Collecting: Three iconic classic rifles

Mannlicher vintage rifle

Mannlicher - Credit: Diggory Hadoke

Diggory Hadoke unearths a trio of very different, but equally impressive, classic rifles for the shooting connoisseur or possible investor

If you like classic rifles and you happen to be on the look-out for an iconic design – something proven, with lots of history that has featured in its share of old hunting stories and nostalgia, and is also instantly recognizable – then there are three standout models that simply have to make it onto your list. Gavin Gardiner just happened to have one of each listed in the 27 April sale of vintage and modern sporting guns and rifles. And just in case those models have yet to appear in your mind’s eye, they are the Rigby Mauser .275, the Mannlicher-Schönauer 6.5x54, and the Lee Speed .303.

The Mauser is German, the Mannlicher is Austrian and the Lee is British. All three use military cartridges and have military actions, and have taken untold head of game from elephant to dik-dik during the colonial era, before World War II. These rifles are all pre-war in vintage – the Rigby was made in 1928, the Mannlicher in 1938 and the Army & Navy retailed Lee Speed probably dates from around 1920.

British hunting legislation appeared to deliberately frame itself so as to exclude the 6.5x54 Mannlicher and include the .303 British. However, modern loads (we use Norma as an example) allow the 6.5x54 to meet the legal minimum for all deer species in England, Wales and Scotland, as the table (above right) shows.

So, properly equipped and zeroed, any of these rifles could become the weapon of choice for a vintage enthusiast hunting deer in Britain. So which is it to be? Let’s look at them in more detail.

Rigby vintage rifle

Rigby - Credit: Diggory Hadoke

Budget
Gavin Gardiner has price estimates on the rifles as follows: the Rigby at £2,500-3,500, the Mannlicher-Schönauer at £500-700 and the Lee Speed also at £500-700. For reference, W.J. Jeffery, in his 1912 catalogue, sold a .303 Lee Speed of the same quality as this Army & Navy retailed one for £8 10s. His .275 Rigby Mauser was a little more expensive at £10 10s, and his Mannlicher-Schönauer cost the same. Jeffery, Rigby and Army & Navy would have been supplied by the same wholesalers at prices that would not have differed much from these.

Cost of Ammunition (20 rounds)

  • .275 Rigby £69 (Hornady 140gr)
  • 6.5x54 Mannlicher £48 (RWS 159gr)
  • .303 British £19.99 (Federal 150gr)

Bullet drop at 200 yards
If you zero the Mannlicher at 200yd it will shoot 3" high at 100yd with a 140gr bullet. A 140gr bullet from the Rigby, set up the same way, will be 2" high at 100yd. The .303 will be 2.2" high at 100yd with 150gr bullets. So all three are effective stalking rifles for anyone taking shots between 50yd and 220yd, which certainly covers my stalking in Britain.

Carrying Comfort
The Lee Speed weighs 7lb 2oz with a 24½" barrel, while the Mannlicher is 7lb 14oz with an 18" barrel and the Rigby tips the scales at 8lb 6oz with a 24" barrel.

Sights
The Rigby is fitted with a Leupold scope and mounts, the Mannlicher is fitted with a period scope in quick-detachable mounts, and the Lee Speed has neither scope nor mounts. Both the scoped rifles are equipped with mounts that would make the fitting of a new scope straightforward, if necessary.

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Having new scope mounts made for any of these rifles would be an expensive proposition. It’s an expensive modification that can be ignored by the buyer of the continental rifles, as it has already been done. In this respect the Lee Speed is at a definite disadvantage, though its folding leaf and ladder iron sights are the best of the three.

Action
The Rigby is a classic Mauser ’98 action with flag safety and the famously sloppy, yet foolproof and reliable in all weathers, characteristics that have made it such a favourite with hunters the world over. The Mannlicher M1903 has perhaps the slickest and simplest action of the three and the Lee Speed has its brilliantly fast-operating short-pull bolt action that enables it to cycle and fire faster and with more ease than the others.

Lee Speed vintage rifle

Lee Speed - Credit: Diggory Hadoke

Stock
The Rigby has the stock of a familiar hunting rifle, with a semi-pistol hand and a half-length forepart. The Mannlicher has a full stutzen stock extending to the muzzle and a full pistol hand. The Lee Speed has a two-piece stock, with the detachable butt section familiar to military rifle users, which is also made as a full pistol hand.

Of the three rifles, the Rigby has the plainest wood, with the dark walnut showing little figure, whereas the Lee Speed has an attractive deep red background and contrasting black stripes. The Mannlicher stock is also plain, but with lighter wood than that of the Rigby.

Value
The original prices for these rifles do not separate them by much, yet today the Rigby is by far the most expensive, at around £3,000 as opposed to the £600 expected to be sufficient to buy the other two. In those terms, the Mannlicher looks the best value as a package, as it has a scope and mounts, unlike the open-sighted Lee Speed.

The Rigby wins on extant British name, the well-preserved Rigby legacy and the support of a thriving company that is still there to add support services and provide a link to the past. You can even look the serial number up in Rigby’s record books.

All three rifles are in similarly good condition, with all being mechanically excellent and looking capable of providing years of use and pleasurable ownership. So which shall it be? Over to you.