Taken by surprise by the three mountain reedbucks that burst from among the boulders and brush as we approached the koppie, I almost missed it. But for some reason I glanced downward, and there by my right boot toe was a dull metal object partially buried in the South African soil.
As I bent to pick it up, I had no idea that this unexpected find would lead me on a winding path of discovery about war and greed and, some hours later, to the blesbuck we sought.
The brass cartridge case I picked up was obviously old, but not until I rubbed the dirt off the base and increased the contrast with spit could I read the lettering around the rim–Westley Richards No. 2 Musket–and get a clue as to how old it was.
It was the word musket that leaped out at me.
Muskets predated the rifled firearms we now use, and I knew enough about world history to know that Westley Richards was an English firearms manufacturer and that the Boer Wars had been fought in South Africa between the British and the descendants of the early Dutch settlers sometime around 1900.
I’d also seen spent artillery rounds collected from the ranch we were hunting on by the owner, Charlie Ayliff, who told me that there had been battles between the Boers and the Brits in the area.
So I was guessing that I held a piece of history in my hand. The koppie we were about to ascend in search of blesbuck commanded a fine view of the valley wherein lay the highway between Graff-Reinert to the south and Middelburg to the north, and that made it a likely place for either side to have used as an observation post. Later in the day, my wife, Zoe Ann Stinchcomb, found some spent artillery rounds several hundred yards from the koppie, confirming my suspicion that humans had hunted humans here more than a century before.
But for now we had a blesbuck to chase, and Professional Hunter (PH) Bruce Truter was waiting impatiently for me to stop rubbernecking and get on with the hunt, so I slipped the case in my pocket and followed.
The blesbuck is a medium-sized African plains antelope, about the size of our white-tailed deer. But blesbuck–at least the ones we were hunting–run in herds, and I should emphasize the word run. The pasture we were hunting in was perhaps 500 acres, with a long curving koppie about two-thirds of the way toward its west side, and the blesbuck had plenty of room to run. And run they did. Around, and around, and around. For hours.
The Boers found this high desert in the Little Karoo a good place to run and hide in, too. Koppies and taller, often flat-topped mountains–bergs, in local parlance–keep watch over broad valleys sometimes miles wide. The Little Karoo was made for guerilla warfare, and that’s what the Boers were up to. Local farmers were generally sympathetic to their cause–throw the British out–and could be depended upon for information and supplies, though few ever joined the ranks of the Boers.
It’s probably unkind of me to characterize the British of the Nineteenth Century as slow learners, since their primary problem was that they were greedy. But one has to wonder. Fresh from their loss of those troublesome colonies in North America we now call home, the British went adventuring in Africa. In 1806, even before they tried reconquering the United States in the War of 1812, the British annexed the Dutch possessions at the southern tip of Africa, known as the Cape Colony. Thousands of Boers (the Dutch word for farmers) migrated east and settled beyond the control of the British–at least for a time. But the British kept annexing more and more land, until finally the Boers established two independent republics, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (usually called the Transvaal).
By 1877 the British were making trouble again, annexing the Transvaal. This led to their defeat in the First Boer War, 1880-1881.
And then, in 1886, someone discovered gold in the Transvaal, and suddenly the Boers ruled the richest nation in South Africa.
If you know anything about the British, you know they simply could not stand for such a situation. They decided they had to have the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, too (where diamonds had been discovered in 1867, wouldn’t you know). Relations went from bad to worse until the Boers told the British to withdraw all their troops from the border of the Transvaal or put up their dukes.
And so began the second Boer War, also called the South African War or the War of Independence. At first the war went the Boers’ way, because they had paid attention during the American Civil War while the British apparently had not. While the British still believed in fighting pitched battles with their troops (also known as targets) arranged in neat, tightly packed rows, the Boers adopted the guerilla tactics used by Confederate raiders in the Civil War. While the Boers were not trained soldiers, they were used to living in harsh conditions, they were skilled horsemen and hunters, and target practice–shooting at eggs atop posts at a range of 100 yards–was their major sport. They fought using a commando system that emphasized speed in concentration and attack coupled with a readiness to withdraw.
And for a while they drove the British nuts, dashing in to strike and then making a run for the hills before the British could launch an effective counterstrike.
A couple of hours into the blesbuck hunt, I could sympathize with the British. The blesbuck were the Boers, and they were running rings around us. The valley where we were hunting had almost no cover aside from the koppies, and the blesbuck found it easy to circle wide around us, then stand half a mile away all bunched up, every head up and pointed at us, before heading off again on another gallop.
Finally we decided on a plan. Bruce and Zoe Ann and I circled behind one end of the koppie where the blesbuck could see us leave, while Charlie moved in their direction. Meanwhile, we climbed the back side of the koppie and used rocks and brush to hide our descent back down on the side facing the blesbuck. The idea was for Charlie to push them around in front of us, hoping they would do their usual run-and-stop thing and wind up looking at him while standing within range of us.
It was a great plan. It just didn’t work. The blesbuck blew by us at 100 yards at a lope, and while I wanted to take a shot at the big ram trailing behind, Bruce wouldn’t let me shoot. (In Africa, you NEVER shoot unless the PH tells you to. You just have to hope he sees that lion charging in from the left.…)
By now we were feeling pretty much like I suspect the British felt after chasing the Boers around the Karoo for a few months. We were tired, frustrated, and getting nowhere at an admirable pace. Bruce, Zoe Ann and I headed off to meet Charlie at a windmill a few hundred yards away. The blesbuck watched from afar with what I thought was obvious amusement. Or perhaps disdain.
It seemed that nothing we tried was going to work, but after a bit of tea and a rest, we decided to give it one more go. Bruce and I headed off toward the koppie while Charlie and Zoe Ann circled to get around the blesbuck, hoping to drive them between Bruce and I and the koppie a couple of hundred yards away. Bruce and I sat in the grass, the rifle on the sticks, and waited. If the blesbuck came our way, they would be in range.
Of course, having taken lessons from the Boers, they did not do as expected. Instead, they sprinted through a gap in the koppie and disappeared on the other side.
Which was their undoing. While Bruce and I were fairly certain they would keep running when they got behind the koppie, they stopped instead. When we crept over the crest and peeked over a boulder for a look, there the whole herd stood, 150 yards away and totally oblivious to our presence.
Now the tables were turned, just as the Boers’ luck ran out in 1900. By fall of that year the British had finally put enough feet on the ground to control all of South Africa except for the area where we were hunting. The British burned towns and farmsteads to deprive the Boers of support and supplies and put thousands of civilians into concentration camps. The Boers were reduced to guerilla warfare, operating in the area between Graff-Reinert, Middelburg, and Cradock.
About 2,000 Boers operated in this area, split into groups of 50 to 300 men. They raided railway lines and small towns, attacked British patrols and generally caused as much havoc as they could. But the British, having finally learned to leave artillery and baggage wagons behind so they could travel faster, caught up with the scattered groups one by one and captured or killed them. By May 1902 the war sputtered out.
Like the British, I got what I was after in the end as well, though I shot as poorly as the British soldiers were said to. Accuracy was not their thing; they relied on mass volleys. Their philosophy on accuracy was best expressed by one officer’s objections to using more accurate rifled artillery instead of smoothbore cannons. Told that the new guns would mean the shells would all fall within a restricted area, he exclaimed, “With your new-fangled gun firing at me, I have only to keep outside that small area and I shan’t be touched. But with a smoothbore firing at me, I’m not safe anywhere!”
After all the shots it took me to down the blesbuck, the poor beast might have identified with that remark. It wasn’t quite a mass volley, but it wasn’t shooting to be proud of, either.
After our return home, I had the chance to do a little research on the Westley Richards No. 2 Musket, and what I learned both pleased and surprised me and capped off our hunt in fine fashion.
William Westley Richards started making guns on High Street in Birmingham, England, in 1812 at the age of 22. In 1875 two of his employees developed the hammerless action, which uses the breaking open of the barrels to cock the gun. This invention revolutionized gun-making and is still used today.
The No. 2 Musket was full of surprises. It was probably the gun most used by the Boers, not the British, though both sides used weapons that fired a .45 caliber paper-patched bullet of 400 to 500 grains propelled by 85 grains of black powder. The British were armed primarily with Martini-Henry rifles and the Boers with the Westley Richards falling-block, single-action, breech-loading rifle. Both had a muzzle velocity of about 1,350 feet per second–barely supersonic. The comparable American cartridge is the .45-70.
The No. 2 Musket, like the .450 Martini-Henry, was a bottle-necked cartridge. At first the Martini-Henry cartridges used a steel base with a wrapped foil body which tended to jam at inconvenient times, such as when one was being shot at. In 1871 Westley Richards patented the solid brass drawn cartridge, of which the No. 2 Musket is one. (Despite being called a musket, which might lead one to believe it was a smoothbore, the gun did have a rifled barrel. The bullet fit was so poor, however, that a paper patch around the base of the bullet was used to reduce gas leakage around the bullet and lead fouling in the barrel.)
The .450 caliber was so good at killing everything one pointed it at, including British soldiers, that the British outlawed the caliber in parts of their empire in 1905. This directly impacted future generations of African hunters, as Westley Richard and other manufacturers, using the new smokeless nitro powders, began to produce calibers with a more familiar ring to them: .303, .500/450 Nitro Express, .600 Nitro Express. Westley Richards also produced big game calibers such as .318, .425 and .476 that saw considerable use in Africa. And it all started with this simple object from the past. I had stumbled into a great deal more history than I knew.
As I said at the beginning, I had no idea when I picked up that dented and dirt-encrusted relic that it would lead me down so many paths, but I’m glad it did. I can hold that cartridge in my hand and look at the head of that blesbuck on my wall, and I’m back at the foot of that koppie in South Africa, watching those shaggy-coated mountain reedbucks dash away, anticipating the wonders the day will unfold.
I can’t wait to go back.
I’ll be looking at the ground often.