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Fit for a king

Holland & Holland’s Royal double rifle still speaks with authority. By JOHAN VAN WYK

In the world of double rifles, a small number of gunmakers stand out as giants. Their names are often listed in the glossy catalogues of exclusive auction houses or mentioned in hushed tones in the cigar smoke-filled shops of upper-crust gun dealers.

One such name is Holland & Holland (Gunmakers) Ltd, currently resident at 33 Bruton Street, London. This firm’s history goes back to about 1848 (too few of its records survived to pinpoint the date) when a London-based tobacconist of 9 King Street, Harris Holland, started selling shotguns. These guns were all made for Holland by others, so he was actually nothing but a gun retailer, a practise that was very common in the British gun trade at the time. The guns that Harris Holland sold were of superb quality. And being a keen pigeon shooter, Harris Holland naturally concentrated on that market specialising in high-quality “pigeon” guns.

Around 1851 Harris Holland decided to spread his wings and was listed as a gun maker. The implication of this is that he must have employed at least one full-time gunmaker and must have conducted at least a significant part of the construction and finishing of the guns sold under his own name. As mentioned, Holland concentrated on shotguns but orders for rifles started trickling in and soon riflemaking became an important part of the business. The next significant step in H&H’s history occurred in 1860 when Henry William Holland (born 1845) was apprenticed to his uncle. In 1876 William was made a partner by his now elderly uncle Harris. Thus, the firm that we know as Holland & Holland was born.

With the London gun trade concentrated on making firearms for the rich and famous, many makers developed or adopted unique designs of their own to distinguish their products from those of their competitors. Purdey, for example, became famous for the self-opening Beesley action while James Woodward and Boss & Co developed beautiful and highly influential over/under actions. Holland & Holland was no exception and Henry Holland (with the help of John Robertson, a leading London outworker who stocked and actioned many Holland & Holland guns during this time and later became proprietor of Boss & Co) patented an ingenious but extremely complicated action on 1 January 1883. The righthand lock was cocked by the fall of the barrels (when the gun was opened) and the left-hand lock cocked when the gun was closed again. This action employed complicated levers and was prone to get out of order; hence the design was quickly changed so that both locks were cocked when the barrels were opened.


An extract of a Holland & Holland brochure from1910, advertising the company’s Royal India in .465 Express. These doubles were very popular with Indian noblemen.

This design, when introduced in 1885, was intended as Holland & Holland’s best gun and dubbed the “Royal” (a reference not only to the quality of the guns itself but the obvious target market as well). Early Royals had lock-plates with a pronounced dipped edge, very much in the style of the Rigby side-locks of the time, and are from time to time encountered on the used-gun market. The lock-plate was given a more rounded appearance when a series of design changes were introduced from the early 1890s onwards, as was a very distinctive bold foliate scroll engraving pattern that would over the years become synonymous with the Royal.

As mentioned, Holland & Holland started making rifles as well and the first Royal-grade double rifle, a .450 Express with serial number 11345, was delivered in November 1887. With the relatively benign pressures developed by black powder, the Royal’s bar-action locks could easily cope with the cartridges/ calibres of the time and the pressures they generated. About a decade later John Rigby & Co tossed the cat amongst the pigeons when they introduced the .450 Nitro Express, the first of a new generation of big-bore cartridges intended for large, dangerous African and Indian game. The .450 NE made use of cordite, a new propellant manufactured from gun cotton, mineral jelly and nitro-glycerine. This propellant made higher velocities with heavier, jacketed bullets a reality. The .450 NE fired a 480gr jacketed bullet at 2 100fps, generated more than 5 000 ft/lbs of energy and opened up a new world for big-bore, dangerous game rifles.

Other British makers quickly followed in Rigby’s footsteps but due to the potential dangers of the new propellants such as cordite and axite, rifles were built rather stout, especially around the chambers. Some were fitted with all sorts of strengthening devices such as fancy bolsters, third bites, and the like. Although the nitro dragon was tamed and the new propellants safe to use, nobody was taking chances with these new propellants!

Following Rigby’s lead, Holland & Holland even chambered double rifles for cartridges such as the .256 Mannlicher and .303 British. Holland & Holland did change the design of their action though and thus used different Royal-grade actions for their shotguns and rifles. The shotguns were bar-action side-locks. In this design a recess is machined into the bar of the action, right underneath the chambers on each side, where the mainspring of the action is fitted. Shotguns do not generate the same kind of pressures that rifles do and bar-action side-locks are considered strong enough for use even on guns with heavy proof.

Royal-grade rifles, however, were all manufactured on backaction side-lock actions. In the back-action design the mainspring is fitted behind the tumbler and there is therefore no need to potentially weaken the bar of the action by removing steel at a point where it is supposed to provide crucial support. Back-action designs were as a result perceived to be stronger than bar-action designs and Holland & Holland clearly didn’t want to take any chances. Even the No 3 or C-Grade sidelocks (later known as the “Dominion”) all made use of back-action locks and they have become a standard design feature of Holland & Holland double rifles to this day.


With the lockplate removed you can see that the bar of the action (area below the chambers) is solid. Note the careful stock inletting and the placement of the backaction lock’s mainspring.

In 1900 Holland & Holland introduced the .500/.450 NE to compete with Rigby’s .450 NE, and the Royal was a prime candidate as a vehicle for the new cartridge. Holland & Holland did a lot of business in India and the various noblemen on that sub-continent were constantly vying with one another in their quest to build up vast armouries filled with the finest weaponry that money could buy.

However, the best known .500/.450 NE is without doubt the rifle used by US President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1909/10 African safari. At the behest of a group of eminent sportsmen, Holland & Holland was commissioned to make the rifle for the former president and it was used to good effect on various big-game animals during the safari. Another wellknown user of the .500/.450 NE was Crawford Fletcher Jamieson. Jamieson hunted extensively in what is now Zimbabwe and John Taylor’s book, African Rifles and Cartridges is richly illustrated with photographs taken by Jamieson of his hunts. There are a number of photographs of him in the book holding his .500/.450 as well. He later traded in the .500/.450 for a bolt-action .500 Jeffery (the big-game rifle and cartridge he is most often associated with) because a wrist injury made the fast reloading of a double rifle difficult for him. Crawford Fletcher Jamieson’s .500/.450 is today owned by a collector in the United States.

Due to civil unrest in India and Sudan in 1905 the British authorities banned the importation of all .303 and .450 calibre rifles into India and the Sudan in an effort to keep ammunition out of the hands of local protestors. This move was a disaster for the British gun trade as the various .450’s was an important part of their businesses. Holland & Holland was badly affected as they were doing a brisk trade selling .500/.450 NE’s especially in India.

The only solution was to design and introduce a new cartridge and so the .500/.465 NE was born in 1908. As the designation implies, the new cartridge was created by necking down the .500 (3¼”) NE cartridge to accept a 480gr, .468- inch bullet. This calibre was capable of launching the 480 grainer at 2 150fps. Holland initially called it the “.465 India”, a good indication of the importance of the Indian market.

Also introduced in 1908 was another invention that would become synonymous with Holland & Holland: the handdetachable lock. Hitherto, the owner of a Royal rifle or shotgun had to make use of a turn screw to remove the side-locks for cleaning or maintenance. Unfortunately, less-skilled hands often damaged the heads of the screws or even the locks themselves when they were removed. With hand-detachable locks, however, the process was simple; just cock the action and loosen a small single-threaded pin with a lever which held the lock in place. It is, in the words of a good friend of mine from Down-Under, “a neat bit of kit”.

With the manufacture of sporting arms to a large extent curtailed, Holland & Holland survived the Great War by doing a lot of work for the British Ministry of Munitions. After the war ended it was business as usual and Holland & Holland now entered an era which many consider to be one of their best. By employing the best craftsmen Holland & Holland’s quality reached new heights from the 1920s onwards and the Royal .500/.465 NE in the accompanying photographs is a prime example of the company’s workmanship during that era.


Made in 1922 for an Indian client, the Royal that appears on this month’s cover has all the characteristic features normally associated with the breed. It has 26” chopper-lump barrels that have retained much of their original blacking, Holland-pattern ejectors (they are easy to manufacture, consist of only two parts and are renowned as one of the most reliable ejector systems ever made), and a rampmounted front sight with a flipup “moon” night sight made from warthog ivory. The wide-V rear sight is mounted on a file-cut spear-point rib with one standing and two folding leafs. Lock-up is via twin Purdey-style under-bolts as well as a hidden third bite protruding through the extractors that mates with a slot cut into the breech face. Despite the rifle’s age, the barrels are still tight on the face and the action locks up like a bank vault.

The full-coverage engraving is characteristic Holland & Holland Royal bold foliate scroll, flawlessly executed. Although all the case-hardening colours have long since rubbed off the action body, it has a soft patina that comes from age and good, honest wear and tear. The front trigger is articulated to avoid recoil damage to the knuckle of the trigger finger when the second barrel is fired.

The wood on the Holland & Holland is beautifully grained walnut; in fact, the wood is particularly good as many guns from that period were stocked in wood that was selected more for strength rather than beauty. In this instance, good grain flows through the grip and combines with beautiful figure in the butt stock. It has a lengthened tang extending over the comb of the stock for extra strengthening and the shadow line cheekpiece is perfectly crafted. The butt is neatly rounded off by a solid Silvers recoil pad and the pistol grip is capped with a fullyengraved trapdoor, grip cap. A previous owner’s initials are engraved on a gold oval, inletted into the wood just below the grip cap. There is evidence that the wood was gently refinished in the past. Overall, the rifle is in excellent shape and should still provide decades of faithful service if looked after.

The biggest virtues of this old rifle is firstly its superb stock dimensions and secondly its overall condition. Weighing in at 10½ lbs the rifle is not exactly a lightweight but it is very well balanced and the stock fits me like an old glove. It comes up almost like a fine game gun. The grip is nice and open and the splinter fore-end provides enough purchase on the barrels, even in full recoil. Everyone who has shouldered the Holland has had similar comments.

Condition-wise the steel parts tick all the boxes as well. The barrels and ribs are still firmly attached and there is plenty of life left in the bores; the grooves are sharp, shiny and very little evidence of cordite burn. The locks (which were made by specialist lock makers Joseph Brazier & Sons of Wolverhampton) look like they were made yesterday. The rifle is superbly accurate as well. Two 480gr Woodleigh softs, propelled by a hefty charge of S-335 propellant, produced a muzzle velocity of 2 125fps and the bullet holes almost touched at 50m – superb accuracy for a double rifle. I can confirm that recoil is hefty but not unbearably so.

Holland & Holland Royal double rifles are in many instances uniquely styled when compared to the double rifles produced by the top British makers during the so-called Golden Era; the period between the two World Wars. Rigby, for instance, used bar-action sidelocks exclusively and it is extremely rare to find a vintage Rigby rifle of any description with a cheekpiece or stock oval. They also didn’t make use of novelties such as hidden third bites, extended tangs and handdetachable locks. Time has taught us that Rigby’s best-quality side-lock rifles were as good as any out there, so the comparison is not a quality-related reflection on them but rather a comment about the different philosophies at work at the time in the two workshops. Similarly, many of the Holland & Holland styling features have been copied by other British and European makers over time, so Holland & Holland have certainly left their mark in the world of double rifles.

The current owner of our featured rifle, a South African collector, bought the gun from the deceased estate of a well-known Italian collector and big-game hunter. When he collected the rifle from the widow, he found that the deceased gentleman’s house was literally filled with biggame trophies, including many pairs of fine elephant tusks, all collected with the Holland & Holland .500/.465 NE. This rifle has certainly been doing exactly what its makers intended it to do: Hunt dangerous game at close range all over the world.

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