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The first NZ Wapiti trophy - Viv Donald & his .280 Ross

By Tim Watson

Easter in April 1923 stands as a significant time in New Zealand hunting history. The annals of Wapiti hunting in our country were started by keen Wairarapa hunter Vivian Donald and his legendary guide Leslie Murrell.

 

Vivian had been granted the first licence to hunt Wapiti since they were introduced into the George Sound in 1905 and he was to hunt the Lake Katherine area of the Sound, in Fiordland.

 

He had engaged the services of the experienced Murrell, who was well set up to guide in Fiordland being local and owning a 30-foot motor launch.

 

Together they left Manapouri, crossing Murrell’s Track on foot to Deep Cove in Smith’s Sound, then picking up the launch, cruised through Doubtful and Thompson sounds until they gained the open sea to finally access George Sound, reaching their chosen berth around 4pm.

 

“He proved to be a fine well grown bull with 14 points, length 53 inches, spread 49, and weight 34lb.”

 

Establishing camp before nightfall and enjoying a supper of boiled blue cod before turning in, Donald must have been thrilled to finally be on the hunting grounds for a trip that would have involved serious planning, significant funds and primitive transport. Today’s deerstalker could be in Fiordland in a day whereas just getting to Manapouri from the Wairarapa would have taken a week in Vivian’s time.

 

Setting off at daylight for Lake Katherine, they immediately encountered good sign and the realisation of being on the first legal hunt for Wapiti began to dawn on Vivian. Battling their way through the dense Fiordland bush, they reached the seaward end of the lake around 10am and to their excitement, through their telescope they sighted a great bull at the lake head.

 

The photo that inspired New Zealand hunters through the generations. The first Wapiti where it fell at the head of Lake Katherine.

 

Fooled by the favourable look of the lakeside bush, they started to close the gap but were bluffed on several occasions, even climbing down from a tree top to reach the bottom of one sheer cliff. After another two hours of battling they decided to take a long shot (estimated to be over 300 yards) for fear of spooking the bull, and this is where the .280 Ross rifle was to prove its worth:

 

It was here that I blessed the .280 Ross rifle which has a very high velocity and is dead-in up to 400 yards, and would not be affected by the breeze which was blowing up the lake. Our luck was in, the first shot was effective, and we shook hands on the first bull Wapiti. He proved to be a fine well grown bull with 14 points, length 53 inches, spread 49, and weight 34lb.

 

It was here that the famous photos of the bull by the lake were taken, inspiring generations of hunters to
visit Fiordland. After removing the head, Donald and Murrell began a brutal slog back to camp, often having to wade into the lake with their impressive burden.

 

Carrying the iconic head, Leslie Murrell stops for a break on Katherine Creek.

 

With the bush being devoid of well-formed deer trails that characterised it later during the red deer invasion, they opted to take the river to the coast, crawling and sliding over the ankle twisting rocks of Katherine Creek.

 

They went on to have a great trip, thoroughly exploring the country and taking two more impressive Wapiti Bulls (one head was destined for the NZ Government, a condition of Vivian’s hunting licence) before upping camp to try their hand stalking Dusky Sound for the elusive moose. Interestingly they carried on around the coast to Invercargill, completing a 300-mile trip in the small launch.

 

ORIGINS OF VIVIAN DONALD’S ROSS RIFLE

Unlike today where new rifles and calibres are often released at a fever pitch in an attempt to capture the market, the rate of progress was a bit slower in Donald’s time.

 

However for people of means and wealth (Donald’s family business made wool presses and sold plenty in a country focused on sheep farming) there were choices beyond the humble, sporterised .303 Lee Enfield.

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Commercial European Mausers, rifles from English custom gun-makers, and various American rifles were available and being a keen sportsman, Donald was obviously abreast of the latest rifles and cartridges.

 

A typical Ross rifle advertisement.

 

Despite dismal performance in the trenches of WW1 where the design could not handle the mud (not to mention injure the operator if the straight-pull bolt was incorrectly assembled) the Ross had stayed popular as a sporting rifle, winning the prestigious Bisley long-range shooting competition.

 

Paired with the .280 Ross cartridge which mirrors a 7mm Rem Mag’s performance, it offered reasonable size projectiles travelling at speeds far in excess of most calibres at the time.

 

FROM LEFT: 7mm-08, .270 Win, 7mm Rem Mag, .280 Ross, .300 Win Mag, and .416 Ruger.

 

With dial-able riflescopes and rangefinders only a reality for modern shooters in the last 10 years, the advantage of having a flat shooting rifle with very little drop out to 400 yards meant that you didn’t have to have a ladder sight or be an expert at precisely ranging distances. Quite an advantage in 1923.

 

THE FAMILY CONNECTION

Now, this is where the story starts to get quite interesting. At a 2013 gun auction, our family bought the .280 Ross rifle once owned by Vivian, accompanied by the 1963 police registration record that transferred ownership from him to his son Val Donald (long time NZDA member and editor of NZ Outdoor magazine) and then to the vendor.

 

Past NZDA president Ian Wright wrote to the auctioneer adding further information related to him by Val about how his father had obtained the rifle.

 

“ At a 2013 gun auction, our family bought the .280 Ross rifle once owned by Vivian...”

 

Vivian had written to Sir Charles Ross to order a rifle and there was a very long delay in the reply. Eventually Vivian received a cable from Ross apologising and an explanation that he had been in Africa on safari. Ross further explained that there was insufficient time to for him to build a rifle to the specification Vivian had sent him by the date required, but that he could send him the rifle Ross had used in Africa which was the same specification and had had very little use. Vivian asked for that rifle to be sent and this was the rifle used in Fiordland to shoot the first legal N.Z Wapiti.

 

Later, after we acquired the rifle, we visited Ian who told us the tale first hand and became our guide for a fantastic tour of the various famous mounted deer heads located in the Wairarapa, including Vivian’s first Wapiti bull in Masterton, where we re-united the famous head and rifle.

 

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Viv Donald pictured during his second Fiordland trip in 1925. On this hunt he carried a Mauser; Former NZDA president Ian Wright with the first New Zealand Wapiti and the rifle that downed it; The Certificate of Registration for Viv’s rifle. Note that police have listed the Model No; M10, as the serial number.

 

Sir Charles Ross was an interesting character. The eccentric Scotsman was a talented inventor, soldier and prolific entrepreneur. By age 11 he had inherited ownership of the largest tract of land in England and later sued his own mother for misappropriating his estate’s revenues!

 

Further on he tried to dodge paying tax to the British government by claiming his estate was part of an American business concern. This of course did not wash and he fled his native shores, dying in Florida in 1942. But he was best known for his rifle designs and convincing the Canadian army to enter WW1 using his rifle as their frontline infantry weapon.

 

Ross was indeed on safari in 1921, eventually leasing the famed Ngorongoro Crater, two years before Donald took the Wapiti. This supports the story related to Ian Wright.

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Also supporting is the lack of a serial number on the rifle. Having owned and examined other Ross M10’s, including Archie Kitto’s .280 Ross (held by the NZDA National Heritage Trust) I can confirm that many of the proof testing stamps usually found on other Ross’s are also missing, indicating that Sir Charles may have simply pulled a rifle off his assembly line and did not bother with testing or the serialising usually required for tracking rifles shipped to buyers or vendors.

 

So this rifle probably had quite an interesting life before it got to Vivian - on Safari in Tanganyika at the height of colonialism, with Sir Charles snapping up ex-German farms in the wake of WW1 while romancing American socialite Emily K Hoffman and hunting all those fantastic African game animals.

 

THE .280 ROSS TODAY

Vivian’s rifle looks well-travelled with more than a few dings, a repair to the stock toe and some deep bruising to the left fore-end. The stock is well aged with a lot of the fine grain weathered out of the surface, but the rifle has a light, but well-balanced feel to it and the slim stock wood contributes to that.

 

The sights consist of a simple blade and bead for shots out to 300 yards, while there’s a nifty pop-up peep sight on the rear receiver for long range work, likely what Vivian used for taking that first Wapiti at over 300 yards.

 

The straight-pull Ross action from above.

 

There is no bad pitting to the exterior metal or the bolt face, but little bluing remains. The barrel is 26” long - for burning up all that powder. Looking down the bore it’s obvious that each of its owners has taken good care of it, with strong bright rifling remaining, so naturally we were keen to see what it could do.

 

The internet is a great resource for unusual calibres. The Ross is not the same as the modern 7mm diameter, taking a .287” bullet, not the usual .284”. Sourcing dies from CH4D in the USA, we then found new brass and bullets from J&J and Woodleigh.

 

Note that the serial number is absent on Vivian’s rifle (top).

 

Working up conservative loads based on the 7mm Rem Mag, the J&J custom 150 grain lead spitzers achieved a very respectable 2985fps over the chrony, and 160 grain Woodleighs hum along around 2720fps. Neither load exhibits excessive pressure.

 

Lining up on a 100 yard gong confirmed the rifle was still sighted bang-on, like she was saying, “I’ve been in a cupboard for 50 years! Please take me for a hunt!

 

And that’s what we intend to do. It would be a tremendous shame to lock away this amazing piece of history to never see the light of day, so once 2023 rolls around we will take the old girl back to Lake Katherine for a centenary visit.

 

Who knows, maybe there will be a Wapiti Bull waiting for us at the head of the lake...

 

Tim

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