Tracking Cape Buffalo in Africa

A large dead cape buffalo bull with a rifle propped on his horns.

Guest Post by Jason Vincent of Sporting Classics Magazine

John Hill was frozen in his tracks. The deadly herd had picked up his movement as he tried to sneak across a narrow opening to the spot where I was carefully setting up my shot on a very old and very large cape buffalo bull. John and the bull were locked in a staring contest, and John stood statue-still with his rifle pointed to the sky. I watched in silence, hoping the startled animal would relax and go back to feeding. After about a minute, John won the contest as the brute cautiously began grazing again.

John took the last two steps to get to my cover, and the bull lifted his head in our direction to show us that we had his undivided attention. Seconds before, I could see the circular motion the bull was making with his massive jaws as he chewed a heap of grass that hung down on both sides of his mouth. I noticed he wasn’t chewing anymore. He looked purely murderous.

Months earlier, John and I were surprised as we opened the boxes to find our CZ 550 American Safari Magnum rifles in .458 Lott. We’d both chosen the “Fancy Grade” option from CZ, but neither of us expected such good-looking stocks on rifles that sell below the $2,000 range. After all, we didn’t choose the CZ’s for their looks; we chose them because of their legendary reputation for reliably taking the most dangerous animals on the planet.

“I know you want to use the iron sights, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but take a scope too.” Jason Jeter gave sound advice based on his own cape buffalo hunting experience, and he’d become my sounding board on all things Africa over the last few years. He went on to tell me that I’d really appreciate having an optic, not to increase my effective range, but to be able to precisely fire through openings in the brush if the light was fading. He’d been there, done that.

I’d planned on hunting with iron sights on this trip. Something about it just seemed classic to me, and on my previous safaris, I’d never really taken any game up close and personal. But I took Jason’s advice, so I called Gary Turner at Talley Rings. I told Gary I wanted a quick release option that would allow me to hunt with open sights and also allow me to quickly mount a scope if needed.

John Hill said to hell with iron sights and asked for the standard heavy-duty Talley fixed steel rings.

A Zeiss scope with Talley fixed steel rings on a table, with bullets nearby.

A few weeks later, I headed to the range to zero the Zeiss. My main concern was accuracy consistency. Even with good machining, taking a scope on and off an action opens the door for inconsistency. Knowing this, I pushed the scope and quick release rings forward on the bases while I torqued the quick release levers as much as possible with my thumb and index finger. After a few shots, the scope was zeroed, and it was time to check repeatability.

I took the scope off the rifle with a few turns of the quick release levers and then reinstalled everything. The next three shots confirmed that everything went back to perfect zero. I repeated this process one more time. The system was performing as needed so I went ahead and packed the rifle and scope separately in my Pelican case.

Several weeks later, I was confirming my zero, once again, on a dirt airplane runway in Africa. Our Pelican cases looked like the Africans decided to play lawn darts with them on the tarmac in Johannesburg, but John and I were still at dead zero on the runway, so we set off into the bush with our PH.

A hunter zeroes his rifle on a dirt runway in Africa.

Back to the real story…

It was clear the cape buffalo bull had come to hate John very quickly. In an instant, he squared his stance with us, leaving me with only a frontal shot. I centered the crosshairs on his vitals, and as my thumb flicked off the safety, I exhaled and squeezed the trigger. I kept both eyes open as my rifle recoiled sharply, and I watched as the dust was beaten from the bull’s carpet when he took the 500-grain hit to his chest. In one motion, John leveled his rifle at the bull in the event that we’d need another gun in a charge. The old male pivoted off his hind legs before running into a dense thicket, and we stood silently with our PH, Scot Burchell, for several seconds without any of us saying a word. When the words finally came, they were not eloquent, but they had color.

The frontal shot meant we had to track the bull without finding so much as a drop of blood. The sun dropped below the horizon, and we were in an area so thick you couldn’t see eight feet in front of you. Scot made the prudent decision to abandon the track for the night and pick it back up in the morning. No PH in his right mind tracks a hit cape buffalo in the dark…especially in the tall brush.

The next morning, we found ourselves back on top of the hill where the buffalo had stood at the moment of the shot. After searching for the entire morning, we finally located the bull. He was dead less than 100 yards from where he’d stood when I pulled the trigger on the CZ, but the seemingly impenetrable bush made him very difficult to locate. He was a gnarled old male with textured hard bosses and good width. He was exactly the bull we set out to hunt.

Oh, and the shot? Jason Jeter was right. I had to shoot through an opening in the brush 30 yards away that was the size of a dinner plate. The scope allowed me to see through the small window to the exact spot on the bull’s chest that I needed to hit, and the Talley rings had taken me straight back to zero.

John Hill was also right. To hell with iron sights.

A shot bullet with its tip peeled away from the force of the impact on the cape buffalo.