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Best Dangerous Game Rifles: Your Life Could Depend on It

LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.


What is a DGR and Why Do You Need One?

Dangerous game rifles. The very words conjure endless savannah, or wind swept tundra, and fearsome beasts. A reliable, effective defensive firearm is a must in places such as Africa’s Serengeti, Alaska’s bush, or Montana’s mountains, and not just for people who hunt dangerous game. Outdoor enthusiasts, whatever their sport, may be faced with a life or death encounter in such places.

A dangerous game rifle must do one thing: stop a charge from a large, angry animal, not simply kill. Predators such as bear, lion, leopard, wolf, and tiger, also herbivores—elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, moose, and hippopotamus—can all pose a serious threat to humans.

You only get one chance to stop a charge

Must Haves

A dangerous game rifle must have three basic qualities: reliability, power, and quick handling.

A rifle that does not fire when commanded is just an expensive club.

Holland & Holland double rifle

Holland & Holland double rifle

Mauser 98 bolt showing large claw extractor for controlled round feed

Mauser 98 bolt showing large claw extractor for controlled round feed

Traditional Double Rifle or Modern Repeater?

Traditional dangerous game rifles are either double barrelled, break-open actions, or bolt actions. The double rifle is preferred; it offers two, certain, quick shots. The double has few moving parts, which reduces the opportunity for failure at a critical moment, and only two triggers for the shooter to manipulate as opposed to a bolt, lever, or slide.

Most animal charges occur with little warning, and are measured in seconds. The person under attack often only has time for one, perhaps two shots before the animals is upon them; large magazine capacity is moot and there is no time to fiddle with anything more complicated than a safety and a trigger.

Double rifles are expensive—four thousand dollars on up—so many outdoor adventurers carry a less expensive, modern repeating rifle. Today’s market has many fine repeaters: lever actions, pumps, semi-automatics, and bolt actions, but the bolt is the most reliable. Based on the Mauser 1898 design, a dangerous game bolt action has “controlled feed.” A large, one piece, spring steel extractor grips half the cartridge case’s rim and guides it smoothly into the firing chamber from the magazine; regardless if the weapon is tipped at an angle. The Mauser type extractor also exerts tremendous force to pull a fired case from the chamber and throw it clear; very important in hot climates where an overheated round can swell and stick.

Professional Hunter Demonstrates Double Rifle Techniques

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L-R: .30-06, .375 H&H, .404 Jeffery, .505 Gibbs

L-R: .30-06, .375 H&H, .404 Jeffery, .505 Gibbs

No Substitute for Raw Power

After reliability, power is the most important attribute. Most dangerous mammals are heavy bodied, with thick muscle and bones. A dangerous game cartridge must punch a wide wound cavity deep into the animals vitals and not deflect, or stop, against major bones. The classic, often obsolete, African safari cartridges such as .404 Jeffery, .470 Nitro Express, and .505 Gibbs did just that.

.375 H&H (L) compared to .338 Win Mag (R)

.375 H&H (L) compared to .338 Win Mag (R)

Modern DGR Calibers

Today, the .375 H&H Magnum, .416 Remington Magnum, .416 Rigby, and .458 Winchester Magnum are the most common dangerous game calibers, and all but the .458 require a magnum length Mauser action which is more expensive than standard length actions.

Several standard action cartridges are suitable, though: .375 and .416 Ruger, 9.3 X 62mm Mauser, .35 Whelen, and .338 Winchester Magnum. Some suitable short action cartridges have appeared in the last decade such as .338 Federal, and .325 Winchester Short Magnum.

When loaded with very heavy for caliber bullets, traditional hunting cartridges such as .30-06 and 8 X 57mm are a last resort for predators, but not large, thick skinned herbivores. Australian bullet maker, Woodleigh, offers bullets designed for dangerous game in these two calibers, as well as many other DGR calibers.

If It Fits, It Hits

A dangerous game rifle must also rise to the shoulder without drama, and have simple, rugged, easy to use sights. You only have seconds to defend yourself—a clumsy, poorly sighted rifle is useless. The best choice is a custom rifle from a quality gun maker, such as Holland & Holland. If you can only afford an off the rack weapon, have a qualified gun smith fit the stock to you and install proper express sights.

Iron sight types with express sight (D)

Iron sight types with express sight (D)

The Verdict

Whether you hunt Africa’s savannas, fish Alaska’s rivers, or hike Montana’s mountains, a reliable, powerful, and well fitted dangerous game rifle will give you the confidence to face whatever nature brings your way.


LJ Bonham (author) on November 16, 2016:


The .35 Whelen is excellent within its range envelope, the American equivalent of the 9.3x62 Mauser which has an good rep in Africa. For more info, check out my Hub, "All-American Heavy Weights" which covers the .35 Whelen.

Pax Pacis from North Carolina on November 11, 2016:

What is your opinion on the .35 Whelen ? I picked one up for primitive season in Louisiana, and have considered a bolt action for Elk/bear in the mountains. I am under the impression that the .35 Whelen is probably the best all around cartridge for the largest north american game. Would you agree?

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