The well-worn Gibbs in Zimbabwe in 2016

Ten years after first seeing this fabulous double rifle, it is now resting in my gun safe after the transit from Zimbabwe to Alaska. It was well worth the wait!

Anything termed “finest” has a tough road ahead living up to that title. To denote one of all the amazing double rifles produced by the English and Scottish makers as the finest, is probably a stretch of the imagination, to say the least. Stay with me, how-ever, and you will agree that, if not the finest, the Gibbs .450-400 as detailed here, is definitely a best quality creation of the shooting art.
In the summer of 2008 I travelled to Zimbabwe for a buffalo hunt with two close friends. Ron W., a veterinarian and the doctor to my beloved Black Lab (appropriately named Black Dog) and Greg H., an emergency-room physician, who 20 years prior was my doctor. Ron was to hunt tuskless elephant and plains game with a .475 double rifle, and Greg (a technology whizz) was to film the hunt. I was using my favourite double rifle: a .600 nitro express by John Wilkes, completed in April 1914.
The hunt was successful with Ron taking his elephant and two plains-game trophies, kudu and waterbuck. All three were dropped with one shot each, with the kudu and waterbuck at well over 100 yards. Great shooting with an open-sighted double! My buffalo was a bit narrow in width but had amazing bosses. My shooting on the trip was very poor. It was my first hunt with the .600 and while I practiced daily for a month prior to the hunt, all my shooting was over a rest or off hand. I mistakenly did not practice quick snap shots and when circumstances required such shooting, I shot high, keeping too much of the front sight in the shallow V of the rear sight.
The manager of the camp was Adrian van Heerden. As a rookie PH with a license for plains game, Adrian accompanied the three of us for several days. One day when the hunt took us fairly close to the town of Victoria Falls, we took a lunch break at the famous hotel. While the Vic Falls hotel is a magnificent testament to the finest hotels from the Edwardian era, and the menu was a five-star narrative of the finest cuisine, 2008 saw Zimbabwe at its lowest point in its economic crisis. Of all the fabulous choices indicated on the menu, we were informed the only available items were spaghetti, Coke and beer!

After lunch Adrian suggested we take some time off to see the town, the Falls, perhaps shop for curios. He also wanted to visit his girlfriend, Odette van den Bergh, who lived in the family home. Her father, Peter, was a well-known PH and the owner of Nkwazi Safaris, as well as Zambezi Taxidermy and the Snake Pit, both located in Victoria Falls. The house was a treasure of all things Rhodesian and Zimbabwean, with memories there to last several lifetimes: carvings and art, photographs, furniture of African woods, all in a setting that spoke of Africa.

Peter van den Bergh PH shouldering the Gibbs .450-400

An open gun cabinet captured my interest. It contained were several average rifles and shotguns but one stood out from the others: a double rifle. Doubles have been the focus of my affection since my first purchase in 1989 of a .500 black powder express by the Scottish firm of Mortimer and Son. I hunted in Zimbabwe with the Mortimer and as the years passed, I added several doubles to my small but growing collection. I always notice doubles and my eyes were drawn to this one rifle amongst the others.
I asked Adrian and Odette if I could take a closer look and they were pleased to show me Peter’s double. It was a well-used rifle by the English firm of George Gibbs. Nothing fancy, really. Most of the blacking on the barrels was long worn from endless hours in the bush. The case colours on the action were also gone but the 80% coverage engraving showed this rifle to be of top quality. The wood gave a hint of a fine piece of English walnut but was oil-soaked and very dark. The checkering was worn nearly smooth and both the engraving and checkering were filled with decades of dust and gunk. This Gibbs was definitely a diamond in the rough – a diamond long ago and now quite rough due to years of heavy use in Africa. I don’t know if Peter van den Bergh was a double-rifle man, but the Gibbs did show he knew that he had a fine rifle, and his choice of an all-around double rifle for Zimbabwe was perfect.
Features of the Gibbs showed it was once a top-quality double rifle. The calibre was .450-400 for the 3¼-inch case and the proof marks and regulation load on the barrel flats showed the rifle was made for 60 gr of cordite and a 400-gr bullet. Whomever the rifle was made for was either an amazing shot or hoped to be so: six sight leaves to 600 yards, holes in the top strap drilled for a “peep” or aperture sight, and fittings in the top rib for claw mounts and a telescopic sight. The front sight was an ivory bead and the removable hood was still in place. Sling eyes and ejectors completed the package. The bores were dirty and seemed rough but were still shootable.
Of course, the rifle was a family heirloom and not for sale. The condition of the rifle did not get me too excited but having honest wear from so much use in my favourite African country, stimulated my interest. The rifle stayed in my memory as we departed Odette’s home for the hunting camp. I thought of the Gibbs on my flight back to Alaska but over time the memory faded. I would have loved to own, shoot and perhaps hunt with a double rifle with a Zimbabwean heritage. No doubt my doubles at home (.600, .450 no2, 8-bore, .450-400 3-inch) had seen Africa or India in the past but this one was still in Africa with the memories of the bush still intact. The Gibbs passed from my memory as it was not to be. Or so I thought.
Fast-forward eight years. I had continued hunting in Africa and by now had a nice collection of double rifles, and I hunted only with them. Over the years I have owned nearly 60 doubles, keeping some and moving others on to upgrade my collection. I enjoyed the three categories of double rifles with several examples of each: black powder express, nitro express and the huge-bore rifles. Of course, a few fine double shotguns were included, too.
On an elephant hunt in 2016 my PH, knowing my interest in double rifles, asked if I would like to see a double once owned by his uncle. When the rifle came into view, I recognized it immediately. It was the Gibbs! I offered to buy it but it was not for sale. The next year I offered again, with the same reply. However, a few months later I received an email about the Gibbs and a price was agreed upon. It took two or more years but the Gibbs arrived at my home in 2019. The price of the rifle was fair, as it needed so much work to restore it to its former glory. Permits, shipping, importation, paperwork by the US broker, customs and shipping to my home added to the cost. The rifle came with a canvas case that was made for a 12-bore shotgun. The ammunition remained in Zimbabwe as the cost and paperwork of shipping the ammo was prohibitive. I would “make a plan” to pick up the ammo on my 2019 hunt and vacation in Zimbabwe.
Examining the Gibbs before my purchase, I made note of the work that needed to be done to make the rifle new again. Closer examination at home showed much less work was required. The rifle was mechanically sound – tight on the face, and the bore was excellent after cleaning the dust, fowling and powder residue. The action was fine, the ejectors in time, and a strip-clean and oiling removed the accumulated gunk from the locks. Everything worked as it did 100 years ago.
A few years ago I discovered an excellent gunsmith in Anchorage, Andy Hawk. He is really amazing in many ways. His skill is among the best and it’s a blessing not to have to send work to the Lower 48 – saving on shipping and time, and the possible loss or damage while in transit. It is also nice to be able to talk to my gunsmith, to explain the work to be done and to check on the progress when I was in town. I think you’ll agree Andy’s work has merit.

Andy Hawk, Anchorage gunsmith’s work is evident here

In discussing the Gibbs with Andy, we agreed on the following work: rust blue of the barrels, replace the missing 500-yard sight leaf, strip-clean the action and clean the gunk out of the engraving, replace the recoil pad with a correct Silver’s pad, de-oil the stock and add a hand-rubbed oil finish, and recut the checkering. Also, the gold oval in the stock was to be replaced, and some lettering and engraving on the barrels that was worn thin, would be recut by Alaska’s premier engraver, Jim White. Jim is nationally known for his skill and I knew his work would be immaculate.
At this time I posted some photos of the rifle on Accurate Reloading forums. To my surprise Adrian contacted me when he saw my post. It was nice to catch up after all these years. Odette was now his bride and Adrian was now a fully licensed PH. He emailed photos of his hunting experiences, and his trophy buffalo and leopard were impressive. Adrian can be reached at He and I spoke of someday hunting together and using the Gibbs as his father-in-law did.
While the rifle was at Andy’s for a makeover, I contacted the Gibbs firm in London for a copy of the factory ledger or perhaps a letter of origin, to learn of the original history of the rifle. Several emails were exchanged with Mark Crudgington at George Gibbs Ltd. Mark emailed photos of the ledger that contained the information of the rifle’s construction. His photos are copyrighted to the firm so I typed the information for my own use. When questions arose about work, abbreviations in the ledger, or the names listed, Mark was quick to fill in the blanks and I am indebted to him. As the complete picture came to light, I was truly amazed at the complexity of the work involved in the rifle’s manufacture, and what a quality rifle it was.
Never before had I seen ledger information that contained the complete history of a firearm. Usually a ledger records the stock dimensions, calibre, weight and a few other details. The Gibbs ledger contained all the specifications, of course, but also who did the work, the time involved and the cost. In addition there were notations from the gunsmiths at the firm, and the firm’s owner involvement with the addition of the telescopic sight

Jim White showed his usual excellence in picking up worn engraving on the barrels

Below is the transcript of the ledger. Xs indicate words I can’t read; and (?) follows words I can read somewhat or don’t understand. Directly from the factory ledger:

From shop: from W&S (Webley and Scott) for (Mr) Robins Weight 9¾ lbs. 19xxx 12-65-50 brand 496
From store: Cartridges Brand HG2 Kynoch’s Axite smokeless .450/400 L.N.-H.P. (long nose hard point) express bullet 3¼” case 8-12 brand 495 (Brand is the same ammo batch the rifle was regulated with)
From Store: back sight 5 leaf Reuss (scope brand) Co. telescope fittings, spring for telescope, pins Lyman and screws. Webley & Scott blacking barrels, fix pins finish Eng(raving)
Gale: Make and fit dummy front and back sights 40-1.30 Make 2 fix pins 0.30
E. Bishop: O Haul 1.30 O Haul re-regulate fit 2 pairs extra strikers 4.40-1.0-1.0-1.0 May 8 (O Haul mean overhaul?)
Shooting: Mar. 27 29 Apr 23 May 4
Dawe: Co. G.C. Gibbs 0.45 fit telescope 5.40-8.10-8.40-8.40-9.25-8.30-4.40-2.0 & stop up holes in front block open out slot 1/10 Make an independent moon sight.12, also a plate tip & front sight + 2 extra
Reece: Set new top rib 9/- reduce top rib to instruc-tions + finish for brown 5/-
Dawe: Exam (examination) ditto + i ditto (ditto is repeat work) sloped @ angle of 30 degrees *fit back sight* (crossed out) Ap.10, 9/6 fit telescope Cont. (?) 9.10-5.40 + fit back sight 5.20 & rough rib, fit new linnet standard.02 wide 9.40 & xxx fps xxx, fit 3 tsp’s 4.20
Trotman: Pack barrels to W&S 0.2 polish barrels 0.30
Dawe: Clean off barrels from brown, new line to standard .015 wide, put in sights + telescope fittings for shooting May 3, 4 6.40-4.20 prefix front telescope fitting 1.10, move right, raise standard of back sight .5 fix finish same
Rough standard + leaves May 5 1.20-9.40-8.10-1.30 Raise back sight 6.25, lower standard to 5 higher that @ present, refinish leaves to correct angles13.40 Refinish 2-3+ 400 leaves, take angles, fit Lyman sight
Fit silver to stem (stem is the Lyman peep), adjust hard (?) down for 100+ mark on stem for 2-3-4-5+600 4.40 fit clicking spring on left of Lyman 5.40-10/30 make 1 extra plate tips.s-ob 1/9
Bristow: Do up stock, clean up rubber heel plate 1/3 May 14

Ledger notes from the factory foreman: Ejectors have only .025 stroke-not enough stroke in extractors-back lump weak, undercut @ flats-for end wood should be left up more not reduced as present one. Locking dogs much too weak @ front of action = work generally not better than 2nd quality rifles.
Out 15-5-06” (May 15, 1906).
On the right of the ledger, at the end of each line of entry, was a figure for the cost of work done. The costs are: (shillings-pence) -11, 9-0, 24-10, 30-1, 14-0, 25-4, /2, 5-1, 11-9, 11-5, 1-3 Totals are 15 pounds plus 3, 8 shillings ad 6 1/2 pence to equal 18-8-6 1/2 (paid to Webley and Scott).
Numbers are: 9/6 (slash) or 11-9 (dash) is money (shillings and pence) and 4.30 (point) are for the time (hours and minutes) spent on the rifle.

Last of all, here is some information emailed to the author from the Gibbs company to clear up the details not specified:
Dawe was the senior actioneer
Gale was a young actioneer, who later invented the Gibbs Gale single shot
Bristow was a stocker
Trotman was a barrel maker
Reece was a barrel maker
Bishop was an actioneer
The rifle came to Gibbs from Webley & Scott fully built, stocked and engraved, hardened and finished except that the barrels were not finished or blacked. The rifle was not ordered through the Saville Row outlet, so perhaps it was delivered to the shop after examination by Mr Robins (the original owner), and the upgrades that Gibbs would do to the rifle were agreed upon.
Gibbs fitted an entire new rib and then the telescopic sight – it was quite unusual for Col. G. C. Gibbs to be involved in or supervising the fitting of the telescopic sight. He also changed the back and foresights, and reworked and installed the Lyman peep sight. After the work was competed, the barrels were then returned to Webley and Scott for a final polish and blacking, per agreement. The completed rifle was delivered to Mr Robins.
Gibbs paid 18 pounds, 8 shillings and 6½ pence to Webley and Scott (20 shillings to the pound and 12 pence to the shilling) for the rifle, and the sale price to Mr Robins was 85 pounds (approximately 425 US dollars in 1906). To compare, at the time the best Holland and Holland Royal side-lock ejector was priced at 95 pounds! Mr Robins, from the Bristol area and, as mentioned before, was either a great shot or was very optimistic about his shooting with the sighting equipment included on the rifle. It would be interesting to know where his hunting adventures took him in the years before the Great War.
The .450-400 calibre was a common one at the time. By 1906 the 3-inch version of the Jeffery was taking hold as it was designed with a thicker rim for positive extraction or ejection with cordite powder. However, many sportsmen still had an affection for cordite loaded in the black powder .450-400 cartridge with the 3¼-inch case. The popularity of the older case is evident as Gibbs sold 8 000 rounds of .450-400 3¼-cartridges yearly! It was not until after 1912, with the introduction of Holland’s .375 belted rimless, that the .450-400 slipped from its position as the most popular all-round big-game cartridge.

The fine engraving of the action looks wonderful
after 100+ years of dust and grime were lifted out of the cuts

The fore end and the sights attest to the magnificence of word done in 1906

The Gibbs sports a wonderful piece of walnut

The magnificence of the Gibbs makeover!

In August 2019 I spent two weeks vacationing in Zimbabwe after two very successful hunts in South Africa and Botswana. The hunts, and the rifle used, were detailed in three previous articles in this fine journal. In Zimbabwe my mates there made arrangements to pick up several boxes of the Gibbs’s ammunition so that I could transport them back to the States in my checked baggage. I had the foresight to bring over a Lyman kinetic bullet puller to remove the bullets and powder, so I was not held to the 5-kg weight limit for loaded ammunition. So, six boxes of primed brass and a separate box of bullets accompanied me on my flight home. While I had agreed to buy the rifle and ammunition, sadly the owner kept the original cartridges and a Kynoch tin and supplied the new ammo only. The original rounds were retained and sold to another client that year (although I was offered the empty Kynoch tin box in exchange for sunglasses that cost $230! – which I had to decline). The vintage ammo is with a friend in Anchorage.
By the end of 2019 and with the new year fast approaching, Andy called to tell me the rifle would be ready to be picked up in a few days. In wide-eyed anticipation I drove to the big city of Anchorage. The rifle was removed from the safe and Andy presented it to me. It was all I had hoped for: the magnificence of the Gibbs had been restored! The rust bluing was flawless, the engraving on the action was vibrant now that it had been cleaned, the grain of the stock stood out (no finer piece of timber was ever put on a rifle), the new recoil pad (anti-recoil heel plate in English terminology) had a flawless fit, and it was impossible to tell which sight leaf was replaced as all looked identical. What a wonderful addition to my stash of double rifles!
It was reported to me by a visiting hunter that the Gibbs had sticky extraction and difficulty opening after firing when it was used in Zimbabwe shortly before I purchased the rifle. Normally that is a sign of problems that could be fairly expensive to repair. While the owner did not tell me about these issues, I was familiar with the rifle and ammo and was fairly confident I knew what the problem was. When I pulled the bullets in Zimbabwe five months earlier, I had noticed that some of the bullets were thick-jacketed solids and some were mono-metal. Both are ill-advised for use in older doubles. I also measured the bullets’ diameter and found them to be .411 inches. All .450-400s on the 3¼-inch case I have ever seen used .410-inch diameter bullets with rifles I know of as small as .408 inches.
At home I did a chamber and bore cast using cerosafe and the bore diameter was a bit under .410 inches. I was correct in my prediction that the larger diameter bullets generated a bit more pressure than the standard loading, thereby causing the ejection and opening problems. I had a good supply of Woodleigh 400-gr .410 inch-diameter projectiles in stock, and proceeded to load the equivalent of the 60-gr cordite charge of the vintage years. I loaded eight rounds and proceeded to the shooting range in the front yard of my home.
For shooting in the cold of Alaska’s winter (-41° F as I write this), I constructed a 12 ft x 20 ft “shooting shed” with a wood stove for heating and a sliding window that opens onto a 50-yard range. An armload of wood heats the building to 70° F in an hour and winter shooting is now comfortable. Opening the window six inches, I shot a four-shot group, closed the window to keep the heat in, and then another four shots. The two four-shot groups measured a bit under three inches, later to be followed a bit over two inches! It was not bad for a first go and I expect the groups will tighten with additional practice when warm weather comes. There were no problems with the action opening or the ejection: she worked as she did 104 years ago!
What does the future hold for the Gibbs .450-400? As with the doubles I own, a hunting trip to Africa would be in the planning for 2020 or 2021. But in the past year some changes in my thought process began to occur. I had spent 30 plus years only playing with double rifles and had a life time of experiences with them. I also authored three books on double rifles and dozens of magazine articles. In addition I had hunting experiences with the vintage doubles in Africa, Australia, Argentina, Alaska and the Lower 48 states of America. There really was not much else to do in the world of double rifles. I was also getting older and with no family or heirs, decided to pass on most of my collection and use the funds gained to hunt and make memories that would take me into my rocking-chair years. I sold nearly 20 doubles (most of them rifles but a few shotguns as well) and retained only a few for further hunting experiences.
Among those to go was the Gibbs .450-400. While I fell in love with the rifle when seeing it in Zimbabwe in 2008 and again in 2016, I confess my love waned a bit in the years it took to get the rifle in my hands in Alaska. It was a wonderful piece but the time had come for it, too, to go.
2020 will see several hunts with my .450-400 Harrison and Hussey box-lock ejector and a buffalo or two or three with my Rodda 4-bore double in Africa. (At 23 pounds I won’t be walking much with that beast!) I am retaining two black-powder express rifles, two bore rifles and two nitro express doubles, as well as a few shotguns in 12-, 10- and perhaps an 8- bore for wing shooting. It was a pleasure to pass on the Gibbs to another custodian and I know he will treasure the rifle as did I. My years with doubles have been a wonderful ride!

Cal Pappas

HC 89 Box 397
Willow Alaska 99688
The best in double rifles and African hunting. ASM