New Life For An Old Brit
September 23, 2010
Restoring a Martini-Henry, a rifle that holds a special place in British military history.
Like a lot of gun guys, I'm fascinated by military history. A subject of special interest to me is the British army in the late 19th century. I've always been amazed by how effective the British were in attaining their objectives using a relatively small military force. Time after time, small units of British troopers--more often than not vastly outnumbered--withstood attacks and ultimately conquered native forces in Africa, India and Asia.
One of the most famous of these actions took place in southern Africa at a place called Rorke's Drift, where a contingent of more than 4,000 Zulu warriors attacked 140 Brits guarding a river crossing. Outnumbered almost 30 to one, the tiny British force withstood repeated assaults for almost 24 hours.
When the Zulu broke off the engagement, it's estimated that more than 1,000 Zulu were killed or wounded. The British contingent suffered only 15 killed and 12 wounded. In 24 hours, those British soldiers fired more than 20,000 rounds of .577-450 ammo through their Martini-Henry single-shot rifles.
The Martini-Henry was designed by Henry Peabody and first produced in the U.S. during the Civil War. A later modification of the design was adopted by the British and used from about 1869 until well into the 20th century.
Not too long ago, I had the chance to pick up a Martini-Henry from International Military Antiques, part of a cache of Martini-Henrys that had been provided to the army of Nepal by the British government in the 1880s and '90s. The rifle I received was a British-made short-lever Martini-Henry made by Birmingham Small Arms Company in 1880.
This rifle was advertised as "untouched." That doesn't mean that it was in 100 percent mint condition. Far from it. "Untouched" meant that it looked just as it did when it was pulled from storage in an old castle in Katmandu.
It was filthy. The gun was coated with at least 100 years' worth of dirt and dust. I started the restoration with straight mineral spirits, using a three-inch-wide paint brush to help scrub the surfaces. When I encountered minor rust or hardened grease, I turned to 0000 steel wool, which will not scratch the metal surface nor damage any remaining original metal finish.
I can't overemphasize the danger of being too aggressive when cleaning an old gun. I have seen far too many instances where folks used coarse wire wheels to remove rust and crud from the metal surfaces--and also remove any remaining original metal finish, which you can't put back. Use the least aggressive procedures and materials.
Surprisingly, there was quite a bit of the original rust bluing remaining on the ol' Brit. Other than lightly darkening the ends of some replacement pins in the fore-end with Brownells cold blue, I did not do any metal refinishing. Any spots on the rifle where the finish had worn were left in that condition. A gun that's more than a century old should show its age.
As I intended to shoot this rifle, I paid particular attention to the bore. I first ran several mineral spirit-soaked patches through to push out a lot of dirt and old grease--cleaning from the muzzle using a bore guide to protect the crown from cleaning-rod wear or damage.
I then followed up using a 28-gauge bronze bore brush along with a generous application of Hoppes No. 9 bore solvent, and with some time and elbow grease it cleaned up quite nicely. Once it was clean, I inspected the bore, and to my surprise and delight, it appeared to be in great shape. There were no pits or imperfections.
Driving out the slotted breech block pivot pin in the receiver, which some mistake for a screw, completes the disassembly.
To diassemble the rifle, I removed the two buttplate screws to access the large, heavy-duty stock bolt that holds the buttstock on the receiver. I used a massive T-handle screwdriver I made years ago from an old tire iron to remove the stock bolt.
After that, I removed the barrel bands, drove out the fore-end pins, and removed the fore-end. As I expected, I found some pitting under the barrel where it had been in contact with the wood. Fortunately, this pitting wasn't deep enough to pose a safety hazard. The three fore-end pins were severely rusted and had to be replaced with new pins that, as I mentioned, I cold-blued.
I used turpentine and then Citristrip--an aerosol paint and varnish stripper available at many hardware stores--to clean and strip the wood.
I then simply rubbed in several coats of tung oil. Originally, the stock had been given a coat or two of linseed oil when it was manufactured. The tung oil duplicates this original military finish but dries faster. I did not sand the stock or attempt to remove all the dents and dings. To me those marks are part of the history of the rifle.
As with the metal, there is always a danger of doing too much to a stock and making it look too new or too nice. The condition and appearance of the wood should generally match the condition of the metal, and you want to try to match or duplicate the original finish.
To disassemble the action, you have to position the lock screw on the left side of the receiver so that the cutout in the lock screw is aligned with the finger-lever pivot pin. This pin is then pushed out to the right side of the receiver. The extractor screw is then removed, which allows the trigger guard assembly to be pulled out of the bottom of the receiver along with the extractor and finger lever.
The only remaining component in the receiver is the breech block. This can be removed by driving out the breech block pivot pin, which some folks mistake for a screw. Just place a punch on the slotted end of the pin and drive it out to the right side of the receiver.
Each part was then individually cleaned with a rag and solvent. A bit of judicious work with a brass wire brush also helped to remove hardened crud. It didn't take long before all the parts were spotless.
Because Coffield was restoring his Martini-Henry as a shoot
er and not a collectible, he applied bedding epoxy to the head of the stock to protect it from splitting. It's not visible when assembled.
Because I wanted to shoot the rifle, I glass-bedded the buttstock to the receiver. The forward end or head of the buttstock where it joins the receiver is subject to a lot of stress during firing. By glass-bedding the portion of the stock that fits inside the rear cup of the receiver, I can help prevent any further cracking or damage to the wood. I was able to apply the bedding in such a manner that it is not visible from the outside when assembled.
Like most military rifles of this period, the trigger pull was fairly heavy at a bit over six pounds, and I may eventually have to lighten it up a bit.
If you're interested in getting one of these Martini-Henrys, whether restorable or already restored, you can find ammo from a number of commercial sources such as Ten-X. It's also a candidate for reloading, so I got a supply of empty Jamison brass from MidwayUSA. I also picked up a set of Lee reloading dies at the same time.
Finally, I ordered some Goex 450-grain bullets as well as some Montana Precision Swaging 480-grain bullets from Midway. The original military rounds were loaded with 480-grain bullets, so I thought I would start with something close to the original issue ammo.
The metalwork on the Martini was filthy, but careful, judicious cleaning revealed a surprising amount of original finish.
In loading the Jamison brass I used kapok filler over the blackpowder (50 to 60 grains of 2F with the 480-grain Montana Precisions and 60 grains of 2F with the 450-grain Goex bullets), followed by a wax paper wad and a grease cookie of SPG Bullet Lubricant. I placed a cardboard wad over the lube and then seated the bullet.
At the range, I started at 50 yards with the handloads, and the 60-grain load pushing the 480-grain Montana Precision bullet printed a nice, even group that measured about two inches wide and three inches high.
The Ten-X ammo, which is loaded with a blackpowder substitute and basically duplicates the original British military ammunition, was shot at 100 yards. With a muzzle velocity of around 1,300 fps, it's a thumper.
The interior parts were just as dirty as the exterior, but they cleaned up quite nicely. Only a few pins had to be replaced.
My shooting partner Paul Mazan joined me at the range and agreed that firing several hundred rounds of full-power loads like they did at Rorke's Drift would've been brutal. Despite the recoil, Paul and I had no problem keeping the shots I a 12-inch bull at 100 yards with the Ten-X.
To have the opportunity to own and shoot a relic such as the .577-450 Martini-Henry is a tremendous privilege. If you're like me and thrill to the stories of small groups of brave men in far away places pitted against overwhelming forces, you might also want to consider adding a Martini-Henry to your collection. Once you shoot one and experience firsthand the history and romance of that era, you'll be hooked.