HistoricalVideo

The Martini–Henry: The Rifle That Stopped The Zulu Army Butt-Cold At Rorke’s Drift

When you think about the British Army in the 19th century (especially at the battle of Rorke’s Drift), one has to think of the Martini-Henry rifle. The Martini–Henry was a breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle used by the British Army. It first entered service in 1871, eventually replacing the Snider–Enfield, a muzzle-loader converted to the cartridge system.
 
Martini–Henry variants were used throughout the British Empire for 30 years. It combined the dropping-block action first developed by Henry O. Peabody (in his Peabody rifle) and improved by the Swiss designer Friedrich von Martini, combined with the polygonal barrel rifling designed by Scotsman Alexander Henry.
 
Though the Snider was the first breechloader firing a metallic cartridge in regular British service, the Martini was designed from the outset as a breechloader and was both faster firing and had a longer range.

On January 22, 1879, while working on the bank of the Drift, Lieutenant John Chard, Royal Engineers, officer commanding at Rorke’s drift, received news of the slaughter at Isandhlwana. He rushed back to the mission to discover Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, Commander of the men of the 2/24th, had also heard the intelligence and was preparing to move the invalids to safety in heavy ox-carts.

Chard realized that the slow-moving vehicles would never get the men clear of the Zulus, and he ordered that perimeters of biscuit boxes and mealie (maize) bags be set up to act as defensive barricades. Men of the Natal Kaffirs, retreating from Isandhlwana, arrived during these preparations and were pressed into service.

Several members of the 2/24th were sent into the hospital to guard the patients, and the rest of the forces were positioned to await the Zulu onslaught.

 The defense of the mission station at Rorke’s drift has become one of history’s most famous “last stand” type of engagements. But the battle’s notoriety with the public at large was rather late in coming.

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