Growing up in South Dakota, there was a certain draw to the lever gun. Dad was a real-life cowboy, not the fake kind you see in a western hunting camp with the fringed chinks, 10-gallon hat and satin scarf. Dad was the kind of guy that used a horse as a tool every day.
If I wanted to shoot, there wasn’t any other choice as far as rifles go. My pa had a Winchester Model 94 chambered in .30-30. Later in life, someone told me that it wouldn’t work on deer. Somehow, I never noticed this shortcoming.
Last year, I traveled to South Africa to hunt Cape buffalo with Japie Horn’s outfit, Horn’s Africa Safaris (hornsafricasafaris.com), for a Viking Chronicles episode to appear on the Outdoor Channel. Horn’s operation was top notch and I enjoyed relating stories to his experience as a former South African Parabat and pathfinder.
The suggestion to hunt with a lever gun was made by “Viking Chronicles” Producer John Carter, but I wish I would have thought of that. It just so happened that I was shooting a Marlin 1895 chambered in .45-70 that had been worked over by Mike Alford of Ashley Performance (ashleyperformance.com). It had an 18½-inch “J.M.”-marked octagon barrel, a sign that honors the cowboy era. Ashley Performance is known for Ashley Emerson’s scope mounts designed for Marlin, Henry and similar 1895- or 336-style lever guns.
Before the hunt, I was sent a photo of Alford’s buddy, Tim Wegner, who proved the same rifle on another buffalo. I was convinced and sent the rifle back to Ashley before Carter ended up with it.
Atop Ashley’s mount was an affordable, low-range variable, a Leupold VX-3 1.75-6x32mm with a duplex reticle. Though it’s no longer manufactured, these can still be found for less than $500. The profile of the scope allowed the shooter to mount it low while providing the correct eye relief required for aiming a scoped lever gun.
Garrett Cartridge’s 540-grain SuperHardCast Hammerhead was selected for Carter’s hunt. It leaves the 181/2-inch barrel at an average speed of 1,350 feet per second (fps) and carries 2,186 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy, which is what we would need. Loaded specifically for dangerous game, Garrett only recommends that this load be used in modern Marlin and Henry rifles. This same load is carried exclusively by NOAA for protection against coastal grizzly attacks as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Geological Survey for the same reason.
Unfortunately, Browning and more recent-pattern Winchester 1886 rifles will not chamber this round. Some Ruger No. 1s will, while others will not. The Marlin 1895 was my bet for this combination to hunt one of Africa’s most dangerous animals.
Marlin Mastery Our Professional Hunters (PH) Japie Horn and Hein Oostuizen were expecting a sleek little double rifle to come out of Carter’s case. Their countenance changed when the lever gun emerged and they had some serious concerns. Nevertheless, I knew the rifle shot well and the bullets were designed for just such a task. Though still uneasy, the PHs went on and guided each of our hunts after learning about Wegner’s success with this actual set up.
Hunting in a party of two groups, we stalked a herd of buffalo all morning before linking up for lunch. We waited for cooler weather to settle that first mid-afternoon. The other group had been on buffalo and found a shooter, but the environment and circumstances wouldn’t allow an ethical shot, so they waited. Our hunting guides remained optimistic when it came to picking back up on the buffalo track. They’re amazing trackers, and just as I’d begun to doubt our success, we were back on their trail. The wait could be as exciting as the chase.
As Carter and I followed our buffalo miles apart from each other, I had no idea the mayhem they’d witnessed. Hein had worked them in on the bull that he thought they should shoot, but the bull and another old “dugga boy” were bound to fight. Around and around they went with one bull chasing the other, smashing horns together. First at 100 yards, then at 50, the pair managed to get within 25 yards of the buffalo. It was super intense for such a close encounter. (What it must have been like to be the one armed with only a camera!) If I’d had a Cape buffalo bull in front of me fighting, running or otherwise, I would’ve needed a paper bag to breathe into. Finally, as the surrounding land turned from yellow to red with the setting African sun, my friend had his chance.
Carter was ready and on shooting sticks as the huge mud-covered buff eventually ran by. Then, he let him have it. The first shot was lethal, but those who’ve hunted buffalo know that some are not impressed. Rather than play rodeo clown with an angry behemoth, Carter quickly jacked the lever gun and sent another round his way.
With the low-mount scope, he said it was easy to mount and fire again. The second 540-grainer hit the massive buffalo in the neck and broke bones. He was down, but still not out. Another shot put him out of any misery, but the Marlin that puffed like a dragon had done the deed. We later recovered the bullets and were extremely impressed with the high weight retention of Garrett’s load.
I’m new to hunting Africa’s Cape buffalo, and the subsequent long stalks through the bush brewed jealousy in my heart as I hoped for the same experience one day soon.
A few days later I managed to take my first monster, an old dugga boy with a brilliant Blaser R8 in .375 H&H. For many, the R8 is at the pinnacle of modern gun design, but it’s not the same.
Truthfully, I wanted to be wielding a lever gun, but that time it was Carter’s. There’s always the next trip.