.577/.450 Martini-Henry Rifles - Part 1
Category: Black Powder Cartridge
Published: 11.24. 2007
Edited: Sunday 25 Nov. 2007, at 11:19 (GMT +1)
A .577/.450 Martini-Henry Mk. IV «Long Lever» converted from a .402" Enfield-Martini from 1887. The rifle is made at the RSAF in Enfield.
Part 1: Background History
The Martini-Henry rifle was the British Empire's first breech-loading military rifle that was not a conversion of a muzzleloader. The Snider conversion of the old Enfield muskets of the .577 family had been going on since 1865-66 and was just a temporary solution until the Army had found a reliable breech-loader that could serve the Crown's soldier all over the world. The British found this rifle in 1871 when the .45 calibre Martini-Henry rifle was adopted along with the famous .577/.450 cartridge.
Find out more!
You can read more about the British Martini-Henry and Snider rifles, as well as other early breech-loading single-shot rifles in the upcoming book From Musket to Metallic Cartridge: A Practical History of Black Powder Firearms.
Different Infantry Rifles
There are four different models of the British Martini-Henry infantry rifle. Mark I (i.e. model one) was in service from 1871 to 1876, Mk. II from 1877 to 1881, Mk. III from 1879-1888 and Mk. IV from 1888-1889. The only model that noticeably differs from the other in appearance is the last one, the Mk. IV. This one has a distinctly longer loading lever. The longer lever was adopted because reports from the Sudan campaigns during the 1880's complained about difficulties when the empty cartridge case was to be extracted. Most of the Mk. IV rifles were originally so called Enfield-Martini rifles chambered for a new .402" cartridge, but most if not all were later rebuilt and re-chambered for the old .577/.450 cartridge. The reason was the Lee-Metford rifle that was introduced in 1888. The Lee-Metford was chambered for the new .303 British cartridge and the Army decided that it would be confusing with three different service rounds and converted the Enfield-Martinis to the old round. The .303 British cartridge was by the way loaded with 71.5 grains of compressed black powder until 1891.
The Martini-Henry's Ammunition
The somewhat unusual cartridge name .577/.450 has a simple explanation. The Martini-Henry calibre is .450", but the cartridge case is based on a lengthened .577 Snider case which is choked down to .45 calibre at the muzzle. Originally the British tried a long .45 calibre cartridge, but it proved too clumsy to handle in the field. It was colonel E. M. Boxer who finally came up with the idea that a .577 Snider case could be used as a base for the new .45 case. In the beginning the cases were made of rolled brass but experiences soon showed that fired rolled brass cases often got stuck in the chamber. In 1885 the drawn brass case was adopted.
The Martini-Henry Rifles in Africa
The Martini-Henry rifles are perhaps best known for their role in the wars against the Zulus in Africa and were made immortal in films like "Zulu" from 1964 starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker. The war began terrible for the English. They invaded Zululand in January 1879 and expected little resistance from the natives which were largely armed with spears and shields even though they had a certain amount of old muzzleloaders. The British Army was lead by the British commander in Africa, general Frederic Augustus Thesiger, better known as Lord Chelmsford. His army camped at the foot of the Isandlwana mountain Jan. 10 were they set up a base. Early in the morning on the 22. Lord Chelmsford went out with a force to search for the Zulu army. Not long after he had left the remaining soldiers discovered some Zulu warriors on the hillside the opposite direction of were Lord Chelmsford had left. A cavalry unit was sent out to exterminate the warriors and during this chase the cavalry unexpectedly stumbeled over the Zulu main force consisting of perhaps 20 000 warriors. Wonder who was most surprised, the British or the Zulus.
What actually happened during the battle is not known. The traditional view is that the British used up their ammunition, but it seems more probable that the redcoats tried to retreat which was fatal because in a matter of very short time the Zulus managed to surround some of the companies. After five hours of fighting the battle was over.
The name Isandlwana was written with blood in British history books this day in January 1879. The British Army had a catastrophe that can be compared to the Americans battle of Little Big Horn three years earlier. When Lord Chelmsford returned to the camp at dawn, all living was killed: soldiers, African allies, oxens, mules, horses and dogs. Only a handful of soldiers got away. 858 Brits and 471 African allies was killed by what the British thought was primitive warriors. About 1000 Zulus were killed and hundred later died by wounds from the battle.
The Martini-Henry rifles were powerful, but lacked the rate of fire needed to meet the superior number of enemies. Later this was also the case at Abu Klea in Sudan in 1885 when a British square of 1500 soldiers almost broke down when it was attacked by 5000 Moslem Mahdist rebels. The soldiers armed with Martini-Henry rifles could not keep the rebels at a safe distance when a Gardner machine gun jammed, but they managed to win the day because of the bayonets and concentrated firing from the Martini-Henry rifles.
The effect of the Martini-Henry rifle was later described by both Zulus and British soldiers. Veterans later told about terrible wounds. Lt. John Chard which led the defence of Rorke's Drift said 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 was perfect as though it was a mask, only disfigured by a small hole made by the bullet " The next part deals with shooting the Martini-Henry rifle.