- Bell will forever inextricably be tied to this rifle and cartridge for the most startling of reasons—he used it to hunt elephants!
- (Bell) was the first white man to leave a footprint in these vast unchartered areas…
- No matter what name is on the action or cartridge, the Rigby is a grand rifle…
The World’s Most Famous .275 Rigby
By John Mattera
“When you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.”
Confucius, Arthur Szathmary, or maybe Harvey Mackay— whoever said it—should have had my job: Philosophy may have its virtues, but I get to travel the world in search of great and historic rifles, shoot and hunt with them, and write about my adventures. I’ve been known to travel far and wide in search of the past, and oftentimes I’ve been afforded the chance to bring these historic legends back to the place where it all started—Africa.
My searches are often long and difficult, but, from time to time, luck prevails.
So before you feel bad for my mile-weary soul, the good adventures outweigh the bad ones by far, and in the process I’ve made a few good friends along the way—friends who share a hunter’s passion!
It is not my intention to cast aspersions upon gun collectors, but men who hide their treasures in glass cases or touch them only while wearing white gloves aren’t the kind of people whose company I seek.
I am most comfortable around hunters—men who walk the fields the world over, and hunt game as our ancestors did.
My friend Mike Evans is a hunter of the first order, who happens to own some hunting rifles that can make kindred spirits grow weak at the knees!
I traveled a good portion of the United States to see one of them, arguably the most famous .275 Rigby in existence. Its lineage is the absolute royalty of African hunters, spanning more than a century of hard adventure in the bushveld.
Produced by the John Rigby & Sons Company, the Rigby .275 is a takedown rifle: simply lift on the shotgun-style forward release, and the little rifle falls away in two pieces for easy travel.
Built on a K98 Mauser action, the .275 Rigby cartridge was the British designation for the German 7×57.
It was common practice for British gunmakers of the day to simply rename cartridges. One may assume that proper English sportsmen remained averse to using German rifles or German ammunition, with political tensions as they were. So, instead of reinventing the wheel, they simply changed the name. Hence, the Mauser became a Rigby, and the 7×57 was converted from metric to imperial by a stamp of name or number!
The 7×57 measured .284” – so Rigby simply rounded it to the .275 Rigby.
I have always been intrigued with British cartridge nomenclature, as most of the time it has nothing to do with the actual size of the projectile. (.284 is called a .275, and a .423 is called a .404 and so on.) Understand it or not, they did give us some fine hunting tools.
The 7×57 or .275 of the day pushed a 173-grain bullet out about 2300 fps, giving plenty of umph for expansion on a soft, or penetration with a solid.
No matter what name is on the action or cartridge, the Rigby is a grand rifle,
built with a nice piece of wood, hardly fancy by English standards, but a respectable slab of English Walnut – straight of grain, strong, and not hard to look at. Because of its takedown configuration, it was built in a half-forestock design. The Rigby sports a 23” barrel, with a bead front blade and express rear sights.
A neat little compartment hidden in the grip cap holds a spare front sight.
The floorplate is engraved WDMB, the initials of the Rigby’s first owner, Walter Daryl Maitland Bell.
Bell was a great believer of the bead front sight, writing that is should be held well into the notched “V” of the rear sight for proper elevation.
Bell will forever be inextricably tied to this rifle and cartridge for the most startling of reasons—he used it to hunt elephants! A practice he was so successful at, that his exploits became legend.
There is a rectangular slot that is cut in the rear of the stock; opinions vary as to its purpose. One school of thought is how Pyjalé, Bell’s Karamojan tracker of many years, would hand the rifle to Bell when he was in a tree, by placing the end of his 10’ spear in the slot and lifting the rifle upwards. Another theory, although doubtful, was that the notch was made for carrying the rifle while dangling from a spear. Or, it could be for a simple sling attachment, whereby the leather was looped in and slipped over the barrel, aiding in carrying the rifle, as Bell traversed thousands of miles—for he said that he always carried his own rifle. Probably a prudent move, considering he was the first white man to leave a footprint in these vast unchartered areas, where the murder of strangers was a rite of passage, and his day job was shooting elephants.
The days of hunting elephants with a small-caliber rifle are forever far behind us, and, for good measure, besides being illegal, no ethical hunter would do so, despite Bell’s remarkable success.
Though for Bell, the full metal jacketed 173-grain solids were the ticket for elephant brain shots, he once declared that a soft-point bullet had never sullied the bore of his rifle!
It is interesting to compare the performance of the .275 with what is commonly regarded as general acceptance in elephant-hunting bullets today. Bell felt that if the bullet was delivered in the correct place, only penetration mattered, not size of the projectile, as the variation between a .275 and .400 diameter bullet was minimal at best, compared with the size of a bull elephant.
However, when that vital region was missed, it did not matter what bullet size was used, as the elephant escaped.
It seems Mr Bell discovered the secret of the universe #6. Shot placement!
Bell was a meticulous record keeper. When you read his work, you come to understand his analytical mind. His use of the .275 and other small-caliber rifles on dangerous game was not a haphazard affair. It was done with cold calculation.
To judge ammunition expenditure and his own shooting, he calculated an average of 1.5 shots per elephant taken with the .275.
I believe there were a number of factors that contributed to Bell’s great success.
First, elephants never forget.
In Bell’s day, they had little to remember! He was hunting in the Karamojan, a place where few white men had been before. The local Karamojan natives trapped the occasional lone bull with snares made of kudu hide and a stout log. The trapped elephant would drag the log until the point of exhaustion, and the natives would spear it to death. The few Swahili traders, who had ventured to this remote land before Bell, had used inferior weapons without the benefit of understanding their shortcomings or the anatomy of an elephant — so their ventures were of limited success.
Next was just that point: Bell was a student of anatomy, performing detailed necropsies on his first dozen or so prizes, learning more and more about the placement of vital organs as he did. Understanding the difference in the location of the brain and heart, as the posture or angle of the elephant’s head varied,
Bell also understood the need for good-performing, solid bullets, no matter what caliber he had chosen.
Then, maybe the most important element to “Karamojo” Bell’s success: He was a rifleman, and had no problem putting his shots where they needed to be.
From his writing, we understand that Bell implemented training aids such as dry-fire practice and visualization, much as we do today.
Later in life, living as a retired gentleman back in his native Scotland, Bell could be found wingshooting cormorants with a .318 rifle with fair success.
(Don’t try that at home!)
The Rigby is believed to have taken somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 of Bell’s total of 1011 elephants taken. Unlike many other great African hunters before or after him, Bell’s life did not end with any sad tales of woe. He grew exceedingly rich through his elephant hunting endeavors, retired to Scotland, married, and bought an estate, spending the remainder of his days as a gentleman of leisure, hunting, and writing, giving us two wonderful books for posterity: Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter and Bell of Africa.
Next to own the little rifle was Robert Ruark, one of the most famous, syndicated columnists of his day, a cynical writer with a never-ending penchant for single malt scotch that would prove to be his undoing at an early age. Ruark discovered Africa well into his forties, and quickly fell in love with the continent. It was Ruark’s book, Horn of the Hunter, which first fueled my young desire for Africa.
A quick stop at Westley Richards in London, to order a rifle while on his way to Africa, proved timely. Only the day before, Bell’s widow had sent two rifles from her late husband’s estate to be sold. Ruark bought both of them on the spot.
When he stepped off the plane into the old Nairobi airport building he was met by his professional hunter, Harry Selby, a man who was destined to become the next generation of hunting aristocracy.
I looked down at the little rifle in my hands—it had seen plenty of honest use, but looked to be well cared for and in very good shape.
“Turn it over,” Bob said, grinning.
When I did so, I noticed an elongated silver plaque let into the stock where a monogram plate would normally be. It read: Mark Robert Selby From Uncle Bob Ruark.
As I looked more closely at the little rifle, I noticed some engraving on the magazine box cover. The inscription read: W D M B. “Could it stand for ‘Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell?”
“Surely not,” I thought…
Robert Ruark hunted with the rifle on that first trip, taking an impressive sable that ran about forty yards and collapsed, the little .275’s first kill in Africa in many years. By the end of the safari, the Rigby had not only claimed the sable in Ruark’s hands, but a roan antelope, two zebras, and a wide assortment of plains game. Ruark again hunted with the little Rigby on a later safari to Karamoja, Uganda, bringing the rifle home to Bell’s old hunting grounds.
Later, when given to the young Selby, and in his father’s care, the little Rigby saw much of Africa once again. Harry Selby had a Lyman Alaskan 2.5X scope mounted by Robert Triebel, a well-respected Nairobi gunsmith. Triebel built the mount high enough so that the Mauser bolt handle did not need to be modified, with a built-in see-through aperture so the sights could still be used.
Harry hunted with the Rigby often, carrying it on innumerable safaris through the course of his career. It then became a companion of his son Mark and his daughter Gail, who also hunted with it on occasion. She even took a bull elephant with the little .275 while the senior Selby was backing her up.
From the Selbys, the rifle ended up at Holland & Holland for sale, where all tracks were lost for many years, until it fell into the care of Mike Evans, a sportsman of exceptional character and merit, a worthy overseer of the little Rigby’s storied legacy.
Harry Selby could not have been more excited at Mike’s discovery of the Rigby, and the two men shared many stories of where the rifle had been and plans on where it was going—because first and foremost, Mike Evans is a hunter!
What an amazing lineage this little rifle carries!
To be owned and hunted by some of the greatest hunters to cross the Dark Continent.
For me, the highlight of this whole project was when I was graciously afforded the opportunity to send a few rounds downrange with this legendary rifle of hunting lore (Sorry, Mr Bell, they were softs!). Slipping a couple of rounds into the magazine, the little Rigby started ringing plates one hundred yards downrange with great consistency (OK, I did miss the first shot.).
The legacy of the little Rigby .275 continues, for Mike Evans is not a gun collector – he is a historian and hunter who appreciates both fine rifles and the legend that has come before us. This combination is difficult to argue with, and even tougher to tame. Hunting back in the haunts of the Dark Continent with his famous Rigby, is a duty of ownership for Mike. He has taken the rifle to Botswana, the Okavango Delta, and the Kalahari thus far, with future adventures planned with his sons and daughter, all hunters worthy of the name.
What an adventure! Yes, I love my job!