Written by Craig Wharton.
A rifle to defend an empire
To me personally, this moment is illustrated in the 1964 classic movie Zulu, which was based on the events that took place at Rorke's Drift, Natal Province in South Africa on 22/ 23 January 1879. A classic portrayal of British military discipline combined with fire and movement drills, carried out against a numerically superior foe, determined to annihilate the small besieged garrison left to defend the mission at Rorke's Drift. Wherever the Victorian era British soldier served, so did his Martini-Henry rifle.
The birth of the Martini rifle
After the US Civil War ended in 1865, Peabody did achieve some success overseas with sales to Canada (3,000 rifles), France (3,900 rifles) and to the Swiss who purchased 15,000 rifles. The Swiss were not satisfied with the Peabody and tasked a Swiss engineer, Frederich von Martini, with improving the original design. Martini eliminated the external hammer and replaced it with an internal firing pin operated by a coil main spring. Martini's action was fully enclosed and had levered extraction, which was a great improvement over the original Peabody design.
During this period the Snider/Enfield conversion was introduced into British service in 1866. It was a stop-gap measure, whereby muzzle-loading .577 Pattern 1853 Enfield rifles were fitted with a Snider breech.
A competition was instigated by the British War Office in 1866 to find a replacement rifle. Martini's action was selected from a field of entries and this action was mated to the polygonal barrel designed by Alexander Henry, a Scottish gunsmith famous for producing quality target rifle barrels. The cartridge chosen was the bottlenecked .450 Boxer short chambered round. The oft misquoted .577/.450 designation for this cartridge is its commercial trade designation and was never referred to as a .577/.450 by the British Army.
The evolution of the Martini rifle
Very few remained as .402 Enfield- Martinis as they were ordered to be re-chambered and re-barreled back to take the .450 standard round. Only a few were retained in the .402 calibre as museum exhibits and by the Pattern Room. There were three distinct patterns of the Mk IV, A,B and C. A and B are the trials type; the C pattern was made from new parts.
All Martini-Henrys are marked on the right hand side of the receiver with Queen Victoria's crown over VR (Victoria Regina), over the manufacturer's name followed by the date, and a steel batch mark above a Roman numeral I, II or III, indicating which Mk of Martini-Henry it is. A number (Arabic numeral) under the Mk number indicates a 1st or 2nd class firearm.
The .303 British cartridge now being the standard issue round of the Bitish Army, the British set about converting the thousands of Martini-Henrys held in war stocks to .303. Re-barrelled with the Metford system of rifling these became Martini-Metford rifles and carbines in .303. These barrels have the shallow 7 groove Metford rifling and were designed for black powder. These can be found in MkI and II rifles and Mk I, II and III Cavalry and Mk I,II and III Artillery carbines.
Another change occured in 1895 when the Enfield rifling system was adopted. This five-groove rifling was for use with smokeless .303 ammunition. Thus re-barreled these Martinis became the .303 Martini- Enfield rifles Mk I, II and III,Cavalry carbine Mk I and II and the Artillery carbine Mk I, II and III. About 88,000 Martini-Henry's were converted to Martini- Enfield Mk I, II and III between 1896 and 1901.
The Martini rifle in the field
Pre-federation militia in all the colonies received these Martini conversions in all the differing Mks and patterns in quantities varying with that colony's population or defence needs.
Some of these Martini- Enfield rifles were taken to the Boer War by some Australian units embarking for overseas service there. The only Martini action rifle never on issue to Australians was the Mk IV with its unique long lever. These all went to India and when no longer needed there, went to the Nepalese.
A timeless rifle
Penetration tests on planks of Fir wood show the .450 round is capable of penetrating 12 one inch thick planks at a time. A definite Zulu stopper! The only detraction to the Martini-Henry's reliability was during its use in desert operations in the Sudan where due to fouling by black powder residue and fine desert sand the extractor sometimes failed to do its job. A modified extractor and a longer lever solved this problem. This refinement resulted in the Mk IV long lever.
Prolonged and rapid fire could result in mild concussion and/ or nose bleeds. Pity those poor blokes at Rorke's Drift, their Martini-Henrys were quite literally glowing red hot!
In 1874 the Martini-Henry was tested against the French Chasspot, which had been used with some success in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. The Martini got off 20 rounds in 48 seconds compared to the Chasspot's 20 rounds in 1 minute and 42 seconds. As a single shot, the Martini was quite fast to reload and fire. Nominally, it is listed at 12 rounds (aimed fire) a minute. The action is inherently strong and its accuracy renowned. The fast lock time combined with the excellent trigger made the Martini action the basis for an excellent target rifle. Martini-actioned rifles dominated Olympic shooting events in their day until finally being replaced by the bolt action rifle in these events. This is why so many Martinis were converted to civilian use. Re-sleeved or re-barreled to .22 many of these rifles were used by the miniture rifle club association both in the U.K. and in Australia.
And so the Martini action lives on. It did not die back in the Boer War. It is probably still being made to order by Pathan gunsmiths in that inhospitable part of the world. The Martini-Henry was still being made in the 1980s up there, as the Soviet Russian forces found out when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Mujahideen may have all been carrying AK-47 series of weapons by the end of that war but they first resisted the Soviet Russian forces with old Martini-Henry and .303 type rifles, some of which were hand made in a backyard workshop. Many a Russian soldier fell to a rifle that had been obsolete for nearly 100 years, but was still effective at long range. More recently, the US Marine Corps located several Martini-Henry rifles in Taliban weapons caches in 2010 and 2011.
The evolution of the Martini action rifle from Martini-Henry through the Metford and Enfield conversions also saw an evolution in the ammunition used in them, downwards in size, from the legendary .450 Boxer to the failed .402 concept to the equally famous .303. The .310 Cadet and .297/230 in both short and long rounds eventually gave way to the .22 long rifle cartridge for training purposes.
The Martini-Henry rifle and the .450 Boxer cartridge were a formidable combination, equal to or better than any other military firearm in use in the same time period. The last word on the Martini-Henry rifle, its cartridge and the Victorian era British soldier must go to those who used them so effectively. In the movie Zulu after the battle at Rorke's Drift the defeated Zulus have retreated and Lieutenant Chard (played by Stanley Baker), credits their survival against the odds as "a short chambered Boxer Henry point four five miracle". The ever unflappable Colour Sergeant Bourne's (played by Nigel Green) succinct reply, "And a bayonet, Sir. With some guts behind it!"