As one grows older and wider (I mean wiser), he learns to exercise far more critical discrimination in his acceptance of other people’s opinions, especially when those people profess to be foremost authorities on the subject. When I learned that medical doctors are garage mechanics chronically afflicted with clean fingernails and enlarged egos, that global environmental scientists are half-educated political activists with a knack for rationalization, that gunwriters are capable of building the most elaborate and convoluted theory on the smallest perceptible grain of subjective truth, I pretty much stopped listening to anything any of them had to say. After all, if you don’t like some foremost authority’s opinion, like Texas weather, you can wait a few minutes and it will change.
So when I decided that my all-time favorite fantasy of knocking down a charging Cape buffalo was still far enough in the distant future to be safe, I thought it was time to start getting ready for it. Test out a few theories old and new as well as a couple of my own.
I knew that the 30-06 was nowhere near the limits of my recoil tolerance, as I had already bestowed that title on a .50 BMG fired offhand, muzzlebrake and all. Since I fully accept the tradition that no self-respecting African hunter would shoot anything with a muzzlebrake on it, I decided that something generating about half as many foot-pounds of energy as a .50 BMG would be acceptable, thus arriving at the .500 Jeffery. It could have been a .500 Nitro Express, which delivers almost as much kinetic energy as the Jeffery, or some other double-rifle cartridge except for the fact that my getting-ready preparations did not include running down to the hardware store to buy a Holland and Holland. What my budget did easily cover was the free loan of a Ruger No. 1 from Gary Reeder (www.reedercustomguns.com), who personally prefers shooting all of his Cape buffalo with pistols anyway.
The one-of-a-kind monster Reeder loaned me is an example of his “Big 5 Classic” series of customized African guns. It’s a two-tone Ruger No. 1 with a heavy stainless steel barrel and satin black frame, both engraved with African game animals. It wears a barrel-band blade sight on the front and a ghost ring aperture on the rear. Reeder added extra weight to the shoulder stock in the form of lead shot to bring the total up to 9.5 pounds. He also installed an extra heavy duty Decellerator recoil pad.
The gun was originally made for a customer who was apparently also getting ready for Syncerus caffer. He picked up the rifle and 20 rounds of ammo on a Monday and brought the rifle and 19 rounds of ammo back on Tuesday, wanting to trade for something a little more manageable. Quite a bit more manageable, recalls Reeder.
Not many of the doomsaying gunwriters I used to read had much use for single-shot hunting rifles. The bolt-men constantly referred to them as “obsolete,” certainly since the Garand if not since the Mauser. The double-men simply considered them “suicide,” with far better reasoning, although experienced African hunters like Taylor and Selous occasionally used them on dangerous game without incident. Of course, all of these experts of the time would have found Gary Reeder’s preference for the six-shooter unthinkable.
The .500 Jeffery was intended as a magazine cartridge, one even a touch more powerful than the .505 Gibbs or anything else that could be squeezed into a magnum Mauser action. For a long time, the .500 Jeffery was the most powerful round for bolt-actions in the world, until it was barely nudged out of first place by the .460 Weatherby Magnum. Actually, there is some debate as to whether England’s .500 Jeffery is really Germany’s 12.5x70mm Schuler, since the two cartridges are absolutely identical and no one can prove which came first. Of course all these monster cartridges work fine in single-shots, at least in the Ruger.
One of the most important gunwriters in my library at the time of my youth -– John Taylor, Great White Hunter of historic proportions and author of African Rifles & Cartridges –- had some awfully nice things to say about the .500 Jeffery:
“This is the most powerful sporting magazine rifle that has ever been placed on the market. It’s a glorious weapon, and very easy and pleasant to handle and shoot. I used three of these rifles at different times, trying them out for their owners, and each time told myself that I simply must get one for myself … As with the .505, I was most pleasantly surprised at the lightness of the recoil, no normally constituted hunter would be worried by it in the slightest. I found it a most accurate cartridge and killed several elephant, rhino and buffalo with it, but cannot find any record of the numbers shot; all I can remember is, that no beast got away from me when I was using any one of these three .500’s, I killed all I shot. It’s an immensely powerful weapon.”
Well, naturally considering myself a normally constituted hunter, I was ready to go. I could hardly wait to be pleasantly surprised at the lightness of the recoil of my very slightly used .500 Jeffery.
Reeder loaded me up some practice ammo with 435-grain cast lead bullets along with the 19 leftover rounds of 535-grain softpoints. Of course, I would use solids on the real beast in question, but it was going to be hard enough rounding up soggy phone books in sufficient number to slow down a couple of softpoints and lead slugs. The lead bullets were loaded a little hotter than the 2400 feet-per-second of the British factory load to compensate for their lighter weight. A close enough approximation, I figured. After all, when your body is lit up with adrenaline and whatever other kinds of natural juices may come to your aid at the last possible moment, you aren’t going to feel the difference in a few grains of lead or powder or a few feet-per-second of velocity or foot-pounds of kinetic energy here and there, are you?
I didn’t notice the warning label engraved on the barrel of the gun (an obscene practice invented by Ruger lawyers and which Reeder had wisely not included on his custom barrel) that might have read, “Fire ONLY when your body is lit up with adrenaline and whatever other kinds of natural juices may come to your aid at the last possible moment.”
It might have added, “Not meant to be fired under extreme conditions, such as when stone-cold sober, unimpaired in any way, calm and relaxed, gazing peacefully downrange at a perfectly harmless paper target.” Taking a punch in the heat of a fight is one thing. Standing there and letting some guy hit you cold in the nose is another.
Those same gunwriters I referred to earlier used to speak of the importance of controllability in a rifle. Well, I found the Jeffery eminently controllable right up to the point where you pull the trigger. After that it’s pretty much a matter of hanging on. It reminds me of a statement Chuck Yeager once made with which I’ve always heartily agreed and which goes something like this: astronauts are not test pilots, they’re space monkeys. Having launched two massive projectiles, one of which was myself, through the deliberate exercise of my own personal will, decision-making capabilities, physical manipulations and a certain level of skill, but having been launched nevertheless, I now know what it feels like to be a little bit of both.
All in all, the recoil of the Jeffery really wasn’t all that bad. Like most heavy rifles pushing big bullets at a reasonable rate of speed, it didn’t hurt. Not like some of the California-type hot rod magnums that push big bullets at an unreasonable rate of speed. It did, however, let you know that it was capable of shoving you around pretty much wherever it wanted you if you weren’t braced for it.
As for a second shot, well, I didn’t even try to lever the empty shell out of the gun in the midst of full recoil, and even if I could have managed that maneuver I’d still not likely get a second round shoved into the chamber fast enough to stop a charging Cape buffalo unless he were charging in the other direction. This is a single-shot that means it.
Maybe if I practiced that thing Capstick talked about where he juggled asparagus-shaped Nitro Express shells between the fingers of his left hand and contemplated a reload while a Syncerus caffer with its heart blown out continued to charge. But then, I seem to remember that Capstick always had two shells to juggle, not one.
In the meantime, here are a few things I learned in my little session with the .500 Jeffery :
Prepare to get black and blue in your preparations for Africa’s black death.
The Ruger No. 1 has a great stock that soaks up tons of recoil, but you’ll still need a solid stance or the Jeffery will knock you off balance and could even push you over.
That big bullet penetrated five big-city phone books (that’s all we had), creating so much trauma nobody may ever advertise in the yellow pages again, after which it disappeared into a large pine log endwise where it will surely never be recovered. Penetration is important on African game, which are said to be even tougher than big-city phone books.
Oh, by the way, that .500 Jeffery is still for sale.