Diggory Hadoke explores the history of Rigby rifles and some of their famous clients
The long timeline of Rigby’s existence as a gunmaker spans most of the major developments in the craft. Having started business in 1775, the first of John Rigby’s wares would have been flintlocks. His double-barrelled sporting guns moved from there, through the eras of percussion cap ignition, pinfire and then centrefire breech-loaders. As the firearm developed, so the ownership and managerial responsibilities at Rigby’s moved through the generations of the family. Three men named John Rigby headed the firm; the last died in 1916 but the firm continued to be managed by a family member until 1951.
Rigby continued to develop their sporting guns through the mid-Victorian era, as hammerguns gave way to hammerless patents, including boxlock and sidelock variants, before arriving upon the stylish and reliable early 20th century hammerless sidelock ejector.
Rigby always innovated and its guns carried an aesthetic style. Acid-etched Damascus barrels, for example. Even as early as the 1830s, Rigby made guns with features that would be considered novel at the end of the century, like ‘lift out’ triggers and single triggers firing two barrels.
The commercial benefits associated with maintaining high-quality, constantly improving products and good business sense were legion. Moving from Dublin to London opened Rigby to a wider, more prosperous, clientele and this led to some notable people of their day to the doors of the firm. Many of the guns made for famous sportsmen and women are still in circulation and the order books still reside at the Rigby premises in London, marking the birth of each shotgun, rifle or pistol.
Rigby products range from Bissell patent ‘Rising Bite’ double rifles, to Mauser action bolt-rifles, to Kell-engraved sidelock ejector shotguns. Clients included Jim Corbett, King George VI, John ‘Pondoro’ Taylor, Philip Percival, Lt Col George Armstrong Custer of ‘Custer’s last stand’, WDM ‘Karamojo’ Bell, and Denys Finch-Hatton.
Maharajahs were the men of means who possessed the inclination to buy large numbers of elaborate and expensive sporting guns. The rulers of the Indian principalities had vast fortunes and held local powers but no real power outside of those, being watched over and ‘advised’ by British political officers. Many turned to sporting pursuits as an outlet for their energies and passions.
One such man was Fateh Singh, the 31st Maharana of Udaipur. He bought 16 rifles from Rigby, including a .470 Nitro Express, number 16902, which has typical Rigby dipped edge bar-locks and a shouldered action with vertical bolt. The fortunes of the maharajahs took a turn for the worse in 1972, when Indira Gandhi removed their titles and privileges.
This led to many selling off their rifle collections to foreign collectors to help their finances. No 16902 was repatriated and the standard ‘best’ engraving and finish was enhanced to appeal to American collectors, who were then the principal buyers. The top English engraver of his day, Ken Hunt, added a gold portrait of a lion, further gold borders and foliate scrolls to the locks and action. The rifle found a new home in the Petersen Collection in Virginia. It depends on your point of view whether you consider this an improvement or the gaudy desecration of a perfect example of its type.
A similar fate befell another of Fateh Singh’s Rigbys, a 1903 vertical-bolt double in .350 (No 2). It was re-barrelled by Rigby in 1981 in the modern calibre of 9.3x74R. While re-barrelling was being undertaken, the locks and action were embellished with gold inlay and the addition of African animals, such as elephant, buffalo and kudu. It even has some tribesmen on it. Again, I leave it to the reader to decide if adding African animals to a rifle made for India and altering traditional British ‘best’ to become ‘exhibition bling’ was a triumph of re-invention or what Prince Charles may have called a ‘carbuncle on the face of an old friend’.
Rigby is not known only as a maker of best double rifles. The firm also introduced the Mauser bolt-action rifle to the British market and many professional hunters and sportsmen bought them as alternatives. Among the best-known Rigby Mauser .275 rifles is the one used by Jim Corbett to kill the ‘man eating leopard of Rudraprayag’. It was a gift from the administration for having killed a man-eating tiger in 1907. Corbett clearly used the rifle to the point of exhaustion; current managing director Marc Newton tested it recently and reported bullets going through the paper sideways! To celebrate Corbett’s exploits and his association with Rigby, they built an exhibition rifle of the same type but featuring relief engraving of scenes from Corbett’s books on all the metal surfaces. This is a landmark rifle auctioned at SCI in 2016 for a record $250,000.
Another Rigby-Mauser user was WDM Bell, the renowned elephant hunter, who left Scotland as a penniless adventurer and returned a wealthy man, having ventured repeatedly into the unknown interior of Africa to hunt elephants and sell the ivory he collected. Most elephant hunters of his day used the biggest rifle they could get hold of. Bell, initially for reasons of financial embarrassment, used small calibre rifles, including a number of Rigby Mauser .275 bolt-actions. He came to prefer them, using his exacting knowledge of elephant anatomy to brain-shoot his quarry from any angle, relying on the penetration and accuracy of his rifles over the traditional ‘stopping power’ of the widely favoured .577 or .470 doubles.
What encapsulates the essence of the Rigby tradition is not the highly embellished exhibition piece, but the traditional, subtly engraved, beautifully proportioned, classic lines of their sporting guns and rifles. Rigby sporting arms are thoroughbreds and you can see it in their shapes and feel it in their every operation. They were, and are, the best they could be, with form following function.
For more information about John Rigby & Co, visit: www.johnrigbyandco.com
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