Many of the best hunts begin with a grand plan, but it takes hours of hard graft, exceptional skill and – frequently – a large helping of faith, to bring them to a successful conclusion. The same can be said for other kinds of quest, including John Rigby & Co.’s project to build this year’s donation to SCI’s heritage rifle series.
The team at Rigby have been working hard and reached that magic moment when success is almost tangible. As with a great hunt, that moment comes when the quarry is finally in your sights and suddenly you know that all the excruciating attention to detail, fieldcraft, planning and dedication might just be about to pay off.
But that doesn’t mean the team is easing off just yet. In a project such as this, the finishing touches are just as important as the hours of work that are already in the bank; just as millimetres when squeezing the trigger matter as much as miles trekked earlier in a day’s hunting.
Looking back to late spring 2015, Rigby’s donation rifle – a tribute to the great Jim Corbett’s legendary .275 Rigby – was but a twinkle in MD Marc Newton’s eye. As readers will know, the inspiration for the donation piece came when the firm tracked down and acquired Corbett’s original Rigby, which helped him despatch so many man-eating big cats in early 20th-century India.
Inspired by handling the legendary rifle, Newton’s vision was to make Rigby’s donation a worthy tribute to Corbett, his life and works, as well as a fitting celebration of hunting on the Asian continent. He saw an opportunity to create something that would both capture Corbett’s spirit and passion for hunting, and also his love of conservation of the iconic species and habitats among which he spent his life: both characteristics fundamental to SCI and its work.
Marc, a lifelong hunter and Corbett fan himself, had faith that his team of talented gunmakers could turn a collection of ideas, pencil sketches, and unworked wood and metal into something extraordinary that would not only perpetuate Corbett’s spirit, but also inspire a generation of future hunters.
That faith was, needless to say, more than justified. Now, the project is almost over: the wood and metal have come together to become rifle and the sketches are well on their way to becoming exquisite engravings.
David Miles, Rigby’s gunroom manager, has been regulating the rifle on the range at the West London Shooting School, where he puts all new Rigby’s through their paces, along with other makes of guns brought in for repairs and servicing. Afterwards, he admitted that he couldn’t help but feel a thrill of satisfaction and excitement: “Just to hold the rifle, which has the same stock shape as the original Corbett rifle, felt so good and it handles so well. When lifting the rifle to one’s shoulder, the iron sights naturally aligned straight onto the target.
He added that, knowing the rifle’s parentage as he does, and having seen the painstaking attention to detail that has gone into its creation, added an extra level of excitement to shooting it: “I almost felt as though Jim Corbett himself was with me. When I was looking down the sights, the mental images from reading the Corbett books came back to me; filling my imagination with marauding man-eaters in the jungle.” Ghosts of man-eaters notwithstanding, Miles said he was extremely pleased that the rifle shoots just as accurately as Corbett’s own would have done a century ago.
Accuracy is no less important to another aspect of the rifle’s construction: engraving. The engravings, which were inspired by the Ray Sheppard illustrations to early editions of Corbett’s works, mean that those using the rifle will not only see mental images of tigers and leopards; they also see vivid renderings of the creatures etched into the metalwork.
Geoffrey Lignon, Rigby’s young French engraver, has been hard at work inscribing game and jungle scenes inspired by Corbett’s exploits, into the floor plate, butt plate and grip cap. Some of the lines involved are narrower than a single strand of hair. For the particularly fine detail work, Lignon uses a pair of fixed mounted high-magnification industrial binoculars.
The attention to detail doesn’t stop at the rifle itself, however. Marc Newton was adamant that it should be displayed in a manner that would bring out the fundamental elements of its on-going story, so selected Arkansas-based master cabinet makers, Julian and Sons, to create a display credenza to house it.
A family-run company, Julian and Sons prides itself not only on building exquisite bespoke products, but also on showcasing what is really important to its clients, and the essence of the objects they wish to display. As founder Tom Julian says: “What we really do is help people tell their stories. We create a place where they can display the things they love: art, taxidermy, firearms, artefacts, or books.”
For Rigby’s SCI donation, Julian and Sons has been working closely with Marc and his London team. The work began with drawing concepts and shop drawings, followed by discussion with Marc and the others involved in bringing the new rifle to life and continuing to look after the Corbett legacy.
In addition to the .275, the cabinet has been designed to house a five-volume leather-bound commemorative edition of Jim Corbett’s writings. It will be built from American black walnut with figure and character. The wood was specially selected for the project, cut with precision worthy of a hunting rifle, and will be sanded finished to Julian and Sons’ exceptionally high standards, using a hand-rubbed Danish oil process. Black leather inserts on the top will be crafted from water buffalo hide.
Evoking Corbett’s selfless spirit of adventure, the cabinet will bear the following quotation: “There have been occasions when life has hung by a thread and others when a light purse and disease resulting from exposure and strain have made the going difficult, but for all these occasions, I am amply rewarded if my hunting has resulted in saving one human life.” It will also feature tiger and leopard hide details, though due to US legal restrictions these will be high-quality imitations.
As with the rifle itself, every detail has been carefully considered and commissioned, and crafted with exquisite care. Among the most eye-catching features are the tiger’s head draw pulls, which are being cast in bronze by renowned wildlife sculptor, Christopher Smith.
This project marks Christopher’s 20th year working with SCI, and, as with all his work, he aims to capture the essence of the animal. His passion for animals began when he was a boy, and, with a degree in biology from Montana State University, he has an excellent knowledge of animal anatomy and physiology, which enables him to bring real life and energy to his subjects.
It won’t be long now until the donation rifle is finished. It will be unveiled in all its glory, with the presentation case, at the SCI Convention in 2016 alongside Corbett’s original. “Seeing the finished rifle on display will be a big moment for us,” said Marc Newton, “But that will be far from the end of the story. What we’ve created is a work of art, but it’s also a finely honed precision tool. It has been made to be used, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing who gets to take it – and a chunk of Rigby-Corbett DNA – with them on future expeditions.”