This highly ornate Rising Bite double rifle was refitted in Rigby’s London shop for a second barrel set in 9.3x62mm to accompany the original .350 Rigby Magnum barrels. The extension seen at the breech end of the barrels fits very precisely into the action face where a bolt rises into the slot on lock up to form the rising bite. This lock up is very sound, although Bell had mixed feelings for doubles and was cautious of their reliability in harsh conditions where grit may hamper lockup. He often sought out wet areas with tall grass when in pursuit of elephant and preferred a well-made bolt feed that would lock up if covered in silt and grit.
By Doug Manzer
It’s near 70 years since Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell left this world, but I do wonder if his opinions on rifle and calibre selection were well reasoned, especially for the time he lived? He certainly wasn’t afraid of voicing an adversarial view, but was there more to it than stubborn Scottish resolve and a desire to make his own path?
Bell is a highly regarded if somewhat contrarian figure in the modern history of hunting sportsmen. He is one of the most accomplished hunters of his era and did so with an unorthodox approach in his choice of arms. He also enjoyed poking fun at his contemporaries, especially those in what he termed as the double barrel big bore camp, which he categorized as the “DBBB gang”. He clearly had fun with this, and generally shrugged off the advantages offered from big bores against the disadvantages they imposed for his style of hunting.
Before his name became associated with the .275 Rigby, Bell bought, used, sold, and traded a plethora of rifles and calibres. He went through an early period of trial and error that shaped his views on hunting as well as the rifle and calibre combinations most capable of filling his needs. These early days primed his quest for a reliable and easy shooting arm that would perform as expected when matched with the available ammo.
Born in 1880, Bell’s formative years occurred during a period of heightened change in arms development. The patent houses were in a flurry of activity, and many of the lockup and extraction mechanisms that we enjoy today were established during this period before WW1. Black powder was being phased out, and advances in primers and smokeless propellants made ignition and burn rates more reliable. Even so, powders were still evolving, and their stability varied across the broad range of temperatures where firearms were being used. Cartridges developed in the temperate areas of Europe were being tested by explorers, hunters, and military regiments in much hotter zones near the equator, often resulting in heightened pressures.
When age 16 and after much persuasion, Bell convinced his guardians to outfit him for East Africa in 1897 where, by sheer pluck, he talked his way into a paid position as hunter for a survey crew on the Kenya-Uganda rail line. He’d left Edinburgh with an elegant Fraser falling block .303 that performed beautifully in the moderate temperatures of Scotland. His cartridges were filled with nitro-glycerin based smokeless powder commonly known as cordite, that when combined with the precise chambering in the Frazer, led to extraction issues in the heat of the equatorial sun. Once fired, he often had to ram the spent hull from the chamber with a rod before a second shot could be made. This certainly made him aware of his imposed limitations and helped ignite his inclination toward one shot kills.
After continuous extraction issues he traded the Fraser .303 for a less refined gun, but one he thought would extract more reliably in the heat: a single shot Winchester .450 that used a long-tapered case filled with black powder. The transaction included a stash of hollow-point copper bullets which, on the surface, appeared to be a fair deal. This combination worked well enough on lighter plains game, although he soon found that selective shot placement was critical on heavier boned animals. The shortcomings of those soft-core bullets eventually came to a head with an event he describes as his first true run-in with a lion.
Bell took on his first lion just months before the Man Eaters of Tsavo effectively halted construction of the railway in 1897. He took a head shot from 30 yards when, instead of dropping, it turned tail and headed into cover. He hoisted himself into a tree for a look, while at the same moment the big cat lunged forward, missed his dangling feet, and put chase to his companion. He immediately dropped down and took the lion on the shoulder as it turned to grab his friend. That shoulder shot should have been the coup de grâce, but instead the lion made cover once again. Bell later found that his first bullet entered below the left eye and shattered the lower jaw, while the second broke apart on the front shoulder without penetration. He finished the lion with a third round at very close range, which all told heightened his attention on bullet construction and its importance for penetration. He went back to a .303 soon after this incident, but in a magazine rifle with nickel-jacketed 215gr. solid bullets.
Jump forward a year and Bell was in the opposite extreme facing the cold as a market hunter for the Klondike gold rush. He’d acquired another falling block from Fraser while on route to Dawson City, although this time in .360 calibre without concerns for heat affecting pressures.
He spent the winter on snowshoes harvesting moose and caribou, while methodically relying on one-shot kills to stretch a stash of 160 rounds through the winter. His partner was making 25-day return trips on dogsled to market the meat but didn’t return for the last run and swindled Bell of the entire poke. Left with few options, 18-year-old Bell hawked the rifle for cash and headed south to Calgary, where he joined the Canadian Mounted Rifles and soon embarked for South Africa and the Boer war.
Bell amassed a small pool of savings from his stint in the army, and from this outfitted his kit for hunting in Uganda. He truncated his initial selection of rifles in 1902 to those with a military pedigree. He’d come to recognize that military arms and loads were being scrutinized for their dependability under prolonged and hard use, and their development advanced by the deep pockets of nations. He surmised that military calibres were more consistent and less expensive than those designed primarily for hunting and favoured them heavily over the next 10 years.
The battery for this first well-organized expedition into Uganda included two 10-shot Lee Enfield sporterized 303s. They had shortened barrels with pistol grips and cost £8 each. In true Bell fashion his initial hunt on elephant left an impression. He came upon several bulls in the mud and, following spurious advice of an acquaintance, carefully placed shots in the upper dome portion of their heads looking for brain shots. He was surprised to see very little response to the noise or bullet placement, so he also shot one behind the shoulder. That bull reacted to the body shot with cries and groans, and even though it was anchored the others fled immediately.
Determined to learn why his initial shots hadn’t worked, Bell borrowed a large saw and with his team, opened the scull vertically for a rudimentary post-mortem. This exposed the brain far lower down and to the rear of where he’d assumed, and roughly 3 to 4 times the size of a human brain by comparison. He made sketches of the brain within the surrounding head, and calculated shooting angles that would take a bullet to the mark from any position around the skull. He soon put this knowledge to the test and at the next opportunity dropped a bull with a single brain shot from the side. He again noted that the bulls nearby were not particularly alarmed, and this provided the origins of his tactical approach for shooting two or more elephants from a group at the same encounter.
Recoil and Accuracy
Before Daniel Frazer’s untimely death in December of 1901, Bell spent time with him regulating the barrels of big bore doubles at the bench. He found the recoil unpleasant and readily acknowledged that this left a lasting impression. His groups would spread apart through a day of shooting, while in contrast Frazer’s would tightened up as the barrels were regulated. Bell recognized early on that recoil affects people differently and the negative influence it had on his own accuracy.
The Uganda Battery
His initial time in the Unyaro area of Uganda in 1902 was a financial success. He took 63 bull elephants averaging 53lbs/tusk, which then enabled him to outfit his first safari into the Karamojo region of North East Uganda. He again took a .303, but added his first bespoke .275 Rigby Mauser, as well as a .450/400 double rifle suggesting he remained open minded about big bore doubles even after his experience on the bench.
John Rigby & Co. began collaborating with Paul Mauser in 1897 and soon released the .275 Rigby on the Mauser 98 action. The .275 Rigby as many will recognize is also known as the 7x57mm or 7mm. It has a bullet diameter of .285”, but Rigby took a different approach using the distance between the lands (.275”) to rebadge the round in a brilliant marketing strategy that appeals to many anglophiles to this day.
The Mauser action and 7x57mm rimless cartridge were first designed by Paul Mauser in 1891, and widely sold as a military arm where it earned an early reputation. The case shape was designed to feed and extract reliably in extreme field conditions from both bolt action rifles and automatic machine guns. The common barrel twist rate was quite high at 1 in 8.7”, which enabled the 7x57mm (.275) to stabilize its long and relatively heavy 173gr. jacketed military bullet. It moved these along at 2300fps, and Bell concluded this moderate pace was associated with enabling these long bullets to penetrate deeply while holding their course without deformation.
Over the next seven years and four safaris into the Karamojo, Bell gained a graduate degree in the practical application of dispatching game. He favoured three calibres with each coming from strong military roots while fed a steady diet of solid bullets. It’s no surprise the .303 remained on his list with its 215 gr. solids. The .275 Rigby also gained a spot, and through time excelled to account for 75% of his lifetime harvest of elephant. He favoured the reliability of German DWM cartridges with 173gr. round-nose solids. The .275 burned more efficient Ballistite smokeless powder compared to the cordite in the .303s, which gave the former greater performance. Third, and perhaps used more than the other two for harvesting camp meat, was a .256 Gibbs Mannlicher with long-nosed 156 gr. solids. Later on, Bell also obtained a light-framed .256 Mannlicher-Shoenauer that had been refined by Frazer, which he suggested had a “snaky feel” that made it a “pleasure to handle” at just over five pounds.
Bell preferred light guns that he could carry all day long and for months on end, literally. He estimated that he walked 70,000 miles pursuing game! He also valued a short bolt-throw and accredited this feature as being critical for rapid shots under pressure in close proximity. When encountering a group of elephants, he often took the first two or three within yards of each other, but then pursued the rest at a brisk run, and often for miles. He suggests this base approach favoured a rifle that was both light and shouldered quickly, with shots often taken from the side and behind at an oblique angle. He carried 35 rounds on his belt daily and submitted that large bore ammo with heavier arms simply weighed more for the same desired one-shot kills.
Up Close in Tall Grass
Rather than heading back to town for the rainy season in 1902, Bell established a camp on a hill that enabled him to frequently glass for bulls in the tall grass below. The low-lying ground was wet with deep water-filled holes that resembled puddles, and occasionally swallowed him “to the armpits” while stalking bulls in the tall grass. Bell and crew would follow the tunnels carved by elephants as they fed through the swamp, which made tracking easy but the going slow. He gave high praise to the Mauser action in these situations, as the Rigby would cycle reliably even when coated in the silt gleaned from blades of tall grass where the elephants had pushed through. In contrast, he criticized a double in these situations where this grit could prevent the action from locking up due to the fine tolerances at the breech face when closed.
The tall grass was well above head level, and Bell came to rely on a system of shooting while perched on the shoulders of his gun-bearer. They’d move in close while hidden by cover, and his tall gun bearer Manzema would stand erect with Bell up top for an unobstructed shot. Light recoil helped them both retain balance, and stocks with a short length of pull improved Bell’s range of motion and mount for off-angle presentations. Once a bull or two dropped, he’d run to the fallen animal and climb onto its back to gain more height for additional opportunities. Pursuing elephant in the tall grass and getting in close to multiple bulls became his base tactic and, in my mind at least, textbook Bell.
Above & below: Bell wasn’t content with the configuration of the first .416 Rigby he received in July 1913 and had another built later that same year. Rigby reused the stock and lengthened it 1/4” by fitting a wood extension. They also removed the original peep sight and fitted it to the new action along with a barrel 1” shorter than the first. The second rifle weighed 10oz less coming in at 9lbs14oz. Rigby shipped the rifle to Bell in October of 1913 in care of Hatton & Cookson, French Congo, along with; one .220 High Power, one 30 loop canvas belt for .416 cartridges, cleaning rod and accessories, turn-screws, leather front-sight protector, 10 tins of rape oil (stock conditioner), and 500 rounds of “Special” .416 solids.
Established in 1775, John Rigby & Co. has detailed sales ledgers that track the orders of Bell and his contemporaries. The ledgers of gunmakers are a fascinating history of sporting heritage.
The lockup on a Rigby double includes a top extension that secures the barrels to the breech face. This is known as the Rigby & Bissell Rising Bite, patented in 1879, and is a highly refined and secure locking system where this third grip is engaged by a bolt that rises into the slot in the extension. The Rising Bite double is still available today as a big bore, or as a shotgun like the vintage 12-bore displayed here.
A .275 Rigby Mauser in the John Rigby & Co. London shop with three-position safety that rotates over the bolt axis as Bell would have used.
The three-leaf rear sight on a .275 Rigby set for 100, 300, and 400 yards. The leaf pack can also be ordered in a traditional 65-, 150-, and 250-yard setting, which seems practical when running the rifle without a scope.
A .275 Rigby Mauser in traditional specification with fold over three-position safety, hooded front sight, and three-leaf rear sight.
Rigby rifles in varying stages of refinement taking shape in the London shop. John Rigby & Co. has finished rifles available but is also very willing to undertake bespoke orders in much the same way they accommodated Bell more than a century ago.
Rigby has a full stable of big bores available today just as it did before WW1. Bell tried quite a few big bores in his day and was highly impressed by the stopping power of the .416 Rigby, although he preferred a Mauser bolt action.
In 1908, Bell traversed Abyssinia and the Omo River valley moving west toward southern Sudan. He was pursuing elephant once again and had good success. He’d been out for some time and about to move on, when asked to deal with a rhino that had killed a woman from a local village. He’d brought along a long-action .350 Rigby Mauser that hadn’t seen much use to date, so he tackled the rhino with it. In true Bell fashion, he followed the animal into tall grass and took the first shot head on and just yards away. Bell worked the bolt and took the second shot with the barrel touching the neck as the mammoth rushed in – the striker fell on a spent primer. He’d short-stroked the bolt and re-loaded the spent case! This apparently led to a dicey few moments before a killing shot was made. The man had an ample portion in the kahuna department!
Cycling an action is a sub-conscious response in a perilous moment, and the longer bolt stroke of the .350 was outside his normal pattern. Bell made a point of cycling and dry firing his normal carry-rifles constantly, and recognized what this did for creating calm in a pressurized situation. He didn’t have the same familiarity with the longer action of the .350, but acknowledged that with sufficient practice a longer stroke would be reliable, if a bit slower.
Bell ordered guns through several leading British gunmakers of the time and often sought new models and calibres as they became available. It would be easy to assume that he forged an unwavering opinion favouring small bores over large very early in his career. Although, his purchase history did not bear this out as he bought and used large bores well into his 30’s, including a .450/400 Frazer double rifle along with at least two renditions of the .416.
He purchased the first .416 in July 1913 from John Rigby & Co. on a Mauser magnum action, but shortly thereafter sent it back requesting a different configuration (see sidebar). The second rifle had a new action with the barrel shorter by 1”, with Rigby instructed to fit the original stock and lengthen it by 1/4”. The second rifle was made a half pound lighter at 9lb 14oz. He closed out the order with 500 rounds of .416 ammo and a 30-loop canvas belt suggesting he intended on using the calibre a fair amount.
The new rifle was shipped to the French Congo where Bell was searching for new grounds (see sidebar), and exploring the river system in a small purpose-built steamboat. If you think “African Queen” you wouldn’t be too far off, and he used the craft to great advantage as a mobile camp. He was again focused on elephant, and I wonder if he considered the additional weight of a .416 less of an issue with his water-based transport? This was two years after Rigby launched the .416 in 1911, and only one after Holland & Holland patented the .375, with both offerings on bolt-action frames. Bell was quick to give the former a go.
Any time spent reading Bell’s anthology reveals a fastidious nature. He continually sought improvement from his shooting, and refined the balance, handling characteristics, and sighting apparatus of his rifles and weighed their utility through a particularly narrow lens. Bell took elephant with the .256, .275, .303, .318, .350, .450/400, and .416 and compared their virtues. By all accounts he was a remarkable shot, and described by noted contemporary Colonel Townsend Whelan as the best rifleman in Britain with only one or two peers in the US at that time.
In his last known published work from 1954 and only months before his death, Bell gave praise to the .416 as a “grand killer” with serious penetration and considered his Rigby well balanced while “not feeling its weight”. His reservation as with all big bores to be fair, was that it did not suit his fast-paced style of hunting or the affect recoil had on accuracy and delaying the next shot. He argued that dead is dead regardless of calibre, and the big bores didn’t provide him with enough advantage to make up for the extra weight, recoil, and cost of ammo.
Room for the Middle Weights
Bell also regarded the medium bore .318 very highly, noting it as the “deadliest weapon of the push-bolt type” known to him. He preferred 250gr. bullets for their penetration, being especially adept at coursing through hide and tissue on quartering away brain shots. He kept detailed notes and credited the .318 with a slightly better shot-to-kill ratio compared to the .275 when used on oblique brain shots from the rear. He selected the .318 (.330” actual) as the main battery for his water-based adventure on the Bahr Aouk river by canoe in 1918.
He clearly liked the .318 and picked up 6,000 rounds of ammo along the way to support this favour. Unfortunately, the batch was faulty with many misfires, so he used the ammo for practice as well as taking birds at distance on the wing.
A man of his time
In later years Bell recognized that his leaning toward small bores was heavily influenced by his early success with their use. He notes that if he had experienced similar results with big bores early on, he may well have found himself in the other camp, extolling their virtues with similar enthusiasm.
My own conclusion is that Bell was a pragmatist at heart, and selected his battery based on the evolving supply of reliable ammunition, and early on this brought him to calibres from a military pedigree coupled in light-framed actions. He selected rifles with the intent of getting in close in harsh quarters and taking several animals in quick succession, rather than selecting one individual as occurs among hunters today. He remained willing to adapt and trial different calibres well into his 40’s, although even in his 70’s, he still considered the advantages of a short bolt-throw and low recoil to outweigh the penetration advantages offered by the heavy weights. He was a highly accomplished rifleman and, given his ability to place shots under pressure, his preference for small bores made perfect sense – for him.