Builders of Botswana – The 8 bore bullet (Part 3)
by Jeff Ramsay
Last week, we concluded with the observation that the 8 bore bullet moulds that David Livingstone had ordered in August of 1850 for Kgosi Sechele, through Robert Moffat, were designed to produce a supersize variation of the Minie, the revolutionary conical bullet that was first deployed on the battlefield by the British with devastating effect against the Xhosa in 1852 and subsequently the Russians, in 1853-56.
While the Minie was designed to kill a person, the original purpose of Sechele’s 8 bore conical was to slaughter elephants. Besides the Mokwena, in 1850 such bullet moulds would have been custom made for the use of an exclusive group of wealthy gentlemen hunters, some of whom passed through Kweneng for the thrill and in some cases profit of collecting big game trophies.
In the form of ball, rather than conical, shot munitions of 10 to 4 bore were traditionally fired from small cannon, rather than handheld guns. The massive recoil from firing such heavy shot can easily knock one off his or her feet.
From Livingstone’s correspondence and other evidence it now seems likely that Sechele also made effective military use his stock of large conical bullets on the 31st of August 1852, during the all day battle between Batswana and Boers at Dimawe.
In a letter to William Cotton Oswell, dated the 20th of September 1852, Livingstone provides some further insight about the battle:
“On Monday they [the Boers] began their attack on the town by firing with swivels. They communicated fire to the houses. This made many of the women flee and the heat became so great the men huddled together on the little hill in the middle of the town - the smoke prevented them from seeing the Boers though the latter saw them huddled in groups.
“They killed 60 Bakwains and 35 Boers fell - and a great number of horses. Sechele shot 4 Boers with his two double barrelled guns. When they made a dash at the hill, one bullet passing through two men, and a bullet went through the sleeve of his coat. These 60 are those whom they counted near the town. Sechele thinks others may have fallen among the women who ran away - these are not yet counted. They maintained their position one whole day on the hill, cutting off the Boers every time they came near. The Boers continued their firing with swivels till the evening and then retired.”
The double barrel guns referred to in the above correspondence were undoubtedly drawn from Sechele collection of “elephant guns”, powerful rifles of between 10 and 8 bore that were specifically designed to kill big game at a safe, i.e. long, range. Sechele’s investment in these custom made state of the art weapons is understandable in the context of his then central role in lucrative regional ivory trade, which was the chief source of his income with which he purchased munitions and other goods.
By the end of 1840s the elephant population in Kweneng proper was already dwindling, as a result of the proliferation of guns in the area. The Mokwena was, however, able to secure access to the hunting grounds of the Chobe forest in collaboration with his fellow dikgosi Letsholathebe of Batawana and Sekgoma of Bangwato. Bakwena hunting parties were thus regularly sent north, generally under the command of Sechele’s brother Basiamang.
It was also during the 1840s that Sechele earned the praise name "Ramokonopi" for his marksmanship. One early visitor, the English poet adventurer Henry Methuen, recorded an incident in September of 1844, when the Mokwena pressed his partner, Andrew Bain, to sell him his “monster” 4 bore gun, which notably operated with a percussion cap rather than the then standard flintlock firing mechanism.
Not wishing to relinquish the rifle, in part due to fear of the Boer reaction if the sale was discovered, the makgoa agreed to give up the gun only if Sechele could hit a distant ant-hill with it; being confident that no one could accurately fire the massive gun in the absence of any experience with it. As an extra precaution they nonetheless overloaded the barrel with gunpowder.
To their astonishment Ramonokopi sat down and fired, hitting the target to the great acclamation of his subjects, while suffering a severe blow to his shoulder. Bain, however, refused to honour the deal, partially placating the Kgosi with other goods.
It was, nonetheless, also in 1844 that Sechele is known to have obtained what may have been his first true elephant gun from Gordon Cumming, an 8 bore rifle of Dutch manufacture.
By the time of the Battle at Dimawe, the Kgosi’s favourite gun was said to be a 10 bore Tipping-Lawden rifle fitted with a Parker barrel, which he had custom ordered in 1848, through Moffat and Livingstone. The firm of Tipping & Lawden were up market gun and pistol makers in the Birmingham Gun Quarter. Besides being a specialist barrel maker also located in the Quarter, Joseph Parker was a friend of Moffat, who often forwarded him correspondence from Livingstone.