The New Martini-Enfield Rifle

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Source: The Saturday Review, 16 February 1884

THERE seems to be some difference of opinion as to the merits of the new .40-inch bore rifle lately reissued from the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, for trial and report. The arm as it now stands differs in some minor details from that issued experimentally in 1882, but the differences are of the nature of improvements which occur during the making of any new machine, and need not be noticed here. It is of more importance to consider in what respect, if in any, the new rifle is likely to prove a better infantry arm than the present service Martini-Henry rifle. The breech-loading action – namely, that invented by Martini on the falling block system – is the same in both rifles. It will be convenient in this notice to speak of the present service rifle as the Martini-Henry, and of the new experimental rifle as the Martini-Enfield.

The improvements claimed for the Martini-Enfield consist mainly of a new pattern fore-end, of several additional appliances which could, if desired, be fitted to any rifle, and of a very considerable reduction in the diameter of the bore and in the weight of the bullet.

The fore-end, it should be explained, is that part of the stock which is in front of the breech. In the Martini-Henry rifle a groove runs along the upper part of the fore-end, and forms a bed for the barrel. Held together by steel bands, the barrel and forend form the shaft of a pike sufficiently light and strong, whose point is the fixed bayonet. It is stated at Enfield that water finds its way to, and lodges in, the barrel-groove of the forend; that in this way many barrels get injured through rust, and in time become unserviceable. In order to obviate this liability to damage, the barrel of the Martini-Enfield is made to rest upon the fore-end instead of lying in it – that is, the exterior of the barrel is exposed to view both above and below-so that there ought to be no difficulty in keeping every part of it perfectly clean and free from rust. Time and a certain amount of wear and tear will be required to show whether the change is a good one. The necessity for any change in this respect would have been more clear had it been stated by the authorities at Enfield what proportion of barrels become unserviceable through the setting up of rust between the barrel and the present fore-end.

The Martini-Enfield is fitted with an improved pattern back-sight. The leaf, instead of being graduated for every hundred yards only (as in the Martini-Henry), is marked for every half and quarter hundred between 500 and 1,500 yards. There is also a sliding wind-gauge – the device of the Armourer Sergeant at Hythe – attached to the back-sight. These additions will doubtless be of great use in enabling the soldier to correct his elevation and allowance for wind. As at distances over 1,500 yards a man cannot (if the butt is in his shoulder) raise his eye sufficiently above the breech to get the required elevation, the Martini-Enfield is provided with a long-range sight, consisting of a fixed back-sight (on the left side of the rifle) and a long-range front-sight graduated from 1,000 to 2,000 yards. When in use, the long-range front-sight hangs down from the left side of the upper band. Thus elevation is obtained, not by depressing the breech below the line of aim, but by raising the muzzle above, and of course slightly to one side of, that line. When not required for immediate use, the long-range front-sight can, as a sailor would say, be stowed along the barrel and fore-end; when not required at all, it can be unshipped and stowed away in the pouch. It may be noticed that, in aiming at extreme ranges with the long-range sight, few men will be able to rest the cheek or chin on the butt of their rifle; the difficulty of aiming and holding steadily will be thereby increased at least twofold. This drawback might be got rid of by placing a pad between the cheek and the butt. In the Martini action the very act of loading places the rifle, so to speak, at “full cock.”

To the breech action of the Martini-Enfield a safety bolt has been added. When the bolt is pressed back, the trigger does not act, and the action is thus kept, as it were, at “half cock.” In order to make the rifle ready for firing, the bolt must be pressed forward. When it is intended to fire the rifle immediately after loading, there is, of course, no occasion to use the safety bolt. Thus in the Martini-Enfield action there are two methods of bringing the rifle to “full cock.” Men used to guns will most likely consider there is some danger attending the formation of a double habit in the matter of cocking a gun. But the safety bolt, like the new pattern back-sight and the long-range sight, is undergoing trial. It is not improbable that the general verdict will be adverse to the safety bolt, decidedly in favour of the new pattern back-sight and sliding wind-gauge, and pretty evenly divided about the long-range sight.

The Martini-Enfield is chiefly remarkable for the reduction in size of bore and in the weight of the bullet. The bore of the Martini-Henry rifle is 0.45 inch in diameter, and is rifled on the Henry system. The bore of the Martini-Enfield is 0.40 inch in diameter, and is rifled with a ratchet rifling, the grooves being either seven or nine in number, and the twist one turn in 15 inches. The weight of the Matini-Henry bullet is 480 grains, that of the Martini-Enfield 384, the powder charge of 85 grains the same for both. The effect of this reduction of about one-fifth of the bore-space and of exactly one-fifth in the weight of the bullet is to raise the starting or muzzle velocity, as it is called, from 1,315 to 1,570 feet per second.

The importance of the difference of these rates is apparent if we extend the comparison to the rifles of other countries. As regards muzzle velocity, the French, Austrian, Russian, and German rifles are all superior to the Martini-Henry, and all inferior to the Martini-Enfield. It is noticeable that the muzzle velocity of the French Gras, which is the lowest of the four, is higher by 100 feet per second than the muzzle velocity of the Martini-Henry; whereas the muzzle velocity of the German Mauser, which is the highest of the four, is lower – also by 100 feet a second – than the muzzle velocity of the Martini-Enfield. In all probability, the, raison d’être of the experimental bore is due to the growing conviction that the English bullet ought to leave the muzzle at least as quickly as the bullet of any infantry in Europe.

In order to take full advantage of superior muzzle velocity, it is absolutely essential that the bullet, when set in motion, should have itself the greatest possible power of maintaining velocity throughout its flight. This power depends on the relation – conveniently termed sectional density – which exists between the weight of the bullet and its diameter. In this respect the Martini-Henry bullet is superior to those of all the Continental rifles, but inferior to the new .40 inch bullet used with the Martini-Enfield. The new bullet has, in fact, a greater driving power in proportion to the surface directly opposed to the resistance of the air. From the combination of a vastly superior muzzle velocity with a most favourable sectional density, it follows, as a matter of course, that the new bullet – provided it has a rotation sufficient to ensure perfect stability – has a greater velocity, and consequently a flatter trajectory, throughout its entire flight than any other known infantry rifle. Stability of the bullet is ensured, and air-boring power still further augmented, by the increased rotation due to the higher muzzle velocity and the quicker twist of rifling. The Martini-Henry and Martini-Enfield bullets leave the barrel making respectively 720 and 1,250 revolutions per second. What does not follow as a matter of course is that, when the bore is reduced, the accuracy of shooting should remain unimpaired. Hitherto experience has shown that the quicker the twist and the smaller the bore, the greater the risk of unmanageable fouling and, if the fouling becomes excessive, the muzzle velocity will vary and the shooting will be uneven. But Enfield – if responsible for the cartridge as well as for the rifle – has been equal to the occasion. The modifications in the cartridge consequent upon the reduction of the bore appear to be perfectly successful. To begin with, a solid drawn cartridge case is for several reasons a great improvement. The freedom from fouling – due probably to an improved wad – is most marked. The amount of recoil is very much the same as with the Martini Henry – that is to say, if the rifle be held properly, it is insignificant. The accuracy of the Martini-Enfield at 1,000 yards is equal to the accuracy of the Martini-Henry at 500 yards. Beyond 1,000 yards no strict comparison appears to have been made. It would be interesting to the country at large, as well as to those more nearly concerned, if the accuracy figure of merit of both rifles could he taken at 1,500 and 2,000 yards with the same exactness as it has been taken at 500 and 1,000 yards. Perhaps the experimental range at Enfield does not admit of this and in any case a horizontal area, say a tide-washed sand, would probably afford the most convenient target for determining how closely the shots will group at extreme ranges. The Martini-Henry, in spite of its comparatively low muzzle velocity, and in virtue of its good sectional density, more than holds its own when compared with any of the foreign rifles for long range and accuracy. It would, therefore, be most satisfactory if the comparison between the two Martinis were made as complete as possible. The inference to be drawn would be direct and valuable. It is probable that the new bullet, which is comparatively light and long, would of the two be more affected by a side wind. This, as bearing on the possibility of any further reduction of bore, seems to be a most important point. At all events, the trials to be thoroughly instructive should be carried on in boisterous as well as in still weather.

When it has been shown what can be done in this climate with a limited number of specially-made rounds, it will still remain to be seen what results can be obtained with ammunition which having been made in bulk and carried for a time in the pouches, is afterwards expended in contintious firing under an Indian sun. If under these conditions there is no appreciable diminution in the accuracy of shooting, the Martini-Enfield must in the fundamental matters of barrel and ammunition, and in the adaptation of each to the other, be pronounced a far more powerful rifle than the Martini-Henry.

On the other hand, the Martini-Enfield is heavier than the Martini-Henry. The weight of tbe stock and the exterior form of the barrel are the same in both, but the greater thickness of barrel in the case of the smaller bore causes a difference of six ounces in weight between the two patterns. It is urged at Enfield that, since the Martini-Enfield ammunition is round for round lighter than the present Martini-Henry ammunition, the weight of the new rifle and seventy rounds is not greater than that of the Martini-Henry with a like number of rounds. It must be recollected, however, that, while a soldier can never part with his rifle, more or less of his ammunition can on occasion be carried for him. That the outside of the new barrel is of the same dimensions as that of the Martini-Henry is probably due to economical reasons. Alterations in the shape and dimensions of a machine-made barrel would entail a corresponding change in the factory plant. Perhaps, too, the extra thickness of metal is conducive to good shooting. But on this head it may be said that there ought to be no room for surmise. It should in fact be positively determined by sheer experiment whether the new Martini-Enfield barrel cannot without any serious loss of accuracy in shooting be made as light, or even lighter, than the barrel of the service Martini-Henry.

A contrivance called a “quick loader” has been issued for simultaneous trial with the Martini-Enfield. It could be used, if desired, with any rifle; its efficiency does not affect the intrinsic merit of the rifle, still a short notice of it may not be out of place. The object of the “quick loader,” as the name implies, is to facilitate rapidity of loading. It is a case made of metal; and in shape and appearance is somewhat like a small pouch. When not required for use it can be slung from the waistbelt. When in use it is attached to the right side of the rifle, close to the breech-action. It contains six cartridges, which by means of a spring are forced up one after the other in a very ready manner to the loader’s hand.

The most that can be said for it is that, after it has been filled and fixed to the rifle, a nimble man may fire the six rounds about four or five seconds quicker than he could when loading in the ordinary manner from the pouch. It is possible that some pattern of “quick-loader” may be introduced into the service, but no contrivance which involves the handling of the cartridge between each round can be compared for rapidity with a self-loading, or, as it is called, a magazine rifle.

By a magazine rifle is meant a rifle that contains within itself – presumably in the butt – a magazine or reservoir (holding a number of cartridges), combined with a mechanical action which, by trigger pressure only – or at all events with the aid of one other motion – performs all the functions of loading; so that, the magazine being filled beforehand, the firer can repeat his shots almost as quickly as he can aim and fire. In the hands of well-trained troops the odds in favour of a magazine rifle as against the ordinary breech-loader would, ceteris paribus, be very like the odds in favour of an ordinary breech-loader as against the old muzzle-loader. At present there does not appear to be any satisfactory pattern of magazine rifle; but it is notorious that, so soon as some ingenious inventor can design a thoroughly efficient magazine action, one, at least, of the great European Powers is ready to adopt the system. This means, of course, that every other Power who can afford to follow the example set, or who cannot afford not to do so, will sooner or later re-arm their infantry in a similar manner.

Whether after further experiment, including trial of the wear and tear sort, it would be worth while to substitute the Martini-Enfield for the Martini-Henry as a general infantry arm, is a question which probably depends on the condition of the service rifles now in use, on the number of those not yet issued, and on some other considerations. It might be good economy to reserve the present stock of Martini-Henry rifles for issue to the Volunteers in exchange for the Snider. It may be imperative – no one can say how soon – for us to adopt a rifle of the magazine type; but in any case, if we have to re-arm the infantry of the line, the arm should surely in every respect be the very best we can make.

Opinions may vary as to the exact requirements of an infantry rifle. With regard to rapidity of fire it can of course be argued, as it was on the introduction of breech-loaders, that a magazine system will lead to much reckless expenditure of ammunition; but ammunition is meant to be expended, of course under proper control. Again, with regard to accuracy, in a letter to the Times (27th December last) an authority no less than General Boxer contended in so many words that because our soldiers have not sufficient skill to do full justice to the rifle they have, it would be unwise to give them one that shoots better. It may be true that in any infantry battalion there are not half a dozen men who can get the most out of the Martini-Henry; but the bulk of our soldiers can use their rifle with more or less effect; and the question is not, in fact, whether the skill of our men is up to the power of the rifle, but whether, on the whole, a better-shooting rifle will increase the chances of hitting. On this point all arguments must give way before the practical reason that we are obliged, as before hinted, to keep pace with our neighbours. If we are a little in front of them, so much the better.

In the hands of young troops – however well trained, but unused to war – it must be expected that the worth of a superior weapon must now and then be cancelled in the flurry and excitement of first onset. But for English infantry, steadied down to their work, the best rifle must – weight and other things being equal – always be that which combines, when wanted, the greatest rapidity of fire with the greatest hitting power at all ranges. At the same time, it is well to be reminded that the best rifle in the world is of little use unless it be backed up, not only by sufficient skill in rifle-shooting, but also by sound training in the proper application of rifle-fire. In this latter respect we are perhaps somewhat behind our nearer neighbours.


From: 19th Century Firearms, Major F.Myatt MC

William Metford, a civil engineer, was a dedicated rifle shot and had done much work on rifling and projectiles, his main interest being the use of shallow grooves and hardened bullets.

Although rifling of Metford’s design was not considered during the original Martini-Henry trials, it soon became clear that his barrels, rifled with five or seven grooves of segmental rifling so shalllow as to be hardly perceptable, shot so well that they could not be ignored. The new arm of .402in (10.21mm) calibre was approved in 1886, but by then the advent of a magazine rifle was so close that it was never issued in its original form, being converted back to the original Henry barrel before leaving the factory and issued as the Mark IV.