John Rigby and Peter Paul Mauser were both firearms geniuses whose names—like John Moses Browning and Samuel Colt—have lived on long after their passing. “John” Rigby is actually a family name that was passed along from the company’s beginning as a maker of firearms in 1775. The last John Rigby headed the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield in 1880, returning to the family firm of John Rigby and Company a few years later. His achievements included the .450-3 1/4” Nitro Express (1897), the first large-caliber cartridge designed for smokeless powder and the cartridge that set the benchmark for the world’s largest game; .350 Rigby Rimless Magnum (1900); and in 1912 the timeless .416 Rigby.
Peter Paul Mauser also spent his life in the firearms business. His first major achievement was the M71 Mauser, a blackpowder rifle, followed by his first smokeless-powder rifle, the 1889 Belgian Mauser in 7.65 Mauser. It signified a major breakthrough for the bolt-action, and almost every year for the next decade Mauser designed an increasingly improved version. Militaries around the world adopted the Mauser, with some of the more famous including the 1893 Spanish Mauser in 7×57, and the 1894 (carbine) and 1896 (rifle) Swedish Mauser in 6.5×55. Most authorities believe Mauser’s design culminated in the 1898 Mauser, adopted by Germany, and many believe this remains the finest bolt action ever developed.
It was about that time when Peter Paul Mauser and John Rigby started working together: Mauser actions crafted into John Rigby’s fine rifles and chambered to cartridges that were sometimes a blend. In 1899, using Mauser ’98 actions, John Rigby introduced the .275 Rigby, which was essentially a British designation for the 7×57 Mauser. For some years Rigby was Mauser’s exclusive British agent, and it seems that the famous “magnum” Mauser action was actually created to enable the .416 Rigby, which uses a case too large to be housed in the ’98 Mauser.
GOOD TIMES AND…NOT SO GOOD
Paul Mauser died just before World War I, and of course the world was a lot different after it ended. The firm of John Rigby persisted, but like so many gunmakers the world over it suffered through the Great Depression, went dark in World War II, and in a postwar era saw Great Britain divesting herself of its colonies, which greatly reduced the domestic market for big game rifles. The last Rigby involved with the firm passed in 1951, but John Rigby and Company lived on.
In 1995 then-Managing Director Paul Roberts introduced the .450 Rigby Rimless Magnum, but in 1997 American investors bought the company and moved it into exile in the States. Rigby languished there until 2010, when a new group of investors returned it to England. The real new era for Rigby, however, began even more recently. In 2013 Rigby was acquired by the Blaser Group, which also owns Mauser. Rigby remains in London where they belong, an autonomous firm under the leadership of Managing Director Marc Newton. Though young in years, Newton has been spent his life in the British gun trade. He loves his work, knows his trade, and loves the history behind both. That history includes the partnership between Rigby and Mauser, back together again after a full century.
THE RIGBY BIG GAME RIFLE
Regardless of which iteration, an important part of Rigby’s business has long been “bespoke” firearms—full-up custom jobs built to order. Two centuries ago beautifully appointed dueling pistols were a Rigby specialty. In the 19th Century Rigby made many top-quality double rifles (from blackpowder muzzleloaders to blackpowder cartridge guns to smokeless), and they are once again building double rifles. But in the last John Rigby’s tenure, using Mauser actions, some of his bolt-actions were made to order while others were to standard specifications–pretty much “off the shelf.”
The “new” Rigby continues that tradition. Built-to-order, full-up custom bolt-action rifles are very much available, but The Big Game Rifle is essentially a standardized version, if not quite production. It is not an inexpensive rifle—Rigby’s never have been. However, Marc Newton did the calculations: Today’s Big Game Rifle, if adjusted for inflation, costs pretty much the same as a John Rigby .416 cost in 1912!
The Rigby Big Game Rifle is essentially available in two significantly different configurations: Single Square Bridge and Double Square Bridge. “Bridge” refers to front and rear receiver rings. In a Single Square Bridge Mauser action the rear ring is square and the front ring is round; in the Double Square Bridge both rings are square. The Single Square Bridge is essentially intended for use with iron sights. Mounting a scope ranges from difficult to impossible, although it would be very practical to use the flat-topped rear bridge as a base for an aperture or “peep” sight. On this model the safety is the traditional Mauser flag-type three-position safety, which is also not suitable for use with a scope. Chamberings are limited to .416 Rigby and .450 Rigby Rimless Magnum; this is a rifle for the professional hunter…or the traditionalist who prefers open sights for dangerous game.
The Double Square Bridge has a horizontal Model 70-style three-position safety suitable for use with scope, and of course the two flat-topped receiver rings are ideal for scope mount installation. Chamberings are .375 H&H and .416 Rigby–great choices for a more versatile rifle intended for use with a scope.
Other differences are subtle. The Single Square Bridge has a heavier-contour 22-inch barrel. And I mean heavier–I measured the test rifle’s barrel at 1.1 inches ahead of the fore-end tip! That’s a lot of steel, giving a total weight of ten pounds eight ounces—lots of weight between the hands, and enough weight to keep recoil manageable. The Double Square Bridge model has a lighter contour 24-inch barrel, and it weighs a full half-pound less. But remember, you’re probably going to put a scope on that rifle, so you don’t need any more weight to start with.
Both versions have integral quarter ribs with good express sights (standing leaf regulated for 65 yards, folding leaves for 150 and 250 yards), pistolgrip cap with trap for spare foresight, excellent plasma nitride anti-glare rust-resistant metal finish, and traditional red rubber recoil pad. Actions and hammer-forged barrels are supplied from Mauser with all fit and finishing done in London with London proof marks. The stock is grade 5 “English” walnut (most commonly sourced from Turkey these days). It is not made “from scratch.” The basic stock design was taken from a 1930-vintage John Rigby .416, but slightly straighter to better transmit recoil. Blanks are semi-inletted on a duplicator, with final fit and finishing done by hand. If you cruised Rigby’s booth at our 2014 convention you might have seen master gunsmith Mark Renmant hard at work with hand tools on exactly such a stock blank. Checkering is of course hand-cut, and the hand-rubbed stock finish is just plain awesome.
AT THE RANGE AND IN THE FIELD
In late summer 2014 I was fortunate to get my hands on one of the first Single Square Bridge rifles in .416 Rigby. I saw a couple others at Convention, and a couple more during a visit to the Rigby shop in May—but most of my comments are based on the .416 that I got to spend some time with. It does not have a deep “belly” at the magazine, but with the Rigby pattern floorplate it easily holds four .416 Rigby cartridges in the magazine, plus one up the spout–plenty of firepower. Fit and finish were just plain fantastic, and the wood was wonderful. There is relatively little embellishment, but there isn’t supposed to be: This is a top-quality “working gun.” If you want engraving, of course you can have it, but there is very little on the basic rifle, except for a few places where it should be. On the rounded front receiver bridge you will find: “Rigby’s Special .416 Bore For Big Game” just like you would in 1912. On the upper surface of the barrel you will find “John Rigby & Co. 13-19 Pensbury Place, London, SWS.” That is not exactly the same as it would be in 1912 because the address has changed (as it has a number of times since 1775), but it proudly announces that this is an English Rigby, made in London where it should be.
The action was smooth and positive and I assume it will be even smoother after a few hundred rounds. Unfortunately I didn’t get to hang onto it quite that long. But, what the heck, it was a right-handed rifle, so with some regrets I sent it on when I needed to, and its real owner is now enjoying it. There is always recoil to a .416 Rigby, and there will be more if you opt for the .450 cartridge, but between gun weight and stock style the .416 was not objectionable or unmanageable. Feeding was Mauser-smooth and stutter-free. As for accuracy, well, this was an open-sighted rifle, so with my eyes today I’d simply be lying if I told you it was a tack-driver…or if I told you it wasn’t. Reality is I have no idea what groups this rifle might be capable of, but at 50 yards the standing leaf was just about perfect in elevation. For my eyes I was favoring a wee bit to the right; if it was my rifle I would have driven the sight a wee bit left, but since it wasn’t my rifle I figured it was close enough. Especially since the solids I intended use for backup favored a wee bit to the left!
Thanks to a relatively fine foresight 100-yard groups were pretty much the same as 50-yard groups. It seemed to me that my eyes—and my ability to properly resolve the foresight—were the only limitations on accuracy. Once again, if it were my rifle I would replace the fine foresight with a bolder 3/32-inch bead. But that depends on your age, your eyes and your needs. The finer the foresight the more precise you can be; the bolder it is the easier (and faster) it is to see it. That is pretty much the only thing I would change—but that is easily and inexpensively done.
I was fortunate to use the rifle on a hunt in Mozambique’s Coutada 11 with outfitter/PH Mark Haldane. Even more fortunate, I hunted with Bill Hober of Swift Bullets. This was good not only because Bill’s bullets are great, but also because he had a 1929-vintage .416 Rigby, so some comparisons could be made. Uh, the wood on his rifle was spectacular, but that’s one comparison that isn’t fair because he had his rifle restocked in great wood in the early 1990s. The actions were essentially the same, the metalwork equal. Between us we took four buffalo with the Rigby rifles, two with the old and two with the new.
The open floodplains adjacent to the Marromeu Reserve are not necessarily ideal for open sights. Only an idiot opens the ballgame on buffalo at “long range,” whatever that is, but combining open ground and big herds it’s often difficult to close within 100 yards. I got lucky on my first buffalo: Initial frontal shot at about 60 yards, then I rolled him at a 100 yards or so with my second shot as he struggled to keep up with the herd. My second buffalo was similar, initial frontal presentation at about 80 yards, but the first shot was a hair to one side, and although he was lagging at the rear of the herd, he was gaining ground fast. So Mark and I ran, and I got a raking shot in at maybe 150 yards. This slowed him down, but now I was out of breath, so the next shot that dropped him was a bit lucky, a solid at well past 200 yards.
Understanding that’s well past my capabilities with express sights, that’s a pretty good testament to the handling qualities of the new Rigby and also the authority and versatility of the .416 Rigby cartridge. Interestingly, Bill Hober had much the same situation with his first buffalo, first hit close in and final shot at significant distance for iron sights. His second buffalo, well, that was at close-range in saw grass. How many buffalo and other big game Hober’s Rigby has taken since 1929 is unknown. Rigby’s Marc Newton thinks mine were the first with the new Big Game Rifle, but certainly not the last. Rigby is not only back in London, but also back in the saddle as one of the world’s great riflemakers. I believe John Rigby himself would be pleased with The Big Game Rifle in its current form…and that’s about the nicest thing I can think of to say about it. Except to add: I think Peter Paul Mauser would also be pleased.–Craig Boddington