Buffalo are tough, and one-shot kills are rare. If you have the chance, keep shooting.
By Craig Boddington
The herd was huge, but most had passed and stragglers were drifting through. An old bull cruised by, but he was narrow so we let him go. All seemed over when brush cracked to our right and a lovely bull-—wide, heavy, fully mature—-walked straight toward us.
I shot him frontally at about 20 yards and he lurched forward, as buffalo often do, then ran in a half-circle in front of us, perfectly in the clear. The rifle was a left-hand Dakota .375. I kept shooting—and at such close range hitting well—until he vanished. One of the trackers was carrying a double .470 so I switched for the followup. The bull lay still just into thick bush, no movement; it had taken four Swift A-Frames and was done.
Although a dozen years ago that sequence may sound familiar; it appeared in the first Boddington on Buffalo DVD. Interestingly, one famous PH lambasted me publicly for showing multiple shots. Go figure! True, it wasn’t as clean as the one-shot kill we dream about, but it was real. Buffalo are extremely tough, and I believe strongly that if the target remains clear you should keep shooting! No two situations are alike, but if I had that one to do over I’d do the same—-and if filmed I’d show it that way.
This buffalo is clearly hit hard and is about to go down, which it did . . .and then we made a mistake. Hoping to get a second bull out of the herd, we took our eyes off of it, and it got up. We did get this buffalo, but only after it went into Mozambique’s awful sawgrass—and it jumped up when Mark Haldane and I approached. We put it back down immediately, but we should have made certain of it the first time.
Honestly, with buffalo, one-shot kills are usually accidental. The constant criteria for firing follow-up shot(s) are that the chosen buffalo remains clear and you are certain you’re still on the same one. Things happen fast when the first shot goes. Other buffaloes quickly mask the chosen animal. There’s motion, dust, and noise, and after recoil it’s difficult to be certain. If the shot isn’t clear you can’t shoot, and if you aren’t sure, you must not shoot. Sometimes, in a herd, a stricken animal will lag behind and offer another shot. More often you must wait until the dust clears and then figure out what you’re dealing with.
I do have an unusual string of one-shot kills going on buffalo. This speaks well of bullet performance-—one with a Swift A-Frame and the next three with Hornady DGX—-but it won’t last. I am not the least reluctant to keep shooting if I can, so all were unintentional. Two were surrounded by too many buffaloes to shoot again, but we saw them go down. One was left down and still when the herd moved off. Another, well, I had a clear second shot as he ran, but brush stopped my swing and I missed. We didn’t know that until we checked him out!
Firing an insurance shot before approaching is a different subject. After all, if he’s already dead then that shot had no effect, but if he’s not, then that shot could save the day. It depends a bit on the cover and on the attitude of the buffalo. If all you can see is a black form masked by brush, get close enough and clear enough to pay the insurance. If there’s any movement whatsoever, pay the insurance. If the back of his horns are flat to the ground and his nose is up in the air, you can probably save the bullet, but if it looks like he’s sleeping, chin on the ground, be careful. At a minimum, approach from the rear and watch for movement. This is a good time for the trackers to throw a couple of sticks, and even if you’ve paid the insurance and are very sure, check the buffalo from behind, out of reach of the horns, rifle ready.
Some years back, in Mozambique with buddy Joe Bishop and PH J.P. Kleinhans, we got into a nice herd and Joe took a frontal shot. Joe is a deadly shot, good enough to call his shots accurately. There was no second shot as the herd thundered off and he immediately said, “My shot was a couple inches left.”
That bull took us a long way, through brush and long grass. At one point it started to rain and I thought we were in trouble, but the shower passed and J.P.’s trackers held the spoor. We were in waist-high grass when we saw the top of the buffalo’s back ahead of us, lying still. This is where insurance premiums must be paid on time. Joe shot at what we could see—-not much-—and the buffalo lurched into motion, our way. But J.P., Joe, and I were in line, ready; he was down again in two steps.
Joe Bishop only had a chance for one frontal shot and he knew it was off-center. After a long track we found the bull down and approached cautiously. When Joe fired his insurance shot the bull got up and tried to charge, but fortunately we were ready.
At that we were lucky--not just because no one got hurt, but that we found the buffalo at all. In this case Joe knew his shot was a bit off. There was no opportunity for another, so you follow the spoor and take your chances. In the old Tracks Across Africa days we had a nice clip of a bull taking a seemingly well-placed bullet, then cantering past while Tim Danklef (on the camera) says very clearly, “Isn’t someone going to shoot that thing?” Nobody fired, and that buffalo was never seen again. The problem with banking on one shot is exact placement and angle may not be obvious, and actual bullet performance cannot be known.
Buffalo are not deer. They are incredibly tenacious, but not as consistently vengeful as legend has it. The most likely result of a non-vital shot is the buffalo will keep going, eventually quit bleeding, and will never be recovered. Obviously utmost care must be taken with the first shot, and it must be taken with an adequate cartridge and a good bullet. Chances are it will be the best shot; in the wild melee that follows it’s unlikely that additional shots will be as well-placed, but if the chosen buffalo remains clear they should be fired. At this point things will not get worse, and additional bullets may reduce danger and will absolutely make recovery more likely.
I’ve tracked many wounded buffalo, and I’ve hit and lost a couple. If you hunt them enough this is gonna happen. When I was hunting the Zambezi Valley a lot—-thick bush and hard tracking—-from a quota then exceeding a hundred, it seemed about one in ten were wounded and lost...but there were only one or two charges per season. This means a lost buffalo is much more likely than a charge. But here’s another anecdotal statistic: I’ve participated in several hundred buffalo hunts in the last 40 years. I cannot recall a single buffalo hit more than once that wasn’t recovered.
Whether you fire additional shots or whether your PH participates is partly up to you, based on your discussions prior to the hunt. It’s also up to the PH; he has the license and is supposed to exercise good judgment, including preventing the escape of a potentially wounded animal if possible. So again it passes to you; if you’ve practiced so that you can follow up your own shots quickly then your PH probably won’t need to join in.
Again, one-shot kills on buffalo are rare. Pure one-shot kills, with no insurance paid, rarer still—-and always unplanned. My average is probably three-point-something bullets per buffalo, including a running gun battle with a Zimbabwe bull that took nine. That’s my maximum, but is not the maximum. Jack O’Connor wrote about a Tanganyika buffalo that took fourteen shots, all from adequate cartridges. One can assume that not all were in correct places, but this seems incredible--unless you have experience with buffalo.
In 2012 veteran Zimbabwe PH Owain Lewis was killed by a wounded buffalo. Only one shot was fired in the first encounter. Through a miracle of tenacious tracking it was three days later when the bull was found lying down. This time two hunters fired—-and then the bull got up and charged. A third rifle joined as it came. It appears this buffalo was hit nine or ten times before it reached Owain, killing him instantly, and remained on its feet for seven or eight more shots. Sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen rounds? No one knows for sure, but this tragedy is a testament to the African buffalo’s strength. If you have the chance, keep shooting.
Owain Lewis, an experienced, cautious, and highly respected Zimbabwe PH, was killed by a wounded buffalo in 2012. Only shot once during the initial encounter, this buffalo took at least fifteen more shots before it finally succumbed.