Arrogance aside, this Brit was a remarkable hunter

18:51, Nov 25 2011

'A man is a poor defenceless wretch if left to defend himself against wild animals with the simple natural weapons of arms, legs, and teeth," noted Sir Samuel White Baker in his classic 1854 hunting book The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon.

Regrettably, I don't have an original copy of the work, one of at least seven produced by this prodigious writer, hunter and explorer. But mine is a good enough copy, reproduced by Arno Press in the United States in 1967, and apparently pretty much a reproduction of the original work. My copy has been beautifully rebound in blue leather.

Baker continues with his deprecatory remarks on man's inability to face the wild clad solely in the beard he grew into maturity: "A tomcat would almost be a match for him. He has legs which will neither serve him for pursuit or (sic) escape if he is forced to trust only in his speed. He has strength of limb which is useless without some artificial weapon. He is an animal who, without the power of reason, could not even exist in a wild state; his brain alone gives him the strength to support his title of lord of the creation."

Baker was an interesting bloke. He stood most of two metres tall, was built like a barrel of concrete, and was immensely powerful and extraordinarily physically fit.

He was also fortunate to have considerable personal wealth, was seriously interested in hunting, wildlife and the outdoors and, typical of the upper-crust Brits of that time, he had the astoundingly arrogant belief that everything on earth – human, animal, bird, fish, plant or mineral – was, by right, his for the taking and put there by the Good Lord solely for his use, benefit and enjoyment.

To read his stories through the telescope of 2011 eyes creates an easy, fast rage in the mind of most readers because of the arrogance and unconscious self-aggrandisement. His acknowledged tallies of deer, wild pigs, buffalo, elephant and wildfowl are staggering (on deer and pigs alone: March 24 to June 29, 1852, he took, using only dogs and a knife, "28 elk – 11 bucks, 17 does – and 4 hogs"). Buffalo and elephant were sometimes wounded and abandoned because it was either too late in the afternoon, or the country was too rough to bring the hunt to a proper conclusion – appalling hunting behaviour by today's standards.


But if one can put aside that this was how British (and other) hunters and writers of those times acted and put their thoughts and experiences on paper, and simply enjoy the stories as they are told, there's some fascinating stuff woven into it all.

Like it or not, this guy Baker was a tough nut.

He talks – just in passing – of how the normal method of taking a 250kg or bigger sambur stag was to course the animal with dogs, much like today's pig-hunters do up and down this country. He chased them through the rugged, dense bush in the highlands of Ceylon, until the animals were bailed up. Almost always, this happened in a stream or river where the cunning sambur was knee-deep in fast water and the dogs were continually being swept off their feet by the fast flow. But Baker, having far outrun any "servants" or others he may have had with him, hurtles into the fray, armed only with a knife, and proceeds to stick the stag behind the shoulder, lethal antlers notwithstanding.

Only hunters will fully understand the terrible rapier-death danger involved.

His method of taking out a "wild boar" is equally interesting: he doesn't roll the pig and spike the heart as is the Kiwi specialty. Instead, he sools the "seizer" dogs to grab the boar's ears while he rams his knife several times between the pig's shoulders in an endeavour to sever the spinal cord.

Hmmm, sorry. Probably 10 paragraphs back, I should have suggested to those who don't do hunting stuff that maybe they should take an interest in another story on the page or perhaps roll to the next page. But for hunters, this sort of historical stuff is seriously interesting. And Baker is one of the best at describing how hunters went about things a century and a half ago.

They didn't have smokeless firearm powders in those days; they didn't have all-in-one cartridges then either. Rifling in gun-barrels was a relatively new invention; and the best you could have was a double-barrelled rifle that blurted out a big lead projectile doing something like 530 metres per second. These days 850 to 1000mps is commonplace for many hunting rifles; and you can have it all in bolt-action, pump-action, lever-action or semi-auto that give you three, four or lots more shots, just as you prefer. And modern-day reloading is a great deal faster than ramming powder, wad and projectile into a muzzle-loader while facing a wounded bull buffalo who doesn't fancy spending the next 50 years watching you through glass eyes from your lounge wall.

Mind you, old Frank, a mate long gone to the Great Hunting Ground Upstairs, noted sagely as he cranked open the bolt on his old .303 after rolling a fat yearling hind: "You can only kill 'em dead." It was about this time of year. The young hind had collapsed, pole-axed and lifeless before she hit the ground. Frank was always a good shot.

He was using 154gn pre-World War II hollow-nosed CAC ammo, available in those days at three rounds per goat-tail.

Sam Baker used something a little larger than a .303.

"The guns are the first consideration," Baker says early in the book. "I had four rifles made to order, which have proved themselves perfect weapons in all respects, and exactly adapted for heavy game. They are double-barrelled, No10 bores, and of such power in metal that they weigh fifteen pounds (6.8kg) each. I consider them perfection; but should others consider them too heavy, a pound taken from the weight of the barrels would make a perceptible difference."

These rifles were, of course, muzzle loaders, the all-in-one cartridge common today having not then been perfected. Baker had them specially made by J Beattie, a noted London gunsmith, and each had 12-groove rifling in the bore. He dismisses the more common two-grooved rifle as too difficult to load quickly when hunting, whereas the 12-grooved weapon, with its finer rifling, "can be loaded as quickly as a smooth-bore".

He usually loaded his 10-bores with a conical-shaped lead projectile weighing two ounces (1200 grains or 57 grams), though he doesn't say how much black powder was used.

But these four 10-bore rifles were not Baker's only armament. When he went big-game hunting he also took along a massive single-barrelled rifle which weighed 21 pounds (9.5kg) and fired a four-ounce (1920-grain) bullet, conical-shaped and with a steel tip. He normally used 12 drachms (720 grains) of black powder, though now and then he upped the load to 16 drachms (960 grains). However, when he used this heavier load, he notes that "the recoil is then very severe".

He had another, smaller 8-bore single-barrelled rifle weighing 16 pounds (7.2kg) which fired a two-ounce (960-grain) round lead bullet from an extra-long barrel.

Hunting in those times must have been a prodigious effort if that was Baker's standard method of operation – with a total of six rifles he must have had at least five gun-bearers trailing around after him, so stealthy stalking was not always part of the deal.

Yet he scored some astounding trophies, largely because he was one of the first European hunters into that otherwise untouched region of the world. And he was, like it or not, a truly remarkable hunter, seriously into the business of slamming himself through some very hard country.

There are hunters in this country who do that sort of stuff these days too – I take my hat off to the pig-hunters who follow their dogs through the rough stuff out the back of Tokoroa, the Coromandel Peninsula, the Rangitoto Ranges, Waitomo, Taumarunui, the Urewera, and elsewhere.

For sure, there's still some seriously tough guys – and girls – out there.

And their chosen sport brings them thrills and enjoyment like most of the rest of us will never understand.

Good for them!

Kingsley Field can be contacted at