The eternal allure of the double rifle
Following a visit to Westley Richards' premises in Birmingham, Marcus Janssen is left wondering whether it is the heritage, design or craftsmanship that makes the English double rifle so alluring.
There was an unmistakable glint in Anthony ‘Trigger' Alborough-Tregear's eye as he turned the handle of the big, heavy vault door with both hands. “This will blow your socks off,” he said as he switched on the light. It took me a while to register what I was looking at, and even now I can't quite believe it.
My guided tour of Westley Richards' premises in Birmingham was coming to an end.
Like a wild- and wide-eyed Charlie with his golden ticket, I had been granted entry into the inner sanctum of a hallowed world and it was all happening too quickly. Desperately, I tried to capture every last detail – the achingly beautiful guns and rifles, the moth-eaten African trophies, the memorabilia, the sepia photographs, the ivory, the order books, the leather-bound journals, the cartridge collections, the smell of walnut impregnated with linseed oil, dust, sweat and a thousand stories from an era the likes of which the world will never see again.
It was almost too much to take for a boy born in Africa and brought-up on the adventures of Cornwallis Harris, Gordon Cumming, Selous, Bell and Sutherland. I kept on thinking about my brother and all the times that we lay awake in our camp beds on safari, wishing it was 1811 and that we too were heading north with William Burchell into the unmapped, unknown Dark Continent for a sojourn of indeterminable duration and unimaginable wonder.
“Here, what do you think of this?” said Trigger, as he carefully removed an old thorn and weather beaten Westley Richards double from its well travelled canvas case. Surrounding it was the most remarkable collection of double rifles and shotguns, both old and new, imaginable.
As I raised the heavy .577 Nitro Express to my shoulder, I just knew that this was no show pony – this was a tool commissioned by someone who intended to use it. Turns out I was right. Turns out that someone was legendary elephant hunter James Sutherland who – along with Karamojo Bell and Arthur Neumann – was one of the last of a rare breed of professional ivory hunters who pushed back the final frontiers of colonial Africa. Sutherland famously killed 447 bull elephants, and most were taken with this very .577, as described in his book The Adventures of an Elephant Hunter. I ran my fingers along its dark, gnarled stock and tried to imagine some of the places it had been, some of the sights it had seen.
The magic and mystique encapsulated in a best English double rifle is hard to put into words. Yes, they unquestionably represent the pinnacle of the British gunmaker's art – an icon of the British Empire at its zenith – but to someone whose first love was that of Africa's wide open spaces and azure skies, their significance runs deeper than that. Few objects represent the height of African exploration, adventure and discovery like the British double rifle. Almost every legendary African hunter and explorer from Baker, Cotton Oswell and Baldwin, to Cuninghame, Hunter and Percival all carried doubles from the great British makers, the likes of Westley Richards, John Rigby & Co, George Gibbs and Holland & Holland.
The English double rifle as we know it today was the product of the demands of the intrepid explorers of the day, first in India and then in Africa. Evolved from experience in the big game fields of the colonies, they bore no resemblance to the military weapons of the time. Long-range accuracy was of no concern to hunters of dangerous game; what really mattered was having the security of an immediate second shot if you needed it. Indeed, by as early as the mid-1840s many big game hunters in Africa were using double rifles as the two barrels and two independent lock mechanisms gave them just that – a reliable and immediate back-up shot, adding a degree of safety, relatively speaking, of course, to their sport.
Initially, the first doubles were smooth-bored, black powder muzzle-loaders (10 bores were the norm, although 4 bores, 6 bores and 8 bores were also produced) but from the mid- to late-1800s, innovations in the gunmaking industry took off and, with the advent of breech-loading firearms and cordite smokeless powder, double rifles in calibres such as the .450 and .577 Nitro Express emerged as the new forerunners for dangerous game.
However, the British ban in 1907 of the import of all .450 rifles and ammunition into India and East Africa resulted in a rush by British rifle and ammunition makers to develop their own proprietary big game calibres. Holland & Holland created the .500/465 Nitro Express, Joseph Lang the .470 Nitro Express, the Eley Brothers the .475 No. 2 Nitro Express and Westley Richards the .476 Nitro Express, among many others. And by the time the ban was eventually lifted, these new rounds had established reputations as effective big game killers.
Even with the availability of cheaper Mauser 98 magazine rifles, the double rifle still remained the preferred choice of professional hunters who knew that you had to get in as close as possible before pulling the trigger. Anyone who has ever been charged by a buffalo, elephant, leopard or lion will tell you that, at such close quarters, you only ever have time for one or two shots. A third simply isn't an option. And the fact that there are practically no records of best English double rifles failing due to a fault of the weapon itself, tells you why they remain popular with hunters and PHs to this day.
But it was the first three decades following the turn of the century that emerged as the golden age of the double rifle. Although the days of the great explorers and ivory hunters like Burchell, Cornwallis Harris, Gordon-Cumming and Baldwin were largely over, the Scramble for Africa was just beginning and, following the Berlin Conference of 1884, a British colony was established in East Africa for the first time. By 1904, Nairobi, in its infancy, was emerging as the capital of the safari world.
A new era had begun and, before long, Nairobi-based white hunters such as Alan Black, R. J. Cuninghame, Leslie Tarlton, J. A. Hunter, Bill Judd, Denys Finch Hatton and Philip Percival were etching their names into the annals of East African history as the leading white hunters of their day. And coinciding with the surge in popularity in big game hunting was the development and refinement of sporting rifles. Indeed many would argue that it was during this period that the finest sporting arms the world has ever seen were produced for the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and the Maharajas of Patiala and Alwar.
But of course, the Second World War brought it all to an abrupt end and, due to increased labour costs after the war and a shrinking Empire, the production of handcrafted sporting firearms became unsustainable. The days of the double rifle were over forever.
Or so you might have thought.
Just as the big game hunting industry in Kenya was coming to an end in the late 1970s, a new-look safari industry was emerging in countries like South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. South Africa in particular, and latterly Namibia, have shown that commercial hunting, in a far more carefully controlled and regulated guise, can play an important role in the management of Africa's wildlife by giving animals a value far greater than that of their meat, providing employment and generating much-needed revenue in areas where photographic tourism may not be viable. Plus the mere presence of safari operators in isolated areas acts as a deterrent to indiscriminate poachers.
As a result, and driven largely by the US market where an appetite for big game hunting persists and double rifles are justifiably revered as the ultimate tool for the job, orders for English double rifles have remained strong since the 1980s. Westley Richards, for instance, currently have 40 new double rifles on order in big game calibres from .375 H&H to .600 Nitro Express, and Rigby, who have recently relaunched their classic rising bite double rifle, have 21 in production in either .470 or .500 Nitro Express.
“The majority of our clients who order double rifles are still big game hunters,” says Trigger, “and they intend to use their rifles. Yes, many of them will also be collectors, but they are driven first and foremost by a desire to hunt big game in wildest Africa with a classic Westley Richards double rifle.”
The simple fact is that even in today's age of CNC and CAD/CAM machining, English double rifles are still handmade by master craftsmen and therefore the traditional qualities of balance, accuracy and reliability are maintained, even if the rifles are both costly and time-consuming to produce. The fact that only a handful of English makers – Westley Richards, Holland & Holland, Purdey, Rigby and Anderson Wheeler – are producing big game doubles, is a reflection of the level of skill and craftsmanship required.
“Between 500 and 600 man-hours goes into the building of each of our classic droplock doubles,” explains Trigger. “It is a process that simply can not be rushed as each stage must be completed in turn. That has always been the case, and that will never change.” In all, more than 10 highly skilled and specialist craftsmen (action makers, barrel makers, finishers, engravers and stockers) will work on each rifle. But it's not just the building of the rifles that is so time-consuming – each and every one has to be carefully regulated so that the triggers are perfectly crisp, the ejectors sharp and precise, and both barrels shoot to the same point of aim at a given distance (usually 50 yards), a painstaking process that tests even the most experienced and skilled gunmakers.
From order to delivery therefore takes between two and three years for a Westley Richards double, and prices start at £59,500, although if you go for the classic .577 Nitro Express and add a few extras like side plates, an extra set of hand detachable locks, a single selective trigger and exhibition grade wood, you'll be looking at a price tag of about £75,000.
But where to from here? Are such high standards sustainable? And will the demand last? Or, like the last of the ivory hunters who kept going when the great herds were dwindling, are double rifles an anachronism that belong in the past?
“Absolutely not,” says Trigger. “In a day and age when almost nothing is built to last, in England a handful of us are still producing rifles of the highest possible standard that will be passed down from one generation to the next. Whilst being totally functional, double rifles are also individual works of art, totally bespoke and built to each individual client's specifications.”
But let's not forget that although they were invented in the 19th century and perfected in the 20th, they remain, in the 21st century, the most reliable and best tool for the job. Which brings me back to James Sutherland's mighty .577. “You know, after all these years out of service, I wouldn't hesitate to take this rifle back to Mozambique to hunt buffalo,” I said, perhaps a bit too nostalgically. “You just know it wouldn't let you down.”
That's the thing – they've never been beaten. And in today's day and age, that's saying something.