Great Expectations

The purchase of a new gun has changed little in the London trade for over a century.

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Guns & Gunmakers|Lifestyle & Product Reviews|October 2020

There can be few shooting men who have never, during an idle moment of reflection, allowed their mind to drift into that fantasy world in which one walks into a London gun maker’s shop, sits down in a big leather arm chair for a chat with the director and discusses their perfect gun in every detail.

The meeting finishes with a hand-shake, the cheque book flips open, the deposit paid with a flourish of the fountain pen, our hero steps back into the crowds of shoppers, flush with excitement and contentment, sure he has earned a glass of single malt in his club, while he reflects on his decision.

...cheque book flips open, the deposit paid with a flourish of the fountain pen, our hero steps back into the crowds...

The image is a decidedly Victorian or Edwardian one. It is hard not to see oneself tweed-clad and brogue-shod in this dream sequence; perhaps even hearing the clatter of a hansom cab around the corner.

Reluctantly withdrawing mentally from this reverie, one has to acknowledge the demise of the horse-drawn carriage and the replacement of classic tailoring with more modern ideas of dress for London gentlemen but some elements of the age-old, gun-buying process are relatively unchanged.

Rigby guns and rifles are made at the back of the London premises, while the sales team work at the front.

Sufficient London gunmakers remain in business to entertain customers in this fashion and their wares retain a decidedly nineteenth century aura. In fact, it is more than an aura. The very mechanisms powering today’s British ‘best’ guns were patent protected before the death of Queen Victoria.

The idea of a ‘best’ gun is peculiarly British. It does not refer to the most garishly decorated, nor the most expensive gun it is possible to make. The term ‘best’ in British gun-making simply announces that the gunmaker’s instructions are to build the gun from the finest materials available, to the highest standards possible, without compromise in terms of time taken or money spent. Perfection of form and function is the aim and the expectation.

We know, from the body of evidence, that ‘best’ British guns last, basically, forever if used sensibly. There are untold scores of ‘best’ hammer guns made in the 1870s still in regular use for game and clay shooting. Many side-lock ejectors made before the First World War are still doing sterling service every shooting season in the hands of the great-grandsons of the men who bought them.

Ordering a ‘best’ gun is not like ordering a new BMW, though the price may be similar. The BMW will be of scrap-value only in twenty years. You gun will just be getting warmed-up.

The manner of ordering a bespoke gun is not much changed from the days of our grandfathers. The process at London gunmaker John Rigby & Co. illustrates it well.

A best London gun, like this 1927 Rigby sidelock, should still be doing good service a hundred years from delivery.

Your first telephone or written contact with the company will set-up a meeting with either Managing Director Marc Newton or sales Director Andrew Ambrose. Just as in Victorian times, the boss and his sales team sit at the front of the shop, while the gunmakers busy themselves in the back, with files, draw-knives and gravers.

Let us assume you are going for the traditional Rigby ‘best’ shotgun in 12-bore. It will be built on the 1879 Rigby & Bissell patent vertical-bolt action, commonly known as a ‘Rising Bite’ model. It also features Rigby’s traditional dipped-edge lock plates, giving it a classic, but unique, appearance among ‘best’ London guns.

...traditional dipped-edge lock plates, giving it a classic, but unique, appearance among ‘best’ London guns.

The engraving choice normally falls into one of two categories: scroll or game scene. If a game scene is chosen, you will be given some examples to inspire you and a decision will be made. The scroll style that adorns the standard gun is based on the company’s house pattern, which dates back to the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

It helps at this stage if you know your measurement requirements. However, most people have never had a bespoke gun made before so part of the ordering process includes a trip to West London Shooting School, where you can have a drink in Rigby’s section of the club house and go for a fitting with one of the instructors. After measuring you, checking your eye dominance and watching you shoot a number of different clay targets, he will provide a ‘recipe’ for your ideal stock dimensions. The idea is that your gun will rise into your cheek effortlessly, line-up with your master-eye and shoot where you look. This is a major advantage in starting with a clean slate and designing the gun entirely around you. Enjoy the attention.

Customers for new guns talk through their desires with the M.D and get to touch Rigby heritage, like Jim Corbett's famous Rigby Mauser.

With pleasantries completed, there comes a time when you will need to reach for your cheque book. A deposit of a third is commonly required. The second payment is due half-way through the build and the final one on completion.

You will, by now, of course, know how much of the children’s inheritance is to be sacrificed in order to secure this heirloom, which one of them will, one day, inherit. For a ‘standard’, scroll-engraved, twelve-bore with a quality of wood befitting the gun, a figure of £79,000 will be required. If you live in the UK, an additional 20% will be added to satisfy the tax man. A best oak and leather case will frame the gun beautifully but you will need to find an additional £6,000 for it.

With your bank balance lightened by just over £25,0000 and one of the most interesting days of your life just completed, you are now free to go home. However, you will not be abandoned. The gun maker is building this gun just for you and he wants as much input as you can give him.

Andrew Ambrose will tell you he likes, “black and white, not shades of grey”, by which he means the more specific a customer can be in explaining his preferences and requirements, the closer to the perfect gun for him the company can get when building it.

The first job is barrel making. Once the barrels are made; remember, they will be created for you with your choice of rib, chamber length, weight and choke, they will be actioned, jointed and submitted for proof testing; producing a ‘barrelled action’; the basis for every new gun.

Next, the engraver gets to work on the plain metal of the action and lock-plates, and the gun takes on a new life. At this stage, the final choice of wood blank has to be made and work on stocking can begin.

The stock will be carved to your exact requirements and you will have specified your chosen details like grip-shape, a gold or silver oval for your initials or crest, chequer size etc. The choice of wood for the stock is something you will have made in earlier discussions with Andrew. Getting the right stock-blank is important; and a skilled job. It is not simply a case of finding the wood with the most figure and contrast. The blank must be aged properly in order to retain its strength and last for a century of use.

Rigby guns and rifles mirror their traditional models, like this pre WW1 'Rising Bite' action rifle.

It must be beautiful, with figure and contrast in the butt but straight grain in the hand and at the head, where it will be cut for inletting and where it must flex with recoil. Above all, it must compliment the gun; with colour and figure that suit the lines and colours of the arm itself in such a way that all parts appear in harmony, rather than competing to impress individually.

Rigby will have kept in contact with you at every stage of production, providing regular updates on progress and photographs of the gun taking shape. If you are inclined, you will have the opportunity to visit the factory during the build and see the work in progress, talk to the men working on your gun and start to develop a relationship with what will become your shooting companion for life.

Eventually, after around thirty months of anticipation, the day will arrive when your gun is ready for collection. The finisher will have taken the work done by the machinist, the barrel maker, the actioner, the stocker, the engraver, and the gun-fitter and worked his magic to create the finished product. His job is to ensure perfect fit, finish and function of every part of the gun.

When his work is done, the Factory Manager, Ed Workman, will assess the gun in its entirety. If he is satisfied that it is perfect, it will be presented to the Managing Director, Marc Newton, for a final check before being fitted into its best oak and leather case, with leather Rigby label and the usual accessories, such as snap-caps and cleaning rods.

Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of a new Rigby shotgun. Your name is forever in the order book...

Looking perfectly splendid as it awaits your arrival for its unveiling, your masterpiece is finally complete. Before you take full ownership, a second trip to the West London Shooting Ground is in order. There, your instructor; the man who fitted you for the gun will be able to coach you through your targets, observe your shooting and check the gun fits and functions exactly as intended.

Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of a new Rigby shotgun. Your name is forever in the order book, alongside those of thousands of sportsmen stretching back through the centuries to the founding of the company in the late 1700s. Preceding you are many of the great men and women of their day; Jim Corbett, HRH the late Queen Mother, W.D.M. Bell and countless members of British and European nobility and Indian Maharajahs.

Many of these vintage Rigby guns are still in regular use, as treasured possessions. Where will yours be a hundred years from now? You can only imagine. For now, all you have to do is enjoy stepping into the field or readying yourself for the first flush of the day, secure in the knowledge that you are perfectly equipped with a sporting gun built entirely around you and your needs and preferences. Dreams can come true and you are now living yours. Shoot straight!

Perhaps decades from now someone will be reading your orginal paperwork and reflecting on the history of the gun you order.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Guns & Gunmakers|Lifestyle & Product Reviews|October 2020

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