An unlikely marriage sent hunters afield with the finest bolt rifles of their time – and ours!
By Wayne van Zwoll
“…Within three yards of the bracken I saw a movement … my first bullet raked her from end to end, and the second bullet broke her neck.”
So died the Talla Des tigress, named, as was the custom, after the village that had endured her predation. Colonel Jim Corbett carried that .275 Rigby rifle, hunting other man-eaters in the Kumaon Division of India’s United Provinces. He noted it was “light to carry, accurate and sighted up to 300 yards.” Its feathery heft counted for more than its reach. While Corbett hiked long miles in difficult terrain, his kit often trimmed to just five cartridges, shots commonly came at mere feet!
Among the most celebrated of hunting rifles is the bolt-action Rigby presented to Corbett in 1907 for dispatching the Champawat tigress, which had reportedly killed 436 people. Today that rifle shows the wear of many trails. Marc Newton, Managing Director of Rigby, “brought it home” a couple of years ago. On a recent visit to Rigby’s shop at Pensbury Place, in a modest industrial district of London, I cheeked this rifle. Slim, lithe, with a nose for the target, it pointed itself, silvered bead in shallow notch.
Corbett’s day won’t return – but the rifle has, in the form of what Rigby calls the Highland Stalker – a nod to UK deer hunters who now climb after stags instead of crawling after tigers. Like its forebear, it features an 1898 Mauser action, a lean version of the single- and double-square bridge Magnum actions in the Rigby Big Game series marking the company’s resurrection.
“We’re re-building the brand,” Marc told me, “not re-inventing it. Pre-war Rigby magazine rifles exemplify the best of British gun-making. Our clients expect fine line and impeccable finish on rifles that shoot accurately, cycle smoothly and endure. We hew to traditional standards of quality, fit and finish.”
Reliable function mattered more to adventurers who carried early Rigbys into jungle and bush. In 1948, after 30 years hunting Africa’s big game, John Taylor wrote: “Time and again have I slammed that bolt back and forth when shooting rapidly; yet never once did [my Rigby] show the slightest tendency to jam …. [There’s no] better or more reliable magazine rifle….”
Rigby’s name entered the firearms industry many decades before the Mauser action that earned the brand plaudits in the smokeless era. Born in 1758, the first John Rigby opened a gun shop in Dublin. Two years after eldest son William joined him in 1816, John died. With younger sibling John Jason, the business became William and John Rigby, 24 Suffolk St., Dublin. In 1865 as John Rigby & Co., it opened an office at 72 James St. in London to sell “breech- and muzzle-loading guns, revolvers and ammunition.” In 1879 Rigby announced a double rifle with a distinctive “rising bite” breech. Hand fitting buoyed cost and limited output. Between 1879 and 1932, Rigby would ship only 1,000 rising-bite doubles!
In 1887, as rifles and ammunition transitioned from black to smokeless powder, the third John in Rigby’s family was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory. A decade later, he sealed for Rigby a 12-year license with Waffenfabrik Mauser, A.G. in Germany, to sell in the U.K. and its colonies the Rigbys with the new 98 Mauser action. It seemed an unlikely union, as European alliances had begun to fray well before the Great War. But both firms profited. When in 1899 Rigby requested a long action for the .400/350 Nitro Express, Mauser delivered.
With gunpowder maker Curtis & Harvey, John developed a powerful cartridge for hinged-breech rifles. The .450 NE 3¼-inch appeared in 1898, its 70 grains of Cordite driving 480-grain bullets to 2,200 fps, for 5,186 ft-lbs of energy. It drew the curtain on ponderous arms whose black powder limited velocity and whose lethality depended on projectile weight – like the 21-pound 4-bore rifle young Samuel Baker commissioned from George Gibbs in 1840. Its 16 drams (437 grains) of powder shoved a 4-ounce (1,750-grain) silk-patched bullet through a two-groove, 36-inch barrel.
The .400/350 Rigby may have brought Mauser’s Magnum action to London, but its rimmed hull was best suited to hinged-breech guns. A superior option for bolt rifles arrived in 1908. The .350 Rigby Magnum’s 225-grain bullet rocketed out the muzzle at over 2,600 fps. Taylor wrote that, “John Rigby was practically forced to introduce this cartridge [due to] demand for higher velocity… after the introduction of Holland’s .375 Magnum.” As the .375 H&H didn’t appear until 1912, that’s an odd claim. But Taylor was keen on both, praising the .350 as “intensely satisfying.” He wrote: “Rigby’s .350 Magnum is easily the most widely used British medium bore throughout Africa.” Since the 1940s other fine cartridges have crowded that podium. Taylor cautioned that fast .35s are not stopping rounds. An acquaintance “attacked by a peevish cow elephant [found] the 225-grain bullet [failed to turn her] … so she got to him …”
A more reliable elephant brake arrived in 1911. The first rifle in .416 Rigby shipped in 1912, as Rigby opened its shop at 43 Sackville St., London. This cartridge, hurling 410-grain bullets at 2,370 fps, carried 5,100 ft-lbs of energy, matching the .450 NE 3¼-inch. It ranked high on Taylor’s list of medium-bores, partly because “Rigby’s splendid steel-covered solids are available for it…”
David Enderby Blunt had similar praise for the .416, when in 1933 he chronicled a career hunting elephants. “The .416 Rigby… I have always used has the same muzzle energy as a .470, but the bullet has greater penetration, and [the Rigby Mauser is] the most perfectly balanced rifle …” Denis D. Lyell, who hunted extensively in Rhodesia, wrote in 1923 that “for body shots [on elephant] I certainly think a .416 or .470 H.V. is more humane [than small-bore loads.]”
The only hunter of great experience to spurn the .416 in print may be John Hunter, who thought it “excellent for lion” but light for buffalo and bigger animals. It’s hard to say if his view was colored by the death of his friend and tracker, killed by a buffalo wounded by a client who’d paunched it with a .416.
Much more effective than its BPE forebears, the .416 Rigby still sells well, thanks largely to the flat arcs and high sectional densities of its bullets. Still, it is not magic. Hunting in Zimbabwe recently, I came upon an aging baobab tree with a plaque noting the death of Alan Lowe. I had hunted with Lowe’s widow, Eleanor, then outfitting from the second farm the industrious couple had carved from the bush. Alan had taken a client on an elephant track late one afternoon. Heading back at dusk, he spotted elephant cows on the trail. Alan sent his tracker and client on a safer route as he held the herd’s attention. Darkness fell. The others found his body by torch-light. An elephant had killed him before he could fire his .416.
Why didn’t Rigby field a rimmed version of the .416 for hinged-breech rifles? By 1910 the safari market was drifting away from double rifles to less expensive but equally potent bolt-actions. The rimless .505 Gibbs and .500 Jeffery would appear shortly. John Rigby’s death in 1916 scotched development of a .33/416 that would drive 250-grain bullets 3,000 fps. (In the 1980s Lapua of Finland and a U.S. company, Research Armament, would take up that thread. Result: the .338 Lapua.)
Burly big-bores didn’t tug Jim Corbett, W.D.M. Bell and others from less violent first-generation smokeless rounds. The .275 Rigby is the 7×57 Mauser with an Anglo name. For 16 years after arriving in Africa in 1900, Bell used it (and the .303 British) to drop elephants with surgically placed brain shots. He reportedly killed 1,011 of the beasts, which brought him $9,000 to $36,000 a year in ivory sales. Bell had a couple of Rigbys in .416, but owned six in .275 – and one in .22 Savage High Power.
Like Bell, Corbett sometimes had a big-bore rifle at hand, most commonly a .450/400 double. On a beat (drive) for the Champawat tigress, he held a .500, loading two of his three cartridges and pocketing the other for “an emergency.” That man-eater’s tally had by then topped 400 people – half in Nepal, from where she’d entered Kumaon. When the tigress crossed a slot in the jungle in front of Corbett, he “sent a despairing bullet after her.” He’d just charged the empty barrel when she broke cover at 30 steps. He fired both remaining cartridges, striking, but not killing the cat. Abandoning his rifle, Corbett dashed toward the beaters, snatched from one a derelict shotgun and hurried after the tigress. Coming upon her in a thicket, he raised the gun and, to his horror, noticed a broad gap between barrels and breech. He let fly anyway at the cat’s open mouth – and missed! By great good luck, damage caused by the .500 took effect at just that moment, and the tigress died.
On the trail, Corbett preferred the light weight and wand-like handling of his .275. Both would pull him from one of the closest scrapes in his hunting career.
Deeply rutted pads and a cleft across the right forefoot distinguished the prints of the oldest of two tigers. The toes were exceptionally long as well. Corbett had found that track in a field three years after the Chowgarh tigers had begun preying on people. A trio of women cutting wheat there had been saved only when one of the beasts had been spotted and the alarm raised. Retreating into the jungle, the female and her cub would soon hunt again.
A couple of days later Corbett was shown by residents to a ravine where a cow had been killed the previous night. The spoor led into forest, where he spied the protruding leg of the luckless cow 30 yards ahead. It jerked as the big cats fed on the carcass. “… I crawled through the bracken [to a tall rock], looked over, and saw the two tigers.” Judging the light-colored animal to be the older, he aimed carefully and fired. She fell dead. The other cat vanished.
To his chagrin Corbett had shot the youngster. That error would “cost the district fifteen lives…”
By April, 1930, the surviving tigress had killed at least 64 people, and the persistent Corbett was again on her trail. In cover that held vision to mere feet, a pair of rare bird’s eggs caught his eye. He picked them up. Easing around a bend, he suddenly looked straight into the tigress’s face three steps away. The eggs in his left palm, he wrote, checked his reflexive urge to cheek the rifle – action that would have triggered the cat’s spring. Instead, with one hand Corbett inched the .275 across his chest. He felt “the swing would never be completed…” At last the rifle came to bear. His bullet shattered the man-eater’s spine and heart.
In 1951 the last of the Rigby family owners, Theo Rigby, died. The company plodded on. In 1968 David Marks bought John Rigby & Co. and engaged J. Roberts & Son to build its firearms. Paul Roberts acquired the Rigby brand in 1984, later developing the .450 Rigby cartridge on .416 brass. In 1997 Neil Gibson bought the company and moved it to California. A Dallas-based investor group dug up the cash to purchase John Rigby & Co. in 2010. They returned it to London and hired Paul Roberts to run it. Three years later Rigby was owned by the L&O Group, which controlled Blaser, Sauer and Mauser. Bernhard Knobel now manages those plants in Isny, Germany, and supplies Mauser actions for Rigby magazine rifles.
All Rigbys are built at Pensbury Place, where each is London-proofed. Such rifles don’t tumble from conveyor belts. “Between 1912 and 1940,” Marc Newton told me, “Rigby shipped fewer than 200 .416s! Annual production of all rifles hovered near 70. CNC machining has speeded some operations and brought our monthly tally near 70. Still, our rifles show a commitment to quality. At Safari Club International’s 2016 auction, a Rigby .275 sold for $250,000 – highest price paid for a bolt rifle in the Club’s 40 years!” More importantly, he added, each Rigby rifle brings to hand the adventure of another time, in jungle and bush, when hunters faced fearsome beasts close enough to read their eyes.
1 – An instant hit world-wide, the ‘98 action showed Paul Mauser’s genius in military, and then hunting rifles.
2 – Mauser’s 1898 action has appeared in hunting rifles of many brands. No mechanism is more reliable!
3 – This Mauser bolt from a Rigby Magnum shows the long extractor, the slot for the mechanical ejector.
4 – Rigby’s Vintage Big Game rifle has pre-war profile, fit and finish. Note retracted cocking-piece peep.
5 – Currently, Rigby actions come from Mauser in Isny, Germany. The rifles are built and proofed in London.
6 – A 9.3×62 cartridge lies beside a lion track. Rigby offers the hugely popular “nine-three” chambering.
7 – Rigby lists its Big Game rifles in .375 (left), the Highland Stalker in 9.3×62, both fine classic rounds.
8 – Marc Newton, Rigby’s Managing Director, is delighted with the svelte, lightweight Highland Stalker.
9 – This early Rigby is bored to .350 Rigby, a cartridge dating to 1908, preceding the .416 by three years.
10 – Bell used the .275 Rigby (7×57), left, on elephants – but with solids. The .416 has more advocates!
11 – This Australian hunter brings his Mauser to bear in buffalo country. Note the rifle’s British profile.
12 – Dating to 1892, the .275 Rigby still excels on plains game. As the 7×57 Mauser, it served infantries.
13 – Rigbys have a fixed open rear sight with two (arguably unnecessary) folding leaves on a quarter-rib.
14 – Elephant hunters embraced the deep-driving 410-grain steel-jacketed solids of the potent .416 Rigby.
15 – The .416 Rigby hurls 2½ tons of punch. After a century, it remains a top-selling “safari cartridge.”
16 – Stopping a buffalo can be harder than killing one. A .275 soft nose is lethal, a .416 solid authoritative.
17 – Rigby rifles are built for the field, but they embody refinements – here, a case-colored trap grip cap.
18 – In thick African cover, hunters after dangerous game welcome Mauser reliability and Rigby quality!
19 – Jim Corbett’s book on hunting India’s great cats is a well-written account of his time and adventures.
20 – The grandson of the Talla Des man-eater’s last victim poses with the cat Corbett killed with his .275.