Siege of Mafikeng
Description of design .
The Martini-Henry rifle Mk.II has a single shot hinged-block action.
The stock is of a two-piece design with the secured by means of a threaded longitudinal bolt passing through it and accessed for tightening by removing the -plate. This bolt screws into a socket into the rear of the receiver.
The fore-end is attached to the barrel by two bands and a cross-pin which is situated in front of the receiver and passes through both the fore-end itself and a lug brazed onto the underside of the barrel.
The foresight is of the barleycom variety and the rearsight consists of a ramp and a folding ladder or leaf with a movable slide – which can be set according to the range desired. With the ladder down the ramp is graduated from 100 to 400 yards. With it upright the range may be set by means of the
slide from 500 to 1300 yards. Numerals indicating hundreds of yards appear on alternate sides of the ladder and on the ramp itself
The Martini-Henry type of rifle has a bore of ,450″ and is of a seven-grooved interrupted polygon form. It has a right-hand twist and makes one turn in twenty-two inches.
In respect of the action the mainspring and firing pin are contained within the breech-block which pivots on a cotter-shaped steel spring-pin located at the top rear of the receiver.
Operating the Martini- Henry.
To open and load the action, an operating lever attached to the rear of the trigger-guard assembly is depressed in an arc of about 25 degrees. This pivots around and rotates the large pin attached to a pear-shaped cocking indicator on the right-hand side of the action,which simultaneously revolves anti-clockwise to 60 degrees from its original, almost vertical position. At the same time two horns at the top of the lever act upon the breech-block causing it to rotate upon the axis-pin thus depressing its front which in turn strikes the tail on the extractor which pivots around a screw at the front of the action which also retains the trigger and trigger guard assembly. This movement ejects any spent cartridge in the chamber.
While the above movements take place an L-shaped tumbler through which passes the cocking indicator axis-pin is rotated by the loading lever. The extremities of this tumbler perform two functions: while the lower bent is raised to engage and lock the spur on the trigger, the tipper arm
or crane engages a slot machined in the body of the firing pin which is forced to the rear compressing the spring around its shaft thus cocking the action. A cartridge may now be slid along the grooved top of the breech-block into the chamber.
Raising the operating lever to its original position again causes the horns to act upon the breech-block thus raising it to close the breech and also fully lock the action. The rifle is now ready to fire, its loaded status being apparent through the cocking indicator remaining in its 60 degrees position,(I,e. slanting towards the rear)
When the trigger is pulled upon firing, the tumbler disengages from the trigger spur releasing the crane to rotate around its axis and be carried forward with the striker which detonates the cartridge. The force of the discharge is transferred through the breech-block to the rear of the
receiver without putting pressure on the spring-pin.
The development of the Martini-Henry.
Over the period 1874-1887 the ,450″ military Martini-Henry underwent a number of changes which are reflected in the mark designations from the final version of the Mk.I in 1874 to the first of the Mk.TVS in 1887.
Over the years 1888 to 1889 three patterns of this rifle were produced which have been identified as the A, B, and C. The A and B patterns were conversions of the first and second patters of the Enfield-Martini while the C was made from new parts. The A pattern may be easily distinguished from the other two by its short 12 mm nocksform and block foresight as opposed to the ramp
foresights of the later models. The B and C patterns are virtually identical with the only certain differences being the lengths of the nocksforms and barrels which are 30 mm / 840 mm and 32 / 842 mm respectively.
In parallel , with the changes leading to the introduction of the earlier Mk.III rifle we may touch upon the development of the Martini-Henry carbine in its cavalry version. This was introduced in a Mk.I pattern in December, 1877. As could be expected the breech mechanism, caliber and rifling were identical to the rifle. The main differences centered around reduced weight, shorter barrel and fore-end, a foresight with protective wings, a redesigned nose-cap and a front barrel band which had no provision for attaching either a bayonet or swivel. A final change of significance related to the rearsight which was reduced in size and only graduated to 300 yards on the ramp and 1000 yards on the leaf. At a somewhat later date a leather rearsight protector was provided and attached by means of a screw on either side of the fore-end.
To compensate for the carbine’s reduced weight a special cartridge was used with a smaller charge of seventy grains of powder behind a four hundred and ten grain bullet. The chamber would also accept the rifle cartridge but at the price of a heavier recoil.
Boer War service of the Martini-Henry.
Picture on the left: Martini- Henry Rifles.
Left. The original model made for the trials of 1876-8. It is fitted with a
safety on the side of the breech.Center. This was the weapon officially approved in 1874- Mark I. Right. The Martini- Henry was a single-shot weapon and various devices were tried in order to increase the rate of fire, including fitting a magazine at the side of the breech.Pattern Room, Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield.
In evaluating the contribution of the ,450″ caliber Martini-Henry on the British side it is necessary to appreciate its status as an obsolete rifle following the introduction of the Lee-Metford in 1889 and the use by the Boers of the Model 1896 Mauser.
From 1880 and 1888 respectively the Cape and Natal governments received shipments of Martini-Henry rifles to arm the volunteer regiments raised in the patriotic fervour of the Victorian era.
Where as these had in many instances been replaced with more up to date weapons by the commencement of hostilities, the Martini-Henry was still carried by a few volunteer units such as the Cape Town Engineers, the Rhodesian Volunteers and in particular by the Native Police.
Obviously this disparity in armament as compared to the Boers necessitated that all units likely to become engaged should be issued with more modern rifles as soon as these became available.
There is in fact no evidence that the Martini-Henry was ever used by British forces in any major action (as opposed to skirmishes) during the Boer War. This, however, by no means suggests that the ,450″ Martini-Henry’s role was insignificant. In certain instances its use by the British was forced by circumstances and in others the Martini-Henry was issued where it was considered that the use of a more effective rifle would be politically unwise.
Following the military reverses of late 1899 the British forces in Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberly were cut off from relief for extended periods. During these famous sieges the best use of all available rifles was essential and in the cases of Mafikeng and Kimberly contemporary photographs show that the Martini-Henry was used to arm the civilian town guards with the Cape Police contingent in Mafeking similarly equipped. The units concerned appear to have used the models Mk.I/II, Mk.II and III. To what extent these weapons were actually used against the Boers is uncertain. Their presence, however, certainly served its purpose.
The main issue of Martini-Henrys during the Boer War was far more controversial and involved arming Blacks in what was regarded as a “White Man’s War.” The original attitude of the British High Command is well expressed in a telegram from Lord Roberts in February, I900:”In some cases where the Republican Forces have threatened or violated native territory under British protection it has been found necessary to arm the natives to defend themselves, but I feel sure that in no case have armed natives been employed in military operations with the Imperial Forces.”
Despite anything said by his predecessor, it is apparent that Lord Kitchen adopted a far more pragmatic attitude. While the official policy remained that Blacks should not be armed for offensive purposes shortage of manpower soon lead to the acceptance that Blacks could be armed for their own safety while protecting government property, serving as police in native areas, or
acting as guards, watchmen or scouts.
In confirmation of this approach photographic evidence shows that the Zululand Police carried the Martini-Henry rifles Mks.I/II and II, while Black scouts used these models and also the Mk.III pattern prior to a later issue of Lee-Metfords which the British obviously considered more appropriate for their protection! It is not surprising that the whole issue became one of great sensitivity with well-founded accusations that the Blacks were performing the duties of soldiers.
It appears, however, that perhaps the most significant use of the Martini-Henry by Blacks in the service of the British related to the extensive blockhouse system initiated by Kitchener in the guerrilla stage of the war which eventually resulted in the strangulation of the Boer commandos.
The garrisons of these blockhouses generally consisted of a non-commissioned officer and six soldiers. Four native guards were attached to each blockhouse, two of whom were armed and stationed four hundred yards on the flanks. Contemporary photographs indicate that these guards were mostly armed with Martini-Henry rifles of the marks commonly encountered elsewhere.
There is also a somewhat indistinct photograph which suggests that the Mk. IV Martini-Henry may have been on issue for this purpose – a possibility supported by the prevalence of these rifles in South Africa and the fact that at least some of those inspected bear refurbishment dates during the
Boer War period.
Since they were generally withdrawn from service in South Africa and issued to the cadets in 1898 the use of the carbine appears to have been isolated with the only regular unit thus equipped and identified so far being a detachment of the Bengal Lancers. These were photographed at the Kroonstad remount depot complete with Martini-Henry cavalry carbines and bandoleers over a caption indicating that their duties did not involve contact with the enemy – a statement which if nothing else supported the official line that non-white soldiers were only armed for their safety.