How to Choose Ammunition When Hunting Large, Dangerous Game Animals

Hornady 450 Ammo and Box

When choosing ammunition for a particular game animal, the terminal performance of the round you choose is extremely important. Winchester has developed (and trademarked) their CXP (Controlled eXpansion Performance) scale which is used to rate ammunition performance on various types of game. Dangerous game animals, classified as CXP4, are generally thick-skinned African game animals such as hippopotamus, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo, and can weigh anywhere from 1,000 pounds up to 13,000 pounds or more for large male elephants. As such, when hunting these species, you will need to choose your caliber wisely. So how do you pick the right ammunition when you’re hunting for large, dangerous game?

The Bare Minimum

The .375 H&H Magnum is generally considered to be a bare minimum for hunting dangerous CXP4 class game. In fact, in Africa, the .375 H&H Magnum is the smallest caliber legally allowed for hunting. Loaded with a 300-grain projectile, the cartridge develops a muzzle velocity exceeding 2,600 FPS, which results in a muzzle energy of approximately 4,600 ft-lbs (around 6,500 joules). The .375 is very popular with hunters due to its flat shooting characteristics; given a 200 yard zero, bullet drop is only 8.5 inches at 300 yards with a trajectory peak of 2 inches at 100 yards, which makes it very easy to calculate your hold over.

The Most Famous and Widely Used Cartridge

Probably the most famous and widely used cartridge is the traditional .470 Nitro Express. This round, developed by the British for their double rifles, replaced the Eley brothers .450 Nitro Express cartridge which is banned in several countries. The newer, bottlenecked .470 round pushes a 500-grain “freight train” of a bullet to velocities exceeding 2100 FPS at the muzzle, generating more than 5,000 ft-lbs (nearly 7,000 joules) of force.

There are a number of intermediate-sized cartridges such as the .416 Remington Magnum, and the .458 Lott. The .458 Lott is a recently developed cartridge intended to replace the relatively underpowered .458 Winchester Magnum by Jack Lott, a popular gun writer at the time. Lott had the unpleasant experience of having a .458 Winchester Magnum fail to stop a charging Cape buffalo. This life-threatening encounter prompted him to design a replacement round based on a .375 H&H Magnum case. The new .458 Lott brass was slightly longer than the Winchester Magnum, enabling it to be loaded with more powder and giving the bullet an extra 300 FPS. It wasn’t until 2002, however, when Hornady began manufacturing the ammunition on a large scale commercial basis that the cartridge gained popularity. Ruger chambered a new rifle for the Lott, the M77RSM Mark II, which soon became very popular with hunters in Africa. The .458 Lott manages to launch a 500-grain projectile out of a 24″ barrel with a muzzle velocity of 2300 FPS, giving it muzzle energy exceeding 5,100 ft-lbs (almost 7,000 joules), making its overall performance as good, or greater, than the popular .470 Nitro Express.

The Largest Cartridge

One of the largest cartridges in common use today is the .505 Gibbs. This monster cartridge is capable of taking down even the largest African game; only the .500 Jeffrey round is more powerful than the Gibbs. Loaded with a 600 grain Australian Woodleigh bullet the Gibbs generates 2,100 FPS muzzle velocity and 5,877 ft-lbs of energy. The Gibbs was made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who wrote and talked about it often. It was favored by one of Hemingway’s characters, Robert Wilson, in the story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

It Depends On the Type of Game Being Hunted

Selecting bullets for these dangerous game cartridges depends on the type of game being hunted. By and large, solid bullets are preferred due to their excellent penetration. They are absolutely necessary for headshots on the largest game, such as elephants and cape buffalo. Soft pointed and lead core bullets are only suitable for lung shots, as they rapidly deform from the heavy thick skin of large African game and do not penetrate fully. Expanding bullets for large African game must be well constructed to retain weight and remain intact upon impact.

Examples of suitable soft bullets include

  • Trophy Bonded Bear Claw
  • A-Square
  • Barnes Triple Shock X Bullet

It’s critically important to select a caliber you are capable of shooting and is also capable of stopping dangerous game animals. Using a caliber that is too large can result in flinching or anticipating recoil and pulling the shot; too small and your quarry may not drop.

When hunting dangerous game, your life may very well depend on the ammunition you select.

What ammunition do you use when hunting big game? Have a question about what to use? Share in the comments section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (6)

  1. If the 300 Weatherby is your biggest rifle by all means take it. If you have a choice I would recomend a larger caliber gun. My two big game rifles are a Mod 70 in 300HH and a McMillan Alaskan Talon in 416 Rigby. (ya I like the old traditional calibers) The 300 has done a fine job for me on moose but no exit hole on broadside shots at 200 yards I have been on 3 Brown bear hunts, passed over quite a few holding out for a 9 footer. You will spend a lot of time walking through thick cover on bear trails. I have 3 times been withing 40 yards of bears we did not want to shoot. Once a sow with a cub flushed off the trail in front of us. What I saying is a good body hit at close range is chancy, you don’t want to just break a sholder you want to pulverize it fragments if the dodo hits the fan. I have shot eland kudo, cape buff and sable with the 416 and mule deer, caribou, US antlope and several african with the 300. I currently load my own for most hunting, 416 I use 350Gr A-frames at 2775fps for general hunting as I like the flater shooting. I would use 410gr weldcores if I was just hunting dangerus IE Buff, Brown Bear and Lion. I load 200 gr A-frames @ 2875 in the 300 for most everything else.
    good luck

  2. David – I think a Weatherby .300 would be fine for an Alaskan Brown Bear with good shot placement, and the 200 gr TSX has more than adequate performance. The S&W 460V with a 5″ barrel is definitely on my list as an appropriate backup gun while in bear territory, though I might also consider the S&W 500 as well. Pretty much any S&W X-Frame revolver is going to be able to handle most threats in the Alaskan back-country.

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