Harry Caldwell's Tigers

Courageous or crazy?
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The Savage 99 has a sliding safety that locks both trigger and lever and is easily manipulated with the trigger finger.

Harry Caldwell (1876-1970) was born in Ohio and raised in Tennessee. His father was a Methodist minister. Harry and his brothers hunted and trapped from an early age to help feed the family. It was said of Harry he may not have been born with a squirrel rifle in hand but he acquired one not long after. In later years the sons would pay their way through college by trapping and by panning for gold.

All the brothers participated in outdoor sports. Harry Caldwell was gifted with exceptional athletic ability. He particularly loved baseball and was skilled enough to be offered contracts by at least two major league teams. He apparently felt there was no long-term future as a full-time ball player and established himself as a very successful insurance broker.

One of Dave’s Savage 99s, made in 1954. One of the many fine features of the
99 was the brass rotary magazine. A window in the frame shows the rounds remaining.

Time For A Move

Despite his success, or maybe because of it, Caldwell felt he was not living up to his Christian faith. He offered his services to the Methodist church as a missionary. He was assigned to China and arrived there in 1900. His fiancé Mary Cope joined him there the next year and they were married in a stone church in Fukien province. Except for periodic furloughs to visit the U.S. they would live almost 50 years in China, where all their children were born and educated.

At the time there were thousands of tigers in China. Most fed on wild game and occasionally on domestic livestock, but a few became man-eaters. In the relatively unsettled area where Caldwell served, one estimate was tigers killed 500 people annually — which I find hard to believe, but then I wasn’t there. One of Harry Caldwell’s sons, John, wrote (China Coast Family, 1953) of being frightened as a boy by the growls of tigers outside the house at night. Caldwell realized he could do the public a service and establish credibility by shooting the man-eaters.

He wrote his brother Will, who lived in New York state, asking him to buy and ship to him the most powerful rifle he could find. Will sent him a Savage 99 in .303 Savage. The Savage .303 is similar in appearance and ballistics to the .30-30 Winchester. Where the .30-30 was most commonly loaded with a 170-grain bullet at about 2,050 fps, the most popular load for the .303 Savage was a 190-grain bullet at 1,900 fps. No doubt it seemed plenty powerful for whitetail deer in the North Woods.

A .303 Savage would be far down my list for dangerous game, but Caldwell made it work for two reasons. He was an exceptional shot; Roy Chapman Andrews, an explorer, scientist and hunter of the same era wrote he once saw Caldwell shooting flying birds with a rifle. The other reason was indomitable courage. Almost all the tigers he killed were shot at very close range, sometimes no more than a few feet.

Caldwell’s tiger hunting earned him gratitude and respect from the local populace. On a furlough back to the U.S. he found it made him famous. The image of a preacher with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other made for good press copy. The publicity brought Caldwell to the attention of Savage Arms, who in future years would send him a rifle and supply of ammunition as new cartridges were introduced.

The Savage Arms company gave Caldwell several model 99 rifles and made good
use of his experience in advertisements and catalogs. The ad text also notes it had
been used to kill “Alaskan Brown Bear, Grizzly, Buffalo, Moose, Elk, and Caribou …”

Maybe More Gun?

The first was a .22 Savage Hi-Power introduced circa 1912, shooting a 70-grain bullet at 2,800 fps. Roy Chapman Andrews hunted tigers with Caldwell, using a Winchester 1895 in .405 Win. In his book Heart of Asia, Andrews recounted a debate he had with Caldwell. He started by saying, “… it’s plain damned foolishness to use that little bullet, if you don’t mind my saying so. It hasn’t enough weight or shocking power for dangerous game.”

Caldwell smiled. “… the Savage Company sent me out this rifle and the first time I ever fired it was at a tiger. You ought to have seen what that tiny bullet did to him! … it was too dark to pick any vital spot, so I just fired at the body. The beast lunged into the air, twisted, and came down dead as a herring.”

“Is that the only tiger you’ve killed with a .22 Hi-Power?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s the only one I’ve ever shot at with this rifle, but it’s good enough for me. I’ll take on any tiger that ever lived with it.”

Some things never change. Fifty years later Roy Weatherby and Elmer Keith would carry on the light-fast vs. heavy-slow bullet debate. Today, 110 years later, many an intrepid Internet-er praises the .223 Rem. as a big-game cartridge, with nearly identical ballistics as the .22 Savage. A popular load is a 75-grain bullet at 2,800 fps — admittedly with superior bullet construction. As hunters we still draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of limited data.

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