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L. Neil Smith's
Number 591, October 11, 2010

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A Gun for Buffalo
by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

[Note: this article first appeared on my blog, "L.Neil Smith at Random" at]

That's it: I have made up my mind. In November of next year (provided that there is a next year), I'm going to hunt and kill a buffalo. I know where I'm going to do it (in Wyoming), I know how much it will cost (much less than I thought), and I've always wanted to do it.

Wikipedia says "bison" and "buffalo" are equally correct, with philological seniority going to the latter. The animals can stand 6'6" tall, weigh 2500 pounds, and the "woods" variety are the largest wild cattle in North America. The animals available to me will most likely be somewhat smaller. It's said that a derringer bullet, fired under a poker table, will be stopped cold by a buffalo coat. A good thing to know.

Some obstacles stand in the way. The first is my health, which could be better. I have a foot it's difficult (but not impossible) to walk on. I have most of the problems associated with diabetes. I'll have to get a thorough examination to make damn sure my heart is up to it. Although I'm 64 years old, I don't believe I look it (Y, as the saying goes, MMV), I certainly don't think it, but I really do feel it from time to time. Jeff Cooper once observed that if you're over 50 and you wake up in the morning and nothing hurts, it's because you're dead.

Sometimes I feel like I'm 164.

There is the matter of scratch. Although the hunt is going to cost only a quarter of what I anticipated, it's still a lot of money. Same for processing, and saving the head and pelt. Don't know where we'll hang the former, but the latter goes on the bed. I shudder to think about the price per pound of the resulting meat. Not, I fear, terribly economical.

I have a couple of new books coming out this year, and several in the planning stages. This November, during NaNoWriMo, I'll interrupt Ares either to write a new North American Confederacy novel (a Win Bear murder mystery—featuring Clarissa and their two daughters—concerning Confederate baseball) or the first sequel to my new vampire novel Sweeter Than Wine, which I intend to call Only the Young Die Good—or a murder mystery featuring Eichra Oren, Sam, and Mr. Thoggosh.

You, my friends and readers, could probably help by buying lots of books, but I'm far too classy to point that out, especially since you're already doing it. For my part, I'll make sure that lots of pictures get taken, and the hunt will find its way into something I write. Maybe I'll do a magazine article or three—it's been a long time.

There's only one question—a very pleasant one—remaining, and it's the principal reason I'm writing this article. I have three big rifles that I believe are suitable for buffalo. Which one should I take?

You can kill a large animal with practically anything if you can get close and do a good job of placement. There used to be an Indian woman in this county (or Siberian-American, if you prefer) who ran mule deer down on foot—it isn't impossible; they're sprinters, have no concept of long-range purpose; a determined jogger can tire them out in a relatively short time—and killed them with a big kitchen knife.

Famous African hunters didn't always use big-caliber guns. Walter Dalrymple Maitland "Karamojo" Bell took a thousand of his 1500 or so elephants with a 7x57mm Mauser. Pygmies killed elephants by running under them with a blunderbuss, shooting them in the belly at contact range. Before they had European blunderbusses they used short-handled spears.

Famous entrepreneur George Leonard Herter, whose greatest (and funniest) advertising slogan was "You won't live long enough to wear out this derringer" was always killing things with his latest catalog offering. I believe he took an Alaskan grizzly with the .401 Herter Powermag revolver he invented. We need to recreate that very useful offering.

When it comes to choosing calibers, though, I'll take big, having seen too many deer run off to die, wounded by rifles of .30 caliber or less. One of those was mine, a buck I shot at 80 yards with a Savage Model 99 take-down chambered for .250-3000. I think about it all the time. The famous scientist Roy Chapman Andrews carried a .250 Savage just like mine all over the world and killed thousands of specimens with it, including, believe it or not, a blue whale. Either Andrews was a better man than I am, or he never talked about the ones that got away.

I have a CZ-550 Magnum bolt action Mauser rifle chambered for .416 Rigby, a wonderful beltless magnum invented for magazine rifles in 1911 (a very good year) by the brilliant English gunmaker John Rigby. It will hurl a 410-grain bullet downrange at 2650 feet per second, to generate some 6393 foot pounds of energy. I'm not sure if my "efficacy scale" applies to long guns, but this load produces an "F-number" of 869.

.45 Auto is a 69.

I also have some 300-grain custom loads at 2975 fps: 5895 ft/lbs and an F-number of 801. They travel flatter—the same trajectory as a 165-grain .30-06 bullet, by design—but they're absolute hell to shoot, easily the worst recoil I have ever experienced in my life. The rifle is big and heavy, but it has great sights and a fancy single-set trigger.

Another excellent choice (and there are some bullet options here, as well) is my "sporterized" military Brno 98 Mauser, also Czech-made, which began as a "wildcat" project—meaning that you have to make your own ammunition for it, because no factory does—and with the guidance and help of my friend, gunsmith Roger Owen, took ten long years to complete, by which time the cartridge, the time-honored and distinguished .35 Whelen, had at last become a standard commercial offering.

The simplest way to make a wildcat cartridge is to squeeze down or open up the neck of a factory cartridge to accept a different-sized bullet (for a different-sized barrel, of course). The old, familiar .30-06 has been the parent of many a wildcat cartridge, and not a few of them have graduated to become commercial offerings. My wife's .270 Winchester is an example, the .308" of the "Ought-Six" reduced to .277", which may not seem like much, but makes a hell of a difference, ballistically.

The Whelen cartridge goes the other way, from .308" to .358". The two best bullets weigh 250 grains and 225. For mathematical reasons I won't go into here, unless somebody asks me to, my choice is the 225 (again, in part, because it duplicates the flight-path of the best .30-06 bullet). But I may have to recalculate where American Bison are concerned.

The 250-grain round-nosed bullet moves out at 2623 fps, yielding 3535 ft/lbs and an F-number of 356 (I actually have some doubts about these factory numbers that I won't go into here). The 225-grain, which is a real peach, ballistically, gives us 2613 fps, 3412 ft/lbs, and an F-number of 343 which I believe is a bit more realistic. The excellent pointed, "boat-tailed" 225 reaches further and retains more of its energy.

It's said that the .35 Whelen is good for any big game in North America and would probably work for elephant except that most African countries require .375 caliber. The rifle itself, a barrelled military action with a "ghost ring" rear sight in a fine Ramline injection molded stock is relatively light and handles well, despite its army trigger.

My third choice for hunting buffalo is the lever action Marlin Model 1895CB (for "cowboy") I waited many years to acquire, a 26"- barrelled rifle, not a carbine, bored for .45/70, a cartridge first introduced in 1873. The tubular magazine beneath its barrel holds nine rounds. It has a very good ghost-ring rear sight and a hooded front sight.

The .45/70 is a cartridge that won't lie down and die, but keeps coming back, every time somebody needs a heavy hitter in dense brush. I gather it's popular with today's cowboy competition shooters. I fired my first .45/70 from a trapdoor Springfield 45 years ago, at a gooseberry bush that was 1800 yards away, and actually hit the bush. On the prairie, although it wasn't the favorite of commercial hunters, it has probably killed more buffalo than any other cartridge still in use.

Bullets for .45/70 range in weight from 500 grains, through the classic military 405, down to 300. I use the last weight, a jacketed softpoint, because it shoots flatter than any other in this caliber. The Federal commercial load runs at 1880 fps (yes, it seems turtle- slow to me, too) yielding 2354 ft/lbs with an F-number of 388. It may seem like the weakest reed here, but its unfired bullet diameter is what all good little bullets want to achieve by expanding in a big game animal. Its historic track record with buffalo is truly astonishing.

The Marlin 1895CB has the best handling qualities of anything I own, shoots straight and hard, and has surprisingly mild recoil. It has twice the magazine capacity of the other rifles in this essay, although this isn't combat, and it shouldn't count when hunting for sport.

So what should it be? The great African .416 Rigby, the home brewed .35 Whelen, or the venerable .45/70? Which one would you choose?

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Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of more than 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas is currently running as a free weekly serial at

Neil is presently at work on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Where We Stand: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis with his daughter, Rylla.

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