Wolfe Publishing Group

    Telegraph Creek

    John Taylor: Elephant Hunter

    This is a very rare photo of John “Pondoro” Taylor (center), who hunted elephant indiscriminately.
    This is a very rare photo of John “Pondoro” Taylor (center), who hunted elephant indiscriminately.
    It is impossible to say how many books have been written about hunting in Africa – certainly hundreds and probably thousands. Many were written by men who went only once, spent a few months in Kenya or down south and then returned home to commit their experiences to paper. These works may have gratified their immediate families, but probably no one else.

    In the early years of hunting in Africa – say, from 1870 to 1914 – most men who wrote such books had good educations with an emphasis on expressing themselves well. As a result, while some of their books are dull and lack much insight, they are at least literate. A few books, however, achieved the status of “classic” and were awarded immortality.

    Two that I would nominate are by John “Pondoro” Taylor: Big Game and Big Game Rifles (1947) and African Rifles and Cartridges (1948). Both can be grouped with early classics like The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (Patterson) and Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter (Bell). They are that good.

    John Taylor may well be unique in that he fits no mold and follows no predictable pattern. He was not a professional hunter in the modern sense, but an ivory poacher. He was obviously well educated and wrote well, but he did not have private money and was often broke. He was also an alcoholic, which did nothing to endear him to the white upper crust in Africa.

    Unlike most professional hunters, Taylor took a very keen interest in rifles, cartridges and bullet performance under varying conditions. W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell was another exception to this rule, but unlike Bell, who hit on a combination he liked and then stuck with it, Taylor liked to try different calibers. As a result, he ended up with vast experience with everything from old black-powder single shots to small-caliber magazine rifles (bolt actions) to the biggest of big doubles. Everything he has to say on the subject is worth heeding.

    Unfortunately, Taylor’s reputation has been clouded by a couple of factors beyond his control. The fact that he was a self-admitted ivory poacher placed him outside the normal circle of those who were called, in the 1950s, “white hunters.” Between them, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark had managed to portray the professional  hunting community of Kenya as the second coming of the Round Table, with Percival, Selby, Downey et al. like latter-day Galahads. John Taylor simply didn’t fit with that image.

    Jack O’Connor referred to Taylor in print as “an Irish remittance man,” which he most assuredly was not. He was of Irish descent, but he was not a remittance man. For those of gentler upbringing, a remittance man was a black sheep whose family forced him to leave the country and then sent him a regular remittance to ensure he stayed away. Considering Taylor’s personal traits and preferences, he might well have encouraged his family to pay him to stay away, but they would have needed money to do it. For much of his life, Taylor was broke, to the point of pawning his rifles and being unable to hunt because he couldn’t afford cartridges. Other times he hunted with whatever rifles he could get his hands on, which added to his experience if not his security.

    Taylor was born in Ireland in 1904 and left home in his teens. He went first to Canada, then to Rhodesia, and learned to hunt by shooting marauding lions on South African cattle ranches. He extended his operations to Nyasaland (now Malawi) and Portuguese East (Moçambique). Although many facts about Taylor cannot be confirmed, his biographers agree that he probably killed 1,500 elephants during his career, as well as lions, Cape buffalo and anything else that was edible.

    In 1936 Taylor took part in an elephant-poaching raid along the Tana River in a protected area of Kenya. Exactly what occurred has never been established, but the “Great Tana Raid” became part of Taylor’s generally unsavory legend. Finally, in the late 1950s, the British deported him from Nyasaland. Taylor spent his last years in London, in a one-room flat, working as a night watchman at the Battersea Home for Dogs. He died in 1969.

    Oddly enough, in 1955 he wrote an autobiography, Pondoro. Later, Peter Capstick coauthored a biography of Taylor, A Man Called Lion. He spent considerable time trying to sort out fact from fiction in Taylor’s life, which is doubly ironic when you consider that Capstick himself was a complete fraud – a good writer, but one whose claims about his own hunting experience were total lies. He was also, like Taylor, an alcoholic. Maybe like attracts like.

    If Peter Capstick’s views on rifles are completely worthless, John Taylor’s are anything but. He really did try anything he could get his hands on and used much of it on real, live, dangerous game. He was interested in exactly what bullets did when they hit an animal and took the time to dig them out to see. He also noted animals’ reactions when hit by this bullet or that.

    The kind of rifle John Taylor preferred: A John Rigby rising-bite .450/.400 (3¼) double. He wrote that a used rifle from an English gunmaker was better and safer than anything made on the continent.
    The kind of rifle John Taylor preferred: A John Rigby rising-bite .450/.400 (3¼) double. He wrote that a used rifle from an English gunmaker was better and safer than anything made on the continent.

    My first encounter with Taylor’s work came when I scraped up $6 plus postage and bought Big Game and Big Game Rifles from Ray Riling Arms Books in 1966. Alas, $10 plus postage for the second book was beyond my reach. Years later, when I went looking for it, it was out of print and cost a ton. When Gun Room Press reprinted it, I grabbed a copy. I sold the first book as part of a general liquidation of assets in 1971 to finance my first trip to Africa. The copy of that book I have now is a reprint, but it contains additional material about Taylor’s later life and correspondence with his friend Alexander Maitland. Both books are readily available, and both are worth owning if you have any interest in either African hunting or in rifles and cartridges for the purpose.

    Taylor is perhaps best known for two things: Condemning “cheap magazine rifles” and his “Knock-Out Values,” which he ascribes to various cartridges, ranking them according to their ability to stun an animal on the first shot. For years, the formula for these knock-out values was a mystery, although some authorities now claim to have it figured out. For the record, a .600 Nitro Express (NE) had a “knock-out blow” rating of 150.4 while the .500 NE was 86.5 and the .375 Holland & Holland was 40.1.

    Over the years I have talked with various professional hunters about Taylor, including Tony Henley and Harry Selby. Neither had much good to say about him as an individual, but both agreed that when it came to rifles, cartridges, bullets and big African game, he knew what he was talking about.

    Although it has been 60 years since his books were first published, and a huge amount has changed in every respect – rifles, cartridges, hunting in Africa – Taylor’s observations are as valid today as they were then. What is more, he is vastly entertaining to read, whether you just love hunting stories or want to read highly technical details about ballistics.

    And if a hunter has no interest in Africa whatsoever? Well, read Taylor anyway. Hunting is hunting, rifles are rifles, and good bullet performance is good bullet performance.

    Wolfe Publishing Group