“Karamojo” Bell on Rifles: In His Own Words

Every time the question of a bigger rifle or smaller rifle (for any game) springs up, someone’s bound to say it: Karamojo Bell killed a thousand elephants with an .256. No, wait, with a .275. No, wait, he killed 1011 elephants, but only a few with the .256. No, but he was sniping out undisturbed elephants from long distance. Exploits of W.D.M. Bell, Esq., nicknamed “Karamojo” because of being the first European to penetrate the territory of the Karamojo people, became legendary and controversial. Any scientific argument must begin with a study of the sources, so let’s turn to the book that made W. D. M. Bell famous:  “The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter”, published in 1923. Our comments will follow.

Chapter II. The Brain Shot at Elephant (extract).

In hunting elephant, as in other things, what will suit one man may not suit another. Every hunter has different methods and uses different rifles. Some believe in the big bores, holding that the bigger the bore therefore the greater the shock. Others hold that the difference between the shock from a bullet of, say, 250 grs. and that from a bullet of, say, 500 grs. is so slight that, when exercised upon an animal of such bulk as an elephant, it amounts to nothing at all. And there is no end to the arguments and contentions brought forward by either side ; therefore it should be borne in mind when reading the following instructions that they are merely the result of one individual’s personal experience and not the hard and fast rules of an exact science.

As regards rifles, I will simply state that I have tried the following: .416, .450/.400, .360, .350, .318, .275 and .256. At the time I possessed the double .400 I also had a .275. Sometimes I used one and sometimes the other, and it began to dawn on me that when an elephant was hit in the right place with the .275 it died just as quickly as when hit with the .400, and, vice versa, when the bullet from either rifle was wrongly placed death did not ensue. In pursuance of this train of thought I wired both triggers of the double .450/.400 together, so that when I pulled the rear one both barrels went off simultaneously. By doing this I obtained the equivalent of 800 grs. of lead propelled by 120 grs. of cordite. The net result was still the same. If wrongly placed, the 800 grs. from the .400 had no more effect than the 200 grs. from the 275. For years after that I continued to use the .275 and the .256 in all kinds of country and for all kinds of game. Each hunter should use the weapon he has most confidence in.

Again, the smallest bore rifles with cartridges of a modern military description, such as the .256, .275, .303 or .318, are quite sufficiently powerful for the brain shot. The advantages of these I need hardly enumerate, such as their cheap ness, reliability, handiness, lightness, freedom from recoil, etc. For the brain shot only bullets with an unbroken metal envelope (i.e., solids) should be employed; and those showing good weight, moderate velocity, with a blunt or round-nosed point, are much better than the more modern high velocity sharp-pointed variety. They keep a truer course, and are not so liable to turn over as the latter.

The brain shot was Karamojo Bell’s favorite. The way of shooting a going-away elephant pictured here is still known as “the Bell’s shot”


Chapter X. Rifles

The question of which rifles to use for big-game hunting is for each individual to settle for himself. If the novice starts off with, say, three rifles : one heavy, say a double -577 ; one medium, say a .318 or a .350 ; and one light, say a .256 or a .240 or a .276, then he cannot fail to develop a preference for one or other of them.

\For the style of killing which appeals to me most the light calibres are undoubtedly superior to the heavy. In this style you keep perfectly cool and are never in a hurry. You never fire unless you can clearly see your way to place the bullet in a vital spot. That done the calibre of the bullet makes no difference. But to some men of different temperament this style is not suited. They cannot or will not control the desire to shoot almost on sight if close to the game. For these the largest bores are none too big. If I belonged to this school I would have had built a much more powerful weapon than the .600 bores.

Speaking personally, my greatest successes have been obtained with the 7 mm. Rigby-Mauser or .276, with the old round-nosed solid, weighing, I believe, 200 grs. It seemed to show a remarkable aptitude for finding the brain of an elephant. This holding of a true course I think is due to the moderate velocity, 2,300 ft., and to the fact that the proportion of diameter to length of bullet seems to be the ideal combination. For when you come below .276 to .256 or 6-5 mm., I found a bending of the bullet took place when fired into heavy bones.

Then, again, the ballistics of the 275 cartridge, as loaded in Germany at any rate, are such as to make for the very greatest reliability. In spite of the pressures being high, the cartridge construction is so excellent that trouble from blowbacks and split cases and loose caps in the mechanism are entirely obviated. Why the caps should be so reliable in this particular cartridge I have never understood. But the fact remains that, although I have used almost every kind of rifle, the only one which never let me down was a .276 with German (D.W.M.) ammunition. I never had one single hangfire even. Nor a stuck case, nor a split one, nor a blowback, nor a miss-fire. All of these I had with other rifles.

I often had the opportunity of testing this extraordinary little weapon on other animals than elephant. Once, to relate one of the less bloody of its killings, I met at close range, in high grass, three bull buffalo. Having at the moment a large native following more or less on the verge of starvation, as the country was rather gameless, I had no hesitation about getting all three. One stood with head up about 10 yds. away and facing me, while the others appeared as rustles in the grass behind him. Instantly ready as I always was, carrying my own rifle, I placed a .276 solid in his chest. He fell away in a forward lurch, disclosing another immediately behind him and in a similar posture. He also received a .276, falling on his nose and knees. The third now became visible through the commotion, affording a chance at his neck as he barged across my front. A bullet between neck and shoulder laid him flat. All three died without further trouble, and the whole affair lasted perhaps four or five seconds.

African Buffalo. Drawing by W.D.M. Bell.

Another point in favour of the .276 is the shortness of the motions required to reload. This is most important in thick stuff. If one develops the habit by constant practice of pushing the rifle forward with the left hand while the right hand pulls back the bolt and then vice versa draws the rifle towards one while closing it, the rapidity of fire becomes quite extraordinary. With a long cartridge, necessitating long bolt movements, there is a danger that on occasions requiring great speed the bolt may not be drawn back quite sufficiently far to reject the fired case, and it may become re-entered into the chamber. This once happened to me with a .350 Mauser at very close quarters with a rhino.

I did not want any rhino, but the villagers had complained about this particular one upsetting their women while gathering firewood. We tracked him back into high grass. I had foolishly allowed a number of the villagers to come with me. When it was obvious that we were close to our game these villagers began their African whispering, about as loud, in the still bush, as a full-throated bass voice in a gramophone song.

Almost immediately the vicious old beast could be heard tearing through the grass straight towards us. I meant to fire my first shot into the movement as soon as it became visible, and to kill with my second as he swerved. At a very few paces’ distance the grass showed where he was and I fired into it, reloading almost instantaneously. At the shot he swerved across, almost within kicking range, showing a wonderful chance at his neck. I fired, but there was only a click. I opened the bolt and there was my empty case.

I once lost a magnificent bull elephant through a .256 Mannlicher going wrong. I got up to him and pulled trigger on him, but click ! a miss-fire. He paid no attention and I softly opened the bolt. Out came the case, spilling the flake powder into the mechanism and leaving the bullet securely fast in the barrel lead. I tried to ram another cartridge in, but could not do so.

Here was a fix. How to get that bullet out. Calibre .256 is very small when you come to try poking sticks down it. Finally I got the bullet out, but then the barrel was full of short lengths of sticks which could not be cleared out, as no stick could be found sufficiently long, yet small enough. So I decided to chance it and fire the whole lot into the old elephant, who, meanwhile, was feeding steadily along. I did so from sufficiently close range, but what happened I cannot say. Certainly that elephant got nothing of the charge except perhaps a few bits of stick. That something had touched him up was evident from his anxiety to get far away, for he never stopped during the hours I followed him.

At one time I used a double .450/.400. It was a beautiful weapon, but heavy. Its drawbacks I found were : it was slow for the third and succeeding shots ; it was noisy ; the cartridges weighed too much ; the strikers broke if a shade too hard or flattened and cut the cap if a shade too soft ; the caps of the cartridges were quite unreliable ; and finally, if any sand, grit or vegetation happened to fall on to the breech faces as you tore along you were done ; you could not close it. Grit especially was liable to do this when following an elephant which had had a mud bath, leaving the vegetation covered with it as he passed along. This would soon dry and tumble off at the least touch.

I have never heard any explanation of the undoubted fact that our British ammunition manufacturers cannot even yet produce a reliable rifle cartridge head, anvil and cap, other than that of the service .303. On my last shoot in Africa two years ago, when W and I went up the Bahr Aouck, the very first time he fired at an elephant he had a miss-fire and I had identically the same thing. We were using .318’s with English made cartridges. Then on the same shoot I nearly had my head blown off and my thumb severely bruised by an English loaded .256. There was no miss-fire there.

The cartridge appeared to me almost to detonate. More vapour came from the breech end than from the other. I have since been told by a great authority that it was probably due to a burst case, due to weak head. On my return I complained about this and was supplied with a new batch, said to be all right. But whenever I fire four or five rounds I have a jam, and on investigating invariably find a cap blown out and lodging in the slots cut for the lugs of the bolt head. Luckily these cartridges are wanting in force; at one time they used fairly to blast me with gas from the wrong end. The fact that these faults are not conspicuously apparent in this country may be traced to the small number of rounds fired from sporting rifles, or, more probably, to the pressures increasing in a tropical temperature.

native elephant hunters
By XX century firearms were widespread in Africa, and many native hunters used them to harvest ivory in areas where Karamojo Bell hunted.

I have never been able to appreciate “shock” as applied to killing big game. It seems to me that you cannot hope to kill an elephant weighing six tons by ” shock ” unless you hit him with a field gun. And yet nearly all writers advocate the use of large bores as they “shock” the animal so much more than the small bores. They undoubtedly “shock” the firer more, but I fail to see the difference they are going to make to the recipient of the bullet. If you expect to produce upon him by the use of big bores the effect a handful of shot had upon the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, you will be disappointed. Wounded non-vitally he will go just as far and be just as savage with 500 grains of lead as with 200. And 100 grains in the right place are as good as ten million.

The thing that did most for my rifle shooting was, I believe, the fact that I always carried my own rifle. It weighed about 7 lb., and I constantly aligned it at anything and everything. I was always playing with it. Constant handling, constant aiming, constant Swedish drill with it, and then when it was required there it was ready and pointing true.


A lot of controversy about Karamojo Bell comes from Mr. Bell himself. “The Wonderings of an Elephant Hunter” was written when the trails were still hot, memories fresh, and from the “here’s what worked for me, under my specific circumstances” position. Later in life, however, his views became more radical.

In an article titled “Big Bores vs. Small Bores”, for example, published posthumously by “The American Rifleman” in 1954, he urged everyone to dump the big bores and hunt all animals with rifles of the .308 Win. class (he praised the cartridge, even though he had no personal experience with it). All dependent on bullet placement, he wrote, “a .600 caliber 900-grain bullet in the right place will kill as dead as a 100-grain bullet”. A few paragraphs later, he called the .318 Westley Richards “the deadliest” of his foursome of favorites, that also included the 6.5 mm. Mannlicher, the 7 mm. Mauser, and the .303 British. So, he could see the difference in killing power between .318 and 7 mm, but not between .22 Swift and .600 NE. Er… seriously?

Was it rhetorical vigor, or was W.D.M. Bell simply pulling the readers’ collective leg? These British “old chaps” loved a good prank – oh, pardon me, practical joke! What most people tend to learn over their lifetimes is that a radical view on anything is usually wrong. That includes Karamojo Bell and his small-bore rifles. 

On the one hand, Bell certainly didn’t kill over a thousand elephants with a 6.5 mm rifle. .As we already know, he used rifles for at least eight different rounds. For the trip into the Karamojo country, he had a battery of three rifles, two already mentioned and a.303 British. For three of his trips – to Liberia, up the River Bahr Aouk, and into the Buba Gida Potentiate and the Lakka country, he carried only one big-game rifle: a .318 Westley Richards. This is a medium bore (.330, or 8.4 mm) round that came loaded with a 250-grain (16 gram) bullet at 2,400 ft/s (730 m/s), or a 180-grain (12 gram) at  2,700 ft/s (820 m/s). He is credited with killing over 1011 elephants in his career, but the .256 accounted for the minority of kills, due to various ammunition problems. 

bell tall grass
Karamojo Bell hunted elephants in all sorts of conditions. You wouldn’t want a rifle with heavy recoil here.

On the other hand, critics tend to downplay Bell’s experience, saying he was mostly shooting undisturbed elephants at long distance in an open country. In fact, Bell killed all kinds of elephants in all kinds of terrain. That included the 12-foot grass in the Lado Enclave, where he had to shoot from an improvised elevation.  

If Bell couldn’t see the difference between bigger and smaller cartridges, why would he use the .318 WR on so many trips, and why did he order one .416 Rigby after another (as Rigby’s record books testify)? On the other hand, when African national parks carried out large-scale elephant culls – the nearest thing to Bell’s ivory hunting in modern world – the weapon of choice, to our knowledge, were semi-automatic military rifles and the 7.62 mm NATO (the military version of the .308 Win.). Karamojo would’ve approved. The bottom line is, precisely as Karamojo himself claimed in his earliest prose, the 7 mm Mauser was what worked for a specific person under specific circumstances. It’s not a magic bullet for everyone everywhere.   

In any case, Bell’s books make a wonderful read, whether you agree with his views or not. He was one of the people who had a unique experience, intelligent enough to know their experience were unique, and talented enough to preserve it for later generations in high-quality prose and imagery. And, as long as you don’t take Bell’s tips literally, his advice on knowing your weapon, the killing spots of your quarry, and being able to put every bullet where it belongs, still makes a lot of sense.

The days of Karamojo Bell are long gone. Modern elephant hunting in Africa is totally sustainable and works towards the preservation of the species. And there are many other opportunities to discover hunting in Africa.

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