If only you could have read the thoughts’ of Private 1416 Caleb Wood, B company 2nd battalion 24th Regiment of foot as he peered into the murky dawn of Zululand, it was Thursday 23rd January 1879. Only 10 miles away, 800 of his friends and regiment lay dead and ritually disembowelled by his foe at a strange place the Zulu call Isandlwana.
To Wood, the pain of his burned fingers and aching shoulder was proof indeed that he was still alive. Looking around at the astonished faces of his company, he instinctively dropped the lever under the breech of his rifle, cursing the boiling oil that was seeping from the super heated walnut. He no doubt slid another round into the chamber as he had done 300 times in the last ten hours, and steeled himself for the final, inevitable few minutes of his life. But the Zulu’s were to come no more, Wood and his 103 comrades had held out for over ten hours against odds of 40-1 and remarkably had been victorious.
Caleb Wood died in Ruddington, Nottinghamshire in1927, as a defender of the Mission station at Rorkes Drift he would no doubt have poured scorn on the 1964 film Zulu, but in the 40 years since the film was made a new upsurge of interest has grown, not only in Great Britain, but worldwide into the “small wars” of the late 19th Century, and, inevitably into the weapons and tactics of a long forgotten age. In particular the rifle that was to play a major part in the British campaigns of the 1870’s and 80’s, The .450/.577” Martini Henry.
History & Development.
The changes in military rifle taking place all over Europe during that second half of 19th Century took had left military planners both in Great Britain and Europe in a dilemma. The introduction of the Dreyse Pattern 1868 Needle fire rifle had set about the accelerated development of the breech loading rifle as a weapon of choice all in industrialised countries. The trend too, for smaller projectiles with a great ballistic accuracy and velocity were beginning to become the requirement.
In Great Britain, the relatively slow movement towards breech loading firearms had seen little upgrades to the Pattern 1853 percussion, muzzle loading .577” Enfield rifle, which had been the mainstay of service ordnance. The P1853 had been produced in vast numbers and had seen over 900,000 exported to the Confederate and Union armies during the American civil war. The swing towards self-contained cartridges and breech loading firearms saw the introduction of the P1866 – Snider Enfield