Rigby The Revolution

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Rigby cartridges remain undeniably classic chamberings for any generation or pursuit.

We spotted the boar crossing a cut lane and immediately put on a stalk; he was worthy of attention. His profile alone indicated a good, mature hog, with no doubt he was a shooter, even at 200 yards. Turning the corner, we saw the boar run. I swung on his shoulder and broke the trigger as it crossed the vertical plane of his vitals. I heard the bullet strike, and despite the fact that the rains had just subsided, we found blood quickly. As it has done so many times over the last century, the .275 Rigby had done its job neatly and effectively.

John Rigby & Company can trace its roots to Dublin, Ireland, in 1775, through to London, England, today; in spite of a short jaunt here in the United States, the company is situated where it belongs, making fantastic firearms worthy of the pedigree. But what so many people overlook is Rigby’s contributions to the cartridge world, and their effect on the modern ballistics.

(Left to right) The .450 3¼-inch Nitro Express, .275 Rigby, .350 Rigby Magnum, .416 Rigby and .450 Rigby. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

All That’s Gold Does Not Glitter

I’m sure that even the novice rifleman could name one or two cartridges with the Rigby surname, yet one of the most important doesn’t bear the family name or even get the credit worthy of its performance. It did, single-handedly, set the benchmark for a dangerous-game-stopping rifle, though its tenure was cut short due to some colonial insurrections.

The .450 3¼-inch Nitro Express was developed by John Rigby & Co. in 1898. There were other .450s designed for use with blackpowder, but Rigby’s .450 NE was the first Nitro Express cartridge designed for use with “nitro” or smokeless powder. It’d drive a 480-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2,150 fps and would become the favorite of many traveling sportsmen and professional hunters alike, until the Crown banned all .450-caliber ammunition in its colonies in 1907, due to the uprisings in India and Sudan. (The concept was to deny access to those colonials with .577-450 Martini-Henry rifles.) To circumvent the problem, many companies designed a cartridge with similar ballistics, like the .470 NE, the .475 NE and the .475 No. 2 Jefferies. Still, to this day, the .450 3¼-inch NE makes a perfect choice for the dangerous game hunter.

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The .450 Nitro Express became the benchmark for dangerous work and was mimicked by the .470 NE, .458 Win. Mag. and many more. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

The ballistic formula of the .450 NE would go on to inspire Winchester’s 1956 .458 Winchester Magnum, which did its best to replicate the concept, though it certainly fell short. Using a 510-grain bullet at an advertised muzzle velocity of 2,150 fps, the .458 Winchester didn’t reach those numbers for at least four decades. Though the .470 Nitro Express would become the most popular of the rimmed cartridges for single-shots and double rifles in this class, Rigby’s .450 NE remains a solid choice for any hunter.

The 7×57 Rigby. Wait, What?

John Rigby & Co. had a business arrangement with Mauser of Germany in the late 19th century, importing their fantastic Model 98 actions and giving them British stocks and appointments. Rigby offered the 7x57mm Mauser as one of the chambering for their rifles—understandably, it was and is a fantastic hunting cartridge—but decided to rename the cartridge to make it more palatable to the British market. This wasn’t uncommon; the .404 Jeffery was known as the 10.75x73mm on the European continent.

The .275 Rigby is simply the 7×57 Mauser using an alias. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

The .275 Rigby is, was and ever shall be nothing more and nothing less than the 7x57mm Mauser, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. The classic design uses the full gamut of the 7mm bullets, with the 175-grain bullets having made the reputation for the cartridge. But anyone interested in the .275 Rigby should be aware of the .275 Rigby HV chambering. The lead of the chamber has been revised to optimize performance with the 140-grain spitzer bullet; the HV chamber won’t accept the 175-grain bullets, and only a handful of the 150-, 156- and 160-grain bullets will work in the HV chamber.

Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell—better known as Karamojo—used the .275 Rigby for his legendary ivory hunts across the African continent. Col. Jim Corbett used the .275 Rigby rifle presented to him for killing the Champawat tigress to end the careers of many more man-eaters. I’ve had the pleasure of holding Corbett’s rifle. It’s a lightweight, well-balanced gun, and though it bears no sign of either bluing or stock finish due to exposure to the elements while on the hunt, it remains a classic Rigby design. Bell and Corbett are just two examples of hunters who’ve risked their lives among the world’s most dangerous game with a .275 Rigby in hand.

Rigby Highland Stalker 3
Rigby’s Highland Stalker is a classy rifle, and when chambered for the .275 Rigby makes a great choice for nearly all big-game hunting. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

The .275 Rigby isn’t a speed demon, but it isn’t a slow poke, either. In fact, I feel it makes a better choice than a .243 Winchester or .30-30 for a young hunter: Its recoil level is wonderfully mild, yet the cartridge has a bullet weight selection suitable for everything south of the true heavyweights.

The Perfect Medium?

The .350 Rigby Magnum came in 1908 and was an absolute original. Using a 45-degree shoulder—which would carry over to the .416 Rigby—on a rimless case, the .350 Rigby is a sensible design. It has a rim diameter close enough to the .375 H&H that the same bolt face will handle both cartridges. The .350 Rigby Magnum will use the .358-inch diameter bullets common to the .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .358 Norma Magnum and .350 Remington Magnum.

The .350 Rigby Magnum was released in 1908 and still makes a great big-game cartridge. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

The classic .350 Rigby load sees a 225-grain spitzer bullet leaving the muzzle at 2,600 fps, making it a wonderfully effective choice for larger game. It was used as an all-around choice, but many hunters found there were better choices for thick-skinned, dangerous-game animals. It was a favorite of both Denys Finch Hatton and Bror von Blixen-Fineke. They found it to make a perfect light rifle on safari, and John “Pondoro” Taylor sang its praises as well, putting it on an equal plane with the .318 Westley Richards and .375 H&H Magnum as a do-all cartridge.

.350 Rigby Magnum ammunition from Kynoch, in the classic 225-grain roundnose configuration. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Component cases are available from Roberson Cartridge Company, and there are all sorts of excellent bullets to choose from, with reliable load data provided in the Woodleigh Reloading Manual. I’m aiming for a 250-grain bullet at 2,650 fps or thereabout, as the .350 Rigby Magnum has nearly the same case capacity as the .358 Norma Magnum. If you’re looking for a beefy cartridge that’s not your run-of-the-mill choice, the .350 Rigby Magnum should be on your list for sure.

Head of the Class

All you have to do is mention African dangerous game cartridges, and it’ll be a matter of seconds before someone throws the .416 Rigby into the mix. And that’s a good thing. It remains one of the best choices for the thick-skinned dangerous game animals.

The .416 Rigby No. 2 has the same ballistics as its older, rimless variant, but it features a rim…making it easier for use in single-shot and double rifles. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

While the cartridge has always enjoyed a great reputation, not many Rigby rifles were chambered for it during the Golden Age of safari. In fact, from its release in 1911 until the outbreak of World War II, less than 170 .416 Rigby rifles were in circulation. It was a favorite of professional hunters, but being a proprietary cartridge, the .416 Rigby was certainly not as popular as the .375 H&H Magnum or the .404 Jeffery. It was, undoubtedly, Robert Ruark’s Horn of the Hunter that cemented the .416 Rigby’s place among the great cartridges. From 1911 until the late 1980s, the .416 Rigby was the only commercial cartridge in the bore diameter, and the case—much like the .350 Rigby Magnum—is a unique design having no parent case.

Topped with a 400-grain Woodleigh Hydrostatically Stabilized Solid, the Federal Safari .416 Rigby ammo is suitable for anything that walks. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

The .416 Rigby was advertised to drive a 410-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps. Dr. Kevin Robertson, however, tested some vintage Rigby ammunition and found the actual speed to be right around 2,150 fps—such is the way of things when dealing with century-old designs. Most modern loads use a 400-grain at velocities between 2,300 and 2,400 fps, generating somewhere around 5,000 ft-lb of energy, and there are a few different bullet weights up and down. I like the Woodleigh 450-grain Weldcore softpoint and full metal jacket solid loaded in the Norma African PH line at 2,150 fps. If you felt the .416 Rigby lacked anything as a stopping rifle, this pair of bullets will alleviate your worries.

The Rigby receiver markings on their Big Game rifle. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

The .416 Rigby should be housed in a magnum-length receiver, and that big case—designed to combat the effects of tropical heat on cordite, keeping the pressures low enough for reliable extraction—will eat up magazine space. Many .416 rifles will have an Oberndorf-style magazine extension in order to get additional cartridges in the magazine. The 45-degree shoulder gives good headspacing, and the low pressure the cartridge generates remains an attractive feature to many African hunters.

As a side note, in 2019, Rigby announced the release of the .416 No. 2, a flanged or rimmed version of the .416 Rigby with identical ballistics, to be used in double rifles.

The Youngest Sibling

While the previous four cartridges are all well over a century old, the most powerful of the lineup was released in 1994, when Paul Roberts—then at the head of Rigby—necked the .416 Rigby case up to hold .458-inch-diameter bullets, creating the .450 Rigby to give better performance on dangerous game. Norma uses a 500-grain solid at a smoking 2,500 fps for over 6,900 ft-lb of muzzle energy, as well as the 550-grain Woodleigh pair at 2,100 fps. Nosler offers their 500-grain Partition at 2,350 fps for 6,130 ft-lb.

Norma loads the 550-grain Woodleigh Weldcore softpoint and FMJ (shown here) in the .450 Rigby at a muzzle velocity of 2,100 fps. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

While it sounds horrific on the shoulder, the Rigby rifle I shoot fits me well, so recoil is more than manageable, being more of the classic push than the violent slap associated with cartridges that are both heavy and fast. If you feel the .416 Rigby doesn’t check all the boxes—and for the life of me I can’t imagine why you’d feel that way—the .450 Rigby offers a step up in horsepower for the biggest beasties, though the availability of ammunition pales in comparison to its older brother.

The Rigby Legacy

There’s no denying the importance of Rigby’s developments on the cartridge world. Consider the popularity of the .275 Rigby—in spite of it being a rebranding of the 7mm Mauser—because of the exploits and writings of Bell and Corbett, and the fact that they gave the world the .416-inch bore diameter.

Four of Rigby’s namesakes: the .275 Rigby, .350 Rigby Magnum, .416 Rigby and .450 Rigby. Photo: Massaro Media Group.

Couple that with their .450 3¼-inch Nitro Express, which set the benchmark for dangerous game rifles, and you’ve got an indelible mark on the hunting world. And to be honest, I don’t know anyone who hunts with a Rigby cartridge and isn’t enamored with it.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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