Chapter 8 - An African Battery

Chapter 8 – An African Battery

An excerpt from my upcoming book –

Life on Safari

Namibia 2008

 

It must be borne in mind that my remarks only refer to African shooting, where much of the country is very open, so open indeed that one’s rifles ought to be carefully sighted up to at least four hundred yards. — Frederick Courteney Selous

 

Today I carry just two guns, both of them side-by-side, double-barreled rifles by the German maker Heym, which has been in business since 1865. Because they are break-action types, they can easily be taken apart, so both guns fit into a fairly small (if heavy) case, convenient for travel. They suit nearly all my hunting, from small antelope like springbok to the most aggressive species—Cape buffalo and lion—and the largest game, from hippo and rhino to giraffe and elephant. Because they are both of the same type, and even made by the same company, the rifles handle the same way, which is convenient and could make all the difference in an emergency when I might not have time to think.

My heavyweight Heym fires the .500 Nitro Express cartridge; it’s my short-range stopper for when a backup shot or two, or three or four, is needed. A double rifle is basically two guns on one stock—two barrels, two actions and two triggers. This lets me fire two shots as quickly as I can hit the triggers, with no need to work a bolt or lever or whatever in between. (And if one side breaks down, I still have the other.)

At close range, double rifles also tend to point and shoot instinctively, more like a shotgun. This can, again, make all the difference in an emergency—a buffalo bursting out of cover with murder on the brain, let’s say.

A break-action double is also very easy and quick to reload, something I’ve learned to do without looking and even while I’m running. Well, trotting, anyway.

I bought the .500 for myself . . . with a lot of help from my late friend Ray Hofman. This is covered in ‘the Hofman’ chapter.

My other Heym is a .300 Winchester Magnum, a somewhat unusual chambering for a double rifle, with a scope on it. This rifle has been in my family for a long time. It never fails to attract attention, at least from people who understand these things.

This rifle came to us in the mid-1980s—an unsettled time in Namibia, when the border war up north was raging and my father’s business in Windhoek, The Gun Shop, was booming. His bulk sales to the police and military were at their peak and the shop was also popular with local customers, both hunters and people who were afraid that in the end they might have to defend hearth and home from guerrilla rebels.

One day a hot-and-bothered PH came stomping into the store with a gun case in hand and a client in tow. The hunter explained that the client had come on a plains-game safari, taken all the species available, and now did not have the money to pay him!

And how may I be of assistance, asked my father?

The PH announced that the client was going to sell his rifle to my father. He opened the case and there lay a beautifully sleek boxlock ejector double rifle with simple engraving, double triggers and a Swarovski scope in detachable claw mounts. And .300 WinMag is perfect for plains game.

In business, my father’s practice was never to make an offer, but rather to ask how much the client wanted for whatever he wished to sell. (A practice I apply today in my business dealings.) The client said he wanted enough to pay for his safari. The PH stood glowering, his arms crossed over his chest, paying close attention.

After a very short discussion, my father acquired the lovely rifle for a bit more than half its value (safari hunting was less expensive in those days) and added it, not to the inventory on the shop floor, but to his own collection.

In all the years that this rifle stood in the cabinet at Rooikraal amongst his prized Mannlicher-Schönauer bolt-actions, I only ever remember a few times when it made an appearance in the field. To my astonishment, my father offered it to Silvio Calabi (the editor of this book) on several safaris, and he and I felled a handful of eland with it, as well as a 57-inch kudu and, just at last light one day, a beefy Hartmann zebra stallion. For the longest time, we could find no mark on this zebra. Finally we realized the bullet had struck precisely the black spot where the stripes met on his chest.

 

On another occasion, we got a call from a cattle rancher who said that a “problem” leopard had killed yet another of his valuable calves. I offered the opportunity to my client, who enthusiastically accepted. We had to get to the ranch before sunset, so in mid-morning we left the hunting field and headed back to the main lodge at Rooikraal for a quick lunch before heading out. By radio on the way back, my father told me—in Afrikaans, our “confidential” language—that the client’s scope was inadequate for shooting in low light and that he would loan the client one of his rifles instead: the Heym. My goodness.

As we neared the lodge, I heard a shot, ahead of us. Getting back on the radio, I announced our imminent arrival to my father, just in case. As the Land Cruiser’s wheels left the track and crunched onto the lodge’s gravel drive, we passed a cardboard box with a target taped to it.

This was common practice. If my father wanted to sight in a rifle, he would tell the gardener to make up a target. Then he’d open the front doors of the lodge, move the hall table into the doorway, as a shooting bench, and put the target at the far end of the long driveway. It was a perfect setup for him, if not so perfect for anyone driving in.

As my open-top Cruiser passed between the target and the lodge, I pointed out to the client my father sitting at his shooting bench in the open doors. He raised the rifle just long enough for us to pass and then, a few seconds later, another shot cracked off, behind us. The client looked at me wide-eyed. I shrugged and said my old man had not yet killed anyone that I knew of. And anyway shooting a client was considered bad form.

But as we reached the house a loud, dull thud! came from the ad-hoc shooting range—more grenade than gunshot. With fingers pushed deep in my ears in case of more gunfire, I made my way down the hallway to the front doors, where I was met with a singular sight: Dust hung in the air like smoke around my father, who was sitting bolt upright with the rifle pointed at the concrete-slab ceiling. He, the table, the walls and floor were covered in dust. Peering around the corner, I asked what the hell happened?

“Nothing!” he snapped. “The rifle is sighted in.”

My father laid down the rifle, pushed his chair back and exited up the stairs to our living quarters. The two-way radio crackled with brief, firm instructions. Minutes later, after a shower to wash off the dust, with pipe in hand he reappeared for lunch. At table, the client started to ask about the noise. I nudged him and shook my head.

By the time lunch was over and we were ready to leave on our problem-leopard adventure, the front doors were closed, the table was back in place, the concrete dust was hoovered up and the .30-caliber hole in the ceiling patched. The only trace of anything unusual was the smell of wet paint. The maintenance team had swooped in and performed an ask-no-questions emergency repair.

The leopard never returned to its kill. By the time the client and I got back home that night, I’d built up the courage to ask my father what happened.

He said it was a stupid mistake. Having fired one barrel of the rifle, he made a final adjustment to the scope. Then, with the safety off and the other barrel still loaded, he tapped the side of the scope with a small rubber hammer, like the old folk used to do, to “set” the adjustments. With the first tap, the shot went off. Fortunately, the rifle was pointed at the ceiling. My father shook his head in disbelief that this could have happened to him.

Many years later, the patch in the entrance hall ceiling is still there, and I look up and smile every time I walk under it.

After my father’s passing, in 2015, the “little” Heym came to me and I now proudly carry it on all my plains-game safaris. And yes, it is accurate to 400 yards, as Selous recommends—with a qualification.

Such accuracy is unusual in a double rifle, but Heym was clever about it. Most doubles are big-bores meant for close-up use on large game, so “regulating” their barrels (adjusting both to hit the same spot) isn’t that difficult because the intended target is relatively big and the range is short. But this rifle fires a medium-size cartridge that, with the right bullet and in the right hands, is brilliant on plains game out to 500 yards or so. How did Heym get two barrels to shoot that accurately at such range?

They didn’t. They knew it wasn’t possible, so instead they concentrated on only the right barrel for accurate shooting at very long range and gave it a set trigger—what some people call a hair trigger.

In ordinary use, the two triggers on the rifle function normally: Squeeze the front one to fire the right barrel and the back trigger for the left barrel. But for precise, deliberate shooting from a rest at long range, pushing the front trigger slightly forward until it clicks changes the trigger pull (the pressure needed to fire a shot) from five pounds to less than five ounces.

The back trigger doesn’t have this option. If you miss a long shot, better to reload the right barrel and try again rather than fire the left barrel.

My editor got in trouble with this feature one day. We had a shot at an oryx grazing at 165 yards. He “set” the front trigger, laid the rifle into the shooting sticks, and leaned into the scope. The oryx moved. We repositioned the sticks and the process started over again. At the shot, the oryx simply disappeared—or so it seemed when Silvio came back into the scope.

“What happened? Where’d he go?”

“He’s right there, lying in the bush. He didn’t move.”

When we changed position, Silvio forgot he’d set the trigger. As he came down onto the target, he’d begun his trigger squeeze, timing it to the moment the crosshairs settled on the oryx’s shoulder. Instead, the rifle fired early, on the way down, and the bullet hit the spine rather than the heart. As spine-shot animals do, the oryx just collapsed in its tracks.

I’ve always wondered if it was the set trigger that got my father in trouble with that accidental discharge.

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Photography by: Jofie Lamprecht