TO AFRICA WITH DRILLING
“As jy n Vlakvark sien, brand hom!” (If you see a Warthog, burn him!). With this remark, my host Willie Smit dropped me off at one end of a dirt track cutting through the thorny brush of the Soetveld (Sweet Grass) country of the North West Province of South Africa. I popped a pair of royal blue 16 ga. Eley shells and a single bright 8x57R cartridge into my vintage German drilling, slung it over my shoulder, and moved into position to await the signal to move in on the large flock of Guinea Fowl feeding in the nearby alfalfa crop circle, an emerald green mirage through the screen of dry and dusty acacia thorn and crisp golden grass of late winter. My colleagues, unseen, were positioned strategically around the cultivated land in an effort to outfox the hundred-strong flock of Guineas. Our strategy was to surround the flock and then to move forward, constricting the circle in a move known locally as the “Natal Surround”, after the Province of Natal where this very effective method was first developed. Once the birds are trapped, fast and furious shooting ensues as they flush over the ring of guns. Blue sky rules are in effect, requiring gun muzzles to be pointed skyward at all times and of course low shots are prohibited under penalty of exclusion from the rest of the hunt.
The area we were hunting is especially favorable for gamebirds. Taking advantage of endless sunshine and good groundwater, pivot irrigation is employed to raise crops of potatoes, pumpkins and alfalfa. Local practices and soil conditions dictate that each circle be left fallow for 3 years after a crop, providing weedy cover for birds. The varied terrain, combined with the geometry of circles ensures good cover for birds in the irregular strips and blocks of remaining indigenous brush between the lands. In addition to birds, free-ranging Kudu, Impala, Bushbuck, Warthog, Bush Pig, Steenbok and Duiker are commonly sighted while hunting birds. Predators include African Wildcat, Caracal, Jackal and Hyena. There are also very large high-fenced ranches in the area with a huge variety of big game including Cape Buffalo. This combination of fine wingshooting, free ranging plains game, and high-fenced properties adds up to a true sportsman’s Mecca. And due to the altitude, the area is malaria-free!
Helmeted Guinea Fowl are notoriously wary birds with long necks and sharp eyes. They are larger than any North American gamebird except the Turkey. Guineas have red and blue wattled heads with a bony spur or “helmet”, and a distinctive hump-backed profile covered in charcoal feathers sprinkled with distinctive white spots. They are common throughout Southern Africa and due to good rains in the spring of 2006, unusually large flocks of 50 to 250 birds were everywhere. When feeding in the open, they are almost impossible to hunt. If one attempts to approach them, the flock will begin their chattering alarm call and will soon run for cover. Any attempt to outrun them will cause them to accelerate or flush wild and fly into the nearest brush. Once in thick brush, they are more apt to sit tight especially if the flock has been broken up, allowing the guns to have a second go at a flock that has been pushed out of the crop circles. Typically, they feed in planted, ploughed or fallow lands in the mornings and late afternoons, seeking shade in the brush during the heat of the day. Hunting them is thus a group effort, employing surrounds or beaters in open country, and pincer movements or walk-up drives when the birds take to the brush. The most common shots are at low to moderately high birds passing overhead, or at flushing birds. In windy conditions, guineas can fly at duck-like speeds and they are always hard to anchor. A stiff load of no. 4 or 5 (English shot, which runs a size smaller than American) is the wise choice for these hardy birds.
Where Guineas are found, Francolin (or Spurfowl) are also normally present. There are several subspecies including the Swainson’s which was the most common in the area we were hunting, the Greywing which prefers mountainous habitat like our Chukar, and Natal and Crested Francolin which are also found in the Soetveld. In local parlance, these birds are all called “Fisant” (Pheasant), although they resemble a large partridge and possess similar speed and acceleration . Unlike the Guinea, they sit very tight in cover and will often flush almost underfoot from ground recently covered, after the guns are broken and the shooters are comparing notes at the end of a beat. They provide excellent sport, offering fast high overhead and crossing shots. Many hunters pursue them exclusively over pointing dogs, a truly grand sporting experience. A one ounce load of No. 6 or 7 (English) shot is very adequate, although many are taken with 5s and 4s by Guinea hunters. The Francolin is considered to be one of the world’s finest gamebirds, and as a hunter who has taken guineas, pheasant, grouse, tinamou (Argentine “perdiz”), chukar, quail and various waterfowl, I cannot contest this claim.
On this recent hunt, we took both Guineas and Francolin in large numbers. Over the course of a two day hunt, 237 birds were recovered split approximately 60:40 in favor of Guineas. Often, while moving into position on a flock of Guineas, guns were instructed not to fire on flushing Francolin to avoid alerting the ever-moving mass of grey Guineas to our presence. Once the first shots were fired, then any bird was fair game and it was not uncommon to trap Francolin in the same circle. Thus the hunt is not over until the circle was reduced to a tight ring 20 yards in diameter, with die-hard birds flushing in twos and threes at the very last moment. Most of the Francolin were taken while pushing abreast through a strip of brush where a flock of Guineas had sought cover after being pushed off the croplands. Many times, watching birds erupt from the brush some distance down the line and then folding in mid-air in singles and doubles before the shots were heard was just as much fun as taking birds oneself.
My personal “memorable moments” included some wonderfully satisfying high crossing shots on Francolin, the most gratifying being those where the bird had already dodged a left and right (or under and over) from a colleague in the line; an evening push through the brush where I took one flank in a bull’s horn maneuver and dumped five escaping Guineas with six shots just as the blood-red sun sank below the African horizon; a pair of fast and high laggard Guineas that erupted from the grass and passed overhead when the circle was down to about 50 yards, to the cheers of my fellow hunters; a quick left-right on two very fast Francolin that flushed behind the circle of guns and flew towards a patch of brush where I was searching for a downed Guinea; and an evening drive where I took a Francolin, then a Guinea (hit and hit again before landing with a thump not five yards from me), and then a high crossing Francolin flushed by a colleague in the final moments of that hunt. While most hunting was done without dogs, a pair of Black Labs was on hand to find lost birds, and we did employ an English Pointer when working Francolin in the brush, a truly delightful thing to behold.
In addition to taking a satisfying number of birds, I was able to put the drilling to use on plains game for a few days following the bird hunt. On the first morning of a three day hunt, I took a very good Blue Wildebeest bull with a leg injury thought to have been caused in a fight with another bull. After a careful stalk put me within 75 yards, the old brindled bull went down to a single heart shot (a good thing, as drillings are very slow to reload). Later that evening, I shot and hit a very large Warthog which we were not able to recover due to failing light. I took a kneeling shot at about 50 yards but knew, at the instant that the gun fired, that the shot was too far back. A careful tracking job the next morning led us for about a half mile through a gauntlet of thorns, until the blood petered out. Around noon, we jumped a very-much-alive pig which sprinted off into the bush before I could recover my senses sufficiently to cock the right hammer and bring the gun up.
On the final day, I hit a nice Impala ram at around 150 yards which went down instantly. Feeling rather satisfied at this performance, we were amazed to see him get up and run off as we approached. After some tracking and maneuvering, we found him again about a half mile away, grazing with his two buddies as if nothing had happened. After a second shot to the shoulder anchored him (well there was more to it but that story must take back seat here), we noted that the first shot had passed above the vitals and below the spine, knocking him off his feet temporarily, but causing no lethal wound nor (apparently) any discomfort! On the final day, we also saw 7 Kudu bulls, including two over 50”, but did not attempt a shot as one already adorns my trophy room wall.
The vast majority of my hunting was done with my Meffert Drilling, using 26.5 gram (15/16 oz) Eley No. 6 loads on both species of gamebird. I also had a limited supply of No. 5 (American) 1 oz handloads that hit the Guineas a little harder but allowed some Francolin to fly through my patterns (or so I would like to think). I chose the drilling for my trip knowing that I would be hunting birds in areas that held plenty of plains game that could be taken opportunistically. I also like to travel light, a good thing now that airlines are enforcing the new 50lb baggage limit. This wonderful hammergun did everything I asked of it, and attracted quite a bit of attention from my fellow hunters who were all locals and had, for the most part, never seen a Drilling. The gun sports an array of levers and features including a deceiving top-lever, the function of which is not to open the barrels but rather to activate an internal transfer bar that caused the right hammer to fire the rifle barrel. The gun opens via a very svelte side-lever. In addition to a flip-up rear blade, there is also a folding peep sight inletted into the top tang, and a set of bases for a claw mount on the rib. An elegant cartridge trap added to the gun’s appeal. The shotgun barrels are 16 gauge, with 66mm chambers. At the last minute, when I heard that only 2 ¾” shells were available locally, I had the rather abrupt forcing cones lengthened by Keith Kearcher in Bend, OR, who turned the job around in one day.
In order to increase my effective range with the rifle barrel, I personally fitted a pair of half-rings that I soldered to a vintage Kahles 4x scope (don’t try this at home!) on the Friday and Saturday before my departure, the necessary pieces arriving from Austria just in time to do the job. This task is best left to a professional but time did not allow for that so I spent some time on the telephone with Ken Owen, who was very generous with his advice and time. This detachable scope setup allowed me to take 150 yard shots with confidence, using the quite powerful 8x57 JR Mauser rifle barrel. This gun has a .318 “J” bore, and it was surprisingly easy to obtain 196gr Sellier and Bellot ammo for the gun in the proper rimmed version.
I also took an aging J.P. Sauer 12 ga with me as a backup, having learned from experience that Vintage guns have a proclivity for mechanical failure in the field, the likelihood of something going wrong often being proportional to the distance one travels from home. In the field, I loaned this gun to others who had problems while Lady Luck smiled on me for the most part. I did experience some double discharges from the Meffert when firing the left barrel first, but was able to remedy this by altering the angle of the right sear nose and tumbler sear notch using a Swiss Army knife! I did use my backup 12 ga. on the last afternoon when my supply of 16 ga. ammo dwindled and found that it kicked a lot harder but also hit harder, bringing to mind the adage about free lunches.
For those who wish to sample the “Soetveld” experience, a 6 day hunt is offered for the 2007 season (May –Sept) for groups of 6 or more hunters, including up to two days of plains game hunting taken in pairs in rotation, for $1800 each inclusive of airport transfers, meals, lodging, vehicles, guides, dogs, refreshments in the field and trespass fees. Hunters will stay at an upscale lodge and hunt several large private farms in the area for birds. Plains game of almost every description is hunted on a 25,000 acre property reserved for the purpose. Alcohol, ammo, airfare, tips, trophy fees for plains game, and taxidermy are not included. Hunters will have the opportunity to purchase ammunition (the FAA limits ammunition in checked baggage to 11 lb, roughly three boxes of shotgun ammo) and other last minute gear from a retail store upon arrival in Pietersburg, a short flight from Johannesburg International. A “no frills” version of this hunt, conducted from a comfortable tented camp situated on one of the farms to be hunted and provided with hot shower and flush toilet, is also available for $1200 per hunter. Inquiries should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Russ Gould owns and operates Doublegunhq.com, an online marketplace dedicated to fine doubles; he also arranges hunting safaris for clients to Southern Africa as well as Argentina.