Karamojo Bell: The Small Bore Ivory Hunter

You Can’t Kill Deader than Dead

Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell quietly went from being just another adventurer trying his hand at being a professional ivory hunter to becoming nothing short of a legend. In his years elephant hunting he bagged exactly 1,011 elephant, which led to him acquiring a quite significant cache of crisp British pound notes in his bank account: and as he was a thrifty Scotsman no doubt that was a most satisfactory outcome. But that was not what turned him into one of the most famous of all the ivory hunters. The thing that ensured his fame was the fact that he killed 800 of those elephant armed with a handy lightweight Rigby rifle chambered for the .275 Rigby, a caliber most of us know as the 7×57 Mauser.

Rigby Limited Edition WDM Bell Highland Stalker rifle

Current production Rigby Limited Edition W.D.M. Bell Highland Stalker rifle. (Picture courtesy Rigby).

There were many who derided his choice of rifle and who attempted to tell him that what he was doing was “unsporting” and even that such a practice should be made illegal, which it subsequently was. But for W.D.M. Bell what he accomplished was done perfectly humanely, and without the need for him to take irresponsible risks in what was a very dangerous profession.

Bell owned and used a number of rifles, not just the lightweight 7x57mm made by Rigby. In addition to a number of 275 Rigby rifles over the years he also had a number of other rifles which included a .256 Mannlicher-Schönauer (6.5x54mm) made by Bristol gunsmith George Gibbs (famous as the creator of the .505 Gibbs big game rifle cartridge), this rifle he primarily used as the “pot rifle” meat-getter and for which he mostly used soft pointed bullets. Bell also had a Lee-Enfield with ten shot magazine, a Westley Richards made take down switch barrel rifle based on a Springfield action with barrels in 30-06 and .318 Westley Richards,  a 450/400 double rifle made by Daniel Fraser of Edinburgh, and a .416 Rigby made by Rigby on a magnum Mauser action. So he owned and gained significant experience with a sensible range of rifles, this providing him with field experience that few others could match.

Lee Speed sporting rifles

Two Lee sporting rifles. The one at top is a Lee-Enfield fitted with a ten shot magazine while the one below has a five shot magazine. (Picture courtesy the Internet Firearms Movie Database).

When we look at Bell’s achievements we wonder why he chose to do things the way he did and the best one to answer that question is Bell himself as he speaks to us in his article Small Bores Versus Big Bores which was published in “The American Rifleman” of December 1954 – six months after his death.

Bell’s philosophy in hunting was that the rifleman must have a good knowledge of the anatomy of the game they are after and thus that he/she will not press trigger unless sure of their bullet placement and thus an instant humane kill. As Bell began his career as a professional hunter he made it a practice to dissect the skulls of elephants he had taken in order to work out the best point of aim to take for every angle from which a shot could be taken, including the very difficult shot taken when the elephant is moving away, a shot that came to be known as the “Bell Shot”.

Karamojo Bell Bell Shot

The “Bell Shot” as illustrated in one of WDM Bell’s books. As can be appreciated this requires perfect shot placement and a bullet that is guaranteed to penetrate the honeycomb structure of the elephant’s skull to find its mark. (Sketch by W.D.M. Bell).

When we read Bell’s accounts of why he made the choices he made things make perfect sense. He wanted his rifles to be lightweight, to be absolutely reliable, and to provide an immediate humane kill. He also understood that he needed to be able to get suitable ammunition for his rifles and not be dependent on ordering cartridges from a dealer in far away Britain. To this end he decided that rifles based on a military action would provide the highest level of reliability and durability. So his .275 Rigby was made on a military Mauser ’98 action complete with stripper clip cut-out. His other favorite was the Lee-Enfield in .303 British. The Lee action has a reputation for being one of the fastest to operate and most reliable ever made and its ten shot magazine gave it a significant advantage over other rifles.

Bell used military round nose full metal jacket bullets in his rifles and sometimes joked that his rifle’s barrels had never been sullied by soft point ammunition. For elephant what was needed were bullets that would not deform or bend but that would drive in a straight line into the animal’s brain. In the Rigby 7x57mm he used round nose 173 grain FMJ bullets with a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps and in the .303 British the military round nose 215 grain FMJ with a muzzle velocity of 2,100 fps: both of which he described as being about ideal for the job they were called on to do. Bell said of both his small bores and his big bores that “They all killed dead, … None killed deader than dead because they can’t.”

Windjammers, Lion Hunting, the Yukon, and the Boer War

How did W.D.M. Bell learn to shoot accurately and maintain his presence of mind in the face of mortal danger? The answer is that he was an adventurer who tried to run away from home to start his first adventure at the tender age of seven. It was the year following the death of his father, his mother having passed away when he was a mere toddler of two. On that first attempt he made it to the local railway station but, happily, was persuaded to go home again. After the death of his parents he was brought up by his brothers and he found that boarding school did not suit him, so each time he was sent to a new school he’d find a way to escape – a skill that would serve him in good stead a few years later during the Boer War.

windjammer sailing ship

Windjammer, the sort of ship the young Bell would have sailed on. (Picture courtesy Allan C. Green via the State Library of Victoria).

Six years later, at the age of thirteen, Bell ran away and joined a sailing ship, beginning a few years “before the mast” on windjammers. By the time he was sixteen the shipboard life lost its attraction and in 1896 he got himself a job with the Uganda Railway in Darkest Africa shooting pesky lions that were causing problems with railway construction and maintenance, occasionally having the temerity to eat railway workers which was not something that the railway management nor workers were willing to tolerate. Bell used a single-shot rifle in .303 British for this purpose and the fact the he survived un-eaten indicates that he had become an accomplished rifle-shot with a cool head.

Uganda railway construction

Bell worked shooting lions on the Kenya-Uganda railway. The famous man-eaters of Tsavo were active on this rail construction.

Bell appears to have realized that the job shooting man-eating lions with a single shot rifle might lead to his premature demise and that same year, 1896, with the help of his family, he headed for the Yukon Gold Rush where, upon realizing that his chances of striking it rich was a gamble with very poor odds, he worked shooting game to supply Dawson City with meat, a job that should have provided a more predictable income than panning for gold. As it was that was not to be the case however and when his partner did a disappearing act taking almost all the money with him Bell had to sell his .350 Farquharson rifle to get back to Dawson and from there he joined the Canadian Mounted Rifles who were heading off to Africa to participate in the Boer War. So in a sense Bell got a free passage back to Africa although he was likely to have to earn his living there by doing some shooting with a Lee-Metford rifle while keeping his head down to avoid the 7x57mm Mauser bullets the Boers were sending in his general direction.

Rigby Lee Metford sporting rifles

At top is a Rigby built on a magnum Mauser action while below it is a sporting Lee-Metford. (Picture courtesy American Rifleman 1954).

We can safely assume that Bell learned his respect for the Mauser ’98 rifle, and the Lee during this period. The preferred Boer rifle was a Mauser ’98 in 7x57mm which they used with great effect against their British and Commonwealth foes. It was the ability of the Mauser in 7x57mm with spitzer bullets to “reach out and touch” their opponents so efficiently that persuaded the British to create a new Lee-Enfield cartridge also loaded with spitzer bullets to match them. That Lee-Enfield rifle and ammunition would become the British standard rifle and loading through two world wars until it was replaced by the 7.62x51mm NATO (aka .308 Winchester).

Mannlicher Schönauer Rigby Mauser

At top is a Mannlicher-Schönauer sporting rifle made by Gibbs. The Mannlicher-Schönauer was based on the military rifle made for the Greek army. Below is Bell’s preferred rifle for his elephant hunting: the lightweight Rigby .275. (Picture courtesy American Rifleman 1954).

Its worth noting that all of Bell’s rifles, apart from his 450-400 Nitro Express double rifle, were built on military actions, even his .416 Rigby was built on a scaled up Magnum Mauser ’98 action. He reasoned that the military actions had been designed and tested under the most adverse conditions and that made them the most suitable for his ivory hunting expeditions. He could expect reliability, durability, and to be able to get ammunition for them locally in Africa without recourse to getting proprietary cartridges mailed to him from the maker in Britain.

Gibbs Mannlicher-Schönauer Rigby double rifle

At top is a Mannlicher-Schönauer made by Gibbs of Bristol while below it a Rigby double rifle in 450/400. Bell found that he did not like double rifles because they tended to gather dirt in the action which could prevent them from being closed. (Picture courtesy American Rifleman 1954).

During the Boer War Bell was taken prisoner by the Boers when his horse was shot out from under him, most probably by a 7x57mm Mauser ’98 rifle. He managed to escape however and survived the war, and at the war’s end in 1902 he remained in Africa and pursued a new career as a professional ivory hunter. As he would most likely not have had a lot of money behind him as he began his hunting career he is likely to have chosen the 7×57 Mauser and the .303 Lee-Speed as being reliable and affordable rifles. If he was shooting in areas where the European ammunition was more common he could use that, and if he was in a British colonial area the .303 ammunition was more likely to be available.

Becoming “Karamojo Bell”

Bell’s life experience up to 1902 when he began his ivory hunting career proved to be a perfect training. Not only was he a marksman, but one with a cool head who understood the need for perfect shot placement under all circumstances. But being good with a rifle was not the only skill set he needed. He had excellent people skills and this proved to be something that enabled him to employ the right workers and to keep them disciplined and productive. His camp staff included porters, cooks, scouts, people who could translate and speak with different tribes, people who could help him negotiate with tribal chiefs who controlled the areas he wanted to hunt in.

Springfield rifle switch barrel Westley Richards

Bell had a switch barrel rifle made with barrels in 30-06 and .318 Westley Richards. As the cartridge case head dimensions of the two are almost identical only one bolt was necessary. (Picture courtesy American Rifleman 1954).

Negotiating with tribal chiefs was typically a painstaking process of bargaining, always esteeming the chief who’s favor was needed to gain permission to hunt in his tribal area. Gifts might include a bag or more of gold sovereigns (paper money would not cut it back in Africa in the early 1900’s), cases of nice alcohol such as brandy, rifles and ammunition, and perhaps mules and/or camels. The negotiation process could last for a week or three as the quantity of gifts was carefully increased as the bargaining continued until an agreement was struck. Then and only then could the harvesting of the ivory begin.

The negotiation process was not always successful or peaceful however, and Bell carried a Mauser C96 pistol, and later a Colt M1911 in .45 ACP and a double action revolver in .22 rimfire. He made a point of always being prepared in case he found himself on a “sticky wicket” and needed to use some creative survival strategies.

It was Bell’s ability to manage and lead people that opened the doors for him to hunt in places few if any had been before. Bell’s wanderings as an elephant hunter took him to Kenya, Uganda including the Karamoja region in the north (this being where his nickname “Karamojo Bell” originated), Abyssinia, the Lado Enclave (nowadays north Uganda and South Sudan, back then part of the Congo Free State and then the French and the Belgian Congo).

Karamojo Bell shooting style long elephant grass

Bell was inventive and adaptable. When hunting in the tall “elephant grass” he improvised shooting from a tripod or the shoulders of one of his staff. By this means he could shoot elephant with his light caliber rifle and not disturb the herd while he picked off bull after bull. (Sketches by W.D.M. Bell).

Bell needed not only to harvest ivory to finance his expeditions but also to provide meat for his between 100-200 staff who trekked with him. An elephant provides a lot of meat but not enough to feed a retinue such as that. So a standard twenty five round culling belt proved not to be quite enough. Bell had Rigby of London make him a custom fifty round belt, and when the staff at Rigby asked why he would need so many cartridges he simply told them that there were times when it paid to have them.

Back then the game was exceedingly plentiful and mostly undisturbed. Bell was often the first big game hunter to hunt in some of the areas he traversed and so his experiences were unique, and would not be likely to be duplicated nowadays: the Africa of 1902-1914 was a very different place to what it has become today.

The Great War and the Final Expeditions

The beginning of the Great War in 1914 brought the main part of W.D.M. Bell’s ivory hunting career to an end. Bell traveled to Britain and began training to learn how to fly and then enlisted to do his part in fighting Germany and her allies.

Bell became a reconnaissance pilot and was stationed in Tanganyika (modern day Tanzania). He became respected as a bold pilot and managed to shoot down a number of enemy aircraft. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with bar and at the time he was discharged at the war’s end had attained the rank of Captain.

The war took its toll on Bell’s health however and he went back to Britain before the signing of the Armistice that ended it. In 1917 in Britain he married Kate Soares, who was the only daughter of Sir Ernest Soares and who was the heiress to his estate. The couple purchased a 1,000 acre estate called “Corriemoillie” and also had an ocean going racing yacht named “Trenchemer” constructed in Aberdeen, in which they participated in a number of trans-Atlantic races.

WDM Bell racing yacht Trenchemer

Bell’s racing yacht Trenchemer. (Picture courtesy wrecksite.eu).

(Note: You can find what ultimately happened to the Trenchemer at wrecksite.eu).

Bell made trips to Africa for safaris in the early 1920’s beginning with expeditions in Liberia and the Ivory Coast. Then In 1921 he undertook a major expedition by canoe 3,000 miles inland accompanied by a friend from his Royal Flying Corps days, R. M. Wynne-Eayten. His last Africa safari was not so much a hunting journey but a road trip with American friends Gerrit and Malcolm Forbes.

By this stage “Karamojo Bell” had retired from commercial ivory hunting in Africa and as it turned out he would not return to Africa again. He purchased a Winchester Model 54 rifle (i.e. the predecessor of the Model 70) chambered for the .220 Swift, which was introduced in 1935, so his purchase was most likely made around 1935-1936. He was friendly with a number of Americans including Colonel Townsend Whelen (the creator of the .35 Whelen and also of the Whelen rifle sling) so he would have been well aware of Winchester’s new high velocity small-bore which boasted muzzle velocities just over 4,000 fps, and we can assume that as he was a small bore aficionado he was keen to try it out. And try it out he did, using a telescopic sight and with the Winchester zeroed at 220 yards he demonstrated its effectiveness on Red Deer stags using neck shots.

Winchester M54 sporting rifle

W.D.M. Bell’s later years were spent hunting red deer with his Winchester Model 54 equipped with a telescopic sight. (Picture courtesy Louis Luttrell @ winchestercollectors.org).

Karamojo Bell planned on making a trip back to Africa in 1939 but unfortunately the world domination ambitions of a certain Mr. Hitler and his National Socialist party prevented that. Instead Karamojo Bell and Katie found themselves along with many other boat owners sailing Trenchemer over to Dunkirk to help with the rescue of stranded British soldiers.

Karamojo Bell enjoyed a healthy and adventurous life up until he endured a heart attack in 1947, and from then on he had to limit his adventurous spirit. He passed away of heart failure in 1954, leaving a legacy of stories of a life lived to the full, and also a legacy of controversy regarding rifles and cartridges for dangerous game.

The Rifle and Caliber Controversy

W.D.M. Bell was a practical hunter who used rifles and methods that he found worked for him. Over the years of field experience he developed his ideas but did not seek to impose them on others. If a hunter was going off on safari he suggested he take “… 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.”

Sporting rifle cartridges

Some of the cartridges used by W.D.M. Bell. Although an excellent cartridge Bell regarded the .416 Rigby as requiring too heavy a rifle, necessary because of the power of the recoil this cartridge generates. (Picture courtesy American Rifleman 1954).

Bell only used the 7x57mm Mauser because he found that the ammunition made by DWM in Germany worked flawlessly whereas his British made ammunition was nowhere near as reliable, suffering from split cases and, even worse, blown primer caps. A blown primer cap will tend to drop into the locking lug recesses of a front locking bolt action and can prevent it being closed on a new cartridge. If you happen to be hurriedly reloading because your urgently need to and that happens the end result can be fatal: its one of the reasons double rifles were popular as “life insurance” against dangerous game.

From his writings it would seem that the rifle and caliber that Bell most liked was in fact his .318 Westley Richards. This light and handy rifle fired a .330″ diameter 250 grain Full Metal Jacket bullet at 2,400 fps providing the most excellent penetration. The thing that kept him from using it more was the British made ammunition which at the time was just not as reliable as the DWM 7x57mm Mauser ammunition. As time went on the British ammunition did dramatically improve to be at least as reliable as the DWM, but that took a few years.

Westley Richards 318WR

The .318 Westley Richards was a proprietary cartridge with a bore diameter of .318″ and groove/bullet diameter of .330″. The case dimensions are almost identical to the 30-06 so the cartridge was very like the wildcat 338-06 that was created later. The bullets were also proprietary designs by Leslie Taylor of Westley Richards. (Picture courtesy Westley Richards).

Given W.D.M. Bell’s preference for German DWM ammunition and Mauser ’98 bolt action rifles I find it curious that he never seems to have tried the popular and inexpensive 9.3x62mm Mauser created by German gunsmith Otto Bock in 1905, for which the Mauser ’98 rifles and the ammunition were both made by DWM in Germany. The 9.3x62mm is also very similar in size to the 30-06 and, like the .318 Westley Richards, sends a 250 grain bullet out of the muzzle at a tad over 2,400 fps. It was loaded with 286 grain bullets with a high sectional density at over 2,200 fps. My own 9.3x62mm Mauser tips the scales at 7lb 1oz making it of about the weight that Bell preferred.

The 9.3x62mm was popular in the European colonies of Africa and, as an example, the man known as “The Last Ivory Hunter”, Wally Johnson had just two rifles, a Winchester Model 70 in .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, and a Mauser ’98 in 9.3x62mm.

In his article Small Bores Versus Big Borespublished in “The American Rifleman” of December 1954 Bell states that he thought that the ideal bullet for elephant would be a solid brass or “Monel” bullet. (Monel is an alloy made of about 52-67% nickel with the remainder mainly copper and small amounts of iron, manganese, carbon, and silicon). So I think he might have very much liked the modern Barnes Banded Solids and the Woodleigh solid brass “Hydro” bullets if he were with us today.

Books

It was books on the adventures of others that inspired the young W.D.M. Bell to embark on adventures of his own: adventures that led to him becoming the larger than life legend known as “Karamojo Bell”. Bell wrote and published three books, the first two of which were published while he was alive, and the last compiled and edited by his old friend Colonel Townsend Whelen.

You will find “Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter” on Amazon if you click here.

“Karamojo Safari” on Amazon if you click here.

“Bell of Africa” (edited by Townsend Whelen) on Amazon if you click here.

There are also two more later books published from W.D.M. Bell’s notes and writings:-

“Incidents from an Elephant Hunter’s Diary” on Amazon if you click here.

“Reminiscences Of An Elephant Hunter: The Autobiography Of W D M “Karamojo” on AbeBooks if you click here.

Epilogue

W.D.M. Bell was a man who carried his rifle wherever he went, and he practiced with it by doing lots of dry firing, and he had the opportunity to do a lot of live firing also. He was so practiced that he was able to shoot birds on the wing with a rifle and was observed doing so on one occasion with his .318 Westley Richards. He was an advocate of precise shot placement as being vastly more important than cartridge power. In his view nothing short of an artillery field gun would be sufficient to shock an elephant with a non-vital shot, so even a bullet from a .600 Nitro Express had to be precisely placed in the brain of an elephant to drop it.

Although most of us will not get the opportunity to hunt elephant in this modern day the lesson to learn from Karamojo Bell is, for whatever animal we are hunting, to know the anatomy of the animal, to only shoot when you are certain of placing that bullet where it will cause an immediate and humane kill, and to use the most appropriate bullet for the job.

WDM Bell professional ivory hunter

Picture Credits: Sketch at the head of this post edited from an original by W.D.M. Bell. Other pictures as noted.

 

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