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357 Magnum Safari  
by Andy Law

I slipped on a warm jacket, just as the sky was diluting to a dull metal grey. The sun would soon rise into the sky; dawn does not last for long in South Africa. However, in the upper regions of Kwa-Zulu Natal in the East of the country the temperature would remain cool for a little while yet. Cupping a mug of hot coffee, I reflected on the previous days’ hunting, and silently hoped for success today. Finishing it with a last gulp I picked up my Marlin 1894C lever action carbine in .357 Magnum and headed out to meet Professional Hunter Chris Troskie of Rifle and Reel Africa Safaris, who was guiding me on today’s hunt. 

The air has a thick feel to it at that time in the morning, but with a pleasing fresh smell one finds at dawn, and learns to enjoy before the sun burns off the moisture. I greeted Chris who was already organising the pickup truck, called a bakkie (pronounced “buckee” in Afrikaans) then turned away, and pointing the Marlin in a safe direction quickly thumbed half a dozen 357 158g JSPs into the magazine. I didn’t load the chamber however, as that could wait until the game had been sighted, and the stalking had commenced. I climbed onto the back of the 4X4 and placed the Marlin into the rubber coated gun rack behind the cab. Welcoming the Zulu tracker who would accompany us, I gripped the roll bar as Chris engaged gear and moved off. The hunting had started. 

I had hunted in South Africa many times previously, shooting plains game – zebra, kudu, wildebeest and so on with my Ruger No1 in .375 H&H magnum, which is in my opinion the best all rounder calibre for Africa. It was Chris’ associate in Rifle And Reel, Les Brett who had suggested that I could hunt smaller sized game with my 357 lever action, and after consideration I had welcomed the challenge. That was a couple of years ago. 

In England, to hunt deer the legal threshold for a cartridge is minimum calibre of .24 and 1,700 ft/lbs of muzzle energy (under English Law the 30/30 is actually considered marginal for deer!).  Clearly I was unable to hunt with my 357 at home, so I accepted Les’ idea. However, I was also interested to discover how the little carbine would handle as a hunting iron, and just how effective the cartridge could be. Various reloading manuals had suggested the calibre was sufficient for small deer sized game.  I had decided that I would limit my shots to 50 yards or so maximum, which would in turn demand a hard careful approach to an animal. In other words, the kind of hunting I enjoy. During those hunts in the old Transvaal I had successful harvested warthogs and impala (a small antelope), with an average body weight of 100lbs. 

 It was agreed that this year we would hunt in the hilly area of Zululand, which in parts is covered in thick bush. The game reserve was near the historic Tugela River, and was absolutely beautiful. We would be the only hunters on a farm thousands of acres in size. 

In Africa, as a result of European colonial action during the 19th Century, the bolt action rifle rules. In the USA the story was different of course, when pioneers utilised the lever gun. However, the lever action rifle has unique characteristics. It is very slim and compact. Point of balance falls plum centre on the receiver making it quick to handle. The drop of the heel on the butt is more pronounced than most bolt action rifles enabling the lever gun easier to shoot with off hand, kneeling or standing, as a couple of warthogs had found out during those hunts last year. The short 36-inch length is ideal for moving and manoeuvring in thick bush. As the saying goes you can load the lever action on Sunday and shoot all week. Well at just a few pounds in weight, you can carry it all week as well…. 

There was something more though. This Marlin, except for the safety cross bolt was nearly unchanged in design in over 100 years. My only concession to modern times was to add a low power scope, set to 2-½ X zoom. I had also replaced the factory spring with a Wolff component, and the trigger with a unit from Trigger Happy, a combination which lightened the pull significantly. 

The Toyota drove slowly along the rutted track, as the tracker and I scanned the surrounding bush for game. The tracker had worked on the reserve for some years and possessed a sort of game radar or so it seemed to me. He also knew where the impala would be, occupying as they do a home range. Presently he tapped on the cab roof. Chris killed the engine and we stopped. Dropping to the ground the tracker indicated that we should follow. I lifted my Marlin from the rack and turning my back to the others, cycled the action. Setting the safety, then I lowered the hammer to half cock. This is yet another advantage of the lever gun – its external hammer. The piece can be carried at full load yet fully safe with a half cock hammer, a distinct advantage when hunting in close proximity to other people. The hammer can be brought to full cock in a heartbeat when required, and silently too. As the bush appeared quite close, I removed the sling’s swivels from the QD studs to prevent the sling from snagging. Once ready we quietly headed into the bush. 

The veld (pronounced “felt”) is a mixture of knee height grass punctuated by bush and trees. Although it was winter, I knew that the temperature would rise to about 80F plus during the day, so I left my jacket behind and carried only my carbine, 6 spare cartridges, a knife and binoculars. I always wear a baseball hat though, as it keeps the sun off my head and the sun out of my eyes yet does not have a wide brim, which can perhaps catch on close bush. Walking in Indian file we moved cautiously through the veld looking through the cover for sign of game, but using the bush as cover to conceal our own progression as best as possible. Fortunately, as it was winter there was little chance of encountering a snake.  I walked behind the tracker so I would be in immediate position to shoot if required and in front of Chris who would be in position to advise me on a shot. The job of the PH is to guide the client into a position where he can take a shot at a good representative trophy animal, and to ensure the client does not shoot the wrong thing or to do something untoward. However, the final decision to fire always rests with the client. 

There was no difficulty in carrying the Marlin in such thick cover, being so well balanced and light, I could easily control the muzzle safely, sometimes holding it one handed like a pistol to point it either up or down into a safe direction to negotiate some bush impeding our way. Often we would cross game paths, with spoor (track marks), sometimes with dung droppings. There clearly was a lot of game here. Then the tracker stopped, frozen, as immobile as a rock. He pointed slightly to the right. I looked and saw a blend of greens, ochre, yellow grass, with grey-brown of tree trunks, a smudge of red, green leaves, black shadow – a smudge of red. “Impala” Chris whispered. I nodded in recognition. Cross safety on, I snicked the hammer to full cock. 

Impala Aepyceros melampus melampus are a common antelope in South Africa, and are stunningly beautiful. Graceful and lithe, they possess a rich red coat turning abruptly to white at the under parts. The white rump is bordered with a black stripe each side. Only the males (rams) have horns, a wonderful ridged lyre shape sweeping up, back, then up and inwards once more. The rams and ewes are gregarious often in herds of 50 plus, with a dominant ram. Other rams form bachelor herds. The animal can be a delightful challenge to stalk, as being a herd animal there seems always one to be looking and listening for the approach of a predator. At a time of danger the impala will give an intense dry sneeze as an alarm then when the danger is felt strongly enough the herd will suddenly explode into all directions, the animals seemingly to leap with the skill of a ballet dancer; impala can jump up to 30ft, and 9ft high if sufficiently motivated. 

The impala seen was an impressive ram, part of a bachelor herd of some several rams. Instinctively we adopted a low crouch, and began to stalk carefully towards the ram, lifting each foot slowly and lowering it to the ground, “feeling” the ground underneath before settling the foot. I carried the carbine slack at my waist, muzzle pointing to the left away from the others. I could already feel the moisture abandoning my mouth, seemingly to sink to my hands, which were now sweating. I gripped the stock a little tighter and moved on. 

Suddenly – a wheezing snort. The impala ram, now no more than 100 yards or so was looking straight at us. We had clearly been clocked. The wind was still in our favour, so he must have seen us. It can only have been our slow approach, which had prevented him from running immediately on his suspicion. 

We settled behind an acacia tree and pondered on how to proceed. I refused to shoot from this distance, so somehow the gap had to be closed. Between us was slight undulating ground covered in grass, but mostly devoid of tall cover. The impala were standing on the edge of a small pan, warming up in the early sun. Any movement as a party would be impossible without spooking the now alert herd. Chris made the decision, and said “Andy, try and leopard crawl closer and get a shot in if you can. We will remain here but in sight of you”. Having close stalked deer back home in such a manner, this was quite a reasonable solution. Safety on, hammer down to half cock, like a feather I fall to earth. Gripping the fore stock of the Marlin with my left hand, the pistol grip cupped in the palm of my right hand with my thumb through the lever, I propelled myself forward by the elbows and toes - literally inching towards the impala. 

It is during a close stalk like this that time spirals away. My world was 50 yards of veld with an impala, a massive lovely ram, arrogant in his stature at the end of it. I am a stranger here trying to defeat an alert animal, one which has senses of smell and hearing which far exceeds mine, one which is accustomed to being preyed upon and lives in a state of awareness. And here am I, in its home range, on its turf trying to take its life. I am pressed flat to the ground like a shadow, I am concealed in the grass, my green hat, khaki shirt and grey trousers hide me. I have become part of the veld. Nothing matters now, nothing at all. The cushion of comfy living, which has dulled our senses; civilisation where everything is available at the push of a button is falling away from me. I am focused on the animals now and nothing else matters or is of the slightest importance. I am to defeat an impala, now joined by the other rams. They are looking in my direction. A single mistake and it will be all over either for one of them or for my stalk. 

A high - pitched snort cracks the air, stinging my ears. I freeze, lowering my head a fraction but I must look. I must. I look up. The big impala has moved off, but there are two others standing face on, their eyes seemingly to pierce my skull, yet they surely are looking behind me. Then one moved slightly, a couple of steps. They are not certain, they are doubtful that is all. I am a hunter, I am a hunter. I inch forward once more.  

A thousand years later it seems, I reach a small rise at the edge of the pan. Screened by a few grasses I can see the two impala still standing square on looking. One moves again, not displaying any alarm but just unease. A snort. Check safety, hammer to full cock, I carefully turn the carbine upright and place the butt snugly in my shoulder. It feels good. The cross hair is centred on one impala standing square to me. The cross hair settles at the base of the neck where it joins the body. Safety off finger curls around the trigger……stop. Something is telling me to stop. I think carefully and then understand that it is because I’m not sure the bullet will penetrate the chest – can’t fire. I must wait. Chris related afterwards that the tracker was incessantly though quietly urging me to fire and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t taken such an offering. I think Chris knew why I hadn’t fired, though he didn’t say so. 

This is surly the hardest part of hunting, to have a trophy animal in the cross hair, yet knowing it isn’t right to fire. Finger off the trigger, I lower the muzzle and look over the scope. I actually feel better. Another alarm snort slaps my ears. The impala are moving a little more restlessly now. They clearly are unhappy in their uneasiness, and one by one start to slip away further into the pan. There is less cover there only isolated bushes and odd patches of grass and I sense that this particular stalk will be over, my opportunity evaporating like the morning’s mist. The last impala is moving away. Then in desperation as a last chance, I loudly cluck my tongue several times on the roof of my mouth - nothing to lose after all. Amazingly one turns back, and returns to stand near his previous position, perhaps for a final look. 

Check safety off; butt in shoulder; finger around trigger, the cross hair settles. The ram is standing left side on, just ever so slightly quartering. My cross hair is imprinted on his red flank just behind the shoulder. My eye is being sucked into the scope, the lens is like a vortex, only the cross hair is there. Chris said afterwards that he distinctly heard the smack of the bullet. I can vaguely recall the sound of the shot, really only aware of the break of sight picture due to the recoil. 

The impala took off rudely breaking my bubble. I could clearly see it was wounded. Automatically I cycled the lever and stood up to see the ram disappear around some trees. Chris and the tracker joined up with me, my part in this episode as the hunter now being subordinate to the all-important task of finding the animal and dispatching it as quickly as possible. The tracker took to the spoor. Now, my heart was hammering and we followed the spoor of the impala. Here stones up turned or deep imprints in the red earth by desperate hoofs, over there a splash of blood. I deliberately walk some 20 yards to the right but parallel with tracker, to cover more ground. Then I saw the impala 30 yards ahead and to the left, couched up. I shouted to Chris and the tracker and we ran over. The ram was badly wounded, I had pulled the shot and it had entered high left around the front leg not through the heart. Standing clear, I immediately finished him with a shot to the head. There then followed the usual handshakes and congratulations. Chris departed with the tracker to collect the bakkie so we could recover the impala, and I was left alone with the beast. 

I opened the lever fully, ejecting the live round in the chamber, then turned the carbine and shook the next live round sitting on the shell lifter out of the ejection port. Checking once more that the chamber and lifter were actually clear, I closed the action lowered the hammer, and replaced the two live rounds back into the magazine. Placing the Marlin in a convenient fork in a bush I turned back to the ram. 

The sun was reflecting off his ridged horns, the ends of which were rubbed smooth. He was in his prime, his red coat changing abruptly to a lighter shade half way down his flank then again to the white belly. In the colourful light of morning he was vivid, and it was easy to understand the Afrikaans name for impala - rooibok (“redbuck”). Suddenly as I looked into his now vacant glassy eyes I felt a little regret at having taken him. Yet, it was done fairly; with luck and perhaps a little cunning and guile I had defeated him on his terms. I felt elated, and proud. 

I had hunted. 

Regretfully I could not attend the skinning and butchering and the bullet was not recovered, so I cannot comment on its performance.  

During the hunting in the previous years with this carbine, I had used Winchester JHPs, again 158 grain. I had taken two impala, one a head shot at 25 yards, which felled it instantly. Surprisingly the bullet did not exit. The other was a lung shot at 40. This bullet did exit and was not recovered. The two warthogs were hit in the thick neck immediately behind the head, the bullets breaking the spine and stopping in the beasts. One was shot at 15 yards, the other at 50. With the JHPs, jacket separation occurred in all cases even in the head shot impala. I suspect this was due to the ammunition being more suitable for a four-inch revolver. In an 18-inch carbine the bullets are being propelled at a faster velocity than the unbonded design can cope with, as the impact velocity is quite high. JSPs are better; perhaps even hard cast lead. Use heavy-for-calibre bullet weights, as there will be better momentum and also sectional density. One advantage of the calibre is that the bullet is likely to stop in the animal with full energy deposit. On the other hand, this means only an entry wound producing only a little blood thus making a follow-up more difficult. Ensure you have a good tracker.  

Limit your range to a distance you are confidant at shooting accurately to and where the bullet has sufficient energy to do the job you have launched it for. And don’t kid yourself about the range either! Finally, limit your animal size to a body weight of 100lbs or less. Larger animals are heavier muscled and boned - you are tempting trouble if you try in my opinion. It isn’t fair on the animal. 

I think my thoughts about the levergun for hunting have been revealed during the relating of this story. As a design their slim proportions mean that they are very convenient to hunt with in close country. A scope is an additional of course, but a low powered one in the region of say 1-4 x 20 turned to 2 or 3 power is ample for this shooting, and such a small scope doesn’t distract from the handling of a levergun too much. You will be hunting during daylight, so a normal duplex reticule is fine. 

Of course, should you own a 44 Magnum, 30/30, 45/70 etc then more opportunities open up. I think you should consider hunting in Africa just for the experience. Take a look at Rifle and Reel at www.rifleandreel.com or phone +27 82 859-0771 and talk it over with Les or Chris, who will tailor the hunting to your requirements.


Andy Law, England, 2005

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