The Writer and the Dean
Two of the most famous rifles ever to cross the Dark Continent—Home Again.
By John Mattera
There was a healthy chance that the young man sitting next to me in the small boat remained calm because he did not understand the gravity of our situation. The same thought had crossed my mind two hours earlier, as we had walked through the seven-foot tall elephant grass on the trail of a big old Dagga Boy. I was certain the old bull was not of good social demeanor under the best of circumstances. Now, he was mad at the world and with good cause, with 750 grains of lead in him.
A concerned look from Rob Oostindien, our steadfast professional hunter, reflected back through our line, for we all understood the potential danger. Then, there was the kid. He smiled at me; but not a nervous smile one would expect from a nineteen-year-old hired to film a buffalo hunt, with a wounded bull lurking about in the tall grass. No, this was a smile of true enjoyment. The kid was having a good time!
I have to be honest: It pissed me off no end, but he was such a likable kid, I shrugged it off as we continued at a snail’s pace looking for clues, hoping for the best, and fearing the worst.
Fear is a healthy part of any relationship, and my current rapport with the buff we were following was growing more intimate with each passing footstep.
Then, all too soon, darkness closed in as we pushed our luck past the point of good judgment.
Now we faced a long walk to the edge of the island, hopefully in the direction of the dugout canoe that had transported us across the treacherous Zambezi River.
You would think three savvy hunters would have packed a flashlight. Enter our cheerful video kid. Leave it to the nineteen-year-old to turn his cell phone into a flashlight. Two weary hunters, the PH, two trackers, and the kid all walking to the faint glow of his Samsung. God, I hoped his battery held out! The wounded buff was still entrenched in my mind.
An hour later, we stumbled upon the dugout along with our paddlers, climbed into the prehistoric tree hull, and began our coast to the western bank. Here is where my concern for the young man’s sanity had begun anew.
When I’m cast on the dark waters of sub-Saharan rivers, my mind drifts to all the big, nasty creatures that call those waters home. Giant crocs haunting the lower Zambezi can turn a man into a midnight snack with a chomp and two rolls.
I was cradling a legendary .470 Nitro across my lap. My hunting partner Bill Jones carried his big .577 Westley Richards— Papa’s rifle in a past life, no stranger to marine patrols, excepting submarines. The immediate enemy was a mouth-belching monster with a serious attitude problem a few yards away. Hippos are just nasty—there is no other way to describe them; they are nasty, plain and simple, and they were close!
I broke open the action of the Rigby and fingered the two soft rounds out of the chambers in the dark, slipping them into my shirt pocket. Feeling on my belt to where the solids lay tucked into the canvas-culling belt I slipped them inside the chambers, letting them fall home with reassuring clunks. I am certain it was just for moral support, as I could not see a thing on those dark waters. But I had more faith in my rifle than can be described in a few paragraphs.
The Rigby had performed Yeoman’s work in the greatest of hands. It had belonged to the Dean of Professional Hunters, Phillip Percival, who first made his claim to fame with the Teddy Roosevelt safari and far beyond. Common consensus is that payment for the Roosevelt safari was how he purchased the rifle I held now.
Then, reality set in again. The boatmen and trackers began to bang on the side of the little boat, hollering about—I assume they were hoping to scare away 3,000 pounds of hippo. I just pressed away a bit more varnish from the well-worn stock in my grip.
Through the eerie reflection of his phone light, I could see the kid was smiling again.
“What are you smiling at?”
“This is the best day of my life,” he replied with infectious enthusiasm.
I shook my head in resignation as my fear alternated on many levels.
First, of course, was fear of the dark. Then, there was my fear of the water.
Cold, dark water gets my respect, and my fear rises and falls depending upon my current anxiety level. Dark water and big animals that kill without the slightest remorse are all triggers for fear in my world.
After fear of death came fear of losing the rifle in my grasp. I remembered reading John “Pondoro” Taylor’s account of losing two batteries of fine rifles on separate occasions when hippo trashed his dugout close to where we now paddled on the Zambezi.
Could I let the priceless Rigby go to save myself, or would I let her drag me to the muddy bottom of the river?
My sole happy thought was that Bill carried “the beast,” Hemingway’s .577. The massive rounds in his culling belt alone could drag a man under.
Geez, I hoped he was a strong swimmer!
The beginning of this story started many years ago, for Hemingway and Percival had history. The history shared between the Rigby and the Westley probably went a little further. Winston Churchill Guest carried the big .577 on a safari in early 1933 with Percival’s hunting partner, the legendary Bror Blixen. Guest had stayed over at Percival’s Kitanga Ranch for a bit of shooting; one can assume the rifles then shared their first adventure. Later that same year, Percival was Hem’s PH on his first safari, having many a grand escapade, collecting five lions, a score of Cape buffalo, and much other game. In the course of events, Percival provided Hemingway with fuel for many great hunting stories. Immortalized by Papa as “Jackson Phillips” or “Pop,” in the Green Hills of Africa, it was also Percival who relayed to Hemingway the scandal involving Colonel John Patterson of Tsavo fame, which inspired The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.
Percival needs no introduction to anyone with even a passing interest in African adventures. The famed 11-month Roosevelt expedition of 1908 inspired Roosevelt’s book African Game Trails—the book that sparked young Hemingway’s first African interest. From those first writings, Percival walked off the pages – a living legend.
What brings these two great rifles to Africa once again is Bill Jones. His quest is to bring back legendary rifles of the past, sharing new adventures.
A rifle may be an inanimate object. However, if a rifle that has seen the charge of the elephant long ago and could tell the tale and speak to us, what a story it could tell. To once again see the thrill, taste the fear, choke on the dust, and broil in the sun is a gift for us: Bill Jones is sharing that legend.
The Rigby’s provenance is without question, with factory records, including an invoice listing supplied cleaning equipment, spare strikers and a tin-lined box with 200 cartridges, all sold to P.H. Percival at a 15% discount. There is also a ledger page in the company book that states the serial number, the overall rifle dimensions and weight and date of sale to Percival.
The gothic script across the top rib of the 26″ chopper lump barrels is engraved “John Rigby & Co Ltd 72 St James’s Street. London,” and sporting one standing, two folding leaf express rear sight with platinum lines marked for 100, 200 – and an optimistic 300 yards for those of us with young eyes. The tops of barrels are also engraved, “Special 470 Bore Big Game Rifle” and “For Special Cordite Cartridge & Bullet 500 Grains.” The action is engraved with well-cut large shaded scroll – “J. Rigby & Co” emblazoned on each side. With an empty weight of 11 pounds and 3 ounces, the rifle is all business.
The Rigby is refined and elegant, especially when placed side by side with the beast.
The Beast is a century-old Westley Richards hammerless, single-trigger drop-lock double rifle capable of sending a 750-grain bullet out of the muzzle at a little over 2000 fps. She is an English thoroughbred through and through, weighing in at a chunky 15 pounds 14 ounces, a behemoth designed to manage the heavy recoil from the .577 rounds.
The Westley is steeped in history; it has a lineage that creates a story of its own.
The big double changed hands a few times since it left Westley Richards in 1913. It was built for Stephen Henry Christie, a cavalry officer attached to the 20th Hussars, who had developed a taste for Africa as a young man. It was a unique, single-trigger full load .577 drop-lock action, heavy enough to handle the stout caliber, with scroll engraved over faded image of a charging rhino; 100, 200, and 300 express sights, and a ramped and hooded front blade with a pop-up moon sight.
Christie was planning to return to Africa once again. However, the Great War called and Christie answered, rejoining his regiment where he was killed in a cavalry charge on the Marne. For the next twenty years, the big double flew under the radar screen, but then showed up in New York in the company of Winston Churchill Guest.
Guest and Earnest Hemingway met sometime after their respective 1933-34 safaris; the two developed a friendship that would last their lifetime. Between them, these rogues had many adventures, not the least of which were their World-War-II anti-espionage exploits.
Guest traveled to Havana in September of 1942 to check on his family interest on the island nation; the Westley Richards .577 travelled with him. Guest soon became second-in-command of the Crook Factory, Hemingway’s home-grown counter-intelligence network and their attempts to capture Nazi agents operating in the Caribbean.
Next, Guest signed on board with Hemingway’s Navy, as his fishing boat, the Pilar, was outfitted with over $30,000 in radio and directional finding equipment – High Frequency Directional Finder (HFDF), known as “huff duff.” In the United States Navy’s volunteer-patrol-boat program it was unofficially known as Hooligan’s Navy. The intent was to pick up U-boat transmissions between German vessels by taking bearings from various HFDF locations and relaying the information back to Sub command. Hemingway’s true aspiration was to pose as an unsuspecting fishing boat and lure in German U-boats for attack. The theory was that the .577 would punch big holes in the steel hull of the vessel, while Hemingway’s crew would throw satchel charges down the conning tower. The scheme was classic Hemingway.
When Guest left Cuba, the big .577 stayed behind.
The new owner was Papa Hemingway who returned to the Dark Continent in the fall and winter of 1953-54 with the .577, shaking Philip Percival and the Rigby out of retirement for the adventure.
The big .577 next ended up in the hands of Hemingway’s Charles Thompson, immortalized as “Karl” the lucky hunter in Green Hills of Africa. Thompson explored Africa with the Westley once again to hunt elephant.
The Westley found its way to the James D. Julia Firearms Auction where Bill Jones fought off all comers while sitting on top of his safari truck in the long-closed hunting fields of Uganda, with a satellite phone pressed to his ear as the bidding soared.
When the auction closed, Bill Jones was the new owner and keeper of the faith.
Bill Jones is a hunter of the first order. “Old School” is the term that best applies when speaking of him. To say that Bill is one of the most prolific hunters of our generation is an understatement. Deeply in love with history and the golden age of Africa in particular. Be it hunting, filming video productions, or supporting cultural or anti-poaching projects, Bill Jones spends much of each year exploring the African Continent. So, what does a history aficionado with a passion for Africa do with such a storied piece of shooting lore?
If you were Bill Jones, you would take your 100-plus-year-old Westley and Rigby doubles and return with them to Africa to track dangerous game across its length and breadth. And for my good fortune, Bill invited me along.
Such historic rifles are one day destined for a museum where many people may share in their history – but not yet!
Their legend is still being written…
John Mattera is a retired US law-enforcement firearms instructor. An avid hunter and rifleman for over four decades, Mattera makes multiple safaris to Africa each year, where his love of the continent and large-caliber rifles fuels his passion for writing. He is the author of three books on shooting and tactics. Mattera divides his time between New York, Southern Africa, and the Caribbean where he works in marine archaeological research.