Skip to content

A Different Martini

Martini HenryThe world as I see it is made up of two different kinds of people: those who hear the words ‘Martini Henry’ and think they refer to a guy called Henry who likes Martinis… and everyone else, who knows (obviously) that those words refer to one of the most iconic rifles in the history of the British Empire –– one that deservedly stands alongside the likes of the Brown Bess and the Lee Enfield, even though its time in service was far shorter than those other two.

A breech-loading rifle that relied on cartridges, the Martini Henry represented a great leap forward for redcoats across the world. It’s safe to say that it was responsible for the deaths of thousands of my ancestors, and in the process, it shaped human history in ways that cannot really be calculated. It’s sort of a shame, then, that it doesn’t appear in The Count.

Our new introduction to His Majesty’s New World has been having a banner first month –– top ten amongst Amazon’s free alternate history titles –– and on its cover, you’ll see rifles that look like Martini Henrys. In reality, they are Martini Henrys, in the hands of the Dundee Diehards… But in the story, the men of Sergeant Barnes’ outfit are carrying not Martini Henrys, but Martini Metfords… a distinction that will make little sense to anyone who didn’t study a lot of military history.

It works like this: in the old days, the British named rifles based on two main components –– the action (the thing you load the cartridge into, which might open and close through the working of a bolt, or a lever, or even semi-automatically) and the barrel (the long tube, which could be engineered with different types of rifling to spin the bullet as it flies out of the muzzle). The Martini Henry thus had a single-shot lever action by Martini, and a rifled barrel by Henry.

Skip ahead some years, to the adoption of the .303 cartridge that would (with some evolution) accompany the b’ys of the Newfoundland Regiment in The Grasslands, and you find the same Martini action being married to a .303-caliber barrel by Metford. This new barrel came with a strange sort of polygonal rifling, that unfortunately didn’t hold up too well when it was hard-used.

The Martini Metford, then, is not the finest rifle to be carrying to the new world, where super-strong, cannibalistic savages roam free. But the veteran soldiers of Barnes’ outfit know the Martini action well, and because Metfords are not so advanced as contemporary Lee-rifles, they are affordable. When savages are in the picture, any rifle is better than none…

Martini Henry
Sergeant Barnes and his Martini ‘Metford’…

Still, Barnes knows that newer rifles may be essential to the survival of his men and their families on the new world. Perhaps if a good employer comes along –– a mysterious German Count called Petersen, for example –– the men can upgrade to Magazine, Lee-Enfield rifles… MLEs, or ‘Emilys’ if you like. I wonder how that would turn out…

In any case, the Martini action is what Barnes’ outfit relies on in The Count, and instead of me trying to explain what that looks like, let me simply refer you to YouTube. Canadian enthusiast britishmuzzleloaders offers a fine array of videos about historic British firearms, and he’s done so much specific homework about rifles like the Martini Henry (and the equipment that went with them) that, when I first came across his channel, I honestly had to go back into The Count to see what I got wrong. Fortunately, I didn’t completely blow it like last time.

So if you want a sense of the military tradition and training that produced Barnes’ outfit, how their equipment was used and how their rifles worked, start here (skip to 5:10 if you just want the shooting):

And next time you see a guy named Henry drinking a Martini, buy him a glass of whiskey. It’ll make everything less confusing.