More often than not, good hunting stories involve a great deal of hard work, no small measure of patience, and then a few moments of peril when all appears to be in jeopardy, before things come to a satisfying conclusion. The very best also tend to be accompanied by a tot or two of strong drink. The stories of the gunmakers who make such tales of intrepid adventure possible are not always as gripping. The tale of John Rigby & Company, however, is guaranteed to go down well. In this and future issues, we will be bringing you the fascinating tale of how the famous British gunmaker came to be where it is now, and what the future holds.
The Rigby story began in eighteenth-century Dublin, where the first John Rigby established the gunmaker that would go on to make his name synonymous with hunting adventure all over the world. The company moved to the heat of fashionable London in 1865, and the English capital became its sole base in 1897, when it closed its doors in Dublin for the last time.
At this point, Rigby was renowned around the world for building innovative, reliable, and devastatingly effective sporting guns and rifles. These included the phenomenally strong Rigby Bissell patented ‘Rising Bite’ action for best guns, and the company’s enormously successful bolt-action collaboration with German giant, Mauser. Rifles from Rigby’s workbenches played starring roles in dramas throughout the British Empire, expertly wielded by the likes of Jim Corbett, Denys Finch-Hatton and W. D. M. ‘Karamojo’ Bell.
The company stayed on track during the economically difficult inter-war years, and remained in family ownership until the middle of the 20th century. Having sailed past its 200th anniversary in 1975 with comparative ease, Rigby found itself facing the toughest challenge to date as the 21st century dawned. In 1997, the company was bought by an American investor, who moved production to California. Rigby’s sojourn to the West Coast was brief and ultimately unsuccessful. In 2010, two new investors stepped in and returned the business to the UK, with big-game expert Paul Roberts producing rifles under licence at J. Roberts & Co., which had a long history of working with Rigby.
In 2013, the L&O Group bought Rigby, and, under the direction of the dynamic young Marc Newton and the highly experienced Patricia Pugh, things started to look up. Having worked with Paul Roberts for many years, both Marc and Patricia had a deep-seated appreciation of Rigby and its history, and were determined not to let the once-great gunmaker fade away, but instead, to restore Rigby to its former glory. Most importantly, they wanted to build rifles worthy of the name Rigby.
Rigby was back on the trail of success, but there were still sizeable obstacles to overcome. Fortunately, both Newton and Pugh both know that nothing worth pursuing is easy, and their appetite for hard work was almost insatiable. Using a combination of contacts, charm, and the sentimental attachment to Rigby held by many in the gun trade, they assembled a small but exceptionally capable team, and the heart of the old gunmaker started to hammer more strongly as its workbenches came back to life.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” says Marc, who has been managing director since 2013, “But once we had the team together, I knew we had a good chance. With Patricia as financial director, along with supremely talented craftsmen like Mark Renmant, and Ed Workman supervising production, we had the ingredients we needed to get Rigby back to where it belonged.”
One of the first things that Marc did was to revive the historic association with Mauser. As with the collaboration overseen by the third John Rigby a century earlier, this venture offered customers high-quality, hand-finished rifles at affordable prices, with barrelled actions being shipped from Mauser’s factory in Germany to London, where Rigby’s gunmakers made them into beautiful, fit-for-purpose firearms. The result of this present-day association was named the ‘Big Game’, echoing the way its predecessors were described in Rigby’s ledgers.
The Big Game was an instant success with the public, and went on to win awards for best new rifle on both sides of the Atlantic. At first, it was available in either .375 H&H, .416 or .450 Rigby, in single or double-square bridge versions, with a modern, ergonomic stock shape, plus a wide selection of upgrades available. Since 2013, Rigby has introduced new models into the range, including the minimalist ‘PH’ and the ‘Vintage’, which has the traditional stock shape and specifications of pre-1940s rifles.
Another early – and momentous – decision that Marc made was to bring back the famous Rigby Rising Bite. Unlike the Big Game project with Mauser, this would need time to come to fruition. To build high-quality rifles on such a strong but technically complex action would take a minimum of three years. “We really needed people to have faith in us for this one,” admits Marc. “It was a lot to ask – even though we knew we had the skills to bring the Rising Bite back. Fortunately, we had some very far-sighted friends who believed in us. We couldn’t have done it without them, and I’m happy to say we now count them among our most valued clients and friends.
“Some of the proudest – and most exciting – moments of my career so far have been accompanying clients in the field as they put their new Rigbys to the test for the first time. It’s an immense privilege to watch as a rifle makes its way from being a collection of raw components on our workbenches to being a work of craftsmanship that’s beautiful, but will still work its socks off in the wilderness. Hunting in Zimbabwe with Adolfo Gutierrez and the first new Rising Bite was tremendous: from seeing the reaction of our guides to the first ‘boom’ when sighting in, to bringing down a Cape buffalo after some hard hunting.”
Before being blooded in Africa, this first new Rigby Rising Bite – a .470 Nitro Express – was exhibited to much adulation in February 2016 at the Safari Club International Convention in Las Vegas. It was the first time a rifle using this famously strong action had been built by Rigby for more than 80 years, and the excitement was intense: the order books practically filled up overnight.
Exciting though it was, the Rising Bite wasn’t the only rifle on the Rigby stand causing a stir in early 2016. Anything less would have been in danger of being eclipsed by the star attraction that year: a pair of bolt action rifles in .275 Rigby.
This pair shared a caliber, and had been built to identical specifications, but were strikingly different to look at. One had belonged to Col. Jim Corbett and had been used to despatch some of the most dreaded man-eating big cats ever to have stalked India’s Kumaon region. It bears a silver plate recording its presentation to the almost legendary hunter and tracker. It had the classic lines and elegance of a Rigby, but wouldn’t have made the cut in a beauty pageant for any other reason: almost none of the original blacking remained on its now silver metal work, and the wood of its stock was remarkable only for the dents and scratches it bore – some of which are specifically described in Corbett’s gripping memoirs. After a bit of detective work, Marc had tracked it down in early 2015, and arranged for the rifle to spend the rest of its days in Rigby’s London museum.
The second .275 had been crafted by Rigby’s current team to commemorate the original’s return and as a tribute to its esteemed owner. Featuring an exhibition grade Turkish walnut stock reminiscent of the rippling fur of a tiger padding through the forest, plus stunning engraving of animals, maps and scenes from Corbett’s adventures, it was a thing of exceptional beauty. It was Rigby’s offering for the SCI auction that year. It went on to sell for a record-breaking $250,000, making it the most valuable bolt-action rifle ever sold in more than 40 years of SCI auctions. It was bought by husband and wife, Brian and Denise Welker, who are both life-long Corbett fans.
Following a world tour and a visit to the Indian villages where it delivered so many from the menace of marauding big cats, the original rifle has been enjoying a rest in London, but will be making a special guest appearance at SCI Convention 2018. Corbett fans visiting the Rigby booth will also have an artistic treat, as up-and-coming sporting sculptor Jenna Gearing will be on the stand, working on a bronze of the great man facing down the dreaded Chowgarh man-eater.
The Corbett commemorative rifle represented the finest example to date of the third type of rifle available to clients of the reborn Rigby (at that time): the London Best. “The London Best is where Rigby really shines, and having had the creative freedom to make the Corbett tribute rifle for SCI, really gave our gunmakers an opportunity to show the world what they can do,” explains Marc Newton. “The Big Game is an essential part of what we offer – but if you want something bespoke from stock blank to scope mounts, it has to be a London Best. It’s always exciting for us to work so closely with a client and build a rifle to fit his or her needs down to the finest detail, and we’ve built some amazing rifles as a result.”
Since 2013, Rigby has specialised in finding promising young gunmakers and engravers from all over Europe, and giving them a chance to prove themselves. The current in-house team incudes a glut of Francophone talent: factory foreman Olivier Leclercq, gunmakers Brice Swieton and Martin Levis, and engraver Geoffrey Lignon; it also includes talented Slovak stocker Vlado Tomascik, plus English apprentice gunmaker Jamie Holland. This mixture of youth and experience has paid dividends at the company’s purpose-built factory in Pensbury Place, London.
Each rifle is a team effort, and the quality of the firearms leaving the workshop shows how well the team is working together. One of 2017’s highlights was the ‘Elephant Gun’, a .450 Rigby featuring exquisite hand-engraved elephant hide on every inch of exposed metal, which took more than 2,000 hours to complete.
With the Big Game, Rising Bite and London Best to choose from, you’d think that Rigby customers would be fairly well-satisfied, but you can never have too many rifles on your wish-list – so, in 2017 Rigby added a fourth line to its catalogue: the Highland Stalker. Like the Big Game, the new rifle is built on barrelled actions from Mauser and hand-finished by Rigby’s craftsmen in London. Available in .275 Rigby, .308, .30-06, 8×57, 9.3×62, it was inspired by and based on the rifles used by the likes of Bell and Corbett.
“For a while, people had been asking if we had plans for a smaller-caliber version of the Big Game,” Marc admits. “We have always been keen on the idea, but wanted to get it just right. We’re confident that we’ve done that, and it’s very satisfying to receive glowing reports from the field from those customers who’ve waited so long.”
Ideal for hunting deer the traditional way in the Scottish Highlands, the new rifle was unveiled to the sound of bagpipes at IWA in March 2017, and was officially launched to the sporting press later in the year with a stalking trip of appropriately Victorian vigour at the splendid Atholl Estate in Perthshire.
With so much achieved in such a short time, it’s hard to predict exactly what the coming years hold. With so much enthusiasm, energy and talent, the odds are that whatever it is, it will be good. Fortunately, Rigby has also recently created its own exclusive 18-year-old single malt Scotch whisky and Gunpowder Gin – both are available via its online Shikar Store – we suggest that, for now, you pour yourself a dram, and watch the future unfold.