I’ve been wearing the folks at Wilson Combat out trying to get one of their new .458 Ham’r rifles to review. After looking at the round, I realized it had to be something derived from the .458 SOCOM, a round I have used extensively and have been consistently impressed with. The .458 Ham’r seemed like Wilson just took that same concept and turned it to 11.
Imagine my surprise when, after a bout of persistent annoyances by me, Bill Wilson himself answered my request. It was a simple email: “If you can get down to the King Ranch on Thursday we’ll try and get you on a nilgai hunt with the .458 Ham’r.”
It was Wednesday. That’s not a lot of notice, but yeah, you bet I said yes.
That’s because every once in a while fate lays a big fat kiss on your cheek. I just so happened to be working right outside of Corpus Christi when I got that email, less than an hour from the King Ranch.
The nilgai has been high on my list for a long time. It is as formidable as it is delicious.
Most people in the US aren’t familiar with the nilgai antelope. Heck, even most folks in Texas aren’t.
The Nilgai, or “devil deer” as they are often referred to in South Texas, are the largest of the antelope native to Asia, and second only to the Eland in size worldwide. Bulls regularly reach over 600lbs. That’s 600lbs of antelope.
Unlike many animals hunters have brought back from near extinction, the nilgai is in no such danger. There are over 100,000 of them in India alone. They are listed as “least threatened” and in parts of the sub-continent, they are even classified as vermin.
We have a vermin problem in Texas, too; our feral hogs. Our vermin are tough, but they don’t average 600lbs, run 40mph, and have 9″ sharp horns on their head. Somehow, India has out Texas’d Texas.
Nilgai have been on the King Ranch and throughout south Texas for almost 100 years, originally being imported in the 1920s and 30s. There are around 37,000 of them in Texas, and probably another 30,000 of them in Mexico, right along the border. They have a fairly narrow temperature band they can tolerate. This has kept them from migrating outside of that zone, even though fencing is minimal and their diet is plentiful. Plus, apparently the bulls stab each other with those pointed horns, killing each other off left and right.
Surprised at my luck, and stoked for the hunt, I met Bill Wilson and the other hunters in Kingsville and we all caravanned out to the Norias division of the King Ranch together. For those of you who are thinking the King Ranch is a some big ranch in Texas, think again. The King Ranch is bigger than that. It is well over 800,000 acres, over 1,200 square miles. There are entire towns inside the ranch.
This is one of the reasons I bristle a bit when people talk about “high fence hunting” with derision. Although this particular hunt was not high fenced (it’s awful hard to fence in the gulf coast), I have hunted sections of the King Ranch that were. Those section were larger than the total area of public land available to hunt in some of the other states I’ve been in. Generations of game animals live their entire lives on these ranch sections, and never even see the fence.
The enormity of the ranch was certainly on display when we pulled into the Norias division gate. We drove through a small development, then on and on and on though the ranch. Down well paved roads, we drove for another half an hour before we got to our bunkhouse. By then, darkness had fallen and it was getting late.
Over dinner, the other 5 hunters and I talked about the food and past adventures until our guides arrived. Then it was time to plan the hunts. A few of the other hunters had taken nilgai before. Our guide gave us some tips, with special instruction on shot placement and round choice.
Like the African antelope, the nilgai’s vital organs are farther forward in the body than most of us in North America are used to. That perfect heart or double lung shot that would have dropped your elk would be a gut shot on the Nilgai. The result of their physiology is that, on most broadside or quartering shots, your bullet will have to pass through their considerable shoulder bones to reach the vital organs.
Don’t forget that they are really just great big antelope, with the lung capacity and incredible stamina their species is known for. The skin around their shoulders and neck is a solid inch think, like a Brahma bull. It needs to be, they fight each other often.
In addition, I was told by multiple guides that the animal was particularly hard to trail. Bullet pass-throughs were uncommon and blood trails were almost non-existent.
Put all of that together and you’ll see why many guides recommend a minimum caliber of .300 Winchester Magnum. I asked around, and guide after guide told me, the “bigger the better”. Regardless of the caliber, every single guide told me to take a second shot, no matter how well I thought I shot the animal, and to be ready to shoot again.
The head guide for our hunt reiterated many of these points, but did not insist on quite such a powerful round as the .300 Winchester Magnum.
It wouldn’t matter if he did, I would be shooting Bill Wilson’s personal .458 Ham’r, with Bill’s own hand loaded ammunition. In this case, that ammunition would be a 300gr Barnes TTSX bullet traveling at 2,100fps from the rifle’s 18″ barrel. Folks, there is nothing in the western hemisphere that won’t kill, and very little anywhere else it can’t take either. Maybe nothing. Almost unbelievably, this is a mid-pressure load for the cartridge.
Looking at the math on those loads, I now had a different concern. Recoil.
I was expecting a gun that would handle like a heavier AR10. The .458 Ham’r weighs in at 7lbs 4oz. The receiver feels much more like an AR15 than an AR10, and it’s only about 3/4″ larger than Wilson’s AR15s. With an 18″ barrel, it moves quickly, and shoulders fast. This version, the Ultimate Hunter, includes a carbon fiber buttstock with a limbsaver pad. I have to admit, when I saw it, I thought I would hate it. I was totally off-base. It fits into the shoulder well, and I can actually get a pretty solid cheek-stock weld on it. In the prone, it is a little too low for me. I like to grind my face on the stock and this is too low for that. But from the kneel or standing, it’s pretty great.
Spending sometime shouldering and dry firing the gun, I was really impressed with how it handled. But such a light-feeling gun with around 3,000ftlbs of energy? That did not sound like something that would allow for the fast follow up shots I’d need.
Later that night, as I lay down to sleep, I couldn’t shake the fear that this wasn’t the right gun for the animal. The cartridge might be in the middle ground of too much recoil for fast follow ups, but not enough bullet for a clean one-shot kill. The nigai are absolutely legendary for their ability to soak up bullets. For years I’ve listened to other hunter’s tales of losing them after a seemingly perfect shot. My guide made it clear, shoot as soon as you can, right through the shoulder. The wary animals won’t wait around for long. Then, no matter what, shoot them again. If they fall down, keep your gun on them, they often get up running. When you get up to the animal, shoot it again.
The next morning I would be going after it with a scope I had never looked through before that night, with a rifle I had never shot, with a brand new round, and no one had ever shot anything other than a mid-sized wild pig with it. I was certainly the first to go after a nilgai with the .458 Ham’r, and I had never hunted the nilgai before.
Did I really know where to shoot it? What if I was confused about that? What if I missed? What if I made a bad shot? What if I didn’t, but the new round wasn’t quite up to the hype? What if I had to write an article about how I blew a chance at a 600lbs antelope, who’s now wounded or dead lying somewhere along the Texas coast, instead of in my freezer?
Maybe I had jumped on the invitation a little too soon. Sleep was restless. Morning came early.
At first light, my guide Weston took myself and another hunter out on the hunt. This would be a bit of a hybrid safari style/spot and stalk hunt. That is, drive to an area of the ranch where nilgai had been seen before, then get out and walk to try and find them.
Bill had told me that my gun was zeroed 1″ high at 100 yards, and so anything 200 yards and under was within the vitals with a dead-on hold. The night before he had told me that getting that close wouldn’t be a problem.
But this morning, according to my guide, getting that close going to be a real challenge. We were headed out to the coast of the ranch. Far from the brush of the inland, our hunt was in the open, rolling dunes of the Texas gulf coast. Instead of scrub oak and mesquite, we would be hunting over sand and grass.
Nilgai are not like most white tailed deer. If they see you, and they have excellent eyesight, they are running. When they run, they don’t stop. Wes told me that they ran, at up to 40mph, for miles when spooked. If we spooked them while they were inland, they would run all the way to the ocean.
So now I have to sneak through the grass and sand within 200 yards to a giant antelope with great eyesight using a rifle I’ve never shot and an unproven round.
Awesome. No pressure.
My hunting partner for the trip, another writer and incredible photographer was Jay Pinsky. Jay was extremely gracious, and allowed me to take the first hunt since I could only stay one more day and he was there all weekend.
We drove southeast toward the ocean for about an hour, looking out for nilgai the whole way. With tens of thousands on the ranch, I expected them to be everywhere, like Pronghorn in Wyoming. My guide knew better. Wes didn’t expect to see any, as it was still a bit cold and they tend to bunch up and lay low anytime the temp drops below 50. He was right. Tens of thousands of 600lb animals were completely hidden.
What we did see, however, was all manner of white tailed deer. Apparently they aren’t hunted much on this section of the ranch, as they had no fear of us at all. I saw dozens of bucks bigger than anything I’ve ever shot, many of those considered just too small to shoot by King Ranch standards, but not a single Nilgai.
Eventually we stopped on the side of the road at the bottom of a hill where Wes and I started our first of many quiet walks through the loose sand and stiff grass. Jay was concerned that 3 people would be too hard to conceal, so he stayed back in the truck while Wes and I walked and glassed for about an hour. No luck. Back to the truck.
Over the next several hours, we would repeat this process over and over. Drive to an area, get out, walk for a while, glass as we went, see nothing, head back to the truck.
Wes was getting a little concerned that we’d be skunked until we finally saw one bull standing in some high grass and scrub. We carefully stalked to it, only to find that it was too immature, and alone. True to their skittish nature, the second he saw us, he ran, and ran, and ran. He never stopped, and never looked back. Apparently nilgai live without regret.
As the afternoon came on, Wes brought us to an area where we would walk to a larger hill, overlooking a wide expanse that stretched all the way to the sea. It was on the walk to this sandy hill where we spotted a few more nilgai. A cow and a her calfs, tucked into a clearing, ringed by a semi circle of short trees, huddled together from the wind. We were happy to see them, but they presented a problem. If they ran up the hill, a feat time consuming for a man but nothing for a 400lb nigai cow, they would keep running and take anything on the other side of the slope with them.
The cow was staring at the hill.
We made our way around the little clearing to put ourselves between the hill and the cow. As soon as she saw us, she hoofed it the opposite direction. Mission accomplished.
And good thing too. After the sandy trek up to the overlook, we spotted two separate herds.
To the east, and into the ranch, we saw two mature bulls perched high up on opposing hills, each watching a small herd of 4 or 5 cows below. At 800 yards away, with the high ground already in their favor, the likelihood of crossing the valley and getting within 200 yards of either of those bulls was non-existent. I could channel Gunnery Sergeant Hathcock himself, but I wasn’t sneaking through those sentinel cows in the valley. To top it off, the bulls looked skinny, evidence of the stress from the recent cold weather.
The other option was to the west, toward the Gulf of Mexico, where I could just hear the occasional boat roaring by in the bay. Farther away still, well over 1,000 yards, was a single herd bull with his harem. From this range, Wes could tell that he was mature, and a good sized bull.
We made a plan to go after him. We’d carefully make our way back down the hill and to the truck, then spend some time driving a big arc back that way. There was an access road about 500 yards away from the herd, and some short dunes in between the road and the herd to hide our ingress.
All manner of trophy white tail stared at us as we made our way through the ranch. Finally, Wes stopped the truck. At this point, I asked Jay to come along with us. I figured that 3 people attempting to stalk 300+ yards through the dunes was just as unlikely as 2, so why not come along. Maybe he’d be good luck.
We quietly got out of the truck, gently shutting the doors. It would be hand signals and whispers from here on out. Making our way single file down a cattle trail through the thorn bush, Wes stopped in his tracks and knelt down. He didn’t waste a single second, throwing shooting stick next to him as fast as he could, and whispering for me to get ready shoot.
150 yards in front of us, the bull we were spotting was standing on this side of the dune. While we were driving the truck toward him, he was driving his cows toward us. Maybe he had actually seen us watching him before and walked away from our position, right to where we were now.
Tucked into a thicket, we were pretty difficult to see. Still, I didn’t spend any time getting the Ham’r up on the shooting sticks, kneeling down in the sandy turf. I had a good position for a nice, steady shot.
If one ever came. Because right now, all I could see was his neck and his head. If I was shooting one of my rifles, where I was 100% sure of where the round would land, I might take a head shot at this range. But not like this, with a gun I had never shot.
True to every warning I had heard about the wariness of these animals, the second that bull sensed us, he bolted. Through the Trijicon scope, I watched it happen up close.
His ears perked up, his left ear pointing our direction. His head turned left, and looked right into the scope. His eyes met mine. His nostrils flared as he took one big turning step up the dune.
And died for it.
When he took that step to turn around, he brought his body high and out from behind the short dune he was hiding behind. For the briefest moment, his shoulder was in the perfect position. I don’t remember pulling the four pound trigger. I do remember watching the round strike the shoulder, seeing the tiny red splash appear exactly where I was aiming, and hearing the solid thump of the big bullet.
The bull shuddered hard from the heavy impact, but he didn’t stop. Turning around fully, he now ran down the dune, diagonally away. As instructed, I put three more rounds out as fast as I could pull the trigger, never feeling the recoil I was so concerned about the night before. Not surprisingly, I missed every time as he ran down the hill at an impossible speed, each round splashing into the dune wall just barely above him.
I took a breath and steadied the rifle to put one in his neck. By then, not more than two seconds later, he had made it down the dunes and onto the plain. And by then, it was obvious no more rounds would be needed. He was already slowing, already stumbling. As his legs came out from under him, my final round found his neck. It was a mercy round, but unnecessary.
He ran a total of just 64 yards. I never lost sight of him. Wes encouraged me to get up and move to him quickly and to be ready to shoot again, as his experience hunting the animals told him they often get up and run further. This bull never moved an inch.
I covered 200 yards to the downed bull as fast as I could, but he was still, without a breath left in him, by the time I got there.
A massive, gorgeous silver slick animal. I said a prayer of thanks, and gave him his last taste of grass. An old custom, born for the gratefulness of sacrifice, and the wish that such nobility die in peace, with a sweet taste in his mouth, instead of his own blood. And in my case, a soldier’s recognition; “there, but by the grace of God, go I.”
My aim was true, and from the instant I saw the round touch the antelope’s skin, I knew he was done for. I’ve seen that kind of shock before, just never on an animal that big. The .458 Ham’r round had done exactly as Bill Wilson promised.
Inspecting the animal before field dressing him, I found a half inch entry wound on one shoulder, followed by a wound twice that size behind the opposite shoulder. The animal that so many told me would not have a pass through, clearly had one.
For the short distance he ran, the bull also left a blood trail a blind man could follow. Thick red ribbons with chunks of lung were visible in the grass and sand for the entirety of the animals’ path to rest. I studied all of this while Wes and Jay went back to get the truck, with it’s cab mounted wench in order to load the monster antelope into the bed.
Taking the mature bull apart in the field was a bit of a challenge. As Wes prepared to gut the animal, I asked if he wouldn’t mind if I took up the task. He didn’t mind at all. They come apart just like a very, very large deer. Just, you know, 5 or 6 times bigger. The pile of offal is significant.
I enjoy the gutting and butchering of an animal, what my father would have called the “peace work” of hunting. Not only does it give me an idea of how this living being was put together, but it also gives me a good detailed view of what my round did to end that life.
In the case of this old bull, there was no doubt. The wound channel through its lungs was the size of the palm of my hand. That’s not an exaggeration. The 300gr Barnes TTSX punched a hole right through the left shoulder, depositing the blue tip there. It went on through the rib cage, expanding slightly, only to leave a massive permanent cavity through the solid tissue organ of the lung before exiting the opposite side. There were literally gallons of blood in the body cavity, the result of what appeared to be the severing of the inferior vena cava.
The gutting done, Wes used the truck’s wench to get the animal into the bed of the truck, and we slowly made our way back to the road. As Jay, obviously my good luck charm, shook my hand, the tiredness hit me. I napped on and off on the way back to camp.
After a quick meal, we got to the processing center of the ranch to skin and quarter the nilgai. The King Ranch Norias section is set up specially to process the nilgai antelope. Huge rollers and hooks set on massive beams allowed us to wench the carcass up and around, making the task at hand much easier. Bit by bit, the staff skinned and quartered the animal, while I cleaned up the meat and packed it into coolers in my truck. The quartered animal took up the entire truck bed of my Toyota Tundra.
I called my taxidermist, Cole Stevens, and chose to have him make a rug of the hide and do a pedestal European mount of the skull, set into a wildlife setting of a grassy dune with a rattlesnake.
An antelope down, and a couple of beers now too, we headed back to camp to see how everyone else had done. Obviously, Jay hadn’t hunted at all yet. Over the next couple of days, he would take his record book worthy bull with another Wilson Combat AR. Bill Wilson took one as well, shooting his bull off-hand, directly through the eye as it turned to walk away. Of course.
I came to the hunt excited, but wary and doubtful. My rifle and round were unproven, at least by me. I’m still looking forward to a complete review of the .458 Ham’r rifle, but I now have no doubt whatsoever as to its capabilities. Even without a sling, up and down the sandy dunes, I never noticed the weight of the gun. It handled exceptionally well. I was fearful the light weight would be too much recoil, but 5 fast and easy rounds of the gun proved that to be false. I hadn’t counted on, or understood the rifle’s internals. A heavier .308 BCG, custom buffer, and adjustable gas block soak up the guns’ recoil and keep the muzzle down. I’ll need to do a detailed accuracy test, but obviously, at 150 yards, it’s plenty good enough to hunt, putting the round exactly where I wanted it.
There is absolutely zero doubt as to the lethality of the cartridge. This round, fired from an AR pattern rifle smaller and lighter than an AR10 did a phenomenal amount of damage to an animal well known for its toughness.
I came to the hunt thinking it was a just neat gun, with a neat round. I left budgeting 2018 to buy one.
Thanks to TTAG and to Wilson Combat for giving me an incredible opportunity. I would have never dreamed this dream hunt would happen this way, but I’m sure glad it did.
Now I have to buy another freezer.