A new gun comes into your collection. You are excited, intrigued to discover how old it is, for whom it was made and perhaps even who made it. For many an owner, the quest to uncover the layers of historical information about an old gun often begins with hope and ends in disappointment.

The sad fact is that gunmakers of the past, like many businesses, often started and ended within the lifetime of the founder, others may have lasted two or three generations. When these businesses closed, more often than not the records, ledgers, accounts and ephemera ended-up in the dump.

Gunmakers that ceased to trade were sometimes taken over by a rival, who may or may not have archived the records.  There are other ways of finding out facts about your gun, of course. Proof marks will help date it, as will the address on the rib, especially if the firm moved regularly, which many did. However, there is nothing as satisfying as finding primary evidence about it in the records of the maker. For that you need the original day books.

Owners of Rigby guns are more fortunate than most. The company has been in, (essentially uninterrupted), business since its founding and there are various books and journals still in existence dating back to the 1790s. Each contains important and fascinating data about the company, its guns and customers.

Notable among the dusty tomes stacked on the shelves at Rigby, one book stands alone as an intriguing relic of a production process. It is the only one of its kind and it sheds light on many details that were lost to history, before we began researching the contents.

Labelled simply ‘Barrel Book’, its first entry, in beautiful hand-penned black ink, is dated 1886 and it provides a record of several facets of the barrel making process. As any gunmaker will tell you, the barrels are the heart of any gun and the first part to be made.

Then, as now, gunmakers were reliant on several other specialist trades, each of which supplied particular materials, goods or services that were not available in the gunmaker’s workshop.

The Barrel Book first tells us the serial number the barrels were allocated (this is not the same as the serial number of the gun or rifle) and the date on which they were delivered, ready for actioning. This barrel number is usually retained (on the loop) and can be looked-up in the Barrel Book, just as we can look-up the serial number in the book that holds those.

We are told the length of the barrels and whether they are rifle or shotgun barrels, steel or Damascus and who the supplier of the tubes was.

Shotgun barrel entries denote chokes, jointing, bore-size and bore dimensions at various lengths, as well as weight.

The first barrel number is No.2000, entered in 1886.

Some key dates within the book deserve attention, these provide us with a picture of trade practices in the late Victorian, early Edwardian period, which was one of major transition. Gun barrel makers were increasingly replacing hand-forged Damascus and twist barrel tubes with those made by the industrial, fluid-pressed steel method pioneered by Sir Joseph Whitworth. John Rigby was an early convert to the new material and, by 1886, utilised steel tubes in preference to Damascus, especially for the making of rifle barrels.

We can also track the fortunes of the barrel tube makers as time goes by, with favoured suppliers changing over time. Early steel tubes were provided by Annen Steel Co., H.B. Co., Smith, Siemens, and Webley. Damascus was supplied by Francotte and H&L Cie, (both of these were Belgian firms).

One such notable date is the one on which Whitworth steel was first used by Rigby. This was in April 1887 (it was for ‘fitting-in’ new barrels to Greener gun No.20763). These were 12-bore barrels of 30”, weighing 3lbs 4oz and filed by ‘J.Wheeler’.

Damascus barrels continued to be made in increasingly smaller numbers until 1906, when the last pair of Damascus barrels (Crolle supplied by H&L Cie) were fitted to a 12-bore shotgun. These were also filed by Wheeler, who must have been one of Rigby’s in-house barrel filers.

The names of tube suppliers change as the century progresses; the Henry Barrel Co. makes an appearance in 1899, followed by Krupp, Webley & Scott and P. Webley. In fact, P. Webley dominates the book until 1921 and thereafter Webley & Scott and Krupp take over.

By 1926, the dominant names are Lane, Vickers, and Webley but after 1927, only Vickers features as a barrel tube supplier. So, we can see how Rigby was an early champion of steel barrels, we also see that some customers still wanted Damascus, despite the gunmaker’s preference for steel. By 1932, when the Barrel Book ends, Damascus had disappeared to all intents and purposes, replaced by steel entirely for new guns and rifles.

The Barrel Book is just one of those in Rigby’s archive. The other books extant include Accounts Ledgers, Day Books and Serial Number books. We hope to discover more interesting information about the gun trade from these books. They are incomplete, but span the period from 1798 to the present day, covering both Rigby’s origins in Dublin and later activity (post 1865) in London.

The exploration of the Barrel Book is just part of the process Rigby is undertaking to fully examine and understand the historical significance of the pen and ink legacy of knowledge that past members of the Rigby firm have left to us.

Anybody with a Rigby gun or rifle can approach the company for a search of the records. The detail available will vary from one period to another but with careful cross-referencing, it is often possible to uncover a number of fascinating details about a customer’s Rigby.

The Barrel Book stops in 1936. This 12-bore is the last gun with details recorded within its pages.


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