey, he’s walking first. In that case, the African carry is perfectly safe because he can control the muzzle, and there’s no one in front of him. And the purpose behind it was that the hunter would actually walk directly behind the tracker. And if he saw game, all the hunter had to do was reach forward, grasp the pistol grip, take the weight, and then the rifle is in his hands and now ready. That’s the genesis of it.
It is not safe unless you’re the first person in line. So really, for most of it, it’s to be avoided.
The "African Carry”
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 pistol-grip, and take the rifle, fast and efficient.
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.
Closing on Game
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.
After the Shot
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. After the shot or shots, you should reload your chamber and be ready. But before you move forward to check the animal or look for sign, be certain you engage your safety, and maintain full control of your rifle with both hands. Before you move may be a good time to top up your magazine, especially if you have fired more than one shot.
Approach any downed animal with caution, and do not rush ahead of your PH and trackers. Some “non-dangerous” African animals are extremely dangerous when wounded. Bushbucks are famous for being aggressive, likewise the entire sable-roan-oryx group. However, any cornered or injured animal can be dangerous. Zebras can become aggressive, and historical incidents of hunters being killed by wounded kudus are documented. Approach with caution with your PH. Check the animal carefully for any sign of life—rifle ready. And be fully aware of where your trackers and PH are. Once it is certain the animal is deceased, unload your chamber.
Listen to Your Professional Hunter
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, and confident and you are certain 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 he or she can to find you good quality animals that are at least representative of what the area is capable of producing. You can help by reading about and watching videos of the animals you intend to hunt before you go so that you have some familiarity and can recognize the various species.
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 all African species. Various field guides to African animals are also available and are fun to actually take on your safari. However, do not expect that all animals taken will place high in any record book, and try not to establish pre-conceived “minimum standard” of horn length for the various species. Most areas produce better quality of one animal than another, and all any PH can do is attempt to find you animals that are of good quality for the area you are hunting.
Provided the hunter pays attention, shoots well, and has a bit of luck, most hunters’ animals at the end of the safari will follow a bell curve. Some trophies will be average, some will be very good, and a few will be exceptional. However, luck plays a factor in all hunting, so it is impossible to predict exactly which animals might be spectacular.
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 animals’ horns. On a day-to-day basis, however, leave the measuring tape in camp. Enjoy your animals for what they are, and trust that your PH is trying to do the best job he or she can.
Any animal might be seen individually, but many African animals are typically herd animals. And with some antelope species (e.g., blesbok, eland, oryx, roan, sable, wildebeest), both males and females have horns that are very similar. Lacking horns, zebras are especially difficult to determine their sex. One of the biggest challenges is thus making sure you and your PH are focused on the same animal. There are multiple ways to accomplish this: Count from left to right or right to left, or work from natural landmarks such as trees. Discuss this with your PH, and find out how he or she prefers to do this. Every PH has stories about hunters who shoot the wrong animal, and most experienced African hunters have done this once. Usually once is enough to understand that you must be certain, and if you aren’t certain, don’t shoot.
Depending on both species and circumstances, African plains game is generally hunted by tracking, glassing and stalking, still-hunting, and stand-hunting.
Tracking is one of the most traditional and interesting African hunting techniques, and it is pure magic to watch African trackers do their work. However, only the larger animals leave tracks deep enough for even the best trackers to follow. Eland are often hunted by tracking. Zebra can be tracked, and in the right soil, a kudu bull can be tracked. Most species, however, are hunted by other techniques.
Glassing and Stalking
The most common technique for plains game hunting is glassing and stalking. In hilly country, the party moves from vantage point to vantage point. In open country, the party moves slowly, stopping often to glass with binoculars. Depending on terrain, movement might be done on foot or by vehicle.
While you are always looking for animals both near and far, some species are often hunted by still-hunting—moving slowly through thicker areas where encounters are likely. Cover-loving antelopes like kudu and bushbuck are often hunted in this manner.
Two difficult skills are important: being aware and walking quietly. It’s important to pay attention all the time. Because of familiarity with animals and vegetation, the trackers and PH are more likely to spot game first. But since encounters are usually close under such circumstances, it’s important to concentrate on paying attention. Walking quietly is essential. Avoid rapid movements, and be aware of where you place your feet, avoiding sticks and twigs. Many typical hunting boots have soles too hard (and noisy) for this type of hunting; crepe and softer rubber soles are noticeably quieter than hard soles.
While shooting sticks are preferred by most PHs under most circumstances, much movement is required to set up sticks. So, in close encounters in thick cover, unsupported offhand shooting is often the best course. This is a last resort; any rest is better than none. However, since shooting offhand is the most difficult and may be required, you should practice it regularly as you prepare for your safari.
The majority of archery hunting in Africa is done from stands over waterholes. It is not nearly so common in rifle hunting, and in some areas, hunting is actually illegal within a specified distance of any water source. However, on private land, this rule generally does not apply.
Sitting in a stand or blind over waterholes can be extremely productive for certain species at certain times of the day. Stand-hunting at dawn and dusk is familiar to most American deer hunters, but in Africa, stand-hunting for warthogs, kudu, and other species is often most productive during the heat of the day—from late morning until mid-afternoon.
The waterhole is also a great place for game photography. It’s no different from stand-hunting anywhere else. Whether elevated stands or ground blinds, the stand is set downwind from likely approaches, and the keys are to be quiet, still, and watchful.
Both PHs and trackers are usually masters at planning and orchestrating stalks and at observing them using terrain and cover. Working the wind is part of the fun of any safari.
Most stalks begin with the sighting of a distant animal that appears “promising,” but few stalks commence with the certainty of a shot if one is possible. Instead, most stalks are conducted at least initially to get a better look at an animal. So, don’t assume a shot is likely to happen, and always wait for the go-ahead!
Depending on terrain, distance, and circumstances, a stalk at first may be at a rapid pace to cover ground. But at some point, the PH and trackers will slow down, and movement must become stealthier and quieter. Follow your PH’s lead, and when things slow down, concentrate on stepping as quietly as possible. This is usually the point when it’s time to chamber a round, but never hesitate to ask your PH, using signals and motions if you think this step may have been overlooked.
When the animal is visual and in range, the sticks will usually go up, and your job is to get into shooting position slowly and quietly. This is generally not your cue to shoot—not yet—unless you have been so instructed. Usually, the PH wants you ready but will want to make a last-minute confirmation of horn size, sex, and/or age at a closer range, so don’t release the safety until you have a firm go-ahead.
Use of the Vehicle
In some African countries and areas (game laws are often different between public and private lands), it is strictly illegal to shoot from a vehicle. There are situations where it is legal and sensible, but generally speaking, shooting from a vehicle is ethically questionable, and from a practical perspective, conditions animals to fear the vehicle, which reduces sightings. In the vehicle, the chamber should always be unloaded, and it is always best to keep the rifle in a soft case for protection. However, the rifle should be readily accessible, and you should know how you are going to exit the vehicle quickly and quietly on a moment’s notice.
As in all hunting, African hunting can be hours of boredom spiced by a few moments of adrenaline rush. Try to stay focused and alert through those hours of boredom! PHs and trackers will probably be better at spotting game than their hunters (and should be!); they are used to spotting differences in color, texture, and light reflection between animals and their natural surroundings. However, after a few days in Africa most hunters improve rapidly. Always carry binoculars, and use them. You may well spot animals your hunting team has missed, but your success is best-served by participating fully in the hunt. Avoid daydreaming, and pay attention. After long periods of seeing little things can change very rapidly.
Toughness of African Animals
African animals are legendary for toughness, but this is somewhat of a myth. Some animals such as wildebeest and impala are extremely tough for their sizes. Others, such as kudu, are generally not. Provided an adequate cartridge and a bullet of adequate weight and penetrating qualities are used, shot placement is really no different than for game anywhere else in the world. And ultimately, good shot placement is most important.
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. They are also discouraged because excessive damage to the cape (skin) is likely.
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 discourage this shot because while not necessarily tougher, African animals are often constantly anxious because of the presence of predators, and a lung shot will often require more tracking than the shoulder/heart shot.
- 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. 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 visualize exactly how the animal is standing—envision where the vitals lie, and adjust the sight picture accordingly.
Quartering angles. On quartering angles, try to envision exactly where the center of the chest lies.
- “Divide the light.” On angles other than broadside, both front legs will be visible, and there will be daylight showing between them. Divide the space between the front legs in half—“divide the light.”
- Come one-third to one-half the horizontal width into the body.
- Envision the center of the chest. Aim behind the shoulder for quartering-away shots, or aim from the point of the shoulder to inside the shoulder (between shoulder and neck) for quartering-to shots.
Frontal shots. The frontal or facing shot is always tricky because the target is small, and if your aim slips to one side or the other, there is 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.
Going-away shots. On unwounded game, never! However, to prevent the escape of a wounded animal, the going-away shot or “Texas heart shot” is not an uncommon option. This is because, after receiving a bullet, most animals will instinctively turn away to escape.
- Since this shot should be reserved for potentially wounded animals, the animal is usually moving when this shot is fired. Aim for the largest target, just under the base of the tail. On most antelope species, a bullet tough enough for African use should penetrate forward into the chest cavity.
- A hit slightly high may break the spine; a hit to either side will damage a hip or the pelvis. Once an initial hit is made, recovery of the animal is essential; potential loss and longer tracking than necessary should be avoided. So, while unethical and risky on unwounded game, on wounded animals don’t hesitate to take this shot.
Anticipation is part of the fun of any safari, but smart preparation will make any safari more successful.
For further study:
African literature. These works are unusually rich, and many of the great old classics are still in print. Just be aware that Africa is the land of change. Conditions written about a century ago bear little resemblance to the Africa of today. While game and habitat have not changed, anything written specifically about hunting laws, game availability, or political situations in Africa may become very quickly outdated.
Films and videos. While it’s wise to be wary of any unnecessarily sensationalized media, the rich body of films, television shows, and videos (both amateur and professional) offer a good way to become visually familiar with Africa’s wildlife and terrain. Just be aware that Africa is a very big place—much larger than North America—with a full range of habitat types. So, the Africa you see on film may or may not relate directly to the Africa you will see on your safari.
Most African hunting is neither marathon running nor sheep hunting, and it can be enjoyed by hunters of all ages, including hunters with most types of physical limitations. However, as with most hunts, a safari is most enjoyable and will generally be more successful if a hunter spends as much time as possible getting into the best conditions his or her health and age allow.
Most African hunts require a fair amount of walking, and the best exercise for walking is just that: Walking! If you train so that you can walk in hilly country for just an hour without becoming winded, you will be ready for most shots when your professional hunter (PH) sets up the sticks.
Extremely successful safaris yielding many great trophies have been accomplished from wheelchairs. There are usually many options, but if you have any physical limitations, it is essential that you convey them to all prospective outfitters or PHs before booking the hunt.
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. However, there are no benchrests in the African game fields, so practice smart.
- Shooting sticks. Build or acquire a set of three-legged shooting sticks and practice with it regularly. Everyone is different, but in a relatively short time, most shooters should reach “pie plate” accuracy at 100 yards, and this will increase with more practice.
- Speed. African PHs’ greatest complaint about their hunters’ shooting is not raw accuracy but speed in acquiring targets and getting their shots off. Rather than just practicing shooting off sticks, practice starting a few feet behind them with rifle down and safety on. Work on getting into position, acquiring the target, and getting an accurate shot off quickly.
- Offhand or standing. Practice shooting unsupported at closer ranges. In the field, this should be avoided. But in close encounters, there is often no option, so spend a lot of range time shooting offhand.
- Reloading. Practice working your action rapidly with as little movement off the target as possible, firing two or three shots rather than just one.
- Use a .22. While there is no substitute for shooting the rifle or the rifles you intend to use on safari and becoming absolutely familiar and confident, shooting off sticks and shooting offhand can be practiced very effectively with a .22 rimfire—cheaper ammo, no recoil, less noise. Training with an accurate airgun is equally effective.
Always consult your doctor before planning any distant hunt or before beginning a training regimen for any hunt. That said, medical preparations for most plains game safaris are minimal.
Inoculations. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains a listing of required and recommended inoculations by country. Again, consult with your doctor before taking any medications, but “required” and “recommended” mean just that. You can expect to be required to show proof of a required inoculation in order to gain entry to a country, while recommended inoculations are at your discretion. It’s important to check the current listings, but typically, there are no required inoculations for Namibia, South Africa, or Zimbabwe (the site of most plains game safaris). Countries to the north often require a current yellow fever vaccination.
Malaria prophylaxis. Much of Namibia and South Africa are malaria-free, but a malaria prophylaxis is recommended for the majority of the African continent. Numerous malaria preventives are available—all by prescription—so discuss the best option with your doctor.
Medical evacuation membership. African hunting is generally safe, but in the case of an accident or sudden illness, medical evacuation from a foreign country can be catastrophically expensive. Several firms offer medical evacuation memberships that will cover these expenses if evacuation is necessary. This coverage is a good idea any time you are away from home, so annual membership is ideal for people who travel regularly. If this is not the case, short-term membership is available to cover the period of your safari.
Airline Reservations and Requirements
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.
Binoculars are mandatory, likewise good sunglasses. Most PHs, but not all, have rangefinders, so a compact rangefinder is handy. Spotting scopes are not in widespread use in Africa but in more open areas can be invaluable. Ask your PH if you should bring one.
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. For one rifle, 60 rounds are usually more than adequate. For two rifles, 40 rounds each are usually plenty. Either number will fall well within the maximum 5-kilogram or 11-pound baggage limit for ammunition.
Absolutely obtain a recommended equipment list from your outfitter!
Firearms and 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 anywhere 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.
Let’s talk a little bit about packing for your safari. You’re probably going to have three basic pieces of luggage. You’re going to have a carry-on bag. You’re going to have a main duffel bag. And of course, you’re going to have a gun case. Now, I always take a computer bag as well as a second carry-on, and I work a little bit along the way. But ideally, you should be able to get by with one good-sized carry-on and a duffel bag and a gun case. So, let’s look at each one in turn.
OK, we’ll start with the gun case. Now, there are lots of great gun cases. I prefer the plastic, the polymer, because I think they’re just as strong as the metal, and they’re not quite as heavy. This is a Pelican, but there's many great brands. You just want to make sure that the latches are very, very secure. I like this one because it latches both on the sides and on the end.
For a one-rifle safari, it’s pretty hard to beat the good old .375. This is CZ 550; optics are loopholed. I've got a VX-R 2-7. And then, it's got detachable Alaska rings. And I’ve also got a second scope, a loopholed 1-6 that is already set in rings and ready to go.
I carry my shooting sticks. These are from African Sporting Creations. They’re my favorites.
It’s a good place for a knife. This is the Boddington blade that’s made by Anza.
A small Otis cleaning kit, fantastic. Got really everything you need right there, not much bigger than your hand.
I put my sling in there. My favorite is from Trader Keith. This is canvas webbing. It has a little bit of rubberized here, so it doesn't slip on your shoulder—very, very comfortable, very sturdy. I’ve used them for years.
And a gun tool. This is from Real Avid, and it’s got bits for just about every screw you might encounter on a rifle—very, very handy item to have.
Some people go with combination locks. I personally prefer a key lock. It’s not really necessary that you use a TSA–approved lock. I generally don’t. I do use good sturdy padlocks.
For a carry-on, I use a daypack. This is daypack from Sitka Gear in Montana. I’ll tell you what, I’ve gone through a lot of daypacks. This one is really comfortable, and it holds really everything that you need. But the important thing about your carry-on is you have to pack it as if this is the only item you’re going to receive. So, if there’s anything that you absolutely can’t live without, then you better put it in your carry-on, whether you use a daypack or a different kind of carry-on.
So, for instance, prescription medications. These you absolutely have to have in your carry-on. Do not put them in checked baggage.
Sunglasses and, if you use prescription glasses, an extra set.
This is where your flashlight should go. I use one from Streamlight that uses AA batteries, fantastic. You can always get AAs. But as we'll see, you want to make sure you take plenty.
And then, I start to put in some keep-him-warm stuff because everybody underestimates how cold it can be in the African winter.
Dad taught me a trick years ago. The old cowboys always used a kerchief, and so I have this one from Schnee’s. Lots of sources, but I use that to tie around my neck early in the morning.
I also carry a little ski mask or balaclava helmet. Really a great help if you're in an open vehicle. And gloves, you bet.
This is where the satellite phone needs to go. This is from my friends at Explorer Satellite, and they’re really the experts on this. I’ve used iridium for years, but this is Inmarsat. And the Inmarsat system actually works better in Africa than iridium. There's more satellites available for the Inmarsat in the Southern Hemisphere. But a satellite phone is a great thing to have. Now, if you don't travel overseas a great deal, you really don't need to buy one. You can rent one very easily and just get the minutes that you need. But it is a great piece of mind to be able to know that you can check in at home, and if you have an emergency, you can talk your way out of it.
Again, this is the bag you want to pack as if this is the only item you’re going to arrive with. So, I usually carry an extra pair of socks, extra underwear, maybe an extra shirt. But I definitely am going to carry a hat in my carry-on.
That’s where the binoculars are going to go.
Of course, that's where your camera is going to go because if you don’t have memories of the hunt, you're in real trouble at the tail end.
And then I’ll carry a jacket. Start with a fleece. And a fleece is always useful, it doesn’t weigh very much, it packs up. So, the fleece is a good thing to carry. But as we get into the duffel bag, you’ll see that’s not all.
Choice of duffel bag really is important. You want something that’s going to squish and squash a little bit so that you can get it onto a light aircraft or in the back of the Land Cruisers. But you want something that’s extremely tough and rugged. I really like the Beano bags from Red Oxx. They’ve served me well for many, many years. And, man, do they hold a lot of stuff. And that’s really the secret is, you don’t want to take too much. Obviously, you want to take what you need, but you don’t want to over-pack.
You’ll probably want to carry a toothbrush in your carry-on bag, but of course, that’s where your toilet kit is going to go.
Today, you know, we’ve got so much great electronic gear, but it all uses power. This is a new gadget from Brunton that I got from Explorer Satellite. And this is a recharging system. With these cartridges, you can actually recharge your camera, your computer—anything that needs recharging you can do with this. It just uses a USB port.
Plenty of batteries. Whether your gear uses AA or AAA or whatever, take plenty of batteries. They’re very expensive in Africa.
Of course, you’re going to want insect repellent and some sunscreen.
And then your safari clothing. I’m going with Schnee's clothing—cotton canvas shirts and a really tight woven shorts. I like to wear shorts, but in Southern Africa, it can often be a little bit too cold. So, I take some longs too. What you really ought to have is three sets of hunting clothes. They will do laundry every day, so theoretically, you can get by with two, but on a camp-change day, that's going to get awkward. So, you really want three sets of hunting clothing.
And once again, don’t underestimate how cold it can be in the winter in Southern Africa. In addition to the fleece that I carry in my daypack, I also use a wool jersey. We call them sweaters, they call them jerseys.
And then a lightweight rain suit for an extra layer. Hey, it’s probably not going to rain, but a lightweight rain suit is a great wind-proofer if you're riding in the back of the vehicle.
For lounging around in camp, maybe some sweatpants and a sweatshirt, whatever you’re comfortable in. But you absolutely want to do that. And a pair of really comfortable camp shoes that you can just wear around camp at night.
Speaking of footwear, that’s really important. You’ve got to have shoes that are absolutely comfortable. You don’t need really aggressive boots. These are a new lightweight model from Schnee’s that are just about the right height, just about the right weight. Good soles for a variety of terrain.
And then gaiters. These are really great for keeping the seeds and sand out of your boots. But whatever you use, make sure they’re really comfortable and well broken in.
I always carry a floppy hat to keep the sun off of me, but I also carry an extra cap too. Because, you know, at some point during the safari, it’s almost certain that your cap’s going to blow off somewhere along the way, or you’re going to lose it. So, I carry extras.
Here’s something I'm doing now that I didn’t used to do. I carry my ammunition in a secure lockable case. Now, that is a requirement in South Africa if you’re doing internal flights. They will actually ask you to lock your ammunition and check it separately. So, what I do is I just pack it this way, I put it in my duffel bag, and then it’s all ready to go. And if somebody wants me to take it out and check it separately, I can just take my little padlock right out of the case to lock it up. And away we go.
But you really do want to do that. The rules for both firearms and ammunition are changing, so pay attention. But an extra lockable case for your ammo is a really important deal.
Obviously, you’re going to have your toiletries, you’re going to have your socks and underwear and T-shirts and whatnot. That’s about it.
Boy, I’ve packed for a lot of safaris, and it really doesn’t take me long anymore. But that’s half the fun is digging around, getting your gear out, and making sure you have exactly what you need. But not too much.