African Outfitter Back Issues: CONTENTS – October / November 2007 – (Vol 2/6)
MR RIGBY AND THE MAUSER – Johan van Wyk
The Mauser action of 1898 is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best bolt action ever invented. Copied by dozens, used by millions and coveted by collectors the world over, the Mauser simply keeps on doing the job in spite of its old-fashioned looks and a whole legion of grandiose claims from a bunch of wannabe successors, all of whom seem to fall by the wayside one by one as time goes by.
Peter Paul Mauser’s Model 1898 started life on the drawing boards in the Mauser factory at Oberndorf as a successor to the 1895/1896 series of military actions. The 1895/1896 action was a tremendous success for Mauser, entering military service in numerous countries as diverse as Chile and Sweden and attaining almost mythical status in the hands of a comparatively small number of the hard-headed but determined and gutsy burghers of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic during the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. What Paul Mauser realised, though, was that it could be improved further still, and the 1898 Mauser, or K98 as it would become known, was the result.
The most important improvements to the K98, in addition to the battle-proven design of the earlier action, was a third locking lug on the rear of the bolt shaft and a feature that cocked the action on closing the bolt rather than the other way around. The first improvement strengthened the action considerably and the second, together with reduced lock time, improved accuracy. All in all, they made the new action much more suitable for sporting use than the older design, and I would not be surprised if this was part of Mauser’s motivation for redesigning the action in the first place.
The year 1898 also saw the introduction, by John Rigby & Co, of the .450 3¼” Nitro Express, a round that changed the face of dangerous game hunting forever. For the first time, hunters could exchange their heavy and cumbersome 8-bore rifles for lighter and handier versions chambered for the new express round and still take on the mightiest of animals without being under gunned. Parallel to developments in the double rifle field, many of England’s and Germany’s rifle smiths and ballisticians also set their minds to developing a range of calibres for use in the strong new K98 action. Both countries at the time ruled over vast, game-rich colonies in both Africa and the East and the growing demand from settlers and fledgling game departments for cheap, reliable rifles in suitable calibres held considerable commercial promise for the rifle makers of both countries.
The only bolt action in production in England at the time was the Lee-Enfield, used by the British Army in .303 calibre. Although the Lee-Enfield was a superb military rifle (both it and the .303 cartridge would continue to serve the British Army throughout both World Wars and into the 1960s) it wasn’t strong enough to cope with the pressures generated by many of the larger cordite-loaded cartridges developed during this era. The K98 provided the answer. Although history has not yet provided the answer as to who approached whom, the Mauserwerke appointed the well-known London firm of John Rigby & Co as their agents in England during 1900.
Rigby’s distributed Mauser actions to the English gun-making trade and many firms began making superb Mauser-actioned sporting rifles, in many instances chambered for their own proprietary calibres like the Westley Richards .318 and .425, WJ Jeffery & Co’s .333, .404 and .500, Rigby’s .350 and .416, Holland’s .300 and .375, and George Gibbs’s .505. The only tragedy of this development was that many of the established English makers gradually phased their lovely single-loaders (such as the Gibbs-Farquharson) out of production as they came to the realisation that the Mauser was both cheaper to produce and a more suitable weapon for hunting dangerous game.
The Mauserwerke themselves were not idle during this period, either, and they marketed sporting rifles in various different grades and a whole bunch of calibres almost right from the beginning. The famed Oberndorf Mauser sporters were well-made and sold as a rule for slightly less than the best English rifles on the same actions. The Type A Mausers, the top of the line commercial Mauser, were slightly better-finished rifles specifically aimed at competing with the better English-made rifles. The result was a commercial success and an original sporting Mauser rifle is today, when in original untouched condition, a highly sought-after collector’s piece.
During their time as the Mauser agents, Rigby’s built a wide variety of rifles on Mauser actions, most notably a great many in .275 (7×57) calibre. One of Rigby’s best-known clients during this period included a Scottish big-game hunter by the name of Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell – the world would bestow upon him the name “Karamoja”, named for the area in North-Eastern Uganda he favoured as a hunting ground for heavy-tusked elephants. Bell was somewhat of an individualist when it came to rifles and calibres for dangerous game. Instead of the .450-class of large bores favoured by most hunters of the day, Bell preferred smaller calibres, such as the .256 Mannlicher,.275 Rigby, the .303 and the .318 Westley Richards Accelerated Express as his weapons of choice when hunting the big fellows.
Although he invested in a few larger bore rifles in later life (on his last trip to Africa during the 1920s, for instance, he used a double .450/400 NE by WJ Jeffery & Co) Bell will forever be associated with the .275 Rigby and the fact that he hunted in the region of 800 elephants with a series of these little rifles, made especially for him by Rigby. The famous American author Robert Ruark once owned one of Bell’s original .275’s and, in a nostalgic trip down memory lane, took it on safari to Uganda’s Karamoja region during the late 1950s under the guidance of the famous Harry Selby.
Bell owned and used no less than six .275 Rigby’s during his lifetime (some of the later ones were even fitted with early telescopes), a .416 or two, as well as a .22 Savage Hi-Power, also built on a Mauser action for him by Rigby and delivered on 31 May 1929. In hindsight, and considering the amount of elephant hunting that he did with small-calibre rifles without the benefit of professional backup of any kind, Walter Bell probably owed John Rigby a large amount of gratitude for ensuring that his favourite ‘small bores’ worked as reliably as they did in the face of the big ones.
Another well-known hunter of years gone by who entrusted his life to a Rigby rifle in the face of dangerous game was that famous hunter of man-eaters, Colonel Jim Corbett. Just like Walter Bell, Corbett owned a Rigby .275 and used it very successfully on at least one tiger bent on making mincemeat out of him when he could not bring his .450/400 NE double to bear in time. Corbett also commented favourably on his little Rigby’s superb handling. John “Pondoro” Taylor, the famous Irish elephant hunter, poacher and author, owned a number of Rigby rifles throughout his long career and had nothing but praise for them.
Rigby had a large influence on the development of the K98 action for sporting purposes. According to legend, it was as a result of a request from Rigby that Mauser began to make a specially lengthened version of the K98 during the early 1900s. Rigby designed and introduced a cartridge during 1911 that could only be used in a longer action than the standard K98. Both became the stuff of legend: the action was, of course, the famed Magnum Mauser and the cartridge the .416 Rigby.
Of course, being the official Mauser agent in England gave Rigby somewhat of a monopoly in the supply of Mauser actions to the rest of the trade and, with capitalism being what it was even during the early 1900s, they exploited this advantage to the fullest. A good example of this is the fact that they refused to supply Magnum actions to the rest of the trade and it is only after the Rigby monopoly came to an end that other cartridges specifically meant for use in Magnum-length actions were developed. As a result, cartridges like the .505 Rimless Magnum by Gibbs came to be developed specifically to cater for the elephant-hunting fraternity. Although other makers introduced large-calibre magazine rifle cartridges during this period, notably the .404 Jeffery and .425 Westley Richards in 1909, they could be made to work in a standard-length Mauser action and it was really only a few years later, when the longer actions became available to the trade in general, that Magnum Mauser-actioned rifles were chambered for these and other cartridges by other English makers.
Rigby’s monopoly as the Mauser agent came to an end in 1912, just before World War I. By that time, the Mauser action was the whole of the English gun-making trade’s undisputed choice as a bolt action and Mauser probably realised that were was money to be made by releasing actions such as the Magnum to the trade in general. As far as I am aware, no record has been made public of the effect of this step on Rigby as a firm, but their reputation as a maker of best-quality Mauser-actioned sporting rifles was by this time so well entrenched that I am willing to wager that the effect was just about negligible.
Rigby also ordered a number of actions from Mauser specifically designed for use with rimmed cartridges. A small number (no more than about twenty in total) of Rigby-Mausers were made chambered for the .303 cartridge on custom-made actions with a modified sloping magazine box and extractor claw to ease feeding and extracting of the .303’s rimmed case. They also made a modest number of rifles for the rimmed .400/350 NE on similarly-modified Magnum Mauser actions.
The Mauser is today, more than a century after it first became available, still the preferred choice of most of the world’s custom gun makers, and that includes the surviving English makers, such as Holland & Holland and Westley Richards. Almost all the catalogues proudly proclaim that Mauser-actioned rifles may be ordered on “new-built or original” Mauser actions, depending on the customer’s choice.
John Rigby’s original London-made Mausers are today, after all these years, still considered by many the yardstick by which all other dangerous-game magazine rifles are measured. For some strange reason, the current owners of the Rigby company (these days based in Paso Robles, California) seem to have forsaken the Mauser to a large degree and a recent catalogue proclaims that they now offer their smaller-calibre magazine rifles with Winchester Model 70-type actions rather than the Mauser, a fact that I find more than a little sad considering the proud historic association between the Mauser and Rigby names.
If you are lucky enough to own an original Rigby-Mauser, you are the proud owner of a piece of gun-making history. These rifles represent the happy confluence of Peter Paul Mauser’s design genius and John Rigby’s gun-making brilliance and attention to detail and, as such, they are at the pinnacle of the gun-maker’s art as far as bolt actions are considered. Rest assured that the ghosts of men like Taylor, Corbett and Bell are probably looking down at you from across the Big River every time you take your old Rigby out of its case and use it for its intended purpose: hunting Africa’s big game.