Magazine-Fed Martinis

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The story of modern British small arms is one of cleverness and perseverance, but mostly of seemingly continual obsolescence. Like the later Lee design, the Martini-Henry is yet another entry into the book of British rifles that were relatively quickly obsolesced by foreign developments, but which – in typical British fashion – soldiered on regardless.

The fading edge of the Martini rifle was not lost to the designers living in the sprawling British Empire, at least three of whom designed ingenious conversions to turn the venerable rifles into faster-firing magazine-fed weapons. Two cases are the subject of a recent Firearms Curiosa post:

Martini-Henry Quickloaders

The British Army officially adopted the breechloading Martini-Henry rifle in 1871, and it served valiantly throughout several wars, but it was not without issue. The main problem with the Martini-Henry was that it was single-shot, and thus made redundant almost as soon as it was adopted, thanks to the advent of the magazine-fed rifle. It was withdrawn from service in the late 1880s and replaced by the 10-shot Lee-Metford, the predecessor to the Lee-Enfield.

During its service lifetime, however, some attempts were made to convert the Martini-Henry into a magazine-fed rifle. Being a breechloader, this was difficult – but it proved possible. Charles Greville Harston of Toronto managed to create a spring-loaded magazine that would feed rounds into the breech of the Martini-Henry, thought the user would have to keep the rifle steady to avoid cartridges accidentally falling out. Another design incorporated a rotary drum magazine that fed rounds into the breech through gravity. Ultimately it was more convenient to adopt an entirely new rifle than to convert every existing Martini-Henry.

The Hartson device was quite clever. From martinihenry.org:

Weapon Overview

The Hartson quick loader, patent 14650 awarded to Captain C.Greville Hartson of the Royal Grenadiers, Toronto, in October 1887. Hartson approached the War Office in June 1887, In May 1888 the samples were delivered to the War office and in June 1888 three Martini Henry rifles and 2000 rounds of ammunition were delivered to the Henry Rifled barrel company at the Blenhiem Works for conversion, During 1888, Hartson upgraded his patent, culminating in the Mk1V of August 1888 & the MkV of the 24th November of 1888. Hartsons’ device fitted onto the left side of the action, a magazine held six rounds, which were fed upwards by a spring. When the rifles lever was operated a feeder arm grasped a cartridge from the magazine, which in turn tumbled from a small trap door into the open breech block in the receiver. A push arm, hinged outwards to press home the cartridge in the traditional way and after firing a lever then expelled the spent cartridge and the process could be repeated, whilst it was ingenious it also jammed regularly! Despite Harstons attempts to rectify these issues and despite costs rising to over £1300, interest in Harstons device waned, and the trial was discontinued.

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The Hartson repeater conversion, breech closed. Image source: britishmilitariaforums.yuku.com.

 

 

 

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The Hartsan repeater conversion, breech open, as if feeding a round. The ramming lever is visible behind the cartridge gate. Image source: britishmilitariaforums.yuku.com.

 

Other devices also existed, such as the .402″ caliber Enfield-Martini, designed by Col. H J Arbutnot. This rifle was not a true repeater, its magazine being merely a speedloader to assist with manual loading:

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The Enfield-Martini, designed by Colonel Arbutnot, with its “quickloader” magazine folded for storage. Image source victorianwars.com.

The British would adopt the Lee-Metford rifle in 1888, though by that time the blackpowder Lee rifle was already obsolete (the French having introduced the smokeless powder Lebel rifle two years earlier). The Lee-Metford was shortly followed by the “Long” Lee-Enfield smokeless powder rifle, of essentially the same design. The Lee-Enfield would serve through the late 1950s in variants such as the SMLE and No. 4, before its retirement. Though originally a highly advanced design with a 10-round detachable magazine when introduced in 1879, Lee’s design in British service would suffer from its early blackpowder roots throughout its life, until its replacement by the FAL-derived SLR beginning in 1954. Only at that point, finally did Britain have an unquestionably modern, competitive rifle design, 83 years after the adoption of the Martini-Henry.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Paul White

    Reminds me of the magazine on the Krag really. Odd looking but I guess it worked OK?

  • Vitsaus

    This is more like it. Great article, first I’d ever seen of these magazine version of the Martini-Henry. Its interesting also how conservative (as you point out) the British military was for so long even as they introduced various innovations, such as detachable high capacity (for the time) magazines in their bolt guns, and the concept of one rifle for all branches, a system we adopted as well not long after.

    • Tom

      It should be made clear that the magazine for the Lee Meftord and Enfield were removable for maintenance only. Whilst Lee had envisaged that soldiers would swap magazines the British (and everyone else for that matter) was having non of his nonsense and its was stripper clips all the way.

  • Sam Deeley-Crane

    thats us brits beating a dead horse untill you cant even tell its a horse

  • Riot

    The Lee was not quickly made obsolete.

    • The Lee-Metford was, as it was blackpowder. Two years earlier, the French had introduced the smokeless powder Lebel 1886. The British quickly introduced smokeless powder ammunition for the Lee-Metford, but it wasn’t until the Long-Lee-Enfield that Britain had truly fielded a smokeless powder weapon.

      • Riot

        But that isn’t the lee design, thats powder and rifling.
        (Also metford rifling was better with the smokeless rounds and was issued to snipers and sharpshooters, enfield pattern was more hard-wearing.)

        • Yes, the Lee-Metford was a Lee design. That’s why it bears his name.

          • Riot

            The lee metford is a lee, that rifles problem with smokeless powder was with the metford pattern rifling not the lee action…..

          • I’m not sure where we’re disagreeing, here.

          • Riot

            You said the lee design in the article, there is nothing wrong with the lee design. The problem was that metford pattern rifling was deemed to wear out at an unacceptable rate for the likes of the mad minute. The rifling is separate from the lee design.

  • UnrepentantLib

    Going the Norwegians one better, the Danish Madsen firm designed a light machinegun around 1902 using a tilting bolt somewhat like the Martini. It was reasonably successful and stayed in production through both world wars.

  • Don Ward

    They were hardly the only ones opting for the simpler, single-shot service rifles since the U.S. adopted the 1873 Springfield two years later. And you had to choose something to phase out the 1850-60s era muzzle-loaders that were in the inventory.

    Great find on the magazines though. Wouldn’t have thought of this approach to create a repeating weapon with an existing firearm.

    • Lots of other countries had the same problem as the Brits (many had it way worse, in fact, like the Italians), but the Brits felt especially bad about it. They considered themselves THE world power for a long time, and their lack of innovation in small arms is routinely cited in primary sources from the 1840s on as being shameful to the Empire.

      • Don Ward

        Being the “Workshop of the World” brings a certain level of expectations. And when the Colonials come traipsing in with well-made weapons built on assembly lines with exchangeable parts, it does bring about a certain crisis of conscience.