By Branko Diklitch
The Martini Henry was the first purpose built cartridge breech loading rifle adopted by the British Army. It replaced the cartridge conversion Snider Enfield rifle starting in 1871 and went on to become the rifle most people would associate with the Victorian era British Army. After the imperial army was re-equipped, the Martini Henry came to be used by the Volunteers and Militia throughout the Commonwealth. In Canada the Martini Henry never replaced the Snider Enfield but did see limited use, and that is why the Martini-Henry should be considered an iconic Canadian rifle
During the Victorian era the Canadian Army had a very small permanent force of career soldiers, as well as a large force of militia. The militia were civilian volunteers that had military training, at best, a few days out of the year. Despite the part time nature of the institution, many volunteers took their obligations seriously. In many Canadian towns and villages the militia was the centre of social life (similar to to modern small town Canadian volunteer fire departments). Those in the militia needed to have the financial means and the free time to participate, so most of them were middle class or wealthier. Many of the top officers were given the rank as patronage commissions from the government of the da
Those in the militia that were interested could compete in target shooting events held to increase the proficiency of military rifle shooting. Even though the Canadian militia was still equipped with the obsolete Snider Enfield into the late 1890’s, by the 1880’s the standard Commonwealth military rifle competition required the use of the Martini Henry. To be able to compete in these events, each Canadian militia battalion that had a competitive shooting team could apply to get a few Martini Henry rifles that were kept in storage by the government. In order to get around this restrictive access to the Martini Henry some of the volunteers purchased their own.
The Martini Henry in my personal collection was commercially purchased and conforms exactly to the MK III military model. It was sold by Daniel and John Fraser from their Edinburgh shop in Scotland sometime between 1879 and 1887. This rifle has no government ownership markings but does have Birmingham gun proof marks and is chambered in the British army caliber of .577-450. This rifle would have been purchased for the military rifle shooting competitions or by a volunteer as their own personal rifle.
The .577-450 is long obsolete and to be able to shoot this gun on a regular basis one must take the leap into hand loading. This is not, however, a caliber for the faint of heart. There is a lot to the cartridge that is not standard. This begins with the bore dimensions of the rifle; nominally it is .45”, but it starts with a .469” throat and after several inches of gradual reduction it is about .465”. To achieve accuracy a bullet with the diameter of at least .469” works best.
The case was built on the Snider predecessor, but with a severe bottleneck to bring it down to the nominal .45” dimension. Despite these unusual dimension the case can be formed from 24 gauge brass shotgun shells. I buy mine from X-Ring Services in Spokane, Washington. Martyn, the proprietor, forms the cases so they are ready to load. The other advantage of the shotgun shells is they can be shipped directly to individuals across the border with no need for export permits or licenses. X-Ring Services also sells .470” diameter bullet moulds. Martyn offers a paper patched variant that is patched up to .470”, but also a grease groove example.
Unfortunately, even the dies are not simple. The large size of the base on this cartridge is a bit of a problem with the standard die size of ⅞”. This does not leave much material between the threads and the cavity of the die and it is possible to break the full length sizing die. I have managed to do just that with my Snider full length sizer. I own a set of NDFS brand .577-450 dies that are the thin walled ⅞” size. I am very careful when reloading and I don’t do any case forming, I leave up to X-Ring Services. NDFS is no longer in business but Lee Precision does make a set of .577-450 dies in the bigger 1 ¼” die size, but one needs a Rock Chucker or a Lee Classic Cast single stage press with a removable bushing that allows for the use of large bodied dies.
Both the Lee and the NDFS full length sizing dies tend to resize the brass too aggressively. To extend the life of the brass I neck size only after the first reloading. Some people use the Ruger .480 dies do this, however I manage with running the neck of the brass into the .45-70 Govt. seating die up to the shoulder of the case and then I run about half of the neck into the .45-70 Govt. full length sizer. This is not an ideal solution, it makes for a lumpy looking case, but it works.
The military load for this cartridge is about 85 grains of black powder, but the case can take a lot more. I would not recommend loading too much more than the original 85 grains. My rifle performs best with a 70 grain load of 1F Goex Black powder. So try a few different loads to find what your rifle likes best. In order to load the reformed 24 gauge brass to military specs a filler is needed. The powder should be below the bottleneck and the filler should take up the transition space of the bottle neck itself. Some people use cornmeal, cream of wheat or other material. however, I use carded sheep’s wool. Carded wool is plentiful in my my neck of the woods and was originally used as a filler when the new drawn brass replaced the older rolled brass cases. I push the wool over top of the powder charge and then add a .500” diameter card wad cut out of milk carton material. After that another milk carton wad but this time .470” diameter is added. This holds everything snugly below the neck. I pack in the wool tightly so there is no air space. Next I add a .90” thick black powder lube cookie made of half crisco and half beeswax measured by weight. Over the lube cookie comes a wad punched out of newsprint so the lube cookie does not stick to the bullet in flight. I use the .470” grease groove 475 grain bullet. Mine are cast from an alloy, that is one part tin to twenty parts lead.
Even with the reduced load my rifle still shoots high at 100 meters, but once you get used to it a decent level of accuracy can be maintained. To maintain consistency, especially if shooting more than a handful of rounds one needs to control the fouling. I find that even with the lube cookie and the lube in the grease grooves of the bullet I need to use a blow tube if I want to get the best out of this gun. The blow tube is simply an empty case with an opening drilled at the base and a short tube of not so historic plastic tubing attached. This allows me to push moist air out of my lungs down the bore to soften the accumulated fouling. The alternative is to dip the tip of the bullets in Udder Cream, I am not making this up, there is a devoted group of Snider and Martini Henry shooters that swear by this method. There is a great resource online, the British Militaria Forum has many very knowledgeable people that have posted information on every aspect of shooting old British service rifles and pistols.
While I Initially stayed away from owning a Martini Henry, because I was worried about how expensive and complicated the reloading would be, thankfully, I was wrong. Once I purchased one I had to dive right into it and figure out a way to do the reloading. It turned out not to be as difficult as it seems, especially with the help of X-Ring Services.
I hope that those who are interested in the Martini Henry will not be as discouraged as I was initially. Even though this cartridge is challenging to reload it is not as daunting as it seems.