A Buffalo Gun From the Dark Continent
Comes to the Great Plains
by: Tom Armbrust
My unusual buffalo gun is an 1880's Charles Boswell 8-bore rifle from London, England. I have been interested in big bore shotguns for some time and own other 8-bores. I heard about this 8-bore rifle though a friend, John Millar, who had shot it some years back. He told me it had been in a private collection for about twenty years and was a nice shooting gun in very good condition. Up until this time I had not owned any rifles, just 22 rifles for target practice. When it arrived, there were no dies or loading data with it. It had long since parted ways with the makers case and reloading tools. It had a few lathe turned brass cases that were used to shoot 10 drams of black powder with a round ball. This big bore would have been in a battery of guns sent to Africa or India, as the ultimate stopper held in reserve for a trophy animal or for going after wounded or dangerous game in heavy cover. It is a back-action hammer gun with a Jones under-lever. This was the style most African hunters preferred. The massive steel barrels are black powder proofed. They are fully rifled with about one-in-a hundred twist. The barrels have typical express sites with a 100 yard fixed sight and a 200 yard flip up sight. The gun weighs in at a scale tipping 16 pounds. The barrels have eleven lands and grooves with a bore diameter of .845". The gun was most likely regulated for a round ball load with 10 drams of black powder at velocity of 1600 feet per second due to the slow rifling twist.
Tom Armbrust and I had spent the previous summer developing a safe smokeless powder load using a round ball. This load must shoot to my sights and regulate both barrels into the same group at 50 yards. A number of different loads were tried, some with heavy conical bullets from 1100 to 1250 grains without much success, powder charges from 9 to 10 drams of Swiss 1-1/2 FG granulation and FFG Goex Express were used in all brass cases. Our highest velocity level was 1494 FPS with the 1110 GR conical using 10 drams of FFG Swiss for a pressure of 14550 LUP. Yet groups usually had a flyer at least six to ten inches out of the six shot group. Next 10 drams of Swiss FFG black produced 1575 FPS with an 880 grain round ball .850" in diameter at a pressure level of 12950 LUP. Groups started showing more accuracy with the absence of a flyer. Now could we produce a smokeless powder load at similar velocity levels as black powder at safe working pressures, plus attain accuracy? With the help of Ballistic Research's 8-bore pressure barrel, a very good load was found. We slowly increased powder charges of Blue Dot from 75 to 85 grains.
Shell: 8 GA 3-1/4" Winchester Clear Plastic Yellow Plastic Base Wad (New) Primer: Win-209 Powder: 78 GR Alliant Blue Dot Wads: Gualandi 8 Petals Removed + 3/8" Hard Fiber + (2) .125 Nitro Cards Bullet: 880 GR Round Ball Number 2 Alloy .850 Diameter Crimp Roll: OL 3.135 Volocity: 1563 FPS in 24" rifle
1636 FPS in 30" pressure barrel
Pressure: 11,070 PSI
This above load shot about 4 to 6 inches apart at 50 yards, yet six shot groups were respectable with individual barrel groups falling into three inches or less. Another plus is pressure was down by 1880 PSI versus 10 drams of black powder behind the same round ball.
If I decide to fly to a far off hunting area, my smokeless powder loads will not pose a problem with the airlines like black powder. Last, but not least, is the ease and lack of time involved in the clean up of the smokeless powder load versus black powder fowling. So I think my goal was reached employing the smokeless powder 8-bore ball load, namely, safe working pressure, high velocity, accuracy and ease of gun clean up.
My first trial would be the Vintages in New York. The event I participated in was the stopping Rifle. It was only open to .450" and bigger rifles with at least 2000 FPS or 4- and 8-bore rifles. It performed flawlessly.
I decided that if I was going to use the 8-bore Boswell on big game, I would try for an American buffalo or bison. I have hunted both upland game and waterfowl in the Dakotas before. Now I decided that a classic buffalo hunt would be fitting for the 8-bore Boswell rifle. I contacted the North Dakota Buffalo Association and went though their listings of ranches deciding on a 15,000 acre ranch owned by Curt Hepper, west of the Missouri river near the Bad Lands only a few miles north of the Standing Rock Indian reservation.
I made plans to meet Curt on Saturday morning. My dad and I made a whirlwind trip driving all night to get in a full three days of hunting, on my limited time off. We arrived at about 8 a.m., when it was just getting light. My dad had done the bulk of the driving, so I would be rested for the hunt. Curt showed us the bunkhouse that we would be staying in. It was a cozy little house on the banks of the Cannonball River. It overlooked the area that I would later be hunting. We got settled in, then Curt asked if I wanted to rest or get started. I was really excited by now and ready to do some scouting. We were looking for a nine year old bull. The bull tended to stay away from the rest of the herd, being somewhat of a loner. Two other nice bulls were staying near a group of younger bulls. I now showed Curt my rifle. He just looked in amazement at the size of the gun. He had seen double barrels before, but not in a rifle of this huge bore size. I told him my range would be a maximum of seventy-five yards, and that I would only shoot in my safe zone. My only concern was that from reading old stories written in the 1880's that my 8-bore ball could completely penetrate a buffalo with a heart-lung shot. So I wanted to make sure I would not be taking two buffalos home with one shot by mistake. I am not certain if Curt believed me, or if I believed this tale myself. I had done my own penetration test on a fresh cut burr oak log with a 20 inch diameter. The 880 grain round ball went in eight inches on the side grain and seven inches on the end grain from 25 yards. That seemed to be enough. Elmer Keith, I recall shot a .375 flanged into a similar oak log in February of 1937 for an article in the American Rifleman on double rifles and that 300 GR bullet penetrated only five inches into a similar log.
While unpacking, I had noticed a group of bulls coming out of the river bottom and going out to the prairie to feed. Curt asked if I wanted to drive around and look or start walking to find an animal. I decided to walk the riverbank to find a good bull. He had spotted that nine year old bull a few miles down river the day before and also a few other good bulls. I started off on that crisp 25-degree morning hiking about four miles down the river. The wind started picking up and the sun started to warm the frozen grass as I searched for my majestic animal. I passed by the bachelor herd that had gone out on the prairie and they were a good 400 yards out. Just at that instant, out of the grass on the opposite side of the bank, sprang up five deer with one nice 5x5 buck mixed in with the does. That side of the river was still in the shadows of the buttes that made the landscape almost lunar looking. I must have also spooked a pair of coyotes because they ran right through the small herd of buffalo, and then stopped not more than ten feet from a bull. To my amazement this did not spook the massive animals in the least. But they did keep an eye on me. As I skirted the riverbank, I noticed a large bull about a hundred yards from the herd. Maybe this was the one we were searching for. I continued on, and then I met up with Curt. He wanted to get a better look at the herd. We circled around the backside of the butte, and the wind started picking up with 45 mph gusts left over from a major Pacific weather system. We made it to a spot he called Devils Kitchen. It was a butte with a carved path though the middle. We climbed to the top to look down at the buffalo, but now we could see only three. They had moved closer to the butte that had an old oxbow cut bank. We decided to go back around the side and come up downwind and try not to spook the animals. On the way out I looked down and found a large Indian hammer. I picked up the grooved rock and thoughts of the wild prairies and ancient hunts of the Native American tribes raced though my mind. That single moment will be etched in my memory forever.
After a few minutes, we made it around the butte. To our amazement the buffalo were gone; ten tons of dark fur had vanished. We could see a mile or two in every direction. We checked a few ravines and oxbows, but no buffalo. We decided to go back down river and see if the buffalo were down there, but no such luck. We looked off in the distance and noticed the bulls on a plateau about three miles north. They had out smarted us. We then came across two bulls that Curt had seen the day before near the river. One was a younger three or four year old and the other was a good looking five or six year old bull. We needed to get close, so we circled and walked the riverbed and eased up the cut bank to look over. They looked close. I used my range finder and realized they were still 115 yards away. Their huge size was deceiving as they looked a lot closer. Curt told me to shoot since he thought they were easily within range. He said that this might be as close as we get, the bulls were very spooky from the wind. The animals knew we were there, and they slowly eased away another 50 yards, and then stopped to see what we were doing. Next they went off in a full trot. We watched with binoculars as they crossed the river and headed back toward where the other herd had been. Curt knew where they were going and thought we had a chance of getting a closer shot, if we could cut them off at the pass. We made it over to the other side of the ranch and set up a quick blind with some dead tree branches near the entrance to another prairie. Curt moved back a couple hundred yards because there was only enough room for me to crouch behind my makeshift blind. I had brought shooting sticks, but I could not swing the gun on the sticks if the buffalo were approaching on the run. I laid down the sticks and checked some distances for range and waited. The bigger bull had been in the lead earlier, so I had to quickly make sure that he was still there. My only concern now was that the wind was blowing strong, and would he be able to smell me as he crossed my scent. I watched for about two minutes, when about 200 yards out, a single buffalo crested the hill. He was still running as he headed straight toward me. I cocked both hammers in a single motion with my thumb in true English fashion. At about 60 yards he slowed and slopped at a puddle. He knew something was not right, but kept coming at me. I then saw the other bull, and was not sure this was the one I wanted as he towered over the other second bull. The adrenalin was now pumping, and I did not know if it was the sound of the buffalo or my heart pounding in my ears. At about 40 yards he now presented a quartering shot. I would not have a straight broadside shot because of a wooden fence post and barbed wire between us. I did not think he was going to keep coming so I took my shot. Just as I was going to fire, the bull spotted me. He leaped forward as I pulled the first trigger. I wasn't sure if my shot was placed right, as the massive bull did not falter. He roared by me at about 15 yards. I knew I had to try and place a second shot to be sure he would go down. So I slid off to the right to try a quartering away shot. He saw me out of the corner of his eye and stopped and turned broadside at about 50 yards. Curt had warned me that buffalo sometimes stop to look back, not being afraid of man nor beast, then very often charge. I did not expect him to turn, yet he looked right through me staring at me as if nothing happened. Reading his mind, "Is that all you got"! By now my front bead was back on him, as I squeezed the second trigger noticing the spot of blood from the first shot. This time I saw the dust from his back explode as the large ball struck his vitals. He turned his head, tried to run, and he was now visibly bleeding from both sides. I knew the shot had completely penetrated the bull. He only made it about ten yards, then stopped and collapsed on all fours, hooves still planted in the dirt. I do not recall even aiming for either shot nor feeling the heavy recoil of the sixteen pound gun.
I had shot the big gun well over 150 times last year preparing for that moment. Practice shooting really had paid off last summer, as I was very familiar with the 16-1/4 pound 8-bore now. The Boswell was able to place four shots into the kill zone of a pop up lion target in less than twenty seconds at the Vintages Cup Shoot near Millbrook, New York. A scope was not needed to see where the ball had struck, as the huge holes were clearly visible. I was having a blast, excuse the pun, shooting paper elephants, lions, and charging Cape Buff buffalo, plus meeting other fellows with common interests in shooting, reloading and hunting with their big bore dangerous game rifles. A great thrill to say the least attending this grand event!
Curt came over amazed with the powerful 8-bore rifles quick kill, then he congratulated me. He had seen spine shots in the past anchor these animals right now, but a heart lung shot took some time and the wounded animal could travel a couple hundred yards or more after the shot. As we walked up on the bull, it looked as though he was still moving because his long hair was alive with the strong wind gusts up to 45 mph. Curt cut the bull's throat to bleed him, but there was nothing left. Crimson red now painted the prairie which was almost absent of color, from the tan grass to light colored soil. As we looked back where the bull had run, the contrast was plain to see then. We noticed on his right side two large one inch holes placed almost together. Walking around to the left side, I noticed a hole exiting through the left front leg. The gun had performed flawlessly. By now we had a small group on hand after calling my dad, Curt's wife, Marcie, and her parents. They all came out to see the bull. The bull was bigger than I ever imagined-around 2000 pounds. His hair was long and wiry. The coat was in full winter plumage, just beautiful, almost black at the head and legs, to cinnamon on his hump fading back to a mink colored black short coat on the rear half.
It was now time for pictures and then on to the real work: skinning, field dressing and quartering! We brought out a tractor to bring the massive bull back to the bunkhouse to start the bull work. Curt, Bruce and I started skinning right away. We had the animal dressed and quartered it in about three hours.
That night Curt warned us there was a mountain lion in the area. Next morning we noticed cougar tracks near the hanging bull just outside of our building. Dad and I had gotten up in the middle of the night going outside to the bathroom. The cougar had been attracted by the smell of the fresh kill. Thank God we had no problems with that cat! This buffalo hunt, with the double 8-bore, was a real adventure. The gun performed as it was meant to do, and I didn't do so bad either. But now can my dream of an African safari with my big bore come true. I guess only time will tell. I am keeping my fingers crossed.
In closing, if anyone is interested in buffalo hunting with Curt, you may contact him at Curt & Marcie Hepper, Flying H Ranch, 8595 49th Avenue, Raleigh, ND 58564, phone 701-597-3632.