The rebirth of Rigby
Since John Rigby and Co’s repatriation from America to London in 2013, they have made great inroads, establishing themselves as an old gunmaker with big new plans. But, as Marcus Janssen discovered, their long and rich heritage still features heavily in what they are doing today.
If I told you that Britain is home to the gunmaking firm that has been in continuous production for longer than any other in the English speaking world, would you be at all surprised? No, I didn’t think so. The UK’s gunmaking heritage is unrivalled the world over. That is a fact. But would you be able to name the firm that lays claim to such an incredible accolade? No, me neither. Not until I met Marc Newton, managing director of John Rigby & Co., that is.
Yes, I’m talking about Rigby, one of the oldest gunmakers in the world. Although there is some debate as to exactly when the company was established, it is widely recognised that John Rigby, the founder, was making shotguns, rifles, muskets, spring guns, carbines, blunderbusses and pistols in Dublin by the late 1780s.
But it was in fact the third John Rigby (1829–1916), grandson of the company’s founder, under whose tenure the company name really rose to international fame. Having opened a store in London in 1865, he was appointed as Superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock, North London (a government-appointed position) in 1887, where he was heavily involved in the development of the Lee Enfield .303 and its implementation in the British military (before this, British forces used breech-loading, single-shot black powder rifles).
And although John Rigby left Enfield in 1894 (due to the government’s mandatory retirement age of 65), he had learned a great deal about repeating rifles, high pressure smokeless powder, as well as rifling and bullet design, and would put his knowledge to great use in the family business which, by this time, had been relocated, lock, stock and barrel, to the West End of London and was being run by his two sons, Ernest and Theo.
Needless to say, this was the golden age of gunmaking, a time of great technological innovation and advancement, during which every facet of firearms manufacturing – from gunpowder, cartridges and ignition, to barrel and action-making and rifling – underwent radical change. The areas of greatest interest were of course military rifles and – because of their prestige and the rising popularity of driven shooting at home and big game hunting in the British colonies of India and East Africa – top-end sporting guns and big game rifles. The third John Rigby was heavily involved in both. His .450 Nitro Express, for instance, made its commercial debut a little over a decade after he left Enfield, just as big game hunting in East Africa had taken off among the upper classes.
Designed with Rigby’s new and unique ‘Bissell Rising Bite’ double rifles in mind, and with tremendous power and inherent accuracy, the .450 Nitro Express became the father of all modern big game cartridges. Indeed, many believe that if it hadn’t been for the British ban on the import of all .450 ammunition into the British colonies of East Africa and India from 1907 – due to insurrections in Sudan and India where the .450 (.577/.450 single-shot Martini-Henry) had become the most widely distributed firearm in the hands of anti-British forces – the .450 Nitro Express would have remained peerless for many years to come.
But, despite such a setback, it was in fact three years later, in 1911, that John Rigby introduced the cartridge that will forever be synonymous with the Rigby name. The .416 Rigby was truly groundbreaking because it was the first bolt-action rifle calibre that could compete ballistically with big-bore doubles of the day, thus putting reliable high-powered rifles within reach of a much wider market who couldn’t otherwise afford a more expensive double from either Rigby or the likes of Holland & Holland, Boss or Westley Richards.
This was made possible by the industry-wide relationships that John Rigby had fostered during his time at Enfield. Indeed, one of the keys to the company’s success at the beginning of the 20th century was an exclusive contract secured by John Rigby to distribute Mauser rifles and components throughout the UK, a relationship that lasted until 1912, two years before the First World War changed the face of gunmaking in Britain forever, killing off a third of the workforce and half of their customers. However, even after John’s death in 1916, Rigby continued to sell Mauser rifles under its own name for several decades.
The years between and following the Great Wars were, of course, lean and tumultuous times for British gunmakers, but due to the legacy and business left behind by John Rigby, the firm somehow survived. Then, in 1968, an Englishman by the name of David Marx bought Rigby from the widow of Vernon Harris, the company bookkeeper who had become the owner of the company after the death of John’s son, Theo, in 1951. Theo was the last member of the Rigby family to be involved in the business.
In 1984, Marx merged Rigby & Co. with J. Roberts & Son, a company which had been set up in 1950 to sell secondhand guns from British India. Paul Roberts, the son, joined the company in 1959 and soon established himself as an authority on both big game rifles and hunting in Africa. He took over Rigby in 1982 and operated it until 1997 when he sold the company name and other intellectual property to Neil Gibson of Texas, but kept the right to build certain Rigby guns and rifles in England while Gibson licensed a gunmaking factory at home in California.
In 2010, two American investors, Jeff Meyer and John Reed acquired the assets of John Rigby & Co. and returned the manufacturing to London, to J. Roberts & Son. The new owners also settled various trademark disputes and secured the historic Rigby archives.
In early 2013, however, Meyer and Reed sold Rigby to the L&O Group, a Swiss-based holding company that also owns a number of German gunmakers, including Mauser, Sauer and Blaser. To their credit, L&O repatriated John Rigby & Co. entirely to London, where, under the management of the young and dynamic Marc Newton, with the experience and expertise of Patricia Pugh as financial director, the firm now has a full team of staff in an office, showroom and factory at 13-19 Pensbury Place, London, in the Vauxhall district.
A new lease of life
Marc Newton (28) spent six years working and studying under Paul Roberts before being appointed as managing director of Rigby & Co. by its new owners in 2013, an impressive accolade for someone so young. But, what Marc might have lacked in experience, he has more than made up for in enthusiasm, dynamism and natural business acumen. Patricia Pugh had also spent several years with Paul when he owned and ran Rigby in the 90s. Together, she and Marc had acquired a real sense of the spirit of adventure, enterprise and engineering excellence that characterised Rigby for so much of its long history. They were determined to bring it back.
With the financial backing of L&O and the obvious benefits of having Mauser as a sister company, Marc, Patricia and their team have made great strides in once again putting Rigby & Co. back on the British gun and rifle-making map.
Having re-established the historical relationship with Mauser that was such a key to Rigby’s success in the early 1900s, they are once again producing classic Rigby bolt-action rifles built on the Magnum Mauser action, as well as their famous ‘Bissell rising-bite’ action double rifles.
“We’ve notched up some major milestones in the past six months,” explains Marc. “We’ve completed the first new Rising Bite for more than 80 years; one of our London Best bolt-action rifles smashed auction records at SCI, and our Big Game range has come of age with the release of three new models. Just as importantly, we’ve received some fantastic recognition of the hard work our team have put in to make it all possible.”
Finishing the first Rising Bite was, for obvious reasons, extremely special for all of the team at Rigby. Bringing it back was on the agenda from the beginning but they knew it was going to take a lot of hard work and a great deal of patience – each one of these rifles takes around three years to make. “We couldn’t have done it without the support and faith of a number of backers who have become close friends as well as valued clients,” adds Marc. “Personally, I’ve been closely involved, and the whole project has been overseen by our production manager, Ed Workman, whose years of experience have really shown their worth. It goes without saying that it couldn’t have been achieved without our incredibly skilled team of gunmakers. The Rising Bite was a real technical challenge, especially with it being the first one in so many years.”
The rifle Rigby donated to this year’s Safari Club International (SCI) Convention auction also gave them a chance to show off their skills after Marc was asked to create a lot for the auction as part of SCI’s World Heritage Rifle Series, back in 2015. “It was a great opportunity to produce a really stunning rifle and show the gunmaking world that Rigby is really back,” he says. But not even Marc could have foreseen quite how the story would unfold, all thanks to a momentous bit of Rigby history that came home after many years in obscurity.
In spring last year, Marc and his team managed to reacquire the .275 used by renowned hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett. The commissioned SCI donation rifle was meant to celebrate Asia, so it seemed logical to use it to commemorate Corbett, whose stories of hunting man-eating big cats have instilled a very Rigby-style spirit of adventure in hunters across the world. The resulting rifle – a .275 built to the same specifications as Corbett’s – was a real collaborative effort. Every member of the team had some input. “I’m an incurable perfectionist and rarely 100 per cent happy with anything,” adds Marc, “but even I had to admit that this one was pretty good!”
The SCI members present at the auction agreed with Marc’s estimation of the rifle, which went on to sell for a record US $250,000 – the highest amount ever paid for a bolt-action rifle in more than 40 years of SCI auctions. “It was an exceptional moment,” says Marc. “But just as significant for us was the fact that our team were commended for their work on this rifle by the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers. Recognition like this is so important. In an age where so much is mass produced, it’s vital for the guntrade that the public appreciate that there are still some superbly talented craftsmen involved and just how much skill and effort goes into making firearms like this. That’s why we always have a gunmaker working on our stand at shows.”
And it’s not just about the high-end pieces. Rigby has always been known for building rifles that are intended to be used in the field. Their Big Game model of bolt-action rifles continue this tradition of making reliable, functional and affordable rifles. In 2015, it won Best New Rifle awards on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s really come of age in the past six months as we’ve added three new models to the range in response to client feedback from the field,” adds Marc.
So, does all this mean that Marc can relax a bit now? “Relax?” he says, with a look of bemusement. “We have a full order book with more than 30 Rising Bites commissioned and in production, plus there has been a lot of interest in our new Big Game models and London Bests. We’re actually currently recruiting three new gunmakers to cope with the increase in demand. Plus we might just have one or two other projects up our sleeves. So no, I’m not sure we’re ready to relax just yet!”