On August 29, 1912, Colonels A. Wools-Sampson and R.W. Schumacher paid a visit to John Rigby & Co. (Gunmakers) Ltd., then at 43 Sackville Street in London. When they left, they were the no-doubt proud owners of Rigby “Big Game” bolt-action rifles Nos. 3917 and 3918. Had they ordered their guns, or did they just get lucky and happen to find them there?
Schumacher was chairman of South Africa’s Central Mining & Investment Corporation (later Rand Mines, Ltd.) and an honorary colonel in the Witwatersrand Rifles. Wools-Sampson had been a gold miner before serving with distinction in the Boer War, and was described by Arthur Conan Doyle as a “cool headed soldier.” Both gentlemen paid £26/5s for their rifles–slightly more than one-third the price of a sidelock ejector double–and bought identical accessories and ammunition. Whether they knew it or not, they walked away with the first two Rigby .416s, a then-new caliber that would have a powerful impact, so to speak, on big-game hunting.
Both the cartridge and its rifles were the result of several converging streams of development in firearms technology. Twenty-five years earlier, European powers had been locked in an arms race. Poudre B, the smokeless gunpowder developed by Paul Vieille in France during the mid-1880s, could drive the then-new jacketed, spire-point bullets at higher velocities and with more energy to longer effective ranges than anything previous. To use those advances, Continental infantries rapidly adopted bolt-action repeating rifles by Lebel, Mannlicher, Mauser and Mosin. British troops had breech-loaders too, but only single-shots firing blackpowder and plain lead bullets. To rectify that deplorable situation, in 1887 Queen Victoria’s government appointed John Rigby Superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock, in North London, and charged him with overseeing Britain’s transition to a modern military arm. And that he did. When Rigby returned to the family firm in 1894 at the age of 65, the .303 Enfield was the Empire’s new battle rifle and round. It stayed in official service until 1957.
This third John Rigby, born in Dublin in 1829, was not only the grandson of the founder of the gunmaking company, he was also an international champion match shooter as well as a successful sporting gun maker and cartridge designer. His experience at Enfield put him on the leading edge of military firearms development with state-of-the-art knowledge of cases, powders, primers, bullets, sights, barrel making and rifling, as well as every aspect of magazine-rifle design and production. By the late 1890s, British hunters and target shooters had developed a fancy for civilian versions of their own Lee-Enfield and Austrian Mannlicher bolt-action rifles, but John Rigby had his eye on the Mauser, which was constantly being redesigned and improved in Germany.
The Rigby company sold its first Mauser sporters in 1897. Those were transitional models that quickly evolved into the Gewehr 1898, the now-legendary G98. And in 1898, Rigby became the exclusive importer and distributor of Mauser rifles, actions, barreled actions and components in the British Empire.
The G98 was designed for high-performance rimless military rounds such as the 7x57mm. Rigby adopted both rifle and cartridge almost intact, substituting only stocks, slings, sights, and bullets suitable for hunting, and Anglicizing the cartridge designation to .275. It became the company’s bestseller for decades.
Just a year later in 1899, Rigby introduced a new rimmed round, the .400/.350, for single-shot and double rifles. At 3.6 inches overall, the cartridge was too long for bolt-actions, but Rigby saw an opportunity and asked Mauser to modify the G98 to suit. The factory obligingly lengthened the magazine well and stretched the bolt from 6.165 inches to 6.77 inches to cover it. Rigby dubbed it the Magnum Mauser, and created a slightly hotrodded magazine-rifle version of the .400/.350 for it.
Rigby lightened the bullet to 225 grains and put it in a new rimless case grooved for the claw extractor of a bolt-action, and called the result the .350 Magnum. With a muzzle velocity of 2,580 feet per second, it generated some 3,400 foot-pounds of energy. John Taylor, the ivory hunter who for 30 years field-tested nearly every rifle/cartridge combination that ever went on safari, called the .350 Rigby Magnum “easily the most widely used British medium bore throughout Africa.”
Rigby, however, was hardly the only gunmaker in Britain to adopt Mauser actions, and Europe’s sporting-gun makers were engaged in their own arms race, outdoing each other with ever more powerful and flatter-shooting cartridges for the then-new repeating rifles. Another London rifle specialist named William J. Jeffery had introduced the flanged .400 Nitro Express in 1902, and followed it up in 1909 with a rimless equivalent for the Mauser called the .404 Jeffery. Two years later, drawing upon what it had learned in designing the .350 Magnum (as well as its ground-breaking .450NE of 1898), Rigby one-upped Jeffery, and everyone else, with the first bolt-action that could perform on par with break-action big-game rifles: the .416.
With a hefty 410-grain round-nose bullet leaving the barrel at 2,370 feet per second and packing 5,100 foot-pounds of energy, it was a truly formidable cartridge. (The current standard is a 400-grain bullet at 2,400 fps and 5,115 ft.-lbs.) Rigby eventually labeled the gun the Model No. 5 .416 Bore “Big Game” Rifle. Holland & Holland eclipsed Rigby’s .350 with its .375 Magnum, also Mauser-based, the following year, but Rigby already owned the high ground.
The .416 Rigby’s fame and great success stemmed from much more than mere numbers. From the first it was loaded with proper bullets: The soft-nose would mushroom heavily in a large beast and was more apt to stay in the body. That meant it had dumped all its energy and couldn’t wound another animal standing behind. The solid bullet was exactly that, its lead-antimony core securely clad in a steel jacket that thickened at the nose for maximum penetration through heavy bone with minimal, if any, deformation. The bullet also has an excellent sectional density of .338, which is a key performance factor.
According to Art Alphin’s Penetration Index, the .416 will get deeper into a critter than the .470 or the .500 Nitro Express. You may think your Professional Hunter shoots a .416 Rigby because he can’t afford a big double, but in fact it’s probably because experience has taught him that it’s a stone-dead killer.
In 1948, John Taylor wondered in print if Rigby had designed the full-metal-jacket bullet for the .416. The answer is yes, and the documentation is in a letter of October 3, 1911 from John Rigby to ammunition-maker Kynoch, which reads in part “. . . we require the [.416] solids to be covered as you know with a strong steel Envelope, thick at point, and we presume you are at work on these.”
Rigby’s new .416 case was practically perfect too. It had neither rim nor belt and was generously roomy, with one moderate but distinct shoulder formed into it, well below the long neck. All that virtually guaranteed accurate headspacing, smooth feeding, and extraction, a secure grip on the bullet and, finally, relatively modest chamber pressure and tolerable recoil.
Now a century old, the .416 Rigby remains the most successful heavy bolt-action round ever made. It became a benchmark–one of those serendipitous combinations of interior and exterior ballistics, physical properties and downrange performance that inspired much imitation.
The .416 magazine rifle was such an appealing package that we assume Rigby built a lot of them. Not so. According to the ledgers, just 189 were made between 1911 and 1940.
In 1912, Rigby lost the British Mauser distributorship to a relative of the Mauser family, but continued to buy Mauser barreled actions for its own use. Two years later, an apocalyptic war began that tore Europe apart and killed many of Britain’s skilled gunmakers (and their clients). John Rigby himself died in 1916. As the war ended in 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic killed millions more people and then, just as the sporting-gun trade had more or less recovered, came the Great Depression of 1929, which segued into the next global war in 1939. Rigby resumed making .416s two years after the Second World War ended, and then the supply of Magnum Mauser actions from Oberndorf began to dry up. Between 1947 and 1987, Rigby produced about 200 more .416s, not all on Mauser or even Mauser-style actions.
Meanwhile, beginning in 1936, John Rigby & Company changed hands a number of times. Still, it hung on through the difficult 1960s and ‘70s and ‘80s, landing finally in Paso Robles, CA, in 1997. In 2010, new owners moved the name to Dallas, TX.
As indications of their commitment, the present owners have taken several important steps. They were able to secure the extensive Rigby ledgers, which hold sales and gunmaking records dating back to the 1700s. They began to buy select vintage Rigby guns for a museum collection. And they hired a team of writer/researchers to build on the company history that had been started by Maj. David Back (with the late W. Keith Neal) in Great Irish Gunmakers Messrs Rigby 1760 – 1869. The first of the new books, Rigby: A Grand Tradition, appeared in January 2012.
One small detail remained: to resume building guns worthy of the Rigby name.
Over the centuries, Rigby has been variously famous for dueling pistols, muzzleloading match rifles, rising-bite-action double rifles and bolt-action hunting rifles. Demand for dueling pistols having subsided, the logical starting point for modern Rigby was with the last. A vintage Rigby, “the aristocrat of big-game bolt-action rifles,” commands a premium price today. And today, Mauser-style actions are available from a number of sources–but only Gottfried Prechtl, in Birkenau, Germany, fabricates them from the original blueprints. Those were supplied by Jon Speed, co-author of Original Oberndorf Sporting Rifles and the owner of virtually all original Mauser documents.
In 1996, Prechtl won a contract from the Mauser company in Oberndorf to build 200 Model 98 commemorative barreled actions. With that, he became the pre-eminent source for actions for custom-built Mauser-style rifles. In 2011, Prechtl began supplying barreled Mauser 98 actions to Rigby, too.
John Rigby & Company was established in Dublin in 1735 and opened a shop in London in 1866. The present owners understand that their clients want a “British” Rigby. Thus Paul Roberts, who owned Rigby for most of the 1980s and ‘90s and who has more than 50 years of experience in the gun trade, is once again stocking and finishing Rigby Mausers at his workshop in London. Naturally, they will bear London proof marks, just as the original rifles did. Everything old is new again.
The first two new Prechtl Mauser/Roberts Rigby rifles—a .416 with open sights and a scoped .275–debuted in Rigby’s new stand at the SCI Show in Las Vegas in 2012, where they were immediately snapped up. Aside from options such as engraving and scope mounts, the main difference between new and vintage Rigbys is the wood. John Rigby saw his magazine rifles as working tools for those who didn’t want or couldn’t afford double rifles, and stocked them with wood that was robust but hardly “aspirational.” Rigby clients today generally want high-grade wood to suit their rifles’ peerless pedigrees and hell-for-stout actions.
It’s been more than a hundred years since Schumacher and Wools-Sampson bought the first two Rigby .416s. In the interim, no better repeating-rifle/cartridge combination has been developed for big game, and today, new rifles, identical right down to the optional German military-style wing safety of those original .416s, are again available. There is just one traditional element that Rigby can’t provide: the unique aroma of Rangoon oil mixed with a touch of tropical mold from a well-traveled leather gun case. That’s an olfactory patina that only time can produce.
Portions of this article were reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from Rigby: A Grand Tradition, also by Calabi, Helsley & Sanger, available at johnrigbyandcompany.com and from Amazon.–Silvio Calabi, Steve Helsley, Roger Sanger