Nobody said it better than Robert Ruark when he wrote, “A buffalo looks at you like you owe him money.” It’s the eyes, dark, implacable, boring into you. When a Cape buffalo charges he comes with his head erect, those black eyes locked onto you. Until, at the very last, he drops his head to use his horns. At that point it is much too late; even if you kill him momentum will carry that ton of black fury over the top of you.
Okay, I succumbed to a little bit of literary license there. The African buffalo really does look at you like you owe him money—that’s just his look—and he looks pretty much like that, suspicious and mean, all the time. Mostly, in truth, he is a fairly placid grazing animal—and he does not weigh a ton. An average weight for a fully mature southern bull is probably around 1,500 pounds. As for “black fury” and all the rest, well, at least the Cape buffalo is black. He is incredibly strong, and if you hurt him he has the capability to turn the tables.
Yes, I know, there’s a lot of really exciting video out there showing buffalo shot off the end of the gun barrel. Clearly buffalo can and sometimes do charge. The potential should be enough to keep us on our toes. Unfortunately there is so much stuff out there that some hunters today feel cheated if they don’t get charged at least once a day.
The truth is it doesn’t happen very often. Genuine unprovoked charges are extremelyrare. The most likely scenario for a buffalo charge is a wounded buffalo. This means, of necessity, some combination of errors: The first shot wasn’t placed well enough, the bullet failed, the caliber was inadequate, follow up shots weren’t fired. If a wounded buffalo charges you must kill him, or he will kill you.
Here’s the problem: Not all wounded buffalo try to get even. Chifuti Safaris, where we do a lot of our filming, has a high buffalo quota, over 100 bulls per year across three or four different areas. Charges do occur, about two per season, meaning something less than one charge per 50 buffalo taken.
Wounded buffalo occur much more frequently. Buffalo are big and incredibly strong, and shot placement is critical. I’ve also been casually keeping track of wounded and lost buffalo in the same areas. This number is high, approaching one in ten of buffalo shot. What this means is that if you fail to place your first shot correctly the most probable result is not a charge. It is far more likely that you will never see your buffalo again.
We’ve kicked this around the campfire quite a bit. No one can put a number on it, but it seems that only a minority of buffalo have the mental propensity to lie in wait and settle the score. Many just keep going as long as they can. If the wound is severe enough you will catch up and find your buffalo. Or, unfortunately, the spoor will dry up or become lost in other tracks, and sooner or later the verdict is obvious: This buffalo will not be found. Most experienced hunters have lost a buffalo somewhere along the way. My hand comes up since I lost the first buffalo I ever shot.
If you place that first shot well you will not lose your buffalo, and you will not face a charge. Realistically, none of us shoot perfectly every time. So you’re following the spoor as it winds through thick, shadowed thorn. You may think this is what you want. Think again, carefully, because not all charges can be stopped. But what you want now, badly, is for the charge to come, ending the potential for a lost buffalo.
When he comes with his head high you will shoot him on the gleaming gun muzzle of his nose. Your solid bullet will travel up through the sinuses and into the brain, and he will pitch forward and slide in. Or, as Geoff Broom taught me many years ago, if you can you will fade a bit to one side and shoot just under the curve of the horn, a big target where the neck joins the shoulder. That shot will snap his head back and he will drop instantly and slide forward. If you miss, well, let’s not think about that!