A PAIR FOR A GENTLEMAN
Only for those who are serious about wingshooting.
JOHAN VAN WYK
Ithink owning a fine, matched pair of custom-fitted, best-quality shotguns is the ultimate any shotgunner can wish for. Such pairs (and even trios and quartets of guns in some instances) were turned out in relatively modest numbers by some of England’s finest makers such as Boss, Purdey, Holland & Holland and others. In many instances these guns were used by well-to-do gentlemen who insisted on shooting their birds with the finest guns that could be had at the time.
The reasoning behind a matched pair of guns came about as a result of the great driven shoots of Edwardian times. The idea was, firstly, to have a pair of guns with identical dimensions so that they could be used interchangeably without adjustment or inconvenience, and secondly to provide serious and sustained firepower when the birds were really flying. In almost all instances the shooters made use of loaders who stood behind them and upon receiving an empty gun, exchanged it for a loaded one.
With the guns being virtually identical they allowed for continuous accurate shooting and the result often was a huge number of birds being brought to bag. Ownership of a matched pair of guns during earlier times was often a pretty fair indication of the owner’s prowess as a game shot as well as his financial fortitude. It has to be said though that fair numbers of more modestly-priced box-lock guns were also made as pairs at the request of customers.
One of the most famous game shots was Lord Ripon. This esteemed gentleman was a Purdey customer and did his shooting with a trio of 12-bore Purdey hammer ejector guns. Two of these were made to his specifications as a pair in 1894 and the
third gun was added two years later. Ripon was somewhat of a legend in his own time and kept very careful count of the numbers of game he shot over the years: his total bag was a staggering 556 813 head of game! The lion’s share of this was shot with his Purdey hammer guns and with the help of a pair of well-trained loaders.
WHAT MAKES A PAIR?
When scrutinising the lists of guns offered for sale by auction houses some pairs of guns are often described as a composed pair. What this means is that they were not necessarily manufactured as a true matched pair but rather that some attempt was made at a later stage to get their measurements as close to identical as possible, or even that a second gun was made at a later stage to match the first one. Over time many pairs of fine guns were separated for various reasons and sold or passed on to new owners. Often, a father bequeathed his pair of fine guns to his two sons, inevitably assuring that they would be split up and be passed on in two different legs of the family or even sold at some stage. There is even a specialist gun dealer in the UK dedicated to matching up pairs of guns again, although I’m not sure how successful he is.
A true pair denotes guns that were made from the outset to be identical to each other with consecutive serial numbers. Such a pair would usually be fitted with barrels of similar length and chokes, stocked with a pair of walnut blanks that were carefully selected to look as similar as possible, and be stocked to identical dimensions. In addition, the actions, barrels and major parts of each gun in a true pair would be carefully marked as well (usually with a gold-inlaid “1” or “2”) to avoid a mix-up as they were not as a rule interchangeable. True pairs of guns, when cased up together and in good condition, are highly sought after today. Interestingly, some »
» of the better gun makers still make true pairs today.
Some of the really well-heeled even had pairs of double rifles made up for use on dangerous game, presumably where they expected to encounter lions, tigers or buffalo by the dozen. True pairs of double rifles are exceedingly rare (not to mention expensive) but they are out there. They are, according to an Australian friend of mine, “the ultimate gentleman’s accessory”, perhaps because he owns just such a pair of .450/400 NE’s!
The pair of Rigby 12-bore sidelock ejector guns in the accompanying photographs happens to be a true pair. As a maker, Rigby is most often associated with rifles and the firm rightly gained fame for their reliable Rigby/Mauser bolt-action rifles as well as their superb double rifles chambered for cartridges such as the .450 NE and .470 NE. What is less well known, however, is that Rigby made a large number of shotguns over the years that could compete quality-wise with the best of the other famous gun makers of the time.
SIDE-LEVERS, BARRELS, ACTIONS
The guns under discussion here are obviously best quality sidelock ejectors and upon examination they have a few interesting and rarely-encountered features, if you know what to look for. Firstly and most obviously, they are fitted with sidelevers for opening the actions. Side-levers were most often associated with makers such as Stephen Grant who habitually fitted them to their guns and for whom they became somewhat of a trademark.
If memory serves me right, I have encountered a total of five vintage Rigby side-locks fitted with side-levers: the guns pictured here, a similar pair in 16-bore I saw at a shoot many years ago, and a .303 double owned by a friend who also happens to be an avid Rigby collector. Somewhere in the world in somebody’s well-guarded vault there may be a stash of Rigby side-lever guns carefully hidden away but I reckon I am on reasonably solid ground by claiming that side-lever opening Rigby guns and rifles are pretty rare.
As this pair was made in 1895 they were originally proofed for black powder only, as was the norm then. In 2011, however, the guns were subjected to a comprehensive professional refurbishment in Britain. In the process, the colour case-hardening was renewed and the barrels on both guns were carefully measured for thickness. With many vintage guns, the barrels are often on the thin side as a result of honing out due to the use of ammunition loaded with corrosive primers and improper cleaning, but in this instance it was found that the barrels of
both guns were still in excellent condition, so much so in fact, that the chambers were lengthened to 2¾-inches from the original 2½-inches and the guns submitted for reproof to the London Proof House. Needless to say, both guns passed reproofing with flying colours and it is perfectly safe to fire modern 2¾-inch ammunition loaded with lead shot in them.
The relatively short, 28-inch barrels (for the time) are another feature of this true pair. Today, 28-inch barrels are very much accepted as a good length for a 12-bore, side-by-side game gun but in the 1890s longer (30 inches or so) barrels were considered essential and it was really only by the 1920s that slightly shorter barrels became popular. Many makers then started producing lightweight guns with these “short” barrels. Even though I currently shoot guns with 30-inch barrels I don’t have a problem with 28-inch barrels and this pair handles just fine. However, shorter than 28 inches is usually a problem for some people.
Notwithstanding any of the guns’ other fine features, it is actually the actions they are built on that make them so desirable as collector’s pieces. In 1879 Rigby, along with Thomas Bissell a London action-filer and barrel maker, registered Patent No 1141 for a means of “vertical/ horizontal bolting for drop-down guns”. This design eventually became known as the Rigby rising-bite design, although Marc Newton, Rigby’s current managing director, was careful to point out to me some years ago that the design is actually more accurately described as a rising-bolt design, for reasons which I shall attempt to explain.
In addition to the almost universally accepted double Purdey under-bolting, the rising-bite design makes use of a rib extension that ends in an almost horseshoe-shaped loop. When the action is closed the underlugs slide into position and the loop is filled by two posts, one fixed and one which slides up as the action is closed and mates with the loop. As the action is opened again the loop rises whilst the movable post sinks away into the action, hence the description of rising-bite, even if it is in actual fact the bolt that rises out of the action to meet the loop. They were indeed also described as vertical-bolt guns and rifles in the Rigby ledgers and were made as bar-actions side-locks with characteristic dipped-edge lock-plates.
Rising-bite actions were renowned for their strength and ability to withstand countless numbers of heavy loads. They earned an enviable reputation for reliability and strength and cemented Rigby’s reputation as a maker of fine double guns and rifles. On the negative side, though, rising-bite actions were extremely difficult to fit and finish and required an extraordinary amount of expert hand filing and finishing to make them work like the well-oiled machines they were. This also dictated that rising-bite actions were automatically reserved for only the most expensive guns and rifles, putting them well out of reach of the more plebeian ranks who had to be content with cheaper alternatives.
By 1910, the rising-bite action was pretty much a thing of the past as it was just too difficult to manufacture. Rigby turned to other designs for their best guns and from this period onwards made extensive use of Webley screw-grip actions, both sidelock and box-lock, for all their grades of double guns and rifles. A stock of rising-bite actions must still have been on hand, though. A friend of mine owns an exquisite rising-bite .470 NE made for an English nobleman in 1912. Rigby’s ledgers show the last pair of rising-bites, a pair of rifles with identical stock dimensions chambered for the .350 No 2 and .405 Winchester, respectively, were sold to the Maharaja of Karauli in 1932.
Despite the fact that the rising-bite was allowed to die out, the reconstituted Rigby resurrected the design again in recent years, and orders for 12-bore ejectors were amongst the first received by the factory. With the aid of modern manufacturing techniques and computer-assisted design and manufacturing, even the daunting rising-bite could be resurrected and in years to come small numbers of this legendary design will grace the game fields again.
THE RIGBY PAIR
This brings me back to the vintage pair of Rigby’s. At a svelte 6lbs 7oz ounces each, choked just about Modified and Improved Cylinder and with 14⅝” lengths of pull, they are near ideal for much of the shooting we do in South Africa. Even though they were probably initially ordered for (and extensively used on) a steady diet of English pheasants or perhaps even Scottish grouse, there is no reason why they shouldn’t work just fine on guinea-fowl, francolin and some other African game birds. There is also something about a side-lever side-lock ejector that is difficult to explain to someone who has not handled and shot with one. It is a distinguishing feature like few others and it shouts “best quality” right across a Limpopo bushveld clearing or Free State pan.
With a comprehensive British refurbishing behind them, this pair of guns is ready for the next century or so of serious wingshooting. The present owner has recently retired from wingshooting and has put up the Rigbys for sale.
I visited the dealer who is doing the sale and had a good look at the pair. I snapped the barrels and actions together, threw both guns to my shoulder and snapped the locks on snapcaps. They harken back to earlier times when birds were plentiful, politics less complicated and a gentleman was still a gentleman. And every gentleman who called himself a shooting man had a fine pair of guns to match!
A fine pair of shotguns in a made-to-order oak and leather case must rank as one of the ultimate luxury items for a man who is serious about shooting.
TOP AND LEFT: Sidelever opening guns are more often associated with makers such as Grant but this pair of Rigby shotguns features elegantly-shaped sidelevers that blend with the profile of the action and is extremely pleasing to look at.
A pair of guns such as these best-quality Rigby 12 bores were most often used with a pair of loaders in attendance to enable the shooter to shoot as rapidly as possible.
Another view of a rising-bite action, this time of a 1912 vintage .470 NE double rifle with the barrels attached. Note the horseshoe-shaped rib extension that mates with the bolt that rises from the action as it is closed.
As mentioned in the article, this pair of Rigby guns was made on what is called a rising-bite action. Here, the action of the number 2 gun is shown with the barrels removed and the side-lever depressed.