Monday, October 21, 2013

Shooting the Martini-Henry

Since I needed a break from dealing with dogs who snack on rat poison, I spent the morning assembling my first batch of test rounds for the Martini-Henry rifles.

As you can see, I have three at present, a Martini-Henry MKIV from Nepal (top), a MKII back from Afghanistan (middle) and an Orange Free State carbine from South Africa (bottom). I dedided that I want to continue shooting these old warriors so for the past coupe of months I have been scrounging up supplies to make new ammunition for them since nobody anywhere still makes .577-450 cartridges any more.

I finally found what I needed from a couple of key sources, one man who makes the proper bullets as a custom run and another man who re-sizes brass 24-gauge shotgun shell cases to the proper shape for the Martini-Henry cartridges. Then I had to find a source for FFG black powder. Fortunately another man runs a small shop supplying Civil War re-enactors just 45 miles away. I drove over there last week and got some powder and black powder grease from him. Then I was all set.

This morning, I primed five test cases with Winchester Large Rifle Magnum primers then belled the case mouths using the new Lee dies that Murphy so thoughtfully un-boxed not too long ago. Next, I filled each case with 85 grains of black powder and packed it down good. 85 grains was the old British service load. I then filled the remaining space in the case with a filler to eliminate any air space, which is crucial in black powder loads. For a filler, I used cream of wheat. (Don't laugh--the seasoned black powder cartridge loaders swear by the stuff.) Then I put a wad in the case neck, a bit of lube, and another wad. This is known in black powder parlance as a "grease cookie" and it keeps the black powder residue from fouling the rifle. Finally I seated the 480 grain bullet and set it aside. I just made five for test purposes, figuring that way, if the first one blew my face off, I wouldn't be out for a bunch of extra rounds.

Here's the chosen test rifle, the MK II, with it's new ammo.
This one was factory-new in 1878. Eventually the Brits took it to Afghanistan and apparently lost custody of it to the locals, who kept is and undoubtedly put it to good use driving out foreigners and settling tribal disputes until the Americans came along with cash, at which point this one wound up in a local bazaar, probably traded in on a new used AK-47. Not long afterwards, it wound up in my collection.

A new .577-450 round shown next to a .22LR cartridge.
Then I set my target out, humming "Men of Harlech" as I took it down.

The target: Whitest. Zulu. Ever.
I went back, loaded the rifle, took aim, and fired. There was a large smoke cloud and I got a pretty significant shove back, but when the smoke cleared and I checked the target, I was pleased to see that the first shot was on-target--a head strike at 100 yards.(I was aiming center-mass, but I'll take it anyway.)

I fired off the remaining four rounds, and each of them punched a big .462 hole the target as well. The old rifle's battle sight is clear but it's trigger pull leaves a fair bit to be desired. No appreciable group, but they all hit it. In actual shooting, that target would be one dead Zulu/Redcoat/DHS gun-grabber/etc.. I should have rested the rifle to see how it really shoots but I was caught up in the moment and fired them all standing off-hand while yelling "At one hundred yards...volley fire...FIRE!" like in the movie. After firing, I savored the warm feel of the barrel steel in my hand, wondering how long it's been since this old war-horse has been so heated. This won't be it's last time, that's for sure. It shoots great, and there was no obvious deformation of the brass, so I can probably keep reloading these same cases for some time to come.

When I got home, I saw this deer "hiding" in my driveway.
Someone needs to explain to Bambi the difference between concealment and cover, and just because you can't see me doesn't mean I can't see you. Pity I didn't have one round of .577-450 left.

This deer's prospects of surviving the upcoming hunting season:


  1. What uncanny sequence of events led you to do a post on the Martini-Henry on the same day I do a post on the First Anglo-Zulu War?

    (Cue Twilight Zone theme.)

  2. Glad to see you have been out shooting the 577/450 hope the reloading info i sent you came in handy, if you want some cases have a look at they still make and supply many old caliber double rifle rounds plus .577 snider and 577/450 martini henry.

  3. Hey Murphy;

    Very nice Martini/Henry rifle and I still love the Zulu movie. One of my favorite lines is "Mark your target..Volley by Ranks....Fire" That time was back when the British knew that they were better than everybody else and it showed. A friend of mine used modified Mosin/Nagant brass and a 40 caliber bullet to feed his trapdoor Springfield. Much cheaper. Since I have the Mosin Nagant, he buys me name brand ammo Usually Winchester and I abuse my shoulder shooting 20 rounds at a wack for him. THen I give him the brass back. It is much cheaper than buying store bought 45-70 ammo.

  4. LOL, glad they worked!

  5. (Don't laugh--the seasoned black powder cartridge loaders swear by the stuff.)

    Exactly right - and not just the BP guys. Wildcatters and tightwads use the technique, too.

    Was having dinner with the folks last night, and conversation came around to the lovely .244 rifles: .243 Win. and 6mm Rem. Now, Dad's a super fan of the .270, and I was thusly inculcated, and my 21 year old son just last year bought a Remington 700 in the caliber.

    Anyway, Dad explained that his first modern centerfire was a .243, when he was attending Kansas State U. in the late '50s. Money was tight, but milsurp '06 from nearby Ft. Riley was cheap/free. So, many cigar boxes full of custom .243 brass were formed via a four step process, part of which included re-using a light charge of the military ball powder, topped with - you already know it...Cream of Wheat - and sealed with a wax plug. When fired, the shoulder conformed perfectly to the specific chamber, ready for neck turning, final length trimming, and mouth chamfering.

    Due to the brass being exactly sized to the chamber, rather than a SAAMI 'one size fits all', the resulting ammo tended to have greater accuracy than store-bought (plus the fact that much experimentation with bullet styles and powder charges helped find the rifle's preference).

    A few years ago, I bought the cutest little poodle shooter Remington 600, with about an 11.5" LOP, complete with a 3# Sanka can of similarly homegrown rounds from .308 parent cases. While the rounds bore many hallmarks of careful handloading, the necks were not properly annealed, and many had signs of incipient mouth/neck cracking. I tossed several, and used the rest to sight-in the rifle or plink (but not reload). Hoping to build some light loads (with factory cases) for Daughter to shoot a feral hog (it's on her request list).