“Overmatching” the British Empire: Major small arms upgrades of the Boer Republics

    Prelude to a war, an opportunity for inventory:

    In the last days of 1895, a contingent of mounted Rhodesian Police headed into the South African Republic (ZAR), also known as the Transvaal.  Their goal:  to initiate an uprising of “Uitlanders”-foreign miners-against the Boers and hand over control of the mineral-rich region to Cecil Rhodes and his Chartered Company.  The raid was an unmitigated disaster.  Despite having six Maxim machine guns, three artillery pieces and six hundred men, they were stopped cold near a Kopje called Doorknop.  Six thousand Boers had mobilized to head off the invasion.  The Boers took good cover, and with accurate fire inflicted over 10% casualties on the raiding force.  The “Jameson Force” surrendered on the morning of January 2nd.  Reported numbers for Boer casualties range from 1-4 men.  No uitlanders rose up.

    Despite the success in repelling the raid, Paul Kruger, President of the ZAR,  was rather alarmed at the state of his forces.  Though six thousand Boers had successfully mobilized, the underprepared state of the ZAR forces to engage in a larger conflict was brought to light by the raid.  The ZAR had a law that every male citizen must have a weapon and ammunition in case of mobilization.  After the raid, an audit revealed that 41% of eligible citizens did not have a rifle at all.  The rest may have been well armed by the standards of the First Boer War in the early 1880’s , but by the 1890’s their weapons (the majority of which were probably Snider Carbines in .577) were outclassed and the country’s ammunition supply could only sustain conflict for around two weeks.

    A Snider Carbine

    Upgrading to the Mauser:

    Kruger was displeased at the state of things.  Remarking that “the burghers (citizens) had neglected their sacred duty to arm themselves”, he decided to do something about it.  Further compounding his displeasure was the fact that his main political rival, a very capable commander of Boer forces in the First Boer War named Peit Joubert, had ordered around 42 thousand rifles that were already obsolete.  Joubert had in 1888 ordered 36 thousand Martini-Henry .450 rifles of a removable lock design.  In 1893 Joubert additionally ordered six thousand Portuguese-designed, Austria-Hungary produced Guedes rifles in 8mm that were warehoused due to being deemed obsolescent by the time they were made (likely at a discount).   Note:  Though Joubert’s instincts were wrong on small arms, this author must give him credit for ordering a quantity of Maxim-Nordenfelt 37mm Autocannons, an extremely new technology at the time.

    A leter-model Martini-Henry, note the “long lever”

    The well-made, yet obsolete Guedes rifle

    To greatly upgrade the ZAR’s military capability, Kruger had Joubert order one of the world’s most advanced rifles of the time.  For 1 million pounds, an ordered was placed for thirty-seven thousand Mausers from Germany.  They were chambered in 7×57, the ammunition being smokeless 173gr FMJ with a velocity of 2300fps.  Thirty thousand of these were rifles and seven thousand were carbines.  The ZAR’s neighbor and ally, the Orange Free State (OVS), ordered around eight thousand of these rifles as well.  Though markings varied as to the model year on the receivers, the majority of these Mausers had 1893 characteristics such as flat bolt bottoms and 1893 style receivers.  The reason for the majority of them being long rifles rather than carbines was that the Boers more often fought as mounted riflemen rather than cavalry.  They were capable of firing from the saddle but preferred to engage from cover and concealment at an average range of 600m.

    1893-style Mauser carbine and rifle.  Note the Carbines originally had bent bolt handles and the Rifles had straight handles. Later ZAR Rifles were sometimes delivered with bent bolt handles.

    One ironic factor of this rearmament was the route by which these weapons reached the OVS and ZAR. While the ZAR had a rail spur to the port of Laurenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa, a lot of these weapons and ammunition were transported via Cape Colony railways to the OVS.  At one point 1.5 million rounds of 7×57 Mauser ammunition were shipped this way in one month, infuriating Lord Milner who was at that point meticulously manipulating both the British and Boer governments into open conflict.  By the time the ZAR was re-armed with the quality and quantity of new weaponry they sought, they could field twenty-five thousand burghers in over 20 commandos, not including OVS forces.  Combined, the two Boer republics’ forces dwarfed the British garrisons in Cape Colony by a factor of four.

    Heavily armed, but doomed in the end:

    The Boer’s new Mausers outclassed the Lee-Metfords and Lee-Enfields in both cartridge velocity and reloading speed, and the Boers were far better riflemen and more knowledgeable of the terrain in which they were fighting.  Who knows what the outcome may have been if Kruger didn’t “blink first”, being provoked into initiating contact first and thereby galvanizing British resolve.  The Boers also may have had great success if President Martinus Steyn of the OVS had not held out for a peace that would not come.  This false hope ended up wasting a one month advantage when the Boers would greatly outnumber the British before the might of the empire could arrive in Southern Africa.  Despite initial successes, the Boers and their upgraded weaponry could not in the end overcome an over ten to one manpower advantage on the part of the British, combined with a dual scourge of scorched earth tactics and concentration camps. (Other strategic mistakes were made as well, notably wasting Boer manpower on sieges which did not play to their mobility advantage)

    The foreign mine owners, aided by Milner, had their way and the Boer republics were no more.  Though it may have been the first time Mausers and Lee-Enfields had clashed on the battlefield, it certainly would not be the last.  In the aftermath of the Second Boer War, the British did incorporate upgrades to the Lee-Enfield design based on their experiences facing the Mauser, not least of which was an improved charger-loading capability.

    Rusty S.

    Having always had a passion for firearms, Rusty S. has had experience in gunsmithing, firearms retail, hunting, competitive shooting, range construction, as an IDPA certified range safety officer and a certified instructor. He has received military, law enforcement, and private training in the use of firearms. He is fortunate enough to have access to class 3 weaponry as well.


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