British Martini-Henry MkI Rifle

1874
  • Country: United Kingdom
  • Ignition System: Centrefire
  • Calibre: 577-450 Martini

Perhaps one of the most iconic rifles of the late 18th century is the British Martini-Henry rifle. It have been immortalised in print and on the silver screen such that its distinctive is known to most collectors and shooters.

The Martini-Henry officially entered service in 1871 and was still in service in some shape or form in some parts of the British Empire at the eve of the First World War. The origins of the Martini-Henry begins in 1865 when the British War office launch a competition to replace the sturdy but outdated Snider rifle with a smaller calibre rifle. The trails ended somewhat inconclusively in 1869, however, the committee were impressed with the breech mechanism of the Swiss gun maker Frederich Martini and the rifling system of the Scottish gun maker Alexander Henry. The Martini breech and Henry rifling were thus combined and refined to produce the Martini-Henry rifle.

The Martini Action revolves around a central axis mounted inside a sturdy box shaped receiver and a lever mounted on the axis and extending down behind the trigger guard. When the lever is depressed, the breech block, which contains the central firing pin and mainspring, is tilted down to allow access to the chamber. When the breech block is tilted down, the front lower edge of the block hits the curved tail of a double clawed extractor which pivots out of its recess around the chamber to extract the cartridge. If this is done with enough force the cartridge will extract completely. Raising the lever tilts the breech block back up to obstruct the chamber and line up the firing pin with the primer of the chambered cartridge. Internally, then the lever is depressed, the tumbler, who’s head sits in a slot in the firing pin and which is pivotally mounted on the same central axis as the lever, is rotated backwards and locked in place by a sear. When the lever is raised, the upward motion of the breech block causes the firing pin to held back due to the now static tumbler, thus cocking the action. When the trigger is pressed, the tumbler is released allowing the firing pin to shoot forward and strike the cartridge primer. A tear-drop shaped cocking indicator on the right side of the receiver moves in time with the tumbler. The Martini action is extremely strong, so much so that it is one of the few breech mechanisms that safely made the transition to firing smokeless ammunition.

The action is similar to the design of the American Henry Peabody and indeed the two gentlemen met frequently in court over patent violations. I would say that the modifications required to arrive at a Martini breech system from a Peabody breech system are actually quite extensive and non-trivial so I think Frederich Martini should be given the recognition he deserves. Very early versions of the MkI Martini-Henry were fitted with a trigger safety but this was soon abolished after ironically being deemed unsafe!

The Henry rifling polygonal rifling is an improvement of the Whitworth hexagonal rifling. It comprises a heptagonal bore with a small ridge in each corner. The question remains as to whether it a genuine invention or whether it was just a means to avoid infringing the Whitworth patent.

The cartridge is known as 577-450 Martini-Henry. It has the same rim and base dimensions as the previous 577 Snider cartridge but it differs in that it gently tapers towards a sharp bottleneck to seat a paper patched .455” lead bullet. The cartridge case was originally made of coiled brass but this was changed to drawn brass after it was discovered that the case would bind in the chamber, causing the case rim could tear off during extraction, leaving the body of the case in the chamber, effectively crippling the rifle. Once this defect was identified, the cases were produced from drawn brass.

The rifle shown here is a MkI version, of which there are a few sub-variants. As far as I can determine, this appears to be a late variant. The receiver is marked 1874 and the underside of the barrel is dated 1873. It differs in a few things from the more common later versions of the rifle.

• The butt plate is deeply checked
• A sling swivel is screwed into the underside of the butt, this was removed from 1875 onwards although it was retained for rifle regiments.
• The breech block pivot pin is made of bronze and held in place by a captive locking screw
• The trigger is connected to the tumbler via a sear bar giving a short crisp trigger pull
• The rear sight has a very shallow V-shaped notch
• The ramrod head is rounded and has a spiral shaped locking groove.

Using feedback from soldiers in the field, the design was reviewed and the MkII was introduced. Some MkIs were upgraded, thus being referred to as MkI/II. Notable changes were the replacement of the bronze axis pin by a steel split pin, removal of the sear bar to give a heavier but safer trigger pull, making a deep notch in the rear sight and a change in the ramrod head design. Minor changes continued throughout the service with the major changes being the introduction of a longer lever with the MkIII to give more positive extraction and a strengthened breech block. The last true Martini-Henry is the MkIV which is easily identified by a hump at the back of the receiver. An addition to the rifle, the Martini-Henry can also be found in the form of a shorter artillery carbines and a short cavalry carbine.

Concerning the MkIV, it is interesting to note that it was originally intended to be a completely new rifle with the designation Enfield-Martini MkI, bein chambered for a new cartridge with a reduced diameter 0.402” bullet. This rifle would have gradually replaced the Martini-Henry. However, during the development of this rifle, it was ultimately decided to adopt the Lee-Metford magazine rifle in 303 British. In order to avoid logistical chaos by potentially having three different calibres in use at the same time, it was wisely decided to simply take a step back and rebarrel these new rifles with Henry rifled barrels chambered for 577-450MH. The Enfield-Martini rifles already produced were retrofitted and the Enfield-Martini MkI was renamed Martini-Henry MkIV. The vast majority of these MkIVs were shipped to Nepal where they were recently rediscovered, much to the delight of collectors.

Brass cases and reloading tools can be bought for reloading 577-450MH although it is quite expensive. There are a number of very good websites that deal with reloading so I will not go into detail here. The original bullet was paper patched but good results are also possible with larger diameter unpatched bullets. I once tried the service load of 80grns of powder and paper patched bullet. It was accurate but also very painful. The rifle is often said to hit hard on both ends, and it seems to be true! No doubt the thick uniforms of the day helped absorb the recoil!

The rifle is in like new condition with very crisp markings. The springs are also tuned just right as the mechanism snaps open under spring tension as soon as the lever is moved out of its cup. Ejection is thus very good. A nice touch on this rifle is the checked thumb dimple at the back of the receiver which helps hold the rifle correctly. The rifle retains the swivel on the butt so it is highly possible that it was used in a rifle regiment. The letters S and B stamped on breech block indicate that the rifle was fitted with a strengthened firing pin.

The bayonet can be a triangular socket bayonet, as shown here, mounted on the front sight, or a sword bayonet mounting on the front barrel band if it was a rifleman’s rifle. The early Martini-Henry bayonets are often Snider bayonets which have been bushed down for the smaller diameter barrel.

The Martini-Henry was later upgraded firstly with a Metford barrel (Martini-Metford) and finally an Enfield barrel (Martini-Enfield), both chambered for .303 British. To chamber this round the receiver and breech block remained essentially unchanged, a true testament to the strength of the system. Only the extractor had to be changed to deal with the smaller diameter case rim. It is in this final form that it survived well into the 20th century in the far reaches of the British Empire.

BEWARE: The Martini-Henry is one of the most copied rifles in the world in recent times. These copies are usually known as “Kyber Pass” rifles. They are usually easily identified by a poor quality finish and haphazard markings and imitation proof marks. Their attention to detail is however getting better and it can sometimes be hard to spot a fake. While they may look good, these guns are made from any pot metal they can get hold of and should not be considered safe to fire!!!!