Classic .505 Gibbs Express Rifle

By John Mattera

.505 Gibbs—just the name commands respect.  From the days of Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, we have lived in awe of the reputation of this grand African caliber and the rifle that bears the name.  It’s built for the singular purpose of delivering a well-placed behemoth round changing the nasty beast’s intentions post-haste.

From accounts of the fictional Robert Wilson off Hemingway’s pages through to today, the .505 Gibbs is a rifle of grand African proportions.

Predominantly the heavy tool of the professional hunter, it was designed and built to compete with the expensive-to-manufacture double rifle just after the turn of the last century—the Golden Era of the world we know as safari.

If a professional hunter wanted the added security of that third and fourth round with a turn-bolt rifle that could address any situation with authority, the .505 Gibbs was the answer.

But beware – it is not a rifle for the faint of heart!

Within the ranks of professionals today, there are still legends of the industry that rely on the .505 to sort things out and deliver their clients home safely at the end of a safari.

Simon Rodgers is just such a professional hunter. An old-school PH worthy of the name, applying the skills needed in the field for almost four decades since the early 80s, breaking into the hunting industry in Matetsi, Chete, and then off to Chewore North and South, Tsholotosho South, the Rifa Safari Area, and for the last fifteen years hunting exclusively in Mozambique, as the owner of Safaris de Mozambique.

His rifle of choice?  Etched across the top of the barrel the legend reads: “George Gibbs Bristol & 35 Savile Row London W.”  A genuine .505 Gibbs the tool of professionals. Rodger was in good company as the likes of J.A.Hunter, Bror Blixen and Tony Sanches-Arino – all legends of the hunt carried original Gibbs big-bore rifles in .505 as well.

Founded in Bristol in 1830 as “J & G Gibbs,” the Gibbs company produced fine rifles and developed wonderful cartridges for the London Trade.  Renamed “G Gibbs & Company” in 1835, the small company soon gained an impressive reputation for their innovation and design.   The Gibbs company manufactured high-quality muzzle-loading rifles and shotguns under the direction of the founder George Gibbs Senior.  Then it expanded when George’s two sons—George C. and Herbert—joined their father.

A series of well-thought-out and crafted partnerships proved that the Gibbs family was more than just craftsmen – they were astute business men.  The most telling example was their partnership with William Metford and the adoption of the Metford/Farquharson patent action.  This made Gibbs the only manufacturer licensed to produce the most successful black-powder, falling-block rifle for the last part of the nineteenth century.

Gibbs may have made rifles for hunters, but the Gibbs family were shooters first.

George Gibbs Jr, the heir to the company, was arguably the best rifleman on the British Isles in his day.  So it is safe to say that he understood accurate rifles.

While their rifle-building skills were noteworthy large, they produced a much more pedestrian- grade rifle than their counterparts—most without the frills and adornments that turn of the century English guns were noted for.

What the Gibbs company did exceedingly well was manufacture high-quality working rifles and design very good cartridges to go along with them.

Meanwhile, in Africa, some of Gibbs’s best big-game cartridges began life as target rounds.  Like the infamous .461 Gibbs, which dominated the famous Wimbledon and Stirling long-range target meetings, it was to become a favorite dangerous-game round of its day, used and lauded by the great hunters like Frederick Selous, Arthur Neumann, and others, for decades.  Selous’s very rifle still resides in the Bill Jones collection in Birmingham, Alabama.

The .505 Gibbs cartridge was designed in 1911, originally intended to be a rimmed cartridge for the double rifle market.  However, Gibbs believed they could capture a greater share of the big-game market by mating this new cartridge to the Mauser bolt-action rifle, and introduced the new cartridge as the .505 Rimless Nitro Express, or just the .505 Rimless.  The design was a unique bottleneck-cartridge with voluminous case capacity that helped the round operate under lower pressure.

This was very important at the turn of the twentieth century as the temperature sensitivity of cordite proved unreliable when compressed.  This made the .505 cartridge less susceptible to the dangerous variations in temperatures as the mercury rose or fell in sub-equatorial Africa.

Operating at just under 40,000 psi, the massive case has a capacity of 178 grains by weight of water.  Loaded with the measured amount of cordite it drove a 525-grain bullet, measuring .505 inch (12.8 mm) out of the muzzle at 2300 fps, well within the magic velocity-band for terminal success.

The bullet diameter is unique to the Gibbs, as most other big 50’s utilized bullets of .510 inches.

The only serious competition in the first half of the twentieth century came about with the introduction of the .500 Jeffery bolt-action rifle, which first appeared around 1920, originally designed by the August Schuler Company as the “12.7×70 mm Schuler”.

While the .500 Jeff was more powerful, the .505 proved much more reliable with a longer case- neck offering more reliable feeding.  The Jeffery was also plagued by a rebated rim and operated at higher pressures, both contributing to extraction issues.

These concerns could prove problematic when your primary job is stopping dangerous game, and that second and third shot may be “the” game changer!

Rodgers’s rifle has the look of a weathered heavyweight prize fighter, a bit haggard about the edges, but still dangerous in the clutches.  The wood is polished smooth from countless days in the field, and the checkering has long since lost its biting edge.  The hand/pistol-grip is opened nicely as a heavy caliber rifle should be to prevent trigger-guard bite on recoil.  The Monte Carlo raised cheek-piece also helps to dissipate energy as you touch off the round in the chamber.  The recoil pad, heavy and thick, has seen much better times, now faded and worn.  You can see the thought towards recoil management that went into the construction of this heavy rifle.  It was designed and built by a shooter.  The metal surfaces are worn in spots from untold sweat-filled miles of being carried, dragged and pushed through the bush.

At one time, the rifle sported a rear peep aperture where the base still resides.  The folding leaf rear sight was seated atop the barrel with a barrel band swivel far enough in front to protect the hand from recoil, with a foldaway, hooded front sight and pop-up ivory bead.  It was called a moon sight in the London trade, but I’ve always thought of them as lion sights.

The white ivory stands out against the tawny coat of a lion better than a small, gold bead.

Turn the rifle about in your hands and you notice that despite hard use, it is neither tired nor disheveled.  The Gibbs is well cared for, cleaned and oiled ready for use, and can deliver that knock-out punch when needed.

What a storied work of art this old war-horse is!

By putting this cartridge into the time-proven, square-bridge, magnum Mauser action, George Gibbs built a hard-hitting and surprisingly accurate heavy thumper while operating at safer and more reliable case pressures, providing more hunters the opportunity to own a rifle capable of serious knock-down power with a greater round capacity at a more affordable price.

When you pick up and handle such a storied tool that has “seen the charge of the elephant,” it is a solemn experience.  My thoughts are firmly planted in the history I now hold in my hands – the excitement and adventure that this rifle must have witnessed.

When you touch a dangerous-game rifle that has lived in the darkest of Africa for almost a century, the mind swirls as imagination fills in the missing pieces.

The worn surfaces smoothed over by years of arduous work paint a picture of hard use through difficult times.  You turn the bolt and it rolls and closes fast, well-oiled and maintained, and you know instinctively loved!

The combination of good looks and raw power are melded together in this classic express rifle.  Your mind races through the old-time African adventure this rifle must have seen.  Fingering the cigar-sized cartridges as you feed them into the magazine only adds to the excitement, as they each seat with a “clunk.”

When you shoulder the rifle, it rises and falls in place between your hands, just heavy enough to handle the force of recoil that you know will come, but not overly so.  The rifle is ready to stop the charge of any of Africa’s dangerous game.

The trail of Rodgers and this legendary Gibbs has been long and fraught with danger and intrigue for almost thirty years, through Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and places without a name.

Rodgers’ decision to arm himself with the big rifle came from a near-tragic encounter.  After all, we learn much more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Armed with a .375 H&H proved humbling for Rogers when facing a charging Cape buffalo wounded by a client, and required a bit of dancing about and multiple rounds to sort out.  He vowed then and there to never again be caught under-gunned for the situation.  When the opportunity to purchase the original .505 Gibbs presented itself, Rodgers did not hesitate.  He plonked down the cash and went home with a legendary rifle that was to become his constant companion over almost three decades.

While hunting with Simon Rodgers in Safaris de Mozambique outside of Cahorra Bassa late in 2016, I talked him into switching rifles with me for a day or two in the bush.  He didn’t argue much.  Why would he?  I was handing over Philip Percival’s .470 Rigby to him as consolation.  The look on his face spoke volumes, as if I offered the queen’s dowry.

I guess it was as if receiving royalty—to steal an old phrase: The silence was deafening.

So, with the temporary trade in hand, I had the good fortune to carry this great old Gibbs in the field for the last few days of our safari.  However, much to my dismay, I only had the opportunity to fire it at a cardboard target, as the buffalo we sought remained elusive.  Still, the experience for me was historic.

The recoil was not as bad as you would think.  The low-operating pressure of the .505 on this well-built rifle gives the shooter a good shove back with its inertia, as opposed to shoulder-pounding cartridges like the .500 Jeffery or the .460 Weatherby which came along in 1957 and unseated these two classics in raw power.

Simon Rodger’s .505 Gibbs is a classic dangerous-game safari rifle with a deep, rich history.  Some of its history is known, as stories attest to this rifle’s stopping power.  Numerous elephants and buffalo have fallen to the incredible penetration of the .525 A-Square monolithic solids.

But like most of the old classic rifles that I have had the pleasure of hunting around, there are gaps in their stories, and some of its time-gone-by remains a mystery.

For me that may be the best, as I can let my mind wander across the decades, across the miles.