Simon K. Barr joins Marc Newton of John Rigby & Co. on a mission to use only vintage Rigby shotguns on red-eyed doves in South Africa.
South Africa is a sportsman’s dream: not only is it bursting with some of the most exciting hunting in the world, but flying from Europe, there’s no jetlag. Less well-known are the fantastic opportunities for wingshooting, notably red-eyed doves and rock pigeon. These birds prey on crops and in a year such as this, when there has been a drought, the damage done to precious yields of soya and grains can be devastating. I headed out there with Marc Newton, MD of John Rigby & Co., to help protect soya crops.
Red-eyed doves and rock pigeon are native to South Africa. The plan was to join Andrew Tonkin, an authorised Rigby dealer in South Africa, who specialises in high-end shotguns and rifles, and has a tremendous stock of historic and antique guns, including some made by Rigby. Johan van Wyk, a writer and gun aficionado, would also be joining the team of shooters at two evening flights.
Johan talked us through the process: “These birds aren’t migratory in the true sense, but they live in the city, and fly out to feed. This gives us the chance to flight them as they head in and out of their feeding grounds – this is crop protection and harvesting wild meat.”
It’s normal to shoot these crop-raiders on flightlines, according to Johan: “We don’t need to decoy, and mostly you’ll be shooting high incoming birds. If there are a lot of them, they keep coming in until it is dark. We’re right at the beginning of the season now, which runs from May to September. As the season goes on, the shooting gets better. There’s a 30-bird limit for the rock pigeon, but there’s no limit on the red-eyed doves.”
As we drove to the area we’d be shooting over, Johan explained that this year’s drought had affected the birds’ behaviour. “When you are going for pigeon, you need to select your venue according to crops. You also need to consider that the birds like to fly into the wind, so that will determine where you set up, too.”
History in action
Andrew Tonkin had brought Rigby guns for Marc to use. “We’ve got a Rising Bite, probably made just after the patent was taken out, so that was built in the 1880s. Then we’ve got a sidelock ejector from the 1930s and a top-lever hammergun with barlocks from 1877, which is a very uncommon Rigby to find.” Not a bad spread of guns, and all in 12-bore.
We were likely to be shooting a heavy volume of cartridges, but Andrew knew this wasn’t a problem: “We stick to the loads the guns were built for, rather than using heavier modern loads. We use the smokeless equivalent of 3g or 1/8th oz load, which equates to 550 bar of pressure. If you use that, your old shotguns will last forever. Our pigeon here in South Africa are smaller than the UK woodpigeon, so in terms of cartridges, we use 30 or 32g of number 7 or even 7.5 shot, which gives you 1,250ft/lb. We also sometimes shoot red-breasted doves, which are even smaller, so for those we use 21g of 9s.”
A vintage flight
We picked our birds, choosing to shoot sporting ones rather than volumes of easy targets. It’s pretty rare to be able to shoot 250 cartridges an hour on any birds, but when the red-eyed doves are really flying, you’d certainly be able to do that.
The following day, we enjoyed a braai before the action, admiring Andrew’s stock and talking vintage guns as we ate. Andrew’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of firearms was fantastic, and his enthusiasm was catching. As he explained, shotguns haven’t changed all that much since the guns we were using were built: “As far as guns go, a vintage shotgun is the one that is closest to its modern counterpart. Rifles have improved a lot, handguns have improved a lot, but shotguns not really. If you could shoot a gun well in 1900, the same gun will serve you well in 2000.”
The second evening passed in the same flurry of action as the first, and again we were able to pick and choose the most challenging birds, with the Rigby shotguns performing just as well as the modern guns being used by other members of the party. Marc was impressed and delighted: “We had some seriously high-volume shooting, and it pays credit to the craftsmen of yesteryear that the guns they made up to 120 years ago are still fit to do the job they were made for. They worked just as well as the new guns that other people were shooting.” We’re really just custodians of guns like these, and Andrew Tonkin is a fantastic representative of Rigby’s past, present and future.