Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Martini-Henry Mark III: The Arm of Empire

The adoption of the Snider breechloading conversion of the old P.1853 Enfield by the British army in 1866 was never intended to be more than a stopgap. Indeed, the commission to select its replacement was formed in 1867, and soon weeded a field of over 100 entrants down to nine finalists. While bolt-actions were considered, a falling block with an internal striker ignition system designed by Swiss engineer Friedrich von Martini was selected, mated to a barrel with 7-groove, 1-in-22" rifling that had been the brainchild of Scottish gun-maker and rifle marksmanship enthusiast Alexander Henry. From such dry technical details was a legend born.

Martini-Henry Mark III. Photo by Oleg Volk.

The Martini-Henry was the standard issue arm of the British military from 1871 through the early 1890's; twenty tumultuous years, spanning such famous names as Khartoum, Isandhlwana, Rorke's Drift. The rifle itself has been the star of Kipling poetry and Hollywood film, with a sword bayonet on one end and Tommy Atkins at the other.

Loading the Martini. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Operation of the rifle is simple: pulling down on the lever behind the triggerguard causes the beechblock to drop at the front, exposing the chamber and automatically cocking the striker. The lever is then raised, closing the chamber and preparing the weapon for firing. There is no safety, but a pivoting indicator on the right side of the action gives visual and tactile confirmation of the weapon's cocked status. After firing, operation of the lever causes twin extractors to eject the spent case. There is a lug for a bayonet on the right side of the first barrel band, and the weapon's sights are graduated to 1,450 yards (experiments in India against screen targets representing massed troops showed that trained riflemen could achieve 6% hits in volley fire out to 1,650 yards!) Recoil was, as they say in the gun mags, "brisk but manageable", and a cutout was placed in the right rear of the receiver to remind one not to wrap one's thumb over the action, which could cause it, upon firing, to meet one's nose with enough force to make one see stars.

RIGHT: .577-450 Martini-Henry round, shown with today's 5.56x45mm NATO round for scale.

The Martini was truly a weapon of transition; a crusty veteran issued one in 1871 may well have received his first marksmanship instruction on a smoothbore flintlock, while the senior NCO's at Mons and First Ypres had undoubtedly cut their teeth on this old black powder warhorse. Ammunition, usually formed from 24ga shotgun brass, is still available from some specialty houses, such as Old Western Scrounger and Rocky Mountain Cartridge, LLC. Be aware that these black powder cartridges are loaded with .451" bullets, and that the bore on a well-used Martini (like mine) can mike out to .458" or more, resulting in keyholing at ranges as close as seven yards. I would encourage any military rifle enthusiast to snag one of these while examples are still available from International Military Antiques and Atlanta Cutlery; there may be no more romantic breechloader to own.


Anonymous said...

I've been attracted to the Martini-Henry type design ever since I foolishly procrastinated in buying a Martini Cadet in .22LR some twenty years ago.
Pony Express (a now defunct CA gun shop) had racks of them. I went back a couple and then they were gone.

BobG said...

A simple, yet very functional design. In my part of the country the trap door Springfield was the favorite of the army, some can still be seen in places like Fort Bridger over the border into Wyoming.

Firehand said...

Got a couple of Martini .22s, and the .577/.450 is on my list. If other things wouldn't keep coming up...

Anonymous said...

about 10 years ago, I got an intro to the chief wog of some clan I've never heard of (perhaps he was the only member).

he had the left overs of a batch of rifles confiscated from the Afrikaans during one of the Boer wars. He had a firearms dealers cert, but the Scottish cops had told him to surrender it because he was not active
enough for their liking.

I visited his collapsing ancestral pile to see what he had.

there were at least 3 .577/.450s one was a standard enfield, but two were Westly Richards with Francotte style actions (the works come out attached to the trigger guard /floor plate like the BSA Martinis). There was also a rolling block Remmington, a 6.5mm Krag and a 7mm Mauser '94 with octagon barrel. condition was neglected with woodworm in the stocks and a coating of argyll moth on the metal, but no serious moth holes.

I offered to buy the black powder stuff and after many calls and letters explaining that I could take them without needing a dealer's cert- he sold them to one of his mates, but he still wanted me to buy the smokeless. I put a dealer friend in touch with him, but he had no joy either. shame really

Anonymous said...

Got 2 say the Martini is my favourite action type. It is about as un burstable as single shots come, and is pretty fool proof.

If I'm stalking, the choice is carrying empty and loading before I take the shot, or if I just need to move a little, i open the lever and have my fingers under it, so that the striker can't reach the primer, even if something does go wrong.

Haven't heard from him in a while, but Robert Snapp, at Clare in (can't remember if it was michigan or minnesota) did some wonderful work on martini cadettes and BSA .22 Martinis, with re barreling up to .30-30. he also made rimless extractors to allow .222 and .223 re barreling.

Within the limitations of Barrel shank diameter the actions appear to be well capable of handling full pressure rounds, although I have heard tales of some bulged chambers on .30-30 head sized wild cats, zippers etc.

Warren Page in the "accurate Rifle" mentions a martini that used to win bench rest competitions in the 50's or '60s, however getting everything ballanced and aligned perfectly to the bore to be remotely competitive now would probably be a lifetimes work.