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"Karamoja" Bell's .275 Rigby

Walter Bell’s .275 Rigby is one of the best known rifles in the world.

9/16/2010

The year was 1956. Bob Ruark and I were standing at the customs desk in the old Nairobi airport building. He’d just arrived on a flight from London and had brought two rifles, which we were about to clear through customs. His bringing rifles surprised me because he wasn’t planning to hunt, having come out to Kenya on this trip only to collect material for an article about the “winds of change” blowing across Africa. When the gun cases were opened Bob lifted out a slim little Rigby rifle from one and handed it to me.

“What do you think of this, Haraka?” he asked. I looked down at the little rifle in my hands. It had seen plenty of honest use, but looked to be well-cared for and in very good shape. “Turn it over,” Bob said, grinning. When I did so, I noticed an elongated silver plaque let into the stock where a monogram plate would normally be. It read: “Mark R. Selby From Uncle Bob Ruark.”

As I looked more closely at the little .275 rifle I noticed some engraving on the magazine box cover. The inscription read: “WDMB.” Could it stand for “Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell?” Surely not, I thought. I looked up at Bob, my eyes asking the obvious question.

“That’s right, Haraka,” Bob said. “You’re holding ‘Karamoja’ Bell’s .275 Rigby. I visited Westley Richards recently to order a .318 rifle, which you’ve always sung the praises of, and Malcolm Lyell, the boss man there, showed me two rifles, which had arrived the previous day—they were from Bell’s estate.

“The .275 Rigby you’re now holding and a double .450/400 by Jeffery. I bought both rifles on the spot for my godson, Mark.” Bob was referring to my son Mark, who was 4 years old at the time.

I was speechless. Bell had been my idol ever since I’d become a professional hunter. And now, all I’d heard and read about him crowded into my mind. I was holding the little rifle that the legendary hunter had carried while penetrating the wilds of Karamoja in the northeastern regions of Uganda. While still in his 20s—15 years before I was born—Bell went there to hunt the great elephant bulls abundant in Karamoja, despite of the region’s population of wild and warring native tribes.

Bell had moved about freely in the Karamoja area with a small safari, at a time when Swahili traders from the coast dared not set foot in the area with fewer than 300 guns. Several large, well-armed parties of traders had been completely wiped out through primitive intrigue—natives pretending to be trading, would in fact wait for a given signal, at which time each warrior plunged his spear into the nearest Swahili in order to steal all their trade goods.

Bell had earned the respect and the friendship, and finally total acceptance of the warlike Karamojang people. This was due partly to his fearlessness when dealing with a herd of bull elephants bearing down on him, relying on braining the one directly in front of him, but mostly from occasions when his safari was confronted by a group of belligerent warriors—tall, jet black, naked, and armed to the teeth carrying a shield, two 10-foot long razor-sharp spears, a circular knife on each wrist and wicked hooks attached to rings on the fingers—Bell would face them down, without showing the slightest emotion or fear. The situation never deteriorated to the point that Bell was ever forced to use his rifle.

Bell was also supremely fit with tremendous stamina and endurance, qualities necessary for survival, and for which the Karamojang, as primitive people, greatly admired. But mainly they stood in awe and possibly dread of his small but deadly “fire stick,” which fired, without smoke, tiny shining bullets causing instant death to the largest bull elephant, and often laid low a group of bulls in a matter of seconds. These natives had never seen anything like this before. When the Swahilis tried to hunt elephants, they poured copious amounts of powder down the gullets of their muzzleloaders, then rammed down whatever projectiles were available, to produce huge clouds of smoke—but rarely dead elephants.

The Karamojang affectionately named Bell “Longellynyung,” or red man. The big men who owned vast numbers of cattle even offered Bell their daughters as wives.

Bell’s Rifle Returns to Africa
If only this little rifle could speak, tell us where it had been, what it had experienced, how many of those grand old tuskers it had laid low. Its tales would be fascinating. I finally snapped out of my “Karamoja” trance, and we cleared the rifles, which was a mere formality in those far-off days. We then headed into Nairobi to check Bob into the New Stanley Hotel, after which we settled down with a couple of cold beers.

We were both as excited as a pair of schoolboys about the Bell rifles and were surprised by the fact that the .275 was a takedown model. By flipping a catch the barrel and forward part of the fore-end unscrewed, but when in the locked position, it was totally rigid—a very neat arrangement. There were a couple of threaded holes on the side of the Mauser action where, presumably, Bell had fitted a scope at some time, perhaps as he grew older, in order to hunt stag back in his native Scotland.

I asked about the elongated slot cut through the buttstock just above the monogram plate. Bob said that Malcolm Lyell had told him its purpose was for carrying the rifle. The butt end of a spear would be inserted through the hole then the spear placed over the shoulder with the rifle hanging down the carrier’s back.

This sounded very strange to me, for it would mean that there would be about nine feet of spear protruding in front of the carrier as he walked through bush, and the rifle could be easily dislodged from the spear landing muzzle first on whatever surface lay beneath it. I never did hear nor imagine a plausible reason for that slot.

Finally, Bob asked, “Haraka, when you first got involved in the safari business with Percival, back in late 1945, there must have been a few old-timers around who actually knew ‘Karamoja’ Bell.”

“Yes,” I replied. “There were some old-timers who knew Bell—mainly from the ‘Ivory Rush’ days of the Lado Enclave.” I’d become a fan of “Karamoja” Bell after reading his two books, “Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter” and “Karamoja Safari,” and was always eager to hear about him from anyone who’d known him.

“What did hunters think of him generally, and especially his use of smallbore rifles on elephants?” Bob asked.

“Bell was admired for his ‘brass’ in venturing with a very small safari into Karamoja with it’s hostile pastoral tribes, whose main purpose in life was tending their precious cattle and killing each other and anyone else who might come along,” I told Bob. “By all accounts he was an outstanding hunter…fearless, with tremendous physical endurance, and it was generally agreed that he was a really superb marksman. He also had an amazing understanding of the bone structure of an elephant’s skull, and he was able to direct the small bullets from almost any angle to the brain hidden within that massive head. Stories of his prowess with a rifle were legion.

“In those early days I don’t think anyone cared what rifle was used. Anything you could get your hands on with a supply of solid ammo was used. But with the passing of time and with the larger bores coming into regular use, controversy began about the use of small-bore rifles on elephant. However, I never met anyone who spoke badly of Bell.”

Back On Safari
Bob was scheduled to come back on safari later in the season, when we planned to hunt southern Tanganyika for sable, kudu and roan, and then move on to Ikoma for buffalo and leopard. He was anxious, as was I, to use the .275 Rigby as much as possible. The rifle was fitted with open sights, which featured a wide V rear sight with flip-up leaves, and a small-bead front sight. I realized we’d need to fit a scope to the rifle because Bob was not used to shooting with open sights, other than with big doubles at close range.

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17 Responses to "Karamoja" Bell's .275 Rigby

Fred LaSor wrote:
September 19, 2014

Peter: I went through the Central Firearms Bureau in Nairobi pretty thoroughly in 1994 with Jon Speed, the author of several books on Mausers. (You can see my name in the list of 'thank-you's' on page xi.) We bought three Mausers at that time, the only Mausers we saw. You can rest assured we would have bought any Rigbys had we seen them. We did not.

Peter Glover wrote:
February 08, 2014

It has just come to my attention that one of four rifles I was left by an old (now deceased) friend is a .275 Rigby that he claimed was owned by Karamoja Bell. The rifle concerned has been held in storage by the Central Firearms Bureau in Nairobi since 1982. Does anybody know the serial number for Karamoja's .275 and/or did he possibly have more than one?Before asking the Firearms Bureau to look up their records I would like to know if this rifle could possibly have been Karamojas or are all of his .275s accounted for? When I was given the rifles many years ago I hadn't heard of Karamoja Bell and it was only recently when I asked for a .22 to be taken out of storage from the same batch did I notice a note stating that the .275 had been owned by Karamoja. Any imformation anyone can offer would be a great help.

James Passmore wrote:
February 06, 2014

This rifle was purchased by Bell for a motorcar Safari with the Forbes, hence teh take-down feature. Bell wrote in one of his books that no serious hunting was doen on this trip, but mostly was to see how far they could penetrate in Africa automobiles. It is possible this rifle never shot an elephant in Bell's hands, and it may have been it's first elephant when Gail Selby shot her elephant with her Father. So, no, it is not the 'holy grail' or WDM BEll's 'elephant rifle'. Bell purchased six 7x57 rifles from RIgby and this was one of them. His first 7mm Mauser was the 'one', (if any one could be called that) and was probably bought about 1903. I would love to know where it ended up. It is possible that Bell traded them back in to Rigby when he got a new one and then they sold them on used...someone out there has got Rigby's actual 7mm Elephant rifle. (Unless it was lost in a gun buy back in the UK, or a confiscation in Kenya, and destroyed.)

Charles Prince wrote:
June 17, 2013

New information about this rifle in the book "Rigby, A Fine Tradition". I have seen pictures of the rifle in detail but I cannot fine where they were posted or published. Anyone have any ideas? Thanks.

David L wrote:
February 03, 2013

I remember buying a beat up looking Spanish Mauser back in 1996 for $65. At one hundred yards offhand that old pitted barrel would drill a paper plate dead center every time with the old military sights. It was my wet weather deer gun. I never did kill a buck with it, but just recently I found a sporterized M93 rifle with a 21 inch barrel and turned down bolt that is going to become another wet weather gun, but also a project for me and when my son gets old enough to hunt hopefully he will take to this gun. I have had alot of respect for the 7x57 and it is one of the best calibers out there that won't beat you up. Now I just need some new sights and a new stock and this gun is off to the races. Thanks Mr. Selby for the article.

Philip C. wrote:
December 19, 2012

WDM Bell probably valued his little .275 Rigby highly as an excellent tool, but I doubt that he deified it, so it stands that nobody else should deify it either. Fact is, my CZ 550 in 7x57mm Mauser would probably have suited Bell just as well, and he would probably today choose Barnes TSX, Swift A-Frame or Nosler Partition bullets over what he used then. I only shoot mule deer with mine, and I mainly use Hornady A-Max bullets, but the 7x57mm Mauser is an amazing round that punches far above its small bore caliber. The fast twist allows bullets of high sectional density that can be soft and still hold together due to the moderate velocity. "Magnumitis" is a bit overrated as far as killing power goes, and the 7x57mm does not kill at both ends as large bores often do. My CZ 550 shoots 0.5" groups at 100 yards with handloads out of the box, so I wonder what Bell's .275 Rigby was capable of doing? The ammo, which is expended during the hunt, is just as important as the rifle, so I wonder why supposed hunters that worship Bell and his rifle aren't just as interested in it? My handloads are babied and kept in cool constant temperature storage until use. New factory ammo is almost never used, except to fireform brass and to practice technique. All my hunting ammo is carefully selected handloads, except for some old Norma 7x57mm factory loads which turned out amazingly powerful and plenty accurate at 0.75" at 100 yards....and they only cost me $20 per box....I bought every box the guy had squirrelled away. WDM Bell chose his .275 Rigby rifle because reliable and accurate and affordable ammo was available in huge quantity.....it being a military round and all that. More should be said about the round than the rifle, because the round caused the rifle to be chosen, not the other way around.

Mack Missiletoe wrote:
September 14, 2012

People... this rifle did exist, and something had to happen to it. This is what happened to it. Just because something is expensive, treasured, or priceless in one's eyes does not mean it could not be sold or dropped in the mud. Thanks for the good read!

Ed wrote:
January 03, 2012

Ian: Your comments are out of hand and very disrespectful. Since you choose to quote biblical ideals, what is your main goal of worshipping the false idol of Karamojo's Rifle? I have known the Selbys for quite some time and you, my friend, have no idea what you are talking about.

Ed wrote:
January 03, 2012

Charles Prince: The rifle was most assuredly owned by Bell. I have seen the original sales receipt to Ruark, purchased from Westley Richards. Whether it saw africa by Bell is up for debate, but that it was Bell's there is no doubt. Ed

Charles Prince wrote:
December 07, 2011

I doubt this rifle was used in Africa by Bell. Maybe acquired after his return to England. Or someone has made up a bottom plate with W.D.M.B. engraved on it.

scott a wrote:
December 09, 2010

Barrel's probably all shot out by now, practically worthless. Whoever has it should probably rid themselves of the burden of cleaning the thing. I might be willing to take it off their hands, it would be a sacrifice mind you...

C J wrote:
October 25, 2010

When i read the part about Mark selling the rifle i almost cried to hold something of that importatnce in the hunting world and then sell it SHAMEFUL!!!!!

FRED TURNER wrote:
September 29, 2010

I HAVE SEVERAL RIFLES, ETC THAT BELONGED TO MY DAD AND HIS DAD. THEY WILL BE PASSED DOWN AND CHERISHED, AND USED, FOREVER. AND KEPT. ONE WAY OR ANOTHER.

RL Diehl wrote:
September 28, 2010

Come, come, Ian; I know how you feel, but, not knowing the circumstances it's best to "judge not lest ye be judged".

Ian G. Dial wrote:
September 27, 2010

Mark Selby was given the Holy Grail of hunting rifles, "Karamojo" Bell's .275 Rigby, by his godfather, Robert Roark, and he later chose to "dispose" of it!!!! And Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage! I wonder how long the money he got for it kept the liquor cabinet and humidor in stock! I've heard that PH's treat guns as simply tools but THAT rifle was definitely not stamped CRAFTSMAN! A pox on the Selby family to the seventh generation! I refuse to read another word about them!

Joe Ronchetto wrote:
September 25, 2010

I read with interest the articles in the Oct 2010 American Rifleman about Harry Selby and, in particular, the .275 Rigby given to his son Mark by Bob Ruark. Knowing the history of this rifle and the fact it was engraved with his name and a gift from Bob Ruark, I find it absolutely incredible that Mark would even consider selling this rifle. He must have been really hard up for cash. If I had a firearm with a pedigree like the .275 Rigby I'd do everything in my power to keep it within my family.

Tick wrote:
September 24, 2010

Unless faced with starvation why on earth would would Mark Selby ever sell a gift, inscribed to him by Robert Ruark? I've bought and sold many a gun over the years but I have a few I would never give up. They are like children to me.