Sydney Tolsdorf

January 20, 2015

It started out innocently enough. We were trying to schedule a water buffalo hunt for meat. Sydney’s grandfather, Larry Tolksdorf, and John Miller, a professional hunter who helped arrange the hunt, decided to let Sydney do the shooting. I, Scott Tussing, had already taken four Cape buffalo while hunting with John in Africa. John and Larry advised Joe O’Bannon, owner of J&R Outfitters, of the change in plans.

Larry and I debated on what rifle and caliber Sydney should use on the hunt. We decided to convert one of our Savage rifles to chamber 7mm-08 cartridges loaded with 140-grain Barnes Banded Solids. Larry took one of our extra target barrels and cut it down to 20 inches, including a built-in muzzle brake.

After the first session at the shooting range, it was evident that this setup wasn’t going to work. With the short barrel and muzzle brake, your hat would flip up at each shot. Changing plans, we decided on a .308 using 165-grain Barnes TSX bullets. We would get both penetration and expansion with this bullet design. Sydney preferred shooting this rifle to the other. She began practicing with the rifle for the hunt. Her grandfather told her that she could not go on the hunt until she put three shots in a one-inch dot at 50 yards. Not leaving anything to chance, Sydney “qualified” with the first attempt.

Upon arriving at the ranch, Sydney hopped out of the truck. By the look on Joe’s face, it was apparent he might be having second thoughts about Sydney shooting a buffalo. After I introduced myself as additional backup, Sydney—all four feet and 65 pounds of her—walked up to meet Joe.
Hunts at J&R Outfitters are all conducted from the ground. There would be no shooting from the vehicle. Joe asked Sydney a couple of questions before loading up. First, he first asked, “How well do you shoot?” Her response was, “I hit everything I aim at.” Next, he next asked her, “How far can you shoot?” Her response: “As far as you need me to.”

Apparently her answers were sufficient. We loaded the truck and headed out.
Now before everyone starts complaining about her being too young and small, shooting a too-light caliber at a too-dangerous animal, this had already been considered. Ten-year-old Sydney had been shooting for more than two years, and had become quite proficient with a rifle. When she was eight years old, Sydney had successfully taken two hogs (150 and 200 pounds). Joe and I would back her up. Joe had his .500 Nitro Express and I had my .458 Lott. Neither was overkill. These buffalo have the same temperament and ability to soak up bullets as their more-famous cousin, the African Cape buffalo. Bullet placement would be key to a quick and successful hunt.

I think Joe was still wondering if this was really a smart idea as we drove into the ranch. That changed after we made the first stalk on a buffalo. We found a lone bull and proceeded to sneak up to within 80 yards. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any closer due to a lack of cover and a hunting party that was too large. Besides Sydney, Joe and myself, Larry and Sydney’s mom, Ann, who was working the camera, accompanied us.

Joe wanted the feeding bull to lift its head. Sydney had her gun on the shooting sticks—the weeds were as tall as she was.

“I’m going to get him to look at us,” Joe said, then let out a quick whistle. In one swift motion, the buffalo lifted his head and moved 30 yards farther away from us. After a few minutes, we decided the shot was too long, so we moved off to find another buffalo.

The next few stalks were unsuccessful. The buffalo would move into the open as soon as they felt the pressure of being hunted. Finally, we found a bull we’d previously stalked. He was on the other side of some heavy cover. This time, we didn’t see the two friends he’d had with him earlier to help warn him of any danger.

We stalked to within 20 yards of the bull as it wallowed in a mud hole. We set up the shooting sticks and Sydney shouldered the rifle. Only the top half of the bull’s head was visible above the edge of the wallow. Joe told Sydney to aim for the eye, but she had trouble picking up the eye against the brown background, even with the scope set at its lowest power.

Just then, I felt the breeze on the back of my neck. “We’re done now,” I thought. Instantly, the bull stood and moved three steps back, then stared at us head-on. The bull made the fatal mistake of standing his ground.

Sydney was still aiming the gun with the crosshairs on the buffalo.
“Aim between the eyes,” Joe said.

Sydney fired, and the bull dropped instantly to the ground.
Keeping her left hand on the rifle, Sydney turned to us, then raised her right hand while dancing and singing, “Oh yeah! I got ‘im!”.

Joe told her to stop dancing and shoot again. Sydney snapped her attention back to her rifle and the buffalo. She quickly racked the bolt and shot the bull in the center of its chest. Joe immediately told her to shoot it again. She racked the bolt and fired again, I was amazed how fluidly she operated the rifle. Joe told her to chamber another round as we moved to the left to get a better angle on the bull’s head. The bull was lying on its back, so we couldn’t get another shot at its head.

Back at the truck, Ann and Larry held their breath when the first shot rang out. They looked at each other, waiting for the sound of follow-up shots from the bigger rifles. Several seconds painstakingly passed before the second shot was heard. In unison, they both said, “little gun,” then heard the third shot. They were jumping out of their skins with anticipation.

Shortly afterward, Joe and I emerged from the tree line, heading to the truck. Sydney was between us, skipping and doing her “happy dance.” She first tried convincing her mother and grandfather that she had missed. Ann and Larry simply looked in amazement, reflecting on how proud they were of her.
Then we drove to the buffalo. The bull had gone down with the first shot. The two follow-up shots had merely been insurance in case the bull decided to run off. It made for less dangerous tracking and follow-up.

Sydney’s first shot had struck between the bull’s eyes, just right of center. The area she had to aim at in order to hit the brain had been only about six inches across and three inches high. That isn’t a big target while a 1600-pound buffalo is staring you down just 23 yards away.

Congratulations were given to Sydney, then the long process of taking pictures began. Joe called for a tractor with a bucket to pick up the buffalo and bring it back to the barn for butchering. Both of the bull’s horns had broken off from fighting. The buffalo had been well known on the ranch for his tendency to charge and ram the trucks. The ranch staff had named him, “Hammerhead.”

By the time we arrived back at the ranch house, the other hunters and staff were waiting to congratulate Sydney on her buffalo.

Joe has been guiding hunters, both at his ranch and in Africa, for 25 years. His hunters typically use a .375 magnum as a minimum caliber, and average five shots per buffalo. Sydney was the youngest hunter Joe had ever guided on a buffalo hunt. She was also the only hunter he allowed to shoot a buffalo in the head.

While a .308 is light for shooting buffalo, we had full confidence in Sydney’s abilities—especially when she used a Barnes bullet to make up for the small caliber. The bullet travelled eight inches into the buffalo’s skull after penetrating hide, cartilage and bone. Three of the bullet’s copper petals had broken off, although two were recovered, yielding slightly less than double expansion. The shot had been taken at 23 yards with an approximate muzzle velocity of 2,700 fps.

The bullets unfortunately were not recovered from the bull’s chest. However, they had travelled almost all the way across the chest, resulting in a double lung shot and a wound channel measuring more than five inches across.

Sydney Tolksdorf had begun shooting when she was seven years old. Her first gun was a single- shot 22 rimfire. It wasn’t long before she decided she wanted to start hunting wild hogs. Deer followed shortly thereafter. She completed her hunter safety course shortly before turning nine years old. She hunts with her mother, Ann, her grandfather, Larry, and friend of the family, Scott.

She is both a competent and lucky shooter, winning a 22LR target rifle at her local gun club. That gun is still taller than she is. She uses four guns for hunting—Savage youth rifles in .223 and .308 chambering, a .50-caliber Knight muzzleloader, and a Remington youth 20-gauge shotgun. She has introduced several of her friends to shooting.

Sydney does have other interests besides shooting and hunting. She enjoys saltwater fishing for snook, bonefish, and bonnet-head sharks. She has been taking dance lessons since she was three years old, and has recently begun taking an interest in cooking. Her favorite interest is probably performing circus aerials on the various apparatus: Spanish Webb (rope), lyra (hoop), stirrups, and trapeze.

—Scott Tussing