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Rigby: a brief history

Diggory Hadoke examines the winding historical road that led Rigby to its current position at the forefront of classic rifle building. 

Early autumn, seventeen years into the new century. The stalker’s tweed breeks brush noiselessly over the wet heather as he crawls into final position, twenty yards from the steep sides of the burn. The red stags are near the skyline, reposing in a fold of the hill, a hundred and fifty yards away. Blair Atholl, in its moody glory, has been a hard mistress these last two days; rain and fog giving the edge to the quarry and frustrating the hunter; but his moment has come.

The familiar controlled-feed of the .275 soft-nose into the chamber; loose but secure, the Mauser bolt locks firmly into place. The safety clicks ‘off’. From his prone position, the stalker’s senses quicken as one of the group stands, followed by others. “That one”, hisses the ghillie. No time to hesitate. Cross hairs are drawn behind the stag’s front leg for a classic heart shot.

On the Hill with a Rigby .275.

The crack of the 140-grain bullet breaking the sound barrier echoes off the hills and the stag runs, followed by his peers, his gait becoming erratic after fifty yards, slower after seventy. At one hundred yards, he drops. The stalker clears his Rigby, sits for a moment and swaps notes with the ghillie. A dead beast, a clear heart shot. A job well done. Five minutes later, the pair approach the stag. He lies motionless where he fell. A cigar is lit, the gralloch begins.

The scene could easily be 1917, yet a century later nothing has changed. The tweeds, the fog, the garron ponies taking the carcass down the hill, the relationship between stalker and ghillie, between men and beasts; and the rifle; even the Rigby .275 Mauser, all have their roots firmly in the early twentieth century.

Yet, the stalker was your correspondent, the year 2017, the rifle a new-line production model and the estate a living, breathing, twenty-first century success story, just like the company now making these classic stalking rifles. That company is John Rigby & Co. This is a story about the development of their rifles.

Rigby, as gunmakers, can be traced back to the founder, who set up in business in Dublin in 1775. When the first John Rigby died, aged sixty, the year was 1818 and the flintlock was still the common fowling piece of choice, much as it had been for his entire career.

John’s two sons took over and continued running the family business until 1858. They held the reigns of a firm that made sporting rifles and shotguns, as well as pistols for duelling and for self-defence. They even supplied the military with gun-making and maintenance services. amongst Rigby’s specialisations, barrel-making was always key. This focus on the individual components required to make rifles accurate remained with the company for the next century and a half. Rigby were innovators of rifling, ammunition, including the development of the brass-cased .577 Snider cartridge, and breech-loader operating mechanisms, right through the period when progress in firearms was enjoying its heyday.

The company expanded under the third John Rigby to carry that name and head the business; leaving Dublin and taking premises in London’s St James’s Street in 1865, following successful exhibitions in London and Paris in the early 1850s. John Rigby III also headed the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock from 1887 until 1894 and was instrumental in developing the Lee Enfield .303 battle rifle, which served the British Army through two world wars and beyond.

Further to his government work, John Rigby developed two very influential cartridges for big game: the .450 N.E, for double rifles and the .416 Rigby for bolt actions. The .416 remains popular today, while the .450 was replaced by the .470 in most gunmakers’ catalogues before WW1, once India had banned the .450 for civilian use in an attempt to restrict ammunition supplies to insurgents. In the 1990s another Rigby owner, Paul Roberts, adapted the .450 N.E as a rimless cartridge for use in bolt-actions. Rifles in this chambering, called the .450 Rigby, are still offered by the firm today.

An early ‘rising bite’ shotgun bearing the name of the inventor, Thomas Bissell, Rigby were to make it famous.

As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, Rigby, like many other London gunmakers, offered rifles in a wide variety of styles, including falling-block single shots of the Gibbs/Farquharson type, double boxlocks and sidelocks and ‘bought-in’ repeating rifles, like the pump-action Colt Lighting. They even had a unique design; the Rigby-Banks falling-block, which had many attributes but arrived too late, as, by 1884, bolt-action and lever-action alternatives were already replacing the slower and more expensive falling-block designs for both military and sporting use.

Modern Rigby double rifles can trace their origins back to the black powder express hammer breech-loaders of the 1870s and ‘80s. These classics generally had back action locks; first non-rebounding but the 1867 patent Stanton re-bound lock quickly replaced these once it was an option. Early and secure breech-loading lock-up was via the 1858 Jones screw grip and under-lever. This remained popular even after snap-action guns with Purdey bolts had risen to dominance for sporting shotgun use. This was due largely to the strength, simplicity and robust nature of the Jones system.

Hammerless systems gradually replaced the hammer rifles. Anson & Deeley’s 1875 ‘boxlock’ patent provided a cheap to make, reliable and robust design ideal for double rifle use. Particularly prevalent was the Webley & Brain 1884 patent version, with the ’screw grip’ locked doll’s-head extension acting as a ‘third bite’.

Rigby’s side-locks, with their distinctly shaped lock plates began to appear as well, at first as black-powder rifles, then as nitro express versions. The classic Rigby sidelock has these ‘dipped edge’ bar-action sidelocks and the bolting is by means of the 1879 Rigby & Bissell ‘rising bite’; properly classified as the ‘vertical bolt’, as it is the bolt which rises when the action is closed. The ‘bite’ is the cut-out in the rib extension into which the bolt finally seats. This rifle remained Rigby’s flagship model until the mid 1930s.

Double rifles were not the option for every sportsman. There were those who could not afford a good one and gunmakers were acutely aware of the demand for reliable but less expensive sporting rifles for colonial civil servants, army officers, explorers, adventurers and the like, many of whom would take a new rifle to Africa or India and expect it to work hard for decades with very little, if any, maintenance beyond cleaning and oiling.

John Rigby’s experience at Enfield Lock would have put him in contact with many of the international firms and individuals leading developments in firearms and ammunition. Among these was Paul Mauser. Mauser’s 1898 model bolt action rifle, built at the factory in Oberndorf provided an ideal platform for what would become Rigby’s most prolific seller. Taking the military specification and altering it for sporting use, the bolt handle was turned down, the stock profiled and given a semi-pistol grip to suit sporting use and a box magazine fitted, all these alterations combined to produce a handy, tough and elegant rifle.

The new Highland Stalker is very like the original Rigby-Mauser.

The Mauser ’98 was not the only option for the sporting application of what began as a military rifle. The Lee-Enfield .303 and the Mannlicher Schoenaur 6.5×54 were offered in this capacity by other firms. However, Rigby decided the robust Mauser had the most advantages. The controlled feed bolt-action was very reliable and functioned well in dirty conditions, was easy to strip and clean and had a safety catch which was out of the line of sight whether ‘on’ or ‘off’.

The .275 Rigby cartridge is the anglicised version of the German military 7×57. It is also known as the 7mm Mauser. Bullet weights of 173 grain soft or 140 grain solid were popular and the rifles were a hit with African ‘white hunters’, like Harry Selby and W.D.M Bell. Though nominally a stalking rifle for deer and antelope, Bell shot over a thousand elephants with Rigby Mausers. In the hands of an expert, the powerful little rifle, pushing its bullets at 2,300 fps with the new ‘smokeless’ powders was an effective and cost-effective all rounder. By 1924, the ‘No.2 H.V’ version of the .275 Rigby was producing 3,000 fps with a 140 grain bullet.

In 1904, Rigby also developed a .350 Rigby Magnum version of the Mauser, firing a 225 grain bullet at 2,580 fps as a medium game rifle. This was hugely successful with African hunters, drawing fulsome praise from John Taylor, who considered it ‘perfect’, until the 1950s, only being overtaken by the Holland & Holland .375 Magnum as an ‘all-rounder’

The success of the first  ‘Magnum Mauser’ led to the development of the big brother to the .350 Rigby, which became known as the .416 Rigby. This delivers a round-nosed 410 grain bullet at 2,370 fps. In 1924, this was catalogued as the Model No.5 Big Game Rifle. The name ‘Big Game’ has been retained by the Rigby company for its current magnum Mauser action rifle, available in .375 H&H, .450 Rigby and .416 Rigby.

We can now see that during the heyday of African hunting and the sporting opportunities offered by the British Empire at the height of its influence, in the years between the wars, Rigby had the perfect line-up of hunting rifles. The big, double ‘rising bite’ side-lock ejector beautifully bench-made and the pinnacle of the gunmaker’s craft, for the hunter who had little concern for his budget. Then, the Anson & Deeley action version of the big double rifle for the professional, or the man of lesser means.

For the stalker and as an essential part of every hunter’s overseas arsenal, the .275 Rigby became a staple. To offer a rifle for every occasion in bolt-action (costing about half the price of a double rifle), the Magnum Mauser filled in the gaps. Today, Rigby, once again, offer all these options; built very much in the spirit of the old classics, with some useful modern updates to reflect the practices of today’s hunter. Only a boxlock model no longer features in the Rigby catalogue.

Today’s line up of Rigby rifles includes: The Highland Stalker, The Big Game, the London Best and the Rising Bite Double. To get an idea of the thinking behind the company’s current output, Managing Director, Marc Newton’s comments on the subject  last year come to mind. He told me that any experiments they have tried introducing overtly modern rifle characteristics into their models have failed.

A mint .450 double rifle with ‘rising bite’ and Rigby’s distinctive dipped edge locks.

Rigby customers want a classic rifle. The want a blue barrel, an attractive walnut stock, iron sights and a Mauser action on their bolt rifles. They love the look and feel of the century-old originals, like those made legendary by Jim Corbett and Denys Finch-Hatton and they want their new rifle to carry that blueprint into the twenty-first century. We shall probably not be seeing stainless steel barrels, laminate stocks and tactical scope rails on any Rigby hunting rifles any time soon. The current line-up is an embodiment of the concept of ‘modern classic’.

The .275 Highland Stalker (it is available in other calibres too) is not a mere copy of a 1920s Rigby Mauser. However, it is true to the original concept. The original rifles had ‘shotgun point-ability’; another Newtonism! The new ones had to carry over that same feel.

With their open sights, they do, indeed, come to the shoulder effortlessly and allow for a quick mount and shot. However, as most people today put a ‘scope on their rifle, the old comb shape did not work as an ideal. So, the modern Highland Stalker has a straighter, higher comb. A practical adjustment that makes it a better rifle for the twenty-first century hunter.

Launched at IWA in March 2017, the action is build by Mauser to the original ’98 specification. The old flag safety is still available as an option on the Highland Stalker. However, if you fit a ‘scope it needs high mounts to stop it hitting the tube during operation. The solution is a neat Winchester-inspired three position safety. This is easy to use and neatly made. The stock is grade five walnut, as standard. There is no cheek piece and the rounded pistol grip and forend are chequered. The lettering on the barrel and action is very precise and classy and the options for further embellishment are numerous. You can order a £5,413 basic rifle and then upgrade just where you desire the improvements.

Th Big Game is the Magnum Mauser version of the Highland Stalker, with either single or double square bridge actions. It can be a semi-bespoke order in the same ways or there are a number of standard versions from which to choose. I have a .375 Big Game and find it a very quick rifle to cycle. Once you are used to the Mauser action, and the need to really rack the bolt back the full extent of its travel and slam it home with confidence, it is faultless and rapid.

Recoil is well tamed by the forgiving stock shape and correct-for-calibre weight of 10 pounds. The Big Game, like most big double rifles, is often used with open sights, in which case the single square bridge version is ideal and the traditional flag safety is retained. The barrel may be 22 or 24 inches and the leaf sights are regulated at 65, 150 and 250 yards.

There are four distinct versions of the Big Game that can be ordered as standard models: the Big Game, The P.H, the Deluxe and the Vintage. Prices range from £5,238 to £7,732. UK orders attract additional VAT at 20% but overseas clients are exempt from this. Among customisation options are stock shape, engraving, case colour-hardening, a peep sight and upgraded wood.

Rigby call these rifles ‘aspirational but affordable’ in their literature, which neatly summarises their appeal. There is sufficient scope for customisation to allow the imagination to get creative. The customer can specify a rifle that may well be unique to him. The quality and aesthetic is of a custom rifle, with a serious pedigree, yet the reliable repetition of production that only access to a huge manufacturing facility such as that provided by Mauser allows, ensures quality, a competitive price point and buyer confidence.

The Highland Stalker with red stag, taken on Blair Atholl.

Still representing the pinnacle of bolt-action rifle production, Rigby offer their fully bespoke London Best. This rifle, built on the same Mauser action, of whatever type you choose, is fully bespoke but comes in two versions, the Vintage being a very traditional modern manifestation of the pre-war rifle. The London Best is entirely hand built in London and the cost is from around £18,500, for the Vintage.

Customers can specify any calibre, any barrel length, stock shape etc, so the budget can rise significantly, if desired. Rigby showed what they can do when motivated to create a true masterpiece from a bolt-rifle when they donated their ‘Jim Corbett’ rifle to Safari Club International, were it raised a recored $250,000. This was custom relief-engraved with scenes from Jim Corbett’s famous books on man-eater hunting, including the Rudraprayag leopard, which Corbett shot with his 1907 Rigby .275.

Rigby’s bolt-actions are, no, doubt, classics of the future. If, however, you are a traditionalist in search of African big game and, for you, nothing will do but the best double rifle, then Rigby can still fill your travel case. For just under £100,000 the new Rising Bite model can be had in calibres from .416 Rigby to .600 Nitro Express.

It is entirely hand built in England, using the most modern machinery for the actioning and the finest gun-makers to build the rifle, with stocking, engraving, finishing and barrel making all undertaken traditionally. Like the bolt-rifles, every one is range tested and regulated and the test card leaves the factory with the rifle.

The result is a beast of a rifle that will kill anything, yet looks and feels like the thoroughbred it is. The Rigby-Bissell action is a difficult one to make, but Rigby reverse engineered it from a mint-condition original. Now, for the first time since 1932, when the last ‘rising bite’ rifle was delivered to the Maharajah of Karauli, the model is again on the order books.

Rigby commissioned a run of twenty-one rising bite rifles as a first edition, showing the public that this project would not a be a one-off novelty, but a repeatable, properly conceived production model, here for the long term. Sales have been impressive. There are currently over thirty of these rifles in production. They feature mirror-rifled chopper lump barrels, one twisting left, the other right, regulated to 100 yards. The forend grip catch is featured, a traditional option on big doubles. Rib can be full length or quarter rib with a front sight block. Finish is to the best standards of the London gun trade and engraving of the dipped edge lock plates is traditional scroll as standard, but engraving can be fully customised. Build time is around three years.

Marc Newton took the first new Rising Bite to Africa last year and re-started the historic time-line of Rigby doubles accounting for dangerous game. In 2018, new owners are already preparing for their safaris with their new doubles. This places Rigby firmly in the top tier of British rifle makers. Only Westley Richards are on a par with delivering this level of dependable, repeatable production.

Rigby have advanced at a most impressive rate since the ‘repatriation’ of the company, under the new ownership of the L&O group. Eight years ago the company was in American hands, its image was tarnished, production was erratic, quality was poor and the future looked bleak. Today, a visit to Pensbury Place, just south of the River Thames, will uncover a hive of activity, a busy workshop, a well stocked gun room, a confident management and sales team and a wonderful range of new rifles. Rigby looks set to conquer the world. From London, where it belongs.