|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
|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|