April 01, 2022
By Craig Boddington
Thanks to our Second Amendment, law-abiding Americans are uniquely blessed with the ability to own the sporting firearms that suits our fancy. And, within the U.S., we can usually take our preferred choices to shooting events and on hunting trips. When planning a hunt, some of us may reach deep into the safe to pull out an old favorite, while others may set up something new for the job at hand.
Few of our fellow hunters and shooters around the world are as fortunate. For all of us, there are some destinations that offer great hunting, but is almost impossible to source a temporary firearms permit. There are other places where the paperwork, cost or hassle seems not worth the trouble. One solution? Camp guns!
Let’s reverse the situation: Although it requires a bit of effort and paperwork, Americans can readily travel with sporting firearms to Canada, Mexico, even the United Kingdom and a lot of other countries. However, it is extremely difficult for citizens of other countries to bring firearms into the United States. It doesn’t matter if they’re going to a moose hunt in Alaska, an elk hunt in Idaho, or coming to my Kansas farm to hunt whitetails — their best and sometimes only option — is to use a camp gun.
So, let’s start with my camp guns at Timber Trails Ranch.
There’s nothing unusual about whitetail hunting in southeast Kansas. The area is timber and small fields, so shots beyond 200 yards are rare. Opportunities are usually short-fused, so we want our hunters to be able to shoot quickly, surely, and hit hard. Our primary camp gun is a Browning AB3, stainless and synthetic, chambered for .270 Winchester and topped with a 3-9X Leupold. It’s nothing special, but it works. It accounts for several whitetails every season.
These days I’ve noted that an increasing number of hunters prefer not to travel with firearms. Usually we can, but certain airlines may not carry guns; always check. Still, it can be a hassle. I keep a couple of spares at the farm, but after the Browning I have Dad’s rifle: A Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in .308, which currently wears a Weaver 3-9X scope. It, too, gets used just about every fall, but never by me due to its right-hand bolt with a right-hand rollover comb stock. If you’re a lefty like me, please do not expect to waltz into any hunting camp and find a left-handed rifle waiting for you. It happens, but rarely. As with all camp rifles, expect to compromise, adapt, and overcome. However, since I am left-handed, I always have left-handed rifles on hand. My friend Derek Barnes, a lefty, comes down every year to hunt, so I hand him my Ramirez 7x57 with a tear in my eye. He’s taken several deer with it though, but I’d be hard-pressed to call that rifle a “camp gun.”
One should never assume that a suitable rifle will be available at a distant destination. Always ask beforehand and understand that availability varies regionally. In North America, firearms are available and there are usually multiple good choices for camp use. You can expect popular African destinations to have good options, too, but you should expect the selection to diminish in more remote areas.
While the choices may not be as robust, Europe is not a problem, and there are plenty of good and suitable firearms in both Australia and New Zealand. Ditto for Argentina where bird-shooting is a major industry. Argentina is also the only South American country that has significant big-game hunting. Larger outfitters there will have gunrooms full of shotguns, and enough rifles. Elsewhere in South America pickings may be slim, but my experience is that there are enough suitable rifles to get by.
The big problem is in Asia, where availability is limited. These days, the majority of Asian hunts are for mountain game, which complicates the problem because precision is required. Rifles must be accurate, reliable, and well-scoped. In much of Asia you are expected to bring your own rifle, and there may be challenges if yours goes astray.
The situation varies, though. Pakistan, for example, has a large hunting culture and there are plenty of good firearms there. This also applies to Turkey, except Turkish gun law has changed and the owner, i.e., the firearm permit-holder, must now be physically present while it is in use. Elsewhere in Asia, and recognizing that travel with firearms is becoming increasingly difficult, outfitters are acquiring suitable camp guns, but there are still many places where the only option might be an SKS or Mosin-Nagant!
Popular Rifles and Cartridges
Camp guns usually aren’t fancy. They’re versatile “utility infielders,” as baseball fans say, sort of like vanilla ice cream. They’re acceptable to almost everyone. Chamberings will usually be versatile choices suited to whatever the local game and conditions happen to be. However, the local availability of ammo will always be an overriding concern — and far more important than the cartridge’s perfection.
For me, part of the thrill of any hunt is using my own rifles with proper ammunition. Often, it’s stuff I’m expected to write about. So, when I can I usually travel with my own guns. This means that I don’t always know what might have been available in the camp I was in because it didn’t matter to me at the time — and I didn’t ask. But I’ve gone to a lot of places where it was impossible or too difficult to bring firearms. So, I have borrowed, or hunting companions have.
For this article, I compiled a list of the camp guns I’ve seen and used in about 30 hunting camps. There was no commonality of cartridges. I make a distinction between medium-sized game and dangerous game. For the former, the .270 Winchester kept popping up more frequently than the .30-’06 or 7mm Remington Magnum. However, in several camps I’ve visited, a .300 Winchester Magnum was available.
My notes on camp guns for dangerous game are interesting. Legend has it that a .375 H&H is always available. Although often true, this isn’t universal. In camps in Cameroon, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, the preferred “loaner” for buffalo and such was a .416 Remington Magnum. When Jason Hornady and I went to Congo in 2018, it was pretty late in the planning process when we learned it was impossible to take firearms. Hornady nearly went nuts; me only less so.
As it turned out, their camp guns were Ruger Hawkeyes, stainless and synthetic, in .375 Ruger — with plenty of Hornady ammo in camp.
As far as brands or actions go, this always depends on local availability. Outside of the U.S., I’ve seen a lot of SAKO rifles as camp guns — in Cameroon, Mozambique, New Zealand, Spain, Zimbabwe and, of course, in Finland and Sweden. Affordable, reliable, and accurate, Tikka is also frequently seen. Rifles that are commonly available and popular are almost certain to be found. I’ve seen Remington Model 700s in Alaska, Cameroon, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Internationally, CZ is another perennial favorite. This is especially true in Africa, where the most likely .375 encountered will be a well-worn Mauser from Brno. However, I’ve also encountered smaller Brno rifles: A battered .22 LR in Ethiopia, perfect for dik-dik; and several older CZs in .222 Remington.
Blaser rifles seem to be gaining interest in the U.S., a brand that has long been popular in Europe. It seems to me that a significant number of outfitters have invested in the Blaser system, no doubt in part for their own use, but also because of its switch-barrel capability. I’ve been offered (or used) Blasers, both the older R93 and newer R8 models. I’ve used them all over the world: Australia, Mallorca, Mozambique, Pakistan, New Zealand, Spain, and, of all places, in Kyrgyzstan.
Camp guns may sometimes seem unusual, especially to Americans who have so many choices. Though they are often well-suited to the local conditions, you can’t be picky: When you need to use a camp gun, beggars can’t be rude.
In 2002, Dwight Van Brunt (then with Kimber) and I went on a deer hunt in Mexico. Neither of our guns arrived, which meant having two gunless hunters in camp was a problem. Outfitter Ernesto Zaragoza (huntthenorth.com) had his personal rifle in 7mm JRS. This was the only time I’ve seen a “camp gun” chambered to a wildcat cartridge, much less Jon Sundra’s. The other rifle on the ranch was a CZ in .222 Remington, kept for coyotes; it isn’t a great choice for desert mule deer. I don’t remember if we flipped a coin, but Van Brunt went out with the JRS and I took the little .222. On the first day, I ran into a buck that couldn’t be passed. You bet, I was very careful. One shot did the trick.
With good reason, houndsmen worry about their dogs. Shots are close, and in my experience most houndsmen discourage the use of scopes because of the tunnel vision they tend to create, which increases risk to their dogs. Note, too, that most houndsmen I’ve hunted with offer their own rifles, and often insist. On my first mountain lion hunt in British Columbia, back in the ’70s, the rifle offered was an ancient Colt Lightning slide-action in .25-20, perhaps the most unusual camp rifle I’ve ever seen. Far more common is a battered lever action in .30-30. That’s what Idaho houndsman Bruce Duncan offered me, and Lord knows how many cats that rifle has accounted for.
The Philippines is among many places where bringing a rifle is impossible. There are shot-guns, but we were hunting water buffalo — not a good idea. Outfitter Jay Carlson, now gone, solved the problem by making a deal with the local gendarmes. For years, it was standard for his hunters to go to the armory and check out an M14. I wouldn’t suggest that the 7.62 NATO round with military ball ammo is perfect for buffalo, but it worked just fine!
The West African nations of Ghana and Liberia are also places where you can’t bring your own firearms. Most of the hunting is for small forest antelopes, typically hunted with shotguns. In Ghana, the camp gun was a sturdy Russian-made single-shot 12 gauge.
I hunted Liberia twice, both times using a Mossberg Model 500 pump action. Interestingly, throughout West Africa the shotgun shells used by local hunters are loaded in Mali, and they’re darned good. Liberia does have buffalo and the infrequent bongo. Just in case, outfitter Morris Dougba had two rifles in camp and both are worthy of mention: Ruger No. 1 in .375 H&H, which was the only single-shot rifle I’ve ever seen as a camp gun; and a Winchester Model 70 Super Grade in .458.
The real capper recently came along. In October ’19, my wife Donna and I hunted in Switzerland; she for Alpine ibex, me for chamois. It was a short hunt with other stuff in the U.S. before and after. Although it’s possible to bring firearms into Switzerland,
for simplicity we opted to borrow. I contacted my friend Stefan Amherd at Capra Outdoor, and he met us with two left-hand rifles: Austrian action, adjustable stock, and a most unusual cartridge. Switzerland has a large and avid hunting public, but the various cantons, or “provinces,” have interesting rules. In some areas, at least until recently, there was a .40-caliber minimum, which hearkens back to the 1869 blackpowder Swiss military cartridge: 10.4x38mm Vetterli. (Also, scopes were not always al- lowed.) Fortunately, Canton du Valais, the only province that offers permits for foreign hunters, has no such rules. These rifles were well-scoped with Minox optics. However, keeping the Swiss cartridge tradition, both rifles were chambered to the proprietary 10.3mm Capra, essentially a .30-’06 case necked up to take a .416 bullet. The effect is almost identical to the old .400 Whelen except, to keep recoil down and increase velocity, the load is a light-for-caliber 219-grain homogenous alloy spitzer leaving the muzzle at about 3,000 feet per second. It’s easily effective to 250 yards, which was enough for careful mountain hunting. Donna fired one shot and took a great ibex; I fired one shot and took a fine chamois.
Some camps charge for firearms rental; others do not. To some extent, it depends a lot on whether it’s possible to bring your own firearms. If it isn’t, then the outfitter has some obligation to provide suitable arms. However, elsewhere in the world both firearms and ammunition are often costlier and more difficult to obtain, and ammo can be in short supply.
If you choose to borrow or rent, take nothing for granted. Come to think of it, that applies even if you bring your own! There is always the chance of baggage going astray. I have never had a gun case go completely missing, but delays of several days are not uncommon. On short hunts, or any hunt where camp is a long distance from the arrival airport, this can be a disaster. With any outfitted hunt it’s a good idea to ask what firearms are available, just in case.
Because ammunition is often limited, you may be told that the trusty camp rifle is “perfectly zeroed.” Don’t listen! There are too many horror stories. I’d rather go hunting with just a few cartridges for a rifle I know is zeroed than have lots of ammo, but no certainty that I can hit anything. Insist on at least one shot to be sure.
In camp, inspect both the rifle and ammo carefully. I’ll share two stories on myself, one embarrassing and the other just plain dumb. Older CZ’s are among few rifles with reverse safeties (back is “fire”). The first time I used one, in poor light and while jet-lagged, I tried to make sure I had it right. I put a hole through a tin roof. On a muntjac hunt in England, the “stalker” loaned me his .243. I missed a couple of easy shots and was furious at myself. That evening, I pulled an empty case from my pocket and realized it was odd. I was handed a detachable magazine loaded with .22-250 cartridges! Those .22-caliber bullets just rattled down the 6mm barrel.
Sometimes it’s necessary to use camp guns. Some will be more interesting than others, and almost all will be quite suitable. But trust no one — including yourself — assume nothing, and leave as little to chance as possible.
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