A classic revisited

westley_richards_mainSomewhat forgotten, the .425 Westley Richards is a big game calibre worth considering, says Derek Stimpson.

As a collector of big game rifles I was interested to see a .425 Westley Richards on a friend's website, while looking over Martini Henrys, Sniders and the like.

The calibre is unusual these days. What caught my eye was the style of the bolt action rifle – short and handy with a flush magazine and fitted with a telescope. It looked right. This cartridge was introduced in 1909, and for a few years it was the most powerful rifle cartridge, in terms of muzzle energy. Only by relatively few foot pounds, but such advertising propaganda sold rifles, especially in the heyday of the growing ‘modern' safari business. It was soon superseded by some of the many new cartridges being introduced in the first 20 years of the 20th century, but it remained a very useful cartridge. It was designed to fit into a standard length Mauser action and so, to get in enough propellant, it was made fat with a rebated base. The first short magnum!

The 410-grain bullet was advertised as being propelled at 2,350fps by 75grains of cordite.

The same ballistics as the now popular .416 Rigby introduced in 1912, three years later than the .425 WR.

The bullet is .435" diameter (.425 refers to bore diameter – the bullet being groove diameter) and 410grains in weight. All of the .400s have bullets with good sectional density, and thus seem to be inherently accurate and have tremendous penetration. I find them ideal rifles in that their weight, at say around 10½lb, makes them agreeable to carry, while recoil is kept to a comfortable level. The accuracy, bullet weight and penetration make them ideal, particularly for Cape buffalo, but in practice for all game, up to and including elephant.

I went to see the rifle. We liked each other immediately. It came to the shoulder handily, the weight was 10¾lb and a Nickel Marburg scope of about 4X, and wonderful optics, made it very useful. The reticle is a vertical picket post and fine horizontal line – not my favourite but nevertheless perfectly acceptable.

The owner said that he had only shot it at 200yds and mostly prone! He offered to let me shoot it. I shot it standing and then off a bench; its weight making it comfortable to shoot in that position. It shot beautifully, so I re-zeroed at 3" high at 100yds, returned and paid for it.

It came with some hand-loads of unknown quantity, but which shot in the same place as Kynamco new factory loads. I started hand-loading with 75grains of H4350 and three shots went through the same hole at 100yds. I have now moved up to 77grains. The load is slightly lighter than factory load which would probably be the equivalent of 80grains, but shoots exceptionally well. The new factory ammunition will shoot a 2" group at 100yds. The 20.5" barrel is approximately 1.25" at the receiver and tapers to ¾" at the muzzle. It has a Westley Richards triangle and is marked Newland Tarlton & Co Ltd, Nairobi, B E Africa.

Newland Tarlton was for many years a major safari outfitter in Nairobi and in the early 1900s was the largest employer in what is now Kenya. Today, the name Newland Tarlton & Co is owned by Donald Young Safaris. The rifle has a history, too, if only I can discover it.

The rifles produced for the .425 WR, when it was introduced, were intended as a five-shot bolt action – unusual then and so potentially more sellable as a five shot big game rifle. However, and it is a big however, the largely ‘colonial' quality rifles had a number of problems. Most were made with 28" barrels – presumably to get the ballistics – but were unwieldy, especially as a dangerous game rifle. The magazine spring also, apparently, gave problems, in that it sometimes didn't have the power to push up the last cartridge. Finally, there were feed problems, said to be due to the rebated rim on the cartridge but in fact really due to poor set-up of the magazine follower and the feed ramp. Many of these rifles were also made too light and had a lively kick. All the wrong qualities for a dangerous game rifle.

John Taylor, in his well-known book African Rifles and Cartridges complements the cartridge hugely but refers to the poorly produced rifles, which in effect allowed the .416 Rigby to become the .400 of choice, produced three years later in 1912. The Newland Tarlton is the opposite: it has a short barrel, three-round magazine and has been worked on to have a really smooth feed.

In the early days before the .375 H&H (also introduced in 1912) the .400s were considered the all-round rifle.

The .404 Jeffery is another nice .400 – mine is light, around 8½lb and therefore rather lively! Interestingly, in comparing his own .404 with a friend's .425 WR, Jonny Niblett once wrote: “If you shot a buff with a .404, it stood and looked at you. Frank and his .425 WR would turn a buff around.” I guess the difference must be down to the .425's slightly better ballistics (as advertised: 2,350fps against 2,150fps) and accuracy/shot placement.

While all this was going on, a friend had booked to go to the Eastern Cape in South Africa for 10 days on a plains game hunt with Allan Schenk Safaris and asked me to come along to try the rifle. I joined him for a week to shoot some cull animals and perhaps a trophy or two. Before I left, I emailed Allan to let him know that I was bringing a .425, which is a large and unusual calibre for shooting plains game. He replied that he had just acquired a new CZ .416 Rigby. Correspondence continued as I explained how the .425 WR cartridge has the same ballistics as the .416 but was introduced three years earlier. So, we decided to shoot together and compare the rifles and cartridges. 

I organised the ammunition and firearms licence and booked my flights to East London airport via Johannesburg. When I arrived, after quite a smooth and painless journey, Allan picked me up and we set out for his local gun shop in East London. We got into conversation with the shop's proprietor which led to a box of interesting Webley pistols being duly produced for inspection, including a Webley Pryse. Sadly, condition did not warrant an instant purchase!

Allan's Alpheaton Lodge, near Fort Beaufort, is two hours from East London. It is new and very comfortable and overlooks a large hunting area where one can spot various species of game from the terrace. Our first task was to shoot the rifle on a target at the range – it performed exactly as expected.

During the next week I shot nine animals, all different species, except for three nice warthogs. The largest included a blue wildebeest and blesbok. All were one-shot kills. The shots were taken from about 60–220yds (the blesbok). The rifle is zeroed about 3" high at 100yds and is point of aim at 50 or 150yds and about 5" low at 200yds. Essentially, this meant I could aim straight at most of the animals. The week's hunting in varied country, was all interesting, with some nice stalks.

In the middle of the week we went in search of blue wildebeest. After some stalking to get into an ambush position – with me ready on the stalking sticks – we were positioned under a small tree to see the wildebeest. Some trotted past, somehow aware of us as animals often are, even if one is still. They turned and stopped. “Shoot the animal in front,” was the whispered command. So I did. The shot, at about 100yds, went through the chest and the animal was knocked over; it kicked and fell still.

Allan got on the sticks with minimal movement, and a tracker, who had gone to a gap in the trees where we thought the animals would go, was able to turn them, giving Allan a shot at around 100yds. His target was felled with a shot straight through the chest.

We were very lucky to have got two shots like that, which was basically due to the abilities of the trackers and the PH. The point was made – both chest shots felled the wildebeest, which one would expect with those calibres, and entry and exit wounds were very similar.

Having used the .425 WR for a week, I can honestly say it performed beautifully. It was nice to carry, it is balanced and pointed well. In all, it is a very nice hunting rifle, chambered for an excellent cartridge, which is really quite unknown these days. Perhaps it is time to re-introduce it.

The next challenge with it will be to shoot a buffalo. I have shot several buffalo, mostly with my .450/400 x 3", but to shoot one with the .425 WR will be the real test.

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