John Rigby & Company
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|Founded||1775 Dublin, Ireland|
John Rigby & Company (or John Rigby & Co. (Gunmakers) Ltd) is the oldest gunmaking firm in continuous operation in the English-speaking world. Rigby has a distinguished history of technological advancement for both sporting and military application. Rigby rifles, guns and pistols have played prominent roles throughout the British Empire and particularly in Asia and Africa. The company was established by the first John Rigby in Dublin, Ireland, apparently in 1775; his grandson, also John, opened a London branch in 1865; and Dublin operations had ceased by February 1897. The Company is now based in Vauxhall, central London, under the supervision of Managing Director, Marc Newton.
In a relationship that extends back at least to 1895, John Rigby & Co. is again affiliated with Mauser GmbH and is building big game and stalking rifles on Mauser barrelled actions. In 2013, the firm resumed production of double rifles based on its Rigby-Bissell 1879 Patent rising-bite action, the first of which was completed in late 2015. Rigby also offers a serial-number research service; refurbishes vintage Rigbys for owners and collectors around the world; and maintains a Rigby collection in its showroom. One of the collection's highlights is the Rigby rifle used by Jim Corbett (1875-1955), the famous hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards in India.
Some documents suggest the firm was established in 1735. However, since the first John Rigby was born in 1758, in Dublin, and entered the gunmaking trade there in 1775, Rigby today claims that as its founding date. (If John Rigby took over another gunmaking house, he would have inherited its founding date, in which case 1735 could be valid.) The surviving business ledgers date from 1781 and show that by then John Rigby was making, under his own name, shotguns, rifles, muskets, spring guns, carbines, blunderbusses and pistols to clients' specifications and a wide range of prices.
Rigby was nearly bankrupted during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 when the government seized the arms on his premises - those belonging to the firm and to its clients - presumably to keep them out of the reach of rebels. However, by 1810 (if not sooner) John Rigby had rebuilt his business and, in addition to sporting guns, was making, updating and repairing thousands of guns for Ireland's police, military, postal and customs services.
After the founding John Rigby's death, in 1818, his sons William and John Jason Rigby operated the business as W. & J. Rigby from circa 1820 to 1865, a period that spanned flintlock, percussion, pinfire and needlefire ignition and marked the start of the modern metallic cartridge era. Rigby was a leader in barrel-making and rifling technology and, at the time, it was also recognised for its high grade duelling pistols. (Irish gentlemen especially had a fondness for calling each other out over perceived slights to their honour.)
The third John Rigby, born in 1829 in Dublin and educated in science at Trinity College, took over in 1858 when William, his father, died. It was this John Rigby who brought the firm to international prominence. In 1865, capitalising on the awards his family's guns had earned at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and at the Paris Exhibition of 1855, in 1865 John Rigby opened a store at 72 St James's Street in London's West End. Sometime in the 1890s, Rigby sold his Dublin operations to Trulock & Harriss (keeping, however, his customers in Ireland) and became a bona fide member of the small circle of elite gunmakers who catered for London society.
Like his grandfather, the third John Rigby was a top target shot. He won several Wimbledon Cups (the premier long-range rifle championship in the United Kingdom) and, for 28 years, he helped form the Irish national shooting team. Rigby also won the Abercorn Cup and the first Gordon Bennett Cup, and was Irish Champion three times. Between circa 1860 and 1875, the Rigby .451-calibre muzzleloader was the match rifle of choice throughout the United Kingdom. In October 1874, one such rifle was presented to Lt. Col. George A. Custer: the Irish team had dined with him, and President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, in Chicago. The Irish were on an American tour following the first International Rile Match at the Creedmoor Range in New York. There, John Rigby had posted the highest individual scores among all competitors.
During the period from the Crimean War to the First World War, every facet of firearms and ammunition underwent radical change and thousands of related patents were filed in Britain, the United States and Europe. The areas of greatest interest were military rifles (a matter of grave national importance) and, because of their prestige, top-shelf sporting guns. John Rigby & Co. was deeply involved in creating guns and cartridges for both markets. Because of his expertise, in 1887 the British government appointed John Rigby superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock. There, Rigby and his large staff resolved design and production problems for a new rifle and its cartridge: the .303-calibre Lee Enfield, which in various forms went on to serve as the principal battle rifle for the United Kingdom until 1957.
By government policy, at the age of 65, in 1894, John Rigby retired from government service. He returned to the family firm with the latest knowledge on repeating rifles, smokeless powder, metallurgy, rifling and bullet design, as well as international contacts at the highest levels of gunmaking. One of these was Peter Paul Mauser, and, in 1898, Rigby was appointed the exclusive importer and distributor for Mauser rifles and components for the British Empire. For sale under his family name, John Rigby also developed sporting versions of the G98 Mauser rifle and its ammunition, notably the 7x57mm infantry round. With hunting bullets, this became a highly successful stalking cartridge known as the .275 Rigby.
In 1912, John Rigby & Co. lost the exclusive British sales contract to a member of the Mauser family, but Rigby continued to base its magazine rifles on Mauser (and Mauser-style) actions and still does so today. Among professional and sporting hunters in India and Africa, Rigby became known as the 'aristocrat of bolt-action rifles'.
In addition to its .275, Rigby developed an equally successful medium-heavy game round known as the .350 Rigby, and its rimmed counterpart for double rifles, the .350 No. 2.
At John Rigby's request, in 1900 Mauser began to develop a stretched version of its G98 action for larger cartridges. This became known as the Magnum Mauser and has served as the foundation for countless bolt-action big-game rifles ever since. The larger action was originally meant for Rigby's interim .400/.350 round, but in 1911 the company introduced the .416 Rigby cartridge for rifles built on the Magnum Mauser action. This was the first magazine rifle that could perform on a par with the powerful Nitro-Express double rifles, for one-third to one-fifth of their prices.
John Rigby was well versed in Nitro Express cartridges as well. In 1898, with the help of the Curtis's & Harvey Gunpowder Company, he had introduced the first of them: the Rigby .450 NE. In 1899, however, the colonial government of India began to restrict .450-calibre rifles and ammunition, which forced British gunmakers to develop a flood of variations to avoid the India ban. The most popular of these proved to be the .470 Nitro Express, and John Rigby & Co. adopted this as its 'standard' heavy double-rifle load.
In addition to the pioneering Nitro Express cartridge, Rigby was also noted for the unique vertical-bolt or rising-bite action, used only on its best-grade double rifles and shotguns. Based on the Rigby-Bissell Patent of 1879, this is a complex and massively strong locking system with a post that rises vertically out of the break-off into a U-shaped loop extending rearward from the top rib of the barrels, as a third fastener. Between 1879 and 1933, Rigby built approximately one thousand rising-bite guns and rifles in many different bores. Today, these are coveted by shooters and collectors. Within a few weeks after the first new rising-bite action passed London proof, in November 2014, Rigby received orders for more than a dozen such rifles. Following the unveiling of the first completed modern rising-bite in January 2016, Rigby received over 20 further orders for rising-bite shotguns and rifles.
John Rigby died in 1916, leaving a prosperous business in the hands of his son, Theodore. After Theodore Rigby's death, in 1951, the company was acquired by Vernon Harris, who had been its bookkeeper. Upon Harris's death, his widow sold the business in 1968 to a team of investors led by David Marx. Marx contracted with J. Roberts & Son, a London gun company established in 1959, to build Rigby guns. Paul Roberts, Joseph Roberts' son, took over Rigby in 1982 and operated it until 1997. D.H.L. Black's book, Great Irish Gunmakers: Messrs Rigby, 1760-1869, was published in 1992.
Paul Roberts became well known in hunting circles in both India and Africa, and in 1995 he created Rigby's newest cartridge: the .450 Rigby Magnum Rimless. In 1997, Roberts sold the Rigby name and other intellectual property to Neil Gibson of Texas, but kept the right to continue building certain Rigby guns and rifles in England, while Gibson licensed a Rigby gunmaking factory in California.
In 2010, two American investors, Jeff Meyer and John Reed, acquired the assets of John Rigby & Co.. They returned the manufacturing to London, J. Roberts & Son, and published the book Rigby: A Grand Tradition. The new owner also settled various trademark disputes and secured the historic Rigby archives.
In early 2013, they sold Rigby to the L&O Group, a Swiss-based holding company that also owns a number of German gunmakers, including Mauser. L&O repatriated Rigby entirely to London, where it now has a full staff in an office, showroom and factory at 13-19 Pensbury Place, SW8, in London's Vauxhall district.
- No. 1976 of 1854 - a lever cartridge rammer for a revolver; a type of rifling; a safety hook for an outside-hammer lock; a means of joining barrels with straps and wedges; etc.
- No. 3140 of 1860 - a trapdoor-type gate to allow barrels to be loaded at their breeches (with J. Needham).
- No. 899 of 1860 - sideways-pivoting barrels; a drop-down revolver barrel; a needlefire cartridge; a cartridge lined with sheet brass; etc. (with William Norman).
- No. 1966 of 1862 (provisional) - a drop-down barrel that also moves horizontally; a breechblock cartridge extractor; a rifle foresight that adjusts for windage as well as range.
- No. 332 of 1867 (provisional) - a rebounding hammer for pistols and single- and double-barrel guns.
- No. 1098 of 1871 - a snap-action locking underlever; sub-gauge barrel liner tubes; etc.
- No. 312 of 1875 (provisional) - a method of choke boring a shotgun barrel (with M. W. Scott).
- No. 1141 of 1879 - 'vertical/horizontal bolting for drop-down guns' (with Thomas Bissell).
- No. 1361 of 1882 - a sidelever falling-block single-shot rifle (with Langrishe Fyers Banks).
- No. 16321 of 1888 - 'bayonets attaching to gun barrels'.
- No. 301 of 1897 - a single-trigger mechanism (with M. A. and L. E. Atkins)
- No. 5554 of 1906 - 'apparatus for teaching correct aiming with a rifle'.
Cartridges developed by John Rigby & Co.
- .450 Nitro Express (1898)
- .275 Rigby (1899)
- .400/.350 Nitro Express (1899)
- .350 Rigby and .350 Rigby No. 2 (1908)
- .416 Rigby (1911)
- .275 No 2 Magnum (1927)
- .450 Rigby Magnum Rimless (1995)
Notable clients and users (a partial list)
- HRH George IV
- Lt. Col. George A. Custer
- Field Marshal Kitchener
- Col. Sir Aubrey Woolls Sampson
- Frederick Courney Selous
- Kermit Roosevelt
- W. D. M. 'Karamojo' Bell
- HRH Edward VII
- Yetta III, Paramount Chief of the Barotse
- Ishe Kwando of Lealui
- King Lewanika of Barotseland
- HRH the King of Swaziland
- The Hon. Denys Finch-Hatton
- HRH George V
- Philip Percival
- Sir Winston Churchill
- HRH George VI
- HRH the Prince Colloredo-Mansfield
- HRH Maximillian, Prince of Furstenberg
- Count Trauttmansdorff
- Sir Charles Ross, 9th Baronet
- E. J. 'Jim' Corbett
- Count Pierre of Polignac
- Carl Gustaf Mannerheim
- HRH the Kabaka of Buganda
- HRH Prince William of Sweden
- HRH Franz Joseph II, Prince of Liechtenstein
- John 'Pondoro' Taylor
- John A. Hunter
- Robert E. 'Pete' Petersen
- Harry Selby
- Wilbur Smith
- HRH Elizabeth II
- President George H. W. Bush
Rigby rifles and guns were also popular among the royalty of India and Asia, including Sheikh Abdullah and the Emir of Afghanistan as well as the nawabs, rajas, maharajas, maharanas and other rulers of the princely states of Alwar, Berar, Bharatpur, Bhopal, Bijawar, Idar, Jhalawar, Jhind, Jodhpur, Karauli, Kashmir, Khairpur, Kutch, Patiala, Pooch, Rewa, Surguja, Tikari, Udaipur and Uliver.
John Rigby & Co. has been gun or rifle makers by royal appointment (holders of a royal warrant) to:
- King George IV
- The Prince of Wales (1885)
- King Edward VII
- King George V
- King George VI
- Queen Elizabeth II