Three of the Best

Popular magazine rifles from between the wars.

Read Article v

Guns & Gunmakers|May 2022

If you like classic rifles and you happen to be on the look out for an iconic design; something with lots of history, something proven, that has featured in its share of old hunting stories and nostalgia, something instantly recognisable, then there are three standout models which simply have to make the list.

Gavin Gardiner just happened to have one of each listed in his April 27th sale of Vintage and Modern Sporting Guns and Rifles. In case those models have yet to appear in your mind’s eye, they are the Rigby Mauser .275, the Mannlicher-Schoenaur 6.5x54 and the Lee Speed .303.

All three have been used as military cartridges and actions and have taken untold head of game

The Mauser is German, the Mannlicher is Austrian and the Lee is British. All three have been used as military cartridges and actions and have taken untold head of game from elephant to dik-dik during the colonial era, before the Second World War.

These rifle as are all pre-war in vintage, the Rigby was made in 1928, the Mannlicher in 1938 and the Army & Navy retailed Lee-Speed probably dates from around 1920.

British legislation appeared to deliberately frame itself so as to exclude the 6.5x54 Mannlicher and include the .303 British. However, modern loads (we use Norma as an example) allow the 6.5x54 to meet the legal minimums for all deer species in England, Wales and Scotland, as the table shows.

Lee Speed. 303 retailled by Army & Navy

So, properly equipped and zeroed, any of these rifles could become the weapon of choice for a vintage-enthusiast hunting deer in Britain. So, which is it to be?

Gavin Gardiner estimated his rifles as follows: The Rigby at £2,500-£3,500, the Mannlicher-Schonaur at £500-£700 and the Lee Speed at £500-£700. All these rifles were once expensive and aimed at the sporting gentleman.

For reference, W.J. Jeffery, in his 1912 catalogue, sold a .303 Lee Speed of the same quality as this Army & Navy retailed one for eight pounds, ten shillings. His .275 Rigby Mauser was a little more expensive at ten pounds, ten shillings and his Mannlicher-Schonauer cost the same. Jeffery, Rigby and Army & Navy would have been supplied by the same wholesalers at prices that would not have differed much from these.

11938 Mannlicher-Schonaur 6.5x54 stutzen.

Cost of Ammunition
The Mannlicher is the hardest to feed these days, with the last stocks of RWS running out fast. Kynoch appear to have stopped loading it. The .303 and the .275 are well supplied by modern manufacturers.
20 rounds of .275 Rigby £69.00 (Hornady 140 grain)
20 rounds of 6.5x54 Mannlicher £48 (RWS 159 grain)
20 rounds of .303 British £19.99 (Federal 150 grain)

Bullet drop (at 200 yards zero).
If you zero the Mannlicher at 200 yards, it will shoot 3” high at 100 yards with a 140-grain bullet. A 140-grain bullet from the Rigby, set-up the same way will be 2” high at 100 yards. The .303 will be 2.2” high at 100 yards with 150-grain bullets. So, all three are effective stalking rifles for those taking their shots from 50-220 yards, which certainly covers my stalking in Britain.

Carrying Comfort.
The Lee Speed Weighs 7lbs 2oz with a 24 1/2” barrel, while the Mannlicher is 7lbs 14oz with an 18” barrel and the Rigby weighs 8lbs 6oz with a 24” barrel.

The Rigby is fitted with a Leopold ‘scope and mounts, the Mannlicher is fitted with a period ‘scope in quick detachable mounts and the Lee Speed has neither ‘scope nor mounts. Both the ‘scoped rifles are equipped with mounts that would make the fitting of a new ‘scope straightforward, if necessary.

Having new ‘scope mounts made for any of these rifles would be an expensive proposition, so that is another expensive modification that can be ignored by the buyer of the continental rifles, as it has already been done. In this respect, The Lee Speed is at a definite disadvantage, though its folding leaf and ladder iron sights are the best of the three.

A .275 Rigby Mauser made in 1928.

The Rigby is a classic Mauser ’98 action with flag safe and the famously sloppy, yet fool-proof and reliable in all weathers, characteristics that have made it such a favourite with hunters the world over. The Mannlicher M1903 has perhaps the slickest and simplest action of the three and the Lee-Speed has the brilliantly fast-operating short-pull bolt action that enables it to cycle and fire faster and with more ease than the others.

The Mauser has the stock of a familiar hunting rifle, with a semi-pistol hand and half-length forepart. The Mannlicher has a full ‘stutzen’ stock, extending to the muzzle, it has a full pistol hand. The Lee Speed has a two-piece stock, with the detachable butt section familiar to Military rifle users., which is also made as a full pistol hand.

Of the three rifles, the Rigby has the plainest wood, with the dark walnut showing little figure, whereas the Lee Speed has an attractive deep red background and contrasting black stripes. The Mannlicher stock is similarly plain but lighter than that of the Rigby.

The original prices for these rifles do not separate them by much, yet today the Rigby is by far the most expensive, at around £3,000 as opposed to the £600 expected to be sufficient to buy the other two. In those terms, the Mannlicher looks the best value as a package, as it has a ‘scope and mounts, unlike the open-sighted Lee-Speed.

The Rigby wins on extant British name, the well preserved Rigby legacy and the kudos and support of a thriving company still there to add support services and a link to the past. You can even look the serial number up in Rigby’s record books.

All three rifles are in similarly good condition and all look mechanically excellent and capable of providing years of use and pleasurable ownership. So, which shall it be?

An outlier worthy of attention.
One of the earliest successful magazine rifles was the original 6.5 Mannlicher, retailed in Britain as the .256 by W.J. Jeffery, Westley Richards and several other British gun makers. It is often referred to as the M1892.

Priced in the same grades as the Mannlicher-Schonauer, it differs in the ammunition, which is a flanged case loaded with 31 grains of Cordite and a 160 grain bullet. This delivered 2,096 ft/lbs of energy and had a muzzle velocity of 2,395 fps. That is deer legal in Scotland except for the slightly lower muzzle-velocity, which a hand-load with modern powders will easily remedy.

Rather than the Schonauer rotary magazine, it had a five-shot box magazine and a round knob bolt handle, rather than the distinctive ‘butter-knife bolt of the Mannlicher Schoenaur M1903.

To shoot one of these, hand-loading is the only option. Old cartridges can be sourced to provide the brass and loading information is available. It requires a bit of effort but a nice example offers the buyer a super quality rifle for around £400, so it may be worth it. Because the Mauser and the Mannlicher-Schonauer came to dominate the market, these earlier models were often laid aside and a surprising number of cased, little-used examples appear in auctions.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Guns & Gunmakers|May 2022

Vintage Gun Journal category advertiser: HGSS Shipping Services

Vintage Gun Journal category advertiser: Rigby Highland Stalker

Vintage Gun Journal category advertiser: Ormiston coat

Vintage Gun Journal category advertiser: Donald Dallas Books