The Second Biggest Buffalo In The World
I was crawling along, infantry style, cradling my rifle in my arms, when Randy stage whispered, “those young bulls are acting up”. I looked around to see him pointing his Super Safari rifle at two 4-5 year old Asian Buffalo bulls about 30 yards away. They were facing us, stomping their front feet and throwing their heads up and down, snot flying. I glanced at Joe Bannon, now about 10 yards to my front. He looked briefly at the bulls, them me, then signaled me to come to him. He was squatting in front of a “cabbage” palm, with a group of bigger bulls about 100 yards away across a wide canal. The young bulls were on our side of the canal, with the bigger bulls on the other side.
I ducked my head and crawled forward, trying to avoid rocks and stumps with my sore old football knee. I glanced at the big bulls. There were two that looked good, with bigger bodies and horns than the others. One was brownish and the other deep black. They were surrounded by smaller animals, all of them grazing along towards the opposite bank of the canal.
Joe Bannon, on the left, and Doc glass for bulls in the swampland of Florida. If we had a 100 foot high tidal wave, we would have been 90 feet under water.
We had been watching them for about 2 hours. We had luckily barged into them from the opposite side of the pasture, ducking back quickly enough that they had not sensed our presence. Joe had taken us on a long roundabout stalk to our present position. The young bulls had wandered into us in turn, and appeared thoroughly alarmed by our presence. Joe had explained that the youngsters act like teenage bullies, blow and huff and threaten, but rarely charge. When they do, there can be a real ruckus because, being teenagers, they only dare come as a gang.
The wind had become a problem, too. It was blowing in our faces, giving us great position on the big bulls, who can smell a man at a mile. But it had gradually increased in force and gustiness as time wore on. It was blowing at a steady 20 MPH with gusts to 30, making a steady shot problematic.
I reached Joe. I tried setting up from a sit, but could net see the bulls for the canal bank. I was forced to one knee, a much less steady position. I tried using a tree for a rest, but the wind was so strong and gusty that it was difficult at best to hold the cross hairs of the Burris scope on the ‘triangle of death’ on the bulls chest. A buffalo’s wide chest throws his heart and lungs far forward, much more so than in lighter, slimmer animals. In order to achieve a quick kill, the hunter must place a bullet at the triangle formed by the lower edge of the shoulder blade and the upper edge of the humerus, the huge hard bone of the upper leg. This would be especially important with our muzzle loaders, using soft lead bullets. A shot precisely placed will take the big arteries off the heart for sudden death. A shot anywhere else can result in the sudden death of the hunter.
I was carrying my personal #0001 White 504 caliber M98 Elite Hunter rifle, the first M98 carrying my name and the first one off the White production line. (I do R&D for WhiteRifles and the Co. carries my name.) I had it loaded with 140 grains of Pyrodex P and my new, experimental 600 grain slip-fit SCB Self-Cleaning Bullet. The SCB is a copper gas check with a tent-like bottom, designed to slip-fit with 1/1000th inch windage down the barrel, then flatten with the blast of powder gases on firing, expanding into the grooves of the rifling and cleaning the barrel of powder and lead residues as it exits the barrel. I had found the design to be very effective on sabots and fully expected that it would work equally well, if not better, on lead bullets. This was to be the first opportunity to test it on real game.
I had spotted this particular hunt the year before. The SCB bullet was already designed and the SCS sabot had been shown to be effective in its designed role. I wanted to find a huge, tough animal for the test and had originally planned on an American bison. When the SCI show came around, my thoughts turned to African Buffalo,. I attended an SCI auction, expecting to find a good African buffalo hunt, but was struck by the size and ferocity of the wild Asian Buffalo ranched by Joe Bannon in Florida. I ended up winning one of his donated hunts.
Once I have booked a hunt, I always spend lots of time shooting in my chosen rifle and load, getting used to the vagarities of that particular piece and memorizing its trajectory and performance. I carefully hand made 2-300 of the factory 600 grain PowerPunch 503 caliber bullets into SCB’s, adding the hand punched copper base on a lathe, one at a time. I found that they cleaned the barrel nicely, as designed, allowing far more shots without cleaning between shots than without the SCB base. Where before I could shoot 15-20 times without cleaning in the hot Utah summer and fall, I could now shoot 30-40 times with very consistent accuracy. Loading was much easier and leading of the barrel non-existant. To my delight, I also found that adding the SCB base to the bullet also allowed a somewhat larger charge of powder without destroying accuracy. Where before, without the new base, 120 grains of Pyrodex P seemed to be the upper accurate limit, now I could fire 140 grains with consistent accuracy while keeping the barrel free of powder and lead residues.. I spent the fall and following spring shooting up that supply of bullets, except for a final 20 that I saved for the hunt.
I had invited Randy Smith, a good friend, shooting buddy and ardent believer in the White Muzzleloading System, to hunt with me. He had brought along an older White Super Safari, a stainless full stock rifle in 504 caliber shooting the same bullet with 120 grains Pyrodex P.
I had driven from my home in Roosevelt Utah, to Salt Lake City then, flown from there to Houston, where I met Randy. He had flown from Dodge City, Kansas. We continued on together to southern Florida, picked up a car and drove north a hundred miles to the edge of the Okeefenokee country where we found the Bannon ranch,
The countryside was low, wet, swampy and covered with cabbage palms and heavy brush where it was not covered with water. There was probably an alligator in every puddle. It occurred to me that if we suffered a 100 foot high tidal wave that we would be 90 feet under water. Joe confirmed that it was indeed a fact.
His ranch was also covered with Asian Buffalo, huge black to brown animals that looked like large editions of the African Cape buffalo. Their horns were somewhat different, but the huge squatness of them was much the same. There was no doubt that they were bigger and also no doubt that they were just as tough and brave and hard to kill. They also ran in herds, in fact it was rare to find an animal by itself. A unique difference was that they loved water, a plunge in the local canal and a roll in the mud being ‘de rigeur’ at lunchtime.
All of them were bulls, even the youngsters. Joe said that if he had any cows at the ranch, the bulls would kill each other fighting over the cows. His breeding herd of cows and calves was in another location. He said that he could leave the bulls with their mothers until they were about two years old, then had to move them to the 4000 acre ‘bull pasture’ we were hunting.
We spent the first few days of the hunt in classic manner, up in the dark, breakfast (always too much) then drive to the six plus square mile hunting area, glass for the biggest bulls as the herds scattered across the more open area in the early morning light. By noon, the big herd had broken up into smaller groups, either lying in the shade, preferably in a puddle, or plunging into a canal or wallow. The technique then was to staulk up on the known watering places, check on horn size, then retreat hopefully without the bulls having been alerted by our presence. By late afternoon, the bulls were grazing again. The large groups made staulking them difficult. It was hard to escape all the eyes and we had to be very careful of the wind.
Joe always carried his big 470 at port arms once a bull was close. It was obvious that he did not trust them an inch. He kept an extra two cartridges between the fingers of his right hand, shooting left handed. He had great respect for the animals.
By the third day, we had spotted several big bulls that looked promising, but had never been able to get close. Once, we had seem them from about 200 yards, with the breeze in our faces and a convenient low hump between them and us. We spend an hour crawling the hundred yards to the hump, only to have the wind suddenly switch directions. When we looked over the hump, the whole herd was facing us in a small tight knit knot. Of course, the big bulls were in the back. Once they identified by sight what their noses told them was there, they whirled and ran off in a cloud of dust, leaving us hot, tired and sweaty and frustrated.
As fortune would have it, we spotted the big bulls and about another 20 animals on the next afternoon. The wind was blowing from East to West, the bulls out 300 yards in a pasture bordered on the West by a big canal. Joe took us downwind, across the canal then up and around the herd. We stayed well inside the brush and palms and ended up dead downwind of them, watching them slowly graze towards us. This where the story started.
Well, the wind was tough. It was a struggle to get the rifle positioned for a shot. The bulls were now within 100 yards, with the big black in the lead. I like the conformation of the brown bulls horns a little better, but Joe whispered to me that the black bull would score the best. There wasn’t much difference. This was also the best opportunity we’d had and could be the last. The young bulls on our side of the canal were acting in a decidedly aggressive manner. They were only 30 yards from us and it was only a matter of time until their antics would alarm the big bulls and scare them off. I decided that the first of the two big bulls, black or brown, to step out past the herd and offer a shot would catch my bullet.
The situation was cinched up even tighter when the young bulls watching us suddenly decided they had seen enough, whirled and plunged into the canal, throwing water high into the air. They were thoroughly alarmed and would run to the main herd and spook them away. The big black stepped forward to see what was going on. His step took him past a smaller animal in his front and opened a good view of his chest. He was 90 yards away. It was the best opportunity yet.
The crosshairs wobbled into the triangle and the gun went off all by itself. Funny how the gun always seems to go off all by itself in tight situations. The cloud of smoke was instantly blown into shreds by the wind. The big bullet whacked into the bull with a distinct slap. Joe shouted “good shot” as the bulls whirled and ran for cover 300 yards away, the big black trailing the herd, obviously hurt. They disappeared into the brush. I was crestfallen, expecting to see the big black wobble and fall, but instead seeing him disappear. Joe grabbed my shoulder, “don’t worry’ he said, “the bullet took him just a little back , maybe 4 inches. It ‘s a good shot. He’ll be down soon. I’ve never seen a big bull go down with one shot from any rifle, let alone a muzzle loader”
“Soon’ turned out to be a relative term. We tracked the bull through brush and ‘cabbage’ groves for the rest of the day. His hoofprints quickly disappeared into the maze of prints from the herd he was running with. Joe, in front with his 470, me off to one side watching as far ahead as I could see, Randy to the other side , watching our rear. The tracking was cautious and slow and meticulous. Every brush pile, palm frond and bush was carefully evaluated before taking another step. It was obvious that Joe had great respect for these great beasts.
Well into the afternoon, after losing the track as the herd pushed into knee deep swamp, we were forced to give up tracking the bull. We spent the remainder of the day looking at every herd, large and small that we could find, trying to see if the bull was with them. By dark, Joe was satisfied that we had seem them all. The bull, he concluded, was sick enough that he had snuck off by himself. He was confident that we would find him in the morning.
We were up at first light, breakfasted silently and headed into the swamp. Today we were riding an ‘elephant’, a huge ten foot high machine with huge 6 foot tires, borrowed from a neighbor. Joe’s own ‘elephant ‘ had broken down just a few days before. Joe said’” the old timers would have ridden an elephant into the swamps back in the old days, why not us?” It certainly gave us a good view. Oddly, the buffalo paid little attention to it, keeping their distance but not spooking off. They paid lots of attention once we descending , heads high and staring intently, ‘looking down their noses like your banker and you owe him money’, to paraphrase Robert Ruark.
We made the rounds of the herds again, this time stopping some distance off and glassing intently. A spotting scope was put into play as well, with the result that we could not find the bull in any of the herds. It became obvious that he was down or hiding. Joe explained that, once injured, they will often get off to themselves to rest and nurse their grievances. Walking up on one in that state of mind is not advisable. He also explained that most often they go to water, and that the next technique was to check all the canals and swamps where he might be hiding or his body floating.
We spent several hours glassing canals and swamps, initially investigating the heavy brush, trees and palm groves where he might secrete himself the best. When we found nothing, we progressed to more open swamp, with water ankle to tall tire deep. We were stopped, glassing some open swampy savannah when Randy blurted’ “Think I’ve got ‘im” He dropped his glasses and pointed, then put the binoculars up again, staring intently at a small black dot far out in the open. ” Looks like a sick bull”, he said, “head’s low and he’s not grazing.”
Joe threw the spotting scope on the dot while the rest of us stared . The dot was partially obscured by the low brush, so was hard to define. After a minute he handed the scope to me. I could see a lone bull, black and still, in the distance. His head was low and he was humped up a little. The horns looked right as well. “Think it’s him,” I said. Joe nodded in agreement, then signaled the driver to pull forward.
The bull did not stir, even to look up as we pulled closer. He seemed oblivious to the noisy ‘elephant.’ He was standing in knee deep swamp, a dark stain coursing down his foreleg. He was about 3 miles from where I had originally shot, in a far corner of the ranch. He was now in the opposite corner, and it was 20 hours later. What a tough animal!
I put the crosshair on the triangle of death, as far forward as I dared. The rifle was steady, no wind this time. The range was a neat 100 yards. I had sighted the rifle in at 100 yards, knew that it would shoot 2 inch groups at that range and was confident of its 3000 plus ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. Once again, I did not feel the trigger release. The rifle boomed, followed by the solid ‘whack’ of the bullet. Joe and Randy whooped. as the bull bucked with the hit, staggered a few steps, then fell into the water. “Perfect hit that time” said Randy, “Right in the triangle”
Indeed, the big copper bottomed bullet had barely missed both the heavy shoulder blade and even heavier humerus by an inch, if that. The first bullet had hit three inches to the rear and an inch higher than the second. Both had broken ribs on the way in. When we cleaned the animal we found the 600 grain bullets in the chest wall on the other side, expanded to near fifty cent size and shortened to a third of their original length.. Amazingly, the lube was still in the channelures and the copper SCB base was intact, flattened against the base of the bullet, rifling marks showing on the sides. It had performed exactly as designed.
I traced the course of the two bullets. The first had just missed the big pulmonary artery and dorsal aorta coming off the heart while penetrating both lungs and a bit of liver, while the second had ripped up them both. I was well satisfied with the penetration but unhappy that the first bullet had missed the vital arteries. It showed the importance of precise bullet placement. If the second bullet had been the first, the bull would likely have never made twenty yards.
Joe measured the horns, calmly announcing that this bull was likely the new #2 in the SCI book with any rifle and the new #1 muzzleloader. He seemed quite matter of fact about it. Not excited at all. He’d not said a word about how big the animal really was while the hunt was on and I know damned well that he knew. Guess he was worried about how shaky I would get if he told me. Guides are like that.
Doc, Randy Smith and the new #1 SCI muzzleloader Asian Buffalo. The old record was 80 points, this one scores over 101. He provided nearly 1000 lbs of boned out meat for a local charity.
Green score turned out to be 101 ½, with SCI #1 being 103, the old muzzleloader #1 in the 80’s. I was blown away by Joe’s boredom over the score. I didn’t dare get excited about it, all I could do was clear my throat and grunt, “well—harrumph.” Randy snickered.
The bull weighed 2300 lbs on the hook, gutted, big enough for any man. I didn’t have any way of carrying it home so donated the meat to a local charity that deals with drunks and druggies. They were tickled. “You might as well have handed us a thousand dollar bill” said the director. It tickled me that I could discover what I wanted to know about my new bullet, enjoy the challenge of a difficult hunt and benefit some folks down on their luck all at the same time.
Hunting potentially dangerous truly big game with a muzzle loader is fascinating. We moderns have the advantage of backup with a modern high power rifle, something our forefathers would have given their eyeteeth for. We also have the advantage of better sighting equipment, better steels, more precise action and barrel construction and reliability. Still, the challenge of hunting big game with a single shot and an imperfect system only serves to heighten the allure and broaden our appreciation of it. Lucky, indeed, is the man who can do it.