Martini-Henry: The Rifle That Helped Make the British Empire a Reality
Many shots have been heard around the world. And each time it was fired from a different rifle. During the Victorian era that rifle was the Martini-Henry.
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.” Whether the real Lieutenant John Chard ever said such a statement 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.
In many ways, the British conflict with the Zulu has become symbolized by the rifle of the day as much as the red jackets and tropical sun helmets worn by the European combatants. This rifle is the Martini-Henry, and today it has become a favorite among collectors.
More importantly, if it was the Colt Peacemaker that tamed the American West, then it was the Martini-Henry that could be seen as the weapon that maintained order around the globe. From the dark continent of 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 during the second half of the nineteenth century.
It was very much the “Guardian” of the Empire—as by the time it was introduced the British Empire was already reaching its zenith.
Age of Rifles
Following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars the age of the smoothbore musket was coming to an end, and over the course of the next fifty years, firearms with rifled barrels and breech-loading operation would transform modern warfare. Likewise, this was a time of great expansion by the European powers, and none so great as the mighty British Empire.
Introduced in 1853, the Enfield Rifle was a muzzle-loading, rifled musket that had a range of about 1,000 yards. Updated in 1867 as the Snider-Enfield Rifle, it incorporated a breech system that was invented by Jacob Snider of New York. This involved the removal of two-inches of the butt end for a breech-loading system utilizing the new brass cartridge ammunition. The space behind the cartridge was closed with an iron breechblock, hinged to the right side of the barrel.
The 1860s and early 1870s were a time of great conflict and the British closely observed the wars around the world including the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), the Danish-Prussian War (1864), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and of course, the Franco-Prussian War (1870 to 1871). The adoption of the Prussian needle-gun and the French Chassepot Rifle were indicators that the aging Enfield Rifle needed to be updated. The result was the stopgap Snider-Enfield as an interim measure, and made good use of the huge stockpiles of P53s that the British possessed. While these weapons are considered classics to gun collectors today, it was clear to military planners of the day that a suitable replacement was needed.
That replacement would be the Martini-Henry, a rifle that some argue 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—that was further modified to a self-cocking hammerless design of Friederich von Martini of Frauenfeld, Switzerland, along with the rifling design of Edinburgh gunsmith Alexander Henry.
The firearm is a breechloading central-fire weapon, meaning that the cartridge (or bullet) 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 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 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 even 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.
While it didn’t really usher in any major technological strides in terms of firearm design, it did ease the manufacturing process. The British were sticklers for easing the production, and the Martini-Henry is the result of opting for a design that used the least amount of moving parts as possible. The simplistic design made these rifles cheaper and easier to build, and more importantly offered an improved rate of fire and superior accuracy.
By 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 issuance. The British military leaders also did not care for the puny ballistic characteristics of these repeaters.
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. 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.
It was the end of the era.
The Martini-Henry saw service around the world, but mostly under the Union Jack, as the rifle was exclusively in the service of Great Britain. The shortlist of conflicts includes Afghanistan, Austria, Belgium, Turkey, Japan, Romania, Nepal, Egypt, and Sudan.
As touched upon the Martin-Henry underwent several caliber adjustments during its service in the Queen’s army, and the final change came about when the Martini was converted to the smaller .402-caliber ammunition. In fact the final version, the Martini-Henry Mark IV actually started out as Enfield-Martini .402-caliber rifles, when the British saw the benefits of the higher velocity, smaller caliber rounds over the massive but slow-moving .450 bullets. As a result, the British were faced with having to worry about supply for .303, .402, and .450. So the decision was made to convert the Enfield-Martinis back to the .450-caliber and supply these Martini-Henry Mark IV’s to non-front line troops in the far-flung colonies.
Following the first Sudan War the decision was made to provide a smaller caliber, but higher velocity rifle to the troops. In 1887 the Lee-Metford Rifle was adopted. It featured a magazine that held eight rounds, while the Mark II version would increase the magazine capacity to 10 rounds. The Lee-Metford would be replaced in 1895 by the Lee-Enfield, the Metford system being the final British rifle to use a black powder propellant.
While it never was a frontline weapon against another European army, it will likely be remembered as one of the most important tools that held the Empire together and served the Soldiers of the Queen.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.