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The Martini–Henry was a breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle adopted by the British Army, combining the dropping-block action first developed by Henry O. Peabody (in his Peabody rifle) and improved by the Swiss designer Friedrich von Martini, whose work in bringing the cocking and striker mechanism all within the receiver greatly improved the operation of the rifle, which new iteration was combined with the polygonal barrel rifling designed by Scotsman Alexander Henry. It first entered service in 1871, eventually replacing the Snider–Enfield, a muzzle-loader conversion to the cartridge system. Martini–Henry variants were used throughout the British Empire for 30 years. Though the Snider was the first breechloader firing a metallic cartridge in regular British service, the Martini was designed from the outset as a breechloader and was both faster firing and had a longer range.
There were four main marques of the Martini–Henry rifle produced: Mark I (released in June 1871), Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV. There was also an 1877 carbine version with variations that included a Garrison Artillery Carbine, an Artillery Carbine (Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III), and smaller versions designed as training rifles for military cadets. The Mark IV Martini–Henry rifle ended production in the year 1889, but remained in service throughout the British Empire until the end of the First World War. It was seen in use by some Afghan tribesmen as late as the Soviet invasion. Early in 2010 and 2011, United States Marines recovered at least three from various Taliban weapons caches in Marjah. In April 2011, another Martini–Henry rifle was found near Orgun in Paktika Province by United States Army's 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
The Martini–Henry was copied on a large scale by North-West Frontier Province gunsmiths. Their weapons were of a poorer quality than those made by Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, but accurately copied down to the proof markings. The chief manufacturers were the Adam Khel Afridi, who lived around the Khyber Pass. The British called such weapons, "Pass made rifles".
In the original chambering, the rifles fired a round-nosed, tapered-head .452-inch, soft hollow-based lead bullet, wrapped in a paper patch giving a wider diameter of .460 to .469-inch; it weighed 485 grains. It was crimped in place with two cannulas (grooves on the outside neck of the case), ahead of two fibre card or mill board disks, a concaved beeswax wad another card disk and cotton wool filler. This sat on top of the main powder charge inside initially a rimmed brass foil cartridge, then made in drawn brass, The cartridge case was paper lined so as to prevent the chemical reaction between the black powder and the brass. Known today as the .577/450, a bottle-neck design with the same base as the .577 cartridge of the Snider–Enfield. It was charged with 85 grains (5.51 g) of Curtis and Harvey's No.6 coarse black powder, notorious for its heavy recoil. The cartridge case was ejected to the rear when the lever was operated.
The rifle was 49 inches (124.5 cm) long, the steel barrel 33.22 inches (84 cm). The Henry patent rifling produced a heptagonal barrel with seven grooves with one turn in Script error: No such module "convert".. The weapon weighed 8 pounds 7 ounces (3.83 kg). A sword bayonet was standard issue for noncommissioned officers; when fitted, the weapon extended to 68 inches (172.7 cm) and weight increased to 10 pounds 4 ounces (4.65 kg). The standard bayonet was a socket-type spike, either converted from the older Pattern 1853 (overall length 20.4 inches) or newly produced as the Pattern 1876 (overall length 25 inches). A bayonet designed by Lord Elcho was intended for chopping and other sundry non-combat duties, and featured a double row of teeth so it could be used as a saw; it was not produced in great numbers and was not standard issue.
The Mk2 Martini–Henry rifle, as used in the Zulu Wars, was sighted to 1,800 yards. At 1,200 yards (1100 m), 20 shots exhibited a mean deflection from the centre of the group of 27 inches (69.5 cm), the highest point on the trajectory was 8 feet (2.44 m) at 500 yards (450 m).
A 0.402 calibre model, the Enfield–Martini, incorporating several minor improvements such as a safety catch, was gradually phased in to replace the Martini–Henry from about 1884. The replacement was gradual, to use up existing stocks of the old ammunition.
However, before this was complete, the decision was made to replace the MartiniHenry rifles with the .303 calibre bolt-action magazine Lee–Metford, which gave a considerably higher maximum rate of fire. Consequently, to avoid having three different rifle calibres in service, the Enfield-Martinis were withdrawn, converted to 0.45 calibre, and renamed Martini–Henry "A" and "B" pattern rifles. Some 0.303 calibre black-powder carbine versions were also produced, known as the Martini–Metford, and even 0.303 calibre cordite carbines, called Martini–Enfields (as opposed to Enfield-Martinis).
During the Martini–Henry's service life the British army was involved in a large number of colonial wars, most notably the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. The rifle was used in the Battle of Isandlwana, and by the company of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot at the battle of Rorke's Drift, where 139 British soldiers successfully defended themselves against several thousand Zulus. The weapon was not completely phased out until 1904.
The rifle suffered from cartridge-extraction problems during the Zulu War, mostly due to the thin, weak, pliable foil brass cartridges used: they expanded too much into the rifle's chamber on detonation, to the point that they stuck or tore open inside the rifle's chamber. It would eventually become difficult to move the breech block and reload the rifle, substantially diminishing its effectiveness, or rendering it useless if the block could not be opened. After investigating the matter, the British Army Ordnance Department determined the fragile construction of the rolled brass cartridge, and fouling due to the black-powder propellant, were the main causes of this problem.
To correct this, the weak rolled brass cartridge was replaced by a stronger drawn brass version, and a longer loading lever was incorporated into the MK-IV to apply greater torque to operate the mechanism when fouled. These later variants were more reliable in battle, although it was not until smokeless nitro powders and copper-coated bullets were tried out in these rifles in the 1920s that accuracy and 100% reliability of cartridge case extraction was finally achieved by Birmingham ammunition makers (Kynoch). English hunters on various safaris, mainly in Africa, found the Martini using a cordite charge and a 500-grain full-metal-jacketed bullet effective in stopping large dangerous game such as hippopotamus up to 80 yards away.
The nitro based/shotgun powders were used in Kynoch's .577/450 drawn-brass Martini–Henry cartridge cases well into the 1960s for the commercial market, and again were found to be very reliable and, being smokeless, eliminated fouling issues. The powder's burning with less pressure inside the cartridge case prevented the brass cases from sticking inside the rifle's chamber (because they were not expanding as much as the original black-powder loads did).
The rifle remained a popular competition rifle at National Rifle Association meetings, at Bisley, Surrey, and (NRA) Civilian and Service Rifle matches from 1872–1904, where it was used up to 1,000 yards using the standard military service ammunition of the day. By the 1880s the .577/.450 Boxer Henry round was recognised by the NRA as a 900-yard cartridge, as shooting the Martini out to 1,000 yards or (3/4 of a mile) was difficult, and took great skill to assess the correct amount of windage to drop the 485 grain bullet on the target. But by 1904 more target shooters were using the new .303 cal cartridge, which was found to be much more accurate, and thus interest in the .577/450 fell away, to the point that by 1909 they were rarely used at Bisley matches, with shooters favouring the later Lee–Enfield bolt action magazine rifles.
In 1879, however, it was generally found that in average hands the .577/450 Martini–Henry Mk2, although the most accurate of the Martinis in that calibre ever produced for service life, was really only capable of hitting a man sized target out to 400 yards. This was due to the bullet going subsonic after 300 yards and gradually losing speed thereafter, which in turn affected consistency and accuracy of the bullet in flight. The 415-grain Martini Carbine load introduced in 1878 shot better out to longer ranges and had less recoil when it was fired in the rifles, with its reduced charge of only 75 grains of Curtis & Havey's. It was found that, while the rifle with its 485 grain bullet shot point of aim to 100 yards, the carbine load when fired in the rifles shot 12 inches high at the same range, but then made up for this by shooting spot-on out to 500 yards. These early lessons enabled tactics to be evolved to work around the limitations of this large, slow, and heavy calibre during the Zulu War. During most of the key battles, such as Rorke's Drift and the battle of Ulundi, the order to volley fire was not given until the Zulus were at or within 400 yards.
The ballistic performance of a .577/450 is somewhat similar to that of a .45/70 American Government round, as used prolifically throughout the American Frontier West and by buffalo hunters, though the .577/450 has more power due to its extra 15 grains of black powder inside the cartridge case. It is clear from early medical field surgeons' reports that at 200 yards the rifle really came into its own, and inflicted devastating and horrific wounds on the Zulus in the Anglo–Zulu War . The MK2 Martini's sights are marked to 1,800 yards, but this setting was only ever used for long-range mass volley firing on to harass an artillery position or a known massed cavalry position, prior to a main fight, and to prevent or delay infantry attacks. A similar "drop volley sight" whereby the rifle's bullets were dropped long range onto the target were employed on the later .303 Lee–Enfield rifles of WW1, which had a graduation lever sight calibrated up to 2,800 yards.
The Nepalese produced a close copy of the British Martini–Henry incorporating certain Westley Richards improvements to the trigger mechanism but otherwise very similar to the British Mark II. These rifles can be identified by their Nepalese markings and different receiver ring. A noticeably different variant incorporating earlier Westley Richards ideas for a flat-spring driven hammer within the receiver in lieu of the coil-spring powered striker of the von Martini design, known as the Gahendra rifle, was produced locally in Nepal. While generally well-made, the rifles were produced substantially by hand, making the quality extremely variable. Though efforts were being made to phase out these rifles, presumably by the 1890s, some 9000 were still in service in 1906.
The Martini–Henry saw service in World War I in a variety of roles, primarily as a Reserve Arm, but it was also issued (in the early stages of the war) to aircrew for attacking observation balloons with newly developed incendiary ammunition, and aircraft. Martini–Henrys were also used in the African and Middle Eastern theatres during World War I, in the hands of Native Auxiliary troops.
A shotgun variant known as the Greener Police Gun or the Greener Prison Shotgun was chambered in a special round that would make the weapon useless to anyone who stole it. An example can be seen at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Greener also used the Martini action for the GP single-barreled shotgun firing standard 12-bore ammunition, which was a staple for gamekeepers and rough shooters in Britain up to the 1960s.
Turkish, Romanian, and Boer Republics Peabody–Martini–Henry rifles
Unable to purchase Martini–Henry rifles from the British because their entire production was going to rearming British troops, Ottoman Turkey purchased weapons identical to the Mark I from the Providence Tool Company in Providence, Rhode Island, USA (the manufacturers of the somewhat similar Peabody rifle), and used them effectively against the Russians in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878). The Ottoman Turkish outlaw and folk hero Hekimoğlu famously used the rifle during his raids on landowners. The rifle is referred to as Aynalı Martin in Turkey and features in several famous folk songs.
A now scarce variant of the Peabody–Martini–Henry built by Steyr was adopted by Romania in 1879. Significant numbers of the basic design, with variations, were also produced for the Boer Republics, both in Belgium and, via Westley Richards, in Birmingham, as late as the late 1890s.
Operation of the Martini action
The lock and breech are held to the stock by a metal bolt (A). The breech is closed by the block (B) which turns on the pin (C) that passes through the rear of the block. The end of the block is rounded to form a knuckle joint with the back of the case (D) which receives the force of the recoil rather than the pin (C).
Below the trigger-guard the lever (E) works a pin (F) which projects the tumbler (G) into the case. The tumbler moves within a notch (H) and acts upon the block, raising it into the firing position or allowing it to fall according to the position of the lever.
The block (B) is hollowed along its upper surface (I) to assist in inserting a cartridge into the firing chamber (J). To explode the cartridge the block is raised to position the firing mechanism (K) against the cartridge. The firing mechanism consists of a helical spring around a pointed metal striker, the tip of which passes through a hole in the face of the block to impact the percussion-cap of the inserted cartridge. As the lever (E) is moved forward the tumbler (G) revolves and one of its arms engages and draws back the spring until the tumbler is firmly locked in the notch (H) and the spring is held by the rest-piece (L) which is pushed into a bend in the lower part of the tumbler.
After firing, the cartridge is partially extracted by the lock. The extractor rotates on a pin (M) and has two vertical arms (N), which are pressed by the rim of the cartridge pushed home into two grooves in the sides of the barrel. A bent arm (O), forming an 80° angle with the extractor arms, is forced down by the dropping block when the lever is pushed forward, so causing the upright arms to extract the cartridge case slightly and allow easier manual full extraction.
As well as British service rifles, the Martini breech action was applied to shotguns by the Greener company of Britain, whose single-shot "EP" riot guns were still in service in the 1970s in former British colonies. The Greener "GP" shotgun, also using the Martini action, was a favourite rough-shooting gun in the mid-20th century. The martini action was used by BSA and latterly BSA/Parker Hale for their series of "Small Action Martini" small bore target rifles that were in production until 1955.
In popular culture
- In the novel The Man Who Would Be King, two British adventurers use 20 Martini–Henry rifles to establish their own kingdom in Kafiristan. Rudyard Kipling also refers to the rifles in his poem The Young British Soldier.
- In the Dad's Army episode A Brush with the Law Lance-Corporal Jack Jones says he used a Martini–Henry rifle in the Mahdist War and that it was a very good rifle. He relates a rambling story about an officer who confuses the Martini–Henry with the Martini (Cocktail).
- The Martini–Henry is mentioned in Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness" by the main character Marlow. The helmsman later drops it overboard when he is killed, much to Marlow's chagrin. "[The pilot house] contained a couch, two camp-stools, a loaded Martini-Henry leaning in one corner, a tiny table, and the steering-wheel."
- British military rifles
- Bira gun – a manually operated machine gun chambered in the same .577/450 cartridge as the Martini–Henry rifle
- Martini–Enfield – the .303 calibre version of the Martini–Henry
- Martini Cadet – Cadet target shooting rifle
- Zulu – shows the rifle in use at the Battle of Rorke's Drift
- Zulu Dawn – shows the rifle in use at the Battle of Isandlwana
- Smith-Christmas, Kenneth L. (2014). "Icon of an Empire The Martini-Henry". American Rifleman (National Rifle Association) 162 (November): 86–91, 108 & 109.
- Rifles of Advanced Age Remain in Use in Afghanistan
- Greener, W.W..The Gun & its Development, 9th Edition, 1910.
- Calver, Richard E.. The Home Loader. 2009.
- Grieves, Adrian. Rourke's Drift, 2003.
- Walter, John (2006). Rifles of the World (3rd ed.). Iola, WI: Krause Publications. pp. 147–8. ISBN 0-89689-241-7.
- M1874 Turkish Peabody–Martini: (types "A" and "B")
- "The Turkish Connection: The Saga of the Peabody-Martini Rifle" by William O. Achtermeier. originally published in Man At Arms Magazine, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 12-21, 5557, March/April 1979
- Yüksel, Ayhan - Eşkıya Hekimoğlu İbrahim'in 'Aynalı Martin' Tüfeği, Hürriyet Tarih 27 Kasım 2002, s. 20 - 21.
- Suciu, Peter (August 2005). "The versatile Martini-Henry rifle was a mainstay of the British Empire during Queen Victoria's numerous 'little' wars". Military Heritage 7 (1): 24–7.
- Small Arms Identification Series No 15: .450 & .303 Martini Rifles And Carbines (Ian Skennerton, Arms & Militaria Press) ISBN 0-949749-44-3.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, "Gunmaking", 1905 edition
- Official Report of the Calcutta International Exhibition, 1883–84, Military Exhibits.
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- Official Report of the Calcutta International Exhibition, 1883-84, Military Exhibits
- Rifles of Advanced Age Remain in Use in Afghanistan