Rigby Launch the new Highland Stalker
Ever since Rigby relaunched as a British company, with the backing of Blaser, by launching their range of ‘Big Game’ model bolt-action rifles in .416 Rigby, .375 H&H and .450 Rigby, there has been talk of a lighter calibre rifle, suited to the demands of the deer stalker. Now, after three years of planning, that time has come.
Rigby and Mauser can trace their partnership back to the early 20th century, when Rigby was the British agent for Mauser and sold the, now hugely collectable, .275 Rigby-Mauser stalking rifle. The roots of the action are in the 1892 patent, adopted for the 1893 military rifle used by the German army and many others besides. The original Rigby-Mauser rifle found favour at home and abroad in the hands of notables as diverse as ‘Karamojo’ Bell and HRH Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother.
Rigby’s progress and their recent model development has been rapid and MD Marc Newton told me he had learned a lot since taking charge of the re-formed company. Some ideas, he admitted, had proven to be non-starters and others had been surprisingly successful. What he noticed, every time, was that when they stuck to Rigby’s traditions, the market responded favourably. When they hinted at moving towards modern trends in rifle making, feedback was less enthusiastic.
It appears that the modern Rigby customer wants to continue the established heritage, rather than adopt an ultra modern rifle. Therefore, readers are unlikely to see future Rigby projects involving stainless actions and plastic stocks. The Rigby rifles of today carry direct lines of communication that are traceable right back to their heyday.
The new Highland Stalker is visually and characteristically descended from the famous artefact that holds pride of place in Rigby’s museum; Jim Corbett’s 1907 rifle. However, Mark deliberately chose not to call the new rifle ‘The Corbett Model’. The Highland Stalker is not a mere copy of the old Rigby-Mauser, it is a 21st century re-boot of the concept. To achieve the stated aims was a difficult task and every step required much research, experimentation and hard decisions.
As we shall see in the following review of the new rifle, it is a re-imagination of the classic, not a facsimile. While outwardly similar and sharing the desirable characteristics of the pre-war model, the 2017 Highland Stalker has a subtly different barrel profile, re-designed stock shape, improved safety system, cleaner trigger pulls, modified sights and a plethora of options.
The barrel and all moving parts come directly from Mauser. This has enabled a rather small London firm to specify high degrees of quality control, customisation and precision in the rifle from concept to manufacture. Without the muscle of the German parent company, this would have been impossible.
As a result, Rigby have been able to make faithful Mauser bolt-actions with modifications to suit the modern stalker. What they have retained in the original is the unsurpassed controlled feed, and full length claw extractor. This ensures the extraction of fired cartridges is about as perfect as one could wish for and is a major factor in the enduring popularity of the Mauser action as a basis for custom rifles.
The difference now is that, rather than having to cannibalise old rifles or search in dark places for old actions, Rigby can simply order brand new, quality assured, identical components. Supply is assured, quality is to modern German engineering standards and repeatability is infinite. The action now comes ready drilled and tapped for ‘scope mounts, if desired.
The trigger pull is ‘modern’ in every sense, with a crisp 2.5 lbs pull and single-stage operation. The box magazine holds 4+1 rounds in all calibre options and has a hinged floor-plate, released by means of a catch on the inner front of the trigger guard.
The original Mauser ‘flag safety’ is still an option. However, it is problematic in that it does not clear the ‘scope unless higher than optimal mounts are used. Rigby have totally redesigned the safety to a system reminiscent of the familiar pre-1964 Winchester type. It has three positions: When the safety lever is placed forward, the rifle is ‘live’. When in the intermediate position, the bolt can be racked to remove a live round, but the trigger sear is blocked. When facing back, both trigger and bolt are locked.
The original Rigby Mausers were designed to be used with open sights. The stock shape reflects the fact. However, today, most stalkers want to use a ‘scoped rifle. Anyone who has used an old rifle, with a retro-fitted ‘scope and mounts, will be aware of the, sometimes awkward, head position that then needs to be adopted, often with the jaw, rather than the cheek, resting on the side of the comb. Elegant the old shape undoubtedly is; practically, it is unacceptable on a new rifle.
Purists, no doubt, wanted an exact copy of the original. Rigby, however, decided to raise the comb to a higher and more parallel form, to better suit ‘scoped shooting, while designing open sights that can be seen through the scope mounts and are sufficiently raised to work with the new comb height. They come regulated for 65, 150 and 250 yards and every rifle is range-tested for accuracy with open sights before being dispatched. If your eyesight is good enough to hunt with open sights, you can be confident that the rifle will do it’s job.
The hand of the stock is an elegant semi-pistol grip, which provides more ease of adjustment to hold; necessary when crawling or having to adopt an awkward position to take the shot, as hill stalkers will know only too well. Chequer is hand finished in the London workshop and is clean and precise.The oil finish is flawless.
Rigby decided against adding a cheek-piece and the stock is billed as ‘ambidextrous’. The wood is listed as ‘Grade 5’ in standard specification, which is robust but attractive. Rigby offer a full customisation option, enabling the customer to choose wood to his particular taste and budget. These days wood is an increasingly important factor in selling sporting firearms of the classic type and I see a number of the early orders are for guns with significant upgrades in the choice of wood.
The butt is finished with a traditional ‘Silver’s’ type rubber pad. This is practical in both protecting the stock from bumps, chips and vibration when it is put down and rested against a tree or rock etc. It also provides secure purchase in the shoulder and takes the edge off recoil.
The standard rifle comes with a length of pull of 14 1/2” but a ladies version is available at no extra cost. This has a shorter length of 13 7/8” to centre with a reduced toe, for comfort.
At 22”, the barrel is shorter than Corbett’s rifle, the reduction in length allows for a slightly thicker profile and provides more scope for the balanced addition of a small sound moderator, should one be necessary. It is fitted as standard with Rigby folding leaf sights. The barrel profile is excellent, with a quick step from the bridge, then a gentle taper to the muzzle, which is not screw-threaded as standard. Finish is a nitrided, non-reflective black, which is very hard wearing. The front sight is a classic ramp and blade, with several options for the latter, including high visibility silvered finish, which, on testing, showed up very well against a dark target in woodland.
The classic stalking rifle is used without any kind of sound moderation. It seems not to matter on the hill. However, many of today’s sportsmen either want or need to put a moderator onto the rifle. Rigby have developed a new composite model, specifically to use with the Highland Stalker. It is very slim and is invisible to the shooter when aimed with open sights, being one millimetre lower than the bead. It adds very little discernible weight and the shorter barrel minimises the effect on balance.
Overhang is minimal and the rear face is cleverly machined so that it accepts the front portion of the ramp sight, allowing the whole moderator to seat further back. There are better sound reducing products on the market but the aim here was to reduce muzzle blast and recoil, without spoiling the feel of the rifle by plonking a big, heavy moderator on the end of the barrel.
The standard model comes with ‘J. Rigby & Co. London. England’ in classic Rigby type gothic script on the top of the barrel. The floor plate of the magazine has the Rigby ‘JR’ logo engraved over the ‘Rigby’ name. The serial number is neatly stamped on the underside of the trigger guard. The .275 model has, engraved on the barrel, just forward of the bridge ‘Sighted for Rigby’s Special High Velocity .275 Bore Cartridge Soft nosed 140 GR Bullet’. Execution in all cases is extremely neat and pleasing. Details like this add to the overall classy feel of the rifle, as do the perfectly fitted, clean-slotted screws and pins, all lined-up neatly north-south.
The Highland Stalker is available in .275, .308, .30-06, 8×57 and 9.3×62 The classic calibre for the rifle is the venerable 7×57, which Rigby anglicised long ago, as the .275 Rigby. The standard load for this is a 140 grain bullet travelling at around 2,500 fps. Tis makes it work for all species of British deer and more than capable of dealing with African plains game up to the size of Kudu.
Upon hefting the rifle for the first time, I was mentally preparing myself to compare it with the original Rigby Mauser, with which I am quite familiar. The qualities a rifle possesses are so much more than the sum of the various parts and the purpose for which it is designed should be foremost in the mind, rather than the technical specifications. In this respect, the new rifle immediately felt pleasingly familiar. One of the qualities the old Rigby’s had is what Marc Newton rightly described as ‘shotgun handling’. Why this is relevant has its roots back in the very origins of the concept.
The original Rigby Mauser was a ’budget’ option for the adventurer who could not justify the cost of a double rifle. For half the money, he could have a bolt-action, but may well expect it to do the same work abroad. The rifle should throw itself to your cheek and be on-point and ready to fire instinctively, with open sights. It does. It should also sit nicely on-point, feeling steady and balanced from a standing position. It does. It should also carry comfortably, with weight distributed in such a manner that it feels ready for action and instils confidence that it could be brought to the shoulder at a moment’s notice. It does.
None of these qualities can be reduced to a specification sheet. I think of them as the soul of a rifle. This is why so many rifles one picks up feel dead in your hands. You can make them work, sure. But they are dead, bland, tools. No more. Perhaps this explains the steady trade in custom rifles over the years, with small specialists producing bolt rifles that cost in thousands, rather than hundreds of pounds. They may not necessarily punch holes in paper any better at 150 yards but they offer so much more in intangibles that aficionados are willing to pay the price difference.
On the Hill
Rigby, to their credit, pulled out all the stops to present the Highland Stalker to the press and to the select band of international dealers who will carry the model in their stores, from Houston to Frankfurt.
The weekend was intended to encapsulate the intertwined ethos of the company with the model’s heritage and its place in the modern world. Designed primarily as a deer stalking rifle, its natural home is the Scottish hill; hence the name. As befitting the proud history of Scottish sport, we headed for Euston Statio and embarked on the overnight sleeper, first class, no less, swapped hunting stories and bonded as a group, while emptying the bar of its entire gin allocation for the trip.
After a few hours of sleep, I awoke to the sound of clanking carriages, slamming doors and bagpipes! The early morning chill in the air reminded me how far north we had come and the wailing notes made it quite clear exactly where we were. Stumbling out of our carriages, we all piled into Rigby branded Land Rovers and headed to our accommodation on the Blair Atholl estate.
After a quick bite to eat and a change into outdoor attire, we were paired up and introduced to our stalkers. I was amused to see the different traditions on view in the attire of our international friends. My American hunting partner, Wayne, and I being a case in point. He was resplendent in realtree and wetlands camouflage, while I donned a Purdey tweed shooting suit, Hogg’s veldschoens and leather gaiters.
The next two days saw the hill throw what it traditionally throws at visiting sportsmen. We hiked, in driving rain, close to twenty kilometres a day, up and down inclines that my, recently re-built, knee groaned at but somehow survived and in the evening we donned our dinner jackets and dined at Blair Castle beneath the smocks of the Mahdi’s army, captured weapons of various origin and hundreds upon hundreds of skull mounts of red stags, dating back to the 1830s. The centre-piece of the table was Jim Corbett’s rifle.
On day two I got my chance. We spotted a group of stags a mile distant. The only approach offering any hope was up a steep sided burn; with luck the wind would blow our scent over the deer, rather than to them. It was a gamble but all we had to go on, so off we set.
We did manage to get where we needed to be, unscented. Then it was a quick crawl up the bank, over the brow, along another fifty yards to a small crest and a cautious peer towards the stags’ last known position. They were a tad jumpy, they knew something was up but not sure what or where the threat lay. There was not going to be much time. One stag was visible on the skyline face-on. As we looked, another two stood up. ‘Take the one on the left’ came the whisper. There he was, standing side on at 150 yards.
This is where the familiarity of the new rifle proved itself. It came up as naturally as my old custom Mauser 7×57. The safety was seamless and intuitive, clicking cleanly ‘off’ as I raised the rifle onto my target. The new Rigby optics showed a clear picture and the comb nestled naturally into my cheek. My front hand felt secure around the chequered forend and my rear hand comfortably held the rounded grip and lined easily with the trigger blade. Everything was ‘right’. As a user of custom Mauser action rifles I was in familiar territory. No effort required: breathe, focus, hold steady, let the rifle do the work.
The report sang out across the hill. Recoil was un-noticed. The stags took off in a line and my heart jumped briefly with the familiar ‘you missed’ reaction I always get for a split second after a shot deer runs. However, a promptly reassuring,’ Good shot sir’, from my ghillie quickly assuaged the nerves and the line of running stags soon lost one of its number, as he collapsed after a hundred yards or so.
As we approached the fallen stag, the shot looked clean. Just behind the elbow; the heart shot is my staple and it had done the job. I was interested to hear, that with current meat standards regulations, many stalkers are now being encouraged to shoot a little more forward, sacrificing shoulder meat for a lower chance of puncturing the stomach and risking the entire carcass being rejected.
So, the Rigby Highland Stalker experience is a nutshell? It is a project I have watched with interest from inception to fruition. It was, in my view, far more complex and risky than many will appreciate. To aim for tradition without succumbing to pastiche, to apply sensible updates without losing the heart of the traditional concept, to turn Englishmen’s ideas into German components in a foreign factory and to assemble and finish the final product in a manner that retains its traditional qualities, while maximising the modern practicalities necessary to succeed in a 21st century market; what a difficult mix of factors to manage, yet get right.
This project could have gone so wrong. What’s more, in order to work it had to achieve ‘rightness’ in many areas that are almost intangible and certainly inexplicable in isolation. What Rigby have achieved here, is nothing short of remarkable. They aimed for a classic rifle that meets the demands of the modern sportsman. They have designed a basic rifle that can be customised to whatever degree the customer desires. They are offering a semi-bespoke package that enables the ordinary man to specify his build in a way not available elsewhere at this price point.
The recommended retail price in the UK is £6,495 for the standard model. Custom options are numerous and priced individually. This means you can spend a little extra having the serial number gold inlaid, or almost double the cost of the rifle by adding custom engraving, fancy wood, sound moderators, gold lettering etc.
Until now, you needed £23,000 to approach Rigby to build you a London Best .275. That is beyond the reach of most of us. However, today you can walk into a London gunmaker’s and order yourself your dream rifle. One that will serve you and your children with distinction and provide a sporting legacy to treasure. Make no mistake, these rifles could be the classics of the future. And the cost? About the depreciation of three years ownership on a new Ford Focus. Now tell me you can’t afford that!
What’s more, you get to have your name and details carefully written into the very same series of ledgers that recorded the orders of Jim Corbett’s rifle and the several that were used with aplomb by W.D.M Bell and many other famous adventurers from the glory years of British sport. The Highland Stalker takes Rigby forwards with confidence, to see what the next half century will bring. I think it will find its market. Is it expensive? Relatively. It is good value? Absolutely. Do I want one? What to you think!