Chapter 1: The Gun


Russ Gould


In this series of articles, the author explores the concept and actual performance of an affordable double rifle of sufficient power to handle large African game. This first episode explains the concept and provides an overview of future articles describing actual hunts undertaken to prove the efficacy and find the limits of the cartridge/rifle combination.


That contemporary African Safaris are more affordable now than ever before is no longer a secret. The rapid development of the Safari industry, especially in Southern Africa, has made possible excellent hunting for plains game and even certain species of dangerous game, at prices that compare very favorably with an Elk hunt in New Mexico or a Moose hunt in Alaska. One does not have to search hard to find a ten day hunt including trophy fees for six species of plains game for under $5000, excluding airfare and taxidermy of course. For $7500, one can pursue trophy Cape Buffalo in Zimbabwe or Zambia, for example. It is even possible, under the “Problem Animal Control” program, to hunt bull Elephant for around $10,000 in Zimbabwe. And frequent flier miles have made flying to Johannesburg financially painless for many, thanks to the partnership between Delta Airlines and South African Airways.


The vast majority of hunters availing themselves of this good-news situation are not Hollywood stars nor captains of industry as was the case a fifty years ago, but ordinary middle-class working folk who have been bitten by the bug and have the discipline to save for a trip to Africa. Venturing forth with their regular North American rifles in medium calibers such as the various 7mm or .30 cartridges, they give a good account of themselves on the savannahs, in the Acacia woodlands, and in the semi-deserts of Africa. Those pursuing the nastier beasts do well with bolt rifles in such calibers as 375 H&H, the 416s, and that old standby the 458 Winchester Magnum.


What aspiring or accomplished African hunter, however, has not dreamed about using a traditional double rifle on his or her next hunt? Aside from the romance of twinned rifled barrels and those very sexy express sights, there is a very practical advantage to using a gun of such robust and inherently reliable design. First, each barrel is actually a separate mechanism largely independent of the other. The design incorporates redundancy, allowing the hunt to proceed if, for example, a firing pin were to break or a cartridge were to misfire. And given the tough (and in some cases, dangerous) nature of African species, having a quick reliable second shot available without having to operate any mechanism is a real advantage. In many cases, when a second shot is called for, the hunter does not have the time to operate a bolt. (Semi-automatic rifles are prohibited in most African countries, ruling out the modern answer to the need for two or more quick shots at a rapidly disappearing or -gulp- approaching quarry.)

Author on Safari in Zululand, with double in inverted carry. Tree is the appropriately-named “Umbrella Thorn” Acacia.



Such a rifle should be in a reasonably powerful caliber. While today’s hunter is more likely to use his rifle on plains game up to and including the 2000 lb plus Eland,  he will surely want to have enough power to take that once-in-a-career Buffalo if and when his ship comes in. So when we speak of an African Double, we dismiss the inexpensive imports such as the EAA double in 30-06 or similar calibers. No, here we are talking about fat cartridges and barrels with more hole than metal.


The rapidly rising prices of heavy caliber double rifles attests to the advantages offered by and additional satisfaction gained from going afield with one . The price of a good English double rifle of sufficient power to be classed as a Safari rifle is now well beyond the reach of the average would-be Ruark. Even the more affordable vintage black powder doubles in 577 or the various 450 calibers, or the modern Chapuis and Merkel side-by-sides are more expensive than the average hunt, making such a weapon merely a fantasy for most contemporary hunters.


Happily, there are more affordable options for those who cannot afford an Alexander Henry in 450/400 or a Krieghoff in 470 Nitro Express. One such option is the excellent Valmet 412 or 512 “Shooting System”, comprising a universal over/under receiver that accepts various double rifle, rifle/shotgun combination, or shotgun barrels. The compactness of the take-down double, and the versatility of such a system is especially appreciated by the traveling hunter, who may well want to avail himself of the excellent bird shooting now offered as an adjunct to many hunts.


The author jumped at the opportunity to purchase just such a gun offered for sale on an internet classified site: a little-used, earlier 412 version, with a set of double rifle barrels in caliber 375 Winchester with the excellent Valmet quick-detachable scope mount and scope fitted, plus a spare set of 12 ga barrels choked modified and full, all in a hard case just large enough to accommodate all the bits while still small enough to fit in the lower compartment of a Boyt sportsman’s duffle bag. The price for the entire ensemble was $1500, about what it would cost to purchase a quality used bolt rifle and over/under shotgun. With rifle barrels mounted, the gun weighs a modest 9.5 lbs with scope and sling attached, quite substantial compared to the mountain rifles so popular today, but very handy in comparison to the typical 10 to 12 lb heavy double.


Valmet “System” allows rifle barrels, shotgun barrels, and combinations to be fitted to the same receiver in a compact ensemble ideal for Safari travel.



Recognizing that the 375 Winchester is a very marginal caliber capable of taking medium-sized antelope at close range only, the next step was to rechamber the rifle barrels for something more appropriate. Fortunately, the barrels themselves were of an unnecessarily fast twist for the original cartridge, around 1:12, making the use of 300 grain bullets possible. Some consideration was given to the excellent 375 Flanged Magnum cartridge, essentially a 375 H&H with a rim. Advice was sought from none other than Ken Owen, the double rifle wizard who has been there and done that. (The pinnacle of Ken’s many achievements was the construction, from scratch, of several 4 bore rifles, one of which he used to part a Lion’s hair among other exploits.) After viewing the rifle, Ken advocated going with a wildcat 375x74R based on the 9.3x74R case, to preserve as much wall thickness at the point where the barrels are necked to enter the monobloc. However, the author elected to go with another cartridge, the 375/444 based on the 444 Marlin, after learning that factory ammunition for this caliber would soon be offered by Hornady (under the alternative 375 JDJ nomenclature) under the Thomspon Center brand. This cartridge is somewhat weaker than the Flanged Magnum, but stronger than the classic 375x2 ˝” Nitro Express cartridge that earned a fine reputation as a plains game round in earlier times. The Hornady offering purports to push a 220 gr flat-nosed bullet at 2500 fps, suggesting that there might be a lever-action rifle in the offing as well as the Thompson Center Contender/G2, the only factory firearm currently offered in this caliber.


The case capacity of the 375/444 is about 10% less than that of the 375 Scovill/Hawk wildcats, both based on the 30-06 case, and obviously quite a lot less than the 375 H&H case. Think of it as a ‘light’ 375 that fills the gap between the obsolescent 375 Winchester and the proven H&H. Given that this hunter planned to use the rifle initially for African plains game, thereafter mainly for common North American species, and possibly once or twice in a lifetime for anything bigger (Moose, Grizzly or Buffalo) and then only with backup, it was deemed to be a good choice. Anything more powerful would likely be overkill and might well necessitate a heavier rifle that would be much less handy in the field and more likely to be left in the gun safe. Safety was also a consideration. The most powerful factory chambering is the 9.3x74R (a nitro cartridge of modest working pressure, circa 42,000 psi), consistent with the trim lines and modest weight of the weapon, while suggesting that the receiver might not be able to handle a large diameter cartridge loaded to higher pressures.


Photograph shows the 375/444 case (left) as loaded with the 235 gr Speer Soft Point, next to the same bullet loaded in the 375 Winchester case. The larger case is capable of velocities in the 2300-2500 fps range, in comparison to 1900-2000 fps in the 375 Winchester “Big Bore” cartridge.


While on the subject of calibers, it should be noted that Valmet (now branded Finn Classic by the Italian company that purchased the rights to manufacture the rifle from Valmet) no longer produces the 375 Winchester barrels, but they still produce the excellent 9.3x74R version in both a double rifle set and in combination with a 12 ga shotgun barrel. This caliber is legal for dangerous game only in Zimbabwe and Namibia, but there are lots of deceased Buffalo across the plains of Africa that could attest to it’s effectiveness in the field regardless of the regulations. New barrel sets are available as are complete rifles from the importer, Tristar Industries. And 375 Winchester barrel sets are occasionally offered for sale on the used market.


This rifle is an over/under double with some nice features. In addition to the interchangeable barrels and quick-detachable scope mounts already mentioned, the barrel regulation can be adjusted simply in both the vertical and horizontal planes with a screwdriver. The vertical alignment is adjusted by sliding a collar on the lower barrel that interacts with a wedge on the upper barrel. This adjustment is hidden by the forearm. Horizontal alignment is controlled by means of two opposing screws at the muzzle. Both adjustments are set at the factory and the initial positions are marked by means of a linear stamping that crosses the fault line on the two mechanisms. This innovative approach to regulation allows the user to select whatever factory or home load preferred and to regulate the rifle for that load at the time the rifle is sighted in. This is not possible with traditional doubles, which are regulated by the maker for a specific bullet and load and soldered in place.


Vertical regulation is adjustable via a sliding collar/wedge device that bends the barrels toward or away from one another

Horizontal regulation is adjustable at the muzzles


Further features on the rifle are powerful ejectors, a sleek full length rib with one adjustable folding rear leaf, single selective trigger, and cocking indicators just aft of the sliding tang safety. A selector in the trigger itself determines the firing sequence. Normal sequence is bottom barrel first, as firing this barrel puts least stress on the action and the first barrel is fired many more times than the second. The barrels are a full 24” long but the rifle is nevertheless shorter and lighter than most standard bolt rifles, due to the break-open mechanism and the slender contour of the barrels themselves. All metal parts are highly polished, handsomely blued steel, and the stocks are well checkered walnut with an attractive and practical satin finish. The receiver sports a simple gold-filled border motif that complements the lines of the receiver itself. Current production rifles are also available in satin nickel and high gloss nickel in a deluxe version (very shiny and to be avoided at all costs). At one time, different stock finishes were offered but it appears that only satin is now offered by the manufacturer.



Original chambering was 375 Winchester. High gloss finish is evident on steel receiver, as is simple line engraving.

There are two minor faults that detract from the many positive features of the gun. First, the metal surfaces including the barrels are too reflective. The flat sides of the receiver act like mirrors, and there is twice the barrel surface to broadcast to the ever-alert game that the Mlungu is coming. Safaris are generally conducted in sunny climates and gloss finishes, particularly on barrels, are give-aways. To overcome this to some degree, the author found that carrying the rifle slung over a shoulder in the muzzle-down orientation with the trigger to the front was not only comfortable, but kept the barrels out of sight, the action tight against the body, and the trigger protected by the elbow. The sling was reversed with the wide section near the butt and adjusted so the forend could be cradled in the hand with the barrels between the first and second fingers, sharing the load with the shoulder. Thus, the gun could be carried all day without discomfort, something that cannot be said of most doubles, and reflections were minimized. Second, the trigger, while crisp, was heavier than necessary and is not obviously adjustable. The heavy trigger raised it’s ugly head more than once during initial field testing as will be explained later, and this will be remedied before the rifle is hunted again.


Once the decision regarding caliber was made, a reamer and dies were obtained with some difficulty and after considerable confusion about the actual dimensions of the factory round was cleared up. Since the 375JDJ is a proprietary cartridge licenced only to Thompson Center, dies can only be purchased from SSK Industries and unfortunately the proprietor of that company,  J.D. Jones, refused to supply dies or a reamer when he learned of the application. It was thus necessary to chamber the rifle for the essentially identical 375/444 caliber and to obtain dies to match the reamer. The latter was supplied by Pacific, who makes the reamers for Thompson Center Arms, and the former by Redding. RCBS declined to supply dies directly. Factory ammunition was unavailable at the time of testing but will work perfectly well in the rifle as chambered and is now available from Thompson Center through your local dealer.


While the rifle was being rechambered by Ken Owen, a supply of cases was very easily formed in one step from 444 Marlin brass with the Redding full-length sizing die. Minimal trimming was done just to square up the case mouths, followed by a light chamfering. No cases were lost in the forming process. After making some inquiries of hunters who have used the 375 JDJ in the Contender pistol over the years, and others who have loaded the same bullet in the H&H, it was decided to load Speer’s’s 235gr .375 caliber softs for the initial Safari. These bullets are designed for use in the 375 H&H and while they are not premium bonded core bullets, they are of necessity fairly tough. Given my plan to explore the capability of this new rifle/cartridge combination starting with small and medium-sized plains game, it was not necessary to start out with a heavier bullet although some testing of Nosler’s new 260 gr Accubond bullet was done with a view to taking larger plains game on a second trip. Contender users reported good penetration with the 235gr bullet at around 2000 fps. If anything, the bullet was too tough at low pistol velocities and tended to zip right through large animals. In the full-blown H&H, some hunters reported bullet failures at velocities in the 2700-2800 fps range. The hope was that in the 24” barrel, this modest cartridge would yield velocities between the two extremes and that this would be sufficient to obtain expansion without failure.


There is no load data available for the 375/444 in a rifle barrel. Hornady publishes data for the pistol cartridge in their excellent manual, and anecdotal loads are available from various sources. Reloader 15, IMR 4064 and 4198, and H322 and 4895 were commonly cited as suitable for this cartridge in 14” pistol barrels with light and medium weight bullets. After reviewing the powder recommendations and evaluating powder stocks on hand, the author decided to use W748 powder with the 235 grain bullet, even though most sources introduce this powder only for bullets in the 300 grain range. Right or wrong, it was thought that the longer barrels call for a slower powder with a light-for-caliber bullet than those suggested for the 14” pistol barrel for which most published loads are intended.


Due to die/reamer supply problems, the barrels arrived back from Ken’s shop with about a week remaining before departure, limiting the amount of experimentation that could be done. A Simmons 1.5x-5x 32mm scope that was purchased with the rifle already mounted in the one piece quick-detachable Valmet mount was fitted to the barrels and tested for alignment at 25 yards. After minor adjustment, the 100 yard target was engaged firing each barrel in sequence. Starting at 49 grains with absolutely no sign of pressure, testing commenced and loads were increased  gradually. Recoil was noticeable from the bench (as it is with any caliber heavier than a 308) but nowhere near the pain threshold.

Author’s stand-up shooting bench showing rifle ready for test-firing. Note chronograph and micrometer.

Muzzle velocities were recorded separately for each barrel and for each increment of powder. Before and after each firing, case heads were miked and primers inspected for pressure. Adjustments to the regulation were found necessary and were made as testing progressed, by trial and error. Relatively small movements (half a turn of the regulation screws) were made and had a visible effect on the target. At 53 grains (well above the recommended load for the weaker Contender action with 250 grain bullets), velocities of 2300 fps were obtained and there was still no sign of excessive pressure.

Cases were carefully miked before and after firing to detect incipient pressure signs.

Case heads showed .001 expansion (very mild) and primers were round with no cratering of the pin indentation. Inspection of the bore showed no sign of unburned powder, although there was some deviation in muzzle velocities. Considerable difficulty was encountered with the scope adjustments however, until the author discovered after about 60 rounds had been fired that the scope had visible parallax error. Since no adjustment is possible on the Simmons, a rather old but well-loved steel tube Weaver V4.5 was substituted and the holes started to obey adjustment. After fine-tuning the regulation of the barrels and adjusting the scope, accuracy was astonishing, with composite groups measuring just under an inch at 100 yards. Unfortunately, the heavier Nosler bullets did not shoot to the same point of aim as the primary load, nor were the barrels in regulation for with that bullet. The Noslers cross-fired significantly, with the bottom barrel printing about four inches above the top barrel, in defiance of conventional logic. Normally, heavier bullets tend to disperse rather than cross due to the effects of recoil. In addition, the Nosler bullet has a boat tail design, intruding into the limited case capacity. Further testing of heavier bullets was therefore deferred until necessary.


Accuracy and regulation were way better than expected.

There was ample room in the case for 3 to 5 more grains of  powder and no obvious signs of pressure at 53 grains, but common sense prevailed and 40 rounds were loaded and packed ready for the long flight across country and then across the Atlantic for Phase I of the field test. Before departing, a ballistics program was used to establish the theoretical trajectory of the load, separately for each barrel as the sight height is by definition different. The program indicated the following trajectories:






















In the next article in this series, the author tests the 375/444 double on Impala, Warthog, and Nyala in the riverine brush and Acacia woodlands of Zululand, South Africa. A third article explores the use of the rifle on medium-bodied plains game such as Hartebeest and Kudu  in Namibia. In phase 3 of testing, a new load will be developed for use on Wildebeest, Zebra and Eland. If all goes well, the final chapter in this series will put the gun to the ultimate test against Cape Buffalo.


Russ Gould is owner and operator of Double Gun Headquarters (Doublegunhq.com), a multiseller virtual gunshow specializing in fine double rifles and shotguns. He also offers African Safaris with personally selected operators to Namibia, South Africa (Limpopo and Zululand), and Zimbabwe.


Copyright R. Gould 2014. All Rights Reserved

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