Elephant gun
An elephant gun is a large caliber gun
A gun is a muzzle or breech-loaded projectile-firing weapon. There are various definitions depending on the nation and branch of service. A "gun" may be distinguished from other firearms in being a crew-served weapon such as a howitzer or mortar, as opposed to a small arm like a rifle or pistol,...

, rifle
A rifle is a firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder, with a barrel that has a helical groove or pattern of grooves cut into the barrel walls. The raised areas of the rifling are called "lands," which make contact with the projectile , imparting spin around an axis corresponding to the...

d or otherwise, so named because they were originally developed for use by big-game hunters for elephant
Elephants are large land mammals in two extant genera of the family Elephantidae: Elephas and Loxodonta, with the third genus Mammuthus extinct...

s and other large dangerous game
Game (food)
Game is any animal hunted for food or not normally domesticated. Game animals are also hunted for sport.The type and range of animals hunted for food varies in different parts of the world. This will be influenced by climate, animal diversity, local taste and locally accepted view about what can or...

. They used black powder at first but then started using smokeless powder. They were sometimes used in wars.

Early use

As Europeans made inroads into Africa in the early 19th century, guns were developed to handle the very large game encountered. This was for self-protection, food gathering, and later, more commonly, sport. The first guns were the simple muzzle-loading shotgun designs already used for birds and loaded with solid balls of lead for use on large game. Due to their ineffectiveness on the largest game (up to 35 shots being recorded by some writers for a single elephant), they soon developed into larger caliber
In guns including firearms, caliber or calibre is the approximate internal diameter of the barrel in relation to the diameter of the projectile used in it....

 black powder smoothbore
A smoothbore weapon is one which has a barrel without rifling. Smoothbores range from handheld firearms to powerful tank guns and large artillery mortars.-History of firearms and rifling:...

s. The caliber was still measured in bore or gauge
Gauge (bore diameter)
The gauge of a firearm is a unit of measurement used to express the diameter of the barrel. Gauge is determined from the weight of a solid sphere of lead that will fit the bore of the firearm, and is expressed as the multiplicative inverse of the sphere's weight as a fraction of a pound . Thus...

 - 10, 8, 6, 4 bore
4 bore
Four bore or 4 bore is an obsolete black powder caliber of the 19th century, used for the hunting of large and potentially dangerous game animals. The specifications place this caliber between the larger two bore and the lesser six bore...

, or even 2 bore
2 bore
The Two Bore or 2 Bore is a mostly obsolete firearm caliber.- Specifications :The historical two bore fired spherical balls or slugs of hardened lead or, in the modern metallic cartridge, additionally a solid bronze projectile. The gauge is , and the projectiles generally weigh 8 ounces...

 - or the guns were named by projectile weight in ounces. The projectiles were lead round balls or short conical slugs, sometimes hardened with antimony
Antimony is a toxic chemical element with the symbol Sb and an atomic number of 51. A lustrous grey metalloid, it is found in nature mainly as the sulfide mineral stibnite...


These very large and very heavy firearms were the first to be known as the elephant guns of the black powder era (1850–1890), though their use also included all thick-skinned dangerous game such as rhinoceros
Rhinoceros , also known as rhino, is a group of five extant species of odd-toed ungulates in the family Rhinocerotidae. Two of these species are native to Africa and three to southern Asia....

, hippopotamus
The hippopotamus , or hippo, from the ancient Greek for "river horse" , is a large, mostly herbivorous mammal in sub-Saharan Africa, and one of only two extant species in the family Hippopotamidae After the elephant and rhinoceros, the hippopotamus is the third largest land mammal and the heaviest...

 and cape buffalo. Due to the velocity limitations of black powder and lead—usually around 1500 feet per second (457.2 m/s)—the only way to increase penetration was to make a larger gun. The largest bore guns in common use (and bore rifles with the advent of breech loading and rifling in the late 19th century) included the 4 bore- using a 2000 gr slug at up to 1400 ft/s (426.7 m/s). Despite their enormous power, the short low velocity slugs still suffered the penetration issues which plagued guns of this era, particularly for the toughest shot of all - defeating the bone mass for a frontal brain shot on an elephant. Thus, dangerous game hunting in the 19th century was as much a test of the gun-bearer's ability to relay guns to the hunter, and his skill on horseback in the earlier days to evade charges long enough to reload.

It was not until the parallel developments of jacketed projectiles, closely followed by smokeless powder
Smokeless powder
Smokeless powder is the name given to a number of propellants used in firearms and artillery which produce negligible smoke when fired, unlike the older gunpowder which they replaced...

s in the late 19th century, that dangerous game could be taken with near 100% certainty.

Nitro Express rifles

The Nitro Express
Nitro Express
The Nitro Express series of cartridges are used in large-bore hunting rifles, also known as elephant guns or express rifles. They are named after the propellant they use, cordite, which is composed of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine...

 line (c.1895), so named because the composition of the early smokeless powder
Smokeless powder
Smokeless powder is the name given to a number of propellants used in firearms and artillery which produce negligible smoke when fired, unlike the older gunpowder which they replaced...

s such as Poudre B
Poudre B
Poudre B : was the first practical smokeless gunpowder. Originally called "Poudre V" from the name of the inventor, Paul Vieille, it was later renamed "Poudre B" to distract German espionage...

, ballistite
Ballistite is a smokeless propellant made from two high explosives, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine. It was developed and patented by Alfred Nobel in the late 19th century.-The development of smokeless powders:...

 and cordite
Cordite is a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom from 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant. Like gunpowder, cordite is classified as a low explosive because of its slow burning rates and consequently low brisance...

, were the first of the new order of elephant guns. With smaller metal jacketed projectiles ranging from .400 to .620 and velocities around 2000 ft/s (609.6 m/s) they possessed vastly improved trajectory and penetration over their black powder forebears. Within a few short years the mighty bore guns of the previous era largely disappeared from the gamefields. The safari heyday of the early 20th century 'Nitro era' records much literature on such calibres as the .577 Nitro Express
.577 Nitro Express
The .577 Nitro Express is a rimmed cartridge in the Nitro Express series of big-game hunting ammunition. It is also known as the .577 Nitro Express 3" and there is a variant called the .577 Nitro Express 2.75"...

, .375 H&H Magnum
.375 H&H Magnum
The .375 Holland & Holland Magnum is a powerful rifle round and one of the best-known and most popular medium-bore cartridges in the world. The .375 H&H was only the second cartridge ever to feature a belt, now common among magnum rounds. A popular misconception is that the belt is for headspace,...

, .416 Rigby
.416 Rigby
The .416 Rigby or 10.6x74mm was designed in 1911 by John Rigby & Company of London, England as a dangerous game cartridge and is the first one to use a bullet with a diameter of .416"...

, .404 Jeffery
.404 Jeffery
The .404 Jeffery is a large caliber, rimless cartridge designed for large, dangerous game, such as the big five of Africa. Other names for this cartridge include .404 Jeffery Rimless, .404 Rimless Nitro Express, and 10.75 × 73 mm...

, .505 Gibbs, .450 Nitro Express
.450 Nitro Express
.450 Nitro Express designed for the purpose of hunting large game such as elephant. This cartridge is used almost exclusively in single shot and double express rifles for hunting at the Tropics or hot climates in general and is a cartridge associated with the Golden Age of African safaris and...

, .470 Nitro Express
.470 Nitro Express
The .470 Nitro Express is a cartridge developed in England for very large or dangerous game hunting. This cartridge is used almost exclusively in single shot and double express rifles for hunting in the tropics or hot climate...

 and many others. These rifles came out in single shot, bolt action, and double rifle configuration and continued to be used up until ivory
Ivory is a term for dentine, which constitutes the bulk of the teeth and tusks of animals, when used as a material for art or manufacturing. Ivory has been important since ancient times for making a range of items, from ivory carvings to false teeth, fans, dominoes, joint tubes, piano keys and...

 hunting died off in the mid 20th century. Thereafter, they largely switched roles to tools for game wardens and as back-up firearms for professional hunters guiding international hunters.

The American gun market produced several famous dangerous game cartridges around this time, such as the .458 Winchester Magnum
.458 Winchester Magnum
The .458 Winchester Magnum is a belted, straight-taper cased, dangerous game rifle cartridge. It was introduced commercially in 1956 by Winchester and first chambered in the Winchester Model 70 African rifle. It was designed to compete against the .450 Nitro Express and the .470 Nitro Express...

, .378 Weatherby Magnum
.378 Weatherby Magnum
The .378 Weatherby Magnum was designed by Roy Weatherby in 1953. It was an original belted magnum design with no parent case, inspired by the .416 Rigby and headspacing of the belted .375 H&H Magnum. The 215 magnum rifle primer was developed by Federal specifically for this round. The cartridge can...

 and .460 Weatherby Magnum
.460 Weatherby Magnum
The .460 Weatherby Magnum is a belted, bottlenecked rifle cartridge, developed by Roy Weatherby in 1957. The cartridge is based on the .378 Weatherby Magnum necked up to accept the bullet. The original .378 Weatherby Magnum parent case was inspired by the .416 Rigby...

 and many of these were 'wildcatted
Wildcat cartridge
A wildcat cartridge, or wildcat, is a custom cartridge for which ammunition and firearms are not mass produced. These cartridges are often created in order to optimize a certain performance characteristic of an existing commercial cartridge.Developing and using wildcat cartridges does not...

' (to modify an existing case and rifle to fire a different caliber bullet). The rest of the old Nitro express calibers were to fade almost to obscurity until a recent resurgence in safari hunting came about in the 1970s and 1980s. This prompted a new boom in elephant gun development and calibers such as the .416 Weatherby Magnum
.416 Weatherby Magnum
The .416 Weatherby Magnum is a belted, bottlenecked cartridge designed by Ed Weatherby and launched commercially in 1989. It is a dangerous game cartridge intended for the hunting of heavy dangerous game such as elephant and African Cape buffalo. It is considered the most powerful commercial .416...

 and .416 Remington Magnum
.416 Remington Magnum
The .416 Remington Magnum is a .416 caliber of a belted bottle-necked design. The cartridge was intended as a dangerous game hunting cartridge and released to the public in 1989. The cartridge uses the case of the 8 mm Remington Magnum as a parent cartridge. When the cartridge was released in...

 arrived in factory offerings. The late 1980s and 1990s produced the .700 Nitro Express
.700 Nitro Express
The .700 Nitro Express is a big game rifle cartridge made by Holland & Holland, London, England. It was developed in 1988 by Jim Bell and William Feldstein and built by H&H. Feldstein had tried unsuccessfully to get H&H to build a .600 Nitro Express for him, but they had already ceased production...

 and the new brass manufacturers allowed even more powerful elephant guns such as the .585 Nyati
.585 Nyati
The .585 Nyati is a shoulder-fired rifle cartridge. Nyati means Cape Buffalo in many African languages such as Swahili. The .585 Nyati can generate of muzzle energy. This places it at or near the top of the list for most powerful cartridges that can be chambered in a rifle that can still be...

 by Ross Seyfried, .577 Tyrannosaur
.577 Tyrannosaur
The .577 Tyrannosaur or .577 T-rex is a type of cartridge developed by A-Square in 1993 for big game hunting in Africa. The .577 contains a diameter Monolithic Solid Projectile which when fired moves at producing of muzzle energy. The production model from A-square is based on their Hannibal...

 by Colonel Art Alphin and .585 Gehringer by Karl Gehringer to be made by wildcatters. The .600 Overkill
.600 Overkill
The .600 Overkill cartridge is a hunting cartridge designed to fit the CZ-550 action, by American Hunting Rifles.-Design:The .600 Overkill was designed by Robert Garnick of Las Vegas, Nevada, USA...

 made by Rob Garnick represents at this moment the greatest power available from a standard hunting action. Other wildcats based on the heavy machine gun
Machine gun
A machine gun is a fully automatic mounted or portable firearm, usually designed to fire rounds in quick succession from an ammunition belt or large-capacity magazine, typically at a rate of several hundred rounds per minute....

 .50 BMG
.50 BMG
The .50 Browning Machine Gun or 12.7×99mm NATO is a cartridge developed for the Browning .50 caliber machine gun in the late 1910s. Entering service officially in 1921, the round is based on a greatly scaled-up .30-06 cartridge...

 and similar anti-materiel rounds have been devised which are much more powerful, though they are not generally considered useful hunting arms being that their weight usually exceeds 25 lb (11.3 kg).


Whether double rifle, single shot, or bolt action the concept of the elephant gun is the same: to provide enough stopping power
Stopping power
Stopping power is a colloquial term used to describe the ability of a firearm or other weapon to cause a penetrating ballistic injury to a target, human or animal, sufficient to incapacitate the target where it stands....

 to prevent harm to the hunter in the case of charging game. The necessities for the gun are not only extreme power, since in that case the 50BMG or 20 mm cannons would be the order of the day, but that it can be carried for long periods, shot from any position or angle, and be well balanced enough to track on rapidly moving animals. In essence it is no more than a very large hunting rifle with the same capability of use as any hunting rifle.

Use in war

During World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, both the British and Germans deployed elephant guns obtained from their African colonies in an attempt to break the stalemate in the trenches. The British used elephant guns as a means of countering the German tactic of having their snipers advance towards Allied lines under the cover of a large, 6-10 millimeter (0.24-0.4 inch) thick steel plates. Though normal small arms were ineffective against the plate, the elephant guns of the era had enough force to punch through it. Likewise, the Germans deployed a specialized, mass-produced anti-tank rifle, the Mauser 1918 TuF Gewehr, to knock out lightly armored British tanks.

During the African campaigns of World War II in 1941, the Italians in East Africa faced the British. The Italian commander, the Duke of Aosta, gave his personal collection of elephant guns to his Italian soldiers to aid in armour penetration of British armoured cars, as Italian AT guns were in short supply.

The Finnish 20 mm anti-tank gun Lahti L-39 gained the nickname Norsupyssy (Elephant Gun) during the Continuation War
Continuation War
The Continuation War was the second of two wars fought between Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II.At the time of the war, the Finnish side used the name to make clear its perceived relationship to the preceding Winter War...

because of its stopping power. It is not a true elephant gun, though, since it was not designed for pachyderm hunting but as a purely military weapon.
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