The rifle may be used by experienced sportsmen for broader purposes, but its raison d’etre is to allow a PH to reliably terminate the deadly attack of a savage beast in order to save human lives. More than a hunting rifle this is a defensive rifle, capable of stopping a committed charge -– propelled by instinct, adrenaline, fear, hate or the hunger for revenge -– from the most powerful and dangerous wild animals on earth.
Professional hunters call this rifle a stopper, because it stops things, anything and everything. Or they call it a buffalo gun, because that is its most frequent target. A buffalo who strongly disapproves of you, the way you lace your boots, your race and religion, your choice of sport and your mother. Or it may be an elephant who has decided it would be a good idea to turn you inside-out and stomp you a foot and a half into the soil by way of improving his veldt decor. It could be a lion who’s sick of being portrayed as a wimp in all those sappy Disney movies and thinks a quick lobotomy will teach you a lesson you’ll never forget. If it’s a crazed hippo, he probably holds you personally responsible for that wire snare his girlfriend stepped into last year and is still wearing as an ankle bracelet. If it’s a flying dead leopard you’re still going to need plastic surgery.
If you’ve offended a dangerous animal by punching a hole in the wrong place or by shooting him according to the advice of most American gunwriters of the last fifty years who’ve assured you that a good ol’ 30-06 is all you really need, you’re going to find out in short order why dangerous animals are dangerous. And if your wounded animal surprises you, not by charging but by running away, you are now responsible for the terrorizing, maiming and slaughter of most of the people your permanently enraged lion or leopard or buffalo or elephant meets for the rest of his life. You have to stop him. Or you have to rely on your PH to draw down at the last moment with the proper instrument and do it for you.
The proper instrument will be a heavy rifle built for quick handling on rapidly moving targets at close range and closing. It will be of 45-caliber or larger and carry a bullet weighing 500 grains or more that is capable of penetrating a Cape buffalo end to end. If a brain shot is taken and missed, the head shot alone will be a powerful enough blow to knock an elephant off its feet or into a state of dizzy disorientation so that a second killing shot can be administered. It will have a Taylor Knock-Out Value of at least 80 and deliver about 6,000 foot-pounds of kinetic energy from both the muzzle and the recoil pad.
That, Mr. Gibbs, is your mission should you choose to accept it.
By most accounts, it was around 1910 when George Gibbs of England devised his huge rimless magnum as a proprietary cartridge for use in the new Mauser bolt-action magazine rifles. The .505 Gibbs was, and is, one of the most powerful cartridges in the world and equaled or exceeded the ballistics and killing power of most of the big double express rifles of the time. Gibbs had tough competition from gunmakers like Jeffery and Rigby, but the big .505 became a favorite of legendary elephant hunters such as John Taylor and J. A. Hunter. When Ernest Hemingway armed his fictional professional hunter with a .505 Gibbs in his story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Hollywood turned it into a big Gregory Peck movie, the charisma of the cartridge was cast.
An early 20s-era sales catalog from George Gibbs, Ltd. contained the following testimonial from an unnamed hunter in Tanganyika: “I received the .505 safely and was immediately struck by the beautiful finish and wonderful lightness of the weapon. On the 5th of this month, whilst on safari, I was in bed and at 5:30 a.m. a native informed me that elephant were raiding his mtama garden. So I rushed out, picked up the .505 and in half an hour came up to a herd of seven elephants in long grass, just clear of a native village. I got up to within twelve yards of them and dropped two, the rest made off and I followed, and owing to there being natives all round, they did not go far, and in a few minutes I came up to them again and dropped four more, only one was left and he returned to the first two, and I shot him at six to seven yards. I think this is the finest christening any rifle has ever had. Seven elephant before breakfast! I swear by the magazine and never touch a double barrel. Just as quick.”
Today, the .505 Gibbs is more popular that ever before. Originally designed to move a 525-grain bullet of .505” diameter at 2300 feet-per-second for 6180 foot-pounds of energy, surely more than adequate to stop any animal on the planet dead in his tracks, some modern handloaders are taking advantage of its vast case capacity (173.96 grains of water) to load bullets of 600 or even 700 grains at comparable velocities. Some other riflemakers are going in the other direction -– the Gibbs case itself, necked down to accommodate smaller-diameter bullets, is used as the parent of such ultramodern long-range cartridges as the .408 CheyTac.
Kase Reeder, bright young 1911 builder and son of famed pistolsmith Gary Reeder, started hunting in Africa with big-bore rifles when he was a teenager, and one of his first interests was reloading the .505. “I started loading the 525-grain Woodleigh bullet, then went to a 700-grain Barnes. To me, that was the biggest advantage of the .505. With that big case, it’s so versatile you can load just about anything. We were getting up to 2200 fps with the 700-grain bullets.”
Professional Hunter Kevin “Doctari” Robertson, who swears by his Dumoulin rifle in .505 Gibbs, prefers heavier bullets because of their greater sectional density (“I like pachyderm bullets to have SD’s of greater than .300 and this [525-grain] bullet has an SD of only .294) or reliable solids for elephant back-up.
He says, “I used to load either Woodleigh [525-gr.] solids or monolithics which were superb. In fact 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, but a 525-grain .505 monolithic (at 2250 fps) did. The bull just stopped in his tracks with his whole front leg bent at a awkward angle (an elephant can't walk on three legs) and when I eventually got to do an autopsy, I found the solid in the lungs together with a 6-inch slither of humerus bone which had been blown through the ribs and into the chest cavity as well. My impressions of the .505 Gibbs went up a thousand percent after that as I'm sure you can imagine.
“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. She was dead by the time we had clambered down the hill to her. Not many calibers would have done that either. The KO effect of the .50 calibres is considerably greater than the .458s and this is what I like for those back-up or stopping shots. It’s the .50’s greater frontal surface area which is responsible for this, I believe -– 0.200 inch sq. as compared to 0.165 – a difference of some 21 percent which is considerable in ballistics terms.
“Having said that, I've long had wonderful terminal bullet performance with the original nickel-jacketed solids (525-grainers and the jacket is actually really thin) on buffalo. These were my preferred back-up bullets for buff and I've recovered a handful of them. I’m convinced they all tumbled when encountering a buffalo, as few exited (which was great) and all flattened or fishtailed to some degree, but the knock-down effect when they did was something to behold, and I have dropped buff to the shot from just about every angle with this combination.
“A 550-grain bullet in the .505 (SD .308) would be great. I’ve never tried the 600-grainer, but I'm suspicious as to the recoil it would generate at around 2150 fps. At that speed I'm sure it would shoot right through a buff and this is something I’m very aware of, especially as an acquaintance of mine was killed by the second buff he had unknowingly wounded.”
The .505 Gibbs, with a base diameter of .635-inch and an unloaded case length of 3.15 inches, naturally calls for the biggest, strongest, best made super magnum Mauser action possible. Needless to say, such actions don’t grow on trees. High-end European factories, notably Dumoulin and Heym, chamber the .505 Gibbs, and custom gunmakers are building an ever-increasing number of them for sophisticated clients who have learned to handle that level of power.
Granite Mountain Arms of Prescott, Arizona, considers the .505 Gibbs its signature rifle. There are several reasons for this. One, of the four sizes of Mauser actions GMA builds, the big magnum action with its .750-inch diameter bolt is perfectly suited for the giant .505 cartridge. Second, word of the strength and precision of GMA actions has got around, and the company is building probably more .505 Gibbs than anybody else in the country. Third, this happens to be the favorite caliber of Mike Roden, GMA’s founder and president and a seasoned African hunter himself.
Roden says, “The .505 Gibbs is a wonderful cartridge. It just seems to do everything right and it’s superbly accurate. I’ve shot more game with a .505 that I have with anything else, and everything I’ve ever shot with it has collapsed immediately, except for an American bison. That bison just stood there for a while and then he fell over.”
I recently spent a day shooting one of GMA’s custom .505 Gibbs. The rifle was built like the proverbial tank, only elegantly so, very finely finished and entirely shootable, though I admit you might want to take a break, relax and smoke a cigar after the first 10 rounds or so. The recoil of the .505 in a properly stocked rifle like GMA’s is not as fearsome as you might imagine though it is quite exhilarating. It doesn’t take an overactive imagination to visualize elephant and buffalo crashing down with every pull of the trigger.
You don’t need Mr. Gibbs’ illustrious killing machine. There’s not an animal on the planet that won’t fall from one well placed shot from a .375 Holland & Holland Magnum. Plenty of very knowledgeable professional hunters are happy to stake their lives and the lives of their clients on a .416 Rigby or a .458 Lott. Nevertheless, the deadly bullfight scenario that professionals perform on occasion is exactly what every sport hunter of dangerous game dreams of performing himself, and there’s a great deal of satisfaction to be derived from knowing that you’re equipped with a magnificent tool to pull it off decisively should the need and the opportunity arise. There’s a reason why Ernest Hemingway gave Gregory Peck a .505 Gibbs.