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Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous Boer War trophy rifle brought back by a Canadian soldier.

It's an 1896 Martini-Henry "improved version" made by the British firm Westley Richards on contract to ZAR - the Zuid Afrikaanshe Republiek (The Transvaal or South African Republic of the Boers, under President Paul Kruger.)

Westley Richards had these rifles manufactured by Auguste Francotte in Liège, Belgium for the Boer Republic at a time that relations between the Boers and the British were still good.

And they are so stamped on the right side of the receiver: "Made Specially for ZAR."

The manufacturer described them as "No. 2473 Westley Richards Improved Martini-Henry rifle with indicator in block and side screw." 

These are illustrated below.


Martini-Henry, Westley Richards, for ZAR - 1896
Orig. rifle - Size - 1.26 m
Found - London, ON

M 1895 Westley Richards Martini-Henry, 1896

The Westley Richards M1895 Improved Martini-Henry for the ZAR Government

Canadian volunteers were eager to get a Boer rifle as a trophy to bring home. This is such a trophy rifle, possibly captured at Paardeberg where many hundreds of Boer rifles were surrendered, and probably hidden in a transport wagon.

The Martini-Henry had been the standard British military rifle for decades - a single-shot rifle firing a huge .450 calibre round, chambered into a highly distinctive breech block.

 

The action - the mechanics for loading, firing, and ejecting the bullet - had been designed by Friedrich von Martini, a Swiss; the rifling of the barrel by Alexander Henry. Hence it became the Martini-Henry.

Rifles of the time often had dual names, giving each inventor billing. Hyphenated names showed up in various combinations as different actions and rifling were tried.

 

 

The big improvement in the Westley Richards rifle, over other military Martini-Henrys, was the use of the Francotte patent breech mechanism, which incorporates a feature not found on other Martinis: the entire action could be removed at once simply by unscrewing the large screw at the front right bottom of the receiver.

This necessitated repositioning the external cocking indicator found on other Martinis. Francotte placed the cocking indicator inside the breech, a lever that was recessed between the right wall of the breech block and the receiver wall. When the rifle was cocked the indicator would stick straight up.

The ability to remove the entire action easily was probably to permit frequent and easy cleaning in the extremely dusty climate of South Africa.

Left the distinctive Auguste Francotte (of Liège, Belgium) stamp of a crown over AF.

Apparently the ZAR had placed a sizable order for the improved rifles but the Jameson Raid of 1896 showed the necessity for a more modern, smokeless, repeating rifle. So German Mausers were ordered as replacement upgrades.

So only some 10,000 rifles were ever delivered to the ZAR with the production run being stopped due to the growing estrangement between Boer and Brit. So the ZAR Republic switched to more modern, more accurate, magazine loading Mausers from Germany.

But Boer farmers loved the Martini-Henry with its rhino stopping .450 cartridge, its authoritative boom, and its huge cloud of smoke.

But it was a single shot, and slow to operate, compared to magazine loading rifles like the German Mauser which many younger Boers were making a huge reputation with. And the Mauser used smokeless powder so the Tommies were complaining they couldn't even see where the Boer fire was coming from.

The British too, finally abandoned the Martini-Henry in favour of the Lee-Metford, which also was using a magazine to load cartridges faster. During the Boer War the Martini was mostly used as a second string weapon.

 

Left the essential Francotte cocking mechanism in a slot between the breech block and the receiver wall.

When not cocked the small lever falls back into the slot.

On the bottom right is the pin, with the screw on the far side, which allowed you to pull out the action as a unit to allow for efficient and frequent cleaning.

Both were innovations with this rifle.

In spite of the improvements the day of the single shot military rifle were over.

A unique feature of our rifle is the row of knife cuts spaced along the top of the butt. They are totally different in pattern than any other random gouges anywhere on the rifle.

Very likely they are tally marks for kills made with a knife.

They are rocked across the angle of the butt exactly where an adrenalin high, right-handed rifleman would cut them to keep count. All are roughly the same length, start and end at the same horizontal positions, and end with points where the knife blade tapered off the cutting.

Many of these rifles were captured when Boers surrendered. Hundreds were then piled up and burned.

Others were taken as souvenirs by soldiers to take back something to show the folks. Infantry soldiers could hardly carry souvenir rifles on the march. But members of the Army Service Corps, who drove transport wagons could easily find a spot for a souvenir rifle.

Left, what the Boers were shooting at - foreign invaders of their homeland. (Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

That's Canadian James Diffey, far left, and pals during the Boer War in South Africa.

James was in the Army Service Corps, not a fighting unit, but a support and transport arm for the front line soldiers.

Probably his colleagues are also non fighting soldiers, probably wagon drivers.

They are all carrying single-shot, old style Martini-Henrys, not the newer, magazine loading Lee-Metfords that the fighting troops got.

They are also short carbine rifles, designed for cavalry use, and much easier to carry about than the longer and heavier full length rifles like the Westley Richards featured here.

Perhaps James has a captured rifle stuffed into his wagon box...

Go to James Diffey's war

Martini-Henry Rifle - Technology of War 1

1 3 5 7 9 11
2 4 6 8 10 12
The Classic Martini-Henry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Martini-Henry was the standard British army infantry weapon from 1871 into the 1890s. After 1888, it was phased out in favour of the Lee-Metford, a magazine loading rifle, which was the British army's main firearm in the Boer War..

The classic Martini-Henry breech, showing the long lever that drops down the grooved top of the block to open access to the chamber for sliding in the huge .450/577 calibre round.

The teardrop shaped tab is used to indicate if the rifle is cocked or not.

This external indicator was replaced by the Francotte internal indicator in the improved ZAR models made by Westley Richards.

Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996-1999-2005

The Mauser & the Lee-Metford
The magazine rifle had just been developed to super efficiency in the 1890s. Early in the century, muzzle-loaders were the chief military weapon for the foot soldier. The powder, the ball, the wadding, were all individually dropped, in turn, down the smoothbore barrel and then jammed in with a ramrod.

By the 1870s, bullet and powder were being manufactured as a single unit, in a casing or shell, with a detonating primer in the rear. But each cartridge still had to be loaded and shot singly.

The smoothbore musket, had also given way to the "rifle" when it was discovered that a bullet with spin - by adding spiraling grooves inside the barrel - would travel farther, faster, truer, and with more penetrating power.

The reenactors shown left are on actual Anglo-Boer battlefield locations including Biddulphsberg and Talana Hill, and at Onze Rust, OFS President Martinus T. Steyn's family farm near Bloemfontein.

The Martini-Henry (below), had been the service rifle of the British Empire from 1871 to almost 1900. It was the first rifle designed from the ground up as a breech-loading metal cartridge rifle for the British Army.

This rugged weapon was designed as a lever action rifle by Friedrich von Martini of Switzerland. Pulling the lever down, dropped the block, and allowed one to slide a cartridge along the groove in top of the lowered block right into the chamber. Lifting the lever raised the block over the rear of the chambered cartridge and pushed the hammer back.

For more info visit Jason Atkin at www.martinihenry.com

The magazine rifle had then been developed, so that instead of loading single bullets, pre-loaded clips, or magazines, could be carried. The rate of fire of a rifleman had increased dramatically.

The state-of-the-art rifle of the 1890s was the German Mauser rifle, which the Boers adopted wholesale.

The British adopted the Lee-Metford magazine rifle in 1888, and began to phase out the older single-shot Martini-Henrys.

Many Boer farmers, like J. Bijeleveld and "Oom" Frederik of Dullstroom (left), were not "into" the latest in technology and still preferred to use their trusty, single-shot, Martini-Henrys, with its huge bullets, that boomed and belched a big cloud of smoke.


Smokeless Powder

Chordite: In the old days muskets were used, and only really effective at close range of around one to two hundred yards. Men would have to advance out in the open against an approaching foe. So it took steely nerve to walk into the face of hundreds of men ready to unleash a massive volley against your unprotected front.

As rifles and better bullets propelled by better powders became available, riflemen could shoot from further and further away. During the American Civil War there were stories of men shooting at a mile or more. Rifles could now be used from concealed positions. The sniper was born.

There was still a problem. The sniper's position was easy to figure out with binoculars because a tell-tale puff of smoke revealed his position. But man's inventive genius soon had a solution for that as well. And the Boers were the first to capitalize on it.

Crack and Boom: In the clip above we feature a Boer shooting a "smokeless" Mauser and one shooting an old-style Martini-Henry which many of them still used because of its power to stop big game when hunting meat for the family. Instead of the "crack" of the Mauser it made a deeply satisfying "boom." But it also sent out a huge tell-tale puff of smoke. And unlike the Mauser which was loaded with clips, the Martini was a slow-shooting single shot rifle.

On the left are a huge, new Martini-Henry cartridge, and a relic from the Boer trenches at Magersfontein. Probably it spewed out death to a British Tommy at dawn on Dec. 11, 1899. Beside it is a Boer Mauser shell found on the battlefield at Hart's River. On the far right is a Lee-Metford cartridge found at Hart's River.

Also shown for comparison is a Canadian pom-pom 1 pounder machine gun shell from Hart's River, and a ball from one of Lord Methuen's shrapnel shells which exploded over the Boer trenches at Magersfontein the day before the battle.

Probably the pom pom shell was fired from the Canadian pom-pom below, photographed just a few days before the Battle of Hart's River.

 

Canadian Trooper Uniforms

Canada's First Contingent had been infantrymen. Lord Roberts soon saw that what he needed was mounted troopers if he hoped to catch the highly mobile Boers on their ponies.

Uniforms can be used to identify the unit, and perhaps even the name, of a soldier, who one typically finds on an anonymous photo or CDV.

A good example is our "mystery trooper" right, on a huge tempera painting found at an antique market, but with no name attached.

Our mystery soldier's hat gave him away as a "Boer War trooper" which was confirmed further by his bayonet, a Lee-Metford, Pattern 1888 MK 1, "Type 2" no less! It was standard British issue in service from 1888 till 1903. (Details below.)

An informed and watchful viewer George F. Kush UE, CD of Calgary, AB, narrowed the trooper down even further, to being a member of Canada's 2 CMR (Canadian Mounted Rifles).

We are grateful to George for his observations, and explanations on how he came to identify the "Mystery Trooper."

Pistols of the 2CMR

"The trooper is certainly a member of the 2nd Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles. Note the trooper's holster and revolver. Only the 2CMR's used the "Mexican-loop" holster, and they used it with the Colt Model 1878 DA "New Frontier" revolver. Note the revolver's "bird's head" grip - it is positively a Model '78.

George is referring to the unique shadow pattern of the butt which could only come from the unique shape of the "bird's head" revolver.

"While Col. Lessard of the 1st Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles believed that handguns were unnecessary, Col. Evans of the 2CMR considered revolvers an excellent addition, ideal for scouting and close-quarter work.

"While the officers of the 2CMR carried their revolvers in closed holsters, the men used the Mexican-loop style. These holsters were supplied by Great West Saddlery of Winnipeg & Calgary and Alberta Saddlery of Calgary. While some of the revolvers were chambered for .44 WCF the majority were chambered .45 LC.

 

 

 


"Over the years I've had an opportunity to examine a great deal of material connected to the 2CMR and while I can't be 100% certain, I'm 99.9% confident that the trooper is a member of that organization. The fact that the painting surfaced here in western Canada also lends support to my position."

Left a Colt 1878 Double Action New Frontier revolver, and above a "Mexican Loop" type of holster (modern style, not Boer War.)

The "loop" refers to the leather bands outside the holster proper, which could be either single, double, or triple.

The trooper above is carrying either a single or double Mexican loop holster, a rig which originated in Northern Mexico in the 1870s and by 1900 was in widespread use across the northwestern USA and western Canada. The loops are what sharp-eyed George Kush spotted in the Trooper portrait.

He is clearly also carrying the Lee-Metford Mark I Type II bayonet, with its telltale close-set twin rivets set towards the blade.

The portrait also provides clues about the type of bandolier the troops were issued with.