The Iconic – Rigby’s .416 dangerous game rifle

John Denman

There was a time not so long ago when British gunmakers were at the top of the tree where fine firearm construction was concerned. Anyone who went hunting in the African continent, or India, seldom faced dangerous game without holding a British product.

Those days have largely faded, now just a shadow of their former greatness. Names like Jeffery, Holland & Holland are little more than memories. Those guns remaining often find homes in the collections of people who have the money to acquire them. Holland & Holland still produce guns, Jeffery in their original form are all but gone. Rigby on the other hand are making a comeback. Or rather, they already have.

The old association the company always enjoyed with Mauser has been resurrected, but these guns are still only on the shopping lists of the wealthy. Dangerous game hunting, Africa-style has changed to the point it has almost no resemblance to the way it was when professional hunters like Donald Ker and Sydney Downey were at the leading edge of the business.

So when you come across something that has a tangible connection with the old months-long safaris, when sleeping under canvas was the norm, rather than the resort style ‘camps’ of today, you pause to reflect a bit. Of all the dangerous game cartridges of that era, one of the most iconic would the .416 Rigby. Sure, the .375 H&H had its place as did the .404 Jeffery, but prolific writer Robert Ruark made certain the .416 received honourable mention and so did his favourite professional Harry Selby, who used it regularly.

Just recently a gunstore near me acquired a Rigby rifle in .416 calibre. It had belonged to a local man who had bought it back in 1961. His plan was to take the Rigby on an African hunt, but it never eventuated. When he died, many years later the rifle was going to be sent to the nearby police station where it would undoubtedly have been destroyed. But some quick thinking by Sharon and Dave Greber of North Coast Firearms in Casino, NSW, saved this classic firearm from such an ignoble end. It now sits in their store. Or at least was still there when this was written.

Sharon bought out the leather case, itself an object of admiration, and almost as pristine as the day its erstwhile owner received it. The pulse quickens slightly when something special like this appears. The straps around the leather were undone and the brass latch clicked open. There, lying in the red felt lining was the rifle. There’s a slight patina on the cheekpiece of the stock, a reminder of ages past. The directions for cleaning are neatly printed in the case lid, along with the Rigby brand and company details. On the opposite end of the case lid a handwritten note identifies the original owner and the date of manufacture.

With the sort of care normally reserved for picking up an infant, I lifted the rifle and peered down the bore. The rifle was lighter than I had expected. The bore shone as immaculate as when it had been delivered. On the part rib of the barrel, a set of folding leaf express sights lay flat. The hooded blade up near the muzzle was a reminder that the rifle was always designed for dealing with dangerous game up close, when scope sights are a hindrance. An aperture sight had been fitted to the cocking piece of the Mauser bolt, undoubtedly there at the preference of the owner. Its adjustment was by way of a knurled disc.

The Mauser bolt slid silently into the receiver, the lugs locking down smoothly. The receiver was round, not the double square bridge often seen on these rifles, especially in more modern production. However, you knew instinctively the action would feed those fat cartridges and eject the spent cases as reliably as the coming of dawn. The barrel held a band which in turn held the front sling swivel.

To anyone who has had the privilege of holding and pointing a fine gun, be it rifle or shotgun, you will recall the way it comes up to the shoulder and points as if it has become a part of you. The Rigby does this easily, and gives the impression it has immediately become an extension of your arms.

This was not a pretty rifle, there is no engraving or other fancy work. The only concession is ‘Rigby Big Game’ engraved on the top of the receiver. However, it is a handmade piece of art in steel and walnut. Its entire reason for being is to put down a dangerous animal and do it with finality. To that end it is a tool, but one deserving of admiration and respect, and a feeling of gratitude for those craftsmen who built it. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.

It would have been wonderful to recount the hunting the Rigby had done, but as that never eventuated, we have to be content with the dream the rifle represents. For in the heart of many hunters lingers the old desire to some day be able to face dangerous game with a rifle that exemplifies the pursuit of animals who, given the chance would stamp you into ragged pulp. In that sort of situation a .416 Rigby is the best kind of confidence builder.


.416 Rigby fact box

The term ‘iconic’ is often tossed about rather loosely these days, but in the case of the .416 Rigby it’s more than justified. First seen in 1911, the cartridge took advantage of the newer smokeless propellant, cordite. This came in long sticks and was very temperature sensitive, meaning it had to be loaded down a little to compensate for the hotter conditions when used in Africa.

It is a proprietary cartridge which means it was designed by the rifle manufacturer. In this case Rigby. Other similar cartridges of the day, the .404 Jeffery and the .425 Westley Richards, were similarly designated. However, the Rigby cartridge really needed to be housed in a Magnum-length action and an agreement that lasts to this day was forged between John Rigby and Co and Mauser of Germany.

The cartridge was originally loaded by Kynoch, for many years Britain’s main manufacturer of sporting ammunition. After World War Two, demand for hunting in Africa had dwindled to the point where Kynoch ceased production. Later, as things returned to normal, the interest in big game hunting came back into favour, mainly led by well-heeled Americans. These people wanted to hunt with US ammo and cartridges like the .458 Winchester became popular.

The .416 Rigby received its biggest boot along thanks to an author named Robert Ruark who wrote, among many others, a book titled Horn of the Hunter. His professional hunter was Harry Selby, previously mentioned, who toted a .416. With the success of the book, interest in the Rigby cartridge surged and by this time better propellants were available, mainly from the US, as the Rigby cartridge had a renaissance.

With a muzzle velocity now up over 2400fps, and a 100m energy of 4000 ft-lb, the Rigby was back in business in a big way. Other more affordable rifles were also chambered for the cartridge, but the British rifle still held sway. Its reliability in facing dangerous game was unquestioned. Rifles like this built on the redoubtable Mauser 98 action were cheaper to produce than the far more expensive double rifles that still command six-figure prices.

The.416 refers to the British way of measuring calibre. The actual bore diameter is .408″ or 10.36mm, while the groove diameter measures .416″ or 10.57mm.

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