The .475 Nitro Express

The .475’s origins stem from the same root as the more popular .470 Nitro Express.

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Guns & Gunmakers|June 2018

The debate around the best calibre for Africa has raged since the nitro express rifles we recognise today first burst onto the scene, as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth. Here, we take a look at a rarely encountered dangerous game rifle.

Today we, perhaps, favour the most recognised calibres, such as that brilliant all-rounder, the .375 H&H Magnum, which is versatile enough to employ as a stalking rifle for red deer in the UK but will also handle everything an African safari can put in front of you. 

Those after African big game exclusively may prefer a .470 or a .500 and those with a serious liking for horsepower may even opt for a .577, if buffalo and elephants are the quarry. All these calibres are in production today and can be ordered from our foremost double rifle makers, like Holland & Holland, Rigby or Westley Richards.

However, to the Edwardians, a much wider variety of calibre options existed and, because many of the rifles our gunmakers produced a century ago are still available, in functional condition, on the used market, we occasionally find ourselves looking at a nicely made, high quality ‘non-standard’ rifle and have to ask ourselves, ‘Will it do the job?’

A hunting friend just returned from Tanzania with some good stories of an exciting buffalo hunt. One of the things that sparked my interest was his choice of rifle. It was a boxlock ejector in .475 (No.2) nitro express. Now, that is not a calibre you see every day.

I first encountered one of these in Tanzania in 2014. It was being used by professional hunter Danny McCallum, for whom it had done trusty service for decades. His was also a ‘No.2’ variant of the original .475 cartridge.

The two rifles mentioned above were both made by the same London gun-maker; Watson Bros, and probably dated from a similar period; circa World War One. The .475 cartridge for which the rifles were chambered is an effective one, but not a widely adopted one. 

The .475’s origins stem from the same root as the more popular .470 Nitro Express, created by Lang, in 1907, to work around the British ban on .450 ammunition for civilian use in much of the Empire; a move which saw the demise of the, then commonly used, .450 Nitro Express.

The .470 and the .475 are both necked-up versions of the .450 case and are very similar in performance. The main difference was the wider use made of the .470  by well-known makers, while the .475 remained the preserve of but a few; Watson Bros being one of them. 

Between 2011 and 2018, Holt’s, the London auctioneers, have sold eleven double rifles of .475 calibre. Ten of those were the .475 (No.2) and one the original .475. British makers listed were W.J. Jeffery, Charles Boswell, and Cogswell & Harrison, who made the sole original.475. Continental makers included Merkel and Francotte.

The .475 and the .475 (No.2) are quite different. The original cartridge is slightly tapered, whereas the No.2 is bottle-necked. Both are considered elephant-stopping rounds. To complicate matters further, the No.2 Eley and No.2 Jeffery differ enough to not be interchangeable, the Jeffery using a slightly larger diameter bullet.

For historical perspective, I like to refer to John Taylor, whose practical knowledge of dangerous game cartridges is well expressed in the books he wrote in the 1940s and based on years of hunting (and a good bit of poaching) when ivory hunting was a fairly lucrative adventure, still undertaken by a few hardy individuals, like ‘Pondoro’. He considered the .475 a very effective round for elephant in all its variants. He called the No.2 ‘an eminenty satisfactory shell and a certain killer’.

The 480 grain bullet with which the .475 was generally loaded, was pushed at 2,175 feet per second. A 500 grain load is also available, at a slightly slower 2,125 fps. Ballistic performance is very similar to the .450 N.E but the bigger bullet offers a little more punch.

The original .475 was originally chamberd for a cartridge of 3 1/4” in length and loaded with 75 grains of cordite pushing a 480 grain bullet. Kynamco produce ready-loaded ammunition for it and re-loaders can buy .450 brass cases from Bertram Bullet Co.and neck them up to .475 easily enough. Woodleigh 480 grain soft and solid bullets appear to be the best choice for projectiles. The bottle-necked No.2 throws the same bullet at 2,200 fps and uses a higher charge of up to 85 grains of cordite.

The Watson Bros rifle under discussion is a quality piece. The Anson & Deeley action is bolstered at the radius, which is the weakest part of a breech-loader. The fences are stippled in the manner of some pigeon gun ribs, a feature designed to omit the glare that you get from polished metal under direct sunlight. 

The stippled effect continues onto the quarter rib, onto which one ramp and two folding leaf-sights are mounted. The foresight is a blade with a flat face, showing as a bead when mounted. This is a slight modification from original, with some precious metal inserted to provide a distinct visual bead.

Like many double rifles, the Watson has a ‘doll’s head’ extension of the rib, locking into the top of the breech. This, however is not bolted in the manner of a Westley Richards or a Webley screw grip, it simply slots into place at an angle. Bolting is by the conventional means of a Purdey double under-bolt.

Watson Bros were one of the London firms who made use of the skills of Harry Kell, and the scrolls on this rifle are similar to the style Kell often employed, quality is very high and the rifle retains a lot of original colour and finish.

The stock is strong and dark, with some figure and a pistol-grip. The top-safety slide is non-automatic, which is common practice on a dangerous game rifle, for obvious reasons. Sling swivels are attached for the fitting of a strap and a rubber ‘Silver’s pad’ provides a little extra length to the butt and added protection from damage, when rested on the ground, as well as a secure and comfortable fit into the shoulder. The forend houses the ejectors and is attached by an Anson pushrod. 

The rifle handles like a shotgun, being instinctive to put to the shoulder and fire quickly. The sight picture is straight down the rib and the front sight shows clearly even with a dark background.

The steel barrels are twenty-four inches long and the proof stamps indicate a maximum cordite charge of 85 grains and a bullet weight of 480. Weight is 11lbs 1oz with a balance point an inch and a half ahead of the hinge pin. Serial number 13636 and the 29 Old Bond Street address indicate the rifle was made before 1930. The rifle currently sits in my gun room, awaiting its next adventure. 

Peter, the current owner has had it for some years and his most recent quarry was cape buffalo. He told me “It has a lovely feel and balance, very natural to point and shoot”. He had  ammunition hand-loaded according to Graeme Wright’s data in ‘Shooting the British Double Rifle’ and has about 20 rounds left. They are Kynoch brass and Woodleigh bullets. 

He said the rifle shoots to the same point of impact at 50 yards with both barrels and groups of just over two inches are possible at that range. It was clearly intended for close work. Many double rifles today are regulated to sixty five yards or more. 

Peter mentioned that despite the relatively light weight, it was comfortable to shoot in the field, though repeated firing at the range was typically brutal, as it is for any rifle delivering this kind of power.

Peter bought it in New Zealand and used it in Africa in 2005 and 2018. To get used to it, he hunted fallow deer in New Zealand prior to his African trips and once managed a 200 yard kill, shooting from a sitting position. He acquired the rifle from a N.Z gun shop and had it restored by an ex-Purdey gunmaker resident there at the time. 

The overall condition is very good, with crisp engraving and a good deal of original colour. The chequer has been refreshed, the stock finished and the blacking re-done. All the key wood to metal and metal-to metal junctures are tight and clean. The rifle looks like it has been cared for.

When purchased, the serial number was stamped into the stock, an indication that it may have been in a game department armoury in Africa in the past. The rifling in the right barrel shows a lot more wear than the left, so it would appear that this Watson Bros .475 (No.2)has seen some action over the years.

Its most recent engagement was with a Cape buffalo, which was engaged at 60 yards and took four bullets before being stopped as it rallied to charge, with a head shot, just under the boss, at 30 yards.

That hunt involved tracking the buffalo for nine hours under the Tanzanian sun and Peter commented on how comfortable the rifle was to carry, even after that amount of time. “Its easy to carry and very steady for standing, free-hand shots” he said.

The Watson Bros is a good example of how some of the less widely understood calibres designed for sporting use, but rendered obsolete in the 1960s, as ammunition for them ceased to be listed in manufacturers catalogues, can quite easily be prepared for another lifetime of proper hunting. I have a feeling this one has not killed its last buffalo just yet.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Guns & Gunmakers|June 2018

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