It has long been an article of faith that one is ill-advised to take a rifle to Africa chambered for a wildcat cartridge. Two reasons are usually listed. The first — a legal one of no little import — is that some African customs officials insist that the headstamp on your ammunition match the caliber designation on your rifle. Explaining what a wildcat cartridge is to someone with only a vague familiarity with anything other than an AK-47 is hopeless.
The second is that if your rifle arrives safely but your ammunition does not, then you are stuck — unable to buy replacements and forced to hunt with a borrowed crock of a rifle.
I first read those bits of advice 35 or 40 years ago, and throughout that time they have remained valid, even while traveling with firearms has become ever more complex, the vagaries of African customs officers more bizarre, and the range of available cartridges, both wildcat and factory, has expanded beyond all imagination.
For those mercifully unfamiliar with them, a wildcat is a custom cartridge that is not and never has been in commercial production. The owner of a wildcat concocts his own ammunition, often through an arduous series of steps. Why would anyone go to this trouble? The usual goal of a wildcat is to make a more powerful cartridge, or a more accurate one. Sometimes, though, it’s just a matter of ego. Hector Horatius Poodlepfeffer wants to kill a kudu with his very own “.319 Poodlepfeffer Mega Magnum” and get his picture in the SCI chapter newsletter confirming it.
In the latter case, no one can offer any advice — he won’t take it — and in the two former cases, in my experience, greater accuracy and/or power is usually a figment of the designer’s imagination.
But back to the legal hurdles. In the last dozen years, the line between factory and wildcat has blurred considerably, even while the number of wildcats has grown beyond belief. If the category was crowded in 1980, and more so in 2000, it is now like a field of weeds stretching to the horizon. At a guess, I would say that 99.9998 per cent of wildcats have no legitimate reason for existing. However, just as wildcats have proliferated, so have small companies making brass which are willing to produce just about anything in small (but expensive lots) complete with the Poodlepfeffer name in the headstamp.
Provided the same thing is stamped on your rifle, this solves the problem of the caliber designation. There still remains, however, the question of lost ammunition and available substitutes.
There are situations where you can get around this. One is with the .458 Winchester, .458 Lott, and a few earlier wildcats like the .450 Ackley. The Lott is now a factory cartridge, as was the Ackley, briefly, when A-Square existed, and you can still buy properly headstamped brass for it from Quality Cartridge. What’s more, you can use .458 Lott ammunition in a .450 Ackley, since the case fits the chamber and both cartridges headspace on the belt. As well, you can use .458 Winchester ammunition, which is one of the most widely available cartridges in the world, in either the Lott or Ackley, for the same reason.
Offhand, I don’t know of any other combination where this situation exists, but since the two .458s are the most widely used dangerous-game cartridges, it’s worth noting. In the event you may someday depend on doing this, however, it’s wise to test the prospective substitute ahead of time, so you’ll know how it performs before having to figure it out in the African bush.
Except for the Ackley, the only obscure cartridge I’ve ever used in Africa was a Schultz & Larsen rifle in 7×61 S&H. The ammunition arrived OK, and there were no problems, except the rifle read “7×61 S&H” while the newer Norma brass read “7×61 Super.” No one paid it much attention, but it’s not something I would like to count on.
Whenever I consider taking a wildcat to Africa (and such impulses are mercifully brief) I remind myself of the time in South Africa when I had to borrow a rifle to hunt eland. My young Afrikaner guide called his mother, who drove to meet us at a crossroads with the family arsenal in the trunk of the car. I took the best of a bad lot — an ancient, barely sporterized military 7×57, with iron sights and a sling woven from binder twine — and off we went. The ammunition was an assortment of brands and bullet weights, ranging in age, I guessed, from 10 to maybe a hundred years old. Some of it was corroded.
By some miracle I got an eland on the edge of the Drakensberg, but the experience has stuck with me and colored my decisions ever since. The thought of hunting with a borrowed rifle makes me break into a cold sweat. There’s a lot to be said for the .375 H&H and the .30-06.