By: Peter Suciu
The Colt Peacemaker has been described as the gun that tamed the American West, but it was another weapon that can rightfully be seen as the weapon that maintained order around the globe.
From Africa, to the jewel of India, to the Far East, the sun never set upon the British Empire or its warriors wielding the Martini-Henry Rifle during the second half of the 19th Century.
At the end of the 1964 film Zulu, which chronicled the events of the almost infamous frontier outpost of Rorke’s Drift along Zululand, where approximately 100 British soldiers fended off an attack by some four thousand Zulu warriors, Stanley Baker replies that the victory wasn’t merely a miracle, but rather, “a short chamber Boxer Henry .45-caliber miracle.”
It is unlikely the real Lieutenant John Chard, whom Baker played in the movie, ever made such a statement. Even if true, it is certainly lost to history, but the fact remains that the cartridge and the weapon that fired those bullets played a very decisive role in determining the outcome of the battle.
Age of Rifles
Following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the age of the smoothbore musket came to an end, and over the course of the next 50 years, firearms with rifled barrels and breech-loading operation would transform modern warfare. Likewise, this was a time of great expansion by European powers, and none as great as the mighty British Empire.
The Martini Henry didn’t help build the empire, as it grew thanks to the Brown Bess musket and Pattern 53 Enfield rifle, but the weapon instead became the ‘guardian’ of the massive empire.
While known as the Martini Henry, some firearms historians have argued that it should be properly designated the “Peabody-Martini-Henry.” It is actually a Peabody pattern—an American designed rifle, which was first patented in 1862, but was fully developed too late to have an impact in the American Civil War.
The firearm is a breechloading center-fire weapon, meaning the round is loaded into a chamber at the rear of the rifle. This enables the soldier to reload quickly and fire more rounds than the previous muzzle-loading methods that 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 was driven forward by pulling the trigger. Lowering the lever would then eject the fired cartridge and a new one could be placed. Thus, several more rounds a minute could be fired, and a soldier could remain in the crouched or prone position, which offers a benefit over the traditional muzzle-loading firearm.
The Martini-Henry weights 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 the weapon is sighted for up to 1,000 yards. Unlike the Snider-Enfield, it was also 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 rifle variations were introduced and include 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 II. There were even versions, smaller in size, 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 have so much faith in—and later this was replaced by .402-caliber ammunition, and even the later .303-caliber.
Because of upgrades of existing stockpiles of rifles and conversions, these weapons are found today in a variety of calibers. And as these rifles tend to be well over 100 years old, firing them today should be done with extreme caution. As with any antique rifle, a competent gunsmith should inspect the weapon to certify that it is safe to shoot.
Defending the Empire
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 revolutionary, but firearms don’t have to be so to be successful. In simple truth, the Martini-Henry was essentially the British Army’s first true breechloading cartridge rifle that was designed from the ground up.
Its success was also owed to the weapon’s ease of manufacture, which the British were sticklers for, and this resulted from a rifle design that used the fewest number of moving parts possible. The simplistic design made these rifles cheaper and easier to build, and more importantly offered improved rate of fire and superior accuracy. At the time of the Martini’s introduction into service, repeating rifles such as the Winchester were widely available, but the British military found the popular American rifle too complex and unreliable to consider for widespread military issue.
For Queen Victoria’s little wars around the globe the rifles, single shot as these were, would be suitable against the various forces that the British Army faced in the field.
It was also the last of the "big bore" rifles, and after the Martini-Henry, the nations of Europe turned to smaller caliber mass-produced weapons that could fire at a faster rate, but lacked the big heavy rounds. And while it didn’t help build the empire, the Martini Henry was there with its guardians in red, and later khaki, tunics. It was, simply put, the right gun for the right time.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at [email protected].
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK – Martini-Henry RifleUploaded by Magnus Manske, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21108217