Big Game, Black Powder and Bolt Action brought a whiff of excitement and adventure to recent auctions reports Michael E. Haskew.

This .450/400 J. Rigby & Co. black powder express Rigby & Bissell 1879 patent push-forward underlever sidelock non-ejector double rifle was sold by Holt’s in March for £6,000

Springtime auction events have produced intriguing results regarding rifles of particularly storied provenance.  

In the March Holts event, conducted from Church Barn Farms, Wolferton, Norfolk, a black powder gem once owned by a renowned big game hunter was purchased.

Then, activity at Gavin Gardiner’s April auction held at Hardham, Pulborough, West Sussex, was highlighted by the sale of a rare Holland & Holland Winchester sporting rifle.

Manuel Lopo de Carvalho was an adventurer. His love of wildlife and the thrill of the big game hunt led to tales of treks into the African jungle, particularly an expedition conducted in 1955 into the remote Cuando Cubango province of southeastern Angola, which resulted in the establishment of the first hunting reserves in the area.

A successful businessman, born in 1918 in the town of Coimbra, Portugal, de Carvalho was a lifelong admirer not only of trophy game, but also of intriguing and handsome firearms. 

Prior to his death in 1994, he contributed to the founding of a hunting museum housed in the castle of the Portuguese village of Vila Vicosa, which today exhibits many of his game trophies, firearms, and other artifacts collected during a lifetime of adventure.

His heirs have continued to support the museum with further donations. Occasionally, a firearm owned by de Carvalho emerges as a star of the auction stage, and one of the most recent sold for £6,000.

Big beast

Holt’s presented the .450/400 J. Rigby & Co. black powder express Rigby & Bissell 1879 patent push-forward underlever sidelock non-ejector double rifle in March. 

With 26-inch barrels, open sights with folding leaf sight, white metal sight lines marked for 150 and 250 yards and ramped bead fore sight, the rifle is engraved in elegant Gothic script “JOHN RIGBY & CO. DUBLIN & LONDON” on a raised, file cut rib. 

Its treble grip action utilises the J. Rigby and T. Bissell rising third bite patented in 1879 with use number 392, and the face is numbered 2061.  According to information supplied by the makers, the rifle was completed 25 September 1887 with serial number 15906.

The rifle incorporates underlever cocking, carved leaf fences, and removable striker discs, although the left striker is missing. The fore end includes the Rigby patent lever release.  The automatic safety is marked with a detail of gold inlaid “SAFE”.

Dipped edge lock plates and exquisite acanthus scroll engraving provide appealing accents, while the rifle retains some colour hardening with its probably renewed finish.  Some slight damage is notable to the bar just forward of the right lock plate. 

The rifle weighs eight pounds, 15 ounces, and a 14 5/8-inch pistol grip stock of two-piece construction with a horn pistol-grip cap complete the attractive package. Engraving adorns the sling button, and the steel buttplate is chequered.

John Rigby founded the company that bears his name in Dublin, Ireland, in 1775, and 90 years later a London office was opened by his grandson, also named John. Near the end of the 19th century, the Dublin manufacturing facility had closed, and when the founder died in 1818, the company continued to operate under sons William and John Jason Rigby.

The name was altered to W. & J. Rigby as the concern became well known for outstanding barrel making, rifling precision, and dueling pistol production.

The founder’s grandson, John Rigby, son of William, raised the company to new success after taking the helm in 1858. Rigby captured several awards at exhibitions in London and Paris, and capitalizing on the notoriety, John opened a shop in London’s West End at 72 James’s Street. 

An outstanding marksman in his own right, John Rigby developed the Rigby target rifle for his personal competitive purposes, and the Rigby .451-calibre muzzleloader became the most popular match rifle of the mid-19th century across the UK.

Rising champ

Named superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock in 1887, John Rigby became prominent in the development of firearms and ammunition for the military, particularly as war clouds loomed in Europe.

Prior to World War I, he played a key role in eliminating issues with the famous .303-calibre Lee Enfield rifle, which, with periodic modifications, went on to serve as the standard-issue shoulder arm of the British military until the late 1950s.

Before the Great War, Rigby had gained influential international contacts along with extensive knowledge of production efficiencies. He secured exclusive UK distribution rights for the legendary German Mauser rifle prior to the outbreak of war and had contributed to several variants of the original G98 rifle.

At the same time, he popularized the Nitro Express cartridge, and Rigby mechanisms gained wide use with higher quality shotguns and double rifles.

After John Rigby died in 1916, his son, Theodore, took control of the company.  In the decades that followed, a series of owners, including American investors, has perpetuated the Rigby name. L&O Holdings, the principal owner of Sig Sauer, Blaser, J.P. Sauer & Sohn, and Mauser, acquired Rigby in 2013.

In time, much of the operations that had been relocated overseas were returned to London, where the company is now headquartered in Vauxhall District. The company has held royal warrants under five British monarchs.

Middle aged

Gavin Gardiner sold a more recent—but nevertheless fascinating—rifle for £1,400 in April.  The .458-calibre Holland & Holland Winchester magnum bolt-action sporting rifle, serial numbered 3988, was manufactured in 1977.

The rifle is complete with 23-inch barrels, rear sight with folding leaf and ramp fore sight with folding cover, well-figured and full length stock with pistol grip, cheekpiece with leather covered cheek pad, grip cap with trap, sling swivels, and 13 ¼-inch pull.  Nitro proof, the rifle tips the scales at nine pounds, 15 ounces.

While each of these elements is attractive, the most remarkable feature of this sporting rifle is its incorporation of the Mauser 66S receiver with turn-down bolt handle and side safety.

Although the manufacturer’s records do not reveal the number of Holland & Holland rifles completed with the Mauser 66 action, it is confirmed that they were few in number, making this specimen a rare find.

In the 1930s, German entrepreneur Walter Gehmann embarked on a series of innovations that enhanced competitive shooting in several ways, including an improved precision rear sight assembly, dedicated shooting glasses utilising a movable lens holder, and the first German target shooting jacket, along with a shooting sling, specialized gloves, and boots. In 1949, he established the company that still bears his name as Gehmann GmbH & Co. KG.

Big cat and Mauser

In 1965, Mauser purchased a Gehmann rifle design that entered production as the Model 66, and later the Model 66 Super Match hunting rifle. From this design, the Model 66S, or SP66, emerged in the 1970s as a Cold War era military sniper rifle, and the subject rifle is a fine example of the sporting firearms that remained in production during the period.

Chambered for the hefty .458 Winchester magnum round, the rifle became ideal for big game hunting. The round debuted in 1956 for use with the Winchester Model 70 African rifle and remains popular today as many large manufacturers continue to produce .458-calibre ammunition.

The .458-calibre Holland & Holland Winchester magnum bolt-action sporting rifle sold by Gavin Gardiner for £1,400

Although the details of his early years are shrouded in mystery, it is known that Harris Holland founded Holland & Holland, known worldwide as a maker of superb firearms and as a retail clothier, in London in 1835.

While his father is believed to have been an organ constructor, Harris is known to have ventured into the wholesale tobacco trade while pursuing his sporting pastime at London area pigeon shoots and leasing a grouse moor in Yorkshire.

Early examples of the company’s firearms were inscribed “H. Holland” and are believed to have been manufactured under contract to Harris’s exacting design specifications.

Sometime during the 1850s, Harris Holland began manufacturing his own product, and by the early 1860s his nephew, Henry, had joined the company as an apprentice. A decade later, Henry was elevated to the status of full partner; however, Harris maintained tight control of every aspect of operations.

In 1876, the company name was formally changed to Holland & Holland. A watershed event in the life of the enterprise occurred seven years later when Holland & Holland swept top honours in all rifle competition during prestigious trials sponsored by the popular magazine The Field.

Patents for various rifle and shotgun innovations followed, and the company is credited with the final significant modification of the sidelock side-by-side shotgun with its assisted opening mechanism patented in the early 1920s.

After WW2, businessman Malcolm Lyell assumed ownership and direction of Holland & Holland and repurchased many classic rifles and shotguns that had been presented to–or purchased by–royals and government officials in India, contributing to the growth of a robust secondary market for a range of collectible pieces.

In 1989, Holland & Holland was purchased by the famed Chanel corporation of France, and since that time production facilities have been modernized while handcrafted Holland & Holland rifles and shotguns remain among the finest available. 


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