While the bolt-action rifles are certainly adequate, and much more affordable, hunting with a double rifle is a unique and fantastic experience. I’m often asked by prospective double rifle buyers for advice on which cartridge to choose; there is a lot of overlap and yet some definite difference in performance.
There are also a good number of double rifles chambered for rimless and belted cases, but the classic double rifle cartridge is rimmed, and so my choices will be confined to those. Here are my top five cartridge choices for a double rifle.
1. .450 Nitro Express
Here is perhaps the most historically famous of all the classic cartridges; Rigby released the .450 Nitro Express in 1898, and it became the industry standard. Based on the .450 Black Powder Express, the .450 NE uses a 3¼-inch case and propels a .458-inch-diameter 480-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2150 fps (a formula later replicated by the .458 Winchester Magnum).
Most every hunter serious about large game in Africa and India had a .450 NE at one point in time or another, as it was actually considered an all-around rifle cartridge. Straight-walled and smooth to load under stress, the .450 NE generates just over 4,900 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle, and can be housed in a rifle which is easy to carry. The .450 NE will comfortably take any game on earth.
2. .450/400 3″ Nitro Express
Here is another cartridge based on an earlier black powder development, having been released in 1902, it is also known as the .400 Jeffery Nitro Express. Based on the .450 case, shortened to 3 inches—there is a 2½-inch and 3¼-inch version of the .450/400 as well—and necked down to hold .410-inch-diameter 400-grain bullets, the cartridge would find fame in the hands of tiger hunter Jim Corbett, not to mention receiving praise from many of the African hunters.
Having an excellent sectional density value (.340), the .450/400 3″ offers plenty of penetration in spite of its mild muzzle velocity of 2050 fps. It has a favorable reputation among visiting hunters, though most PHs feel it is a bit light for a stopping rifle. Generating 3,730 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle, it makes a great choice for buffalo and the cats, and though some feel it’s on the bottom of the scale for elephant, it has taken many, many pachyderms over the years.
I used the first Heym Model 89B rifle, chambered in .450/400 3″ NE, to take a good Cape buffalo in the forests of Mozambique’s Coutada 11 with Zambeze Delta Safaris. It’s mild on the shoulder in comparison to the heavier cartridges, and if buffalo are as high up the scale you intend to go, there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a .450/400 3″ NE as your double rifle cartridge.
3. .500 Nitro Express
The modern iteration of the .500 Nitro Express dates back to the 19th century and is based on a previous design which was fueled by black powder. The big five-hundy is a true stopping rifle, capable of settling the score with charging buffalo, hippo and elephant alike. Driving a 570-grain bullet of .510-inch-diameter to 2150 fps for 5,850 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy, the .500 Nitro uses a 3-inch, straight-walled case.
Recoil is not for the faint of heart, but is surprisingly manageable for such a big rifle. If you’re serious about elephant hunting, take a long, hard look at the .500 NE; it handles a pachyderm better than any lesser cartridge and is a very popular choice among professional hunters.
4. .470 Nitro Express
This one is my personal favorite, and is the cartridge I chose for my own double rifle. I’ve used it for both Cape buffalo in Africa and Asiatic water buffalo in Australia, with excellent results. With a 3¼-inch case—based on a 3¼-inch-long version of the .500 NE—the bottlenecked .470 Nitro Express was designed to replicate the ballistics of the .450 Nitro Express. Colonial insurrections in both India and Sudan caused the British Empire to ban .450-caliber rifle and ammunition in those colonies, and gun makers scrambled to create alternatives.
There were many, including the .500/465, the .475 and .475 No. 2 Jefferys, and .476 Nitro Express, but the Joseph Lang-designed .470 NE became the most popular, and remains so to this day. Pushing a 500-grain .474-inch-diameter bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2150 fps for 5,140 ft.-lbs. of energy, the .470 will take any game animal anywhere. Rifles will weigh between 10 and 12 pounds, depending on manufacturer, and recoil is manageable. Of all the rimmed double rifle cartridges, ammunition for the .470 NE is the most plentiful.
5. .416 Rigby No. 2
This is, undoubtedly, the newest on this list, and the newest safari cartridge, being released at the end of May 2019. The .416 Rigby No. 2 is nothing other than the famous .416 Rigby with a rim; the same 45-degree shoulder is maintained, and even the same reloading dies can be used, just with a different shellholder.
Quite obviously, the .416 Rigby—driving a .400-grain bullet to 2400 fps for just over 5,100 ft.-lbs. of energy—has an unparalleled reputation among African hunters; it offers fantastic penetration, and gives a trajectory that is surprisingly flat for a big rifle.
John ‘Pondoro’ Taylor—famous ivory poacher and author of African Rifles and Cartridges—sang the praises of the .416 Rigby and wished for a rimmed version for a double rifle all the way back in the 1940s. Well, John, it only took 75 years, but here it is. Yes, the .500-416 NE offers a similar performance level—albeit a bit slower—the panache of the .416 Rigby No. 2 will definitely appeal to shooters.
While I am limited to just five cartridges for this article, there are many good, useable choices, such as the .375 Holland & Holland Flanged, .450 No. 2, and the .475 No. 2, which I wouldn’t hesitate to use in the field. However, with any one of the five listed above, you’ll have a sensible cartridge in your belt and a smile on your professional hunter’s face.