It can probably be said that the British not only developed the sport of big game hunting, but also refined the rifles necessary to hunt big game. Whilst the term big game is now more generally used for most of the larger four-legged animals hunted around the world, for the purpose of this article we are only considering those found in Africa, more particularly dangerous game, and the rifles used for hunting such. Unashamedly this article is biased and intended as such! Whilst many fine big game rifles have been built in Europe and the USA, here we are dealing exclusively with those built by the British and in particular the nitro express ones. This article is intended to give a little insight into the development of the nitro double rifle as well as what to look for when buying one today. I hope you find the following both informative and interesting.
The history of big game hunting and big game rifles really ties in with the expansion of the British Empire. Initially this began with British rule in India, subsequently followed by the rapid colonization of large tracts of Africa particularly after World War One. With this expansion came explorers, professional hunters, landed gentry and army officers keen to hunt the game of these exciting new lands. Of particular interest was the dangerous game, the tiger, lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.
Early rifles although of the highest quality were either single or double barrel black powder muzzleloaders built on the flintlock then percussion system. Small bores for plains game and soft skin dangerous game would have been of. 450, .500, .577 calibre and 12 bore. Thick skinned dangerous game would have been tackled with 10, 8 and 4 bores. Even with the advent of the breechloader and preloaded metallic ammunition in the mid 1800's both rifle format and calibre preferences remained the same.
It was not until the introduction by John Rigby in 1898 of the .450 31/4" Nitro Express cartridge that double rifles really evolved into the weapons we know and still hunt with today.
Whilst Westley Richards development of the hammerless action in 1875 revolutionized double gun and rifle manufacture worldwide, John Rigby's cartridge was without doubt the turning point in the development of the double rifle as we know it. Rigby's cartridge used a new smokeless propellant to fire a metal jacketed lead bullet in excess of 2000 feet per second generating almost 5000 foot pound of energy. This at the time was unheard of for such a small calibre (comparatively speaking!) and suddenly extremely powerful rifles with phenomenal penetrative capabilities could be built much lighter and handier.
Still considered the ultimate choice of rifle for the dangerous game purist, few hunters can pick up a classic British double rifle and not appreciate its fine balance, handling, pointability and beauty. Who also cannot dream about the many adventures it has been on! There is always a romance associated with hunting in Africa and the double rifle perpetuates this more than anything else - other than perhaps a pair of 100 pound tusks! The double rifle represents one of the last vestiges of sportsmanship where in a tough, tight often life or death situation it can be relied upon to get you out alive. The real beauty of hunting today with such a double rifle is that it allows us a brief glimpse of this bygone era and we should be grateful for that.
Well, this is best broken down into five areas...
The first topic of conversation always raised concerning double rifles is calibre. This subject has been covered time and time again in many fine books and this is only a very brief summary of the principal British ones. Nitro double rifles have been built in many calibres from the tiny .17 HMR up to the .700 Nitro Express. However, for African hunting in general most hunters will be looking at .375 upwards, particularly as this calibre is the minimum recommendation in many countries for hunting dangerous game.
It is worth pointing out at this stage that big game double rifles are principally an open sighted short range weapon intended for use against dangerous game viz lion, buffalo, rhino and elephant. The ranges at which they will be shot are certainly short comparatively speaking - under 100 yards and usually a damn sight closer!
The sub .375 group includes .240 H & H, .275 Rigby Flanged, .300 H & H Flanged, .303 British, .318 Westley Richards, .333 Jeffery and the various .360s. Fewer double rifles in this group are seen in the African hunting field today compared to the larger bores. They are of equal quality to their bigger brothers, but have largely been replaced by bolt action rifles which are cheaper and more versatile for general African hunting. That said, double rifles in these calibres would be a pleasure to use for general plains game hunting particularly as modern ammunition and components are available.
The .375 H & H in both belted and flanged format is as good today as it ever was. Still considered the all around cartridge by which all others are judge, it has been used successfully on every big game animal in Africa. In double rifle terms it would not be considered a 'stopper' in the true sense, nevertheless it has saved many a life and has a great reputation. The calibre is also manageable from a recoil perspective which adds to the beauty of owning one. Because of its versatility you'll often find doubles in this calibre scoped.
Next we have the .450/.400 in both 3" and 31/4" case length. This calibre has always been popular and many hundreds of rifles were built in this calibre, particularly on boxlock actions. Whilst it has often been overshadowed by the larger calibres, it established and retains a fine reputation on all African dangerous game. This popularity should continue with Hornady's recent re-introduction of modern 3" factory ammunition.
The .425 Westley Richards holds a unique place here as it was primarily designed for use in bolt action rifles with its rebated rim. However, many double rifles were built by the maker in this calibre and so it would not be unusual to find one. It is a great calibre and perfectly adequate for dangerous game hunting.
Now we get to the real heart of British dangerous game calibres those of .450 to .476 calibre. Choice in this group is really a matter of availability and personal preference as in truth these calibres are all about the same in terms of velocity and muzzle energy. Originally this group only consisted of the .450 variants, but with the British ban on this calibre in India and the Sudan in 1907, the principal British riflemakers set about the development of their own proprietary calibres. All of the calibres in this group work fantastically on dangerous game and are manageable in terms of recoil and weight of rifle. It is this group that constitutes the bulk of double rifles used in Africa by hunters.
The .500 in both 3" and 31/4" is in a little niche of its own and has an outstanding and well deserved reputation on elephant and buffalo. It is a real 'stopper' of a rifle without the weight and recoil found in the last calibre group. Rifles in this calibre are not so easy to come by these days because of their increased popularity, which is why there has been a big resurgence in the manufacture of new .500s by British riflemakers. This is the calibre you most often see in the hands of a Professional Hunter.
Finally we are left with the .577 3 and .600 (some might say .700) which to this day remain the ultimate dangerous game stoppers. Whilst people enjoy the idea of owning one, they are usually not so keen on pulling the trigger once they do! If you have a desire to own one, it would be worth firing a few shots through one beforehand and then carrying it for a whole day so that you can really appreciate what you are letting yourself in for. Very few people hunt with one of these calibres today as they are just too unmanageable for the occasional hunter. That said, they truly are in a league of their own.
From a technical standpoint, nitro double rifles can be divided into three action groups...Hammer
Up until the introduction of the hammerless action in 1875, double rifles were fitted with external hammers. Interestingly, by the time the .450 Nitro was introduced in 1898 both the boxlock and sidelock action were well on the way to perfection and so fewer nitro double rifles were built on hammer actions as the design was considered obsolete. Those you do see are well-built, sturdy and nearly always non-ejector. It is worth noting that many hammer rifles are underlever locking which combined with the external hammers can be awkward to use if you are unfamiliar with the system. Whilst nearly every maker made nitro hammer rifles, typical names to look out for are J.Rigby, Webley, Army & Navy, Manton & Co, R.B.Rodda & Co.Boxlock
The vast majority of classic British double rifles were built on the solid and very reliable hammerless or 'boxlock' action. Developed by Westley Richards in Birmingham, the boxlock action is simple in design with few parts to go wrong and consequently has an outstanding reputation for reliability. A basic entry level boxlock double rifle is probably going to be a non-ejector, but don't be put off by this as these are as well balanced and as accurate as their ejector cousins. Many hunters of old preferred non ejector double rifles for hunting. If practiced with, they can be loaded shot and reloaded very quickly. Ejector boxlocks are very common although slightly more expensive as a result. If you are looking for absolute perfection in a boxlock double rifle, then Westley Richards hand detachable lock is without question the pinnacle of boxlock development. Typical names to look out for when buying are Westley Richards, W.J.Jeffery, W.W.Greener, Webley, George Gibbs, Joseph Lang, Army & Navy, Thomas Bland, Manton & Co, R.B.Rodda & Co, Charles Boswell.Sidelock
If boxlock double rifles are associated with the Birmingham riflemakers, then the sidelock is unquestionably associated with the London riflemakers. With the lockwork operating behind the main action body, the sidelock action had exceptional inherent strength and as a result could be built on slimmer action sizes in proportion to the calibre. You'll find the majority of sidelock double rifles are ejectors although non ejectors do come up from time to time, which represent good value for money as build quality is superb. Of all the makers, Holland & Holland and John Rigby would take most credit for the development and perfection of the sidelock double rifle. Typical names to look out for when buying are Holland and Holland, J.Rigby & Co, J.Purdey & Sons, William Evans, C.Lancaster.
It is obviously important that what you are buying is safe to use and has not been messed around with. Basically look at the rifle in three sections - barrels, action/metalwork and woodwork. Each of these areas has specifics to look for which often determine how original the rifle is and whether during its history it has been altered or modified. This really can be a minefield and so being perfectly honest, the best thing to do is go to a reputable gunmaker or dealer who should be able to talk you through the rifle and perhaps some of its history. If you can, check the specification of the rifle against the original records which a few of the big makers still retain. This should help confirm just how original the rifle is.
With a double rifle is obviously important. Thankfully reputable gunmakers and dealers will usually provide a target with the rifle to show you how it shoots. Some will shoot the rifle in your presence if they have a range facility.
If you buy the rifle privately you should still be able to obtain a target or shoot the rifle. Always begin by obtaining the modern equivalent of the ammunition for which the rifle was originally regulated. All double rifles are regulated to a specific powder charge and bullet weight. This is still manufactured by Kynamco and Westley Richards in the UK, as well as Norma, Federal, Hornady and Superior Ammunition worldwide. You should be able to determine the load from the proof marks which are stamped on the barrel flats, or sometimes engraved on the top of the barrels. Luckily, most British doubles only have one bullet/powder loading in either soft or solid bullet format for each calibre so you cannot go too wrong. One word of warning, calibres such as .475 No.2 have two different bullet diameters so make sure you obtain the correct version. If in any doubt, consult a competent gunmaker beforehand.
To test the rifle, set yourself up comfortably at an upright bench - this makes the actual shooting more comfortable. An effective test distance to start with would be 50 yards and whilst choice of target is a personal thing, the classic black 4" bull is clearly visible with open sights. Start by shooting the right barrel, then the left and check that each barrel groups well and that neither one is keyholing the bullets. If all seems okay, then shoot a right and then a left shot and always mark which way round they are on the target. People can get easily confused!
Most older doubles will shoot a consistent group of anywhere from 2"-4" at 50 yards and some will do this at 100 yards. This is perfectly acceptable particularly with open sights. At the end of the day, it is your first shot that counts and the second is normally at a fleeing target or at point blank range if your quarry's decided to come at you! There may be some difference in grouping between solid and soft nose bullets as well as bullets by other manufacturers.
Gun fit is another important aspect to purchasing a double rifle. A great number of used double rifles were stocked to specific measurements either for a client or for stock, others have been restocked in a similar manner and others altered to suit. As such length of pull, drop and cast can vary from one rifle to another. Be sure that when you mount the rifle your dominant eye lines up immediately with the sights and what you are pointing at. If the foresight bead sits high up in relation to the rear sight, then chances are the stock does not have enough drop and the rifle will shoot high. Conversely if the foresight bead disappears behind the rear sight then clearly there is too much drop and the rifle will shoot low.
Most rifles will be 'cast off' for right-handed shooters and those with a cheekpiece will have more cast at heel and toe than a stock without one. To obtain some idea of whether the cast suits you, make sure that the foresight bead is central to the 'V' in the express sight. If it is off to one side, first check the rearsight has not been deliberately offset, if not then consider altering the cast.
Last look at the length of pull. An old wives tale is to put the butt of the stock in the crook of your arm and then see where you trigger finger reaches to. If it fits, the ball of your trigger finger should comfortably reach the trigger, if you cannot reach the trigger, it is too long and if too much of your finger wraps around the trigger then the stocks too short. However, it is probably advisable to have the stock shorter rather than longer as in a quick shooting situation you do not want the butt of the rifle catching under your armpit as you raise the rifle.
Now to price - simply put British double rifles are never going to get any cheaper so if you want one buy it now! Looking back only ten years double rifles were regularly seen at the big auction houses and often filled several pages of a catalogue. Today you'll be lucky to see a couple in any auction and those that are invariably fetch high prices. Demand for good double rifles certainly outstrips supply which is why so many new doubles are being built today.
Hammer double rifles are invariably the cheaper end of the market, through boxlock, droplock and ultimately sidelock. Non ejectors are always cheaper than ejector and name is very influential in the asking price particularly if it is a Westley Richards, Holland & Holland or Purdey. Calibre is also an important factor and the more popular and larger the calibre the more such a rifle can be expected to fetch. Condition, originality and whether the rifle is cased can also add to the price. With the recent introduction of modern ammunition by Norma and Hornady, expect prices to continue to rise.
The best advice is to go to a notable gunmaker or dealer who has an established reputation for selling used double rifles or in fact building new ones. There may not be any deals, but you can be confident in what you buy.
If your budget has no limit, then the ultimate is to have your own new double rifle built to order. All the top British makers offer new double rifles based on the same designs of 100 years ago. They are all truly fabulous!
Photographs by kind permission of Anthony Alborough-Tregear and Westley Richards, UK
Westley Richards & Co: In Pursuit Of The Best Gun, 1812 - 2012 by Jeremy Musson (2012). Westley Richards & Co is the oldest prestige gun-maker and this book was written to commemorate the company's bicentennial. It covers the richly illustrated history of this English gun-making company.