The year was 1956. Bob Ruark and I were standing at the customs desk in the old Nairobi airport building. He’d just arrived on a flight from London and had brought two rifles, which we were about to clear through customs. His bringing rifles surprised me because he wasn’t planning to hunt, having come out to Kenya on this trip only to collect material for an article about the “winds of change” blowing across Africa. When the gun cases were opened Bob lifted out a slim little Rigby rifle from one and handed it to me.
“What do you think of this, Haraka?” he asked. I looked down at the little rifle in my hands. It had seen plenty of honest use, but looked to be well-cared for and in very good shape. “Turn it over,” Bob said, grinning. When I did so, I noticed an elongated silver plaque let into the stock where a monogram plate would normally be. It read: “Mark R. Selby From Uncle Bob Ruark.”
As I looked more closely at the little .275 rifle I noticed some engraving on the magazine box cover. The inscription read: “WDMB.” Could it stand for “Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell?” Surely not, I thought. I looked up at Bob, my eyes asking the obvious question.
“That’s right, Haraka,” Bob said. “You’re holding ‘Karamoja’ Bell’s .275 Rigby. I visited Westley Richards recently to order a .318 rifle, which you’ve always sung the praises of, and Malcolm Lyell, the boss man there, showed me two rifles, which had arrived the previous day—they were from Bell’s estate.
“The .275 Rigby you’re now holding and a double .450/400 by Jeffery. I bought both rifles on the spot for my godson, Mark.” Bob was referring to my son Mark, who was 4 years old at the time.
I was speechless. Bell had been my idol ever since I’d become a professional hunter. And now, all I’d heard and read about him crowded into my mind. I was holding the little rifle that the legendary hunter had carried while penetrating the wilds of Karamoja in the northeastern regions of Uganda. While still in his 20s—15 years before I was born—Bell went there to hunt the great elephant bulls abundant in Karamoja, despite of the region’s population of wild and warring native tribes.
Bell had moved about freely in the Karamoja area with a small safari, at a time when Swahili traders from the coast dared not set foot in the area with fewer than 300 guns. Several large, well-armed parties of traders had been completely wiped out through primitive intrigue—natives pretending to be trading, would in fact wait for a given signal, at which time each warrior plunged his spear into the nearest Swahili in order to steal all their trade goods.
Bell had earned the respect and the friendship, and finally total acceptance of the warlike Karamojang people. This was due partly to his fearlessness when dealing with a herd of bull elephants bearing down on him, relying on braining the one directly in front of him, but mostly from occasions when his safari was confronted by a group of belligerent warriors—tall, jet black, naked, and armed to the teeth carrying a shield, two 10-foot long razor-sharp spears, a circular knife on each wrist and wicked hooks attached to rings on the fingers—Bell would face them down, without showing the slightest emotion or fear. The situation never deteriorated to the point that Bell was ever forced to use his rifle.
Bell was also supremely fit with tremendous stamina and endurance, qualities necessary for survival, and for which the Karamojang, as primitive people, greatly admired. But mainly they stood in awe and possibly dread of his small but deadly “fire stick,” which fired, without smoke, tiny shining bullets causing instant death to the largest bull elephant, and often laid low a group of bulls in a matter of seconds. These natives had never seen anything like this before. When the Swahilis tried to hunt elephants, they poured copious amounts of powder down the gullets of their muzzleloaders, then rammed down whatever projectiles were available, to produce huge clouds of smoke—but rarely dead elephants.
The Karamojang affectionately named Bell “Longellynyung,” or red man. The big men who owned vast numbers of cattle even offered Bell their daughters as wives.
Bell’s Rifle Returns to Africa
We were both as excited as a pair of schoolboys about the Bell rifles and were surprised by the fact that the .275 was a takedown model. By flipping a catch the barrel and forward part of the fore-end unscrewed, but when in the locked position, it was totally rigid—a very neat arrangement. There were a couple of threaded holes on the side of the Mauser action where, presumably, Bell had fitted a scope at some time, perhaps as he grew older, in order to hunt stag back in his native Scotland.
I asked about the elongated slot cut through the buttstock just above the monogram plate. Bob said that Malcolm Lyell had told him its purpose was for carrying the rifle. The butt end of a spear would be inserted through the hole then the spear placed over the shoulder with the rifle hanging down the carrier’s back.
This sounded very strange to me, for it would mean that there would be about nine feet of spear protruding in front of the carrier as he walked through bush, and the rifle could be easily dislodged from the spear landing muzzle first on whatever surface lay beneath it. I never did hear nor imagine a plausible reason for that slot.
Finally, Bob asked, “Haraka, when you first got involved in the safari business with Percival, back in late 1945, there must have been a few old-timers around who actually knew ‘Karamoja’ Bell.”
“Yes,” I replied. “There were some old-timers who knew Bell—mainly from the ‘Ivory Rush’ days of the Lado Enclave.” I’d become a fan of “Karamoja” Bell after reading his two books, “Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter” and “Karamoja Safari,” and was always eager to hear about him from anyone who’d known him.
“What did hunters think of him generally, and especially his use of smallbore rifles on elephants?” Bob asked.
“Bell was admired for his ‘brass’ in venturing with a very small safari into Karamoja with it’s hostile pastoral tribes, whose main purpose in life was tending their precious cattle and killing each other and anyone else who might come along,” I told Bob. “By all accounts he was an outstanding hunter…fearless, with tremendous physical endurance, and it was generally agreed that he was a really superb marksman. He also had an amazing understanding of the bone structure of an elephant’s skull, and he was able to direct the small bullets from almost any angle to the brain hidden within that massive head. Stories of his prowess with a rifle were legion.
“In those early days I don’t think anyone cared what rifle was used. Anything you could get your hands on with a supply of solid ammo was used. But with the passing of time and with the larger bores coming into regular use, controversy began about the use of small-bore rifles on elephant. However, I never met anyone who spoke badly of Bell.”
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