by Charles J. Sharps Ph.D.
Have you ever wondered what it was like to hunt with a rifle made before the turn of the century? I am sure some of you have, but have you ever taken aim at a huge 5 x 5 bull elk with an old rifle and pulled the trigger to see him collapse after a fair chase? Okay, so now you are saying, "Been there, done that." Well, have you ever done it with a 577-450 Martini-Henry rifle build by Westley Richarrd's? No. Well, I have and would like to share the experience.
My Martini-Henry came from South Africa. The English maker's name, Westley-Richards is stamped on the left side of the frame. The right side is stamped, Made Especially For ZAR. A visiting South African friend translated it as an abbreviation for, Zuid Afrika Republek that is High Dutch or Afrikaans for South African Republic.. The 33 1/4 inch barrel is marked, Henry Rifling ahead of the tall ladder type rear sight which is graduated to 1200 yards. The barrel is also stamped with the year of manufacture-1897. As a military rifle it was issued to soldiers with a long bayonet, which when installed, makes the overall length 72 inches. That, as you can figure, is six feet tall when resting on its butt plate. The British Army's broad arrow is found in several places. The first is surrounding the manufacture date of 1897. The other is over the wording Westley Richards & Co.
Frank Barnes writes in the 6th edition of Cartridges Of The World, page 281, "The 577-450 Martini-Henry was the military cartridge adopted by Great Britain in 1871 for use the Martini-Henry falling block single shot rifle." My rifle is original and I know it was used in the Boer War by the British. Let me change direction here for a moment while I refresh your memory about the Boer War. My Windows bookshelf encyclopedia has this to say: Boer War, 1899-1902, war of the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State against Great Britain. Beginning with the acquisition (1814) of the Cape of Good Hope, the British had gradually increased their territorial possessions in South Africa. The Boers (Dutch) already settled in some of these areas resented the British advance; their hostility was inflamed after the discovery (1886) of gold brought an influx of British prospectors into the Transvaal. The Boers denied these newcomers citizenship and taxed them heavily, despite British protests. The situation was aggravated in 1895 by the Jameson raid which was interpreted as a British plot to seize the Transvaal. A military alliance (1896) of the TRANSVAAL and the Orange Free State followed. The British dispatched troops to defend what they considered their commercial rights, and the Boer states declared war (Oct.12, 1899). The large and well-equipped Boer forces won early victories, capturing Mafeking (now MAFIKENG) and besieging Kimberley and Ladysmith. But the tide turned with the landing of heavy British reinforcements. Under the leadership of F.S. Roberts and Lord Kitchner, the British occupied all the major cities and formally annexed the Boer states; Kitchener remained only for mopping up.The Boers, however, began guerrilla attacks, led by such people as Louis Botha and J.C. Smuts. Kitchener gained victory by interning Boer women and children and by building blockhouses to cut off large areas. His troops then combed the country, section by section. The Treaty of Vereeniging (May 31, 1902) ended hostilities.
To paraphrase Frank Barnes, "The cartridge has been and to some extend still is, a popular sporting cartridge in England, Africa, and other parts of the British Commonwealth. With its' large diameter and heavy lead bullet it is a good killer on heavy game at close range. It would be adequate for anything in North America out to 100-150 yards or so." Well, to me that meant it would be a good elk cartridge. Readers familiar with my previous articles know I am an avid elk and deer hunter. I usually hunt with a Thompson Center Contender with one of JD Jones' SSK barrels chambered for one of the old black-powder cartridges. Something on the order of, 50-70, 45-90, 40-70 Sharps BN or even a .405 Winchester which I know is not black powder..
Developing loads for my rifle was not too difficult. I have a large assortment of cartridges ranging from the original rolled type, paper patched black-powder, and fairly modern Kynoch berdan primed, all in my estimation, too valuable to shoot. What I needed to do was find brass that used boxer primers and was of new manufacture. Bertram's of Australia makes modern 577-450 Martini-Henry as well as a few other US manufacturers.
I found my brass at Liberty bullets, who was displaying at a local gunshow. Liberty's owner told me he had bought them from Rifle Works & Armory of Cody, Wyoming. Both of these companies advertise in the Single Shot Exchange. My cases appear to have been turned on an C & C lathe. They are perfectly made and extremely durable. Each case, (I bought 20), has been fired 14 times without any signs of splitting or case separation. Reloading dies were obtained from Huntingtons, of Oroville , California. My hard cast 480 grain gas-check bullets are the same ones I use in my 45-70's.
To keep my reloads fairly traditional I use a variety of powders, including CTG Pryodex, MP 5744, FFg black-powder and IMR 4198. Everything I work up has proved to be very accurate. The elk hunt was fairly typical of hunting on the Oregon coast in November. Rain, rain and still more rain. As my truck's wipers swished rhythmically almost hypnotically, while driving in the predawn darkness to one of my favorite hunting spots, I again told myself how fortunate I am to live here on the coast.,I live smack dab in the middle of some of the finest Roosevelt elk hunting to be found in the world, the Tioga Unit on the Oregon Coast. Here, elk are everywhere except when hunting season starts. Then, with some sort of sixth sense, they disappear. Oh, they are still around, but hunters have to work extremely hard to find them. Because I love to hunt, I start scouting months before season begins and on opening day, usually know where elk can be found.
This particular hunt was no exception. The elk were bedded in the timber right where I had put them to bed the night before. While waiting for daylight I sat and thought about the thousands of miles my rifle has traveled. It started life in England, built to be used by a British soldier. Upon completion it was shipped by boat to South Africa where it was involved in a war. A war of independence in some ways similar to our own independence struggle. I am not sure how it got to America and into my Father's hands but again it must have come by boat. What I do know is he owned it for approximately 50 years before giving it to me.
As the day dawned my musing stopped, when I realized I could see, smell and hear elk feeding just yards away. It was still too dark to separate the cows and calves from the bulls. Waiting anxiously and somewhat impatiently for shooting light, I saw the fairly large, light-colored elk that I knew from my scouting to be a bull. Soon it cleared enough for me to see his antlers as he fed in the small clearcut where he had spent the night. Raising my Westley Richards 577- 450 Martini Henry, I took careful aim and fired, sending a fatal bullet completely through his chest. At my shot, he whirled, stumbled, ran a few yards and died. It was not my first bull elk nor do I expect it to be my last. However, it was my first elk with a single shot black powder cartridge from the turn of the century.
(Originally published in the Single Shot Exchange-used by permission of the author.)
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