Hunters talk a lot of trash and carry-on dialogues with targeted quarry before, during and after pulling the trigger. It’s just something about animals. We think they know our language or something.
“Nope not this time. Oh, no you don’t!”
“Thought you could sneak past me! Didn’t think I saw you, right?”
“Nah Nah Nah. I was waiting for ya!”
We’ve all engaged in it. It’s just part of our culture. Those who’ve never put meat on the table wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the conversations with dangerous game get downright indignant. Animals will talk some trash back at you, too.
One time in Zambia a Cape buffalo stared me down after I struck him with 750 grains from a .577 Nitro Express. The first shot was slightly off mark, but I know I heard him say to me, “Is that all you got Bwana?” I was so damned bewildered, that my second shot from 25 yards missed him completely. Shot right over him. He just sauntered off into the thick bush.
“The Cape buffalo looks at you as if you owe him money,” Ruark wrote. If that’s the case, I’m not the only one who’s behind on payment. More safari tales have been written about the buffalo than any other African creature. More videos on the internet, more paintings and more pics on Instagram than any other African animal. The Cape buffalo has sold more double rifles than any other member of the dangerous seven.
With an unpredictable temperament, it stands at the top as Africa’s most pursued dangerous game species and rightly so. It’s a five-star attraction. Regardless of the country where you hunt Cape buffaloes, it will charge you if you don’t put it down properly. That challenge is what attracts hunters from throughout the globe to Southern, Central and East Africa.
Capstick described it this way. “He has no weak spots in his natural defenses. He has the eyesight of a cheetah, the hearing of a hypersensitive elephant, and the smelling ability of a bird dog on a damp morning.”
OK I get it, it’s a formidable foe. But that assessment is just not true. Not buying it, and I’ll tell you why.
Capstick’s statement regarding a buff’s deficiency simply doesn’t hold up to today. His description above, from Death in the Dark Continent, was published in 1983. That was a different era. The Cape buffalo does have weak spots. The major difference from 1983 to today? Rifles, bullets and optics are better. With better accuracy, expansion and stopping power, you as the hunter hold the upper hand.
The Cape buffalo is still just as tough as it’s always been since the days of Ruark and Capstick. But today in 2022, the hunter is better: armed, loaded and skilled with even better knowledge of ballistics, coefficients and shot placement. Yet that still doesn’t stop the hunt from going sideways and south sometimes. Below is some field advice on how to avoid that.
STICKS TO YOUR GUNS
Most first shots on Cape buffalo are taken from shooting sticks. Adrenaline, increased heart rate, an awkward rest of the rifle’s forend, and shaky sticks, all contribute to poorly placed bullets from the sticks. These factors account for canting, rushed shots, flinching, lousy trigger control and errors in your grip. A bad miss off the sticks can result in life-threatening consequences if it’s too far off the mark. Buffalo hunting means you chase where they go, the PH plants shooting sticks and you engage the trigger. So how do you get better at shooting off a tripod of wobbly poles?
I corrected my sloppy shot placement from the wooden poles by purchasing my own shooting sticks. I customized the poles to increase stability, added sturdy screw-in footings, additional padding so the rifle’s forend could fit properly in the rest and “taught” the shooting sticks to open to the height of 61 inches. I’m 6-feet 2-inches tall and my preference in the standing position with my feet widened, is to rest the gun 5 feet, 1 inch high in the cradle of the shooting sticks. I’ve traveled with these same shooting sticks back and forth to Africa for 20 years. They disassemble and fit easily in my gun case.
Product manufacturers have crafted better versions of shooting sticks over the years, using stronger material such as fiberglass. It’s essential to practice consistently from the standing position off the sticks prior to your safari, and if you can, bring your own poles to Africa.
CHEWORE RIVER AREA, CHIFUTI SAFARIS
Here I found myself on approach to three exceptional bulls. They never looked at us like we owed them money. Every time they made us, they looked scared and retreated to the safety of the jesse. It was early morning, and we were approaching from the west. The African sunrise can be blinding, especially staring down the scope only to find the sun’s glare before you make out your target. After one failed attempt and now given a second chance, I could see the threesome clearly in the tube.
The biggest one was first in line facing right.
“He’s slightly quartering away,” PH Andrew Dawson whispered to me.
In a hard focus now at 117 yards, I eased the trigger straight back on my Jarrett .375, balancing my unconscious anticipation of the gun’s bark. It thumped me…and the shot felt true. I did not see the impact because my sight picture was thrown out of alignment the moment the gun went off. I told Andrew it “felt perfect,” certain that I’d carried out no lateral trigger pull.
I was shooting a soft-point, so I aimed for the raised muscle, visible on the buff’s right shoulder. This shot will penetrate the heart, destroy arteries and break the shoulder joint. The animal’s targeted leg will buckle and his head will dip, indicative your shot found the mark.
Five minutes later we recovered the buff, piled up at the base of a sturdy bush. He made it 40 yards before taking a dive. When the trackers field dressed the buff, I observed closely the extensive tissue damage caused by that shoulder shot which compromised the heart. Also, next time you have a chance, notice the barrel-like rib cage of the buffalo.
I’m not a fan of the more general, lung, above the shoulder shot. To me it’s like flock-shooting geese. You’re shooting at a nebulous area. Also, the higher you aim on the body of a Cape buffalo, the greater the possibility your bullet strikes long bones from the rib cage which could alter the trajectory of the bullet from finding it true mark, the lungs. This is one of the reasons why I firmly believe hunters mischaracterize the buffalo as having a plate of armor protecting it. They shoot too high and subject their bullet to an unpredictable path once it enters the body cavity.
By my observation, the shoulder-heart bullet placement is a more reliable first shot because the shoulder is fairly unprotected by the rib cage. Furthermore, you can focus attention through your scope on striking an exact spot that offers your projectile a clearer pathway to the animal’s vital organs. Relatively speaking it’s still a large kill zone, roughly the size of a softball. You should be able to hit something within a 4-inch diameter. Even if you do shoot a little high, you’ll likely still be in good shape.
A successful shoulder-heart shot makes it 100 percent impossible for a buffalo to charge you. It’s that guaranteed. From every buffalo charge I have ever watched on video, it’s my assessment that it has resulted from the hunter’s failure to place the shot into the Cape buffalo’s heart.
Twelve years ago, I came out with the first life-size Cape buffalo shooting target. At that time, I had a sufficient sample size of Cape buffaloes that I’d taken, and I could produce and create this product. For every buffalo that I’d taken I also had video, which allowed me to study the animal’s shot reaction to determine the effectiveness of the bullet’s placement. A friend of mine had captured a vivid photograph of a buffalo standing broadside that I used for the target’s image.
My intent is to help other safari hunters enjoy the same success I’ve had on buffs. In this article and in the lifesize target packaging I’m only recommending what has worked for me, which has been achieved through intensive practice and video analysis. If your professional hunter recommends something different, always follow what your PH in the field tells you. The true benefit of the target is to get accustomed to what a real Cape buffalo looks like in your sight picture. By looking at the practice target, hopefully you’ll quickly settle into your comfort zone with minimal anxiety when you see the real thing!
LUKWATI GAME RESERVE, DANNY MCCALLUM SAFARIS
Proficient off shooting sticks, I still prefer a tree rest when I can find one. Look for them on final approach, and they’ll present themselves. But if you’re not cognizant of spotting them, they’ll never come into play. None of this is luck. It’s just field awareness. If a tree rest presents itself, take it.
1. Look for a low hanging sturdy tree branch
2. Look for a horizontal outcropping of a tree, or
3. Brace your off-shooting hand against a tree trunk, resting your gun on your forearm.
All three of these options will provide you a make-shift rest that is more solid and steady than shooting off sticks.
PH Gerard Miller and I were navigating through miombo woodlands in Western Tanzania some years back, glassing a herd of two dozen buffaloes. I needed leopard bait and of course a big chunk would go into the pot. A herd will meander as it grazes, opening and closing different shooting windows, and when the wind is just right you can sneak in close.
We were 91 yards away, concealed within the woodlands and I positioned my .375 on a horizontal angled section of a miombo tree. I waited, waited and waited for Gerard to make his selection. He crouched alongside me and told me to shoot this one specific buffalo in the left shoulder.
We both could see the same thing. A raised patch of hide, illuminated by the sun, that was in the shape of an upside-down snow-cone. It was that muscular protrusion on a buffalo’s shoulder that I’d become familiar with. Gerard calls it a knoll.
“Do you see the knoll on his right shoulder?” Gerard whispered. “It looks like an upside-down snow cone.”
I didn’t expect to be offered a shot like this on just Day 2 of the safari. But I knew it and Gerard knew it, that this was a test; a way for him to evaluate his client. He purposefully left the shooting sticks in the vehicle, so I improvised with the tree as a shooting rest.
“DHATTT!” the Jarrett .375 barked. And while still in my follow through, I felt Gerard’s congratulatory hand pat me on my right shoulder.
“Well done, that’s how you send the mail,” he said. The herd scattered at the sound of the shot before all agreeing to run off to the north.
Gerard and I stayed right where we were, and he proceeded to ask me how I got into safari hunting. After a five-minute conversation about buffalo hunting, he interjected, in his English-Swahili dialect, “Bwana Moja I was testing you: your composure, your field instincts and of course your shot.”
“I kinda figured that,” I offered in response.
“You shattered the snow cone. Let’s go get your buffalo.”
PHs have a knack of productively killing time when you’ve accurately delivered a first shot. They know there’ll be a red trail. The good PHs never want to rush the inevitable, allowing for dignity and mother nature to take its course. I call these moments on safari “storytime.”
Gerard was just so smooth and reserved, immediately segueing into the role of podcast host, recounting a tale of a cheeky encounter with a Masailand buffalo. Storytime consumes the minutes, allowing time for the animal to expire. Gerard proceeded to wrap up his story and Jamesie, our tracker, led us directly to the dead buff about 100 yards away. It never even bellowed.
“You know Bwana Moja, guys make these buffalo a lot harder than they really are.”
TANZANIA BUNDU SAFARIS
Cape buffaloes have not always toppled this way for me. I struggled with one of them, which left me wondering throughout all six shots if they are encased in some sort of impenetrable armored plating. Hunting in a concession near Lolkisale Mountain, I learned a bigger gun won’t necessarily make up for poor shot placement. I had been warned of these “M1 Abrams-like” Masailand buffaloes, and I bought right into the myth!
Finally, when I did put it down after the sixth shot, I told my PH resignedly to finish off the buffalo with his double, because I was convinced my gun was shooting blanks. Upon inspection of the dead animal, I realized I had gut shot him twice. Three other shots had struck high and too far back, all with a .416 Rigby. But for the hour that I chased that buffalo through korongos and grassy plains of Masailand, I was convinced the bullets were just bouncing off him.
There was never anything wrong with the .416 Rigby gun, Swarovski scope or Swift A-frame bullets. It was simply a case of operator error that led to poor shot execution. I made it harder than it really was. If things go sideways, don’t proclaim the animal is armor-plated to explain the adventurous events that unfold in the field — to supplant the reality of poor shot placement. A wounded Cape buffalo will display to you its cunning survival skills, the likes of which I never want to see again. You control what transpires in the bush by how well you shoot.
OKAVANGO DELTA, JOHAN CALITZ SAFARIS
My go-to bullet placement with a double rifle is a neck-vertebrae shot. When carried out properly, it can impact the vertebrae and the scapula bone with the same shot. The scapula bone is shaped like a boat oar extending from the top of the back, down to the neck. The ideal shot location is at the base of the neck just below the middle line. It’s not a widely recommended shot, so review the anatomy chart and consult with your PH before even attempting this.
Hunting with Johan Calitz in Botswana we mokoro’ed through a floodplain along a channel, before stalking a short distance to get in range for a shot. A lone buffalo was grazing on an island’s edge. Known as a “Qwatali bull” in Sotho language, this is Botswana’s version of a dagga boy. The experience gliding stealth-like in a mokoro, spectacular so far, would be wasted if I failed to convert. Upon shot impact, I was certain the animal would retreat into the thickly wooded shrubbery island. But what if I could anchor him right where he’s standing? That would make life easier at this moment. Hippos and crocodiles inhabit these marshy islands and wet reeds in the Okavango Delta as well, and it would be advisable to avoid crossing paths with them if we could.
“Johan are you OK with me making a neck shot?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Take it if you can make it.”
We closed the distance to 92 yards. Ollie our tracker propped up my sticks next to an anthill. The buff living in his solitary world had no sense we were even there. I engaged the back trigger of my Rigby .470 N.E., which fired a 500-grainer through the right-side barrel. The shot severed the buff’s vertebrae at the bottom of the neck. It toppled over, bellowing instantly, once again busting the myth of the kevlar-coated Cape buffalo.
Johan, too, was quite engaging with storytime. None of us were really looking forward to venturing deep into that island to haul out this Qwatali bull, and someone holding a Rigby .470 had eliminated that possibility. All the surrounding villages ate good that night as we disbursed the meat to the neighboring Okavango Deltans.
TAKE A KNEE
On a frontal Cape buffalo shot with a double rifle, given a clear line of sight, I prefer to shoot from the kneeling position. For me, it’s the right knee (firing side) bent down to the ground, left knee (support side) up with lower leg and upper leg bent at a 90-degree angle, with left elbow situated in front of left kneecap. The kneeling position is better than standing because one elbow is supported, instead of neither when standing upright.
When kneeling you’ll find your sight plane close to eye level of your targeted shot placement, which is the center of the Cape buffalo’s chest cavity. Death is not as immediate in either the neck vertebrae shot or the shoulder/heart shot, but when the shot is performed accurately it’s fatal. I recommend a minimum of two additional follow-up shots for the animal to expire when your initial shot comes from the front.
THE UPPER HAND
This entire narrative is designed to bring you home safely and prevent injury to anyone who is part of your hunting entourage. Ninety-nine percent of all mishaps in the field are preventable. The Cape buffalo presents everyone with a challenging hunt, without all the hype. It’s dangerous game for the right reason. No exaggeration needed. By following all the safety rules and carrying an accurate big stick, I want to reemphasize, you always hold the upper hand. The Cape buffalo does have soft points. And when you know its weaknesses, you can whip Black Death every time.
Respect this animal to the extent that you apply every skill in the execution of an accurate first shot. Tough, dangerous and possessing an ability to gore and stomp you? Yes. The stories I’ve shared from my travels, however, prove to you how vulnerable the Cape buffalo can be when you invest the time in shooting practice, educating yourself also in the buff’s anatomy. Although the PH is there to save you and back you up, carry out your shooting responsibilities as if he or she were not even there. If you handle your business properly, the PH should never have to fire a single shot, which is the highest compliment you can bestow upon your professional hunter.
When in pursuit of dangerous game, the stakes will always be high. The challenges bring out the best in you. You got this. Proper investments at the practice range reduce the gamble in the field. And the next time you and I meet, we’ll both talk some trash.
Bwana Moja, also known as Marc Watts, is an international hunter and 30-year journalist. He is a life member of SCI, author of two books and is featured in numerous hunting videos. Bwana Moja was the name given to him in Zambia by a PH and his trackers. It’s Swahili for “Mr. One Shot.”