Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Owning the venerable Martini Henry Rifles

Author's Martini Henry MkIV

A bit of history:

The Martini Henry is a breech loading rifle built on a falling block action. It is chambered for the .577-450 Martini Henry black powder cartridge. It was the first rifle adopted by the British empire that was built as a breech loader from the ground up. It served the empire for over 30 years and it saw action in both Anglo Boer Wars. For more background information on the history, visit martinihenry.com.

Now for the good stuff:

.577-450 MH compared to other known calibers
L-R: 8x57IS, .303 British, .577-450 MH, MH Bullet, .22 LR
Owning such a piece of history is a privilege! But there are a few hurdles that one needs to overcome first if you plan on getting the most enjoyment out of your rifle. The cartridge being obsolete, you will not have the luxury of walking into your local retailer and buying a box of ammunition over the counter. It has been obsolete for many years now, although there are some specialist dealers around the world that do sell loaded ammunition, but at a premium. However, hand loading for the Martini Henry is very straight forward and does not have to be all that expensive.I will be writing a separate article on "The Poor Man's Method" of reloading for the Martini Henry in which I will go into a lot of detail on the methods I use to load for my rifle as well as the different components that can be used.

Many Martini Henry owners tend to load modern smokeless powder in their rifles. This does work and many endorse it. You get a lot of hitting power out of the old rifle which makes it much more efficient. But I beg to differ. The rifle was designed and built in the age of Black Powder which tends to develop lower temperatures and pressures than modern smokeless powders. The steel used for Martini Henry barrels (correctly referred to only as Henry barrels) are very soft if compared to barrels built for smokeless powders. These "modern" barrels are nitro proofed, meaning they are strength tested at the elevated pressures produced by smokeless powders.
If the shooter is not careful, the higher pressures and higher temperatures that the smokeless powder produces can harm the old barrels severely. Unlike with modern firearms, these barrels are irreplaceable unless you find another Martini Henry you can butcher for the barrel, which is mostly frowned upon.
Best choice is to stick with using good quality black powder or a black powder substitute. It burns dirtier and it develops less muzzle velocity, but your rifle will be happier and the barrel will last another 100 years or so, given that you do your part in cleaning out the corrosive black powder residue.

Owning a Martini Henry has always been a dream of mine. Firstly I love historic firearms and secondly the Martini Henry has carved out its own place in the hearts of many a South African. Recently my dream came true when my uncle gave me his 1886 Martini Henry MkIV as a gift. He was one of those people who did not want to go through all the "hassle" of shooting the rifle. This leads me to the next point...

Acquiring a Martini Henry:

Finding a Martini Henry is not difficult in South Africa, same with the older Lee Enfields. Overseas it used to be a different story. As far as I am aware it used to be quite difficult and expensive to buy a good Martini Henry. But recently a cache of Martini Henry's found in Nepal and went up for sale around the world. At the time of writing this article, they were still available at affordable prices.
As with any old firearm, condition in everything. When buying a Martini Henry you have to inspect the rifle carefully. Look at the barrel. Is the rifling still clearly defined? How severe is the pitting? If you can, have a competent gunsmith inspect the rifle and give you a full report.
Something you should always keep in mind when looking at old guns is that old rusty looking barrels can still be good shooters. But still, choose the rifle with the best barrel. Little dings and scratches on the stock and finish can be repaired, but you are stuck with that barrel.

After the purchase:

It is best to assume that the rifle has decades of dirt and grime build up hiding in all the nooks and crannies. This is most definitely the case with most of them. Mine was, even though my uncle looked after it, I still had to spend hours cleaning it.
You will want to look at the barrel first. A good scrub down with a good quality solvent is essential and please use a soft brass brush. You will not believe what gunk is liberated out of a seemingly clean old barrel. I had "pitting" marks in mine that vanished, which ended up just being old dirt. Make sure the chamber is clean as well as the action. Strip the whole gun down and clean everything. I was very surprised how smooth the action was after I reassembled the action.
Make sure you know what you are doing. There are many helpful links online which I used to guide me. I recommend you look here: Martini Disassembly. But you have to be committed and very patient. Rather ask someone to assist you that damage irreplaceable parts.

Henry Rifling - note the old fouling

Be Careful with the old barrel and steel...

It is very easy to damage the soft steel. When cleaning, make sure you use a good quality cleaning rod that is covered in plastic. Also do not allow the cleaning rod to rub against the barrel. The rod is of much harder steel than the barrel, so it could deform your crown, which is not good for accuracy. Be gentle. Take your time.
The rear sight on my MkIV was slightly bent. So I removed it and clamped it in a vise and straightened it out. To my horror the vise has actually left marks on the surface, even though I have been very gentle. Luckily the marks are faint, but they will be bothering me as I know they are there and they were my fault.

Concluding remarks:

Many of you might have stood in a shop looking at a beautiful Martini Henry rifle, be it a sporter or an old War Horse. But you were under the impression that shooting an obsolete cartridge like the .577-450 is a very big hassle and a big money pit. This is not true. Not at all true. There are means and methods of getting around it. Components for reloading are available and they are relatively affordable. There is no reason why you should be afraid of buying an obsolete caliber gun, there will always be others, like myself, who shoot them and there will always be ways to shoot them. So it is not "really" obsolete, you just can't buy a packet of ammo at Walmart... yet.

Keep an eye on this blog for more on the Martini Henry and other old rifles.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. were can i get ammo
    450 martinie henery

  3. To answer you, for the .577/450 Martini Henry you need to load your own. Sometimes if you are lucky you can find factory loads. But they are very expensive.
    Unfortunately I cannot help you with the .32 Remington.

  4. This was a really interesting article, I will have to show it to my husband. He enjoys collecting guns and I know he would love to have the privilege to own such a gun! He will be so excited to read this, he will probably start researching where he can find this kind of gun!
    Emily Smith | http://locksgunshop.com/Ammo-Accessories/

    1. I would like to sell my 1886 Martini Henry Rifle, exactly the same as the first photo on top, if you interested make me an offer. 0718745338