The British Martini Henry Rifle

  1. christophereger
    One of the most iconic rifles of the late 19th century was the Martini-Henry. While it didn't have anything to do with the drink, this very British design (with American undertones) was revolutionary for its time and is still an affordable collectable today.

    The Design of the Martini

    To understand where the Martini rifle started at, one needs to look at the 1862-era rolling block rifle of Henry O. Peabody from Boston, Massachusetts. Good old Henry O tried to get his rifle worked out for ready sales to the Union Army in the Civil War but just missed out. He did however sell about 15,000 of his Peabody rifles, nice single shot breech-loaders with a lever action that loaded and extracted the cartridge, to Switzerland. It was in Switzerland that Friedrich von Martini took the basic design, added a toggle moved by the rifle's striker, added it to the barrel designed by Scotch gunsmith Alexander Henry, and produced the Martini-Henry rifle in 1871.


    The rifle was simple and easy to operate. Instead of muzzleloading rifles that took even a skilled soldier 15 seconds and a half dozen movements to load, all one had to do with the Martini was drop the lever by the trigger which opened the breech, slide a one-piece brass cased cartridge into it, and close the lever before pulling the trigger to fire. This meant that the average rifleman could fire amazing 12-rounds per minute, which for 1871 was the equivalent of a machinegun today. Since the 485-grain .577/450 caliber Boxer-Henry brass cartridges replaced paper cased loads, the shots were more consistent and accurate with effective hits on man-sized targets out to 400-yards expected. Volley sights, raised like a ladder with the intention of producing plunging fire at great distances to 'keep the enemies head down' allowed rainbow trajectory rounds to be fired as far as 1900-yards distant.

    The lever behind the trigger guard arches downward and opens the breech that the 20-gauge sized .577 round slips into. Closing the lever closes the breech.

    Overall, the rifle weighed in at 9.25-pounds with the impressive sword bayonet mounted and stood at just over 49-inches long. While this sounds like burden when compared to the 35-inch 7-pound M4 of today, the dimensions listed were typical of battle rifles from 1750-1960.


    The rugged Martini rifle, with few moving parts to break, was popular with the men issued it and was close to being soldier-proof. It soon became the standard issue rifle of the British Army in 1871 and nearly a million were produced over the next twenty years. As such, it saw hard and effective service across Africa, India, and Asia under the Union Jack. If you have ever watched the classic 1970s war movies Zulu and Zulu Dawn, those are Martini Rifles being used desperately by the outnumbered (but never outgunned) thin red line of Her Majesty's troops.

    (Obligatory screengrab from 1970s Zulu flick with Martini's in action. Even then the prop guns were 100-years old in some cases)

    By the late 1890s, the gun was being replaced in service by the Lee and later Lee-Enfield rifles, which the Brits carried through World War 2. The Brits of course still kept them around as training rifles (why have recruits drop new guns?) and a few even saw service in World War One taking potshots at passing German Zeppelins. As is the nature of military arms, when they were replaced in 'First World' armies, they were soon passed on to those of the Third World and many countries in Southern Asia and Africa carried and used Martini rifles well into the 1950s. US Marines still encounter them in Afghanistan today

    Dad's army clip with Martini rifle etc.

    Getting your own

    Prior to 2002, Martinis were hard to find in any condition. That all changed in 2003, when IMA made firearms history by purchasing the entire armory of the Old Palace of Lagan Silekhana in Katmandu, Nepal. This deal netted more than 52,000 antique military small arms including a huge lot of Martini rifles. IMA sells these for as low as $450 for semi-functional but still nice period British pieces. They also have non-functional "parts gun" wall hangers for $125 balanced out by VG condition guns for far more.


    Ammunition for these guns has been in production somewhere in the world continuously since 1871, making it possibly the longest-lived service round in history. Today old stocks of 480-grain Kynoch can be had for $45 a box, while newer made Buffalo Arms and Ten-X runs about twice that. It's not affordable for lots of high volume plinking, but hey, the*newest Martini-Henry out there is about 130 years old...

    Moreover, odds are even those youngsters have been shaken, not stirred.

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