The Most Powerful Rifles on Earth


Both gladiators knew the enemy was nearby, but neither knew the other’s exact position. The jungle was so thick visibility was limited to a few feet, turning the battle into hand-to-hand combat. To one of the warriors, the choking thorns and seething heat were no obstacles, for he was 12 feet tall and weighed 6 tons. He did not bother to look because his sight was poor. Instead, he searched with his sense of smell and radar-like ears. His opponent was puny and harmless. Yes, he could see better, but compared to the elephant, he could not feel nor hear. They both stood in absolute silence, sensing and thinking. One or the other, or both, were about to die.

The battle did not begin with the rising sun, instead of a breeze too small to feel brought the polluted air to the bull elephant’s trunk and told him where the hated man stood. That was all he needed. He did not trumpet or perform but laid his head back and charged – and roared as only a killing bull elephant can roar. Under normal circumstances the insignificant man would become a red mess in the dust; it would have been that way even if he’d had a regular rifle. There was a small edge: He held the most powerful rifle known.

Gray elephant skin appeared at 20 feet, mixed with rending timber, boiling dust and a roar that shook the fibers of his soul. The 22-pound rifle boomed like a thunderclap. It burned 400 grains of powder and drove 2,000 grains of lead toward the center of the locomotive. A blinding cloud of white smoke enveloped both the man and the elephant; for seconds everything hung in a fog-shrouded balance. Mayhem was replaced by the original silence, silence as deep and quiet as the smoke itself.

The hunter knew he was still alive, but that was about all he could discern. The bull was somewhere close enough to touch. As the smoke began to clear he could make out a shadowy outline, the swaying head of the monster that towered over him. The gigantic rifle had made the match even; it delivered a blow that made the bull stop and sway from side to side. The hunter needed to move from beneath the stunned bull and finish the war. Huge barrels pointed nearly vertically, drove their recoil down onto his shoulder. The blow was just short of damaging to the man and fatal to the elephant. The bull’s hind quarters settled first before his head, and massive shoulders rolled over.

And so it has been since men first began to travel to Africa and India to hunt the big game of the world. There were hunts, and there were wars. The game was immensely powerful and determined. Elephant, rhino, buffalo, seeding, and guar needed all the power a human being could control. To that end, there were four great rifles – two from the black-powder era and two nitrous. They had one thing in common: They were the most powerful rifles men could handle. They pushed the very edges of human ability.

The “weakling” of the lot, believe it or not, was an eight gauge. It used only 250 to 275 grains of powder and 2- or 3-ounce bullets. Its big brother, the four gauge, was perhaps the mightiest rifle of all time, but it was not as effective as either of its “modern” counterparts. With the perfection of nitro powders and jacketed bullets, the .577 and .600 nitrous became the ultimate fight stoppers. Before we go on this beautiful ride with the super-powers, we should pause for a moment to understand why many other rifles are not part of the story.

Many shooters will immediately ask why the “mighty” things like the various .475 belted whatzits, my own.585 Nyati or even the .700 Nitro is not on the list. In the case of the many big-bore wildcat cartridges, we give them credit for being very powerful and useful but dismiss them because they gain fame with paper energy.

They drive relatively small (600 grains or less) bullets at high velocity. Their kinetic energy (KE) numbers are impressive, but in a pitched battle with a bull elephant, they simply lack the sledgehammer blow of the big bores. The .700 Nitro and things like my Nyati are immediately disqualified, not on the grounds of power, but experience. They have not “been there and done that.” The four big rounds in question fought the battles over a century of time, while the others are just pretenders.

We begin in the black-powder era with the 4 and 8. They both began life as muzzleloaders and were readily adopted into centerfire, breech-loading rifles. No, these are not shotguns, but rifles with rifled bores just like our familiar small bores. The only real difference is one of size.

The “gauge” designation refers to the number of round, pure lead balls the exact size of the bore it would take to weigh a pound. Here there was a bit of literary license and a good bit of variation. The eight was pretty close to true. The most common 8-gauge rifle used paper cases, like shotgun cases, and .835 inch diameter bullets or balls. It was a true eight bore. A larger version, using thin brass cases wanted .875-inch bullets and was, in reality, a seven bore.

There are very few actual 4-bore rifles because it takes a colossal 1.035-inch bore to create the quarter-pound ball. Instead, most are “paper-based” and use a bullet around .975 inch, which makes them five gauges, but who is to argue. In this realm, there is plenty of horsepowers to go around.

The eight gauge was, believe it or not, a pretty standard working rifle in the mid- to late-1800s. One old hunter even used a big eight as a general duty rifle, hunting mountain game and everything else. He used it like we would a .30-06 today. The most common kind was a double with hammers. Lighter rifles weighed 12 pounds, and normal ones were in the 15- to 17-pound range. The lightest bullets available were roundballs, 2 ounces or about 875 grains. Some rifles used heavier conical bullets, weighing around 1,200 grains.

Cases varied also, but normal was 3 1/4 inches, with some being as long as 4 inches. The big cases held a lot of powder, with a normal charge being 10 drams or 275 grains! As you can imagine, the horsepower output was significant. The roundballs approached 1,600 fps with the big conicals rumbling along at 1,300 to 1,500 fps, depending on the charge.

The 8-gauge rifles were near the limit of most hunters. That is, the weight of the rifles made carrying them all day tiring. Of course, it was not enough just to carry the rifle; a hunter needed to be able to handle it quickly and accurately even after many miles under broiling African or Indian sun. Recoil also approached the limits of most. While they did not “hurt” the shooter, the sheer force made a quick second shot difficult for all but the most capable. But, the eight bore was just a baby. It had a big brother, a rifle that was almost twice as powerful and effective!

Four-gauge rifles stood and still stand in a league all their own. It takes a powerful man just to shoulder and sight one, let alone manage it. The four bores are very rare – surely less than 100 exist. Most are doubles weighing 20 to 24 pounds. Singles are incredibly rare, perhaps less than ten on earth. They are, in their way, delightful because they are lighter and more manageable than the huge doubles, weighing in around 18 pounds. These, the greatest of all rifles, are monumental in every way. They have a chunky appearance because the barrels are usually short, between 20 and 26 inches. The short barrels, combined with the thick (often nearly 4-inch) receivers, make the 4s look a lot like a Sumo wrestler.

They are heavy for a reason; they are powerful! The metal must contain the tremendous strain of the charge and breech thrust, and they must have enough mass to keep the recoil from crushing the shooter. As it is, they generate well over 200 foot-pounds, something special when you realize that a .458 Winchester only backs up with a gentle 56-pound shove.

While we are on the subject of recoil, the unknowing will tell you that the big rifle’s recoil is “only a big push.” Those soothsayers have not fired a heavy. Note that the four bore has at least ten times the recoil of a .30-06 moving at twice the velocity! Perhaps they push, but they push a lot like a freight train.

Most 4-bore rifles use a 4-inch long case, and the “light” load was 12 drams of high powder. The heavy load was 14 drams, and occasionally rifles were regulated for a full ounce, or 16 drams, of black gunpowder. When that charge is behind bullets of 1,500 to 2,000 grains, we begin to grasp the meaning of real power.

It is difficult to correctly describe firing a 4-bore rifle. My best description is monumental, almost frightening. The blast from the powder charge is noticeable as is the jarring heave of the recoil. The recoil cycle is long and heavy, forcing nearly every shooter I know to take a step backward. You do not try to overpower a 4, doing so would almost certainly cause something to break. Instead, you must roll with the punch. Firing one is – a lot of fun!

In its working days, the four bore was usually a “reserve” rifle, used to do the backup work behind a second eight bore. Also, when the uniquely valuable, tough and dangerous game, like the gigantic Indian gaur (a bison of more than a ton, 6 feet at the shoulders and second mean) was the prize, hunters saluted them with the four bore right away. By all accounts, any reasonable hit made the outcome certainly.

Hunting with the black-powder giants is a treat few have experienced. Many years ago I took a bright single eight bore to Australia. It was loaded with heat-treated groundballs at 1,500 fps. The little 12-pound Gibbs was excellent because along with its serious power, it was light enough to carry easily. The first shot was a feral bull. The fellow I was with warned me they had a bad attitude, something this first beast proved quickly.

I saw him run into the bush and gave chase, but before I had run 100 yards, he met me in the middle. It was wonderful feeling the strength of the recoil, watching the ball cave in his shoulder and stand the brute on his nose. A few days later, I would find out that, unlike a renegade Hereford, a ton of unhappy water buffalo could stand toe to toe with an eight bore just like they had a century earlier.

We jumped the huge bull out of a little ravine, the guide shouting that he was as big as they got. “Get him any way you can.” My Cape buffalo hunting experience gave me the answer to that question; you simply run them down. I legged it behind the bull as hard as I could run, and just like his African cousins, the old fellow pulled up after about 200 yards to see what was after him. I slid to a stop and planted a 900-grain ball on his shoulders.

To my disbelief, he took no notice and ran hard again. We repeated the performance twice more, and after a half-mile in the sand and 100-degree heat, I was beginning to wonder who was toughest. At last the monster turned to fight. This time instead of an ordinary round ball, the bullet was a 1,200 grain high-explosive Forsyth shell. It brought matters to a spectacular end. I knew then, just as they had in the good old days, that at times an eight was not enough. That is why there were four gauges!

Some years later I returned to Australia determined to take revenge and to see if the great buffalo had his limits. This time the rifle was a single four bore by William Evans, weighing 18 pounds. Two kinds of ammunition seemed in order – pure lead balls weighing 1,380 grains driven by 14 drams and a powder-scale crushing shell of 1,600 grains weight pushed by 12 drams. We tried the ball loads on lesser beasts, and it hammered them much like a Mack truck.

The time had come to wade into an old buffalo bull. As luck would have it, he was moving, trotting slowly from left to right at about 30 yards – lucky because he was clear of the smoke cloud when the shell hit, and I got to see the show. The huge missile landed in the center of his chest, a classic lung shot.

The rifle roared, and the shell made a similar report with a jet of smoke shooting from the entrance. At the same time, the bull simply quits, collapsed and rolled as if the bullet had struck his brain. The guide said it was the only one, in many thousands he had been shot, that fell to the shot without the brain or spine is hit.

Reading the old journals tells a similar story. Usually, the great four caused the game to quit. But the black-powder Giants were not without their shortfalls. Often, especially African elephants did not succumb immediately because the soft balls used then did not penetrate deeply enough. Then the horrendous cloud of smoke made follow-up shots nearly impossible. As grand as they were, the large black-powder rifles were about to be replaced with even more powerful arms. The nitro era was dawning.

The great black-powder rifles had three major drawbacks: smoke, recoil, and weight. These combined with the fact that, at times, they ran out of penetration, made gun makers and hunters look for a better super-power. It came with the advent of nitro powder, combined with jacketed bullets.

The “baby” of our four large rifles is perhaps the best. It was originally a “small bore” of only 24 gauge. The .577 began as a muzzleloader, progressed through the short Snider and 3-inch black-powder versions to the glorious conclusion of the .577 Nitro Express, or .577-100-570 Cordite. This rifle must have seemed like a dream to men who fought monsters for a living.

Suddenly the smoke was gone, their rifles weighed only 13 pounds, and penetration had perhaps doubled. The long, sleek 750-grain, .585-inch bullets, screaming along at 2,050 fps, was almost unstoppable. Here was a rifle that could match up with a big African bull elephant and floor him from almost any angle. It could break both shoulders just like a deer rifle does on a deer, or it could drive through the brain from extreme angles.

The late Truman Fowler told me about one of the last big bulls he shot with his Lancaster. The bull was walking almost straight away. To reach the brain, the bullet would have to start well back in the neck. The ivory was heavy, and the big rifle had always answered, so he gave the tough shot a try. While the rifle recoiled, he saw the bull’s trunk come up over the top of his back, and the contents of his skull shoot out both ears. He said it was the most impressive demonstration of rifle power he had ever witnessed.

So that you might understand my fascination with elephant rifles and the .577 in particular, you should know that at the tender age of four I was placed at the mercy of an old ivory hunter from Tanganyika. His stories, great ivory over his office door and the Holland & Holland rifles warped me forever. Thus, I spent my youth searching for an “elephant gun.”

It came in the guise of a Rigby .577 Nitro. I unwrapped the registered-mail package, assembled the rifle, pocketed a box of the monstrous cartridges and rushed to a place where I could shoot. I will never forget that first shot. I had previously fired a .458, but this was a “big” rifle, and the first shot is a memory that lingers. The only plan seemed to be to hold it like grim death. When it went off, tendons stretched and snapped, my thumb bloodied my nose, and a huge black hole appeared dead center in the target.

The lesson was quick and meaningful: You cannot stop a .577 – it is better to relax and go where it pushes you. With the right technique the rifle became friendly and a very powerful jackrabbit rifle. Even the big steel jacket solids would scatter them for 30 yards across the snow. Their little hides just could not contain the hydraulic displacement!

To my chagrin, it has not had an elephant under its sights in my hands, although it is reputed to have taken several hundred for others. But, we have seen the buffalo. My first was as memorable as it should be for anyone. Yes, there was trepidation; many had written about how “bad” they were. Fortunately, the Capstick novels had not surfaced yet, so my view was mostly realistic.

The bull broke and ran through the thick timber at about 60 yards. Imagine my surprise when Bill shouted, “Go for it!” Well, when in Rome. I pulled the big ivory bead out in front and loosed the right barrel. No effect. An instant later the left boomed, and the bull rolled over like a rabbit. Bill strolled up to the buffalo in a very casual way, armed with only an FN .308.

I yelled to be careful, and he replied that caution was not necessary; “he was shot with a cannon.” The first shot clipped the edge of a big tree and was deflected. The second dead centered a massive ebony, bored through the 12 inches of iron-like wood, traveled down the buffalo’s neck, exited just behind his ear and stuck in the base of his horn. There is no substitute for horsepower.

As I carried the .577 in later years, I noticed I had become careless. It simply crushed every buffalo I asked. I began to take almost silly chances, knowing the great rifle would always win the day, and it always did. It was like carrying the hammer of Thor. But even as stupendous as the .577 was, hunters still wanted more. To answer, W.J. Jeffery turned out the .600.

The earliest drawings I have seen for the .600 Nitro date to 1899, with its formal release in Jeffery catalogs in 1903. This was, on paper at least, the most powerful rifle ever devised. The 3-inch case held 110 grains of cordite and drove the huge, 900-grain, almost flat point bullet 1,950 fps. It was a devil-stopper to be sure.

A double rifle would normally weigh 15 pounds; yes, heavy, but 5 or 6 pounds lighter than the four bores. Once again, like the .577, the nightmarish cloud of smoke was gone. It is one thing to wonder if the grouse has fallen when he is hidden behind the smoke; it is quite another to ponder whether or not the elephant or buffalo has stopped. With the big nitro rifle, a small yellow ball of flame is all that bursts from the muzzle.

The .600 seems to fill about the same niche as the four bore. It was often a backup for the very worst conditions or the most coveted trophy. There were a few men who carried them as a primary rifle, but they were a rare breed. The .600 is the only one of the big guns I have not hunted, but the unusual single waits. One day it might pick a fight with a hippo, or maybe it will just floor a big bull elk.

Sadly, when we look at these great arms, it is only in our rear view mirror. Yes, some of us hunt with them today, but the high game fields and the glorious days where powerful rifles were a way of life are gone forever. For me, it is a beautiful thing to know men and rifles that were bigger than life existed. Once upon a time hunting, big game was a supreme test of human strength and nerves, and the most powerful rifles made were part of it.

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