The Martini-Henry rifle in .45-inch caliber (actually .443-inch) was adopted for use by the British Army in 1871. At the same time another weapon was available. The importance of this weapon was not in its action but the fact that it “really would shoot straight.”19 This ability was a result of the work of William Ellis Metford, who was a great barrel designer. He won the 1,000-yard Duke of Cambridge shooting competition at Wimbledon with a rifle fitted with his own barrel design. The rifling, the most important barrel factor, made the prospect of delivering effective rifle fire at 1,000 yards a reality rather than a dream. Despite this success, his own rifle was not adopted in 1869 or 1871; the Martini-Henry was. Only later would Metford come into his own as a rifle designer.
The Martini-Henry was a simple lever-action single-shot rifle. The trigger guard was the actuating lever, which, when depressed, caused the breech block, hinged at the rear, to drop down away from the breech face. At the same time an ejector forced the spent cartridge out of the breech, and the weapon was cocked. A new round was then hand loaded into the breech, and lifting the trigger guard closed the breech, when the weapon was ready to fire.
The original rifle was rifled according to Henry’s design, with seven shallow grooves. The rifle fired a bottle-neck rolled brass cartridge and a bullet of 480 grains (just over one ounce), with a shocking recoil. Interestingly the weapon had no safety mechanism of any sort and was also prone to discharge if sand or grit got into the trigger mechanism. This made the rifle rather dangerous, and earlier versions, used by troops in Ireland, were ordered never to be carried loaded.
The weapon, once adopted, was found to be singularly unsound in its design, and extraction and ejection were poor. The Westley Richards system had overcome this problem, but it was too late for the British. The idea of the Martini-Henry was sound and simple; it was only in the detail that it fails. To this must be added that the cartridge also suffered from one defect: it was originally a rolled brass case, which was fragile and very prone to pick up sand or dust. This, of course, increased the danger of accidental discharge, but it was only in 1885 that the solid case cartridge was issued.
The Martini rifle was not really up to scratch according to weapons experts at the time, and a report said: The breech-loading arrangements in this combination were considered by practical men to be mechanically defective, although the bore of the barrel, the turn of the rifling, and the weight of the bullet gave the best results as regards accuracy, trajectory, penetration, and rapidity of fire. The principle of the falling block in the breech action, which was a previous American invention, was generally admitted to be the best that had been suggested, and so far as the arm justifies the decision of the committee. The faults said to exist in it were the spiral striking spring, the lock arrangements, the lever, the stocking, and the ammunition. All these were said to be defective in principle. . . . It was considered, however, that to adopt such a rifle would not be a mechanical credit to the country. Since the end of 1868 the committee has been endeavouring to perfect the arm, and several patterns of it have been made at Enfield, but it still retains its inherent defects and objectionable features.
The Westley Richards weapon, which was favored by many but had not been adopted, was the subject of another analysis:
In the Westley Richards arrangement some valuable advantages are gained. The lifting lever acting upon the free extremity of the breech block is a better arrangement than lifting the block near its centre of motion as in the Martini, since the wear will be less in consequence of the diminution of pressure, and will not so much affect the accurate lifting of the block. The position of the lever in front of the trigger guard, and fitting down close to it when closed, is more convenient, and requires less change from the position of firing than is the case with the Martini lock, where the lever is situate behind the trigger guard. The position of this latter lever, too, is found to interfere with the proper grasp of the stock in bayonet exercise.
The rifle was nevertheless issued, despite the opinions of these “practical men,” and comments and reactions were requested from those regiments that were equipped with it. Two reports (12 July 1870 and 8 February 1871) were compiled of the responses, and the comments included some criticisms of the wrapped cartridge, which was prone to deformation. This problem was solved by issuing a full metal cartridge. Extraction and ejection were sometimes a problem, and one unit in Dublin wrote that “when the cartridges missed fire the ramrod had to be used to get them out, the extractor not getting sufficient bite of the case of the cartridge to move the weight of the unfired cartridge.” There was also the problem of grit or sand making the rifle prone to fire when the breech was closed, and a unit in Portsmouth reported that
all the rifles had been dismounted by the armourer-serjeant to the proper pull off. After remounting, rifle No. 5 went off twice without a finger near the trigger or the firer ready to fire. In the second instance when the breech was closed the lock was not at full cock, although indicated by both indicator and trigger. After several attempts the lock was put right, but on passing it over to the firer it went off in the air.
The official reply to the last criticism of the rifle was that “in all probability . . . they had not been remounted correctly.” The unwillingness of officialdom to recognize that a weapon can have inherent faults is not confined to small arms, but it is seen time and time again with reference to weapons that individuals had to carry in battle, and upon the reliability of which a man’s life could depend. The Martini-Henry was a reasonable weapon and bridged the gap between the converted muzzle loaders (the Snider rifles) and the soon-to-appear bolt-action rifles, which were to be so important in the first half of the twentieth century.