Best Caliber for a Double Rifle?
I am planning to have a double rifle built for use on buffalo and elephant. I am undecided between .450 NE, .470 NE, or .500 NE. I understand that ammo is more common for .470 and .500 NE. Do you have any recommendations?
An interesting question, because there are many things to consider. As you mention, one of them is ammo--and this is an aspect that concerns me.
I mention this because my good friend Monty Kalogeras of the Safari Shooting School in Texas was recently telling me about how inconsistent the more popular brands of .470 NE ammo are proving to be--with massive velocity variations between brands and even within some boxes. So, if you are into reloading, or would consider going the custom reloaded ammo route, the picture changes entirely.
I mention this because it is not improbable to go to a custom bullet loader--Larry at Superior Ammo comes to mind--and get him to load you a couple of hundred cartridges to the specs you like and then have the double made for and regulated with this ammo. I mention this because when I acquired my .505 Gibbs many moons ago it came with 300 original Gibbs cartridges and they lasted me at least fifteen years! (I reloaded the cases and soon found a load that duplicated the originals.)
So let's look at the different options you mention.
The .450 NE has been around forever and it works as well today as it did 100 years ago. My only gripe with this cartridge is the 480-grain .458 bullet it uses. As I'm sure you know, I'm a heavy-for-caliber bullet man, through and through, with bullet sectional density being the first thing I look at when I evaluate a cartridge. At .327 the 480's SD is OK, but not as good as the SD of the 500-grain .458, which is .341.
A game ranger friend of mine recently acquired a 106-year-old Army & Navy .450 NE and he has been experimenting with it quite a bit as he gets to shoot a lot of problem elephants and buffalo. His particular rifle will regulate flat nosed 480-grain solids at 2,200 fps and 500-grain Woodleighs at 2,150. (The rifle has 26 inch barrels.) He has shot both these species with both these options and cannot really tell the difference but I think he would if the 480s were only doing 2,150 as the literature said they should. Also, flat nosed solids penetrate better than conventionally shaped solids, another option to consider. A 500-grain .458 bullet at a true 2,150 has long been the standard recommendation for all Zimbabwe dangerous game guides so you would be well covered for elephant and buffalo if you went this route. In a 10.5- to 11-pound rifle, this will certainly be a manageable combination, and there are a lot more 500-grain .458 bullets out there to choose from than 480s. Granted, .450 NE ammo is not as easy to find as the other two options you mention but I do not see this as too much of a problem if you take the advice I gave at the beginning.
The .470 NE does pretty much the same thing: A 500-grain .475 bullet (SD .319) at 2,150 fps. Well, this is what the specs all say the .470 NE should be doing, but as I mentioned, current factory ammo seems to vary from as low as 1,800 to as high as 2,200 fps and so it is no wonder to me why some .470s are shooting all over the show! When compared to the .450 NE with 500s at 2,150, the .470 (also with 500s at 2,150) has more stopping punch (because of a bigger bullet frontal surface area) but less bullet penetration (due to a lower bullet SD). The .470 has long been the PH's choice because it is a better stopper than any of the .458s.
At one time everyone wanted to own a .470 and this made such doubles a lot more valuable, but from a sport hunter's perspective, my inclination would be to lean toward the .450 NE with 500s. Such a rifle needs, in my opinion, to weigh between 10.5 and 11 pounds.
The .500 NE with its 570-grain bullet (SD .313) at 2,150 is serious stopping medicine. My good friend Monty has one, a Heym, and I have shot it quite a bit. It is with good reason why this caliber/cartridge combination is now the flavor of the month when it comes to the younger generation of PHs who specialize in elephants. There is no better combination for a double rifle that offers this level of terminal ballistic performance from a double that is still easily carryable--in other words, an 11-pound rifle. For sure the .500 NE works, and then some, but my concern would be that it is too much for the first time double rifle user. I regard a .500 NE double as a specialized tool for the dangerous game PH who hunts mostly elephants. If you choose go this route, I believe it will take you longer to become totally proficient with a .500 NE double than it will with something smaller.
With this in mind, please consider the .450/400 NE as well. To my mind, this is the ideal cartridge for the first time double rifle user. A 400-grain bullet (SD .338) at an honest 2,150 fps has a wonderful reputation out here in Africa. There are no elephants or buffaloes anywhere in Africa that will not drop to well-placed bullets from this effective and well-proven ballistic combination.
Please remember that at the end of the day it all boils down to shot placement and being able to use the double well. A 400-grain bullet in the right place is a lot more effecting than a 570-grain one on the wrong place. It is absolutely vital to realize this. Every PH I know and there are many, would I'm sure prefer to guide a client who shoots a .450/400 NE well than one who shoots a .500 NE poorly. I certainly would.
10 pounds is the ideal weight for such a rifle and at the end of a long elephant hunt, one pound in rifle weight makes a huge difference.
It is my experience that many who choose to go the double rifle route never really take the time to learn to shoot them really well. Double triggers are a foreign concept which can take quite a bit of mastering, especially for those who have never used them before. So, if you are going to become a good double rifle user, I suggest you purchase a 20-gauge side-by-side shotgun with double triggers and shoot sporting clays with it until using a second trigger becomes absolutely second nature. The only advantage of using a double is for that instantly available second shot. This is why such rifles are the ideal choice for elephant hunting, but if it takes you too long to find that second trigger, you may as well use a turnbolt!