Big game hunting: high-powered rifles VS large-bore shotguns

The largest bore (gauge) shotguns ever made were intended for use as elephant guns (not counting “punt guns” that were never intended to be fired by hand). Do they still make these? I’m reminded of the scene in the first Tremors movie, where the survivalist loads shells the size of a banana into a huge double barreled gun that he later shoots one of the worms with. Have these Elmer Fudd-like weapons been supplanted by high powered game rifles? How do the two types of weapon compare in their merits for hunting rhino/ hippo/ elephant?

Range is one factor. A shotgun is great up close, but loses impact quicky. A rifle can reach out and touch something from a much greater distance.

To kill an elephant, the projectile & bullet must have good accuracy, and the bullet must have excellent penetration.


The best way to kill an elephant is to shoot it in the brain. This is very difficult to do; as one writer once put it, “it’s like trying to shoot the carburetor on a VW bug from 50 paces.” So even if you have studied the anatomy of an elephant, and you know *precisely * where the brain is, you need a projectile & bullet with good accuracy. The brain is also buried in the skull, which means the bullet must also have excellent penetration.

A shotgun has pretty lousy accuracy. And poor penetration. And lousy range. It’s certainly not the best tool for elephant hunting.

I’ve seen some truly enormous shotguns (2 and 4 gauge) but AFAIK (and I’m not a gunsmith) they were not intended for use in hunting elephants. They were used (amongst other things) like punt guns - bring down a few jillion birds with one pull of the triggers. They did make some solid slugs for these monsters but I don’t know what they were ever used against.

Perhaps you are thinking of a gun like the double-barrelled .600 Nitro Express (which I think is what Michael Gross uses in Tremors, it sure looks like the photos I’ve got)? That was an actual big game rifle, the second barrel allowing for an immediate second shot in case your first one missed or simply pissed off whatever you were shooting at.

Great big slow moving bullet, what I’ve read is that the .458 and .460 Weatherby Magnum surpassed it.

I’ve hunted whitetail deer in the Adirondacks using a shotgun with a rifled barrel. Using Rottweil rifled slugs the muzzle velocity is 1500 feet per second. By the time you get out to 100 yards the velocity drops to 940 feet per second with 1240 ft-lbs of energy. That’s using the 12 gauge magnum 1.375 ounce slug. As you can see the velocity falls off pretty drastically, and the bullet drop at 100 yards is almost a foot, but I sight it in around 3 inches low at 50 yards.

It’s an adequate load for what and where I hunt, where the woods are so thick it’s hard to believe I’d ever see a deer more than 100 yards away, much less shoot at one. At distances over 100 yards, or hunting animals more difficult to knock down than whitetail, a rifle is the best choice.

Ok, I was wrong about the Tremors gun (I saw the double barrels and presumed shotgun). But I could have sworn that the Guinness BoWR listed 4-bore as the largest production shotguns and said that they were elephant guns. (Of course, I could find no such cite when I went to look for it. :mad: )

I had a book on sporting rifles when I was a kid, which described 4-bore elphant gun, but not as shotguns, more like glorified muskets - smoothbores with conical bullets.
Interesting linky
The book I had mentioned the 4-bore in the context of a famous hunter who developed incurable gun flinch and blamed it on the 4-bore. I can imagine

would lead to some interesting recoil and muzzle effects…

However, look what else the wonders of google turns up
Making a 4-bore double rifle
shooting things with it, and some pictures of the bullets
Truly, there are some mad people out there, and thankfully the internet lets us learn about them from a safe distance…

Ok, after reading the links I see it’s sorta a matter of definition: smoothbore black powder muzzle loading muskets evolved into breech loaders, then nitro loads; sometimes firing single ball and other times very large buckshot; and eventually becoming rifled.

They were used for hunting Tigers and so on by Maharajahs in India, and later spread to Africa where they were used against some of the wildlife there… some of them were even made as rifles, and a firm in Victoria recently made a reproduction of a 4-bore (4 guage) Rewa Rifle, which was purchased by a member of the Royal Family in the UK. The kick on the rifle- even with a recoil pad- is enough to knock an experienced shooter backwards.

The British were quite partial to large-calibre guns during the heydey of the British Empire- things like the .577 Snider-Enfield and the .450/577 Martini-Henry (the latter of which fired a 480gr bullet!) were ideal for knocking of dangerous game, restless natives, and animals which could then be eaten.

It wasn’t until the advent of Smokeless Powder in the 1880s that massive, slow moving bullets gave way to faster, smaller, more expansive projectiles (like the .303 British and .30-06 Springfield), which were just as effective, made less mess, and had a better penetration.

.303 British, 8x57mm Mauser, and .30-06 Springfield are really about the smallest calibres with which you could hope to bring down an Elephant (although one of the most famous Great White Hunters in Africa prefered a 6.5x50 Schonauer, and others have bought them down with 6.5x55 Swedish calibre guns), but Holland & Holland still make guns in .500 H&H Nitro for rich people on safari in Africa.

More or less. Rifling wasn’t seen as a vital necessity for Cape Guns at first, since you had to get up close and personal to ensure a good, clean kill anyway. However, the Elephant Guns/Cape Guns were very soon made with rifling for greater accuracy- certainly, from about 1875 onwards they were all rifled AFAIK.