The first rising-bite Rigby game gun—one of a pair—built in a century. The hallmark “vertical bolt” and stout locking loop are front & center. This action helped build Rigby’s enduring reputation for reliability.
A century on, a new gun meets—and makes—gunmaking history
By Silvio Calabi
Photographs by Terry Allen
It isn’t every day that a shotgun goes into production again after a century’s hiatus, but this happened recently at John Rigby & Company, in London. And in February I got to inspect and shoot the reborn gun: No. 18711, a “best”-grade 12-bore sidelock ejector with 28-inch barrels (arranged as God meant: horizontally) that was made for a former American Cabinet Secretary. Also as the Deity intended, it is one of a matched pair—twinned with Rigby No. 18712. The client has had the guns straight-stocked and balanced on their hinge pins; each weighs 6 pounds 8 ounces, and together they fairly shout, “Take us to a grouse butt!” Or a perdiz stand in Spain, or a pheasant and partridge peg in the Cotswolds. Possibly even a grouse covert in New England or the Upper Midwest.
Fine game guns from legendary London houses are nothing new, of course. What sets these guns apart—and what makes them continuation models that leapfrog an entire century—is their actions. Nos. 18711/12 are “rising-bite” guns, made with the unique barrel-locking mechanism that became the signature of Rigby’s most expensive guns and rifles at the turn of the 20th Century. Crank the toplever to the right, and watch the rabbit disappear into its hole, to unlock the barrels and let them drop open—the “rabbit” being the steel pin, or bolt, or bite, that engages the top-rib extension.
Rising-bite is a modern term; it was called the vertical-bolt action when it was patented, in February 1879, by Thomas Bissell and John Rigby. Bissell, described then in The Field as “a well-known and skillful London action-filer and barrel-maker,” did business from the 1850s into the 1890s in the city’s somewhat grimy Southwark Borough before disappearing. John Rigby was then in the toney West End, and today the firm is the oldest gunmaker extant in the English-speaking world. Through the 1880s, Bissell’s name appears so often in Rigby’s ledgers that he could have been an employee; he was probably an outworker. With his help, Rigby had found a way to latch its break-action guns so that they shouldn’t “shoot loose.”
At the time the British gun trade was in ferment. Spurred by the aristocratic craze for shooting small birds and large mammals, business was booming and gunmakers were developing better-mousetrap versions of everything from forend latches to triggers to lockwork and cartridges, and the great boxlock-versus-sidelock debate was already underway. The hinge that joins barrels to action was a particular target for the tinkerers.
The greatest strain on this joint comes not from cycling it—made and greased properly, a hinge should open and close hundreds of thousands of times with no appreciable wear—but from firing the gun. Each detonation tries to push the barrels off the wall, or face, of the action, and this momentary expansion and contraction eventually can loosen the hinge. A gun that’s gone “off-face” shows gaps between the breeches and the action. Once begun, it only gets worse; the gaps widen as the barrels slam back and forth ever farther.
Victorian gunmakers sought to counter this tendency by fine-tuning the geometry of their actions, to reduce the leverage of these forces, and by fastening their guns in all sorts of ways. Eventually Purdey’s double underbolt became the standard and still is used today: an internal bar, linked to the thumblever, that slides forward into notches in the two barrel lumps, to clamp the barrels against the action flats. But this wasn’t enough for some designers, who contrived various versions of a “third bite”—an extra clasp, often at the top of the breeches, where the rib meets the face—to really keep those pesky barrels clamped down: crossbolts, hidden pins, screw-grips, doll’s-heads and more.
To this end, Patent No. 1141 of 1879, for “vertical/horizontal bolting for drop-down guns,” helped build Rigby’s enduring reputation for reliability. The horizontal part was the Purdey-style sliding underbolt; it was the other bit (or bite), the vertical lock, that made the 1879 action exceptional. To this day it is worshipped as the strongest way to fasten a break-action gun—especially a powerful big-game rifle.
John Rigby (1829-1916) was, like his grandfather John, who founded the company in Dublin, a rifleman—an outstanding one at that. At the age of 29, he took over the business and, in 1865, opened a store in London. (Eventually he moved Rigby’s to London entirely.) For about 30 years John Rigby
was involved in national and international target shooting and won about every significant trophy, often with rifles of his own make. In 1887, Queen Victoria’s government snatched him away to supervise the Royal Small Arms Factory, at Enfield Lock. There his team worked to perfect the bolt-action .303 Lee military rifle, both the Metford and the Enfield. He had to retire from civil service when he hit 65, so he went back to Rigby’s and, for double rifles, invented the first smokeless Nitro Express round: the .450 (which ended the reign of the 8-bore blackpowder behemoths). Next, for magazine rifles, he cooked up the .416 Rigby Magnum cartridge, and then he persuaded Mauser to modify its bolt action to accept it. There’s plenty more—John Rigby might have been the first to apply the word “Magnum” to a cartridge—but . . . well, when he died, an obituary hinted that if he’d been allowed to stay on at Enfield, he’d have come up with an autoloading infantry rifle, something that then had to wait for the next World War.
Sporting rifles made Rigby’s name but, popular as deer stalking and big-game hunting were in Scotland, Canada, India and Africa, the big money was in bird shooting at home. Rigby’s produced at least as many shotguns as it did double rifles. And from 1880 until the Great War (1914-’18), most of the company’s top-shelf doubles, smoothbore and rifled, had vertical-bolt actions.
John Rigby the engineer probably realized that the rising-bite action is strong enough that underbolts aren’t needed, but he wisely kept them. The tinkerer in him must have delighted in the novelty of the new fastener, while the marketer likely rejoiced in something that so clearly set his products apart. The rising-bite became a Rigby hallmark partly because of its merit and partly because it was so tricky and expensive to make.
The rising-bite is a good deal more complicated than other third-fastener actions. As the patent notes, its parts move both vertically and horizontally, and a complex recess has to be cut into the top of the break-off for that stout U-shaped loop. The loop itself is filled by two steel posts—the front one fixed (part of the recess, really) and supporting the rear one, the “rabbit,” which slides up and down behind it. Open the thumblever: The rear post withdraws from its loop, the underbolts withdraw from their notches and the barrels tip down. Close the barrels: The underlugs slide home, the rabbit rises back into its hole and the action is bolted shut. Precision is the name of this game. So is strength—the action body contains a lot of steel.
Finally the time was ripe to return to making shotguns too.
How the Victorians made the rising-bite, or vertical-bolt, action is a puzzlement; it’s difficult enough with modern tooling. Patent No. 1141 of 1879 may be the only important action design that was never widely adopted by any other gunmaker, even after the rights expired. Only Frederick Beesley’s rare and super-costly Shotover guns also had vertical bolts, as did two Boss over/unders (No. 6179, a rifle made around 1913, and No. 8515, a 20-bore shotgun from 1938) and one Powell, a 16-bore hammerless side-by-side, No. 7496, made in 1882. (Today gunmakers Max Ern, in Germany, and Butch Searcy, in California, turn out a handful of rising-bite guns annually. The patent elapsed long ago.)
Company ledgers show that Rigby’s made rising-bite shotguns in popular bore sizes from 8 to 28 and rifles in everything from .256 to .577, with the preponderance in .303 and .450 and .470 Nitro Express. The first rising-bite Rigby appears to have been an un-numbered gun made by Thomas Bissell in 1880, when the company still had a presence in Ireland. A daybook entry for May 31 reads (with emphasis added): “Mssrs John Rigby of Dublin one 12bore Rigby Bissell patent underlever hammerless dble gun with top rib vertical bolt extension, lockwork on trigger plate intercepting and trigger bolts. Stock screwed and bored for shooting, shot and ready for cleaning & chequering. This is the first underlever experimental gun and goes in with cost of patent.”
Until this past February, the last-known rising-bite Rigby shotgun was No. 17862, a 12-bore turned over on August 15, 1914, to a Mr. A.F. Clarke, Esq. It was made as the No. 3 gun to a composed pair (Nos. 16590 & 16692, sold a year apart, in September 1898 and ’99) but with its own case. It had a “rubber face pad” at a “special price.”
However, the last vertical-bolt order in the books is for a pair of rifles, Nos. 18190/91, completed for the Maharaja of Karauli in 1932, with gold inlays of his royal crest by Harry Kell. The first was a .350 No. 2 (re-bored around 1980 to 9.3x74R); the second was in .405 Winchester. These were special orders, maybe built on remnant actions found in a drawer somewhere.
Otherwise, rising-bites were all but gone by 1913; thereafter Rigby “bests” largely were built on screw-grip actions furnished by Webley & Scott. We don’t know exactly why Rigby adopted a simpler third fastener, but the cost of building rising-bites may have risen beyond the market, a key craftsman may have retired or the source of the action forgings may have dried up. In 1909 Rigby charged £68/5s for a rising-bite gun; in 1910, when the cheaper screw-grip action came along, the retail price remained £68/5s. (A decade later Beesley was asking £150 for his rising-bite Shotovers, surely one reason so few were made.)
Rigby’s bench is deep in young talent; Diggory Hadoke, Marc Newton and the author admire the new guns; Rigby Managing Director Marc Newton goes through the motions in the firm’s South London showroom.
Based on patent-use numbers, over 50 or so years Rigby produced not quite a thousand rising-bite guns and rifles; today the survivors are prized by shooters and collectors alike. With their distinctive lockplates—the rebated, or dipped, edges are mostly for show—and carved foliate fences in addition to the rabbit in the hole, they are instantly recognizable from across a room or a clearing in the bush.
That was then; Rigby Nos. 18711/12 are now. Five years ago Rigby’s first rising-bite of the modern era, a .470 Nitro Express, went to the London proof house for testing. Steve Helsley and I happened to be there then, and we comforted Managing Director Marc Newton. Somehow word had gotten around that the rising-bite was an obsolete design, even a relic of the blackpowder days. You’ll see, we told him. It’ll pass. Don’t worry! And so it did. Elated, or relieved, Newton presented each of us with the empty case and flattened bullet from the two proof cartridges. (Mine are on the desk in front of me as I write.)
With Rigby’s new rising-bite shotguns, the sophistication and performance of the 1879-patent “vertical/horizontal bolting” with intercepting sears have been improved upon by modern steels and digital repeatability. In addition, the hand-fitting and -finishing meet or exceed anything Rigby did in the Victorian Era (and the floorplates are no longer pierced).
Rigby rising-bite 12-bore guns start at £79,000, 28-bores at £87,000 and 32- and .410-bores at £89,000. Other gauges are not (yet) available, and custom engraving costs more. (On the guns pictured, the gamebirds were engraved by Geoffrey Lignon and the scrollwork by Steve Kelly.) Prices do not include the UK’s 20% Value Added Tax, but VAT is not levied on goods exported to the US. Orders may be placed directly through John Rigby & Co. or with Gordy & Sons Outfitters, in Houston. Expect delivery within three years.
What did we know that Rigby’s boss didn’t? This was the culmination of a process that began in 2010, when several American enthusiasts acquired Rigby—with its handwritten ledger books dating back more than two centuries, to 1781—and vowed to build “rifles and shotguns that reflect the style and workmanship of the Golden Age of Gunmaking.” They hired Helsley, Roger Sanger and me to write a history of the company (Rigby: A Grand Tradition, 2012), and they commissioned Butch Searcy to strip down an original rising-bite rifle and scan the parts for engineering drawings. But before production could begin, they got an offer they couldn’t refuse and sold Rigby onward, to a couple of Germans who also own (among many other nice things) Mauser. And the first thing they did—after elevating Marc Newton and setting up the new workshop in South London—was to supply Mauser barreled actions to Rigby, just as Paul Mauser had begun doing with John Rigby in 1898. And, finally, they green-lighted Newton to bring in master machinist Ian Clarke to reverse-engineer a rising-bite double—the same rifle Searcy had pored over—and figure out how to manufacture the action anew.
Since “Proof Day,” November 6, 2014, Rigby has now built at least 20 rising-bite double rifles. (And since opening its new doors, Rigby has turned out some 950 bolt-action rifles—an astonishing figure that equals Rigby-Mauser production in their pre-WWI heyday.) Finally the time was ripe to return to making shotguns too.
Just as on the new double rifles, John Rigby & Co. uses computerized machining (thank you, Ian Clarke) to assist, not replace, its craftsmen; and the critical fitting and finishing of each bit of each gun is done by hand (thank you, rising-bite executive Nick Coggan) by a team of artisans that must be the youngest and most switched-on in the British trade (thank you, Marc Newton—himself just 31). The House of Rigby is rockin’ & rollin’, and the energy and pride are palpable.