Retro-Vintage:
Re-Making the Ruger M77 Mk II Magnum Express Rifle .416 Rigby

The Renaissance of the Classic Big-Bore

When Ruger announced the introduction of its Magnum Express rifle in 1989, chambered in the venerable and long extinct .416 Rigby, it was a signal moment. It marked the renaissance of the big bore rifle and of African safaris. For two decades, big bore had meant anything over .30 caliber and interest in such cartridges fell precipitously when discussing anything larger than the .338 Winchester Magnum. The .375 Holland & Holland Magnum was considered overpowered for even the largest game in North America. Winchester's big .458, itself a stop gap against the sudden collapse of the British gun trade in the 1950s, saw less and less use as the 1970s came to a close. In practical terms, big bore for Americans meant the .45-70 Government. Anything more potent was gross and absurd. "What are you gonna do with that thing - hunt elephants?" Hunting the Big Five of Africa was a subject that drew practically no following and the rare special issues of shooting periodicals to cover such subjects were coveted by a dwindling few.

The affluence of the late 1980s changed that. Suddenly, Americans had the resources to take extravagant holidays and a select number began to contemplate hunting Africa. Whether Ruger precipitated this resurgence or merely recognized it I will leave to others to judge, but undeniably Ruger made the strongest statement with its decision to reintroduce one of the classic British big game cartridges in its new magnum length express action. The rifle also bore numerous marks of being cast in the mold of classic vintage Mauser sporting rifles by British gunmakers, with its square receiver bridge, quarter rib, barrel banded swivel and express sights. The newly redesigned Mk II action itself hearkened back to the classic Mauser with its lines and especially its strong claw extractor running the length of the bolt as on the Mauser Model 1898. When it appeared in 1989, Ruger's Magnum Express was the only commercially available bolt action that could handle the big .416 Rigby without extensive modification (recall that the Cold War was still ongoing, in the US if nowhere else, and the CZ ZKK 602 was banned from importation into the US, though a few managed to get in, because they were brought in by military personnel who bought them in Germany).

Factory built Ruger Model 77 Mk II Magnum Express rifle in .416 Rigby

Yes, the .416 Remington Magnum had been introduced the preceding year and its a magnificent cartridge - more practical by far than the big Rigby. However the Remington Model 700 rifle bears no resemblance to the vintage classics of the golden era of African hunting and its extractor is so unreliable that anyone using it for dangerous game hunting is literally taking his life in his hands in a way that perhaps he little reckons (I know, I know... I never had a problem with Remington extractors either - until I did...). The .416 Remington Magnum is now (and has been for years) offered by the Winchester Custom Shop in its big game rifles, but that came later. Unlike the modern push-feed Remington action, the Magnum Ruger responded to the reawakened desire for the vintage original British big bore rifle with classic style in a classic chambering.

And the .416 Rigby is classic. Legendary even, perhaps as much for its eventual scarcity as for its reputed effectiveness. I won't bother to repeat the oft quoted line by John "Pondoro" Taylor about its efficacy on lions, but he gave it high praise for all big game, which is saying something since he was not a big fan of magazine rifles generally. A lot of that had to do with Rigby's steel jacketed solids. Harry Selby is the most famous user of the .416 Rigby, first achieving recognition at a very young age in the 1950s as a result of the literary and film exploits of writer Robert Ruark (try to get a pristine copy of RKO's Africa Adventure from 1954 to see young Harry Selby in the waning years of the golden age of safari when Africa was still a wild place and things were not yet commercialized). He used his Rigby rifle, nicknamed "Skitini" by his trackers, for 40 years as a PH, beginning in 1949 when his .470 Nitro Express double was destroyed by a mishap. Amazingly, his Rigby rifle was not one of the big magnum length Mausers, rather it was custom built on a highly modified standard military Mauser 98 action; something that conventional wisdom holds to be impossible. My brother and I have pondered over the judicious removal of steel in the receiver to make that work. Because few gunsmiths were skilled and daring enough to attempt such surgery, the big .416 Rigby was generally limited to magnum Mausers, which were never in abundance and quite expensive. I think this is surely one reason why the .404 Jeffery assumed greater prominence; its not a better cartridge, but it can more easily be adapted to a standard 98 Mauser and has continued to be loaded and chambered by the Europeans since its introduction.

Harry Selby and Robert Ruark on safari in Kenya in the 1950s, and the poster from the film

Re-Making the Ruger in Retro-Vintage Style

Style & Substance

Unfortunately, the (sadly discontinued) Ruger M77 Mk II Magnum Express had three serious flaws:

  • The dog-leg bolt handle is poorly designed and non-traditional to boot. Look at the above image and note the location of the bolt knob relative to the trigger. You will observe that on recoil the knob will be driven with crushing force back into the trigger finger on every shot. That is a distraction and potential injury that a hunter of dangerous game can ill afford. It can physically or psychologically impair one's shooting ability at a critical moment (and any time one pulls the trigger on dangerous game is a critical moment).
  • The factory stock design leaves much to be desired. If you look at the image above, the rifle seems trim and sleek, and it is in profile. Unfortunately, it is very wide, owing to an overdeveloped conservatism on the part of Ruger's stock designers. There is more wood around the receiver than necessary, making the forearm almost a beavertail, rather than a slim tapering extension consistent with the vintage British originals. On top of that, the bottom of the stock, including the forearm, is flat and that is decidedly uncomfortable in the hand. The grip also is much too thick and cramped rather than long, relatively straight and open - a nice thing to have on a hard kicking rifle. I could barely get a good grip on it, which won't do. Worst of all, the butt of this otherwise thick and club-like gunstock is no larger than for the standard calibers, doubtless in response to some corporate cost minder's insistence that it use the same recoil pad as the other Ruger rifles. Then there is the Ruger pad itself. I often have a steel buttplate on even fairly hard kicking rifles and don't mind the very firm Ruger pad on my other rifles, but this is a special case. The result is that the recoil from this behemoth in its factory configuration is quite nasty.
  • Ruger's recoil lug design is a Rube Goldberg masterpiece of incomprehensible complexity that lacks any utility as a recoil lug. If you examine the mechanical linkages involved carefully, you will discover that the entire recoil is borne by a single small screw fitting into a rib forged under the barrel. This is a design that is ripe for shearing off and leaving the barreled action "free floating" in a way that you really do not want. Its totally unacceptable and why it was designed in this manner is beyond understanding, especially considering that Ruger went to the effort and expense of putting an under rib into the barrel which serves no other purpose.
  • Below are two pages of an early John Rigby & Co. catalog depicting the new .416 Rigby cartridge in the big magnum length Mauser sporting rifle. Note the long straight bolt handle and simple classic styling. Note also the weight of the rifle (10 lbs) and the barrel length of 26 inches. Short of rebarreling the Ruger there is nothing to be done about the barrel length and I wouldn't want to anyway because one of the foremost points of appeal on that Ruger Model 77 Mk II Magnum rifle is the one-piece forged barrel with its integral quarter rib. However, a new bolt handle and stock would transform this rifle into something at once more functional and more aesthetically pleasing.

    John Rigby catalog advertisement for a Mauser sporting rifle in .416 Rigby caliber


    Bolt Handle Replacement

    Drawing on the above list of design faults in the factory Ruger, there is first the bolt handle to be rectified. It is too sculpted to be reshaped and that is not a very satisfactory approach anyway. The only answer is to cut it off and weld on a replacement. I contracted that work with Stuart Satterlee of Satterlee Arms after I discovered his website and perused his replacement bolts for Mausers done in the classic traditional sporting style. I asked Stuart for a massive and muscular bolt handle, long and straight with a teardrop-shaped bolt knob. Nothing slender or dainty here. This rifle is robust and the bolt handle needs to match. After market ready made replacements tend to be too gracile for this application. Stuart had to make something especially for this purpose but the result is fantastic and the price was quite reasonable. I intend to seek his talents again in future on a Mauser sporting rifle project.


    Custom Gunstock

    I searched long and hard for a stockmaker who would make a traditional styled stock pattern with a pancake cheekpiece, a long open wrist and a little drop at the heel (notice that I don't use the word "classic" here - that denotes something else entirely). The difficulty was finding anyone who had a pattern for the Ruger M77 MkII Magnum. I had a pattern stock made by Great American Gunstocks, but evidently Ruger modified their recoil lug and stock bolt at some point because the inletting was different and so that was not usable (it also was not what I asked for - it had a pancake cheekpiece but was otherwise identical to the factory stock).

    Then I saw that Paul and Sharon Dressel began to advertise stockmaking and pattern copying, so I inquired. I was contacted by a fellow named Sandy McDonald, who is their resident gunsmith and stockmaker. We discussed the problem and on Sandy's advice I decided to let him inlet the action in a blank by hand and then carve a pattern, rather than use the factory stock to facilitate making a pattern (it was just too different). This was, he felt, the only means of ensuring that the action would be properly inletted with a stock pattern. Its doing it the hard way, but there really was no other way.

    This pattern was fully inletted and glass bedded. It had a recoil pad and grip cap. The idea was to make the pattern perfect so that when it was duplicated the final fitting of the actual gunstock would be minimal. After he made the pattern, he shipped it to me for my review. My brother was going to do the final fitting, shaping and finishing for me and so I had him look it over. Then I shipped it back to Dressel's for Sandy to duplicate the pattern with my California English walnut blank. Below is the blank that I selected for this gunstock. It has relatively straight grain flow through the wrist and action area for strength, but nice mineral streaking.

    The beginning: a California English walnut stock blank from Paul & Sharon Dressel


    Recoil Lug

    Sandy is a very capable and meticulous gunsmith. Before the stock pattern was begun, he set about rebuilding the recoil lug. We discussed this at length and he agreed that the factory design was needlessly complicated. His suggestion was to machine a dovetail into the massive rib underneath the barrel and silver solder a hand made recoil lug into this. The result is robust enough to handle any recoil force that this mighty cartridge can generate. It also results in far less inletting of the forearm, which would have otherwise presented a problem for my intent of making that appendage round-bottomed and more trim. The action is bedded very tightly to the stock, admitting no play on recoil. Sandy also removed a nasty scratch that had somehow happened to the barrel and reblued the metal.


    Fitting, Final Shaping & Finishing

    My brother and I agreed that this stock should be much more trim than what one typically sees on a dangerous game rifle produced today and dramatically more trim than the factory stock. If you handle the original British sporting rifles you will be struck with their compactness and liveliness in the hands. Clublike, they are not.

    Notwithstanding the massive character of the Ruger magnum action and the heavyweight barrel on this rifle, the stock could be made to be lithe and yet have a wider and deeper butt to better distribute recoil force and still afford sufficient wood around the action to maintain integrity (the Ruger inletting is more radical than for a Mauser and there is little web to support a crossbolt). To this end, my brother reshaped and slimmed the stock, preserving the pattern while reducing almost all the dimensions. This requires great skill because it entails re-cutting things like the shadowline, for example.

    An enormous amount of labor time goes into stock finishing. This is an area where shortcuts will distinguish a fine stock from a decent stock. My brother labored over the finish until it was the perfect balance of satin fineness without any shiny character. Checkering was performed by Tim Smith-Lyon (Classic Checkering), whom I have come to trust for all my rifle projects.



    Right profile of the completed rifle

    Closeup view showing the replacement bolt handle designed and installed by Satterlee Arms, as well as the wrapover point pattern checkering on the wrist

    Slimmer, round contour forearm with wrap around point pattern checkering

    Inletted island swivel base, silver escutcheon and Dressel English style grip cap

    Traditional pancake cheekpiece with shadowline on buttstock

    Closeup view of the right side showing the replacement bolt handle, cross bolt and the trim lines of the forearm

    Load Development and Shooting

    Load Development

    The original factory load pushed a 410 grain round nosed bullet at 2371 fps and this load, when zeroed at 150 yards, never deviates more than 1.5 inches above or below the line-of-sight out to 175 yards. It also drops less than 4 inches at 200 yards and the remaining velocity of roughly 1840 fps at that distance is probably sufficient to properly expand most softpoints in this caliber. That is as far as I would ever attempt to shoot with this rifle in extremis (not even a world class trophy opportunity would tempt me to fire this rifle from the prone position, so that also limits the practical range). So, a muzzle velocity of 2375 fps with a Woodleigh 410 grain RN became my target load.


    Bullets

    While there are many good .416 caliber bullets on the market, accruing to the popularity of this caliber, I focused my load development on the heavier bullets for dangerous game. This rifle is quite heavy and no matter what load was made for it using a 300 to 350 grain bullet, with whatever flatness of trajectory, its not about to become an all-around rifle. That said, I did develop a load for the 350 grain Barnes X-Bullet (original style), simply because I had them on hand.

    The preferred dangerous game bullet is the Woodleigh Weldcore RN, which is a near copy of the original bullet form, improved by a bonded core. It doesn't get more retro-vintage classic than that, yet with the benefit of more modern technology. The big 450 grain softnose bullet is included because Geoff McDonald, proprietor of Woodleigh, is promoting the superheavyweight bullets in the big bores, with Kevin "Doctari" Robertson weighing in with supporting arguments in their favor. I thought I would give them a try in terminal performance testing, so I worked up a load.

    When it came to solids, I found that the Ruger did not feed all flat-nosed bullets well. It jammed on Mike Brady's original experimental style of North Fork Technologies flat point solid (not the design currently being manufactured), although it feeds the (now discontinued) Barnes Banded Solid FN perfectly, which has a smaller meplat and more rounded nose. I would have preferred the 410 grain Woodleigh RN solid, but my experience has taught me that flat nosed solids penetrate in a straight line, whereas round nosed bullets of most forms are extremely prone to deviation. You can see that evidenced in the penetration data on my wound ballistics site. So, here I prefer to depart from tradition and go with what works best. That said, when I tested the Barnes Banded Solids in my rifle they grouped significantly off from the sighted in point of impact for the softpoints, which may mean that I'll have to use something else. There's no value in a solid that hits inches away from the aimpoint and I do not intend to load and use only solids.

    Selection of bullets used in load development: (L to R) 1) 350 gr Barnes X-Bullet, 2) 400 gr Barnes Banded Solid FN, 3) 400 gr Hornady Interlock RN softpoint, 5) 410 gr Woodleigh Weldcore RN softpoint, 6) 450 gr Woodleigh Weldcore RN softpoint


    Propellant

    I thought that a very slow burning propellant would work best in this cavernous case and at one time contemplated using Hodgdon H-1000. Consulting all my reloading data sources, however, persuaded me to try something a bit faster, in the form of IMR-7828. I expected a little leftover case volume but this powder was filling the case with maximum loads. The .416 Rigby is routinely loaded to lower pressure than its SAAMI design specification of 52,000 psi, but the maximums shown in the table below are close to that pressure - Do not exceed!

    IMR-7828 was too slow burning to be practical with the 350 grain Barnes X-Bullet, so I switched to Hodgdon H-4831SC. As soon as I burn through all of my IMR-7828, I will remain with H-4831 for the heavier bullets too.

    In an endeavor to develop reduced loads that were less punishing, I did some load work with H-4350. The target was to deliver the same performance as the old .450/.400 Nitro Express, which drove a 400 grain bullet at 2125 fps. This was the first nitro express, the grandfather of them all, which arrived about the same moment as the .303 Lee-Metford cartridge in the early 1890s, years before Rigby launched the venerable .450 Nitro Express. It was extremely popular and was, in large part, the inspiration responsible for bringing the .416 Rigby into existence as a cartridge for magazine rifles. Reduced loads with something as slow as IMR-7828 are not ideal and in any case the whole theory behind my investigation was founded on the suspicion that the propellant weight was a major contributor to the recoil. There is a reason why the .416 Rigby kicks a lot harder than a .458 Lott. I think both a larger propellant charge and also the bottleneck case design are contributors (although that may be counting the same effect twice in different ways). Using a relatively faster powder like H-4350 allows as much as a 10+ grain reduction in the charge weight with comparable muzzle velocities and 15+ grains less for reduced velocity loads.

    The first effort yielded iffy results because, while the recoil was substantially reduced as hoped, the velocity variation was too extreme to be conducive to accuracy - up to 100 fps. A solution to this would be Dacron polyester filler (pillow ticking) to keep the powder against the primer. It is a recommended approach for handloading nitro expresses, but these generally have either a straight taper or a very slight shoulder, not the more pronounced bottleneck of the .416 Rigby. However, I have used this technique in my Martini-Henry rifle and these are reduced loads, so it should not present a pressure hazard.

    But maybe this wasn't going far enough. If you think about the burn rate of Cordite, as compared with modern propellants, then we ought to be using something more like H-4895 or Varget. Contrary to popular misconception, there were different grades of Cordite even in loading small arms ammunition. The sticks loaded in medium and big bores were thicker than those loaded in the .303 Lee-Metford and .256 Mannlicher. Still, no modern propellant recommendation for the .416 Rigby comes anywhere close to the original Cordite in burn rate. As with black powder expresses, there is a formula for recreating the original performance of older nitro expresses using modern propellants, in this case it is 1.19 times the original load with Alliant Reloder-15, according to vintage rifle expert Ross Seyfried. Reloder-15 is slower than Cordite (obviously), but significantly faster than H-4350, so I wanted to give that a try.

    According to the 1926 Imperial Chemical Industries (Eley & Kynoch) ammunition catalog, the Cordite load for the .416 Rigby was either 70 grains for softpoint or 71 grains for solid bullet loads for a muzzle velocity of 2300 fps. This is a bit below the oft quoted standard velocity for the Rigby, but I was amiming for something reduced below even that level anyway. The Cordite load for the .450/.400 Nitro Express was 60 grains. That translates into 72 grains of Reloder-15 to approximate .450/.400 Nitro Express performance. Astoundingly, even in the larger case, it does. I assumed that an equivalent load in the .416 Rigby would be probably a few grains more to account for the slightly larger case capacity, however the 72 grain Reloder-15 load produces 2180 fps, which is very comparable to original .450/.400 Nitro Express performance. I followed this load series up to the Hornady book maximum for the .404 Jeffery, which is a very similar but slightly smaller rimless cartridge; this load of 76 grains produces about 2278 fps. All of these reduced loads deliver appreciably less recoil than full power loads with the slowest propellants, and the Reloder-15 seemed to burn more consistently than the reduced charges of H-4350. If one believes the validity of the Cordite-to-Reloder-15 conversion rule, then a nominal standard load in the Rigby might be as much as 84 grains of Reloder-15. I am skeptical, as that sounds too high for this propellant, and I would caution anyone to approach such a load very carefully.


    Disclaimer

    Warning: Use this load data at your own risk. No liability is assumed for the use of this data in any other firearm. It appeared to be safe in the test rifle, but was not subjected to pressure testing. Exercise safe reloading practices. Starting loads should always be reduced by 5 to 10% from the maximum load.

    Table of Load Development Testing

    Bullet Charge Muzzle Velocity Notes
    .416-350 gr Barnes X-Bullet Hodgdon H-4831SC Seated to cannelure; 3.680 in OAL
    102 gr 2546 fps
    103 gr 2576 fps Accuracy potential
    104 gr 2599 fps
    .416-400 gr Barnes Banded Solid FN IMR-7828 Seated to second relief groove; 3.705 in OAL
    98 gr 2380 fps Accurate and consistent
    99 gr 2423 fps Accurate and consistent
    100 gr 2460 fps Accurate and consistent
    101 gr 2492 fps Accurate and consistent
    .416-400 gr Hornady RN SP IMR-7828 Seated to cannelure; 3.635 in OAL
    97 gr 2337 fps Consistent
    98 gr 2419 fps Consistent
    99 gr 2448 fps Consistent
    100 gr 2462 fps Consistent
    101 gr 2534 fps Maximum
    Alliant Reloder-15 Reduced loads to .450/.400 Nitro Express level; Seated to cannelure; 3.635 in OAL
    72 gr 2182 fps Duplicates .450/.400 Nitro Express Cordite load
    73 gr 2180 fps
    74 gr 2209 fps
    75 gr 2238 fps
    76 gr 2278 fps Hornady maximum load for .404 Jeffery; Moderate recoil
    .416-410 gr Woodleigh Weldcore RN SN IMR-7828 Seated to cannelure; 3.740 in OAL
    98 gr 2284 fps
    99 gr 2345 fps Consistent
    100 gr 2430 fps Accuracy potential; very consistent
    Hodgdon H-4350 Seated to cannelure; 3.740 in OAL
    76 gr 2085 fps Reduced loads to .450/.400 Nitro Express level; Wide velocity variation
    77 gr 2070 fps Wide velocity variation
    78 gr 2121 fps Wide velocity variation
    79 gr 2107 fps Wide velocity variation
    86 gr 2247 fps Full power load series; sharper recoil
    87 gr 2271 fps
    88 gr 2273 fps
    89 gr 2364 fps
    .416-450 gr Woodleigh Weldcore RN SN IMR-7828 Seated to cannelure; 3.740 in OAL
    93 gr 2161 fps
    94 gr 2185 fps Accuracy potential; very consistent
    95 gr 2256 fps Maximum; consistent


    Recoil

    Recoil with this behemoth cartridge is prodigious, but thanks to the improved stock with its wider, deeper butt and Pachmayr Deccelerator pad, it is tolerable even from the bench. In my second shooting session I fired a dozen rounds off the bench and felt perfectly fine. Getting acclimated to the recoil of heavy rifles requires shooting with reasonable frequency, but never to excess. If you shoot 10 or 20 rounds on most trips to the range then it won't seem outrageous, and if you never do some macho endurance shooting marathon you'll never become recoil sensitive. For practical field shooting, recoil is not a problem at all (other than prone shooting, which is assuredly a very, very bad idea).


    Accuracy

    Notwithstanding the heavy recoil, accuracy with this rifle is very good. This in spite of the fact that, although I never do this with other rifles and tried to shoot with a very erect posture, I got smacked in the forehead by the scope ocular ring, the second time hard enough to raise a knot between my eyes (I am fortunate that it had a rubber bumper on the rim or I would have been cut to the bone).

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