FATHER OF THEM ALL
Thanks to Zulu, the classic 1964 movie starring Michael Caine, the Martini-Henry rifle enjoys a celebrity among citizens at large that is rare among military weapons. Tens of millions of people have seen that movie and, if nothing else, learned about rifle drill in the British Army in 1879.
For anyone who might have missed it, Zulu depicts, with quite admirable accuracy, the battle of Rorke’s Drift, in Natal in 1879. The army awarded 11 Victoria Crosses; in my opinion, there could have been a twelfth, for the Martini-Henry certainly played a heroic role.
The old Martini is one of the lesser-sung military rifles in history. It was not used for long — about 15 years — and was really a transitional weapon between the muzzleloader and the repeating cartridge rifle. Still, it had an enormous impact in several different ways. After it was officially retired in favor of the bolt-action Lee-Metford in 1888, stocks of Martini-Henrys were distributed to colonial troops, militia battalions, hunters, and target shooters throughout the Empire — and that meant, literally, throughout the world. For a century afterwards, you could walk into a farmhouse in Kenya, Rhodesia, Natal, Saskatchewan, New Zealand, or New South Wales and find a Martini-Henry behind the door, ready for action.
Over the long term, its cartridge, the .577/.450, was even more influential than the rifle itself. For one thing, its 480-grain bullet set the standard for .45-caliber dangerous-game cartridges that lasts to this day. Subsequent nitro-express cartridges, starting with the .450 NE in 1898, used 480-grain bullets. When .450s were banned in India and the Sudan around 1905, to keep ammunition out of the hands of insurgents, it was because there were so many old Martini-Henrys in the hands of the would-be rebels. Substitutes for the .450 NE included the .470 Nitro Express, .475 No. 2 NE, and Holland & Holland’s .500/.465. More often than not, the standard bullet weight was 480 grains.
The Martini-Henry proved to be so durable, reliable, and adaptable that many were rebarreled to .303 British after 1888, and thousands of new Martinis were also made in .303. Many of these continue in service to this day. With .303 British ammunition one of the most common calibers to be found from Cairo to the Cape, it was natural to arm everything from game scouts and park rangers to camp guards and farm workers with them.
The flip side of that coin is that untold numbers of African animals have been either poached, or wounded, by a Martini-Henry, whether chambered in .577/.450 or .303 British, but that is hardly the rifle’s fault.
A lesser known negative of the old Martini is its horrid recoil. Viewers of Zulu might contest that statement, since every shot fired in the movie appeared to have no recoil at all, nor was there much in the way of black-powder smoke. Of course not – they were using blanks. The real-life Martini was noted for brutal recoil, mainly because of the shape of the stock. For its time, however, it was extremely fast to operate — tests showed trained infantrymen capable of maintaining a rate of fire of 20 rounds per minute. The roughly 140 defenders of Rorke’s Drift fired more than 20,000 rounds during the battle. Considering there were 4,000 Zulu attackers, the Martini’s rate of fire evened the odds somewhat.
The rifle is also enormously strong. Tests at the Providence Tool Company in Rhode Island, at the time they were fulfilling a contract to supply 600,000 Martini-Henrys to the Ottoman Empire, proved the action to be a beast. At one point, they put five (5) 480-grain bullets in the barrel ahead of a double charge of gunpowder. The rifle took it without a whimper.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Martini-Henry is still relatively common to find in use, 140 years after it was retired from the British service as obsolete. A 480-grain, hard-cast bullet, in the right place, will still stop virtually anything, and there is little in the way of plains game that can’t be taken with the .303.
To the best of my knowledge, Kynamco in England is the only company that now manufactures .577/.450 Martini-Henry ammunition. Finding some would be the difficulty. If you want to shoot one, handloading is about the only real option. Fortunately, with a little work, brass can be fashioned from .577 cases, which will take Boxer primers; the Martini can handle smokeless-powder pressures with no problem, and cast bullets are common as dirt.
In fact, loading some ammunition and trying to match the 20 rounds a minute record of a Victorian infantrymen would be an interesting challenge. Let me know how you make out.