March 3, 2023
By Joe Engesser
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Since the 1800s, explorers and dangerous game hunters navigating the African bush have trusted their lives to the double rifle. When facing down a charging beast, especially one of Africa's "Big Five," speed, reliability, accuracy, and lethal stopping power is essential, and the classic double rifle delivers on every front.
An exceptional, Peter Spode signed, gold inlaid, and dangerous game scene engraved Watson Brothers 4 bore sidelock ejector double rifle with case. The weight is a staggering 25 lbs. 4 oz.
The precision craftsmanship and timeless aesthetic of the double rifle evokes the legends and lore of the African safari and the courage of the big game hunter like no other sporting arm. Giants like Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and Jim Corbett helped immortalize the iconic gun, and today the double rifle remains a treasured possession for collectors, sportsmen, and any firearms enthusiast seeking to connect with the golden age of outdoor adventure.
A double rifle is a class of hunting firearm with two barrels, typically side-by-side. Having a second shot at the ready serves as a quick backup in the event the first shot misses the quarry or fails to stop the animal outright. Generally, double rifle designs can be sorted into hammer, boxlock, and sidelock action, with a few exceptions available like the Westley Richards drop lock action. Double rifle models can be found with either separate triggers (double triggers) or a single selective trigger.
Most double rifles are designed to fire powerful cartridges like .375 H&H Magnum, .470 Nitro Express, .500 Nitro Express, and even larger. The meticulous process of regulating both barrels has always required a skilled hand and no shortage of labor, a costly expense that continues to be reflected in the premium price point set by these elegant long guns. Historically, double rifles have been crafted by the finest British manufacturers such as Westley Richards, John Rigby & Co., and perhaps most famously, Holland & Holland.
This engraved Watson Brothers 4 bore sidelock ejector double rifle includes an oak and leather Watson Bros. labeled takedown case with a canvas cover, a full set of turn screws, a pair of snap caps, two oilers, and a set of cleaning tools.
The concept of a long gun with two or more barrels has existed for centuries, often commissioned as novelty hunting arms for the wealthy elite. The earliest double rifles were muzzleloaders that employed two external mechanisms to cock the weapon, making firing and reloading a cumbersome affair.
The availability of complex gun designs was bound by the limitations of hand craftsmanship until pioneers like John H. Hall and Simeon North demonstrated how standardized, machined parts could greatly accelerate production. British gunsmiths quickly embraced the process, particularly sporting arms manufacturers, just as the cape shores of Africa and its abundance of wildlife started to capture the public’s imagination.
This engraved early 19th century swivel breech or "wender" double rifle is attributed to Abraham Angstadt (1784-1868) of Pennsylvania and was previously featured in the Historical Society of York County Museum's expo. Both barrels are rifled and have blade and notch sights.
Dangerous game hunting in India had driven the development of specialized sporting arms since the 17th century, and the British colonization of Africa in the mid-1800s helped further accelerate innovations in the double rifle. In the era of black powder arms, hunting bigger game required bigger guns, and the double rifle quickly found favor with the flood of explorers, hunters, soldiers, and royalty who sought adventure and riches in this vast new country.
Africa’s "Big Five," the lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhino, and elephant, were some of the most commonly encountered quarry, as well as the most dangerous, and the ability to fire two shots in quick succession was often a matter of survival.
A series of innovations in the 1860s and 1870s brought the double rifle closer to the superb dangerous game hunting arm we know today. These advancements included the development of the break open, breech loading action, the invention of the hammerless boxlock and sidelock actions, the adoption of centerfire cartridge technology, and the inclusion of extractors. The most popular double rifle cartridges of the late 19th century were offered in the same caliber as their muzzleloading predecessors, including the .450, .500, and .577 Black Powder Express.
Another breakthrough came for the double rifle in 1898 with the introduction of John Rigby & Company’s smokeless powder cartridge, the .450 Nitro Express 3 1/2 inch. The cartridge was powerful, dependable, and had a comparatively manageable recoil, going on to set the stage for Holland’s .500/450 Nitro Express and numerous variants of the .470 Nitro Express in the years to follow.
Prolific hunter Theodore Roosevelt owned many guns, but the Holland & Holland Royal double rifle chambered in .500/450, nicknamed the 'Big Stick,' was one of the president’s favorites.
“At last, I was able to get a day off and try the double-barreled 450,” Roosevelt wrote in January 1909. “It is a perfect beauty. The workmanship is like that of a watch. Of course, our (American) rifles look coarse and cheap and clumsy beside it. I can not say how delighted I am with it.”
Theodore Roosevelt poses with his prized double rifle. Theodore Roosevelt's son, Kermit (right) noted that “the recoil of the big gun was so severe that it became a standing joke as to whether we did not fear it more than a charging elephant!”
“For heavy game like rhinoceroses and buffaloes, I found that for me personally, the heavy Holland was unquestionably the proper weapon," Roosevelt wrote after his 11-month safari in Africa, where his double rifle brought down 13 rhinos and eight elephants.
Roosevelt's expedition was one of many great hunting campaigns undertaken by European and American parties in the early 20th century. This period was not just a renaissance for dangerous game hunting, but a golden age of adventure as well, where celebrity sportsmen like Denys Finch Hatton, Jim Sutherland, John Alexander Hunter, Deaf Banks, and “Karamojo” Bell forged their legends in Africa. It was an era defined by glory and danger, Strathcona boots and slouch hats, vast herds and wild landscapes, and some of the finest firearms ever produced.
The most common double rifle ammunition is large by nature, ranging from .375 Holland & Holland to the mighty 4 bore. Smaller calibers like the 8x57 JRS offer more manageable recoil and greater versatility, but at the expense of the heavy stopping power needed to reliably down Africa’s biggest game.
A C. Tomasoni signed and engraved Perguini & Visini boxlock double rifle chambered in 8x57 JRS, a fine all-around hunting cartridge fully capable of taking on most plains game and anything apart from the true heavyweights of Africa.
Shortly after the dawn of the smokeless double rifle cartridge, the .450/400 Nitro Express came to fill the niche of the all-around hunting caliber. On the .400 Jeffrey version of this cartridge, English hunter Major Percy Powell-Cotton noted, “The Jeffery .400 ejector express rifle I first carried in my Abyssinian expedition is my favorite weapon for dangerous game. With all nickel-covered bullets it is excellent for head or heart shots at elephant. With the lead just showing at the nose they do good work on rhino and buffalo; whilst with half the lead exposed I do not think you can get a better weapon for lion.”
The .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, introduced in 1912, went on to largely fill the role of a multipurpose game cartridge and quickly earned popularity with hunters around the world. The success of the .375 Holland & Holland has resulted in numerous variations, and today the caliber is viewed as the minimum recommended cartridge for African dangerous game.
In the early 1900s, insurgencies in India and the Sudan compelled the British government to ban a number of rifle calibers. This included the popular .500/450 Nitro Express. This restriction prompted British arms makers to develop an array of new game cartridges, many of which remain popular today.
Sealed tin packages of ammunition were popular in the early 20th century for protecting cartridges from the tropical environment, hence the name Tropical Tin. This lot includes two sealed metal boxes containing .470 Nitro Express ammunition, each appearing to contain 10 rounds.
The calibers born in this era include the .500/465 Nitro Express .475 Nitro Express, and .476 Westley Richards, all of which share similar velocity, muzzle energy, recoil, and a high success rate against dangerous game. Joseph Lang's answer to the British ban, the .470 Nitro Express, will be especially familiar to the modern sportsman and has become the most readily available big game round for today's double rifles.
The .500 Nitro Express has experienced a resurgence of sorts, offering a heavy dose of dangerous game stopping power that can still be managed by a professional hunter. Anything beyond .50 caliber is more than worthy of even the mightiest of Africa's "Big Five."
Captain James H. Sutherland, for example, used a .577 Nitro Express to take more than 1,300 elephants throughout his career. Another famed British hunter, Frederick Courteney Selous, spent his early years hunting elephants with a black powder 4 bore rifle and claimed his shoulder never fully recovered. Recoil and weight aside, when it comes to raw knockdown power, these monster calibers are in a league of their own.
Finally, we have the king of sporting arms catridges, the JD Jones .950 JDJ. Producing more energy than even the 4-bore cartridges that match it in bore diameter. The .950 JDJ cartridge cases were originally made from 20mm Vulcan cases trimmer down to a (mere) 70mm case length, with custom-made lathe-turned cases replacing them when brass Vulcan cases became too difficult to source. The gun itself weighs a bit over 60 pounds, with nearly a third of that in the muzzle brake alone.
Though the popular image of a hammerless double rifle includes two side-by-side barrels, a number of over/under models are also available. Like the advantages offered by the superposed shotgun over their double barreled siblings, the over/under double rifle provides several notable benefits.
Perhaps most obviously, the stacked barrels of an over/under double rifle eliminates some of the horizontal sight obstruction found in their side-by-side counterparts. And unlike the horizontal force recoil experienced with side-by-side double rifles that can disrupt balance from either side, the vertical orientation of the barrels in an over/under double rifle produces an up-and-backward recoil that’s less jolting to the average shooter.
In the side-by-side double rifle’s favor, the twin adjacent barrels provide a sense of balance when shooting and tend to lie more naturally in the palm of the shooter’s lead hand. The side-by-side also offers a faster reload as it doesn’t need to swing open as far to expose both chambers. Finally, the over/under double rifles on the modern market tend to be chambered in smaller calibers, where side-by-sides are offered in any cartridge a hunter can imagine.
In the early 20th century, the double rifle faced competition from more affordable bolt-action rifles chambered in cartridges like .375 Magnum and .416 Rigby. BY the 1940s, decades of aggressive hunting had depleted South Africa’s big game herds, further diminishing demand for specialized sporting arms like the double rifle. Fortunately, conservation efforts throughout the 1970s have led to a steady resurgence in both Africa’s hunting industry, as well as renewed interest in the legendary long gun.
All of the renowned British gunmakers continue to offer modern incarnations of the iconic double rifle. Though the tried-and-true design has stood largely unchanged for more than a century, today’s double rifles combine hand-fitted craftsmanship with 21st century materials and construction methods to achieve a graceful balance between traditional and contemporary sensibilities.
This superb "C. Tomasoni" Bulino engraved Beretta 455 EELL sidelock double rifle displays exceptional game scenes depicting three of Africa's famous "Big Five." Includes a factory Beretta takedown case.
While the double rifle is an inseparable part of British history and heritage, its resurgence has been largely led by the American hunter, and demand for new and classic double rifles has once again been outpacing supply. Though the initial investment can be steep, a well-cared-for double rifle offers its owner a lifetime of memories wherever the hunt may take them.
When looking for a used double rifle for sale, it pays to find the best of the best. Rock Island Auction offers a fine range of double rifles from every era, in every style and price point available. To collectors, shooters, arms enthusiasts, and sportsmen who appreciate the history of dangerous game hunting, the double rifle is a fine addition to any collection.
Rock Island Auction Company offers a multitude of classic double rifles for sale, as well as the finest sporting arms of every era. Available this May.
Robert Ruark, one of the 20th century’s great writers and sportsmen, perhaps best summed up the call to adventure carried by classic hunting arms like the double rifle. “There is a simple love of the outdoors and of creatures, as against a hatred for the contrived living of cities, for the claustrophobic connivances of civilization, that drives a man to the vastness of Africa to fulfill some need of basic simplicity in himself.
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