The idea of a Best gun is peculiarly British. It does not refer to the most garishly decorated, nor the most expensive gun it is possible to make. The term ‘Best’ in British gunmaking simply announces that the gunmaker’s instructions are to build the gun from the finest materials available, to the highest standards possible, without compromise in terms of time taken or money spent.
We know, from the body of evidence that Best British guns can last forever. There are untold scores of Best hammer guns made in the 1870s still in regular use. Many side-lock ejectors made before the First World War are still doing service every shooting season.
The manner of ordering a bespoke gun is not much changed from the days of our grandfathers. The process at London gunmaker John Rigby & Co. illustrates it well.
Your first contact with the company will set-up a meeting with managing director Marc Newton. Let us assume you are going for the traditional Rigby Best shotgun in 12-bore. It will be built on the 1879 Rigby & Bissell patent vertical-bolt action, commonly known as a ‘Rising Bite’ model. It also features Rigby’s traditional dipped-edge lock plates.
The engraving choice normally falls into one of two categories: scroll or game scene. If a game scene is chosen, you will be given some examples to inspire you. There are many different types and styles of scroll but the style that adorns the standard gun is based on the company’s house pattern, which dates back to the last quarter of the 19th century.
Part of the ordering process includes a trip to West London Shooting School, where you can have a drink in the Rigby room and go for a fitting. After measuring you, checking your eye dominance and watching you shoot a number of different clay targets, he will provide a ‘recipe’ for your ideal stock dimensions. This is a major advantage in starting with a clean slate and designing the gun entirely around you.
There comes a time when you will need to reach for your cheque book. A deposit of a third is commonly required. The second payment will usually be required prior the start of engraving and the final one on completion.
For a ‘standard’, scroll-engraved, 12-bore, a figure of £79,000 (excl. VAT) will be required. A best oak and leather case will frame the gun beautifully but you will need to find an additional £6,000 for it.
With your bank balance lightened and one of the most interesting days of your life just completed, you are now free to go home. However, you will not be abandoned. The gunmaker is building this gun just for you and he wants as much input as you can give him. The more specific a customer can be in explaining his preferences and requirements, the closer to the perfect gun for him the company can get when building it.
The first job is barrel making. Once the barrels are made, they will be actioned, jointed and submitted for proof testing; producing a ‘barrelled action’; the basis for every new gun.
The stock will be carved to your exact requirements and you will have specified your chosen details like grip-shape, a gold or silver oval for your initials, chequer size etc. The choice of wood for the stock is something you will have made in earlier discussions. Getting the right stock-blank is important. It is not simply a case of finding the wood with the most figure and contrast. The blank must be aged properly in order to retain its strength. It must be beautiful, with figure and contrast in the butt but straight grain in the hand and at the head.
Next, the engraver gets to work on the plain metal of the action and lock-plates. You may want the traditional scroll, game scene or deep-relief carving as part of your order, whatever you decide the Rigby team will find the most appropriate engraver to carry out this specialist work.
Eventually, after around thirty months of anticipation, the day will arrive when your gun is ready for collection. The finisher will have worked his magic to create the finished product. His job is to ensure perfect fit, finish and function of every part of the gun.
The factory manager, Ed Workman, will then assess the gun. If he is satisfied, it will be presented to Marc for a final check before being fitted into its best oak and leather case, with the usual accessories.
Before you take full ownership, a second trip to the West London Shooting Ground is in order. There, your instructor will be able to coach you through your targets, observe your shooting and check the gun fits and functions exactly as intended.
You are now the proud owner of a new Rigby Best shotgun. Your name is forever in the order book, alongside those of thousands of sportsmen stretching back through the centuries.
All you have to do now is enjoy stepping into the field, secure in the knowledge that you are perfectly equipped with a sporting gun built entirely around you and your needs and preferences. Dreams can come true and you are now living yours. Shoot straight!