By Dean Roxby
The Martini-Henry Rifle Collector’s Bible
The legendary Martini-Henry (M-H) rifle served Great Britain and the British Commonwealth in the late 1800s, during some of the bloodiest battles the British Army faced. You may recall it being featured in the classic 1964 movie “Zulu.”
The name refers to the design features it incorporated. It was a combination of the Martini action and a unique rifling pattern invented by Alexander Henry. Introduced in 1871, it was the primary rifle until the Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield arms were adopted in 1888. Production ended in 1889, yet it continued to serve in reserve units until the end of WWI in 1918.
The Foreword is written by International Military Antiques, Inc. owner Christian Cranmer. (His son Alex often appears on “Pawn Stars” as an expert on old guns.) Christian describes bringing many tons of surplus guns and equipment from Nepal to the UK and United States in 2003. Soon after, a hardcore M-H collector named Neil Aspinshaw came calling. Aspinshaw, the author of this book, is also the creator and owner of www.martinihenry.org.
Following that is the Prologue: Wednesday, 22nd January 1879: The last moments of a Redcoat. This is an account of the disastrous Battle of Isandlwana, in modern day Republic of South Africa where the British Army lost over 1,300 men in one afternoon. It is told through the eyes of Private 883 John Kempster. Naturally it is a somewhat fictitious account, as 883 perished along with most of his unit, the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot. Private Kempster was a real soldier, and author Aspinshaw is proud to be the custodian of his campaign medal. The book is also dedicated to him.
This book features many color photographs of complete rifles, interior close-up photos and old B&W period photos. It also has many old patent and engineering drawings and sketches, as well as several battle scene depiction paintings. This offers a great mix of images. Almost every picture is accompanied with a caption. Going beyond the images, the main body of text covers the M-H’s early development, the rifle trials, weaknesses and improvements and changes throughout its service life.
Besides the technical aspects, the author also describes the M-H in battle. He also tackles the thorny issue of reliability. Due to the bloody defeat at the hands of the Zulu warriors at Isandlwana, the rifle came under close scrutiny. Aspinshaw is of the opinion that the rifle was fine; although early batches of ammunition were problematic.
The author did not simply recycle old war stories in regards to this issue. He spent countless hours studying reports from the era, mainly housed at the British National Archives at Kew Gardens and the Royal Armouries at Leeds. Quoting heavily from these reports, Aspinshaw suggests that the problem lay with the ammo, specifically the “rolled case” 577/450 Mk III Boxer design. The rolled case method of fabricating cases from thin sheets of brass foil created a cartridge with a very unique appearance. Wrinkled best describes it. The brass foil is wrapped around a mandrel, along with other parts for the base. The parts were then soldered together to create a case somewhat like a paper shotgun shell. Incidentally, I did notice one minor error here. The brass foil is 0.003-inch thick, not 0.0003 inch as stated. Three thousandths of an inch thick is flexible but not flimsy. Three ten-thousandths of an inch would be like tissue paper. These rolled cases worked well as long as they were not dented or bent. Unfortunately, this often occurred in combat. Chapter 17, Ammunition for the Martini-Henry: The Boxer Cartridge, and Chapter 18, Boxer Ammunition and the Great Jamming Debate, go into detail regarding this. Aspinshaw feels that six factors affected the jamming issue. These are:
1) Case shape. It was not tapered; instead it was parallel-sided.
2) The case would expand tightly against the chamber wall upon firing.
3) Any sand or dust in the chamber or on the cartridge increased the friction.
4) Denting or damage to the fragile case would make it difficult to load into the chamber.
5) If the paper of the paper-patched bullet became “rucked up” or folded back over itself, it became difficult to load.
6) The internal lacquering of the cases could gum up the chamber.
These issues disappeared with the adoption of modern drawn brass cases.
Other related models of the basic Martini action were tested and used by the British military. These are covered in detail as well. Chapter 12 studies the short-lived Enfield-Martini (E-M). (Notice that in this case the Martini name is second.) This was meant to be an updated model, chambered in a new .402-inch cartridge. However, as cartridge design was progressing at a rapid pace worldwide, Britain did not want to commit to a new caliber only to replace it with a newer smaller diameter round soon after. So, after spending 6 years (from 1881 to 1887) toying with the idea of replacing the M-H with the E-M, the E-M project was cancelled. Amazingly, the E-M rifles already made were converted back to M-H rifles! These are the M-H Mk IV “long-lever” pattern guns, in the original 577/450 round. The .402 barrels were removed from the action, re-bored to .450 inch, then refitted to the action and re-proofed. These will have two sets of proof marks stamped into the underside of the barrel. Chapter 13 covers this nicely.
Chapter 14 looks at the Martini-Metford, while chapter 15 covers the Martini-Enfield. Both of these are chambered in .303 British. The names Metford and Enfield refer to the type of rifling used. Metford rifling worked well with black powder but quickly burned out with early smokeless powder. Enfield-style rifling, so named as it was developed at the Enfield arsenal, lasted much longer with Cordite propellant. Notice the order of the names, the M-E being a .303, and the ill-fated E-M being .402.
Chapters on gun manufacture (neat old factory photos!), ammo (as mentioned above), bayonets and scabbards and care and repair round out the topics. An Appendices section that covers Service and Armoury Marks, Unit Markings and a section on Identification: Gun by Gun help to sort out all the many variations. Oddly enough, it does not have a detailed Index at the end, only a basic chapter list at the front. Not a big deal, but it is nice to have an index.
This book does a splendid job of describing all the numerous variants of rifles and carbines that derived from the original Martini-Henry design. This author highly recommends this book.
The Martini-Henry: For Queen and Empire
Full title: The Martini-Henry: For Queen and Empire—The British Military Martini-Henry, Martini-Metford and Martini-Enfield Rifles and Carbines; the Definitive History of Their Development and Service, 1869–1904
Author: Neil Aspinshaw
Binding: Hardcover color
Size: 8.75x 11.25in
Pages: 256; Colour/B&W photos: Many color and B&W (sepia tone) photos, plus patent drawings, factory drawings and battle scene artworks, etc.
Publisher: Tharston Press, an imprint of International Military Antiques, Inc. (IMA)
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V25N2 (February 2021)|