T. Logan Metesh
Theodore Roosevelt's Holland & Holland Safari Rifle
Theodore Roosevelt is recognized as not only one of the great figures in American and world history but as one of the foremost conservationists of wildlife and natural habitats in history.
Roosevelt was also a statesman, naturalist, author, explorer, soldier, rancher, and hunter. His experiences as a sportsman and outdoorsman were of considerable importance in the development of his philosophy of independence and individualism.
Theodore owned many guns in his lifetime, but the Holland & Holland Royal Double Rifle, s/n 19109, chambered in .500/450 was the finest firearm he ever owned. It has become known as the “Big Stick” as a reference to his quote on diplomacy.
A quick note on the ammo: .500/450 means that a 3 ¼” .500 Nitro Express cartridge was necked down to hold a smaller .450-caliber bullet. In Roosevelt’s gun, the 480-grain bullet would be traveling about 2,000 feet per second with approximately 5,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
Plans for creating the rifle began in 1908 at the behest of Edward North Buxton, a personal friend of Roosevelt and a well-known hunter, together with a group of over 50 outstanding British conservationists and hunting enthusiasts.
On August 8, 1908, Roosevelt sent a letter - on White House stationery - describing the specifics he wanted for the gun. The length of pull was to be 14-⅜” to the front trigger, with a drop at the heel of 2-½”. The barrels were to be 26” and the overall length 42 ¾”. The trigger weight was set at 3.5 pounds.
The rear sight was made to spec from the drawing Roosevelt made on the stationery, and it matches up with two folding leaf sights and one fixed blade at 100 yards with an elongated gold front bead sight.
The fixed 100-yard blade was test-fired with a .500/450 load using 70 grains of Cordite behind a 480-grain bullet in a 3 ¼” casing. The results were a group no larger than 2 ⅛” by 1 ½”. The load data is found on a label inside the case as well as engraved on the underside of the receiver.
The gun also bears an elongated top strap that extends halfway down the length of the stock, a way to strengthen the wrist against the very substantial recoil of the .500/450. This was a special request from Roosevelt.
All told, the final cost was 85 pounds, 13 shillings, and 6 pence. At the time, that was the equivalent of 8.5 months’ salary for a skilled tradesman. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about 10,500 pounds or $12,600 today - an absolute steal considering that the gun would start at 165,000 pounds if you ordered it today.
In January 1909, Roosevelt had his first opportunity to test the new double rifle, and he recorded his thoughts. “At last I was able to get a day off and try the double-barreled 450. It is a perfect beauty. The workmanship is like that of a watch. Of course our rifles look coarse and cheap and clumsy beside it. I can not say how delighted I am with it.”
The safari began when the party boarded a steamer loaded with all of their supplies on March 23, 1909, just 19 days after he left the Presidency. Over the course of 10 months, Roosevelt’s party harvested 469 big game animals, 262 of which were used to feed the hunting party and 150 others who were vital to the safari’s success. Many of the others were brought back as museum specimens for the Smithsonian, which was underwriting much of the safari’s $75,000 cost.
It was by no means the only weapon Roosevelt selected for the trip. In his arsenal were a Fox 12 gauge shotgun, two Winchester Model 1895 lever action rifles in .405, a Springfield in .30-06, as well as a Manlicher rifle.
The double rifle was obviously of prime significance to Theodore and to the other safari participants, as reflected by the frequent references to it in his book, African Game Trails. The gun’s first test was on a rhinoceros, of which he would eventually kill 13.
“I pushed forward the safety of the double-barrelled Holland rifle which I was now to use for the first time on big game…. The rhino saw me and …. as he rose I put in the right barrel.… Before he could get quite all the way round in his headlong rush to reach us, I struck him with my left-hand barrel…. Ploughing [sic] up the ground with horn and feet, the great bull rhino, still head toward us, dropped just thirteen paces from where we stood.”
He goes on to note, “For heavy game like rhinoceroses and buffaloes, I found that for me personally the heavy Holland was unquestionably the proper weapon.”
The rifle was also well-suited for the elephant, of which he shot eight: “As I aimed at his head he started to move off; the first bullet from the heavy Holland brought him to his knees, and as he rose I knocked him flat with the second.”
Kermit Roosevelt noted, “The recoil of the big gun was so severe that it became a standing joke as to whether we did not fear it more than a charging elephant!”
The Big Stick is in extraordinary condition, considering its use on such a long African safari and now being more than 110 years old. The finish is fairly well intact. The engraving and checkering are still sharp. Furthermore, the original case and accessories are present, the case being of oak and leather, and containing the original presentation label on the lid - listing each and every one of the 56 distinguished donors.
In preparation for a safari in 1986, the rifle was sent back to Holland and Holland to have some work done on the then-almost 80-year-old rifle. At that time, the company remarked that “We are in full agreement that this gun is a major mechanical, artistic, and romantic artefact of American, British and African culture.”
It was during this time back at Holland and Holland that the forend, which was lost by the family sometime in the 1940s, was replaced by Holland and Holland in the same style as the original. It’s also likely that the orange butt pad and engraved stock medallion featuring the Presidential eagle, TR initials, and 1909 date were added at this time, as those elements are not visible in any of the photos or footage of the original safari.
With the work completed, the gun set off on a new safari, whose participants included Theodore Roosevelt IV and Theodore Roosevelt V. Also along for the adventure were two names that are well known in the gun collector world: Greg Martin and R. L. “Larry” Wilson.
Over the years, the gun has been owned by some other famous people, though none quite as famous as President Roosevelt. Richard P. Mellon, whose surname needs no introduction, and William E. Simon, former Treasury Secretary, were just two of the gun’s high-profile owners. In 1994, the gun was sold at auction for $500,000 before the buyer’s premium, before eventually being sold again and purchased by philanthropist Owsley Brown Frazier.
It has been on display at the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is now part of the permanent collection at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, which was founded by Mr. Frazier in 2004.
I highly encourage you to visit the museum if you’re in the area, and if you’d like to support their mission while also getting to shoot guns and sample bourbon cocktails and craft beers (after shooting is done, obviously), then you should check out the Frazier Classic in September 2022, which is a sporting clays fundraiser that will help support the museum’s educational programs, workshops, family days, hometown history exhibitions, gallery presentations, unique plays, and live storytelling by our teaching artists.
Few politicians’ personas are as intertwined with firearms as Theodore Roosevelt, and there’s no firearm more fitting for that connection than the Holland and Holland Royal Double Rifle known as the Big Stick.
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