Holding History: A Boer War Martini-Henry

Gun News

A look at a Boer War relic and family heirloom from South Africa, a re-barreled Martini-Henry from 1873.

 
They’re in every family. Guns that are maybe not all that special to their original owners, but guns that families cherish and hold onto. Forever. If, for no other reason, than to keep a loved one who has passed close to their hearts.

If you spend time talking to any longtime gun owner, you can find a good gun story. It might be about their grandfather’s pistol that he took off a German during World War II, or maybe the revolver he carried during Prohibition when he was running moonshine. It might be a story about their father’s old Model 12 Winchester that he handled with the all the grace and skill of an artist’s paintbrush. Or, it could just be about an old Remington 22 rifle their uncle taught them how to shoot with.

These are the guns in our safes or hidden in our closets that’ll never be parted with. These are the guns we’ll pass onto our children, along with the stories that have made them so much a part of our hearts and our family history. And we’ll expect our children to pass the gun and the story along to their offspring. These are the guns that instill that ghostly sensation or make your hands tingle when you pick them up.

There are several guns like that in my safe, and they all have a story that’ll pull a laugh and maybe even draw a tear. On occasion—a rare occasion—you might get to experience a gun like this that doesn’t belong to you. And by experience, I don’t mean to hold and look at it, I mean to shoot or hunt with. I’m talking about guns with history and emotion tied to someone else’s heart. In 2006, just south of the green, greasy Limpopo River in South Africa, I got to handle and hunt with just such a gun.

Martini rifles served the British military until as late as 1918 and were used as a reserve arm in places like India and New Zealand well into WWII. The .303 British cartridge actually fires a 0.312-inch bullet.

Arms of the Boers

There were two Boer Wars. The first, from 1880 to 1881, was known as the Transvaal War. It was a brief conflict in which Boer settlers revolted against England’s attempt to annex the Transvaal. In an effort to expand their presence in Africa to include the Dutch Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, England struck again in 1899. The gold mines located there were part of the reason, but Britain also looked to establish a Cape to Cairo confederation of British colonies, which would give England total domination of Africa. The result was a long and bloody war that lasted until 1902.

Martini-Henry Action
Though well over 100 years old, this old rifle still functions and shoots well enough to hunt with.

Most Americans have limited interest in, and even less connection to, this war. However, it has intrigued me since my first African safari. Boer is the Dutch word for farmer, which came to denote the descendants of the Afrikaans speaking, stock-raising farmers who fled the British Cape colony to escape English rule. The area primarily settled by the Boers was the Orange Free State and Transvaal region, which together was known as the Boer Republic.

During the war, the Boers employed a guerrilla method of combat that stretched British logistics to the limits; 22,000 British soldiers died during that war. You would’ve thought British military leaders would’ve learned during America’s war for independence.

Martini-Henry-stock-carving
The letter “H” has been carved into the stock of the old battle rifle. The owner was unsure of its meaning, saying it had been there for as long as he could remember.

When I was there in 2006, Hennie Badenhorst was the owner of Lyon Safaris. Badenhorst, a veteran of the South African Defense Force, is a very accomplished professional hunter with over 100 lion, buffalo and elephant hunts under his belt. We were sitting by the fire ring one evening watching the flames dance between us when Badenhorst told me, “I have a rifle that was recovered from a battlefield during the Boer War.”

It seems Badenhorst’s great uncle, who was a young boy during the war, was out playing in the bush and came upon the unimaginable scene of a battlefield where he found a dead British soldier. Being the good Boer he was, he picked up the soldier’s rifle and carried it home. It was a late-model Enfield, Martini-Henry rifle chambered for the .303 British cartridge. Badenhorst remembers stories from his grandfather about having to hide the rifle somewhere out behind the house every time British soldiers came by.

Boer-Martini-with-ammo

The rifle had been in Badenhorst’s family since the war. It was kind of a behind-the-door gun. When Badenhorst left military service and began his career as a professional hunter, he frequently used the rifle when training his blood-trailing hounds. Badenhorst set an empty bottle of lager on the rock rim of the fire ring and asked, “Would you like to shoot it?”

“Absolutely!” I said. “What shall we shoot?”

“Maybe a warthog.” Badenhorst said as he removed his fedora exposing the scars left on his head by an angry leopard. “Tomorrow we will see many warthogs.”

I was excited to see the rifle and especially thrilled to shoot it. Before the hunt the next morning, we stopped by the range and I fired three rounds through the old rifle, just to make sure that I could actually hit something with it. Considering the crude iron sights, it shot well, and I managed a group of about 2 inches at 50 yards. We loaded up in the Land Rover and headed out with the gorgeous African morning sun at our backs.

Martini-rear-sight-2
Though the old Martini rifle is fitted with a tangent-style rear sight, it’s questionable it would match modern ballistics. And, as you can see, the sight leaf has been bent to match the trajectory of modern .303 British ammunition.

The Martini-Enfield Mk II

During the famous battle at Ruark’s Drift in Natal, South Africa, in 1879, where about 150 British troops held off an attack by between 3,000 and 4,000 Zulu warriors, the British were armed with the single-shot Mk2 Martini-Henry rifle chambered for the 577/450 Martini-Henry cartridge.

However, before the second Boer War, British forces began transitioning to the Lee-Metford bolt-action rifle chambered for the .303 British cartridge. Some of the Martini rifles were converted/made to also fire the .303 British. Could this rifle have been one of those that saved the day at the Drift? Unlikely, but possible.

Martini-Henry-receiver-markings-2
Based on these markings, it’d appear this rifle was re-barreled to the .303 British cartridge in 1902. The original markings on this rifle indicate it to be an 1873 Martini-Enfield Mk II.

Based on markings, Badenhorst’s rifle was originally the Martini-Enfield Mk II of 1873, which, as best as I can decipher, was refitted with a 21-inch barrel as an artillery carbine in .303 British in 1902—the last year of the Boer War. Based on the unit markings on the brass stock pin, this rifle belonged to a soldier of the Royal Hampshire Regiment, which was a line infantry regiment that combined with the 37th North Hampshire Regiment of Foot and the 67th South Hampshire Regiment of Foot in 1881. The regiment served in the Second Boer War as well as the First and Second World Wars. Of course, I’m neither a Martini rifle nor British military expert. Even if I was, the cloud of military firearms manufacturing, refitment and assignment, combined with the fog of war, means my conclusions could be wrong.

Martini-Receiver-Markings

After a full evening of hunting wildebeest and bushbuck, Badenhorst finally declared it was time and pulled the old rifle from behind the seat of the Land Rover. He then passed it to me up top in the high rack. Badenhorst said, we’re coming up on a place that’s filthy with warthog. If we can find a nice male that’s within range, we’ll stop and you can take him.

The warthogs were indeed thick and just at dusk, as the necessary light to see iron sights was creeping into the blackness of the African night, Badenhorst picked out a decent warthog at about 100 yards and asked, “Do you think you can take him?”

I shouldered the relic, covered the dark warthog with the triangular front sight, and pulled the crisp trigger, undoubtedly honed from years of use. We heard the “whop” of the bullet and, as they often do even when well hit, the warthog thundered across the veld. Immediately, Badenhorst released his massive tracking dog and moments later we were standing over the beast.

Martini Barrel
The front sight on the old Boer War rifle was crude but sufficient to take a warthog at about 100 yards in the dusk of Africa.

Badenhorst was all smiles and very proud that the old rifle had once again proven sufficient for the African bush by providing food for his staff. I was all smiles as well. It was an honor to hunt with a rifle with as much history as this one. A rifle that had undoubtedly been fired in anger, but also used by a family to provide security and food for more than a century. It was a rifle that was indelibly linked to the history of Africa, and that my friend cherished and had used on successful hunts as well. It’s also a rifle that, at least for now, no one needs to hide when the army/government comes by.

Martini-Henry-Rifle
This Martini-Henry rifle was recovered from a Boer battlefield by the current owner’s great uncle. On occasion, the owner, who operates a successful safari company, still hunts with it.

Your Own Closet Gun

Very likely, and most hopefully, somewhere in your family there’s that special firearm that has a connection to the past. Make sure the story that goes with it is passed on through your descendants. Write it down in as much detail as possible and place the story in the case with the gun. Someday it’ll be even more special to someone else than it is to you.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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