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Column: Militaria August 2005

The versatile Martini-Henry rifle was a mainstay of the British Empire during Queen Victoria’s numerous “little” wars.

By Peter Suciu

The Colt Peacemaker may have tamed the American West, but it was the British-made Martini-Henry rifle that maintained order around the globe. From the dark continent of Africa to the jewel of India to the exotic Far East, the sun never set on the British Empire—or on its warriors wielding the Martini-Henry—during the second half of the 19th Century.

At the end of the 1964 movie Zulu, which chronicles the famous defense of the frontier outpost of Rorke’s Drift in Zululand by 150 British soldiers against some 2,000 Zulu warriors, actor Stanley Baker replies that the victory wasn’t merely a miracle, but rather, “a short chamber, Boxer Henry, .45-caliber miracle.” Whether the real Lieutenant John Chard ever made such a statement is lost to history, but the fact remains that the cartridge and the weapon that fired those bullets played a decisive role in determining the outcome of the battle.

The British conflict with the Zulus has come to be symbolized by the Martini-Henry rifle as much as by the red jackets and tropical sun helmets worn by the English soldiers at the time. Not surprisingly, the rifle has become a favorite among collectors.

“As for the Martini-Henry, there seems to be a serious brand of collector, to whom black powder weapons and early contained cartridge weapons are seen as the purest form,” says Gary Jucha, an advanced collector of English militaria. “Since the classic English defense of Rorke’s Drift, the Martini-Henry has been the embodiment of the Victorian, last of the line, English-through-and-through persona.”

Following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the age of the smoothbore musket was truly coming to an end, and over the course of the next 50 years, firearms with rifled barrels and breech-loading operations would transform modern warfare. This was a time of great expansion by the European powers, and none so great as the mighty British Empire.

The 1860s and early 1870s were a time of great conflict, and the British closely observed the various wars around the world, including the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Danish-Prussian War (1864), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The adoption of the Prussian needle-gun and the French Chassepot rifle were indicators that the aging Enfield rifle needed to be updated.

That replacement would be the Martini-Henry, a rifle that some argue should be properly designated the Peabody-Martini-Henry. First patented in 1862, the rifle was developed too late to have an impact in the Civil War. It was further modified to a self-cocking hammerless design by Friederich von Martini of Frauenfeld, Switzerland, along with the rifling design of Edinburgh gunsmith Alexander Henry.

The Martini-Henry is a breechloading central-fire weapon, meaning that the cartridge is loaded into a chamber at the rear of the rifle. This enabled the soldier to reload quickly and fire more rounds than the previous muzzle-loading methods, which required that the projectile be loaded down the barrel.

A small lever operated and lowered the breechblock and allowed a cartridge to be inserted into the chamber, which returned the lever to the former position and closed the breech. The breech is centrally pierced to accommodate the firing pin, which is driven forward by pulling the trigger. Lowering the lever would then eject the fired cartridge and allow a new one to be placed. In this way, several more rounds a minute could be fired, and a soldier could remain safely concealed in a crouching or prone position.

The Martini-Henry weighs about nine pounds and is just over four feet in length. It fires a hardened lead bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1,350 feet per second, and is sighted for up to 1,000 yards. Unlike the Snider-Enfield, it was the first English service rifle designed as a breechloading rifle. Later versions of the Martini-Henry improved upon the design by incorporating other rifling patterns, including the Metford System and even a system designed by Enfield. These later versions are often referred to as Martini-Enfields and Martini-Metfords.

The first true Martini-Henry, which was adopted for service in the British Army and designated the Mark I, entered service in June 1871. Three additional variations were introduced—the Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV—as well as an 1877 carbine version with its own variations. These include a Garrison Artillery Carbine, as well as Artillery Carbine Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III. There were even smaller versions which were designed as training rifles for military cadets.

Originally, the British adopted the Short Chamber, Boxer-Henry .45-caliber black powder cartridge—the one that Stanley Baker’s Lt. Chard seems to trust so much. Later, this was replaced by .402- and .303-caliber ammunition. Because of upgrades of existing stockpiles of rifles and conversions, these weapons are found today in a variety of calibers. As the rifles tend to be well over 100 years old, firing them today should be done with extreme caution. And as with any antique rifle, a competent gunsmith should inspect the weapon to certify that it is safe to shoot.

What has made the Martini-Henry such a durable and collectible piece is the fact that it was an extremely well-designed firearm for its day. It was not, however, particularly revolutionary. “It pains me to say this, but the Martini-Henry did not really usher in any major technological strides in terms of firearm design,” emphasizes collector Jason Atkin, who suggests that the weapon was rather conservative. “The biggest headline about the Martini-Henry is that it was the British Army’s first true breechloading metallic cartridge.”

(Read the rest of this story in the August 2005 issue of Military Heritage)

© 2005 by the author and Sovereign Media. Reproduction without permission strictly prohibited.