THE ONE-SHOT KILLER

Custom-built for big-game hunters, Roy Weatherby's revolutionary new high-velocity rifle can drop an elephant with a single bullet
October 07, 1956

The african white hunter's profession calls for composure in the face of danger and enough social restraint at other times to put up with all but the more freakish fancies of his clients. He is a man not easily appalled. Still, these past few seasons he has been dismayed by a trend that runs counter to all he knows about shooting African big game.

What a rhino or Cape buffalo needs, he knows, is a good old English double-barreled rifle—something on the order of, say, the .600 Cordite, which weighs 14 pounds and shoots a 900-grain bullet. But some brash parvenus of the sport, and even some who should know better, are turning up on safari these days equipped with mere eight-pound rifles, shooting mere 300-grain bullets. Little more than peashooters, really. Mostly Americans, of course.

The cause of this vexation in the veldt is a Kansan named Roy Weatherby, a tall and friendly pink-cheeked man who was selling automobile insurance in California a few years ago, but now makes hunting rifles. The owner of a .378 Weatherby Magnum likes to think, as Weatherby himself proclaims, that it is "the world's most powerful big-game repeating rifle." His .375 magnum is only a little behind the .378, says Weatherby; and he personally likes his .300 magnum best of all for most purposes, though its heaviest bullet weighs only 220 grains, as against 300 grains for the other two. Alongside the traditional heavyweights of African hunting, such bullets have a puny look.

Not so puny, however, is the powder charge behind them. A mass of modern slow-burning powder, very unlike the spaghetti-shaped Cordite explosive, blasts the little bullets out of the Weatherby cartridge at such extreme velocity that, says their maker, it more than makes up for the difference in bullet weight and even for a fairly profound difference in muzzle energy. The .600 Cordite delivers 7,600 pounds of muzzle energy, and the .378 Weatherby Magnum some 1,600 pounds less. Despite the difference, Weatherby insists, his bullets have more shocking power—more than enough to kill with one well-placed shot any of the world's big game, quite enough to kill with even one badly placed shot some of the lesser big-game animals. It is the sort of claim that leads to night-long argument, but Weatherby makes out an excellent case. He kills big game instantly with one shot.

The African white hunter's confidence in the ballistic sanity of Yankee riflemakers has been restored recently by Winchester's introduction of its .458 Model 70, The African, designed to take care of elephant and rhino with a heavy bullet of the kind the African hunter knows and respects. This bruiser throws a 500-grain bullet with a muzzle energy of 5,010 foot-pounds. It, too, has made one-shot elephant kills and, according to an African game warden, has been seen to bring down an elephant, stopping him instantly, with a frontal shot between the eyes. Such a placement requires that the bullet penetrate two feet of honeycombed bone and, with lesser rifles, is something to be avoided. The rifle, weighing 9¼ pounds, may be used with a 510-grain soft point on such game as tiger or with the heavy, steel-jacketed 500-grain Full Patch on elephant and rhino.

Like the Weatherby Magnums, the Winchester .458 uses modern powder, instead of the Cordite preferred in Britain. To Weatherby, the velocity-lover, its muzzle velocity of 2,125 feet per second is heretically slow. Weatherby's fondness for velocity takes some explaining, and so, for that matter, does Weatherby himself.

The man who designed this rifle was hindered neither by established ballistic theory nor by any regard for austerity of design. Custom buyers can get from him a rifle as gaudy as the Mardi Gras-red Imperial with zebra upholstery that Weatherby drives; but for all that the decked-out Weatherby rifle dazzles the appraising eye, the end result is a thing of beauty in its own assertive way, as American as a loud shirt in Texas.

There has been a tendency among some of the rifle fancy to look upon this newcomer Weatherby, this insurance man turned riflemaker, as an upstart. Weatherby bears on his soul the bramble scratches of the pioneer. He has a great deal to live down. He was born, for instance, in Kansas, a state which has no big-game hunting, not even for deer. He never even saw big game until 1939, when, at the age of 29, he shot a mule deer in Nevada. And his first boyhood weapon was a Daisy air rifle, a prize he earned by selling garden seeds to wheat farmers. His introduction to hunting was one of those Kansas coyote drives—farmers gathered around the perimeter of a mile-square section and working inward, shooting jack rabbits on the way to confuse the coyotes. Roy's self-assigned function: to put wounded jack rabbits out of their misery.

"I guess I must be normal," he says, pondering the old question as to whether hunting is a cruel sport. "I've always been tenderhearted about animals."

It was that sentiment, he thinks, that set him on the search for a rifle that would guarantee an instantaneous kill, with even a misplaced bullet. But long before then he had been interested in rifles. About 1935, when he took up bench-rest shooting and hand-loading, he began studying ballistics in books and pamphlets he obtained from the Government in Washington.

"I worked out a theory," he says, "that if you got a bullet traveling fast enough it would disintegrate inside the animal and not just expand. If the bullet merely expands going into the animal, the animal will die quickly only if the bullet hits a vital organ. If it doesn't hit a vital organ the animal will just bleed to death. That makes for suffering. And hunters are mostly incapable of following a blood trail."

Weatherby decided that a superfast bullet propelled by the biggest practical powder charge would give him the shocking power for a mercifully quick kill. For speed he sacrificed bullet weight. This was a simple approach to a complex problem, but, after all, Weatherby is a man who used to sell can openers from door to door. He thinks simply and still disdains to call himself a ballistician. "The real ballistician is a physicist," he says.

"You can get power in a rifle pretty much the way you get power in an automobile," he says. "The more gas, the more power. Well, in bullets, the more powder the more power."

The result is that a Weatherby Magnum is something like one of those hopped-up Studebakers of a few years back which, concealing a Cadillac engine under the hood, would scoot like a thief away from a stop light, leaving behind a low, throaty exhaust murmur, a smell of raw gasoline and just an echo of a cackle from the driver's seat.

"The big thing," Weatherby says, "is to use enough modern, slow-burning powder and to shape your case to the burning characteristics of the powder. About 1940 I started making cartridge cases of different shapes and larger capacities. I was still selling auto insurance then. On nights and weekends I worked on my cartridge cases.

"I had to have a chronograph to test my velocities but I didn't have the money to buy one. I built it myself, and tested it with existing ammunition of known velocity. Then I tried it with my own ammo. I kept changing shoulders on cases and trying different powders in different case shapes."

By 1943, Weatherby was ready to try out his handmade bullets on game in Utah. He had rechambered a Winchester .270 to take his magnum loads.

Choice: insurance or rifles?

"I had a party of friends with me and when they shot deer with my rifle the deer dropped like lightning no matter where they were hit," he says. "That started the business. Pretty soon I was rechambering rifles for friends and friends of friends.

"I had to hire a girl to answer letters and buy a Sears, Roebuck lathe for $198. I started chambering rifles so they could take this ammunition. That went on for a few months but I had to decide whether to stay with it. It was getting away from me. I was making damn good money with the insurance company and living pretty well. But in September 1945, I opened a sporting goods store. I waited on customers out front and worked on guns in the back. Then I hired a girl for the office and men for the back, added a piece of equipment here and there, and many a day I was afraid of the sheriff. I damn near starved. I cut my living expenses down to a quarter of what they had been."

Eventually Weatherby bought out a barrelmaker and a company "with a wonderful stock inletting machine."

"I had nothing to buy them with," he explains, "so I incorporated."

Incorporation brought him financial backing, which bought him more equipment and in time Weatherby was turning out not just rechambered rifles but the kind of rifle he had dreamed of and, with ornamentation, dressed up to kill with merciful dispatch. Now he grosses $1 million a year but until recently was gloomily convinced that, sooner or later, "like every other custom riflemaker," he'd have to turn to something else to make a living.

"All the oldtimers went broke," he says.

To combat that prospect, a few years ago he began turning out a semi-production rifle selling for much less than his custom rifles. Today 90% of Weatherby's customers are ordinary hunters who scrape together the $250 or so it takes to buy the Weatherby Magnum DeLuxe (noncustom) grade. For this, the hunter gets a minimum of fancy inlays of tropical wood but, at the same time, a high-velocity, flat-shooting, walnut-stock rifle which, before it left the factory, was required to deliver a five-shot group not exceeding 1½ inches at 100 yards. To prove the performance, the test target is shipped with the rifle.

Such accuracy is far from common in hunting rifles, especially in the big-game category. A handmade double-barreled Holland & Holland magnum, built by venerable British craftsmen who prefer the hammer, chisel and file to modern machine tools, is considered good enough if it sprays its big bullets over a four-inch area at 100 yards. This is due largely, of course, to inherent difficulties of double-barrel construction.

There are other refinements in this standard-grade (DeLuxe) Weatherby. Its barrel, for example, is of a special hard chrome molybdenum steel developed by the Timken roller-bearing people whose Board Chairman Henry Timken Jr. is a Weatherby rifle enthusiast. (So, for that matter, is Mrs. Timken.) Partly because of the boss's keen interest, Timken engineers developed a barrel steel which, Weatherby says, is more stable than other rifle steels, more easily worked, gives better accuracy and is so hard that chrome lining no longer is necessary to extend barrel life for his hot loads. Weatherby drills and reams the barrel with precision machinery, rifles it with the only Lapointe broach west of the Mississippi, laps it by hand and gives it a mirror polish before bluing. Its imported Mauser action is reheat-treated and the trigger replaced with a Timney or Jaeger adjustable trigger. The stock's fore-end tip and pistol grip cap are of East Indian rosewood, with white line spacer and diamond inlay of contrasting wood. The finish is a unique two-component resin, without oils or plasticizers, applied in 10 to 15 coats with a rubdown between each coat. The result is a clear, hard gloss that resists wear and does not change color. The stock is hand-checkered, and the barrel is bedded to it with expert care.

That is quite a lot to get for $250, especially as the standard (DeLuxe) barreled action alone costs $155. For a hand-honed custom action, which includes checkered bolt knob and damascened bolt and follower, the price is $185.

After that, things start costing extra. The most distinctive and the most expensive of the Weatherby stocks is made of California mesquite. Suitable mesquite is rare and getting rarer. Weatherby is convinced that some day the mesquite-stocked rifle will be a collector's item.

"It takes about 100 years to grow a piece of mesquite good enough for a stock," he says, "and it's getting harder to find every year. It is strong and hard because it grows under conditions that would kill other woods. It has learned to get along without moisture. It makes a wonderful stock."

Base price for a mesquite stock is $210 but, if you want it to fit your own specifications of drop, pitch, castoff and length of pull, you pay for that, too. Quite a few customers make the long pilgrimage to South Gate, Calif. (about five miles from downtown Los Angeles) from all over the country to be fitted.

Fitting can be as precise as you want it, but Weatherby says he can do almost as well by mail if the customer will let him know his weight, height and sleeve length and whether he is full or thin of face.

A fancy walnut stock is cheaper than mesquite but still costs $160 base price. Superfancy walnut, maple or myrtle stocks can be had for $185. The maple may be bird's-eye, quilted, tiger's-tail or flame.

Most of the rest is decoration, barrel engraving and such. A variety of checkering patterns and inlays are available for the stocks or can be designed to order. The Shah of Iran, who paid $1,780 for his rifle, had a map of his country inlaid in ivory on his mesquite butt stock. The royal crest was engraved inside the map.

As a result of all this, Weatherby rifles are owned by Ernest Hemingway; several Indian maharajahs; ex-President Miguel Alemàn of Mexico (who took five); Ed C. Quinn, president of the Chrysler Sales Division of the Chrysler Corporation; Arthur Godfrey; Air Force Generals Nate Twining and Curtis LeMay; Professor Dr. Heinz Nordhoff, Volkswagen president; William K. Whiteford, president of Gulf Oil; Prince Abdorreza Pahlavi of Iran; Gary Cooper; Bob Waterfield, former Los Angeles Rams quarterback; and Eddie (Rochester) Anderson.

Driving along Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile in an expansive mood, Weatherby is inspired by such a clientele to exclaim that he knows "damn few" important big-game hunters who can afford a Weatherby who don't own one. Passing the May Company store, he points out that Wilbur May owns a Weatherby. Passing Ohrbach's department store, he remarks that J. K. Ohrbach owns a Weatherby.

He is proud, too, that rifles made by the back-alley ballistician can now be bought in such far places as Bangkok and Léopoldville, Alaska and Ireland, along with ammunition to fit.

This success has been achieved suddenly but not without pain. In fact, pain recurrently contorts Weatherby's face when he considers that not all hunting experts have been converted to his magnum velocity ideas. The slow, heavy-bullet man has been a trial to Weatherby, not only in Africa but in the United States. There is the persistent allegation that the high-velocity bullet destroys a lot of meat (it does if poorly placed), shatters on impact with twigs (high-speed bullets are not generally good for brush-hunting) and has a muzzle blast that frightens farmers who might otherwise be willing to allow hunters onto their land, even though a disintegrating high-velocity bullet is far safer to farm animals and people than a ricocheting .22 rim fire.

What really makes him writhe, though, is the widespread notion that all high-velocity bullets will break up on impact with animal hide. To answer this, he first points out that the Weatherby Magnum bullet is too well constructed to do so. Then he brings out a picture of a piece of half-inch armor plate. There are nine bullet holes in it, all made by Weatherby bullets, alongside a number of dents and smears made by other hunting bullets and even by a .50 caliber machine-gun slug and a .30-06 "armor-piercing" bullet. The plate had been set up at a distance of 100 yards.

"Any Weatherby Magnum bullet," he says, "from the .220 Rocket to the .378 will pierce this plate. There is no other commercial ammunition that will do it. It stands to reason that animal hide won't stop one of my bullets."

And, he says, he knows of no case where animal hide has done so.

That business about the .600 Cordite, with its 7,600 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, bothers him too. The Weatherby Magnum .378 has a muzzle energy of 6,000 foot-pounds.

"But," says Weatherby, "the .600 Cordite does not have the killing power of the faster, lighter .378 bullet. Because of its-modern powder, bullet shape, weight and other factors the .378 Magnum bullet travels at 3,000 feet per second. At 300 yards its trajectory is only four inches. At hunting range, where energy counts more than at the muzzle, it is far superior in killing power."

He thinks he proved this in 1953, when he brought down the first elephant ever shot with a .378. (Others have scored one-shot elephant kills with a .300 Weatherby Magnum.) He brought to Africa just 10 cartridges he had made himself by hand. The brass had been turned on lathes at a cost of $10 or $15 a round. That night, after the hunt, he sat down at a Dictaphone and described the day.

The doubting white hunter

"I gave my white hunter [Pitcairn Holmes] no alternative this morning, so he felt that we could drive about 10 miles to a valley and then about 10 miles up the valley where some place along the line we could pick up elephant spoor.

"Well, as we were rocking across the ant hills and boulders, one of our boys hollers, 'Elephant!' and points off to the left. It's a bull. The tusks will go about 80 or 90 pounds. Well, the days of the 100-and 200-pound tusks are gone. Today a 100-pound tusk is considered excellent. 'O.K., Pit, let's get him!' I was ready to shoot right then.

"Well, the old pachyderm was just leisurely walking across the valley through the grass and the scrub trees. I follow the tracker. After we had walked about half an hour, we could see where we were gaining a little on him. The old fellow just keeps on ploding along.

"Now today I have with me, and intend to use, that new rifle—the new .378 I believe we will call it—and up to this time I have shot two animals with it. Both were zebras, and both went down with one shot and a zebra is not an easy animal to kill. This is my great chance now. The elephant is only 200 yards away.

"I look at Pitcairn. 'Why not now?' I say. 'He's turned, so I can get him in the side of the head.' 'No,' he says, pushing my rifle down. 'He's too far!' I told him that he may be too far for him, but not too far for me or for the rifle. All the time we were hurrying on and not missing a step. I held up my rifle and got ready to shoot. Pitcairn almost knocked it out of my hands. 'We'll still get closer!'

"Well, I made up my mind that Pitcairn was too slow, so I stepped out ahead of both him and the tracker. I am 50 yards ahead of Pitcairn now and the rest of them. I suppose he thinks I am a fool. But, not only do I want to shoot that elephant, I want to try this new rifle out on an elephant.

"I am remembering that if I shoot this elephant with this cartridge, using a 300-grain bullet at 3,000 feet per second, that it will be the first elephant ever shot by a bullet traveling at that speed, for no other elephant rifle in the world nearly approaches this speed."

Just one shot

"Now, he's only 100 yards from me. I run to the leeward side—that lets him gain a little. Here's my chance. He's turned again. I aimed—but too late, for he is going straight away again.

"There he is angling off just a little to the left. No time to do anything but shoot. This is it, or I just don't get a chance, for it is only a few more yards to heavy brush.

"I aim right between the eye and the ear. I pull the trigger. The report can be heard for miles. Instantly, the elephant crumples to the ground and the red dust flies. The elephant never moved one step after that bullet hit him in the head."

It is a good thing that the elephant died of one shot. Weatherby's hand-made brass was too soft. The case stuck. He could not have gotten off another shot.

It was also a remarkable feat, even for the .378, for there are several hundred pounds of bone, a good deal of it 16 or 18 inches thick, sometimes more, in the head of an elephant, and this is covered with tough hide that is an inch thick itself. The brain is tiny. For all that an elephant presents the picture of an enormous target, the vital section of the head offers a target like a woodchuck.

Weatherby is proud of the shot and of the new rifle but regards the .378 as unnecessarily efficient for any but the world's largest game. His personal pets are the .300 and .257 magnums.

Velocity, not size, is what Roy Weatherby likes. As for Africa's white hunters, they may as well face it. That's the way it's going to be.

PHOTOJ. R. EYERMANIN HIS LOS ANGELES HOME ROY WEATHERBY HOLDS THE RIFLE THAT HAS MADE HIS NAME A SPORTING BYWORD FOUR PHOTOSPHIL BATH

THE CRAFT AND BEAUTY OF WEATHERBY RIFLES

Mesquite Stock with basket-weave checkering ornaments this beautiful .300 Magnum. The gazelle inlay is of ivory and ebony and the floor plate and trigger guard are engraved gold. Mounted with a Weatherby 4X Imperial scope: $899.50.

Myrtlewood Stock, also with basket-weave pattern, is featured on this .300 Magnum. The forearm inlays are of purple heart and tulipwood and there is a gold monogram inlay in the butt stock. With same scope as the rifle above: $759.50.

Bird's-Eye Maple Stock on this custom .300 Magnum has monogram plate of gold inlay. Side inlay is of ebony and zebra-wood. Forearm tip and pistol grip cap are African blackwood. With a 4X Weatherby scope this piece is valued at $1,200.

Walnut Stock for this custom .257 Magnum has basket-weave checkering. The butt stock and forearm inlays are of ivory and ebony and there is a gold monogram plate. Equipped with a Weatherby 6X Imperial scope it is priced at $704.50.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)