Martini-Henry Mk I–IV
Martini Henry Mk IV.jpg
Type Service rifle
Shotgun (Greener Prison Variant)
Place of origin United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service history
In service 1871–1888
Used by United Kingdom & Colonies
Wars British colonial wars, Second Anglo-Afghan War, Anglo-Zulu War, First Boer War
Production history
Designer RSAF Enfield
Designed 1870
Manufacturer Various
Produced 1871–c.1891
Number built approx. 500,000–1,000,000
Variants Martini-Henry Carbine
Greener Prison Shotgun
Gahendra rifle
Weight 8 pounds 7 ounces (3.827 kg) (unloaded), 9 pounds, 4.75 ounces (with sword bayonet)
Length 49 inches (124.5 cm)

Cartridge .577/450 Boxer-Henry
Calibre .577/450 Martini-Henry
Action Martini Falling Block
Rate of fire 12 rounds/minute
Muzzle velocity 1,250 ft/s (380 m/s)
Effective range 400 yd (370 m)
Maximum range 1,900 yd (1,700 m)
Feed system Single shot
Sights Sliding ramp rear sights, Fixed-post front sights
(From Left to Right): A .577 Snider cartridge, a Zulu War-era rolled brass foil .577/450 Martini-Henry Cartridge, a later drawn brass .577/450 Martini-Henry cartridge, and a .303 British Mk VII SAA Ball cartridge.

The Martini-Henry was a breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle adopted by the British, combining an action worked on by Friedrich von Martini (in certain respects resembling, and sometimes claimed to be based on, the Peabody rifle developed by Henry Peabody), with the rifled barrel designed by Scotsman Alexander Henry. It first entered service in 1871 replacing the Snider-Enfield, and variants were used throughout the British Empire for 30 years. Though the Snider was the first breechloader firing a metallic cartridge in the British service, the Martini was designed from the outset as a breechloader and was both faster firing and had a longer range.

There are four classes of the Martini-Henry rifle: 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.[1] 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 accurate 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 their original chambering, the rifles fired a round-nosed, tapered head .458-inch, soft hollow-based lead bullet, wrapped in a waxed 'paper patch' giving a wider diameter of .460".in; it weighed 485 grains. It was crimped in place with two cannulas (grooves on the outside neck of the case), ahead of concave felt and glazed card wadding. This sat on top of the main powder charge inside a rimmed brass foil cartridge, 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 22 inches (560 mm). 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 onwards. The replacement was gradual so existing stocks of the old ammunition would be used up.

However, before this was complete, the decision was made to replace the Martini-Henry 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 and converted to 0.45 calibre and renamed Martini-Henry "A" and "B" pattern rifles. Some 0.303 calibre blackpowder 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 period in service, the British army were involved in a large number of colonial wars, most notably the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. The rifle was used by the company of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot present at Rorke's Drift. During the battle, 139 British soldiers successfully defended themselves against several thousand Zulus. The weapon was not completely phased out until 1904.

The weapon is partly blamed for the defeat[citation needed] of British troops at Isandlwana prior to Rorke's Drift (in addition to poor tactics and numerical inferiority)—while the Martini-Henry was state of the art, in the African climate the action tended to overheat and foul after heavy use. It would eventually become difficult to move the breech block and reload the rifle. After investigating the matter, the British Army Ordnance Department determined the fragile construction of the rolled brass cartridge, and fouling due to the blackpowder propellant, were the main causes of this problem. To correct this, the cartridge was switched from weak rolled brass to stronger drawn brass, and a longer loading lever was incorporated to apply greater torque to operate the mechanism when fouled. These later variants were more reliable in battle, although it wasn't 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/ ejection was finally achieved or discovered by Birmingham ammunition makers (KYNOCK). English hunters on various safaris, mainly in Africa, found the Martini using a cordite charge and a 500 grain full metal jacketed bullet effective against stopping creatures such as hippopotamus and other large dangerous game out to 80 yards away.

The nitro based/shotgun powders were used in Kynock'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. Also, due to the powder burning with less pressure inside the cartridge case, it preventing the brass cases from sticking inside the rifle's chamber (because they were not expanding to the extent that the original black powder loads did).

The rifle suffered from cartridge-extraction problems during the Zulu War (mostly due to the thin weak, pliable foil brass cartridges used, as 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, rendering the arm useless in the heat of battle); however, it remained a popular competition rifle at National Rifle Association Meetings, at Bisley in Surrey, and (NRA) Civilian and Service Rifle matches from 1872–1904, 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 900yard cartridge, as shooting the Martini out to 1,000 yards or (3/4 of a mile) was difficult to say the least, 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, it was found to be much more accurate, and thus the interest in the .577/450 fell away, to the point that by 1909 virtually nobody was using them at Bisley matches, favouring to shoot the more up to date Lee Enfield bolt action magazine rifles.[2]

[NB] During World War I, Mk4 Martini-Henrys were used with spitzer-tipped incendiary bullets to attempt to shoot down German Zeppelins with that were dropping bombs on London. Back 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), that it was really only capable of hitting a man sized target out to 400yrds, this is because after 300yards the bullet fired from a .45" Martini goes sub-sonic and gradually loses speed thereafter, which in turn affects consistency and accuracy of the bullet in flight. The 415 grain Martini Carbine load introduced in 1878 shot better out to longer ranges, had less recoil when it was fired in the rifles instead with its reduced charge of only 75 grains of Curtis & Havey's, but was found that whilst the rifle with its 485 grain bullet shot point of aim to 100 yards that 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 500yrds. [3]. Because of these early lessons that were learnt tactics had to be evolved around the apparent limitations of this large slow & heavy calibre during the Zulu War. And 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 performances of a .577/450 are 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 the edge on the power stakes as it holds an extra 15 grains more black powder inside the cartridge case. Its quite clear from early medical field surgeons reports that at 200yards the rifle really came into its own, and inflicted devastating and horrific wounds on the Zulus that fought at battles like Rorke's Drift.[4] Interestingly 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 an enemy's artillery position or a known massed cavalry position, prior to a main fight. This was designed as a weapon/tactic of fear to harass enemy gun positions and to prevent enemy infantry from attacking or having thoughts of attacking too early. 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.

A rare shotgun variant known as the Greener Prison Shotgun was chambered in a special round that would make this weapon useless to anyone who stole it.[5] An example can be seen at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.[6] 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.

A variant known as the Gahendra rifle was produced locally in Nepal.[7] Acquired in the 1870s, the design was somewhat more advanced than the baseline Martini-Henry, but the rifles were produced 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 by 1906.[7]

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 attempting to shoot down observation balloons and other aircraft. In this role, newly manufactured incendiary ammunition was employed. Martini-Henrys were also used in the African and Middle Eastern theatres during World War I, in the hands of Native Auxiliary troops.

Turkish Peabody-Martini rifles

Unable to purchase Martini-Henry rifles from the British, Turkey purchased identical weapons from the Providence Tool Company in Providence, Rhode Island, USA and used them in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878).[8][9]

Operation of the Martini action

Section of Martini-Henry lock.
Martini-Henry rifle.
A: ready for loading.
B: loaded and ready to fire.

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.

See also


  1. ^ Rifles of Advanced Age Remain in Use in Afghanistan
  2. ^ Greener, W.W..The Gun & its Development, 9th Edition, 1910.
  3. ^ Calver, Richard E.. The Home Loader. 2009.
  4. ^ Grieves, Adrian. Rourke's Drift, 2003.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b Walter, John (2006). Rifles of the World (3rd ed.). Iola, WI: Krause Publications. p. 147-8. ISBN 0896892417. 
  8. ^ M1874 Turkish Peabody-Martini: (types "A" and "B")
  9. ^ "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
  • Military Heritage did a feature on the Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle (Peter Suciu, Military Heritage, August 2005, Volume 7, No. 1, pp. 24 to 27), ISSN 1524-8666.
  • Small Arms Identification Series No 15: .450 & .303 Martini Rifles And Carbines (Ian Skennerton, Arms & Militaria Press) ISBN 0949749443.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, "Gunmaking", 1905 edition
  • Official Report of the Calcutta International Exhibition, 1883–84, Military Exhibits.

External links

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