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The african white hunter's profession calls for composure in the face of danger and enough social restraint at other times to put up with all but the more freakish fancies of his clients. He is a man not easily appalled. Still, these past few seasons he has been dismayed by a trend that runs counter to all he knows about shooting African big game.
What a rhino or Cape buffalo needs, he knows, is a good old English double-barreled rifle—something on the order of, say, the .600 Cordite, which weighs 14 pounds and shoots a 900-grain bullet. But some brash parvenus of the sport, and even some who should know better, are turning up on safari these days equipped with mere eight-pound rifles, shooting mere 300-grain bullets. Little more than peashooters, really. Mostly Americans, of course.
The cause of this vexation in the veldt is a Kansan named Roy Weatherby, a tall and friendly pink-cheeked man who was selling automobile insurance in California a few years ago, but now makes hunting rifles. The owner of a .378 Weatherby Magnum likes to think, as Weatherby himself proclaims, that it is "the world's most powerful big-game repeating rifle." His .375 magnum is only a little behind the .378, says Weatherby; and he personally likes his .300 magnum best of all for most purposes, though its heaviest bullet weighs only 220 grains, as against 300 grains for the other two. Alongside the traditional heavyweights of African hunting, such bullets have a puny look.
Not so puny, however, is the powder charge behind them. A mass of modern slow-burning powder, very unlike the spaghetti-shaped Cordite explosive, blasts the little bullets out of the Weatherby cartridge at such extreme velocity that, says their maker, it more than makes up for the difference in bullet weight and even for a fairly profound difference in muzzle energy. The .600 Cordite delivers 7,600 pounds of muzzle energy, and the .378 Weatherby Magnum some 1,600 pounds less. Despite the difference, Weatherby insists, his bullets have more shocking power—more than enough to kill with one well-placed shot any of the world's big game, quite enough to kill with even one badly placed shot some of the lesser big-game animals. It is the sort of claim that leads to night-long argument, but Weatherby makes out an excellent case. He kills big game instantly with one shot.
The African white hunter's confidence in the ballistic sanity of Yankee riflemakers has been restored recently by Winchester's introduction of its .458 Model 70, The African, designed to take care of elephant and rhino with a heavy bullet of the kind the African hunter knows and respects. This bruiser throws a 500-grain bullet with a muzzle energy of 5,010 foot-pounds. It, too, has made one-shot elephant kills and, according to an African game warden, has been seen to bring down an elephant, stopping him instantly, with a frontal shot between the eyes. Such a placement requires that the bullet penetrate two feet of honeycombed bone and, with lesser rifles, is something to be avoided. The rifle, weighing 9� pounds, may be used with a 510-grain soft point on such game as tiger or with the heavy, steel-jacketed 500-grain Full Patch on elephant and rhino.
Like the Weatherby Magnums, the Winchester .458 uses modern powder, instead of the Cordite preferred in Britain. To Weatherby, the velocity-lover, its muzzle velocity of 2,125 feet per second is heretically slow. Weatherby's fondness for velocity takes some explaining, and so, for that matter, does Weatherby himself.
The man who designed this rifle was hindered neither by established ballistic theory nor by any regard for austerity of design. Custom buyers can get from him a rifle as gaudy as the Mardi Gras-red Imperial with zebra upholstery that Weatherby drives; but for all that the decked-out Weatherby rifle dazzles the appraising eye, the end result is a thing of beauty in its own assertive way, as American as a loud shirt in Texas.
There has been a tendency among some of the rifle fancy to look upon this newcomer Weatherby, this insurance man turned riflemaker, as an upstart. Weatherby bears on his soul the bramble scratches of the pioneer. He has a great deal to live down. He was born, for instance, in Kansas, a state which has no big-game hunting, not even for deer. He never even saw big game until 1939, when, at the age of 29, he shot a mule deer in Nevada. And his first boyhood weapon was a Daisy air rifle, a prize he earned by selling garden seeds to wheat farmers. His introduction to hunting was one of those Kansas coyote drives—farmers gathered around the perimeter of a mile-square section and working inward, shooting jack rabbits on the way to confuse the coyotes. Roy's self-assigned function: to put wounded jack rabbits out of their misery.
"I guess I must be normal," he says, pondering the old question as to whether hunting is a cruel sport. "I've always been tenderhearted about animals."
It was that sentiment, he thinks, that set him on the search for a rifle that would guarantee an instantaneous kill, with even a misplaced bullet. But long before then he had been interested in rifles. About 1935, when he took up bench-rest shooting and hand-loading, he began studying ballistics in books and pamphlets he obtained from the Government in Washington.