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A Pair of Rifles

The purpose of ordering a pair of guns is to keep up a rapid rate of fire while driven shooting. Pairs of shotguns are relatively common. When rifles come in pairs or trios, they generally come as some kind of special edition set, in different calibres, built on a theme. I have never, as far as I can recall, seen a true pair of consecutively-numbered double rifles of the same calibre and specification. Until now.

Holt’s the Norfolk-based auctioneers, who hold their sales in Blackheath, surprised me, with their entry for just such a pair of double rifles: Holland & Holland side-locks in .500/465 Nitro Express, in their December catalogue. These were identical in every way and of the very highest quality. They represent an interesting period in British gun-making and their history charts the mixed fortunes that befell the men who ordered them. 

Today, the foremost gunmakers in the country rely on Texans and Arabs for their orders of ‘extra quality finish’ sporting guns and rifles. These are often made with little regard to the budget, each one a work of art in its own right. Most will never be used.

In the heyday of British sporting gun manufacture, the Arabs and Texans of the time were Indian princes. The Maharajahs were the rulers of independent kingdoms, which were brought under the mantle of the British Raj, which provided stability, peace and the rule of law. However, the princes lost their ultimate power, particularly with regard to foreign policy. In return for pledging allegiance to the British Crown, they were granted internal independence and great wealth. The system was classic Hobbsian ‘Leviathan’ theory. The might of ‘Pax Britannica’ ensured stability and wealth and avoided inter-kingdom warfare in India.

Many of the maharajahs, fabulously wealthy, but with very little of real importance to do, dedicated themselves to sporting pursuits and entertaining. They spent lavishly. Many built huge armouries of the very best guns and rifles available and their orders helped fill the coffers of the West End gunmakers, like Purdey and Holland & Holland.

The average Englishman was happy with the restrained, tasteful style of the British gun trade. The typical Victorian sporting gun had fine rose and scroll engraving, some rifles might have the odd animal depicted but the general aesthetic was restrained. The Maharajahs were not inclined towards such restraint. The guns and rifles they ordered were far more elaborate. Gargoyles, flowers, mythical beasts, deep carving, precious metal inlay, gold lettering. These were more often found in arms destined for India than anywhere else. The legacy of the period is that some of the finest and most interesting guns and rifles ever to me made in Britain remain to give pleasure to their current owners.

This pair of Holland & Holland rifles were made for dangerous game shooting. In India, that meant tiger, Himalayan bear, gaur and rhino; perhaps even the Indian lion, while viable populations remained. The man who ordered them was the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, whose kingdom was in present-day West Bengal.

Henry Poole noted; ‘The Maharaja was popular with the people of Cooch Behar who admired the young man’s commitment to modernising the State. He funded colleges, built a railway network, laid down roads and created a modern capital city complete with schools, hospitals, a courthouse and a prison. He built an Italianate palace modelled on St Peter’s in Rome with a swimming pool, tennis courts, polo ground and a nine-hole golf course. The Maharaja was a generous host, a crack shot, a skilled polo player and famed big game hunter.’

As a famed big-game hunter, he no doubt, furnished his gun room with the best rifles he could procure. The Holland & Hollands were ordered in 1907. The reason was likely due to the British the ban on civilian importation of .450 calibre ammunition into India and Sudan. The reason was a fear that insurgents may use stolen ammunition or components to provide for military rifles. The .303 was also banned for civilians, as was the .577/450. It was a piece of legislation full of holes but it served Britains gunmakers well and stimulated sales, as well as creating a rash of new calibres and chamberings to fill the need for a .450 replacement. Among them were the .470, the .500/465 and the .475 (No.2). The .500/465 performs very like those related cartridges, firing a 480 grain bullet at just over 2,100 fps. 

The passage that these rifles took to reach their current position in Holt’s catalogue was started with the post independence shake-up of Indian society imposed by Indira Ghandi. The rulers of the princely states, like Cooch Behar, has been guaranteed their status in the independence negotiations. In return for becoming part of the newly independent states of India and Pakistan, the maharajahs were granted generous annual payments from state coffers. Their fortunes, lands and assets were retained, along with their titles and privileges. 

However, all that changed in 1971. Indira Ghandi mixed populism with socialism and one of her policies cancelled the payments from the privy purse to the maharajahs, stripped them of their titles and privileges and seized many of their assets. Newly impoverished, by their usual standards, many decided to sell assets they no longer had a use for, like their gun and car collections. 

British firms, like Holland & Holland and Westley Richards, were quick to take-up the opportunity and some fabulous guns and rifles made their way back to the UK and, from there, were sold to collectors around the world. This is when the Cooch Behar rifles probably returned to Europe. They appear to have been sold to a French collector and later split inside the family. Holt’s have re-united them and they appear, one again, as a pair, for sale in the same room. 

Both rifles are described as: 26in. nitro chopperlump barrels, matt sight rib gold-inlaid ‘1’ (or No.2) at the breech end, open sights with two folding leaf sights, marked 100, 200 and 300, ramp-mounted bead fore-sight with flip-up moon-sight, treble-grip action with hidden third bite, removable striker discs, elongated top strap, automatic safety with gold-inlaid ‘SAFE’ detail, gold-inlaid cocking-indicators, the fences deeply carved in high relief with floral designs and masks of the Green Man, the action, lock-plates and furniture with bold scrolling acanthus of art nouveau style, the underside with a roundel engraved ‘CHARGE 75 GRAINS CORDITE .465. CASE 3 1/4 INCHES’, 14 3/8in. replacement pistol-grip stock with cheekpiece, engraved steel pistol-grip-cap (with trap), sling swivels and including 7/8in. ventilated rubber recoil pad, fore-end with grip catch release lever,, weight 10lb. 4oz. (10lb. 9oz. for No.2). No.1 is cased.

It is interesting that both rifles have been re-stocked. Presumably it was done to fit them to a new owner, rather than for reasons of damage, which is unlikely to have been replicated in both rifles. The weight difference between the rifles now can be attributed to the new stocks.

I do not recall ever having seen a pair of rifles like this, they represent a period of true excellence in British gun-making and the distinctive engraving highlights the tastes and fortunes of the men who ordered them, over a century ago. Estimated at £12,000 – £16,000 each, it will be interesting to see if they sell to a single buyer. They will also be a useful indicator as to the health of the collector market, if they do very well, it will confirm the recent trend for top quality, collectible firearms to hold value well, while more ordinary fare performs less robustly.