December 18, 2018
The .375 H&H is like Coca Cola, a century-old icon that gets the job done. The .375 Ruger is like Red Bull, a younger upstart with a bit more kick. But when you need a powerful cartridge to stop a dangerous beast, you need it bad. However, which big bore should you be carrying to get the job done?
It is understood that when cartridges exceed .30 caliber, sales drop like a rock. Even so, interest in large-caliber cartridges has always exceeded need, so these days we have lots of choices in .375, .416 and at least three in .458, plus a slew of resurrected British big bores.
For this work, the .375 is generally considered the minimum, but it’s a sound minimum and also a versatile caliber. The .375 is great for buffalo and the biggest bears, and with lighter, faster bullets, can be used effectively for elk and moose and the full range of African plains game. The .375 H&H is the grand-daddy of the clan and has been the ultimate all-around choice for hunting the world. Although there have been other .375s for many years, I have long considered the H&H unassailable for versatility and shootability.
Then along came the Hornady-designed .375 Ruger, a shorter, unbelted and a bit faster load.
Introduced in 2007, the .375 Ruger was one of the most successful large-caliber cartridge introductions in history. The H&H remains the world’s most popular .375-caliber cartridge, but the young .375 Ruger is already in second place.
In recent years, a question I’m often asked is which .375 is better? Which should they choose? By circumstance, I happened to have on hand three rifles in each chambering (a personal herd of .375s), so I thought it might be fun to try to answer that question for myself as well as for you.
Case Study Introduced in 1912, the .375 H&H has a long, tapered case with a gentle shoulder. Its belted case with a .532-inch rim diameter pretty much defines the base diameter of a belted magnum. With a case length of 2.85 inches, the cartridge represents what we think of as a full-length case and a full-length action.
Many wildcats and the .375 Weatherby Magnum have the body taper removed and have a sharpened shoulder angle, increasing case capacity and velocity. The result is flatter trajectory and greater energy yield. The primary cost, however, is in recoil, but there’s no denying the smooth feeding of that archaically tapered .375 H&H case. Its primary drawback is that it cannot be housed in a standard-length action, and not all manufacturers offer a full-length action. Today, there are other choices, but the most popular .375 loads have featured a 300-grain bullet standard at 2,530 feet per second (fps) and a 270-grain bullet standard at 2,690 fps.
The .375 Ruger is essentially a fresh start. Although it has since spawned the .416 Ruger and the shortened Ruger Compact Magnums (RCMs), it started as an original case design that used the .532-inch rim but without a belt, the case is fatter with little body taper and a 60-degree shoulder. It is also shorter at 2.580 inches, (barely) fitting into a standard .30-’06-length action. However, it is a manufacturer’s dream: standard belted-magnum bolt faces working without modification, as do standard actions.
Case capacity is 4 percent greater than the .375 H&H. The original goal was to equal the .375 H&H in a .30-’06-length case. However, because of the burning efficiency of the shorter, fatter case and slightly greater capacity, the .375 Ruger delivers a bonus: As a factory load, it runs on average perhaps 50 to 100 fps faster with equal barrel length and it is definitely more efficient in a shorter barrel.
Realistically, most .375 Ruger rifles wear 22-inch barrels, while most .375 H&H’s have 24-inch barrels. This means that a .375 Ruger with a shorter barrel will pretty much equal a .375 H&H. Add this to a shorter action and the average .375 Ruger is a couple pounds lighter than the average .375 H&H, as well as shorter and handier.
This is not entirely a bed of roses. Add velocity and you increase recoil. Reduce weight and you increase recoil. Do both and you add more recoil. One of the endearing traits of the .375 H&H is that, in the average 10-pound rifle (with scope), recoil is tolerable and most people can learn to shoot it well. Drop a couple pounds and recoil is noticeably sharper.
Field Work Just last fall, we were working a big herd of buffalo on a floodplain in coastal Mozambique. As if on cue, a really nice bull, wide and fully mature, stepped to the edge. I was already on the sticks with a Leupold-scoped Legendary Arms Works (LAW) Professional in .375 H&H loaded with 300-grain Hornady DGX. I fired as soon as the shoulder was clear, saw a good hit, and then the bull was lost in the stampede. They ran to the right, the stricken bull quickly lagging. As soon as he was clear, I made ready to shoot again. Before I could press the trigger, he turned away, staggered and fell over. There was simply no reason to fire another shot.
When the cartridge was new, the first buffalo I took with the .375 Ruger was bedded in deep shade in the cool sand of the Chewore River in Zimbabwe. We were about 90 yards away when he rose from his nap. I shot him on the shoulder, then again, and a couple times more as he struggled up the steep bank. The first shot looked good, but I wanted to stop him in the river bed, not in the thick bush beyond the bank. I suppose we compromised. He made the top and died right there.
In isolation, these two incidents might suggest that the .375 Ruger isn’t quite enough gun, while the .375 H&H is absolutely perfect for buffalo. Neither conclusion would be altogether correct, because perfect is an elusive concept.
Pure one-shot kills on animals as big and tenacious as Cape buffaloes are rare and the one mentioned above would not have occurred had the bull remained clear for a second shot. With our current proliferation of so-called “over .40” cartridges, one commonly hears that the .375s are marginal for buffalo. Horse pucky!
The milder 9.3s, such as the 9.3x62mm Mauser and 9.3x74R, are marginal. The slower .376 Steyr is marginal. The .375 H&H was considered adequate in 1912, but with the bullets we have today, it’s better than it used to be. By logical extension, since the .375 Ruger is a bit faster and uses the same great bullets, it’s at least as adequate as the H&H.
With equally good shot placement and equally good bullets, there can be more dramatic effect and more instant gratification from larger cartridges. However, the .375s are easier to shoot well, so shot placement tends to be good. The .375 is plenty. If it’s a heavier bullet of greater diameter, it may make a slight difference, but buffalo are not easily impressed by foot-pounds alone. Taking them down efficiently requires adequate cartridges and bullets, but shot placement is by far the most important.
One could theorize that, with a bit extra velocity, the .375 Ruger is better than the H&H. I do see a difference in hitting power with the really fast .375s, but in my experience, the .375 Ruger isn’t enough faster to see a difference. Thus, the choice falls to other considerations, including accuracy, availability and platform preference.
Rifles & Loads In .375 H&H, I had on hand a CZ 550 with 25-inch barrel, an LAW M704 with 22-inch barrel and a Montana Rifle Company rifle with 24-inch barrel. The .375 Ruger team fielded all its guns with 22-inch barrels on a Mossberg Patriot, Ruger M77 Hawkeye and a Ruger No 1. It seemed to make sense to use similar loads in both cartridges. This included Hornady’s Dangerous Game 300-grain DGX in both cartridges, along with Hornady’s Superformance 250-grain GMX. Published velocities for the loads with 24-inch barrels are: .375 H&H, 250-grain GMX comes in at 2,890 fps while the 300-grain DGX at 2,530 fps. For the .375 Ruger, we have a 250-gain GMX at 2,900 fps and a 300-grain DGX with 2,660 fps.
The legend of the .375 is that it will fire a variety of loads into the same group. Maybe sometimes, but rarely with two loads of such different bullet weights and velocities. Actual difference in impact between the 250-grain GMX and the 300-grain DGX varied among the rifles but was always extreme. At 100 yards, the 300-grain load dropped from five inches to as much as eight inches below the 250-grain bullet. So, let’s discard the idea that you can carry a light, fast load for plains game and a heavy-bullet load for dangerous game. Instead, choose one load that will be adequate for the largest game you intend to hunt.
Shooting Protocol & Results All the rifles in our test were scoped, although some had low-power variables, while others wore scopes with higher magnification. To keep the playing field as level as possible, all groups were shot at 4X magnification, which no doubt increased group sizes. To save my shoulder, I deployed a Caldwell Lead Sled. While the Sled reduces a lot of recoil, shooting these big boys still mounts up on the body.
My shooting protocol consisted of first rough-zeroing each rifle, more or less, “on” at 50 yards with the 250-grain GMX, then clean the barrels. Fouling shots were fired to verify zero, followed by five, three-shot groups with the 250-grain GMX. Firing the rifles in sequence so the barrels were cool for each group. After five groups were fired, I rezeroed with the 300-grain DGX loads, cleaned the barrels, verified zero with fouling shots and then repeated. (This test took a couple of days.)
Velocities varied considerably among the rifles. I’ve seen a lot of 300-grain .375 H&H loads running as slow as 2,400 fps, so I was surprised to see the 300-grain DGX .375 H&H load develop a very considerable velocity bonus of 60 fps in the 22-inch LAW barrel and a whopping 140 fps extra in the 24-inch Montana Rifles barrel.
There are slow barrels and there are fast barrels, and the barrel of that Montana .375 H&H, though not the longest, had the highest H&H velocity with both loads, while the Mossberg Patriot in .375 Ruger had the highest velocity with both loads. There weren’t any other velocity anomalies as the .375 Ruger loads tallied very close to specifications, despite coming from 22-inch barrels.
As far as accuracy goes, this was just a snapshot in time with only two loads. This is not unreasonable because, for nonhandloaders, loads are still limited in .375 Ruger. Also, for most folks, load selection in .375s is probably driven more by bullet performance than raw accuracy. On dangerous game, certainly it should be. It doesn’t take minute-of-prairie-dog accuracy to be minute-of-buffalo, but the bullet must do a proper job when it gets there.
I do not imply that these are the best groups any of these rifles are capable of. I know that a couple of them shoot better, or at least have on other days, but that wasn’t the point here. Rather, I wanted to compare each chambering with similar bullets and loads and see what would happened.
The best average of the five, three-shot groups came from my left-hand action Montana Rifles H&H with 300-grain DGXs measuring 1.49 inches. The best average of five, three-shot groups with 250-grain GMXs was with the LAW M704 Professional .375 H&H at 1.54 inches. With the 250-grain GMX, the .375 Ruger “won” with an aggregate (15, three-shot groups) of 1.75 inches to the .375 H&H’s 1.92. However, taking the average of 30, three-shot groups with each cartridge, the .375 H&H came out ahead at 1.79 inches to 2.13 inches.
The winner is ... Rather than being conclusive in any way, to me this suggests that the playing field wasn’t level. The CZ 550 ($1,215) was the only production .375 H&H; the LAW and Montana Rifles H&Hs are upgraded rifles with top-quality barrels. Their respective averages of their 10, three-shot groups were the best among the six rifles (and should have been). All three of the .375 Rugers were standard production rifles. This makes a skewed comparison. For instance, the Mossberg Patriot had the best average of 10, three-shot groups among the three .375 Rugers, and was third in overall accuracy. Keep in mind that it was shooting against rifles that, in some cases, cost more than five times as much!
Note that I said this “skewed” the accuracy results. I didn’t say “unfair,” because it’s important to remember that since the .375 H&H requires a full-length action (that not everyone makes), it is often seen in an upgraded or custom rifle. All .375 H&H rifles are considerably more expensive than the Mossberg Patriot ($629) and Ruger Hawkeye ($1,280).
So, which cartridge should you choose? Both offer power and accuracy that are adequate for any job suitable for a .375. Because of generally shorter barrels (again, it’s not a level playing field), the .375 Ruger doesn’t have a significant edge in velocity or energy over the H&H. However, couple a shorter barrel with a compact action and a .375 Ruger will be lighter and handier than most .375 H&Hs. There are places such as in Alaska and Africa’s forests where this matters. On the other hand, a light .375 Ruger kicks more than the average, heavier H&H.
Now, I hesitate to make too much of this because I used two long bolt actions. However, the .375 Ruger has a shorter bolt throw. Purely as a matter of physics, the shorter action is faster and at least, theoretically, less likely to be short-stroked.
In terms of platform cost, the .375 Ruger wins hands down. My Ruger No. 1 in .375 Ruger has a light 22-inch barrel, but it costs the same as the longer, heavier Ruger No. 1 Tropical ($1,900). However, my light, handy Ruger M77 Hawkeye in .375 Ruger is a walnut-stocked rifle with a left-hand action. I am not aware of any factory .375 H&H rifles (right or left hand) at a similar price point, although Browning, CZ, Remington and Winchester (and others) offer .375 H&H rifles at minimal premium. The Mossberg Patriot in .375 Ruger is an extremely affordable .375 that shoots just fine and handles well. If budget is a concern, the .375 Ruger wins.
In terms of availability, the .375 H&H is the clear winner. Everybody makes ammunition, and everybody who has a long action makes rifles. The .375 H&H is a world standard, and while it is not true that you can buy ammo anywhere (for anything), most hunting camps in Africa will have a stash of .375 H&H. This is not yet true of the .375 Ruger. I lean toward the H&H based on long-term familiarity as well as nostalgia, but it’s nice to carry a lighter .375 Ruger. Take your pick either way. It’ll be a while before I commit again to firing 60-odd groups from .375s.
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