John Rigby & Co, one of the great names in gunmaking, is undergoing a renaissance. Founded in 1775 and recently back on UK soil after a 15-year sojourn in the United States, the company is now owned by Mauser of Germany and is being helmed by a dynamic young skipper, Marc Newton.
Under his leadership Rigby, to coin a cliché, is going great guns. It has recently moved to a new showroom in Vauxhall, London, has taken on new staff and is committed to bringing the name of John Rigby & Co back to the glory days of old, as Marc explains: “Rigby represents quality, adventure, the spirit of hunting and the romance of safari condensed into one word. I don’t know of any other gunmaking brand where people get so excited and so passionate, and Rigby enthusiasts are the sort of people who read the old hunting books as kids and dreamt of being Jim Corbett or Karamojo Bell. We want to be able to turn that dream into a reality, so the guy in the suit working in the city can (because he owns a Rigby rifle) turn into the 1920s big white hunter at the weekend.”
Rigby’s recent history is complex but despite its fortunes waxing and waning the name has always conjured up quality rifles, excellent workmanship and the sense of adventure Marc describes. John Rigby, its original founder, was born in 1758 and officially set up the company in 1775. Throughout the 1800s Rigby focused on making cartridge guns, match rifles, Rising Bite guns and rifles and in 1897 began its collaboration with Mauser of Germany, which led to the birth of the Magnum Mauser action in 1900 and to Rigby becoming sole agents for Mauser products throughout the British Empire. New guns were developed and produced during the following decades until in 1951 the last family owner of Rigby died. The company went on to be bought by David Marx in 1968 then, in the 1970s, J Roberts & Son were contracted to build rifles for Rigby before it was bought by Paul Roberts in 1984. In 1997 Rigby crossed the pond and in 2010 was purchased by a Dallas-based investment group before being sold to the L&O Group, which owns Mauser and Blaser in 2013.
The 2013 reuniting of Rigby and Mauser is a landmark in Rigby’s history, as Marc explains. “I was in a meeting with the CEO of Blaser and the CEO of Mauser in which we start designing a new rifle. That was an historic moment as Rigby and Mauser had not worked together for 100 years and I feel that was when we started rebuilding Rigby using the building blocks John Rigby had put in place a century before.”
That rifle is ‘The Big Game’, built on the Magnum Mauser action based on the classic model 98 design. Retaining many aspects of the original, the new rifle includes the much-copied extractor and three-position flag safety catch. Actions and barrels are supplied by Mauser then hand-finished by master craftsmen at the Rigby workshop in London. The guns are proofed in London and will carry the London proof mark as they did 100 years ago.
Marc explains the reason behind the Big Game was to launch an accessible rifle. “While we still make a lot of £25,000 bolt action rifles, in my opinion you cannot run a business that makes good money on just that, as you can’t make and sell enough to be viable. So we needed to go back to our roots, and the clever thing was that we copied the original business model that Rigby had been using 100 years before, which was to design a gun in partnership with Mauser. Interestingly the reason the Magnum Mauser action came into existence was that in 1900 Mauser asked its sporting department to make a Magnum version of the 98 action. One of the first things I said to Mauser when we joined forces is that we need to make a Magnum Mauser action again, so Rigby was very much instrumental in bringing that back.”
Not content to stand still, Rigby has also recently announced that it is once again manufacturing its famous Rising Bite rifles, so called because of their unique vertical bolt, which became one of the most famous double gun systems in the world during the early 1900s. The project to manufacture the new Rising Bites after a gap of 82 years is being managed by Ed Workman, former factory manager at Purdey and Holland & Holland, who now heads up production at Rigby’s new Vauxhall headquarters.
The new Rising Bites, which will take up to three years to make and will retail for £95,000, are being manufactured using a reverse engineering process which means the unique aspects of the original action are replicated using modern technology and manufacturing methods. There are currently 21 rifles in production in .470 and .500 nitro calibres, with many already reserved and bought by collectors, big game hunters and Rigby enthusiasts.
“The Rising Bite is a fascinating project and started off as a top secret idea,” says Marc with a grin. “In fact we had a meeting in which I said just that—but naturally the whole gun trade knew about it within 30 minutes!”
Next up will be the launch of smaller calibre rifles built on the standard length Mauser action in 275 Rigby and 30.06, which are expected to be launched in the not too distant future. To support its gunmaking and business development plans Marc has recently employed several new staff with nine people now working in the workshop, gunroom and offices at its new 3,200 square foot premises in south London. Marc is also ably assisted by Rigby’s finance director Patricia Pugh, who has spent 35 years in the gun trade and was a director of John Rigby & Co when it was owned by Paul Roberts.
As for Marc, who clearly has a wise head on his young shoulders, he has grown up surrounded by shooting and guns. Three generations of his family were gamekeepers, he has been hunting since the age of six and spent six years working with Paul Roberts, whom he describes as the “Sage of Rigby” before being approached by Mauser to take over as Rigby managing director. “That was a great opportunity for me but the hardest thing I had to do was go to Paul, to tell him that not only was I leaving but I was leaving to run Rigby. We had always planned I would stay there and suddenly that had changed. But he was brilliant, very supportive and I couldn’t have done any of this without him so I would like to publically thank him for all he has done for me.”
For Marc, enthusiasm counts for more than what some may see as his lack of years. “Yes, some people want to write me off because of my young age but I have had a broad education, I have gained a lot of experience in the gun trade, I have a great team of people here and, unlike many other gunmakers, we are unique because we are a young team. We are also hungry and want to succeed and return Rigby to its heyday. On a personal note I am happy being south of river, making guns and working hard. Rigby has a tremendous following and for me the company belongs to all of us: the staff, the owners of Rigby guns and anyone that is passionate about the Rigby name which is now back in headlines.”