The .700 Nitro Express by Gregor Woods

  • Friday, 05 October 2018 10:43
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The .700 Nitro Express by Gregor Woods: The world’s most powerful double – Part 1

Some 30 years ago, we heard that an American hunter had persuaded the prestigious London firm of Holland & Holland to introduce a new .700-calibre cart- ridge which would be the world’s most powerful nitro express. The hunting world greeted this news with a large measure of cynicism. My own ignorant response was, “What for?”Other commentators assumed it was just “the usual American machismo of wanting the biggest”. One gun-writer assumed it was developed “because there already was a .600 Nitro Express”and that it was just part of the “mine’s bigger than yours”syndrome. Numerous detractors mouthed manifold dismissals. 

They all got it wrong. Its developer had no such motivation, and its conception was nothing like that at all – in fact, the real story is one I love to tell. 

The man behind the .700NE is Bill Feldstein of California. He has long been a Magnum reader, and I have come to know him well over the years. Bill’s lovely wife Lucy is an ex-Rhodesian lady who has family living in SA, whom they come to visit each year, and they also take in a hunting or game-viewing safari – this year it was a ‘retro’fly-camp safari in Gonarezhou. Bill kindly invites me to an extended lunch each year and we are in weekly email contact. We discuss mutual interests, and I can tell you he is nothing like the image formed in the minds of the many .700NE detractors.

As a boy, Bill read the early explorer, William Cornwallis Harris, and yearned to hunt in wildest Africa. He began collecting Africana – some 300 works spanning the early explorers through to the 1950s, and read every one, dreaming of hunting in Africa with the same firearms as those hunters, and facing the same odds. He began collecting the big-bore rifles used by those men. Initially, his interest lay in black powder cartridge rifles, as Bill’s primary interest was the Victorian era of African exploration.  

When Bill first hunted in Africa, he realized his lifelong dream by doing a foot safari with a double-barrelled black powder 8-bore cartridge rifle weighing  17 lbs and firing conical lead bullets, ensuring that, as far as practically possible, his experience replicated those of the Victorian hunter/explorers. In 1985 he did one such safari with Brian Marsh, bagging two buffalo bulls with his Charles Osborne 8-bore double – one with an off-hand shot (Magnum May ’87 edition). Later, during another safari, he shot two elephants, one with the same 8-bore and one with a 4-bore by Daniel Fraser.  

Meanwhile, Bill had also developed a love for British big-bore nitro express doubles, and was collecting them. He looked for ever-more remote and primitive areas to pursue his dream, settling on Ethiopia as the ultimate, where he did four foot safaris (using local bearers) with PH Nassos Russos, solely for big tuskers, emulating the ivory hunters of the Victorian and Edwardian era, mostly using .577 and .600NEs. Bill bagged numerous big tuskers, including one with ivory weighing 100 and 104lbs – but he has never entered any of them in the SCI record book or Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game. Bill hunted for thrills, for the challenge, and for the love of Darkest Africa – never for glory.

During the 1980s, Bill’s rifle collection grew to include 15 black powder doubles in 12, 10, 8 and 4-bore, and 55 British NE doubles, eleven of them .600s, seven .577s, eight .500s (among others), a “variety of .450s”and a “smattering of medium-bores and small-bores”. Many were made in Scotland; all were classics made “back in the day”. He also bought up over 10 000 nitro express cart- ridges. He used every rifle on safari, including the black powder rifles. On his first safari with Brian Marsh he brought nine rifles!        

Read the full article in the November 2018 issue of Magnum.

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