TR’S “BIG (FIRE) STICK”
PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT’S HOLLAND & HOLLAND DOUBLE RIFLE


This article first appeared in the 2011 issue of Gun Digest

President Theodore Roosevelt was a man whose life was lived on the stage of world affairs on a grand scale.  In a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, he remarked:

… credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

TR was a rancher, politician, statesman, soldier, historian, and Nobel Laureate[1], strong-willed leader of men who lived the credo he preached.  Less than three weeks after leaving the White House March 1909 after more than 40 years “in the arena” of public life, this vigorous and virile man took up a new challenge: a massive safari to collect specimens of African wildlife for the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Zoological Society.  His year-long trek is perhaps the best-known and certainly one of the best-chronicled hunting trips in history, a grand adventure on a scale to suit the tastes and abilities of America’s 26th President.

Hunting was in TR’s blood, a passion he indulged during his days in the western US, and in more sedate settings in the east.  He had an abiding love of the outdoors, expressed in the preface to African Game Trails, the book that describes his safari:

…there are no words can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.  There is delight in the hardy life of the open, in long rides rifle in hand, in the thrill of the fight with dangerous game.  Apart from this, yet mingled with it, is the strong attraction of the silent places, of the large tropic moons, and the splendor of the new stars; where the wanderer sees the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth, unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting.

These are words of a romantic, a semi-mystic who is also a visionary.  TR was all of these things and more.  His love of the outdoors life led him to become the founder of the National Parks System and a founding member of the Boone & Crockett Club as well as the New York Museum of Natural History, testimony to both his love of the hunt and his respect for the hunted.  He is justly recognized as one of the fathers of the modern conservation movement.  As a hunter, he well understood the basic principle that preservation of wildlife requires that economic value be afforded to it, game and non-game species alike; that a species’ very survival depends on its value to man.  He undertook his safari with this vision in mind:

…[W]ise people…have discovered that intelligent game preservation, carried out in good faith, and in a spirit of common-sense as far removed from mushy sentimentality as from brutality, results in adding to the state’s natural resources…[G]ame laws should be drawn primarily in the interest of the whole people, keeping..in mind certain facts that ought to be self-evident…almost any wild animal…if its multiplication were unchecked...would by its simple increase crowd man off the planet; and that far short of this…a time comes when the existence of too much game is incompatible with the interests..of the cultivator..There should be…sanctuaries…where game can live and breed absolutely unmolested; and elsewhere…allow a reasonable amount of hunting on fair terms to any hardy and vigorous man fond of the sport…Game butchery is as objectionable as any other wanton form of cruelty or barbarity; but to protest against all hunting of game is a sign of softness of head, not of soundness of heart.

Planning such a safari necessarily started well in advance, as it was a complex logistical and scientific undertaking as well as a grand adventure.  He was accompanied by scientists and specialists from the museums involved, as well his 19-year-old son Kermit, then a freshman at Harvard University.  Many of the arrangements were made through two of the world’s most famous big game hunters, Edward North Buxton and Frederick Courteney Selous; other famous hunters who joined him on arrival included R.J. Cuninghame and Leslie Tarleton, hard-bitten Englishmen who were Old Africa Hands.  The expedition’s ponderous equipment included motion picture cameras and technicians, too, as this was the first safari to be filmed.  The equipment and supplies for such a trip required no fewer than 150 porters and assorted gun-bearers, askaris, and of course their camp followers, all of whom had to be fed on the march: TR, in charge, had his work cut out for him and had no lack of hunting opportunities.

Among the preparations was the assembly of his famous African Battery: a pair of Winchester rifles in .405 caliber; Springfield rifles in the then-new Army caliber, .30-06; and the most powerful rifle in his collection, a “Royal” grade double rifle made by Holland & Holland of 98, New Bond Street, London, recognized then as now as “The Royal Arms Maker,” whose elite list of customers included not only Presidents, but King Edward VII, numerous Indian Rajahs, many members of the European Royalty and the American plutocracy, and those lesser notabilities who could afford their prices, people who demanded—and got—the best.

TR’s rifle is now on display at the Frazier International History Museum in Louisville, KY, the centerpiece of a fabulous assemblage of  artifacts focused on American and British arms of the Colonial to modern period.  In addition to the collection of guns from the frontier and western eras on this continent, one floor houses a stunning array of weapons from Britain, a collaborative effort with the Royal Armouries in Leeds.  The Frazier is one of the premier arms museums in this country and for anyone with an interest in history and the role arms played in this nation’s development, a visit there is an absolute must.

“Best Gun” double rifles are rightfully considered the very apex of the gunmaker’s art. While double rifles were and are made elsewhere, English ones are universally considered superior to all others; and H&H is acknowledged  to be the “Best of the Best” maker of this unique type of  firearm.  The firm’s origins go back to 1848 when Harris John Holland set up shop as a gunmaker in London.  By 1876, he had been joined by his nephew, William Harris Holland, and the new firm, Holland & Holland, was located at 98, New Bond Street, London W1—as fashionable a shopping district as could be found in Victorian times.  Holland & Holland are still very much in business today.  While the names of their clientele may be different, neither the quality of their guns nor the stratospheric prices have changed.  They are still the “Royal Gun Makers” in every sense.  TR’s “Royal” grade double, serial number 19109, was a product of the best efforts of the best craftsmen in the world, a monument to H&H’s artisans, their skill, and the firm’s traditions, as much as to its one-time owner’s passion for the hunt. 

Working through the office of the Honorable Whitelaw Reid, Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, and with Mr Buxton acting as liaison to H&H, President Roosevelt placed the order for the rifle in the Spring or Summer of 1908.  It was, of course, stocked to fit his personal measurements, which had been taken in America in August of that year and sent to the firm.  A copy of the original order is present in the Frazier’s records.  It specifies:

A best quality .450 bore double Royal Hless non-ejector Cordite Rifle, long top strap cheek piece pistol hand stock recoil heel plate, loops for sling, pull to be light, say right 3-1/2 pounds, to measurements rec’d 21/8/08

As you’d expect, the workmanship is flawless.  According to the documentation, this rifle weighs over 10 pounds, but as with any fine double, it feels much lighter and is perfectly balanced.  I took the very considerable liberty of raising it to my shoulder and found it pointed as fluidly and as instinctively as a shotgun.

It’s a hammerless sidelock with small floral and scroll pattern engraving on the locks and the receiver, all of which were left in the white. The engraving is elegant but subdued, and actually as functional as it is decorative:  it effectively breaks up the highly polished steel with what amounts to a matte finish from a distance.  Despite the profuse coverage, there is very little in the way of embellishment otherwise.  The cocking indicators are inconspicuous bands of gold inset into the ends of the hammer pivots, and the word SAFE is inlaid in gold on the top tang but there is no other ornamentation.  Per TR’s specifications, the “long top strap” tang extends halfway down the length of the stock, a way to strengthen the wrist against the very substantial recoil of the cartridge it fires.  The heavily-engraved grip cap has a spring-loaded lid, inside which is a spare set of strikers. 

The stock is a stunning example of the woodcarver’s art, although again, it isn’t ornate.  The beautifully grained walnut has no cracks or splits, and its “London Finish” is a bit worn, but it’s completely sound.  As with the barrels, the stock shows handling marks, especially on the wrist, whose left side checkering is noticeably worn.  TR was right-handed;  there is a cheekpiece on the left side and the proper amount of cast-off to bring the sights into alignment with his dominant right eye.  The pull length is 14-3/8” to the front trigger, with a drop at the heel of 2-1/2”.

 

 


Inlet into the left side of the stock is a golden medallion bearing the Presidential Seal and the initials “TR,” which I believe to be a post-1909 addition.  I’m certain the butt plate is a replacement: it’s an incongruous red rubber pad that would be more at home on a double shotgun from Sears, Roebuck than a London Best Gun. I contacted H&H about this matter of the butt plate because correspondence in the files indicates that it was sent back to H&H for work in 1986[2]. The medallion may have been inlet at the same time.  I was told by a Mr Guy Davies that H&H have no record of installing either the medallion or the butt pad, but I’m absolutely positive the latter isn’t original. I can’t believe that H&H would have put something like it on a gun like this one.

The fore-end assembly isn’t original either.  It too was replaced in 1986.   The correspondence from that time indicates that the original was in very bad condition and couldn’t be salvaged.  Not only did H&H replace the wood, they made new metal parts as well, later “distressing both to match the level of wear the rest of the rifle."  I never would have guessed this from my examination: H&H’s craftsmen matched the level of “distress” of the new and old parts perfectly.

The sights are an example of how a customer for a London Best Gun gets what he wants.  The front sight is an elongated gold bead on a short matte rib.  The bead is rather small to my way of thinking, but TR had specified the sights he wanted in a note (on White House stationery) to Mr Buxton:

I have never used a peep sight.  I do not  know whether it is just a prejudice of mine, or whether it is really that my eyes are not suited to one.  At long range, I am sorry to say, I never was really good for anything.  I enclose you  the type of front sight I like most.  The rear sight I like very open, but with a little U that takes the bead of the front sight.

The rear sight, also on a matte rib, was made exactly to this description and the sketch provided in the note.  It’s a 3-leaf type with one fixed leaf for 100 yards, and flip-up leaves for 200 and (with amazing optimism) 300 yards. 

The blued 26” barrels bear H&H’s name and address and the inscription, “Winners of All The ‘Field’ Trials, London.”  Despite coming from the workshop of the premier Bespoke Gun Maker and  being as perfect an example of “Best Gun” standards as could be imagined, this is indeed a working rifle.  Moreover, it’s one that has obviously been used as its maker intended:  both barrels have scratches in the finish, the sort of wear-and-tear you’d get from leaning it against various dead mud-crusted pachyderms or carrying it in a scabbard.  However, it’s still in remarkably good condition,  fully functional, with the action crisp and tight. Although TR carried and used it extensively for a year in very remote places, where access to proper cleaning equipment was limited to what his bearers could carry and conditions were not those the modern hunter enjoys, one could run a patch or two down the bores and it would be ready for action.  Moreover, H&H can still supply the correct Cordite-loaded rounds they intended it to use: these are made by Kynamco, successors to the famous firm of Kynoch, who made the TR’s ammunition.

TR had much experience with dangerous animals in North America. Moreover he had the advice of professional ivory hunters who well understood the essential requirements for a weapon to be used on very large animals that not infrequently fight back; undoubtedly he took their counsel seriously.  Although Terry Wieland’s Dangerous Game Rifles, and John “Pondoro” Taylor’s African Rifles & Cartridges were published long after TR’s death, this rifle meets these authors’ criteria perfectly in all respects.  Both are strongly of the opinion that a rifle for dangerous game should have neither ejectors or an automatic safety.  Ejectors are complicated mechanisms prone to malfunction; and if the hunter is facing a charge and must hastily reload, the safety will be on from the moment he opens the breech.  He is under the stress of mortal danger and an automatic safety may well get him killed. TR’s rifle has a non-automatic safety catch and extractors, not ejectors.  (Correspondence implies that originally TR wanted a hammer gun—of which choice “Pondoro” would have heartily approved—but H&H had no hammer action on hand.  To build one from scratch would have delayed the safari for a year or more.)

Double rifles are fiendishly expensive in part because each is essentially not one, but two rifles, joined together by a common stock.  The real art of building one is to get both of the barrels to shoot to the same point of impact at some specified distance.  This process of “regulation” is laborious but essential, and it demands that only ammunition with specific performance characteristics be used.  The ammunition for this rifle was made to H&H’s specifications. Pasted inside  the case (and engraved on the underside of the action) is the specific load for which this rifle is regulated: a 480-grain .450 caliber bullet fired with a charge of 70 grains Cordite.  The production records include a notation that the rifle was test-fired with this load on December 12, 1908, five days before delivery, and achieved the accuracy H&H considered acceptable: a group of 2-1/8” by 1-1/2” at 100 yards.  This is about 2 MOA, which even today is pretty good, and for a rifle to be used on dangerous game at close range, entirely adequate…especially out of two separate barrels using open sights!

H&H was seriously concerned lest any other ammunition be used, with inferior results in terms of accuracy or point of impact: the ammunition label carries the warning that “H&H will  not guarantee the accuracy of this rifle unless their ammunition be used,” and another informing the owner that ammunition could be obtained from “Messrs. Walter Locke & Co., Ltd., Calcutta & Lahore.”  That ammunition was available several thousand miles away in India probably wasn’t much of a comfort to TR, so he brought a substantial supply.

As with the matter of the safety catch, extended top tang, and extractors, the caliber was selected with care and upon expert advice.  The “.500/.450 Nitro Express” is based on the 3-1/4" long  .500 Nitro Express case, necked down to hold a smaller .450 bullet: the standard British nomenclature for this caliber is “.500/.450-3-1/4”, and it’s still catalogued as the “.500/.450 Nitro Express” by Kynamco.  It’s still regarded by modern hunters as an outstanding choice for dangerous game.  People who hunt big animals understand that it is bullet momentum and, above all, deep penetration that make a rifle effective, not high velocity.  Taylor speaks highly of the .450-calibers in  general and the .500/.450 NE in particular, noting that its roomy necked-down case causes it to develop much lower chamber pressures than comparable rounds, a matter of very real importance in tropical countries.  Standard chamber pressure of the .500/.450 NE is 15-1/2 tons per square inch, a little more than half that of a .30-06.

The .500/.450 NE cartridges Kynamco makes today are identical in performance to TR’s. Only one loading is available, a 480-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2175 FPS out of a 28” barrel (it would be a bit less from the 26” barrels on TR’s gun).  To Americans who are geared to think in terms of lighter bullets at higher velocity,  +/- 2000 FPS isn’t very impressive, but that big bullet has better than 5,000 F-P of muzzle energy.  Taylor measured a rifle’s effectiveness by what he referred to as “Knockout Value,” noting that, “…it’s the weight of the bullet that matters when it’s a case of knocking down some beast at close quarters.”  The .500/.450 NE has momentum and penetration to spare and served TR well in some very tight spots.

The complete order included a heavy “best leather” case, in which were stored two slings, cleaning jags and a cleaning rod, a funnel, a bottle of sight black, and sundry other accessories.  Inside the well-beaten-up but still intact case remain two sets of jags in small leather pouches, the cleaning rod, a bottle of “Rangoon Oil” and a jar of “Rangoon Jelly,” plus two wide slings with narrow ends for the 1-1/4”swivels.  A  Kynoch cartridge carton contains two fired shells and one live cartridge. 

 The rifle was a gift to the retiring President from many of his friends and admirers: a large label pasted into the lid contains a list of the names of all the individuals who subscribed to the fund.  The names are a Victorian-era Who’s Who, many of the names still remembered today.  In addition to F. Courtney Selous, various Dukes and Duchesses, the Earl of This and That, are many names of people who would play major roles on the world stage in the coming decade: Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Minister at the time of the First World War)  Lord Curzon (Viceroy of India) and a name any reader of famous hunting stories will recognize: Colonel J.H. Patterson, author of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. 

This is a rich man’s gun: H&H was paid ₤85/13s/6d for it, about $500 at the then-current rate of exchange.  This was the equivalent of a year's wages or more for an English working stiff.  Prices have gone up a bit, but H&H will be happy to build a duplicate today for anyone who has about a half a million dollars to spend.


African Game Trails, the delightful book that showcases TR’s prowess (not only as a hunter but as a man of letters) is a nearly day-by-day account of his progress through eastern Africa.  In it he recounts numerous kills he made, including those with the Holland & Holland.  Here is his recounting of the first kill made with his “Big Stick”:

[A] Wakamba man came running up to tell us that there was a rhinoceros on the hill-side three-quarters of a mile away…I immediately rode in the direction given…In five minutes we had reached the opposite hill-crest…The huge beast was standing in entirely open country, although there were a few scattered trees of no great size at some little distance fromhim…I cannot say that we stalked him, for the approach was too easy.  The wind blew from him to us, and a rhino’s eyesight is dull.  Thirty yards from where he stood was a bush…it shielded us from the vision of his small, pig-like eyes as we advanced towards it, stooping and in single file, I leading.  The big beast stood like an uncouth statue, his hide black in the sunlight; he seemed what he was, a monster surviving from the world’s past, from the days when the beasts of the prime ran riot in their strength…So little did he dream of our presence that when we were a hundred yards off he actually lay down. Walking lightly and with every sense keyed up, we at last reached the bush, and I pushed forward the safety of the double-barreled Holland rifle which I was now to use for the first time on big game.  As I stepped to one side of the bush…the rhino saw me and jumped to his feet with the agility of a polo pony.  As he rose I put in the right barrel, the bullet going through both lungs.  At the same moment he wheeled, the blood spouting from his nostrils, and galloped full on us.  Before he could get quite all the way round in his headlong rush to reach us, I struck him with my left-hand barrel, the bullet entering between the neck and shoulder and piercing his heart…Ploughing up the ground with horn and feet, the great bull rhino, still head[ing] towards us, dropped just 13 paces from where we stood.  This was a wicked charge, for the rhino meant mischief and came on with the utmost determination…[T]he vitality of the huge pachyderm was so great, its mere bulk counted for so much, that even such a hard-hitting rifle as my double Holland—than which I do not believe there exists a better weapon for heavy game—could not stop it outright, although either of the wounds inflicted would have been fatal in a few seconds.


Of course, the Holland was also used on elephant, occasionally with some assistance:

…looking over the heads of my companions, I at once made out the elephant…The leader was the biggest, and at it I fired when it was sixty yards away, and nearly broadside on, but heading slightly toward me.  The recoil of the heavy rifle made me rock, as I stood unsteadily on my perch, and I failed to hit the brain.  But the bullet, only missing the brain by an inch or two, brought the elephant to its knees; as it rose I floored it with the second barrel…Reloading, I fired twice at the next animal…It stumbled and nearly fell, but at the same moment the first one rose again, and I fired both barrels into its head, bringing it once more to the ground.  Once again it rose—and elephant’s brain is not an easy mark to hit under such conditions--but as it moved slowly off I snatched the little Springfield rifle and this time shot true, sending the bullet into the brain.  

During the expedition, TR personally killed 13 rhinos, his son Kermit taking another 7.  Eleven elephant—8 of them by TR’s hand—fell  to his double rifle.  Many more animals were killed with this and the other guns in his battery, either for the Museums or as food for the hunting party.  The Holland did yeoman service in the taking of thousands of animals over the year-long trip.  

Upon returning to America the Smithsonian Institution received almost 800 examples of various African animals, large and small. One of them, a white rhinoceros TR killed at a place called Kilimakiu, is the only one on display today, in the Hall of Mammals.  A sign placed next to it identifies its donor.  A comparison of the original photo taken at the time of the kill, and the horns of the animal on display, confirms that they are the same beast.


A hundred years and more have passed since Roosevelt made his grand safari.  The world has changed greatly in the century since: two world wars—the first of which claimed Kermit’s life—have been fought as well as several smaller ones and innumerable regional conflicts.  The world of 1909 with its political and economic issues, its imperialist conquests, its good and bad, all of it, has vanished into the mists of the past. Yet the H&H double still is here, a tangible link to that world and its mighty figures.

This rifle symbolizes in its substance not just a hunt, but the twilight period of the only sort of world in which such a hunt could be made. It is emblematic of the exploitation of  Africa and its resources, but as well, of the embryonic environmental conscience of western societies, embodied in the rationale for the hunt itself and the words of its commander.  TR’s safari may be considered in some sense the watershed event in the development of modern-day conservation and preservation ethic.  The rifle’s true value is therefore as a historical artifact joining today’s hunter/conservationists with those who came before them, by virtue of its one-time ownership by a major player in the history of America and the world.  It is the best-known and best-documented firearm ever made, beyond any conceivable monetary valuation;  a unique example of the pinnacle of the gunmaker’s craft, a symbol of a lost era, and a tribute to a man whose legacy lives on still in our game laws.


PICTURE CREDITS:

Frazier International History Museum
Holland & Holland, Ltd


Resources & References

Roosevelt, Theodore. 1910. African Game Trails.  Syndicate Publishing Company, New York.
Taylor, John. 1948.  African Rifles & Cartridges, Special Edition for the Firearms Classic Library (1995).
Wieland, Terry. 2006.  Dangerous Game Rifles. Country Sports Press (Camden, ME) ISBN 0-89272-691-1.



[1] He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his mediation of a settlement of the Russo-Japanese War.

[2] In 1989, a film was released “starring” the Roosevelt double: In The Blood tells the story of TR’s great-grandson and his hunting experience in Africa.  The film, directed by George Butler, interweaves documentary footage from the original expedition with modern images, tracing the route TR followed and bridging the time span of four generations.