The King of Rifles

By Ross Seyfried

 


If we stand back and look at rifled bore sizes that have influenced the hunting of dangerous big game – influenced it for most of the last 200 years – we find one that stands out from all the rest. It began humbly, evolved through wonderful general duty and eventually became the epitome of magnificent, useful horsepower. When all is said and done, we may very well crown the .577 as the king of rifles.

Even though I take the risky stance of labeling the .577s “king,” that doesn’t mean the bore size is universally understood – or even known to many modern hunters and riflemen. To those who do know, .577 is usually taken to mean the last and most powerful version – the magnificent, “full-cordite” loading.

From left, a .577 x 3-inch 750-grain solid; a 3-inch, 6-dram, 650-grain Holland load; a 2¾-inch .577 Express; and an original Coiled Snider cartridge.

While those most powerful loads are something special, other .577 bores have, throughout their long history, been much less, but in a way, much more. So to set the stage for this new magazine, we are off on a wonderful voyage – one of great delight, history and, to the best of my ability, one of truth.

The .577’s beginnings are very humble, going back prior to the flintlock era. In its early history, the .577 bore size was found in both military muskets and sporting rifles, most of which used moderately light bullets and small powder charges. However, I do know of one percussion hunting rifle that hinted at the great power that was to come. A relatively heavy rifle, it used 650-grain bullets and six drams (167 grains) of black powder. But we’re going to begin at the point where percussion rifles ended, hop over the brief reign of the pinfires and set sail with center-fire, breech-loading sporting rifles.

Our first rifle covers a lot of history in one package.

When the Reilly became a breech loader it did not lose its lines and elegance.


When they converted the muzzle-loader to breech-loader, they kept the original lock but no doubt added a hammer that worked with the new action.


 



The top and left sides of the Reilly-Snider have wood inlays were the tang and other furniture where changed to accommodate the new action.


 



The new Snider breech-loader revolved around the very expensive octagon Damascus barrel and its original military-style, loading and cleaning rod. It is likely the rifle was converted to a breech-loader for a British military officer.

It began as a “.58-caliber,” best-quality, percussion, muzzle-loading sporting rifle that was made by Reilly. The mention of .58 caliber needs a bit of clarification. Why are the “five seven sevens” also referred to as .58 caliber? The answer lies in the way the British designated bore size. They measured the smallest part of the hole, from one land to the opposite land on the other side of the barrel. Measurements were taken with a cylindrical gage pin, with the “size” being determined by the largest pin that would slip down the barrel. In a very general way, the bores measured about .577 of an inch and the grooves between the lands about .585.

Our Reilly rifle was relatively light at about seven pounds, and it almost certainly was originally a deer-stalking rifle. Utilizing the immense skill of grand old workmen, it was converted into a breech-loading .577 Snider.

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The Reilly’s new Snider action closed and open showing an original coiled Snider cartridge.

The stock, lock and barrel were retained, and by screwing the then-revolutionary Snider Patent action into the breech of the barrel, they created a rifle that used fixed ammunition. Cartridges for this rifle would have most likely been “coiled” Snider cases, which were made in several parts with the actual case body being constructed of coiled brass and paper sheets. The powder charge was 70 grains of black powder, and the bullets were elongated, hollow-base, hollow-point affairs that weighed 480 grains. The bullets were similar to the .58-caliber Minie bullets used in military muskets. In fact, the Snider Patent began as a conversion for military muskets.

When I said “humble beginning,” I meant it. From a sporting-rifle perspective, this Reilly rifle might have been one of the worst formulas ever devised. The bullets it used were very soft, plus it’s been my experience that the hollow-base, undersized-principle can be voted most likely not to find the target. If such a bullet did hit a critter of any significant size, the performance would be marginal at best. The best and most effective .577 Snider sporting rifle I’ve seen is a Purdey double rifle made for a “special load” using large charges of fast, strong black powder behind round balls. But fear not – greatness looms on the horizon.

Not long after the invention of the Snider Patent, hunters realized the value of the .577 as a sporting rifle. The Snider materialized at the dawn of the industrial age, and that was a moment in time when the skill and inventiveness of gunmakers reached its highest pinnacle. The British Empire was well-established in the realms of dangerous big game – India, Asia and Africa. Hunters were well-moneyed and influential, and they wanted powerful and effective medium-bore rifles. The gunmakers and ammunition makers would not disappoint.

The designation of “medium bore” is not an error. By modern standards calling a .577 a medium-bore seems ridiculous, but in the black-powder era, .577s were not considered big bores. They ranked on the powerful end of the deer-rifle spectrum or on the very light end of dangerous-game rifles. At that time big-bore stopping rifles were 10-, 8- or even 4-bores. Drawing a parallel between the black-powder .577s and rifles that are in use today, the .577 might fill the same niche as present-day rifles in the .338 to .375 class.

When hunters began wanting more power than the Snider and wanting it in less cumbersome rifles than 12-gauges, the answer was pretty easy. Just use longer cases and more powder. Thus were born the “express” .577s that followed the lead in both name and concept that was started by James Purdey with his “express train” muzzle-loaders. The first “modern” .577 appeared about 1890 in a Westley Richards “improved” patent-action rifle with a block hinged at the rear and a lever beneath, in the Martini fashion.

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Even though the Westley Richards action does not appeal to everyone, the whole rifle is a thing of beautiful power.

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The Westley Richards improved action is large enough to easily accommodate the 2¾-inch .577.

 

The cartridge is the 2¾-inch .577 Express that used 160-grains of black powder (more than twice the Snider charge) and significantly heavier bullets that weighed 520-grains as hollow-points and 560-grains as solids. Velocity rose from the Snider’s 1200 feet per second to more than 1700 fps. Bullets are predominately paper-patched and sized to fit the grooves in the extremely accurate barrel with its Metford rifling. Ballistically, we have evolved to a cartridge that is a very honest 200-yard hunting round with the ability to be very decisive against any antelope, bear or cat. And it lives in a very interesting rifle.

The Westley Richards is in its own way a true classic that calls to mind someone’s description of Barbara Streisand as a beautiful, ugly woman.

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The Westley Richards Improved action will not win a lot of beauty contests, but it is smooth, elegant and strong.

The Westley Richard’s barrel is a swamped ovate contour, the most elegant and difficult of all to create. The side proudly proclaims that the rifle is chambered for Westley’s .577 Express load.

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but both please me. The Westley comes without a hint of engraving, no makeup to hide any flaw.

Its surfaces are perfect with incredible charcoal bluing and lines that cannot be bettered. The wood is plain and also perfect, and, oh my, that barrel!

It is 28 inches long and swamped ovate in contour, which is certainly the most difficult of any shape to create. It’s beautiful on the inside, too, with shallow, rounded, Metford grooves and the variable twist that pretty much dominated 1000-yard target shooting in those days. The barrel contour helps give the rifle perfect balance. It weighs just over nine pounds, which is enough weight to calm the recoil, but it is still light enough for a hunter to carry all day. The 2¾-inch; .577 Express was extremely popular. In production numbers it fell behind only the .450s and the .500s. And it had a big brother, the Holland & Holland .577-x-3-inch Black Powder Express.

 

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Holland’s .577 with the new “Royal” engraving pattern, hammers and Jones underlever action represents the final refinement in black-powder hunting rifles.



Holland’s iconic long-top-strap strengthened the stock and also demonstrates the incredible skill of the stock maker.

The foundation for the Holland & Holland rifle is the Jones double-screw grip, a side-swing, underlever that binds the barrels down on the action with immense strength and power. It’s probably the strongest action of any double rifle.

The rifle has back-action locks that leave a maximum amount of steel in the action body. The classic, flat-sided Holland & Holland hammers are magnificent. The top tang was what was then referred to as “over the comb,” meaning that the tang extended the full length of the pistol grip and back into the nose of the comb.

The bottom tang extended all the way to the grip cap, and the two tangs together formed a steel frame that strengthened the weakest part of the stock. They also no doubt kept the stock maker who inletted them busy for a good long while. In contrast to the austere Westley Richards, the Holland & Holland is heavily engraved in the boldly classic Holland scroll that was the earliest appearance of the “Royal” style. The rifle is elegantly beautiful with engraving that befits its stature, lines and power.

The barrels are fluid steel and moderately heavy, boosting the weight of the complete rifle to 11½ pounds.

The barrel inscription says it all. Holland & Holland rifles were extremely accurate and perfectly regulated.

It is, by .577 black-powder standards, a heavy rifle, but like all fine British rifles, its weight works in perfect harmony with its power. Its 3-inch drawn brass cases hold six drams, or 167 grains, of strong, Curtiss’s & Harvey’s No. 6 powder.

The normal bullet weights were 570 and 610 grains. The original Holland loading specified 590 grains, but throughout the write-ups of his hunting adventures, Samuel Baker spoke of 650-grain bullets. That was the bullet weight used by Holland in these rifles with the early cordite charge. I suspect that with his level of influence, Baker had ammunition loaded with the special heavy bullet and black powder. I can tell you that either by chance or design, my Holland & Holland regulates perfectly with six drams of powder and a 650-grain bullet of the special H & H pattern.

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Holland & Holland kindly provided information about the case length and powder charges for their rifles. This one used the long, 3-inch Express case, six drams and the Holland-pattern bullet.

 

The 650-grain bullets – like those in all the proprietary Holland loads – were not paper patched. They had special grooves with square shoulders that sloped to the rear. The Holland & Holland firm was very proud of the fact that due to the combination of bullet design and its special shallow rifling, H & H barrels needed no wiping between shots. The combination enabled H & H to be declared “Winners of All of the Field Rifle Trials of 1883.” In that competition H & H black-powder rifles won the tests of accuracy in every category, ranging from small .400-caliber guns right on up to 4-bores, proving that at the time they certainly had a better mouse trap. They also had an edge in the fact that their shooting was done by their own Mr. Froome, who just may have been the best “benchrest” rifle shot of the day.

This Holland .577’s sights are simple and no nonsense. The standing sight takes care of shots from 50 to 150 yards and the folding leaf puts the big bullets on target at 200.

To have seen Sir Samuel Baker in action with one of these rifles would’ve been a wonderful thing to behold. His book Wild Beasts and Their Ways is a sort of an accumulated biography of his long hunting career. It began in the percussion era in what was then known as Ceylon, and it began with what was perhaps the most powerful shoulder-fired rifle of all time . . . but that’s a story for another day. His career ended in the era of sophisticated, breech-loading double rifles. I think without doubt Baker’s favorite and most frequently used rifle was his Holland .577. He carried it in India, Africa and even into the mountains of Wyoming, where one elk hunt illustrated not only his unparalleled skill as a hunting-rifleman but also the capability of the Holland .577.

“. . . a splendid stag broke covert about 120 yards in front of me, and turning left, galloped across my front. By the time I had dismounted and fired, he was about 150 yards distant; but he fell almost immediately on his side, and although the body was invisible in the tall sage-brush (as I looked up the hill), one antler stood high above the surface like the dead branch of an oak tree.” {indeed it would, the antler was 59¾-inches long!} Baker and the hunt continue, “Seven stags now broke from the ravine about 200 yards in front, and most unfortunately took a line of retreat parallel with the gully directly up the hill ; thus nothing but rumps were turned toward me. Confident in the power of the rifle, I put up the back-sight for 250 yards, and took a steady shot. I heard the bullet strike, and I saw the stag run suddenly to the left, and then struggle for a few yards toward the sky-line, where it disappeared. . . . Several turned round, and from a distance of 300 yards regarded my horse and myself. I put up the 300 yards back-sight, and fired at the chest of the foremost stag. Again I heard the bullet strike.”

Now that was a really fine bit of work with a rifle. It would’ve been an exceptional performance for a hunter armed with a scope-sighted .375 H & H Model 70. Sir Samuel did it with a .577 double, express sights and black powder!

We have just examined the realm of what I believe to be two of the finest general-purpose rifle cartridges ever developed – the 2¾-inch and 3-inch .577 Express. The same level of performance was achieved in the 3¼-inch .577 and in the .577 Henry, which was a 2¾-inch, 20-gauge brass shell necked down to accept a .577 bullet. These latter two must have been marketing tools because they used the same loads as the 3-inch cartridge. As we nudge the dawn of the nitro era, we see all of these loaded with “nitro for black” powder charges that ballistically duplicated the black-powder loads, but without the smoke. There were also at least two “light cordite” loads that used 90 grains of cordite and 650-grain bullets. The rifles for these loads are rare and perhaps some of the most useful, because the rifles could be lighter than the great grandfather of all .577s to come, with similar penetration.

Yes, we have arrived at the crescendo, at the top of the food chain, at the Hammer of Thor and the final evolution of the .577 – the rifles made to shoot cartridges containing 100 grains of cordite and 750-grain bullets.

The Rigby’s proof marks: 100 grains of cordite and a 750-grain bullet. The very top of the food chain with enough power for battles of the most dangerous kind.

 

They are storied rifles with reputations bigger than life and real world performance where truth is perhaps larger than fiction. If I seem passionate about them it is because I am. One such .577 rifle became a life-altering experience for me.

My youth was influenced in an odd way by an old man who had been a real elephant hunter in a place then known as Tanganyika, East Africa. At a tender, pre-school age, I sat on his knee, looked up at a pair of tusks that arched over his office door, polished one of a pair of Holland .500s and heard his stories of elephant hunting. It was not a fair fight. Drugs might have been easier to overcome. I was going to have an elephant rifle, and I was going to be an elephant hunter. I saved one Hereford calf at a time and then fed the piggy bank until it held three-thousand dollars. Then in an act labeled as madness by all around me, I spent almost all of it on one rifle.

You have to understand that 40 years ago you could buy a Weatherby for a few hundred dollars or a fine Model 70 for a whole lot less than that. I did not know what I was doing, had not a clue other than in concept guided from afar by the kind mentoring of Elmer Keith. In Roggen, Colorado, there were few elephants and no elephant rifles, but there was the Shotgun News. Had I read the pages of my college text books with as much enthusiasm, I probably would have become a nuclear physicist. But I only wanted to be an elephant hunter. I found the ad for a Bonehill .500 cordite, phoned Elmer and got his approval and called the owner, only to learn the rifle had already been sold. I was chagrined, not realizing the loss was one of the most fortuitous losses of my life. A few weeks later I found another interesting ad, “Rigby Best Quality, .577 Nitro Express, $2750.” Again Elmer approved and again I called. This time the rifle was still available.

 

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Rigby’s .577 with its distinctive; lines, fences and engraving forms the epitome of elegant power.

I asked the seller if it had any engraving and he said it did. I would have asked if it was a side-lock, but I didn’t know there was a choice. All I knew was that a .577 was really big and was a very real elephant gun. Some days later the big, heavy box arrived at the post office, and once I got home with it, I peeled off the outer wrapping. Beneath the brown paper was a leather case that had a wonderful, now familiar smell, and inside the maroon, baize-lined case was a thing of unimaginable beauty along with several boxes of ammunition. Up until that time I’d never even seen a .577 cartridge, let alone a best Rigby Rifle. My pure ignorance undoubtedly muted the experience. If I went through the same thing again today I’m sure unwrapping that package would be even more overwhelming. Of course, I could not wait to shoot my new acquisition!

I made the short trip from my apartment in town to a friend’s farm where we sometimes hunted geese. The leveling of one of the farm’s fields had left a really big cut bank. A cardboard box was placed against the cut bank, and affixed to the box was a sheet of note paper with a circular bull made with a Magic Marker. I took an elbow rest on the car hood at a range of 50 yards. The largest thing I had fired up to that point in life was a .458 Winchester Magnum, and that had been a lot of recoil. I knew the .577 was going to kick! With that in mind, I took a death-grip on the rifle, leveled the sights and most likely yanked the front trigger pretty hard. The rifle hit me really hard. My thumb smashed my nose, and the tendons in my shoulder seemed to snap. I was strong then, really strong, but I had much to learn about recoil. It’s better to relax and give with the recoil. A .577 is pretty much an unstoppable force, and I certainly was not an unmovable object! My first shot was out of the bull, but the next two snuggled side by side right in the middle of it. I learned that the .577’s recoil was big, but not harmful. Our shooting life became more friendly and by eastern Colorado standards, very impressive.

There was the huge dead cottonwood tree at a local shooting place that was a tempting test for rifles. Up until then, no one had ever shot through the cottonwood. The .577 not only went through the tree; it penetrated a foot deep in the frozen ground behind it. We caught a jackrabbit on the snow one day. I was shooting solids, and I expected the bullet to simply poke a hole in the rabbit. The result, however, was quite the opposite. Instead of a minimally mangled jackrabbit, there was an explosion, a red flash on the snow, the kind of thing I might have expected from a .300 Magnum and soft-point bullets. What I saw was an early lesson in bullet-hydraulics, a lesson that explains why you only have to get close to an elephant’s brain to flatten him with a .577. The big bullet displaced so much bunny that his hide could not contain the expansion and he popped like a balloon.

The buffalo was running through thick trees. The right barrel killed an ebony tree, the left tumbled the bull like a rabbit. Both shots were fired toward the Zambian side of the river. The Zambians thought the Rhodesians had opened up with artillery.

The big nitro .577 is not a general-purpose hunting rifle. It needs should weigh a minimum of 13 pounds, and that’s too much weight to carry comfortably all day long. A .577 is made for elephants and fights with other dangerous game — fights of the most desperate kind.

It’s a true working heavyweight that replaced the 8 and 4-bore rifles and eclipsed the black-powder giants in killing power. I found my .577 to be absolutely devastating on buffalo, so much so that I began to take unnecessary chances with the rifle in my hands. It was and is, as Sir Samuel Baker said of his immensely powerful Gibbs 5-bore 150 years previously, “a devil stopper.”

The Rigby and I actually made it to Africa, to a magical land then known as Rhodesia, and we hunted elephants, saw elephants and almost touched elephants but did not find that good bull. And as life and circumstance sometimes dictate, we never did kill an elephant. But that grand Rigby has killed many, many elephants in the hands of others: Kings, professional hunters and one of my favorite heroes, George Neary. That rifle led me to know this man and many others. It was an introduction to greatness I would have never touched without its association.

The author’s first buffalo and the Rigby on elephant tracks in the Zambesi, in strange company: a 1911 Pachmayr Colt with two extra magazines, Mahallion .404 and an FN FAL. We were in the middle of the Rhodesian War.

The .577s have influenced many. Not long ago I stood in front of a glass case where two best Westley, detachable-lock .577s rested. Above, a very worn but still wonderful rifle, posed with a photo of James Sutherland, the great elephant hunter. Just below Sutherland a virtually identical rifle, with a few thousand less miles on it, slept beside Earnest Hemingway.

In Bulawayo, Rhodesia there was a .577 Club where it took a cartridge to get in the door. If you had the rifle, the drinks were free. Yes, I believe “King” is fitting.

Rigby’s .577 Double, The True King of Rifles