While Remington, Weatherby, Dakota and a handful of wildcatters were trying to equal the ballistics of the big Rigby by pumping higher pressures into smaller pieces of brass, all but the Dakota load requiring a belted magnum case which Rigby deliberately chose to avoid, Ruger outsmarted them all by simply chambering the original .416 in both the Ruger M77 safari-grade bolt-action and the Ruger No. 1 Tropical.
The first .416 Rigby was introduced by famed Irish gunmaker and Nitro Express rifle pioneer John Rigby, by then moved from Ireland and operating out of St. James Street in London, the same year John Browning’s big-bore 1911 pistol was adopted by the U.S. Army and a few months before Holland & Holland redefined mid-bore cartridges for all time with their world-beater .375 Magnum. Rigby built his big-bore magazine rifle on the super-size Mauser magnum action, called it the Model No. 5, and pronounced it “suitable for killing all classes of Big Game.” Though Rigby offered the chambering in double express rifles as well, it was the big-claw Mauser and the big rimless .416 cartridge with its sharp 45-degree shoulder and oversize bottleneck case that were made for each other. Rigby loaded 410-grain bullets (both soft-nosed and steel-covered solids) of true .416-inch diameter to a Cordite-fueled muzzle velocity of 2,371 feet-per-second producing kinetic energy of 5,100 foot-pounds, magical numbers for experienced hunters of dangerous and large thick-skinned African game. These ballistics were achieved in the voluminous Rigby case with moderate operating pressures of about 47,000 psi, an important consideration for rifles expected to perform reliably in less than sterile conditions under the hot African sun.
The .416 Rigby quickly gained a sterling reputation as a lightning-bolt killer of Cape buffalo, elephant and everything on down. This is the stuff legends are made of, and Robert Ruark enhanced the growing mystique with his writings about Professional Hunter Harry Selby. For nearly 50 years, Selby staked the lives of his clients as well as his own on his famous ’98 Mauser-actioned .416 Rigby, needing only to replace the shot-out barrel after the first 40 years of heavy use.
Frank Barnes wrote in Cartridges of the World that “the .416 Rigby is probably the best magazine cartridge for big game ever offered.”
Commander David Enderly Blunt, former elephant control officer for the Tanganyika government and author of the classic book, Elephant, wrote, “The .416 Rigby magazine I have always used has the same muzzle energy as a double-barrel .470, but the bullet has greater penetration and the weapon is, in my opinion, the most perfectly balanced rifle in every way for elephant.”
John Taylor, in his book African Cartridges and Rifles, wrote, “You certainly could not get a better or more reliable magazine rifle for general work amonst dangerous animals. It’s a great killer. Its plain soft-nose bullets crumple a charging lion as few other weapons are capable of doing. There is a certainty about it that gives one great confidence ... Some of the most experienced hunters use, recommend and swear by the .416.”
J. A. Hunter, perhaps best known for his romance with the .505 Gibbs, wrote this testimonial to John Rigby & Co. early in the century: “You will be pleased to know that the rifle which accounted for all the rogue lions on my last Government Expedition was the 416 Bore Magazine Rifle you supplied me with. I cannot speak too highly of it. Its stopping power was extraordinary, and the fact that all the lions, rhino, buffalo, etc., were shot at comparatively short range, and no other rifle to back me up, speaks volumes for the accuracy and efficiency of your rifle.”
In the days when the double rifle reigned, the .416 Rigby delivered the same energy as the .450 and .470 Nitro Express rounds with better accuracy, flatter trajectory, superior penetration, twice the magazine capacity and lighter weight. Compared with today’s bolt-action .458 Winchester Magnum, perhaps the big-bore standard for Americans en route to Africa, the .416 Rigby is more powerful, produces greater kinetic energy with superior penetration, has a flatter trajectory for longer ranging capability and is far more versatility in the field. Loaded with 400-grain pointed bullets, the .416’s trajectory is almost as flat as 300-grain spitzers out of a .375 H&H. The .416, like the .375, is easily a 250-yard gun, which the .458 decidedly is not. Recoil of the .416 Rigby is a bit heavier than the .458 Winchester Magnum -– not for the faint-hearted, but not off the scale either. Even Jack O’Connor, the noted small-bore shooter not known to be very tolerant of recoil, used a .416 Rigby built on a Model 1917 Enfield action to take an African elephant and a lion and declared the recoil to be, in fact, “tolerable,” though he may have stuttered a little when he said it.
The .416 Rigby is chambered in plenty of new rifles today, including those made by John Rigby & Sons, which is now ensconced in California under its second round of American ownership. It’s a favorite round of custom riflemakers catering to the African trade. And factory guns are made by such quality manufacturers as CZ, Mauser, Dakota and Ruger.
Ruger, with its marketing reach and the perennial popularity of its bolt-action M77 and single-shot No. 1 rifles, both of which have been available in .416 Rigby for some years now, has had a tremendous impact on the dangerous-game market, making “the holy grail of big-bore magazine cartridges” widely available for the first time in almost a hundred years and dampening Remington’s and Weatherby’s ambitions for their own 416-caliber proprietary rounds to a considerable degree.
The safari-grade Ruger M77 Mark II Magnum Rifle is supposed to look and act like a classic English big-bore rifle and, for a factory product, succeeds rather admirably in doing so. Its operating features include a non-rotating Mauser-type controlled-feed extractor and a fixed-blade-type ejector. One fixed and two folding express sights grace its integral quarter-rib. Barrel length is 23 inches, weight 9¾ pounds. The magazine holds three rounds. Length of pull on the factory stock is 13½, drop of comb 1-7/8, drop of heel 2-1/8.
The Ruger No. 1 Tropical features a powerful Farquarson-type single-shot action and a heavy 24-inch barrel. With a Leupold Scout Scope mounted, it weighs 10 pounds, three ounces. The No. 1 is equipped with a proper shotgun-style two-position tang-mounted safety, where the M77 Mark II is burdened with a three-position safety as is the current fad among self-righteous law students who believe that people are inherently stupid and must be saved from themselves even if you have to kill them to do it.
Which is to say that I do not like, nor do I approve of, three-position safeties on dangerous-game rifles. The safety mechanism is the last thing engineers and designers with overblown egos should be allowed to mess with in their quest to “improve” things by making them “different.” Safeties should be the simplest things to operate in the world. There is no need to design a rifle safety like a race car gear box. On and off will do nicely, thank you very much. When the adrenaline is pumping, a third and perfectly useless option demanding your consideration can get you stomped, chomped, gored or flung through the trees. The second or “neutral” position on a three-position safety which, in factory rifles, is a very definite stop, allows you to operate the bolt and chamber a round, pull uselessly on the trigger, eject and chamber another round, desperately pull on the trigger some more, eject and chamber another round and so on until you’ve emptied your magazine without firing a shot at the killer beast bearing down on you. Whose brilliant idea was that? Carefully hand-honed three-position safeties on most custom rifles barely nod to the second position before proceeding to the off position where you want the safety to go, which is a whole lot better but still not as good as a simple two-position safety which has no irrelevant agenda to distract the shooter in a hurry.
There are worse things. Some two-position safeties were manufactured under the supervision of Communists during the Cold War and therefore operate backwards. The Brno 602 ZKK suffers from this potentially fatal ideological flaw: back to fire, forward to safe. It definitely takes some getting used to, and it is not a habit you want to engender because probably every other rifle you ever fire will operate in the opposite manner. The Brno ZKK’s non-communist reincarnation as the CZ 550 has corrected this problem.
The treacherous safeties on both the current Ruger 77 and the old Brno 602 can be replaced by solid two-position safeties that operate in the correct manner, and this is a replacement you should make before you take these guns into an environment more stimulating than the firing line of a rifle range.
A rifle range, casual though it is deep in the Ponderosa Pine forest of northern Arizona, was the destination for both Rugers and the aforementioned Brno 602 ZKK, also chambered in .416 Rigby. The time had come to do a little shooting and, whenever I take a new gun or two out to play with (I mean to test-fire and evaluate) I like to take a more familiar gun of the same class, make or caliber along as a reference. This was made possible by a generous loan from pistolsmith Gary Reeder (Gary Reeder Custom Guns, 928-527-4100) of one of his few pet shoulder arms, the Brno done up at less than 9 pounds with an 18½-inch barrel plus a 1½-inch muzzle brake of Reeder’s design.
Both test Rugers had nicely finished metalwork and attractive oiled walnut stocks. The Brno was a working rifle, lightweight, short barrel, optional muzzle brake, a popular “stopping rifle” configuration among African PHs who favor the big Rigby cartridge. The stock of the Brno was good well-used walnut of slim, classic contours.
Unfortunately, the typical straight American stock does not possess the bird-gun pointing qualities of English and European rifles. This was immediately apparent in shooting comparisons between the Rugers and the Brno. I believe Jack O’Connor did dangerous-game hunters a great disservice with his unrestrained advocacy of the straight stock. He actually said that a straight stock reduces recoil, which is neither true nor even possible. All any stock can do about recoil is direct it. O’Connor did make a true statement when he said that a straight stock directs all recoil into the shoulder. Now, O’Connor was a tall, lanky college professor with a long neck and thin, bony face who mostly liked to shoot small-bore rifles (“miniature rifles,” the English call them) from sitting and prone positions. Since a .270 Winchester has no recoil to speak of, a shooter sitting on a rock or lying on the ground can pretty much get by with a rifle stock that fits as well as a sharp stick. A big-bore shooter standing up on his hind legs, on the other hand, is quite willing to let his heavy-recoiling rifle expend a little of its energy lifting the muzzle of his gun rather than delivering it all to him personally. Thus the greater drop-at-heel and pitch that is characteristic of even factory-made English and European rifles of any substantial caliber. I think it was the more intelligent big-bore stock design, as well as Reeder’s effective muzzle brake, that gave the little Brno an unfair advantage over the heavier but straighter Rugers and made the classic Czech rifle such a pleasure to shoot.
Not that every muzzle brake is nearly that effective. As there are plenty of riflemakers who think a muzzle brake is just a bunch of holes drilled into the end of the barrel, many so-called muzzle brakes have no discernible effect on recoil at all. For the African hunter, the most important thing to remember about muzzle brakes is that it may be a criminal offense to use one. The governments of many African countries do not believe the other members of your hunting party should have to subject their ears to the tremendous muzzle blasts that such devices produce, especially in rifles that are plenty loud enough to begin with. Of course, given a sympathetic PH, you might get away with it. In fact, there are quite a few PHs who equip their stopping rifles with muzzle brakes in the expectation that if they are ever forced to pull the trigger your ears will be the last thing you’ll be worried about getting damaged. Nevertheless, I’ve never heard anybody recommend that you take a muzzle-brake-equipped rifle to Africa, so the comparison here is academic. I must say, though, that this Brno was one of the very few big-bore rifles I could keep in my shoulder as I fired 400-grain bullets rapid fire. I hated to give that rifle back to Reeder, but he’s already told me he will never sell it. So back to the factory Rugers.
Everybody knows you get a lot of rifle for your money with a Ruger, and a lot of rifle is required to chamber and effectively handle the impressive .416 Rigby cartridge. Both the M77 and the No. 1 do their job well, operate smoothly, balance and point nicely, deliver major missiles where you want them. Shooting them side by side, I was somewhat surprised that the two rifles, of two very different designs, handle very much alike. They shoot alike as well. There was no measurable difference at all between velocities achieved by a variety of ammunition in the M77’s 23-inch barrel and the No. 1’s 24-inch barrel.
Superior Ammo’s 400-grain Barnes XLC loading came in at an average 2425 fps, its 400-grain solid at 2375, its 350-grain XLC at 2700. Safari Arms’ 350-grain solid was 2650 fps. Quality Cartridge’s 400-grain Swift A-frame was 2300 fps, its 350-grain Barnes X bullet 2527. The 18½-inch-barrel Brno delivered 237 fps less velocity in the Quality Cartridge 350-grain Barnes X load, 141 fps less in Safari Arms 350-grain solid, and not quite 100 fps less in Superior Ammo’s 400-grain premium bullet load.
The recoil of a .416 Rigby is not something to be sniffed at. Or, as Winston Churchill might have not put it, the recoil of a .416 Rigby is not something at which to be sniffed. After firing enough rounds through the Rugers to decimate two or three of the larger buffalo herds of Zimbabwe, it was a pleasant relief to put almost as many rounds through the Brno. Reassures me that the Europeans and the Brits know something about stock design we Americans refuse to learn. Tempted me for the first time to put one of those ugly muzzle brakes on something or other, but that temptation passed as soon as I got home and took a cold shower.
I could live with either one of the Rugers. For the price, they’re both hard to beat. As to the single-shot No. 1 for dangerous game, I’ve seen guys with a little practice reload within a microsecond as fast as a bolt-action. I put a Leupold 2.5x Scout Scope on the No. 1 and it worked fine. Makes for an interesting combination and fast shooting. I’d have a good gunsmith look at the spring-loaded ejector on the M77, as I hear it can use a stronger spring and maybe a wider channel. I’d have to arrange for the O’Connor curse to be taken off both the Ruger factory stocks, an operation I know is difficult but quite possible by talented hands because I’ve seen it done before.
And so it goes. If you start with a great flawless cartridge and a good solid rifle, a little touch-up here and there may be all you ever need.