By the 1860s it had become obvious that the days of the muzzle loading firearm were numbered and that any government that failed to re-arm its troops with breechloaders would quickly be left behind in the international arms race. This realisation was confirmed when in 1864 the Danes, armed with muzzle loaders, were decisively and rapidly defeated by Prussian troops equipped with the von Dreyse needle-gun.
France responded to this threat by producing its own version of the needle-gun designed by Antoine-Alphonse Chassepot which, although a marked improvement on the von Dreyse, was nevertheless obsolete by the time it was adopted in 1866. The Chassepot, like the von Dreyse, used a complex paper cartridge that was labour-intensive to produce but, due to a reduction in calibre to 11mm and an increased powder charge of 85 grains, had the advantages of greater range and flatter trajectory. The bolt was sealed by easily replaceable India rubber washers that were compressed on firing and needle erosion was minimised by putting the percussion cap in the base of the cartridge rather than just behind the bullet.
Only the Prussians and the French developed needle-guns and after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, both countries abandoned them, the Prussians for the Model 1871 Mauser and the French for the 1874 Gras both of which fired self-contained metallic cartridges.
The Snider Rifle 1866-1871
In 1864 the British Board of Ordnance, having accepted the need for a breechloading rifle, set up a competition to find the best way of converting the existing stocks of .577 muzzle loading Enfields to breech loading as a stop-gap measure until such time as a purpose-designed rifle could be introduced. Of the six shortlisted competitors only the rifle submitted by the American Jacob Snider was intended to fire metallic cartridges, the others having opted for capping breech loaders using paper cartridges.
At this time there was a great deal of prejudice against the use of cartridges that contained a percussion cap as they were thought by many to be inherently dangerous and liable to explode at the slightest provocation despite this having been proven not to be the case during the American Civil War.
Snider’s conversion was simple, effective and above all cheap. It involved removing 2.5 inches from the rear of the Enfield barrel, machining a chamber to accept a cartridge and fitting a side-hinged mechanism that contained a firing pin activated by the original hammer.
To load the rifle, a cartridge (originally made with an iron base and a cardboard body and later of drawn brass) was pushed into the chamber, the breech mechanism was closed and the hammer was cocked ready to fire. As the cartridge contained its own primer, there was no longer a need to put a cap on an external nipple.
To reload, the hammer was first pulled back to half-cock and the breech was opened and pulled back against a spring to extract the spent case which fell out when the rifle was tipped over sideways.
After some initial problems with the ammunition had been rectified, the Snider, which eventually proved to be more accurate and to have a much faster rate of fire than the Enfield, was accepted in 1866. I have to say though that I have not yet seen anyone with a Snider shoot it with anything like the degree of accuracy of an Enfield muzzle loader.
The Snider saw action in Napier’s Abyssinian campaign of 1868 where at Arogi between 300 and 400 members of the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment defeated an attack by 7,000 warriors by waiting until they were in the ballistic danger zone before opening fire at a rate of 30-40 aimed shots per second, a previously unheard of rate of fire.
Some Indian Army units and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were still using the Snider up to the turn of the century – so much for it being a temporary stop-gap.
The .577/450 Martini-Henry (1871-1888)
The 1866 Committee that recommended the introduction of the Snider conversion also determined that a permanent breechloader, as opposed to the temporary Enfield conversion, be sought. Accordingly the Committee sent a circular letter to all leading gunsmiths asking for their proposals for a breechloading rifle with the main stipulation that, in accordance with Whitworth’s principles, the calibre must be .450in.
Although more than 100 rifles were submitted for consideration, none was considered acceptable so, in late 1867, another competition with prizes of £1000 and £500 was announced this time comprising two separate elements, breech mechanism and barrel, with a view to finding the best composite rifle from all the submissions.
After exhaustive trials, the Committee decided that the breech mechanism submitted by the Swiss-Hungarian weapons manufacturer Friedrich von Martini mated to the barrel rifling system developed by the Scottish gun-maker Alexander Henry was the best all-round solution. This decision proved controversial as the Martini action worked on the same principle as that designed by the American Henry O Peabody who had patented it in 1862. However, the Peabody breech had an external hammer whereas the Martini had an internal striker that cocked automatically when the action was opened and the matter was never tested in the courts.
The first batch of 200 new .450 long-chamber Martini rifles was issued to selected units of the Army and the Royal Navy for trials in 1869 and immediately problems were encountered with the ammunition. The original cartridge was of rolled brass foil construction which when elongated to contain 85 grains of powder became too long, flimsy and liable to distortion in service. To overcome this, a modified bottle-shaped cartridge whose base was .577in in diameter necked-down to .450in was introduced. With the rifle chambered to accept it and with a shorter breech block this rifle, known as .577/450 Short-chamber Martini-Henry was approved in June 1871.
In service the Mark I rifle was found to have a number of minor design deficiencies and most of these rifles were recalled for conversion to the Mk II specification approved in 1877. The main difference between the Mk I/II rifles and the Mk III of 1879 lay in the method of attaching the fore end, the former with a transverse steel pin and the latter by means of a hooked metal plate fixed in front of the trigger guard with two woodscrews. Carbines were produced in Cavalry, Garrison and Artillery versions from 1877.
The final Mk IV version of the rifle was originally produced in .402 calibre but due to the logistical problems of supplying so many different calibres (the new .303 rifle was under development at the time) these were recalled before issue and bored out to .577/450. Mk IV rifles are easily recognised by their longer operating levers, designed to give extra leverage for the extraction of dirty cases, and by the distinct ‘hump’ at the rear of the action that provided a more comfortable grip.
The Martini-Henry saw action around the world but its main battle honours and iconic status were won during the Zulu Wars when 150 soldiers armed with Martini-Henrys beat off a force of more than 4000 Zulus during the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift in January 1879.
In 2000, a vast horde of 19th century firearms was discovered in the Lagan Silekhana Palace in Kathmandu, Nepal. The entire cache, which filled 30 shipping containers, was purchased by an American company International Military Antiques for $5 million. My rifle was part of this shipment having been produced by BSA as part of a special contract for the Nepalese government 10 years after the Mk II version had been replaced. It has a superb bore and appears to have had very little use.
With the development and issue of the .303 Lee-Metford bolt-action magazine rifle which was approved in 1888, the single-shot Martini-Henry became obsolete but it nevertheless continued to serve with distinction in the far-flung outposts of the British Empire well into the twentieth century and Eley-Kynoch was still producing commercial cordite ammunition in .577/450 in the 1950s. Many rifles and carbines were converted to .303 (Martini-Metford and Martini-Enfield) and the Government donated a large number of surplus rifles and carbines for conversion by Bonehill and Greener into .22 civilian training rifles prior to The Great War. A number of commercial manufacturers also produced versions of the Martini-Henry in .577/450 for sale to civilians and foreign governments.
The original cartridges issued to the soldiers at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift were made with an iron base to which was cemented a rather flimsy body made from a strip of thin, rolled brass. The case held 85 grains of black powder together with a beeswax lubricating disc and a 480 grain paper-patched lead bullet made from an alloy of 1 part tin to 12 parts lead. This bullet would penetrate a quarter-inch iron plate at 200 yards or 14 half-inch elm planks.
Because of the excessive recoil when used with the lighter carbine versions, a modified carbine cartridge with a lighter 410 grain bullet (indicated by an orange paper patch) and a reduced powder charge of 70 grains was introduced in 1877. The cartridges were interchangeable in an emergency.
These early cartridges proved problematic in action, particularly where firing was intense and the rifle’s chamber grew hot and fouled with powder residues. In such cases, the thin brass could separate from the base and remain ‘welded’ to the inside of the chamber and almost impossible to remove without an armourer’s assistance thus rendering the rifle useless. This problem was experienced by the Khartoum relief column in the Sudan in 1882 leading to Sir Garnet Wolsey’s demand that drawn brass cartridges be provided as a matter of urgency.
Both the .577 Snider and .577/450 Martini-Henry cartridges are listed as ‘obsolete calibres’ under Section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 meaning that Snider and Martini-Henry rifles and carbines that retain their original chambering are classified as antiques which, provided there is no attempt or intention to bring them back into use, may be purchased without a Firearms Certificate (FAC). If you do want to shoot a Snider or a Martini-Henry and have included it on your FAC, then your only option is to make your own ammunition and for this you need specialist equipment and knowledge.
Reloading for the Martini-Henry
As you can see, the .577/450 cartridge is huge and accordingly the dies that are used to reform the brass cases to their original size after firing are very large and require a substantial bench-mounted press for this purpose.
The cheapest brass cases are made from re-formed Brazilian 24 gauge shotgun shells that must be repeatedly annealed and passed through dies to change their shape. The best purpose-made cases are made in England by Kynoch but at £7.39 each at the time of writing, they don’t come cheap.
As bullet diameters were reduced and muzzle velocities increased to give flatter and more lethal trajectories in the 1860s, problems were experienced with ‘leading’ of the bore where lead was deposited in the rifling causing reduced accuracy and difficulty in subsequent cleaning. To overcome this, someone had the bright idea of wrapping an undersized bullet in a paper ‘jacket’ or ‘patch’ that would fill the rifling grooves thereby preventing the lead bullet from contacting the steel barrel. The paper patch falls off the bullet as it leaves the muzzle and does not adversely affect accuracy.
The cleaned brass cases are first de-capped to remove the old primers before being neck-sized in the die to re-form the neck so that the patched bullet will be a snug fit when loaded. Another die puts a very slight flare on the case mouth so that the paper patch will not be damaged when the bullet is pressed into the case. While this is being done, a new primer is pressed into the primer pocket in the base of the cartridge which is then ready to be loaded.
The components of a Martini-Henry cartridge from left to right: new large rifle primer; cleaned, neck-sized and flared brass case; 85 grains of black powder; cotton wool filler; card disc; 1/4in grease ‘cookie’; two more card discs; paper-patched bullet
It is vital with black powder weapons to ensure that there is no air gap between the powder and the bullet as this risks creating a pressure spike that could bulge or burst the barrel. To prevent this, cotton wool is packed down tightly over the powder and a card disk is inserted at the base of the cartridge neck. Next a lubricant ‘cookie’ whose purpose is to keep the barrel fouling soft is inserted followed by two further card discs. The bullet can now be pressed in to the required depth using a bullet seating die but usually they can be pushed in with finger pressure.
As commercial .577/450 ammunition is no longer available and making the ammunition is such a laborious and time-consuming business, Martini-Henrys are not all that common at the range but they are such fun to shoot that the time and effort involved is certainly worthwhile.
Shooting the Martini-Henry
It has been said that the Martini-Henry kicks like a mule. This is not strictly true; it kicks like a bad tempered Shire stallion that’s just been bitten in a very sensitive place by an enormous and vindictive horse fly. For this reason unless the butt is held tightly into the shoulder and the right thumb is placed on the receiver thumb rest, severe bruising of shoulder and nose can result. Shooting them from a standing or seated position isn’t too bad but shooting prone for any length of time can be uncomfortable.
The Martini-Henry is a very potent rifle that due to its flat trajectory and devastating impact proved very effective in battle causing horrendous wounds. Writing after the defence of Rorke’s Drift in 1879, Lieutenant John Chard VC recalled that:
“Some of the bullet wounds were very curious. One man’s head was split open as if by an axe. Another had been hit between the eyes, the bullet carrying away the whole of the back of his head, his face perfect as if it were a mask, only disfigured by a small hole made by the bullet.”
Having said that, the garrison started the action with 20,000 rounds of ammunition and expended all but 900 to cause approximately 800 casualties (Zulu estimate) among the attackers so the general standard of marksmanship must have left a lot to be desired. After the battle the men’s trigger fingers were bleeding and their shoulders and biceps were red raw which is hardly surprising after keeping up such a rate of fire with this powerful rifle.
Kipling and the Martini-Henry
Rudyard Kipling mentions the Martini-Henry in at least two of his poems and it also features in his novel ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (1888) set in Kafiristan, a remote corner of Afghanistan.
In 1883 the 1,000 yards shoot had been taken out of the Queen’s Prize at Wimbledon and 900 yards was substituted in its place as, in the previous year, half the shots from the Martini-Henry had completely missed the target at 1000 yards. In ‘The Young British Soldier’ (1895) Kipling makes reference to this occasional inaccuracy (thought to be caused by the Henry barrel’s tendency to become fouled with powder deposits in the sharp angles of its rifling):
“When ‘arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
Don’t call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;
She’s human as you are – you treat her as sich,
An she’ll fight for the young British soldier”
In ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’ (1890) Kipling salutes the fighting spirit of the Sudanese Beja warriors while suggesting that they never stood a chance against the Martini-Henry. These, incidentally, are the same warriors that, according to Corporal Jones ‘Don’t like it up ‘em’, :
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.
Although it proved itself in action and was well-loved by those who relied upon it for their survival, the Martini-Henry had one major shortcoming in common with all other single-shot rifles and that was its relatively slow rate of fire of around 10 rounds per minute against which determined attacks by overwhelming numbers could prevail. This is what happened at Isandlwana when 858 British soldiers and 471 African allies were killed while Zulu losses amounted to around 1,000 dead.
Once the self-contained centre fire cartridge had been perfected, the next imperative was to produce a magazine-fed weapon capable of delivering a much faster rate of accurate, aimed fire. In the next and final article in this series, we will look at the weapon that replaced the Martini-Henry, the famous .303 Lee-Metford magazine rifle and the Lee-Enfield that succeeded it.
If you would like to see the Snider and the Martini-Henry superbly demonstrated by a very knowledgeable and entertaining Canadian, I would recommend watching britishmuzzleloaders on YouTube. Here’s a link: Snider v Martini-Henry
© Tom Pudding 2019