Dancing with the 4-Bore, the .510 Wells Express, .505 Gibbs, .470 Nitro Express, and .416 Taylor.

It’s called the 4-Bore Two-Step, and everybody’s doing it, doing it. At least everybody I’ve seen pull the trigger on a 4-bore rifle. Step back, hop on one foot, don’t fall down (though some do). You’ve got to sway to the rhythm of a deep-throated blackpowder explosion in a brass case the size of a sewer pipe and swing in the back-thrust of a 2,000-grain lead bullet propelled by 385+ grains of FG. It’s less waltz, more tango, helps if you bring some high spirits to the dance.

The 4-bore rifle was going strong back in the golden age of the ivory trade, before smokeless powder allowed us to invent the term “high velocity,” when primitive cast lead bullets with little more sectional density than a bowling ball required careful shot placement at very close range to achieve any kind of penetration at all, when “knock-down power” was taken quite literally, and rifle bores were so big they were measured like shotguns by how many bore-size lead balls it took to weigh a pound. A 4-bore equates to about a one-inch bore diameter, or 1.000-caliber, though the hand-built barrels were not consistent and most ranged between .935” and .955”.

Most but by no means all 4-bores were single-shots, because adding a second massive barrel to a gun that already weighed more than 20 pounds was widely considered excessive even in the days of dedicated gunbearers. If you wanted a double that didn’t need its own set of wheels, you could have a 16-pound 8-bore. Or you could use your light rifle, which might be a little 14-pound .577. Anything less was definitely a smallbore in the eyes of old Africa hands, and of no use for hunting at all until the invention of cordite, the development of jacketed bullets and the genius of Paul Mauser changed everything.

A 4-bore played the role of Excalibur in John Ross’ modern knights errant novel, Unintended Consequences. We all enjoyed the taste of a more glorious past the day about half a dozen of us went into the forest outside Prescott, Arizona, with an Army & Navy 4-bore owned by Texan Bert Forrest. The Army & Navy Co-operative Society was a British distributor of firearms, particularly to the African colonies. Though the Army & Navy name was engraved on the guns, this was an early example of private labeling, with the guns actually made by any number of firms, including big names like Rigby, Jeffery and Holland & Holland. All we knew for sure about the past of our 4-bore, a classic underlever design with an external hammer, was that it had at one time been a smoothbore, not an unusual pedigree for these old rifles, and had been rebarreled by JJ Perodaux of Champlin Arms in Oklahoma. Forrest has the brass cartridge cases machined from solid stock, moulds his own bullets, and loads to about 1500 fps.

The heavy, slow-motion recoil of the 4-bore is not unpleasant, in fact it’s just the opposite for a big-bore aficionado. The oddest sensation for a modern rifleman is watching the target disappear in the original version of disco fog before the thud of the hit reaches your ears.

The .510 Wells Express

For many years Bert Forrest has made frequent pilgrimages to Prescott to visit with his old friend, legendary riflemaker Fred Wells, and spend a little time going over interesting guns and doing a little shooting and a little horsetrading. But Fred died a few months before, ending an important era in the art of custom gunmaking, and this outing was more in the nature of a tribute to the great gunsmith. We also took out one of Fred’s favorite rifles, a maple-stocked .510 Wells Express. Fred told me more than once that a good maple stock was stronger than walnut, and he always liked the looks of it. His .510 was his best-known wildcat, built on belted 378/460 Weatherby brass, with a sterling reputation on the big stuff in Africa. Today we were shooting 570-grain Barnes X bullets at about 2300 fps, a sweet load in the hand-built Wells rifle and fully up to bringing down the larger beasts that roamed the Prescott hills a million years ago. No fancy footwork is required to fire the .510 Wells Express in a 12-pound rifle, though it sure helps if you’re limbo-limber in the hips, as was the case with the .505 Gibbs I took out later in the week.

The sting of blackpowder from the 4-bore still hung in the air, the hearty shoulder-shove of the .510 was invigorating, and one could only wish that Fred had been there.

The .505 Gibbs

The Gibbs is my personal rifle, built by Fred Wells on a Granite Mountain Arms magnum Mauser action for which Fred designed and built the prototype, the kind of action you get when the vision of a meticulous mind like Wells is CNC-machined from a solid block of steel. The GMA action is not an “improved” Mauser ‘98 –- that strange contradiction in terms –- but a ‘98 the way Paul Mauser would have made it if he had lived a hundred years later. It is one of the very few actions available in the world that is up to handling the massive .505 Gibbs case with strength to spare.

Owning this rifle is like living with a legend. Not only is it a Fred Wells rifle, it was formerly owned by Mike Roden, president and founder of Granite Mountain Arms, and had already accounted for a trophy room full of buffalo and kudu before I got it. Mike says it probably saved his life when he used it to stop an elephant charge with a cannon shot across the bow.

I had two lots of ammo for the .505, custom loads from Larry Barnett of Superior Ammo and handloads from Russell Menard of CAM Enterprises. Both loads clocked 2300 fps over the chronograph with 525-grain Woodleigh softs and both shot to the same point of impact, so that a mixed group made one raggedy hole at 50 yards.

When George Gibbs of England devised his huge rimless magnum as a proprietary cartridge for use in Mauser magazine rifles around 1910, the .505 Gibbs was arguably the most powerful sporting cartridge in the world and equaled or exceeded the ballistics and killing power of the big double express rifles of the time. That hasn’t changed. The big .505 became a favorite of legendary elephant hunters such as John Taylor and J. A. Hunter, Ernest Hemingway’s fictional professional hunter in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and one of today’s best known real-life PHs, Kevin “Doctari” Robertson. A 1920s-era sales catalog from George Gibbs, Ltd. contained a testimonial from an unnamed hunter in Tanganyika that gave the .505 credit for his bag of seven elephants before breakfast.

Kevin Robertson says, “I once stopped a charging big bull elephant (it charged the video cameraman) with a quartering-on shoulder shot. Not many calibers can smash an elephant’s humerus bone... I once also shot a big elephant cow right on the shoulder as she came running past me as I stood on the side of a pretty steep hill. The shot knocked her right over and she rolled down the hill as a result. Not many calibers would have done that either. The KO effect of the .50 calibers is considerably greater than the .458s and this is what I like for those back-up or stopping shots.”

Baby Big Bores

Two sub-.50s of unusual configuration rounded out this week of living large. A .470 Nitro Express that was a baby in overall size, and a .416 Taylor that was a baby in behavior.

The Beast. Gunsmith Gary Reeder of Flagstaff, Arizona, is widely known for his series of custom handguns and lever-actions and for occasionally completely transforming a big-bore Ruger No. 1. Reeder’s latest custom series, appropriately called The Beast, is based on the No. 1 but bears no resemblance to anything you would ever see coming out of the Ruger factory. For one thing, the barrel is the barely legal 16 inches long. Standard equipment includes a muzzlebrake, very fast rear ghost ring sight in combination with a bright fiberoptic front sight, and chambering in any big-bore caliber. I feel a rimmed British cartridge is most appropriate for the Farquharson-type action, and Reeder just happened to have a prototype chambered in .470 Nitro Express and a box of Federal factory ammo on hand to let me play with for a day. Those with a need or hankering for a pistol-quick bush rifle with the power to stop a charging beast in its tracks don’t have to look any further.

The first Beast Reeder sold, also chambered in .470 NE, went to a South Texas rancher. You’ve heard the legend of the Texas Longhorns escaped to the wild state when all the men and boys in Texas went off to kill Yankees, and that remnants of these dangerous feral herds remain in South Texas today as a reminder that the Southern War for Independence is still being fought. Apparently the legend is true. Reeder’s first Beast customer says it’s not unusual for a solitary old Longhorn bull the size of a Cape buffalo but equipped with a bigger-bore hole-punching apparatus to suddenly come charging unprovoked out of a mesquite thicket or river bottom with nothing but murder in his eyes. Texans being Texans, only one shot is required to drop the curtain on this melodrama, but the shot needs to be a big one. Thus The Beast.

To answer the first question that probably occurred to you, I chronographed the Federal factory loads, which are nominally rated at 2150 fps with 500-grain solids, in Reeder’s 16-inch barrel for an average reading of 2060 fps. Not enough velocity loss to be concerned about, especially when you consider the compensatory benefit of a rifle you can wield with one hand if need be.

The Rubber Ducky. Another Texas friend of mine, John Paul Jones from the New Orleans suburb of Houston, stopped by the other day to show me his latest experiment, a .416 Taylor built on a Santa Barbara Mauser action. I’ve always regarded the .416 Taylor with affection. I believe it would have been a better wildcat than the .416 Hoffman for Remington to have appropriated for their own commercial .416 round. Of the three, all of which can match traditionally loaded .416 Rigby ballistics, the Taylor requires less powder to do so and is the only one that fits a standard-length Mauser action. I also think the necked down Taylor is a far better balanced utilization of the .458 Winchester Magnum case than the seriously underbore .458 itself. The developer of the cartridge was an experienced African hunter and noted gunwriter, Robert Chatfield-Taylor. If you doubt that some of the more literary types know their way around brass and bullets, I refer you not only to Chatfield-Taylor, but to Whelen, Lott, Keith, at al.

John Paul could not have called his rifle The Rubber Ducky if he had not taken the additional steps of finishing the metalwork in dazzling green, screwing a big muzzlebrake on the end of the barrel and dropping it all into a synthetic stock with a built-in recoil reducing device complete with cam, roller and extension spring all of which exert mechanical counterforces that reduce the already modest felt recoil of a 10.5-pound .416 Taylor to the limp handshake of a 30-06.

Now, as my friend John Paul Jones knows, I personally regard a synthetic stock of any kind, much less a spring-loaded one, on a big-bore sporting Mauser about like I regard the guy who shows up at a formal dinner party with a picture of a tuxedo painted on his T-shirt or the guy who stalks elephant in deer-hunting camo. A synthetic stock on a Mauser is like combat boots on a long-legged blonde, basketball shoes under an evening gown, flip-flops on a ballerina. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like eating your chateaubriand off a styrofoam plate with a plastic knife and fork. You get the idea. And the same goes for muzzlebrakes, which are not only unspeakably ugly but insufferably rude. The hunting guides and PHs I know rate them right up there with boom-boxes going full blast on a hip-hop station. Some people say synthetic stocks, muzzlebrakes and other novelties like stainless steel barrels, in all their unsightly splendor, are the way of the future. That’s what a 14-year-old I know says about girls with earrings in their noses and tattoos on their butts.

People who habitually hunt in horrible weather say wood stocks warp and blue barrels rust, potential problems which have been solved quite nicely since the beginning of time by the occasional use of a dry rag or drop of oil. I think the synthetic/stainless/muzzlebrake guys are paranoid, and they build guns the way they do in the hope that the sheer ugliness of their rifles will frighten the bad weather gods away. The corollary to that is that the English walnut/blue steel guys get more girls.

While it’s certainly not anything you would ever see a traditionalist like me carrying in the bushveldt or anywhere else, I have to give credit to John Paul Jones and his soft-shooting Rubber Ducky (known to the rest of us as The Ugly Duckling). He plans to use it to gently introduce the joys of big bores to women, children, varmint shooters and target hunters. I consider that an admirable goal indeed.

Swing Your Partner

Just for fun, I ran the equation for John “Pondoro” Taylor’s famous Taylor Knock-Out values on all the cartridges. Results were:

(CONTROL ROUND – 30-06 – TKO 21)
416 TAYLOR – TKO 57
470 NITRO EXPRESS (16” bbl) – TKO 69
505 GIBBS – TKO 87
510 WELLS – TKO 95
4-BORE – TKO 409 (!)

The widely used kinetic energy numbers were also interesting:

(CONTROL ROUND – 30-06 – 3,022 FT-LBS)
416 TAYLOR – 5,115 FT-LBS
470 NITRO EXPRESS (16” bbl) – 5,131 FT-LBS
505 GIBBS – 6,166 FT-LBS
510 WELLS – 6,694 FT-LBS
4-BORE – 9,990 FT-LBS (Almost exactly midway between the .460 Weatherby Magnum and the .50 BMG!)

For a more realistic assessment of killing effectiveness than either of these ratings provides, you would have to factor in the vital penetration and controlled expansion characteristics of modern heavy-for-caliber premium hunting bullets operating in the maximum-efficiency velocity band of 2150 to about 2450 fps at the muzzle. If a formula existed to accurately quantify these bullet-and-bone factors, which it doesn’t, it would knock down the 4-bore rating a few pegs and bump up all the other cartridges. However you figure it, the .416 Taylor has an excellent record on buffalo and elephant, the .470 NE is a gold standard in doubles, and the .505 Gibbs and .510 Wells are more devastating on pachyderms than any blackpowder-loaded cartridge firing even the largest cast lead bullet at low velocity (or, for that matter, a modern cartridge/bullet at too-high a velocity) could ever be.

There you have it. From the wholeheartedly wild 4-bore to a domesticated .416, a dance card filled with mischievous big-bores will make your smallbore shooting about as exciting as tip-toeing through the tulips.