Rigby’s Highland Stalker – Elegance, Nostalgia, History…And Accurate Efficiency!


The buck strode across the open field as if he owned it. He wasn’t a big buck, just a nice, normal whitetail, but the field is mine and I wasn’t looking for a monster. The buck was about 160 yards away when he stopped. The decision wasn’t final until I saw the cool “acorns” on all the left point tips, and that was his undoing. I took a quick rest and held carefully on the on-shoulder. The buck dropped to the shot and never moved.

The rifle I was using was not a super-fast modern magnum. Its stock was neither synthetic nor laminate; its metal wore a coat of good bluing on smooth steel, neither stainless nor coated. As a concession to retirement-age eyes the rifle was well-scoped, but otherwise it could have been a century old with century-old lines and craftsmanship…and an action and cartridge dating to the latter 19th Century. Except the rifle was brand-new in a “retro” sort of way: It was a Rigby Highland Stalker, proudly based on a Mauser action and chambered to .275 Rigby. I doubt that my whitetail buck appreciated any of that, but I’m equally certain no modern whiz-bang could have dropped him with any more efficiency or finality.

Legacy

As their logo states, John Rigby & Co. Gunmakers Ltd. goes back to 1775, founded in Dublin. It was the third John Rigby (1829-1916), a true firearms genius, who brought the family firm to international prominence. Much later, after the last Rigby passed—and during a period when the entire British gun trade was at its nadir—there were years when John Rigby and Co. were lost, wandering in the wilderness. Since 2013 they’ve been back home in London, owned by the Blaser Group that also owns Blaser, Mauser and Sauer, but independently operated under the leadership of Managing Director Marc Newton.

The third John Rigby worked in the family business until 1887 when he was appointed Superintendent of Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield. It was John Rigby who designed the Enfield rifling that gives the famous Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) the last part of its name. He retired from Enfield in 1894 and rejoined the family firm. Amazingly, his most lasting contributions to sporting arms were developed long after he reached retirement age! In 1898 he developed the .450-3 1/4” Nitro Express, the first large-caliber Nitro Express developed for smokeless powder and to my thinking still one of the best. Other John Rigby cartridges include the rimmed .400/.350 (1899), the .350 Rigby (1908), and the legendary .416 Rigby (1911).

John Rigby was a champion rifleman, holder of multiple Wimbledon Cups. One also suspects he was a practical man, believing if something wasn’t broken it didn’t need to be fixed. Rigby settled on Peter Paul Mauser’s bolt action as the ideal platform for his repeating rifles and in 1898 became Mauser’s exclusive British agent. Rigby lost its British exclusivity in 1912 but continued to use Mauser actions.

Using standard-sized 1898 Mauser actions the Rigby bolt-action quickly evolved as a light and responsive sporting rifle that we call a “stalking rifle.” After 1911 the Rigby bolt-actions essentially followed two forms: Lighter stalking rifles; and heavier “big game” rifles (primarily in .416 Rigby) using magnum actions.

Rigby’s acquisition by the Blaser Group and re-establishment in London has enabled at least two marvelous things. First, renewal of the Rigby-Mauser relationship that existed until 1912. Rigby bolt-actions now proudly state “Mauser, Made in Germany” on the left side of the receiver—but stocking and finishing are done in England, as it was in John Rigby’s time. Second, the firm is once again producing the timeless Rigby rifles that made the name a household word.

The first of these was the Rigby Big Game rifle, true to John Rigby’s taste and style. In 2014 and 2015 I used two of these new rifles in Africa, a single-square-bridge with iron sights and a scoped double-square-bridge, both in .416. The third reissue of a traditional Rigby design is the distinctive rising bite double rifle; the first made on the famous rising bite action in more than 80 years. The second, and our subject, is Rigby’s new stalking rifle.

The Highland Stalker

The Highland Stalker’s test target showed a sub-one-inch group with Hornady’s 140-grain .275 Rigby load. Boddington has no problem duplicating this accuracy with the same load and with Norma’s 156-grain Oryx 7×57 load.

The trim, clean lines of the Rigby stalking rifle gathered many admirers, but perhaps none more famous today than W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell and Jim Corbett. It’s hard to say which was the greater fan. Corbett was presented his .275 Rigby in 1907 after he killed the infamous Champawat tigress. He used the rifle for the rest of his life, and it is now part of the Rigby collection. Bell slew many of his 1,011 elephants with his .275 Rigby rifles. He purchased fully six .275 Rigby stalking rifles, and finished his days using them to stalk stags in the Scottish highlands.

The new Highland Stalker has lines very similar to Bell’s and Corbett’s rifles. The stock is trim and straight, the pistol grip rounded, the fore-end short with barrel-mounted front swivel. Iron sights are traditional Rigby, hooded front bead, express rear with one standing and two folding leaves. The action is pure Mauser, marked as above plus “M98 Standard.”

There are accommodations to modernity. The barrel is standard at 22 inches; back in the day longer barrels were in fashion. The three-position safety is horizontal for low scope mounting, and the receiver is drilled and tapped for scope mounts. The left side of the receiver and rear bridge are solid, absent cutout and slots for stripper clip loading. Other than these sensible modifications, the rifle is a traditional Rigby stalking rifle, dubbed Highland Stalker because in the Scottish highlands the stalk is everything. Generations of sportsmen and women—including Walter Bell—have crept through the heather with such rifles, getting as close as they could…and then getting ten yards closer.

The Highland Stalker weighs about 7.8 pounds; no lightweight but comfortable. Standard is Grade 5 Turkish walnut, beautifully finished in traditional hand-rubbed oil with excellent hand checkering and superb wood-to-metal fit. The Highland Stalker is not a custom rifle, although options and upgrades (and “London Best” rifles) are available. It is intended as a hunting rifle that will be carried and used by hunters who enjoy tradition and the look and feel of a fine rifle.

The Highland Stalker’s safety is a three-position horizontal safety, allowing low scope mounting.

The Highland Stalker I’ve been using is chambered to .275 Rigby, and there are four other chamberings: 8×57 Mauser, .30-’06 Sprg., 9.3×62 Mauser, and .308 Winchester. The first three are more than a century old; the .308 came along in 1952. The 8×57 will appeal to a European market. The versatile .30-’06 is a world-wide standard, while the 9.3×62 offers a Highland Stalker that is legal for buffalo in most jurisdictions. The popular .308 has an aspect that might appeal to Rigby fans: In his last article, published in American Rifleman, Walter Bell wrote that, if he were starting over, the .308 Winchester with 220-grain solids would be his choice for ivory hunting because of efficiency and short bolt throw. All four are unbelted cartridges, using a common bolt-face diameter and yielding “four-plus-one” capacity in the Highland Stalker.

.275 Rigby

About the same time that John Rigby struck his exclusive arrangement with Mauser, he also settled on the efficient 7×57 cartridge, developed by Mauser in 1892, as an ideal stalking rifle chambering. The Brits avoided metric designations and often named cartridges by land rather than groove or bullet diameter. The 6.5mm, bullet diameter .264, was often called “.256,” thus it isn’t odd that John Rigby renamed the 7×57 “.275 Rigby” for the British market.

By most references this happened in 1899. At that time the standard load for the 7×57 echoed the military load, a deep-penetrating but slow 173- (or 175-) grain bullet. These are the loads that Bell used. Rigby also saw the 7×57 as a versatile cartridge for medium-sized game. Later, perhaps in 1906, he developed a fast .275 Rigby load quoted at 3,000 fps. This velocity was possible in the longer barrels of the day. When I started handloading for the 7×57 in the 1980s reloading manuals still listed “maximum loads” of 3,000 fps with 140-grain bullets.

Today, because of concerns that older and weaker pre-1898 Mausers are still in use, all 7×57 and .275 Rigby loads, whether commercial, proprietary or listed handloads, are considerably milder. Note: All 7×57 loads may be chambered in .275 Rigby rifles; and vice versa.

On the bench with the Highland Stalker in .275 Rigby. Weighing about 7.8 pounds without scope this rifle is wonderfully comfortable shooting off the bench and proved extremely accurate.

Some years back, Hornady introduced a head-stamped “.275 Rigby” load featuring a 140-grain bullet at 2,680 feet per second. This echoes most modern 7×57 loads. Hornady’s Superformance 7×57 load with 139-grain bullet is a bit faster at 2,760 fps, and Norma has a hard-hitting 156-grain Oryx load at 2,640 fps. Commercial 175-grain 7×57 loads at 2,380 fps are still available. The Highland Stalker in this cartridge is marketed as “.275 Rigby” as tradition demands. However, some countries insist barrel roll-marks and cartridge head-stamps match. Rigby covers this: On the right side of the barrel, just ahead of the receiver, the roll-mark reads: “.275 Rigby/7×57.”

The best comparison for the .275 Rigby is with the .270 Winchester. With current loads, the .270 Winchester is faster, but bullet diameter is too close to argue about, .277-inch versus .284-inch. However, 7mm bullets tend to have a bit better aerodynamics, and bullets up to 175 grains are readily available.

In open country, the .270 might have a slight edge, but the Highland Stalker is designed for hunters who like to get as close as possible. It is not a cartridge for long-range shooters, but neither is the .270 Winchester. I have long experience with both the .275/7×57 and .270.  With bullets up to 150 grains and out to perhaps 300 yards, I see no appreciable difference on deer-sized game. The .270 offers a bit more range, but the ability to use heavier bullets gives the .275 Rigby/7×57 more versatility on larger game. Also, before that argument is presented, let’s please remember that Jack O’Connor, chief proponent of the .270 Winchester, owned 7×57 rifles throughout his life and he took most of his (numerous) desert rams with a 7×57!

Range And Field

On top of the Highland Stalker’s barrel, just ahead of the receiver, reads the traditional legend, “Sighted for Rigby’s special high velocity .275 bore cartridge soft nosed 140 grain bullet.” The iron sights, with standing leaf for 100 yards and folding leaves marked 150 and 250, are calibrated for Hornady’s 140-grain .275 Rigby load. I’ll be honest: I can no longer see open sights well enough to confirm or deny, so I’ll take Rigby’s word on this! Fortunately, and as requested, the test rifle came with the sturdy and repeatable Mauser “hex-lock” detachable mounts. I mounted it with a new Leica Magnus 1.8-12x50mm scope. This is one of the clearest and brightest riflescopes I’ve ever used, and that large magnification range covers absolutely everything one might do with a .275 Rigby/7×57.

The rifle feels as good as it looks, balancing well and handling like a dream. Interestingly, the rifle comes up smooth and on target with iron sights. However, even with the Leica’s large objective lens, the rear sight is far enough forward that “medium” scope mounting was possible and, with scope attached, the rifle still came up with the crosshairs aligned on the target. Achieving a comb height that enables both iron sight and scope use is extremely difficult, so I give Rigby’s stockers major kudos for this seemingly small point.

This Kansas eight-pointer was dropped in its tracks at 160 yards with a 140-grain Hornady from Highland Stalker in .275 Rigby.

The Highland Stalker is supplied with a test target, as a rifle of this quality should be. Said test target was impressive, a sub-one-inch three shot group with Hornady’s 140-grain .275 Rigby load. Using the same load, I was able to easily beat the test target, consistently printing three-quarter-inch 100-yard groups. I’ll take that accuracy with any sporter with factory loads! Interestingly, this rifle doesn’t group quite as well with faster 7×57 loads, but it grouped as well with Norma’s 156-grain Oryx load.

Over the years I’ve used the 7×57 for a wide variety of game on all continents. Nothing remains to be proven about its capabilities, but I spent a lot of time with the Highland Stalker on one of my favorite pursuits: Good old American whitetails! As I started with, I dumped my 2017 Kansas buck at 160 yards, sort of right in the middle of the .275’s ideal capabilities. In my area, that’s stand-hunting, not stalking—but during those long, boring hours on stand I’ve found it especially satisfying to use a rifle that you not only know will do the job, but that you admire and appreciate. Somehow that seems to make the time go faster!

A couple of weeks earlier I had the opportunity to take the Highland Stalker on a whitetail hunt on Quebec’s Anticosti Island. This is a stalking hunt in heavy timber where you must stay ready and most opportunities are fast and fleeting. It is difficult hunting, compounded in 2017 by a couple of back-to-back hard winters that left deer numbers down. At the mid-point I took a modest buck, a fast shot at 80 yards, no time to think, just shoot. A single 140-grain Hornady dropped the deer, also in its tracks.

Although clearly no trophy, this Anticosti whitetail has proven extremely tasty. It was the only buck Boddington had a chance at, taken with the Rigby Highland Stalker and a single 140-grain Hornady with a quick shot at 80 yards.

Neither in Anticosti nor my farm in Kansas did I take a monster whitetail—but if you’re a “gun guy” that’s also part of the charm of using a fine rifle like the Highland Stalker. There’s great pleasure just being afield with such a sweet-handling and well-made rifle…at least in my case plenty enough to make up for a few inches of horn or antler!–Craig Boddington

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