Things to be considered when hunting elephant

Premium grade solid bullets only should be used, also for body shots. Expanding or “soft” bullets should not be used on elephant.  

Big Bullets Make Big Holes

Suitable caliber rifles with heavy bullets to break/penetrate bone.  Generally, 9,3mm (.366”) and up should be used, although most countries stipulate a minimum of .375 (9,5mm) caliber.  Bigger calibers are always better though and one should try to use the biggest caliber that can be fired comfortably and accurately. 

Minimum calibers by country are

  • Namibia: 5400 joules Muzzle Energy .375cal
  • Zimbabwe: 9.3mm (.366”) or  .375cal
  • Zambia/Tanzania/S.A./Mozambique: .375cal

The Closer The Better

40-yard shots on elephant are considered a long shot, 50 yards as a last resort first shot. In the interest of never making an animal suffer unduly Byron Hart African Safaris always suggests the closest shot possible to reduce errors or mishaps that could endanger the hunter, other unintended animals, or the intended harvest.

There are 3 primary shots for elephant

  1. Heart/Lung Shot
  2. Brain Shots
    • Frontal Brain Shot
    • Side Brain Shot

Heart/Lung Shot

A frontal body shot is difficult as the target area is usually obscured by the trunk.  It is thought possible to sneak it in if the head is turned away, but this should only be considered if it’s the only shot available, otherwise overall, it should be avoided.    

A side-on heart shot is probably one of the safest shots presented, as the target area is quite large, with the heart being roughly the size of a basketball. (Indicated as a red square) It’s situated in the chest with about 2/3rds of it covered by the heavy bone of the front leg, and the remaining portion extends backward to just at/past the armpit crease.   A shot placed 3 fingers (1-2”) forward of the point of the crease from a perfect 90° broadside position should do it justice, and the animal shouldn’t go more than about 40-50 yards with a heart shot, knowing that part of the lung has also probably been damaged as the lungs slightly envelop the heart.  A slightly quartering away shot, at say max 30° from the perpendicular, can be placed in the crease or an inch back, further angled should not be considered as one would possibly be going through the rumen and heavy resistance.  A quartering toward shot, of say 30° or less will most probably be going through or clipping the heavy leg bone (possible deflection) and thus not ideal, but an elephant is reliant on all its legs and cannot go far on 3 legs either.   

A shot placed higher up will penetrate the lungs (marked as blue).  Although the shot is lethal, one must consider that because we are using solids only, the damage will be minimal, coupled with the fact that an elephant’s lungs are attached to the inside of the ribcage (one of the only mammals to have this), they will not collapse as easily, and it will take a longer time for the animal to succumb, sometimes enough time for the elephant to cross a park or concession boundary. 

Brain Shots

One of the classic ways to shoot an elephant, and it gives your guide an instant indication if the shot is good or not – as it should go straight down, back legs crumbling first.  

If the bullet touches the brain the elephant dies – very similar to flicking off a light switch.  Depending on how close the shot is to the brain, it might cause the elephant to stumble, or fall over – possibly unconscious but not dead.  Some shots might be close enough to cause bleeding in the brain and lead to death.  With bigger bulls, there is less effect than say with cows with “close to brain” shots. This is a good proponent for using bigger calibers with heavy bullets and putting in that all-important insurance shot once the elephant is down, usually in the back of the head.

One of the biggest faults/errors is that most hunters tend to shoot too high on both frontal and side-on shots.   The brain is situated at the bottom-back of the skull, pivoting on the atlas/axis joint coming in off the spine, which could be as much as  2’ below the top of the head on a big bull.

(The supraspinous ligament which controls the movement of the head, is about 6-8” in diameter, is situated about 4-6” below the top of the head, and about 6-8” above this pivot point.  In a big bull, this could be 20-24” down).   

The “space” above the brain in the head is exactly that… space. It’s a honeycomb of air and bone and absorbs impact shock from a bullet well – in most cases the elephant shakes its head, and turns to run.

Side Brain Shot

The advantage of the side brain shot over the frontal is that one has distinct reference points irrespective of the position of the head.  Halfway between the eye and the ear hole -usually not visible at the bottom of the ear slit), is the temporal gland (indicated with black dots) just above the zygomatic arch bone, which generally secretes a sticky fluid or has traces of it –  this would be the start of the brain, with the rear of the brain at the ear hole.  Halfway between these or easier – 3 fingers in front of the ear hole – is where you would place the shot, with the head up or down. 

Frontal Brain Shot

A frontal brain shot is more complex:  in the books-of-old, they always spoke about shooting the broomstick between the ear[hole]s.  The problem is, that one cannot see the earholes from the front.  Instead, what’s very visible is the zygomatic arch bone, the widest point on either side of the head, which runs from the eye back to the ear.  Draw an imaginary line between the widest points, and place the shot aiming for the center of the back of the skull.  This “imaginary line” should be considered from your line of sight, irrespective of where you are standing or the “attitude” of the skull – whether on the ground at a lower level shooting up or standing on a bank with the elephant slightly below you. 

The entry points of the bullet on a frontal shot vary drastically depending on the position of the shooter, and the attitude of the head, but the destination is fixed.  Shoot for the brain irrespective of the entry point. 

The bullet path of the frontal brain shot to an elephant with its head held up will be passing through no less than 2’ of tissue/mulch/bone to get to the brain – again proponent for a large caliber with a heavy “energy-laden” bullet.