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Stopping Power

This was not the bull we had been after. His ivory was a little shorter, though perhaps a touch thicker; but he meant business, this was no demonstration, and as he had seen us and started his charge from 70 paces, there was little chance in that fairly open bush of our being able to duck out of sight. “Shoot!” I shouted.

A bush momentarily obscured his head, so waiting until he cleared it, I threw up my .458 and found that I could not see my sights! The leaf of the Mauser safety was still in the 90-degree upright position, half on, and blocking the aperture rear sight. Now, this never happens, one never thinks about the safety, one’s thumb just automatically flicks it off as the rifle comes up—but this one time the computer had slipped a cog. Because of this SNAFU, Alec got off his shot with the .375 first, and the elephant was already dropping as I fired. The bull remained for a moment with his front legs collapsed and his head on the ground, but with his hindquarters normally upright, and then started to get up again. Obviously we had both missed the brain, as we gave him a couple more shots and put him down for good.

Frederick Courtenay Selous, famous old elephant hunter and a splendid writer and naturalist, told of shooting an already wounded elephant with a muzzleloading 4-Bore that in the excitement had been double-loaded by his gunbearer. The double charge knocked Selous flat, temporarily paralyzed his right arm, and threw the gun many feet behind him. It stopped but did not knock down the elephant, who stood there for twenty minutes while the gunbearer massaged Selous’ shoulder. As soon as he had regained sufficient use of his arm, Selous had another shot at the beast (they bred them tough in those days!), but on receiving that ball the elephant just moved off again, and they never found it.

In contrast, the equally famous W.D.M. “Karamoja” Bell dropped hundreds of elephants with just one shot each from his little Rigby 7x57mm. What gives? Elephant can be dropped in their tracks with a light bullet in the brain, a charge was stopped with a .375 in the head that missed the brain, yet another elephant went off with four ¼-pound balls in his body, having absorbed in excess of 20,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. So what is stopping power—is there in fact any such thing?

If we define stopping power as the ability to stop a charging animal before it gets close enough to base, chew or claw the hunter, then yes, there is such a thing, but it involves two main factors: the rife/cartridge combination and the shooter.

If you are a cool, quick and accurate enough shot to be able to hit the brain or spine always, under any circumstances, as Bell proved, the 7x57mm has all the stopping power you could possible need. Very few of us however are anywhere near that good, and we need all the help the other half of the equation can give us.

Though no sporting rifle cartridge so far produced will stop, say, a charging buffalo with a body shot every time, some will give you more of an edge than others. The conventional way of judging the power of different cartridges is by comparing their kinetic energies as expressed in foot-pounds of muzzle energy. But whether this is the best way to judge stopping power is open to serious argument.

John Taylor, last of the old-style ivory hunters, felt that it was not; he considered the momentum plus a factor for bore diameter gave a better comparison, and came up with a table of “Knock-Out” values using the formula:

Bullet weight (grains) x velocity (f.p.s.) x bore diameter (ins.)         7000

He specifically stipulated that his KO values applied only to “…bluff-nosed solid bullets used against heavy, massive-boned animals,” and thought that where soft-point bullets were being used against thin-skinned non-dangerous game, kinetic energy probably gave a closer approximation.

I don’t know who one could ever devise an experiment to prove it, but my experience tens to indicate that John Taylor was right, and I believe that the majority of professional hunters would agree that with a body shot on buffalo or a head shot on elephant that missed the brain, the .577 would be more likely to stop a charge than a .460 WM, or the .458—or even .416—than the .378 WM, despite Weatherby cartridges’ greater kinetic energy.

Interestingly, when General Julian Hatcher was working on stopping power in pistols, he came to the same conclusion, and his formula for “Relative Stopping Power” is based on momentum rather than energy.

Cartridge Bullet Weight (grs.) Muzzle Velocity (f.p.s.) Muzzle Energy (ft.-lbs.) KO Value
.577 N.E. 750 2050 7020 127
.500 N.E. 570 2150 5850 87.5
.460 WM 500 2700 8095 87
.458 Win. Mag. 500 2130 5040 68.5
.416 Taylor 400 2400 5144 57
.378 WM 300 2925 5700 47
.375 H&H 300 2550 4330 41
.338 Win. Mag. 300 2450 4000 35.5
.300 Win Mag. 220 2720 3620 25.5
7×57 mm 173 2300 2040 15.5

John Taylor also said that no one should ever hunt dangerous game with a rifle giving a KO value of less than 40, and basically I would have to agree; all else being equal, the more power the better. But of course things are not equal, and matters like gun-weight and recoil come into it.

That old .577 Nitro Express double rifle weighted about 14 pounds and, except for the very strongest of men, it must have been noticeably slower to swing into action than something like a 10-pound .465; also it probably took a few split-seconds longer to recover from its recoil and get off a second shot. I think that is why the .470 and .465 were the most popular calibers in the double rifle era, and why the .458 is by far the most popular stopping rifle in Africa today—they had about the right balance between power, recoil, weight, and quickness of handling for the average man.—Finn Aagaard

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