One for the Road

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By Terry Wieland

In his book, African Rifles and Cartridges, John “Pondoro” Taylor often mentioned “cheap Continental magazine rifles,” and his comments were usually disparaging.  Taylor set great store by reliability, not only of the rifles he used, but of the cartridges and bullets they employed.

The two major names in “Continental magazine rifles” were Mauser of Germany, and Mannlicher-Schönauer of Austria.  No one could knock either on the grounds of workmanship or materials; they were legendary then, and they’re legendary now.  Where Taylor did have a point was with Mauser sporters (or sporterized military rifles) chambered for some eminently forgettable cartridges.

Today, most hunters have never heard of the 10.75×68 Mauser or the 11.2×60 Mauser.  There were several, mostly rimless, in the 9mm to 11.5mm range (.358 to .44 or .45, roughly.)  In the case of the Mauser, many appeared in East Africa between 1919 and 1939, built on surplus military actions, and produced in one- and two-man shops across Germany.  These were most likely the rifles Taylor had in mind.

In the years after the Great War, the British gun trade was struggling and the German trade was desperate.  Tanganyika, of course, had been a German colony until 1919, with many European settlers.  Once it joined Kenya and Uganda in what came to be known as British East Africa, the greatest big-game hunting region in the world, it was natural that German gunmakers would look there for new markets.  And, with ex-military Mausers readily available, those naturally became the basis for building inexpensive hunting rifles.

If you look at the cartridges themselves, there is nothing much wrong with them except bullet construction.  Often, the bullets were flimsy, flew apart, and didn’t penetrate.  This was not true of all, but there was enough to lend the rifles a nasty reputation.

John Taylor himself was not anti-Mauser, by any means.  His Rhodesian friend, Fletcher Jamieson, owned a .500 Jeffery on a Mauser action, which Taylor used and liked very much.  If a Mauser-actioned rifle came with the name Rigby, Jeffery, or Holland & Holland on the barrel, it immediately got Taylor’s vote.

This is where it becomes very tangled, because all the actions in those days were made by Mauser at Oberndorf.  Firms like Rigby and Jeffery used them to build some pretty flossy rifles.  So what do you call them, a Jeffery or a Mauser?

And the cartridges?  The .500 Jeffery is actually the 12.5×70 Schuler, designed in the 1920s by the firm of August Schuler to create an elephant round that could be chambered in a standard military Mauser 98.  W.J. Jeffery adopted it and renamed it, yet when Taylor was writing, and praising the cartridge at length, the only ammunition available came from Germany.  Conversely, the .404 Jeffery was probably a Jeffery design, but it was adopted by Mauser as a standard chambering, and renamed the 10.75×73.

As you can see, there was considerable cross-over and adoption of each others’ design. The great London gunmakers had nothing but respect for Mauser Oberndorf, and the compliment was heartily returned.  Both probably considered the periods 1914-18 and 1939-45 as highly inconvenient impediments to trade.

After 1946, the supply of Oberndorf-made Mauser 98 bolt-action rifles dried up, although other manufacturers stepped in to produce Mauser actions, and sometimes entire rifles.  The London trade built rifles on whatever they could get — the Enfield P-14 and P-17, Brevex Magnum Mausers from France, Czech Mausers from Brno, Santa Barbara actions from Spain.  Even with Rigby or Holland & Holland engraved on the barrel, however, these never carried the cachet of, say, a .416 Rigby, made in St. James’s Street, on an Oberndorf magnum action.

Sine the war, a lot has happened with both Mauser and its first and greatest associate in London – John Rigby & Co.  The Mauser factory was razed in 1946 on orders of the French occupation forces, and its name and trademark passed through various hands before, in 2000, becoming part of Michael Luke’s Blaser conglomerate based in Isny im Allgäu.  Rigby also changed hands, and was moved to the U.S in 1997.  There it became the center of varying levels of fraud and ignominy before being purchased in 2012 and moved back to London.  The purchaser was the Blaser group, which put Rigby under the management of Marc Newton with a mandate to return the Rigby name to glory.

One way to do this was to resume manufacture of the famous Mauser 98 action, so that Rigby could once again build its .416s on an action with the Mauser banner on the ring, and make its traditional stalking rifles in .275 Rigby (the name Rigby bestowed on the 7×57 Mauser when it adopted it in the early 1900s.)

Since 1946, the various owners of the Mauser name steadfastly refused to make any of the company’s most famous (and, in my opinion, by far the best and greatest) product:  The turnbolt 98.  Even after it took up residence in Isny, making the 98 once again was not on its immediate list of projects.  As far as I know, it was not until the Rigby acquisition that it began seriously looking at it.  Whether it was Marc Newton who persuaded Mauser, or whether that was the secret plan all along, hardly matters.

Around 2010, Mauser had taken a hesitant step towards making a 98 again.  Using a magnum 98 clone produced by Prechtl, Mauser made a few .416s, but with a price tag of $40,000, I don’t imagine they sold many.  Then they acquired Rigby and, in a surprise move two years ago, Mauser announced it would once again make the magnum action, supply it to Rigby, and also make entire rifles in Isny.  Now, they have added the standard-length action to the line.  In London, Rigby is using it to make its Highland stalking rifle in .275 Rigby, while in Isny, Mauser is chambering it in the venerable 7×57, 8×57 JS, 9.3×62, .308 Winchester, and .30-06.

Whatever John Taylor might think of these, he could never call them cheap.  The standard model in the less expensive “Expert” grade lists for $9,100.

All of these calibers are familiar to Americans except, perhaps, the 9.3×62.  This is an old and highly respected big-game cartridge in Europe.  It was designed in 1905, and became a standard Mauser chambering.  Even John Taylor thought quite highly of it, with the right bullets, and today ammunition is loaded by Norma, among others, in a wide variety of bullet weights and types.

Now, for the first time in many years, a hunter can go to Africa with a complete battery bearing the Mauser banner — a .416 Rigby for the big stuff, a 7×57 for plains game, and a 9.3×62 for in between.

It’s a funny thing, but in 1956 when Winchester introduced the .458 Winchester Magnum, and hired East African professional David Ommanney to tout the rifle for them, all predictions were that this was the end of the line for the big nitro-express cartridges, for the magnificent double rifles that fired them, and for all those “archaic” rounds like the .404 Jeffery.  The .416 Rigby was consigned to the trash bin, and even the .375 Holland & Holland was put on the list of threatened species.

It’s now 60 years later, and look what’s happened:  The .416 Rigby came roaring back, and has become a standard chambering; the .375 H&H is stronger than ever; there is a very vigorous market in double rifles, both old and new.  Many of the nitro express cartridges are being made by Kynamco, loaded with Woodleigh bullets from Australia.  The Mauser 98 — an action that is now 120 years old — is still the most popular bolt-action basis for a dangerous-game or plains-game rifle.

Anyone who buys a new Mauser, however, is not merely wallowing in nostalgia.  There is still no better, more reliable, or versatile action on which to build a rifle, whether you’re culling wildebeest or pursuing pachyderms.

Through the 1960s, African Rifles and Cartridges and even John Taylor himself were disparaged.  As an ivory poacher, Taylor did not command the reverence of professionals like Sid Downey or W.D.M. Bell.  He died in 1955, and his books, Big Game and Big Game Rifles (1948) and African Rifles and Cartridges (1948) went out of print.  It seemed to be the end for everything.

As it turned out, the books were reprinted, first by Trophy Room Books and The Gun Room Press, respectively, and Taylor’s reputation was gradually rehabilitated.  Today, anyone interested in the history of African hunting and the actual performance of rifles, and of bullets on big game, should read Taylor.  His earlier, smaller book, Big Game and Big Game Rifles, is unfairly neglected, in my view.  I bought it from Ray Riling Arms Books in 1966, for $6.  I was absorbed by it then, and still go back to it now when I want to recapture some of the magic.

What the old-timers learned and knew is still worth learning, and well worth knowing.   Many years ago, boxing writer A.J. Liebling wrote in the New Yorker, quoting Heywood Broun, an even earlier writer, “After all, the old masters did know something.  There is still a kick in style, and tradition carries a nasty wallop.”  It seems that every new generation of boxers needs to learn this, and while Liebling and Broun were both writing about boxing, it could just as well have been big game and big-game rifles.