A phoenix from the flames
Sam Garro charts the rebirth of iconic Woodleigh Bullets
Woodleigh Bullets are widely recognised and reputed for their extensive array of premium hunting projectiles and their effectiveness on all manner of game, bigger options in particular. The family enterprise with owners Geoff and Shirley McDonald began some 40 years ago on the Woodleigh family farm near Murrabit, Victoria at a time when bullets for vintage large double rifles to hunt big game like buffaloes in the Top End were becoming scarce, expensive and almost impossible to source.
Geoff had a passion for hunting from an early age, accompanying his father on rabbit treks in the 1950s. His first .22LR, a Gevarm E1 self-loader mounted with a Nikko 4×40 scope, enabled him to hunt small to medium game in his rural surrounds, later progressing to an SMLE .303 in average condition to target roos, pigs and emus. As an aspiring young hunter his attention soon turned to the heavily built and potentially dangerous water buffaloes, a much tougher and challenging adversary requiring greater stopping power. This led Geoff in 1977 to acquire his first double rifle, a Charles Boswell 577×2¾” BPE hammered underlever and Sako magnum action fitted to a 458 WM barrel.
In the 1980s with big game cartridges difficult to source combined with a growing appetite for the sport, Geoff with his gunsmithing experience and unafraid to have a go turned his attention to specialising and manufacturing big game calibre projectiles. After considerable experimentation and trialling various load and projectile combinations, his determination and persistence saw him ultimately succeed. The rest is history.
The Woodleigh Bullets story is more comprehensively covered in the company’s Loading Manual, a detailed 350-plus page guide covering 80 hunting rounds from 6.5 Mannlicher-Schonauer to Geoff’s own heavyweight .530s, acclaimed hydrostatically stabilised bullet and loading data for American, European, British and double rifle cartridges, recommended for any serious handloader.
On November 27, 2021 the owners suffered a crushing blow when the office and manufacturing plant burnt down, destroying everything they’d worked so hard to establish, not to mention the financial loss. It’s believed the fire was started by rats gnawing on live electrical wires, a not too uncommon occurrence and at the time, Geoff and Shirley posted the following message on their website:
“Woodleigh Bullets factory fire: We regret to inform our loyal customers we had a nasty factory fire on Saturday, 27th November. Thankfully no-one was injured. Most of the working production machinery was damaged and all the packed stock was burnt. We do have some unwashed and unpolished stock stored in bulk drums but have no way of dealing with it at the moment. It will be available at a later date.
“Regarding our Woodleigh Load Manuals, they are on a very slow boat and will not arrive until February. It will take some time to assess the machinery damage and make a plan for the future. Thank you for all your texts and emails with messages of support. Regards, Geoff and Shirley McDonald.”
Before the fire their product distribution extended to many Australian stockists and established ammunition companies such as Norma Precision (Sweden), Krieghoff and RWS (Germany), Kynoch and Westley Richards (UK) and Federal (US), as well as demand for hydrostatically stabilised projectiles from South Africa for big game outfitters and professional hunters.
Geoff had just arrived at the office area next to the processing plant when he was confronted by an out-of-control fire, the flames fuelled by loose paperwork, files, wooden furniture and computers. He tried desperately to control it with a fire extinguisher and pressured water hose though both proved inadequate and he was forced to beat a hasty retreat. The blaze quickly spread to the steel plant, further fuelled by wooden packing tables and pallets, oil-soaked paper used to wipe down machines, oil on the machines themselves and even aluminium tar insulating foil sheets lining the walls and ceiling.
The bullet-forming and processing machines, lead ingots, gas bottles, completed and packaged bullets, tooling and associated equipment were all extensively damaged or destroyed, along with some of Geoff’s prized trophy mounts, collectables and irreplaceable photos. The fire was so intense the metal building actually warped with lead ingots and formed bullets melted into pools and rivers of silver liquid. The fire brigade was summoned but couldn’t get there in time to save the plant.
Speculation as to whether Woodleigh Bullets would restart again was aired across the wider shooting fraternity among handloaders, stockists and ammunition companies. Even Geoff, faced with so many logistical and financial hurdles, had moments of real doubt. When news spread about a potential run-out of Woodleigh bullets, retailers started to sell out of the stock and even those advertised on gun websites were quickly snapped up.
Never give up
Under such crippling circumstances it’s often too easy to throw in the towel but, as in the past, a determination to succeed coupled with support from patrons, friends and family members encouraged Geoff and Shirley to restart. When you stop to think about it, apart from Woodleigh Bullets and Bertram Bullet Co in Seymour, Victoria there are no other projectile and case manufacturers in Australia who better cater to the handloader, particularly when it comes to wildcat and big game calibres.
Out of the ashes
Every year in May or June the Big Game Rifle Club (BGRC) holds a Woodleigh Shoot on the SSAA range at Little River, Victoria to acknowledge Geoff’s work, involvement and support over the years. Initially the BGRC Woodleigh Trophy Shoot was staged at Geoff’s farm with five events attended by 30-odd participants. The first was a difficult single-rise, two-shot 16-clay target shoot followed by four rifle class events including black powder, paper targets set at 80 yards and closing to 25 and 10 yards with the overall high scorer receiving the Woodleigh Perpetual Trophy.
Andrew Hepner, Pat Walsh and John Sutherland along with Lance and Robin Eastwood of the BGRC and others banded together and were instrumental in helping Geoff and his family to restart against what were realistically overwhelming odds. This was also a way to reciprocate and show appreciation and it took a few trips by working groups to clear debris, assist in rebuilding structural work, scrub down machines and help with their restoration.
Due to the specialised nature of the machines and their early origins (those acquired from Australian government munitions years ago when production ceased), damaged parts and components were either fabricated or replaced. While progress has been slow, as most of the restoration work and machinery overhaul rested with the owners, results are finally starting to show after more than 18 months, with new electrical circuitry along with additional fire mitigation aids installed to prevent a similar occurrence.
Woodleigh Bullets have stood the test of time and are recognised by shooters from all walks of life the world over, in particular big game safaris hunters, outfitters, guides and ammunition companies, their annual catalogues featuring photos of successful hunters and their trophies being testimony to the popularity and effectiveness of those premium bullets. In 2013 Federal’s Premium Safari Line ammunition loaded with Woodleigh hydrostatically stabilised bullets (invented by John Marozzi) won the coveted Field & Stream ‘Best of the Best’ award in America, further enhancing the company’s reputation (see article in Australian Hunter Issue 66).
On a personal note, for years I’ve loaded and used Woodleigh projectiles from protected points, RNSN, fully jacketed or solids and hydros in my Sako A1 .30-06 Springfield, Winchester 70 .375 H&H and Schultz & Larsen .338 WM on a variety of game with excellent results, while my trophy water buffalo of 93DP taken in Arnhem Land a few years ago was achieved using the S&L .338 WM and WDL 300gr RNSN.
Some machines still require tweaking but overall, restoration completion is expected before the end of year, all going well, with production gradually ramping up. Like new green growth sprouting after a bushfire, Woodleigh Bullets is rising from the ashes. Geoff and Shirley extend their thanks and genuine appreciation to those who helped and sent messages of support in their time of need, referring to them as “amazing true-blue Aussies”. And for the business to continue trading successfully into the future it will require our ongoing support – and I’m confident that’s a given.