A rather fanciful depiction of the British "square" at the breaking point in the latter moments of the Battle of Isandlwana. In reality, the British did not form a classic infantry square and appear to have been overrun quite quickly.
WARNING----This post is extremely dense and if you aren't interested in this sort of thing, you'll hate every word. Seriously, turn back now while you still have a chance.
The Martini Henry rifle has always been a special kind of gun to me. I remember watching Zulu as a kid and reading about the battles of Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana later on when I clued in to the fact that Hollywood rarely represented history accurately. When I started to get into shooting as an adult, I started off with muzzle loading rifles and muskets but always had an eye out for antique arms like a Martini... but I resisted purchasing one because ammunition was far too hard to come by and I wasn't into metallic cartridge reloading at the time. As a matter of personal preference, I do not buy guns I do not intend to shoot.
A few years ago I started shooting handguns and quickly came to understand that reloading was a necessity for the sake of my wallet. I picked up a Lee classic cast press and started learning. I put two and two together pretty fast: now that I had the knowledge base and equipment to make my own ammo, I could also start making ammo for obsolete calibres too. The local gun shop where I lived at the time often had all sorts of neat antiques in stock and one day I was able to bring home a Martini of my own, a Mk IV from a collector who had recently passed away. He had spent a couple of years quite sick and many of his firearms were in a pretty neglected state. The Martini had a lot of surface rust, grime and a bore full of a delightful blend of grease and dust but after a few hours of gentle scrubbing and a light coat of oil I was left with a rifle that was in remarkably good shape for its age. The firing chamber was in great shape and the bore featured strong, bright rifling with no evidence of pitting. This was the first antique firearm that I bought and cleaned up so it was quite an experience getting the filthy old thing cleaned up and ready to shoot. The Mk IV Martinis were almost all shipped to India when they were completed as they were made concurrently with the early versions of the Lee Metford rifle that rapidly supplanted it in British service. Mine was probably rearsenaled at some point as a lot of the markings are very soft, but the finish is very nice with lots of bluing left and a rich patina where it's not.
But enough jabbering. Let's talk about the history of this rifle before discussing what a modern shooter needs to do to get its kind talking again.
Martini Henry Mk III, distinguished by the bayonet lug attached to the forward barrel band.
The Martini Henry infantry rifle was the breech loading rifle that the British Army wanted in the mid 1860s, but didn't really receive until a decade or so later. The British had adopted an interim design in the Snider Enfield conversion of the ubiquitous P1853, but the intention was to come up with a refined design as its ultimate replacement. By the late 1860s it had been concluded that smaller caliber bullets could travel faster, enabling greater range, accuracy and striking power. As such, the successor to the Snider would be firing a .45 calibre, 480 grain bullet on top of a long, narrow cartridge containing 70 grains of FFG black powder.
The small arms trials that ultimately settled on the design featured a veritable who's who of the British and international firearms industry-- big names like Westley Richards, Eley, Remington, Fosbery, Whitworth, Metford, Rigby and Henry (Alexander Henry the Scot, not Benjamin Henry the American) were all involved in this process. Hell, even Isambard Kingdom Brunel indirectly contributed to the process, via his collaborations on rifling design with Westley Richards and Whitworth. The entire process consisted of a trial, a focus group and a second trial. The first stage was held in 1867 and had about three dozen designs make it to the testing phase (out of over a hundred). Not a single design managed to function reliably with the provided ammunition, and several experienced catastrophic failures that showered the participants with bits of metal (in one instance, a rifle burst and scattered parts of its receiver up to a hundred yards away). Even Remington's proven rolling block design struggled with the cartridge design and it, too, blew up. Finally, there was also the embarassing incident in which Westley Richards, a Swiss army colonel named Martini and an American by the name of Peabody all showed up with rifles that appear to have had design aspects cribbed from one another (though to be fair, the foundation of their common design can be attributed to Peabody). This was not wholly without precedent either; numerous British gunsmiths ripped off Jacob Snider's patent on his breech system after the Snider debuted and used this as the foundation for military arms sold to other countries. After this debacle, the Ordnance Board convened a committee to meet and discuss the various aspects of the new rifle. It was staffed by many of the people who had submitted designs to the first trial.
Henry polygonal rifling, as adopted in the Martini Henry.
It was decided that the best way forward would be to identify the optimal barrel design, followed by tests to determine the best action. This process started in the spring of 1868 and continued into the following year. The end result married a barrel design credited to the Scotsman Alexander Henry with the mostly Swiss Martini action-- hence the name "Martini-Henry," though a more accurate full name is probably something like "Martini-Henry-Peabody-Westley Richards-Whitworth-Enfield-Metford..." and on and on and on. Credit may have gone to Messrs. Martini and Henry, but several other men had meaningful input into their designs as well so it can be said that the Martini Henry rifle is a child of many fathers.
The design was adopted in 1869 and by 1871 was being distributed throughout the British Army. It would take well over a decade for the pattern to be full adopted and some cavalry and artillery units in the British Army did not get replacements for their elderly Sniders until well into the 1880s. Martinis were distributed to many colonies as well-- militia units in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all received Martinis, as did British regiments on garrison duty in Canada, though by and large most Canadian units retained the Snider Enfields they received around Confederation in the late 1860s. The exceptions to this trend seem to have been the sole permanent duty militia unit in Canada, the Infantry School Corps (later to become the Royal Canadian Regiment) and a small number of Mk. III rifles that were imported by a Catholic bishop in Quebec to arm his personal guard. The vast bulk of the remainder were distributed to the large number of militia and public marksmanship clubs scattered across the country. Native Indian regiments only started to get Martinis in the very late 1880s and early 90s as the British Army transitioned to the Lee Metford/Enfield at the same time.
Much like the Snider Enfield, Martini Henry rifles were produced and sold on the civilian market. Boers bought them in substantial numbers during the late 1870s as tensions rose between them and the Zulus. Nepal attempted to reproduce them locally as it sought to modernize its army, with mixed results. The first attempts are now referred to as the Francotte Martinis and featured horribly inconsistent metallurgy that had an unnerving tendency to explode. These are readily available on the North American market, and are usually very inexpensive for that very reason. After this the Nepalese started buying large numbers of British made rifles, before finally inviting a bunch of experts from Birmingham to properly educate their indigenous gunsmiths. The resulting rifles, dubbed the Gahendras after the general that improved the design, are very well made but hand fitted and so parts are not always interchangeable between rifles. Incidentally, most of the Martinis in circulation in the US right now are of Nepalese extraction as they come from a large cache of small arms that had been in storage in Kathmandu since the late 1890s. Like many other British army small arms, the Martini Henry was heavily reproduced in the Khyber Pass region of Afghanistan. The quality of these copies varies wildly, as one might expect. Many of these have entered the North American market as bring backs from the Afghan theatre-- one of the most reliable indicators of a Martini being a Khyber copy is the markings. It is not uncommon to see backwards letters, misspelled words, horribly wrong date codes or outright gibberish on these rifles.
Beyond this, the Martini Henry became the basis for a wide array of civilian marksmanship rifles and was even used for hunting large African game. WW Greener made a line of Martini-based shotguns, and even a harpoon gun for use on large sport fish (or affixing large yellow barrels to one). Finally, the rifles saw some use in British service during the First World War as the large .577/450 Boxer Henry round was fitted with an incendiary bullet and sent aloft in airplanes to hunt the largest of all game: German zeppelins.
The service version of the rifle featured a remarkable array of variants in a relatively short span of time. There are four principal marks that were in widespread service, each one representing an incremental improvement on the version before it. In addition to this, each mark also often features a number of sub-patterns as further refinements were added. I do not intend to present an exhaustive account of each of these, as there are literally whole books that have been written on the subject and I'd be merely regurgitating them-- particularly given that the rifles themselves shared a broad array of characteristics that did not change much over the course of their service life. These include a 33.2" barrel, with seven groove Henry polygonal rifling. This was oriented in a right hand, 1 in 22" twist. The rifle version was not particularly heavy, especially for the time, weighing in at just over eight and a half pounds. The trigger weight is also surprisingly decent for the time, mine's about 6 pounds. The Snider Enfield also benefited from a tolerable trigger pull as well, the result of a remarkable degree of input from civilian marksmanship clubs in the small arms development process in the 1860s and 70s.
Broadly speaking, the changes made were mainly to remove the safety catches added to the first model and continual improvements to the extraction system, which was a recurring technical issue that the Martini is infamous for today. The best known versions are the Mk II and III rifles, which feature prominently in the 1964 film Zulu. The later Mk IV is distinguished by its long lever, which further improved the extraction system and allowed greater leverage to be applied to stubborn cases. This last major mark of Martini Henry is interesting because it is subdivided into three variants. This mark was initially developed to accept the new .402 Enfield round as a transition into the .303 chambered arms that were coming in the next few years. More economically minded heads prevailed, and this plan was abandoned on account of the expense and needless headaches it would cause for logisticians, as it would require the logistics chain to keep at least three, possibly four ammunition types around in quantity for the needs of the service (remember, .577 Snider was still used by some cavalry and artillery units). Even though this plan was scrubbed, thousands of .402 chambered rifles were completed, showing that it wasn't just an idle flight of fancy in certain circles of the Army. These rifles were taken in hand and converted into bog-standard Martini Henrys, with the conversions comprising types A and B (Mk IVCs being entirely new-made). Mine is a Mk IVB as its receiver shows signs of having been converted from a .402 version on the basis of its date stamp.
Alongside the infantry rifles, shorter carbine variants for cavalry and artillery regiments were also eventually produced though in most cases these were not adopted in regular service until the mid 1880s. As is common with many types of British army small arms, early patterns were often updated to more modern ones. Consequently, true Mk I Martini Henry rifles are rather scarce and most of those known to exist come from the stock of Mk I rifles purchased by the government of Canada, which in those days was not too concerned about keeping its kit up to the most current standards (spoiler alert: it still isn't).
Enfield style rifling, along with the rounded Metford rifling. The latter was rounded to reduce fouling when firing black powder, but on the adoption of faster smokeless powder this was observed to erode very rapidly (i.e. less than 10k shots). Enfield rifling was remarkably robust and in the Snider Enfield rifle was observed to endure upwards of 70k shots.
Beyond these, the Martini action was also mated to a .303 barrel to create a rifle for rear-echelon and colonial troops as the army increasingly switched over to the new cartridge. Both Enfield and Metford rifling was used for this purpose and the resulting hybrid rifles were classified as either Martini-Enfields or Martini-Metfords as a result.
The .577/450 Boxer Henry cartridge:
As mentioned earlier, the cartridge for the Martini featured a 480 grain, .45 calibre bullet on top of an 85 grain powder charge and fired with a Boxer primer. Much like the rifle itself, this cartridge went through several iterations as the Royal Laboratory figured out what worked. The first version was a very long straight walled cartridge and was probably responsible for many of the catastrophic failures demonstrated during the first trials. In particular, the failure of the otherwise reliable Remington Rolling Block rifle is almost certainly attributable to the fact that minimal changes to the design appear to have been made other than to ream out a few examples to accept the very long trials cartridge. For this and several other reasons, the cartridge was redesigned to feature both a taper and a long bottleneck (NB: there are a number of bottlenecked cases that came into existence around the same time, so the Martini Henry's ammunition was not the first though it is certainly an early example). This had the advantage of making the case much shorter and the taper made it easier to extract, particularly if the chamber got dirty.
L to R; .577 Snider, brass foil .450 Boxer Henry round, drawn brass .450 Boxer Henry round, .303 British cartridge (probably Mk VII ball).
The earliest versions were made from a rolled brass foil with an iron case head, but fouling and heat could make these prone to jamming. As the case head and body were not of the same material, the two components were known to separate, leaving the body in the firing chamber (and hellishly hard to remove). By the end of the 1870s the cases were instead made from drawn brass, which was both easier to extract and less prone to tearing. Incidentally, this is the root of the myths surrounding the Martini and jamming. It is commonly stated that a jammed case could be removed with a bayonet, but this is not supported by the broad tip of the spike then in use, or the relatively tight spaces in and around a Martini firing chamber. Instead, the two most likely stoppages were the wrinkled foil case binding on powder fouling in the chamber, seizing the action tight. As the extractors of the design were never strong (particularly in the Mk I-III models), this would have been difficult to clear. Zulu veterans of Isandlwana mention seeing British soldiers kicking or stepping on their rifles-- certainly, bracing the butt of the gun against the ground with a boot and then pulling up on the lever would provide much greater power into the extractor. This has the potential to clear a stuck case, but it is just as likely to cause a case head separation and leave the body stuck in the chamber-- clearing this kind of jam often involves the cleaning rod, a hammer, oil, and luck (and cursing, if we're honest). Regardless, it's not something done quickly.
My own .577 Snider and .577/450 Martini Henry rounds, both made from reformed 24ga brass shot shells. .450 Boxer Henry is the official military designation, loaded to an official "standard," while .577/450 Martini Henry is a civilian designation for a wide array of loads.
Towards the end of the rifle's front line service life, the Martini Henry cartridge changed yet again to utilize a drawn brass case more similar to something that we would recognize today. Modern reproductions almost exclusively tend to be made with this method, though some particularly puritanical marksmen have been known to solder their own rolled foil cases, mostly for the challenge of doing it. It's not something that I practice, but my cap's off to anyone that heads down that particular rabbit hole.
As the design of the cases themselves changed, so too did the charge. This was reduced not long after the first carbines were issued as it was noted that the recoil coming from these shorter, lighter arms with a standard cartridge was just downright punishing. I can attest that even with a full rifle, an 85 grain standard charge generates a stiff recoil. This carbine load, of 75 grains, is far more pleasant to shoot. The projectile changed somewhat over time as well, transitioning from a paper patched bullet to a greased version. Despite the reduction the Martini had quite a reputation during its service life for punishing unwary recruits and young cadets.
The effectiveness of the round is worthy of discussion. Its immediate predecessor, .577 Snider, had a reputation for causing horrific wounds on account of later versions of the type being loaded with what was functionally a hollow point round. In addition, the sheer mass of the bullet pulverized bones and often necessitated amputation if a victim was struck in the arm or leg. Observations made in Africa by army surgeons indicate that the .450 Boxer Henry round could achieve much the same effects out to three hundred yards or so. Contemporary accounts from British soldiers appreciated the improved ballistics over the Snider and also noted the power of the weapon-- indeed, when the first .303 Lee Metfords made their way to the North West Frontier at the beginning of the 1890s the troops issued them pined for their old Martinis as it was felt that the comparatively miniscule new round was anemic and not up to the task of subduing enraged Pashtuns. That being said, it is easy to overstate how powerful these rounds really were (I am certainly guilty of it, owing to an imperfect understanding of this subject). Large, heavy bullets like the Martini's can cause significant tissue damage and absolutely pulverize bones when they are struck, but in reality this does not translate into the single hit murder machine that some might be familiar with from games like BF1. There are numerous recorded cases of Zulu veterans proudly displaying scars on their torsos from Martini Henry rounds that failed to kill them at Isandlwana or Rorke's Drift. Indeed, we know today that the impi that attacked Rorke's Drift marched away with at least a couple of hundred walking wounded (the four or five hundred wounded left on the field that did not die of their wounds were subsequently massacred by vengeful soldiers of the British column that wasn't wiped out at Isandlwana). I think the takeaway here is that what matters most is where a target is struck, rather than if they are hit.
Loading and firing a Martini Henry is remarkably simple because there are only two controls that the shooter needs to concern himself with (beyond the universal cares like safety or hitting your target): the lever, and the trigger. Early Mk I Martinis have a safety catch that is located on the right side over the trigger, this was removed after 1874. This is a marked departure from the rifle's predecessor, the Snider, on which the shooter had to manipulate the hammer and practice a two stage extraction motion to clear the chamber for another shot. It is also much easier to insert a cartridge into than the Snider, which has a small step leading into the firing chamber that can catch on a case and prevent easy loading. This translates into something like a 10-15% increase in rate of fire over the Snider, assuming that one doesn't take any shortcuts, like holding ready cartridges in one's off hand or mouth. It doesn't sound like much, but applied to the company level or more, that represents a pretty serious jump in fire on a target. A teardrop shaped cocking indicator is also found on the right side of the receiver, if it is pointing to the rear the rifle is cocked.
The long lever of a Mk IV rifle. This remarkably simple fix resolved a lot of the rifle's extraction problems but came very late in its life cycle.
De-cocking a Martini can be done on an empty chamber (and indeed should be done to ease the springs). This is accomplished by opening the lever to its fullest extent and then activating the trigger. It is advised that if you do this, you remove your fingers from the small of the butt or you will experience something much like pulling the trigger of a lever action BB gun with the lever open. As those enlightened souls who have experienced the latter can attest, it is an event that a thinking man only endures once.
The sight ladder. Laying flat on its bed, it can be used to adjust yardage to 400 yards. Standing up, it can be calibrated for 1300 yards. At that distance, the trajectory of the bullet has a maximum height of about 130 feet over the target.
The sights of the Martini are crude by today's standards. The first three marks featured an Enfield-style front sight similar to that of the P1853 and Snider Enfield rifles. The fourth mark has a ramped barley corn sight. The rear sight is adjustable for yardage only and has one of the ubiquitous flip-up ladders common on military rifles of the period. Incidentally, the front sights of the first two marks also doubled as locking lugs for the long three edged, socketed, spike bayonet that had been in service in one form or another since the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Mk III and IV rifles have a lug attached to the front barrel band to allow the use of a new sword-type bayonet.
Things to be wary of if you want to shoot one:
Martini Henry ammunition hard to find if you want to buy factory-loaded ammo. Very few manufacturers make it today and it tends to be made in small batches that is both prohibitively expensive and hard to find. Kynoch made the last regular production ammunition but stopped with the beginning of the Second World War. This stuff is also expensive, though not unobtainable, but time has not been kind to it. Expect many hang fires should you attempt to fire your several-dollars-a-round purchase. Reloading is the most economical option (more on that later) though it presents challenges of its own.
The opened breech of a Mk IV Martini. This should lock up tightly when closed.
Be aware of what kind of Martini you have. As mentioned earlier, the earliest Nepalese Francotte Martinis are made with substandard steel and are unsafe to shoot. There are a lot of these in circulation thanks to the opening of the Nepalese cache by IMA, so they are out there. The various patterns have slightly different bore sizes as well, so it is worth your time to slug the bore and even cast the chamber to get a sense of what dimensions you are dealing with. Broadly speaking, the Nepalese cache guns can be divided into three main groups: British-made rifles (as good as their condition is), locally-made Francottes (never to be considered safe) and Gahendras (local, but well made--shootable with effort and research). The former can be identified by the British markings on the stocks and metal components-- these marks are well attested to on the internet and are easy to check out. The latter two types will be covered with Devangari script.
If you find one that you want to purchase and can inspect the rifle, pay close attention to three areas. The manner in which the rifle locks up when the breech is closed is very important as sloppy tolerance can be indicative of a lever in need of repair or replacement, or a totally unserviceable rifle. In particular, the fit between breech face and chamber should be tight when closed. Mine locks up nicely and will not admit a piece of loose leaf paper when closed. The next area to be concerned with is the axial split pin that is found on the upper rear of the receiver-- this is the pivot point for the block, and if the receiver is cracked in this area the rifle is unsafe to shoot as this is the main load bearing surface for the block when a round is fired. If this area is compromised, ugly things can happen. Finally, take the time to inspect the firing chamber. If you notice heavy pitting, that rifle is probably only good as a wall hanger without some serious repairs. Martini cases do expand noticeably on firing and irregularities in the chamber can cause a case to jam and as mentioned earlier, the extractors of the Martini weren't all that strong at the best of times. As always, if you are unsure take your rifle to a qualified gunsmith to be certain it is safe.
The tang of a Mk IV. Note the ahistorical repairs to reinforce this area.
Mk. III and IV rifles featured a metal hook that secured the long wooden forestock to the barrel. The wood in this area is prone to rot from age and overzealous oiling and the screws securing the hook can pull out. This is not a catastrophic problem, but it is annoying as hell and something worth watching out for. Mine required repairs in this area. The wood around the screws (and indeed, the screws themselves) had rotted badly and I wound up carving these areas out to replace them with wooden dowel plugs and modern screws. This did not result in a particularly stable repair either, so I finally bedded the tang with JB Weld and it hasn't moved since. This is NOT a repair job for a rifle with lots of historical provenance and I opted to go this route because my Martini is an excellent shooter, but with poor markings-- in essence, it had minimal collector or historical value in the first place to mar with a repair that is entirely out of sight.
Take time to look down the barrel and get an idea of the condition of the bore. If you are lucky, you can find examples with clear, bright and strong rifling (like mine). These are black powder guns more than a century removed from their period of service, so don't be surprised to find areas of pitting in the bore. These don't necessarily compromise the rifle, but they can affect accuracy. Naturally, pitting can also be found on external areas of the rifle-- mine has some spots on the barrel, right where the wood of the forestock ends. Again, this is not necessarily catastrophic. As always, if you have even an iota of concern about the safety of your rifle, take it to a smith and get it checked out.
Martini Henry rounds can be made at home with the right tools and materials for the job. While the predecessor .577 Snider cartridge can be reloaded without dies with a little careful planning, reloading the .577/450 Martini Henry round is made vastly simpler if you have a large frame press and a set of dies. These are massive constructions and require a very large opening in the press top to accept them. I use a Lee Classic Cast press with Lee dies and have no complaints though I know RCBS makes both presses and dies for the task as well. I do not know if Lee dies are compatible with other large frame presses for sure. The Lee dies also thoughtfully come with a shell holder. That said, the full length sizing die can be used to make new cases from shortened 24ga brass shotshells. This requires an initial trim, followed by gently pushing annealed and well-lubed cases into the sizing die until the case shoulder is formed. This process involves a lot of work and is well documented on YouTube-- I very strongly recommend that if you go this route to check out the videos by IV8888 and britishmuzzleloaders. Their videos are wonderful resources on the subject. The best source for brass seems to be the resized Magtech 24ga brass shells, though readymade brass can sometimes be found from Bertrams and other makers (it tends to be expensive). Personally, I just leave the resizing to someone else and buy mine ready made from Martyn Robinson at X-Ring Services. It's more expensive, but far less frustrating. In the Lee die set at least, the bullet seating die also has a crimp function that is a nice feature if neck tension is a priority.
In fact, I am not going to walk you through the reloading process because the videos cited are far better at explaining it. I will, however, add some notes regarding my experiences in reloading for this cartridge. So if you haven't watched the videos yet, take some time and do so or what I tell you next isn't going to make much sense.
IV8888's splendid and detailed step-by-step demonstration of case forming:
Britishmuzzleloader's superb comprehensive reloading video (part 1):
The powder used is open to preference. The original powder used was equivalent to Fg, but FFg is also acceptable, if snappy. The original load was 85gns and this really is the upper limit of what is practical and safe to load in this rifle. Most modern cases, but especially the resized shotshell brass, have a capacity far beyond this level so for the love of God don't do something dumb like fill most of the case up and compress it with the bullet. My powder preference is Triple Seven Gold, a modern FFg substitute that cleans up a lot easier than traditional black powder. It also stinks far less. I am told it is possible to use Trail Boss or even duplex smokeless/black powder loads but I have never done this and do not recommend it as it seems like an invitation to disaster to me. I have found that the 75gn carbine load is pleasant to shoot at 100m and accurate to boot, even with the faster FFg powder.
On measuring powder: much ink has been spilled over the years about the merits of measuring by volume or weight. Personally, I measure my powder by weight. This is mainly because the granules in black powder and its substitutes are irregular in shape, thus making it exceedingly difficult to get a consistent charge based on volume alone. An astute observer will note that many modern black powder flasks and volumetric measures are marked with grains. The grain is a measure of weight, not volume and I have observed that the actual weight of a charge from one of these devices will vary noticeably (up to 15%) depending on what kind of black powder you are using. During the development of the Martini Henry, the grain was the unit used to measure the powder charge for the rifle and so we will be consistent with history.
A jar of cream of wheat and pan of beeswax/vegetable shortening bullet lube.
The traditional loading used a grease "cookie" integrated into the wad column to keep the powder fouling in the barrel nice and soft. This greatly slows down the rate at which the rifling becomes full and caked with soot. However, I don't think this is entirely necessary in modern cartridges and can be eliminated if you are able to periodically clean the barrel between shots.
As for the wad column: both of the videos I have provided use lots of cotton batting and card discs. I have gotten great results from semolina or cream of wheat as a filler. Regardless of what you use if you take care to scrape bullet lube off the base of your bullets, there shouldn't be a whole lot of wadding stuck there and so I suspect the card discs are superfluous as well. What you use as a wad is a matter of personal preference, but I have made some observations that I will share. Fibrous, compressible fillers like cotton balls work well, but I have found that they can spit a bullet back out of a case when compressed if you don't have enough neck tension. Clumps of this stuff can also stick to the underside of a bullet and hinder accuracy. Non compressible fillers like cream of wheat or cornmeal do not seem to have this problem in my experience. Cotton balls also shred into little white wisps on discharge and drift on the breeze. Some might regard this as a distraction but I respectfully contend that if you cannot derive joy from filling a range with a cloud of choking grey smoke and shreds of cotton on a nice spring day you are probably in the wrong hobby.
An X-Ring Services bullet mold, compatible with Lyman handles. This particular mold is not strictly historical, but it casts a consistent bullet and the extra grease grooves allow a bullet to carry additional lube.
Bullet and lube: Much like the Snider Enfield, the Martini Henry's bore only reaches its nominal diameter in the last several inches of its length before the muzzle. This being so, using an oversized bullet is helpful to achieve the best accuracy. My Mk IV seems to really agree with the .476 calibre soft lead bullets I cast from an X-Ring Services mold. This version isn't entirely historical as it has extra grease grooves but in my experience this both softens the fouling in the barrel and eases the passage of the oversized bullet down an ever-narrowing bore. As for the lube, I have used two recipes. The first is a mixture of vegetable shortening and beeswax (melted together in a pot), somewhere around 50/50 with variation for temperatures at the range. I have also had good results from a mixture of beeswax and toilet gaskets. This sounds odd, but the large waxy round gaskets used to keep a shitter from leaking are very inexpensive and also more or less what goes into Alox bullet lube. It's soft, but seems to have a reasonably high melting point so it doesn't tend to run. I now reside in Alaska so a softer lube is preferable for the lower temperatures I shoot in though if you are shooting in South Africa or Arizona I am told a stiffer recipe will prevent your lube from melting and going where it oughtn't. In the case of a beeswax/shortening mixture, simply add more to make the lube softer. Either of these will, in concert with the black powder charge, a thick cloud of grey smoke that can stink up a range on a still day in a couple of shots.
Fun fact: toilet gasket/beeswax bullet lube, when prepared in a square pan for later use, can strongly resemble vanilla fudge. Gluttonous and unwary roommates will very quickly discover that it does not, in fact, taste at all like vanilla fudge.
More on that bullet: the originals were made from something like a 1:12 tin/lead mix, which is quite hard. It is by no means necessary to use bullets that stiff. I know people that use the classic Lyman alloy (1:20 tin/lead) and I personally use soft lead. The odds are very good that you will be casting these yourself, so if this is new to you take the time to look into how to efficiently cast lead bullets. I strongly recommend doing this activity outdoors in a well ventilated area. If your gums, tongue and lips turn blue and your joints start to swell and hurt, consult a doctor as you may be suffering from lead poisoning.
If you are willing to dedicate brass to an individual rifle, it is possible to reload the once fired brass and not bother with full length sizing, or even neck sizing in some instances. The dimensions of a Martini Henry firing chamber are shockingly loose by today's standards, but this is to compensate for the fouling issue that caused so much trouble throughout the service history of the rifle. This means that full length sizing puts a lot of strain on a case and work hardens it very quickly. If you are doing this regularly, you should also be annealing your cases. This can be circumvented by neck sizing to a looser tolerance than factory using a .480 Ruger sizing die (I think one of the .45 Colt dies could also work) if you are concerned about neck tension. Personally, I have had great results only sizing about half of the neck as that is all that really holds onto the bullet. Why work harden that which doesn't have to be? If you go down this route, you will still be annealing your cases if you want to minimize wear on the mouths or prevent neck splits. The other option is to simply keep reusing fireformed brass. My Mk IV can be reloaded at the range with a hand priming tool and absolutely no dies at all-- the bullet can be pushed in with a thumb to the last two grease grooves. If you've figured your charge and cream of wheat filler amounts right, you can get very consistent overall lengths this way. Simply use a small punch or thin nail and a hammer to drive out the spent primer, reprime and reload to your preference.
When I started shooting my Martini, I tended to seat my bullets very deeply into the case. This didn't create any radical pressure spikes, but it did seriously hamper my attempts to shoot accurately. The tapered nature of the Martini's bore really rewards a long overall length and a bullet seated well forward in the case neck. Figuring this out was the single biggest improvement I have made in accuracy so far. I went from consistently shooting about 15" high and to the right at 100 yards to being dead-nuts on at the same distance, with variations in vertical distribution in my groups being mainly attributable to the size of powder charge being used.
On Accuracy and the Sights:
If one was to load a batch of 85gn service ammunition for the Martini and shoot it at a distance of 100 yards, it would become rapidly apparent that your shots were landing very high. This is because despite what is indicated on the rear sight ladder, the Martini Henry is actually zeroed for a distance of around 250 yards. The carbine loads will still land slightly high at the same distance, but in my tests these were 3-4" off rather than 12" or more. To get on target at shorter ranges, the British soldier of the period was trained to use three different sighting techniques, called holds. The full hold, used at the optimal range of the rifle, places the tip of the front sight at the same height as the upper edge of the rear sight. The fine hold, used at close range, places the very tip of the front sight blade at the bottom of the notch of the rear sight. The half hold is useful at 150 yards or more and is exactly what it sounds like. None of this changes the fact that the Martini Henry's issued sights are very crude by modern standards. They are only adjustable for yardage and as stated, even this is deceptive. Fine adjustment of the sights can be accomplished with the use of a tool called a ventometer and a pencil to temporarily mark holdovers on the rear sights. In fact, the rear sight leaves on a lot of Martinis come pre-marked with holdovers on them to aid in this purpose-- they can be seen on the bottom of the leaf because the practice was to flip them upside down on their ladders when making fine adjustments while target shooting.
It is possible to upgrade the rear sight ladder using the ladder taken from a 1905 Mk II Ross rifle as it uses the same base. I have done this, but would like to point out that like most Ross rifle parts, those rear sights are hard to find and expensive when they are available. I've used them, and they work, but I have also found that my Martini was far more sensitive to what I was feeding it than what sights I had on it. An interesting side note regarding Ross sights: I got mine from a vendor in Texas. On arrival, I noted quickly that the sight was manufactured in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, which is about forty minutes away from where I grew up. It took a century for that sight to make its way home.
Like any black powder arm, the Martini Henry requires a fair bit of routine cleaning to keep it in decent shape and firing accurately. Black powder and substitute fouling is hygroscopic and attracts moisture from the atmosphere, holding it next to the steel of a rifle bore where it can work its evils unless cleaned away promptly. Traditionally this was accomplished with cleaning patches, the first few damped with spit while dry patches finished the job until the bore was clean. While the Martini's breech opens up, the feed ramp of the breech block does not permit its cleaning rod to pass straight through. This frustrates access to the breech itself and can make inspection a little tricky, but from a cleaning aspect it is easily circumvented with the use of pull-through cleaning tools like the modern bore snake. Hoppes makes two products that will do a decent job at removing fouling from a Martini barrel: the .45/.410 calibre shotgun snake works well, but the .460 (no. 24019) is the best option because its brush fits snugly in the bore of the rifle all the way down.
As stated earlier, the purpose of the copious amounts of grease used in the service loads served to help keep the powder fouling soft where it accumulated in the bore. Typically, the worst accumulation in a Martini Henry occurs just outside of the firing chamber and near the muzzle. I am told that these are areas of low pressure when the rifle is discharged and consequently they collect grime faster than elsewhere. Keeping the fouling soft reduces its buildup and makes it easier to clear away. In competition there are a number of tricks used to further soften the fouling. The first is to dip the bullet into a dollop of skin cream (I believe the current favourite is marketed as Udderly Smooth and which began its life as a treatment for irritated cattle teats). The second, and which is known to have been practiced by shooters at Bisley and elsewhere, is the use of a blow-tube to introduce a slight amount of moisture into the barrel between shots. There is no set pattern for such a devise, but the best version I have seen consisted of a sacrificial .577/450 case with the primer pocket bored out to admit some copper tubing, and to which a piece of surgical tubing attached. Between shots, the marksman inserts this device into the breech and blows a couple of lungfuls of air down the bore to keep everything soft.
I have drawn on a few sources to learn about this rifle and its peculiarities. I wholeheartedly recommend IV8888's and Britishmuzzleloader's videos on the subject-- the latter, in particular, goes very deep into period musketry practices and has a lot of extremely helpful information on getting Martinis to shoot accurately. Similarly, I recommend at least perusing, if not joining, the British Militaria Forums. The posters there are a veritable goldmine of information; some have been shooting Martinis for several decades and it shows. I'd also like to strongly recommend Martyn Robinson at X-Ring Services-- he makes bullet molds, cases and dies for several vintage military rifles, including the Martini Henry. I have purchased materials from him in the past and been very happy each time.
Lastly, my personal library features two books on the subject. First is Ian Skennerton's Small Arms Identification Series- .450 and .303 Martini Rifles and Carbines. This is a condensed and affordable source of armourer's instructions, detailed descriptions of official variants and historical data. The latter, which is far more comprehensive, is Malcolm Comm's splendid The Martini-Henry Note-Book. It's self published, and it shows a little in the editing but I do not think I have read a more detailed discussion of the Martini's history and the practicalities of shooting it anywhere. I strongly recommend both books if this is a topic that interests you.
All of this being said, a prospective shooter should be mindful of the fact that the service Martini Henry is not and never will be a 1 MOA rifle. It is noticeably more accurate than its immediate predecessor, but the design is very definitely dated. Even so it's fun as hell to shoot and it really rewards persistence and experimentation. I also very much appreciate how it sits at a nexus between really old guns and more modern ones: my Martini is far easier to clean than any of my muzzle loaders or my Snider, and yet has a lot of the same eye-watering, shoulder-crunching, smoky charm that they do. If you've made it this far, I salute your dedication and thank you for your perseverance.
Fearless fucked around with this message at 20:36 on Feb 24, 2018
|# ? Feb 24, 2018 09:05|
|# ? Jun 24, 2021 03:43|
Best thread in TFR! Transitional era firearm, fiddly handloading, bullet casting, Nova Scotian nationalism, and possibility of homemade cases.
...Cotton balls also shred into little white wisps on discharge and drift on the breeze. Some might regard this as a distraction but I respectfully contend that if you cannot derive joy from filling a range with a cloud of choking grey smoke and shreds of cotton on a nice spring day you are probably in the wrong hobby...
Butch Cassidy fucked around with this message at 13:42 on Feb 24, 2018
|# ? Feb 24, 2018 13:40|
Goddamn, seriously amazing write up.
Also well written. Laughed way to hard at your observations about the similarities (and lack thereof when ingested) between bullet lube and vanilla fudge.
|# ? Feb 24, 2018 14:54|
in the best possible way
One of my minor gun regrets was coming across a gorgeous .303 Martini (not sure which model) that looked about new, even though it was clearly unconverted and original military. Guessing one of the later guns they ever made. The guy didn't know what he wanted for it when I found it, couldn't come to any kind of agreement on it. Later I saw another jackass walking around the show proudly carrying it.
I have to slake my lust for a fine smoky big bore single shot rifle with my old converted Remington Rolling Block. But I very much understand every little bit of appeal of the Martini.
|# ? Feb 24, 2018 15:14|
Thanks for this thread. I pick up one of these every time I see one, give it a good look over, then put it back with a sigh because I know I'm not going to make bullets for it and don't want to have $500-1000 locked up in what would be a decorative item for me.
But someday I will get one with a strong VR imprint on the receiver. There's something about owning a gun that was distributed by Queen Victoria's army that makes my little Anglophile history geek heart flutter.
|# ? Feb 24, 2018 15:29|
|# ? Jun 24, 2021 03:43|
in the best possible way
A Martini Metford or Enfield is one of my white whales. They've got a startling array of local variants in and of themselves and were used to arm rear-echelon troops all across the British Empire (and beyond) right up to the 1920s.
Thanks for this thread. I pick up one of these every time I see one, give it a good look over, then put it back with a sigh because I know I'm not going to make bullets for it and don't want to have $500-1000 locked up in what would be a decorative item for me.
I rejected getting one for years because I figured out how hard it was to find ammo... but I also found that the knowledge base that exists around Martinis is utterly immense. There are large communities of shooters across the globe, including in South Africa where people never really gave up on the type. This is one of the best things about the internet: it has allowed extremely specialized knowledge like that to flourish and spread across the world.
Best thread in TFR! Transitional era firearm, fiddly handloading, bullet casting, Nova Scotian nationalism, and possibility of homemade cases.
Thank you. Not pictured but present is my filthy Nova Scotia Born & Raised coffee mug that my mother in law sent up for Christmas. As I see it, black coffee isn't hygroscopic, ceramic doesn't rust and penicillin is good for you.
Many thanks. Your analysis last night of the RC Gewehr 98 conversion was what prompted me to get off my arse and finally format and post the damned thing.
Also, I confess that I probably could have done more to prevent the accidental ingestion of bullet lube but part of me wanted to see if my cohabitants were as dumb as I feared. I learned eventually that they were very much moreso.
Fearless fucked around with this message at 18:57 on Feb 24, 2018
|# ? Feb 24, 2018 18:34|