Diggory Hadoke examines the re-emergence of Rigby’s classic shotgun in modern guise.
When you buy a new British gun, you actually buy an old British gun, made recently. Every major maker still in business is selling products developed from patents dating back to the reign of Queen Victoria. Fortunately, the reason for this is because the designs of the Victorian inventors were extremely good. Match the inventive genius of the originators with the exquisite skills of time-served, apprenticed gunmakers and the result is sporting gun perfection.
The best British designs have never been bettered, only manufacturing cost and time-saving developments have been influential in the success of later types of shotgun. To date, the typical choice for the buyer of a best English shotgun has been Holland & Holland’s ‘Royal’ (the current model is the self-opener produced from 1922 but the basic ‘Royal’ has been in production since 1893), a Purdey (built on Frederick Beesley’s 1880 design) or a Westley Richards hand-detachable lock (another Victorian original, patented by Leslie Taylor in 1897).
Enter Rigby. Re-located to London six years ago after an ambitious investment and purchase by the German L&O Group, the same company that owns Blaser, Mauser and Sauer. Rigby has grown from a small team, under managing director Marc Newton, to a serious player. In fact, Rigby now makes more sporting rifles than any other London gunmaker. Let that sink in for a moment. Rigby has sold close to 1,000 rifles in six years.
The Rigby policy has focused very much on re-imagining classic models from the firm’s back catalogue. The Big Game and Highland Stalker models re-visited the hugely successful Rigby-Mauser rifles of the first quarter of the 20thcentury for inspiration and became the gentleman’s rifle of the modern era; classic, functional, aspirational, yet affordable, at around £7,000 (by comparison with best bolt rifles made by any of the top gunmakers today, including Rigby, which run between £25,000-£35,000).
Building on the success of their bolt-action rifles, the Rigby team then embarked on a more ambitious project; resurrecting the double rifle for dangerous game with the iconic vertical-bolt side-lock action patented by John Rigby and Thomas Bissell in 1879.
To give that some historical perspective, 1879 was the year in which British forces under Lord Chelmsford were decimated at Isandlwana by Cetchweyo’s Zulu impis. Around the same time, Henry Morton Stanley was fighting his way through the Congo to rescue Emin Pasha and Thomas Edison was preparing to demonstrate the first workable light bulb. The world was a very different place. That gun patents dating back this far are still being launched as new models in London is a mark of their cleverness and utility.
Given the success of their rifle projects, it was only a matter of time before the shooting public expected to see a new Rigby shotgun emerge from Pensbury Place, Rigby’s workshop on the south side of the River Thames. That day has come, and the new shotgun mirrors their double rifle in being built around the Rigby & Bissell action.
Thomas Bissell was a gunmaker with whom John Rigby had a close relationship. Some Rigby guns made in the late 1800s bear his stylised ‘TB’ initials on the face of the action denoting their origins. Patent 1140 of 1879 remains his best-known work. Rigby made it as a signature action from September 1879 until 1932 as a shotgun, a black powder express double rifle and as a nitro express double rifle. Its demise was due to the high cost of manufacture, rather than mechanical obsolescence.
The action is inherently very strong, with a traditional Purdey patent double under-bolt holding the barrels on the face from below, by way of bites in the two lumps. Additionally, the vertical bolt rises from the top of the action and locks into a bite in a top rib extension, providing a third anchor point.
Aesthetically, Rigby has stuck to the original bar action lock-plate with dipped edges. It is so distinctive that anyone with a modicum of knowledge will recognise it as a Rigby immediately. Marc Newton told me once that his customers want traditional looking rifles and shotguns. Part of buying into the family of Rigby ownership is the distinction it provides.
Rigbys are not like other guns. It would have been so much safer to build a copy of a Holland & Holland ‘Royal’. A London-pattern stocked to the fences side-lock of conventional appearance would be the sensible choice but it would not reflect Rigby’s ethos of being true to their history. Not everybody will understand. Rigby customers will. And the word will get around.
Marc Newton told me recently: “The gun looks old-fashioned”. It really has the look of the era in which it emerged. The early 1880s was a period of variance. Every maker was building a style of gun they hoped would catch the public’s imagination and be blessed with general approval. In the two decades that followed the introduction of the Rising Bite action, a number of things happened that streamlined the look and mechanics of what became known as the London Pattern side-lock. Firstly, most makers dispensed with third grips for best shotguns. Rib extensions and machined recesses in the action are expensive to fit properly and it became apparent that for normal usage, a Purdey bolt alone was sufficient. Some argued that third grips were unsightly and the protruding rib extension was an impediment to rapid loading. For many, the crucial factor was cost.
The other stylistic feature which became the norm, as the 19th century waned, was the stocked to the fences look of the Purdey and the second pattern Holland & Holland ‘Royal’. This means the wood from the horns extends right up to the fences, without the shoulders that actions like the earlier Boss, Grant and Rigby guns feature. When Marc Newton says his gun looks old fashioned it is the differences here to which he primarily refers. There is also the matter of the dipped-edge lock plate. It is a distinctive feature that dates back to early models like the Gibbs & Pitt, and the first model Holland & Holland ‘Royal’. The dipped-edge plates of the Rigby serve no particular purpose, but they are a recognisable house style, which Rigby decided to resurrect for the new gun.
Available in early 2019, the new Rigby Rising Bite shotgun is priced from £79,000 (excl. VAT) and is built in London, at the Pensbury Place factory, where Rigby’s craftsmen and management operate side-by-side.
With dipped-edge lock plates, Rigby scroll engraving and the vertical-bolt action, it is immediately identifiable as a Rigby. The new Rigby offers a distinctive alternative to the discerning game shot at a price significantly lower than its main competition.
The confidence the Rigby team has in itself and its product is evident in the decision not to build a copy of a Holland & Holland ‘Royal’, which has become the generic style for most British makers over the last 50 years, but to make a very distinctive, very different shotgun.
The reasoning goes right to the heart of Rigby’s 21st century success. Marc Newton told me that his experience with the buyers of Rigby rifles was that they wanted classic designs, as close to the originals as possible in feel, look and style. Modern innovations were not seen as desirable, unless incorporated almost invisibly into the design. If you want a high-tech modern rifle in a cardboard box, you can buy one; but not from Rigby. Rigby provide tradition, quality and classic rifle-building. For their shotguns, the same strategy is evident. If you buy Rigby, you want different, you want distinctive.
Of course, the stylistic quirks only succeed if the product is flawless. Hand-built in London to the finest traditions of the London gun trade, with chopper-lump steel barrels, the best Turkish walnut stocks and engraved with the house style of Rigby scrolls, the standard gun is a bespoke product, with everything made expressly for the customer.
Modern production methods have been employed to produce the machined components. This is the way all shotgun production is going. Spark erosion and CNC machinery improves every year and we have now reached a level of sophistication that means for practical purposes, a working gun can be made entirely by machine. The best guns are made to fine tolerances and then hand finished at the final stage of fitting to achieve the traditional levels of perfection in every moving part and chain of mechanical interaction. Engraving, stocking and barrel making are unchanged, being carried out entirely at the bench, in the traditional manner. Finishing is to the best London standards.
Even with the use of modern machinery, the creation of a best quality shotgun is a time-consuming process and, therefore expensive. Rigby’s new gun is not cheap, but it is competitive and sits at a price point significantly lower than its London rivals. Rigby has proven already that it is a reliable producer of quality rifles and many who doubted the ability of a young team to take on the trade’s top names and compete successfully in a small and difficult market, are now ‘eating crow’, as my American friends like to say.
It is typically brave and impressive that the first shotgun to emerge from Pensbury Place is such a classic form and so clearly a Rigby. Rigby’s management broke the rules before, with their rifle building strategy, and succeeded. They have done it again and I wouldn’t bet against them being a winner this time either.