Long before I could hold the heavy BSA pellet gun up for a clear run at the sights, my mind was already wandering, my eye cast back to the Lucky Luke comic books and the full page colour advert on the back for the Daisy Red Rider BB gun. How cool it looked with the kid dressed in black studded cowboy chaps and a red stetson holding the gun. Yet it was the lever action, the “cowboy gun” style that did it, it was the genuine gun of the west, those lazy images of Lucky Luke potting prairies chickens for dinner and tipping his hat over his eyes next to the fire as the sun set.
So began my obsession with the venerable Cowboy Gun - the lever action rifle of the wild west - in all its forms and calibers. It was not until I had followed my lovely wife to Denver that I was fully able to realise the history and extent of influence this action had on gun toting America. Better still, the candy box had popped open and I, like a hungry teenager inhaled all that was the gun that tamed the west! Here begins my ramblings, idiocycracies, escapades and tests with the lever Action big bores of the American west.
Having grown up in Zambia where rifles of any sort were scarce and hard to get, I had cut my teeth on the older mauser style bolt actions and calibers, handed down from great grandfathers who had used them in the last Boer war. Our close ties with the eastern bloc countries ensured a steady flow of BRNO rifles in large game calibers from 22 Hornet to the 375 H&H and 458 Magnum. In those days there were no individual renditions of these steady old calibers, you either had a 375 or you didn’t - no souped up or necked down variations existed as we have today.
Of course our safari hunting industry, which was started back in the late 1950’s under the colonial era, was going from strength to strength as air travel became more accepted and with this we saw the arrival of the shiny amped up Weatherbys and Winchesters but no lever actions made it out into the dark heart of the continent. Their reputation had taken a knock in the early days of African exploratory hunting where their lack of penetration seemed to be the complaint and rightly so.
Some of the older colonial families in Zambia held famous name rifles brought in under the British occupation, mostly Rigbys and Jeffereys, and some fine English doubles did make it to Zambia. One of the more famous and first black professional hunters, Nyamvimbi, was allocated a fine 475 Westley Richards by H.S Thornicroft, the district commissioner of remote Petauke which lay at the southern end of the rift valleys Luangwa river system. With this rifle and his natural acumen he kept the town of Petauke well fed on buffalo meat for many years.
Over the decades, certain rifles and calibers cemented a reputation of reliability and effectiveness on the larger dangerous game of the continent - mostly the mauser action bolt rifles and the modern calibers like the 30-06, 375 and 458 magnums. Of course the purpose built Nitro Express doubles did not need any more accolades yet the ammunition in the form of poorly made Kynoch bullets and scarecity led to a shift away from these thumpers in the late 70’s.
Africa is of course associated with the heavyweights, those thick skinned beasts of the savannah that ‘reign supreme over vale and plain, skulking with malice and intent in the dank marshes and forests’.
The tough reputation of the Elephant was well documented from the early ivory hunting days and the most effective weapons were those cheaply made 4 bore powder guns lobbing dollops of lead in the 1750 grain range. In hast to reload, there was no set measure of powder except a ‘joyous handful’ down the spout followed by a pure lead ball cast next to the open fire the night before. These cheap crude ‘boer guns’ were responsible for more Ivory than any other modern weapon until the advent of the Kalishnikov AK-47.
These massive lead projectiles could not have been travelling at more than 1000 feet per second yet proved time and again their effectiveness at what the older hunters called ‘drive’ - meaning penetration. Often they would knock a fully grown Elephant bull off his feet, so great was the force with which they hit, slow and heavy. The famous hunter, Courteney Selous writes of adding ‘quicksilver’ to the pot of molten lead as he cast the round ball, thereby adding a measure of hardness.
My grandfathers hunted with Boer war falling block Martini Henry rifles, 500 grains of lead in a paper patch cartridge with their long heavy barrels and took down dozens of buffalo with single shots on the open plains of the Kafue flats in Zambia. Tasked with shooting as much meat to make biltong to last my family through the wet season they preferred hunting buffalo on full moonlit nights with white hankerchiefs tied over their front sights to take aim with.
Despite historical evidence of slow heavy lead projectiles being effective killers on the mega beasts of Africa, very few lever action rifles made it out to the continent perhaps falling by the wayside to modern firearm developments and old school ideas. You see, Theodore Roosevelt brought the Winchester 405 lever action on his famous safari to central Africa, a well documented event in which he thought the rifle inadequate for thick skinned game.
Added to this, there were essentially only a handful of caliber and ammunition options to select in big bore rifles - the 45-70 Government and the 405 Winchester - being the largest and most prevalent.
The 45-70 Government has stood the test of time in the United States but has remained firmly embedded on the north American continent favored as a handy back up gun by big game guides after brown bear and moose. Even here though, the low pressure commercial loads offered up a bad reputation to the caliber in lever gun rendition and only with the advent of boutique ammunition manufacturers and home loading does the 45-70 government come into its own.
Armed with the historical African evidence, the new offerings of modern day leverguns and modern day powder, bullets and information, I set out to prove that the Cowboy Gun I had always longed after could in fact be an effective rifle on most if not all of Africas game.