The Martini-Henry rifle was approved for service at the same time that Great Britain was beginning a rapid expansion of her worldwide empire. It would serve with distinction from the snows of Canada to the burning deserts of the Sudan and on to the mountains of Afghanistan. Many of history’s most fierce warrior nations were pacified by rapid-fire volleys of Martini-Henry rifles in the hands of a stolid “thin red line” of British Tommies.
The saga of the Martini-Henry rifle begins in 1862 when Henry Peabody of Boston, Massachusetts, patented a breech-loading rifle with a hinged trigger guard that lowered and raised the breechblock. Spent cartridges were ejected automatically as the breech dropped and a fresh cartridge could be slid into the chamber quickly. Fired by an outside, musket-style hammer that had to be manually cocked, it was a simple, robust mechanism.
In 1866 Friederich von Martini replaced the hammer with a spring-loaded striker/firing pin assembly inside the breechblock and used a separate lever to lower the breechblock. Martini entered his rifle in British trials, and after extensive field testing it was adopted on June 3, 1871, as the “Rifle, Breech-loading, Martini-Henry Mark I.” The “Henry” part of the designation comes from the Henry-style rifling used in the barrel.
The Mark I used a two-piece stock that was held in place by two barrel bands and a long through-bolt that secured the butt into a socket at the rear of the receiver.
In use the Martini was simplicity personified. The shooter pulled down the operating lever, lowering the breechblock; a cartridge could be slid down the grooved top of the breechblock into the chamber; the lever was pulled up, cocking the striker and locking the breech closed. The only safety device was a teardrop-shaped cocking indicator on the right side of the receiver that pointed to 10 o’clock when the striker was cocked and to 12 o’clock after firing.
The Mark I was chambered for “Cartridge SA Ball Boxer 0.45 inch Martini-Henry Rifle Short Chamber 85 grain” (whew!). Better known as the .450 Martini, it was a rimmed, bottlenecked round containing a 480-grain paper-patched lead bullet and 85 grains of blackpowder, which produced a muzzle velocity of 1,350 fps. The Boxer-style case was made up of layers of coiled sheet brass with a paper liner attached to a rimmed iron base. The .450 Martini became known for its brutal knockdown power, even against the most fanatical opponents.
Field use showed problems with the ammunition, recoil, overheating, and the bayonet. The coiled brass cartridge was susceptible to deformation, and when fired in very hot rifles (a common situation when using volley fire in the tropics or desert regions), the thin brass sometimes adhered to the chamber and prevented ejection. Soldiers were forced to pry the empty case out of the chamber, which often resulted in the iron base tearing off and leaving the coiled brass case stuck in the chamber.
Because the Martini’s straight-grip stock and short butt tended to accentuate recoil, the shooter’s right thumb had a tendency to come into painful contact with his nose. The rifle did not have a handguard, which meant that after firing volleys at a rapidly closing enemy, Tommy Atkins had to grab the hot barrel to use the bayonet.
The Mark II rifle was adopted in 1877 and featured a modified rear sight, operating lever, trigger mechanism, breechblock, and lengthened buttstock (to help reduce the effects of recoil). Two years later the Mark III rifle was adopted, it being little more than a Mark II with a modified forearm and smaller cocking indicator.
In addition to the Enfield arsenal, British Martini-Henry rifles were produced by Birmingham Small Arms (BSA), London Small Arms Co., Beardmore Engineering Ltd., and Henry Rifled Barrel Co. Production of Mark II and III rifles, for both government and foreign orders, continued at Enfield and BSA until 1889.
In 1885 the British army adopted the “Cartridge SA Ball BL for Martini-Henry Rifle .45 inch (Solid Drawn Case).” At the same time an improved extractor was adopted, and the Martini’s ammunition-related problems virtually disappeared.
In the late 1880s, the British designed a .402-caliber cartridge for an updated Martini rifle that featured a strengthened receiver and a longer operating lever for more positive extraction. While the resulting Enfield-Martini, Mark I was approved for service, only 65,000 were made before production was canceled in 1887 due to the decision to adopt the .303 Lee-Metford repeating rifle. Most of the .402 rifles were re-bored to .450 and designated the Martini-Henry, Mark IV.
The various models of the Martini-Henry were used in every war and military expedition that the British army conducted from 1872 through the 1890s. Even after the adoption of the Lee-Metford and later Enfield rifles, colonial forces in Africa and India were equipped with Martinis until the end of World War I.
The Martini action proved to be strong enough to handle smokeless powder cartridges, and between 1890 and 1903 large numbers of rifles and carbines were fitted with .303-caliber Metford, and later Enfield, style barrels. These guns were used as training rifles as late as the Great War.
Shooting A Martini-Henry Mark II
For test-firing, my friend Vince DiNardi lent me a Mark II rifle made by BSA in 1888. It is in very good condition with a worn but clean bore; 10-X Ammo (www.tenxammo.com) was kind enough to provide a supply of .577-450 Martini cartridges sufficient to my purposes. As I prefer to err on the side of caution with these old rifles, test-firing was performed at a moderate 50 yards.
Settling down behind my shooting rest, I lowered the breechblock, slid a thumb-sized cartridge into the chamber, and closed the breech. Taking careful aim (with my thumb properly located), I proceeded to touch off rounds. I fired three groups, the best being a perfectly centered 3.75 inches.
While the American Pioneer Black Powder substitute propellant produced only a small amount of smoke, the recoil generated by the 480-grain bullet left no doubt that I was firing an authoritative round! When I gave the operating lever a good jerk, spent cases were thrown clear of the receiver.
The Martini-Henry I fired showed itself to be a simple, rugged, and sufficiently accurate battle rifle. In the hands of disciplined British troops, it showed that it could do what was needed to be done—and then some!