In memoriam: Harry Selby

Harry Selby, one of the most famous professional hunters in Africa (so-called “white hunters” in a previous age), has died in Botswana at the age of 92.

Selby was made famous by American novelist Robert Ruark, who was also an enthusiastic big game hunter.  He made a months-long safari visit to Africa in 1951, guided by Harry Selby, and immortalized the latter in his book about the experience, “Horn of the Hunter“.

During a later safari with Selby, Ruark made an hour-long movie about the experience titled “Africa Adventure“.  Selby is to the left of Ruark in the cover image.

Ruark wrote two best-selling novels about Africa, “Something of Value” (1955) and “Uhuru” (1962), based on his experiences in that continent, particularly with Harry Selby and his native trackers, from whom he learned much about tribal culture and its (lack of) compatibility with Western values.  Today, they’re considered anything but politically correct, but they do convey – and convey very accurately – the attitudes of the times, on both sides of the racial divide.  I often advise people to read them as textbooks of what went wrong with colonialism, all over the continent.

The New York times wrote of Selby in its obituary:

Mr. Selby grew up on a ranch astride the Equator in Kenya, watching enormous herds of zebra and impala, sniffing for lion and Cape buffalo, listening to an elephant scream and hyenas giggling at sundown. In the burning heat, he learned to track an animal over rocky ground, and to avoid the rhino laid up in the dusty shade of an acacia tree. He shot his first antelope at 8, his first elephant at 14.

Mr. Selby was a postwar protégé of the East Africa hunter Philip Hope Percival, who took Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway on safaris, and he became a professional hunter himself in the late 1940s.

. . .

It was not all shooting and campfire tales. A Selby safari required an army of bearers, cooks, skinners, porters, drivers and others; game licenses and financial transactions; transportation arrangements, from trucks and horses to planes and boats; and a complex coordination of supplies and equipment: guns and ammunition, food, water, tents, cots, radios, medicines, maps, clothing and a thousand other necessities.

Without cellphones or evacuation helicopters, Mr. Selby had to be the doctor, mechanic, chauffeur, gin-rummy-and-drinking partner and universal guide, knowledgeable about mountain ranges, grassy plains, rivers, jungles, hunting laws, migratory patterns, and the Bushmen, Masai, Samburu, Dinka and Zulu tribes. He spoke three dialects of Swahili. And he improvised; if there was no firewood, he burned wildebeest dung.

He was no Gregory Peck, but had an easygoing personality that made for good company in the bush. He coped with emergencies, pulling a client clear of a stampede or a vehicle from a bog, treating snakebites or tracking a wounded lion in a thicket — his most dangerous game. He was left-handed, but his favorite gun was a right-handed .416 Rigby, which can knock down an onrushing bull elephant or Cape buffalo in a thundering instant.

There’s more at the link.

My own fondness for the .416 Rigby cartridge (my preferred “heavy” cartridge in a magazine rifle, with the lighter .375 H&H as my preferred “all-round” African cartridge) came from reading Mr. Selby’s praise of it, as well as the experiences of Commander David Blunt in Tanganyika during the 1920’s (you can read about his experiences, and his use of the .416 against elephant, here).

I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Selby on two occasions in Botswana during the 1970’s and 1980’s.  He was a self-effacing man, not trying to live up to his reputation or use it to impress others.  I was never more than a casual, passing acquaintance, but he was always courteous.  I liked him.

You can read Mr. Selby’s impressions of the changes in African safari hunting over sixty-odd years in this excellent article in Sports Afield.  Highly recommended for Africa buffs.  As another illustration of his life and times, his daughter Gail Selby Wentink put up this video on YouTube on the occasion of his 90th birthday, in 2015.  It shows him in earlier years, as well as many images of an Africa that’s almost gone now.  It made me feel very nostalgic to view it.

May Harry Selby rest in peace.



  1. I read the books when I was a teenager and lusted after a .416 Rigby for all of my life. I was finally able to afford a Ruger model 77 in that caliber.

    When my wife asked me what I needed an elephant gun for (We live in Arizona.) I told her that I wanted to be ready if any cloned mastodons got lose.

    And yes, the recoil will set you on your heels.

    But, oh, the looks of envy when you take it to the range makes the price of ammo worthwhile.

  2. Thank you for posting this. Like so many I read Horn of the Hunter and Use Enough Gun as a young man. The world is a lesser place without men like him.

  3. I received a copy of Horn of the Hunter for my 10th birthday.
    It lead me to want to hunt Cape buffalos and lions with my 416 Rigby.

    I'll never do it but it's still a nice dream.

    I gave my copy of Something of Value to a friend going to Kenya but told him read stateside. They might frown on it if Kenyan customs officers found it in his luggage in Nairobi.


  4. Back in the day, when I spent some time in Africa, my battery was the .375 H&H and a .416 (but mine was the .416 Remington). I had a copy of Ruark's movie on VHS, but lost it in a house fire years ago.

  5. I have "Use Enough Gun" in hardcover (found at Goodwill, of all places). Mr. Ruark's writing was where I first met (metaphorically) Harry Selby. I wanted to find out more, & did; the man was a legend indeed, just for doing his job as he believed it should be done.
    Rest in peace, Mr. Selby.
    –Tennessee Budd

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