Elephant gun

An elephant gun is a large caliber gun, rifled or otherwise, so named because they were originally developed for use by big-game hunters for elephants and other large dangerous game.

Bore guns, circa 1850

As Europeans made inroads into Africa in the early 1800's guns were developed to handle the very large game encountered. This was for self protection, food and later and most commonly sport. The first guns were the simple muzzleloading shotgun designs as already used for birds and loaded with solid balls of lead for large game. Due to their ineffectiveness on the largest game(up to 35 shots being recorded by some writers for a single elephant) they soon developed into larger caliber black powder smoothbores. The calibre was still measured in bore or gauge- such as 10, 8 and 6 or even 4-gauge or the guns were named by projectile weight in ounces. The projectiles were lead roundballs or short conical slugs, sometimes hardened with antimony.

These very large and heavy firearms were the first to be known as the elephant guns of the blackpowder era (1850-1890), though their use also included all thickskinned dangerous game such as Rhinoceros, hippopotamus and cape buffalo. Due to the velocity limitations of blackpowder and lead (usually around 1500 feet per second) the only way to increase penetration was to make a larger gun. The largest bore guns in common use (and bore rifles with the advent of breech loading and rifling in the late 1800's)included the 4 bore- using a 2000 grain (4.57 ounce) slug at up to 1400fps. Despite their enormous power the short low velocity slugs still suffered the penetration issues which plagued guns of this era. Particularly for the toughest shot of all, defeating the bone mass for a frontal brainshot on an elephant. Thus dangerous game hunting in the 1800s was as much a test of the gunbearer's ability to relay guns to the hunter, and his skill on horseback in the earlier days to evade charges long enough to reload. It was not until the parallel developments of jacketed projectiles closely followed by smokeless powders in the late 1800s that dangerous game could be taken with 100% certainty.

Nitro Express Rifles

The Nitro Express line (c.1895), so named because the composition of the early smokeless powders such as axite and cordite is nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin, were the first of the new order of elephant guns. With smaller metal jacketed projectiles ranging from .400 to .620 and velocities around 2000 feet per second they possessed vastly increased trajectory and penetration over their blackpowder forebearers. Within a few short years the mighty bore guns of the previous era largely disappeared from the gamefields. The safari heyday of the early 1900s 'Nitro era' records much literature on such calibres as the .577 Nitro Express, .375 H&H Magnum, .416 Rigby, .404 Jeffery, 505 Gibbs, 450 Nitro Express, .470 Nitro Express and many others. These rifles came out in single shot, bolt action, and double rifle configuration and continued to be used up until ivory hunting died off in the mid 20th century. Thereafter, they largely switched roles to tools for game wardens and as back-up firearms for professional hunters guiding international hunters.

The American gun market produced several famous dangerous game cartridges around this time, such as the .458 Winchester Magnum, .378 Weatherby Magnum and .460 Weatherby Magnum and many of these were 'wildcatted' (to modify an existing case and rifle to fire a different caliber bullet). The rest of the old Nitro express calibers were to fade almost to obscurity until a recent resurgence in safari hunting came about in the 1970s and 1980s. This prompted a new boom in elephant gun development and calibers such as the .416 Weatherby Magnum and .416 Remington Magnum arrived in factory offerings. The late 1980s and 1990s produced the .700 Nitro Express and the new brass manufacturers allowed even more powerful elephant guns such as the .585 Nyati by Ross Seyfried, .577 Tyrannosaur by Colonel Art Alphin and .585 Gehringer by Karl Gehringer to be made by wildcatters. Hundreds more are listed on the Internet's gun forums as the hobby of wildcatting grows. The .600 Overkill made by Rob Garnick represents at this moment the greatest power available from a standard hunting action. Other wildcats based off the heavy machine gun .50 BMG and similar anti-material rounds have been devised which are much more powerful, though they are not generally considered useful hunting arms being that their weight usually exceeds 25lbs.


Whether double rifle, single shot, or bolt action the concept of the elephant gun is the same: to provide enough stopping power to prevent harm to the hunter in the case of charging game. The necessities for the gun are not only extreme power, since in that case the 50BMG or 20mm cannons would be the order of the day, but that it can be carried for long periods, shot from any position or angle, and be well balanced enough to track on rapidly moving animals. In essence it is no more than a very large hunting rifle with the same capability of use as any hunting rifle.

There is a continuing interest in such firearms especially with the increased hunting opportunities being made for the average wage earner to travel to Africa. Such hunting is relatively expensive though and on a strict licensing system by game departments to allow sustainability of game.

World War I

During World War I, both the British and Germans deployed elephant guns obtained from their African colonies in an attempt to break the stalemate in the trenches. The British used elephant guns as a means of countering the German tactic of having their snipers advance towards Allied lines under the cover of a large, 6-10 millimeter (0.24-0.4 inch) thick steel plates. Though normal small arms were ineffective against the plate, the elephant guns of the era had enough force to punch through it. Likewise, the Germans deployed a specialized, mass-produced weapon called the Tankgewehr to knock out lightly armored British tanks.

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