The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 4 No 6 - December 1979

Firepower and Firearms in the Zulu War of 1879

by Major (Dr) Felix Machanik

Since the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, controversy has gone on concerning the reasons for the almost total annihilation of the British force, under the overall command of Lt General Chelmsford, KCB. The success or failure of any force is dependent mainly on its firepower.

This would rest on the following considerations.
i Number of men defending the position.
ii Adequacy of the weapons in use and a sufficient supply of good ammunition.
iii Adequate training in the use of the weapons.

In numerous publications and following on the Official Enquiry the main reasons given for the massacre at Isandlwana are as follows.

1 The inadequate organization of the ammunition supply.
2 The available ammunition boxes could not be easily opened, because they were surrounded at both ends with copper bands, securely fixed with multiple screws.
3 There were not enough screwdrivers and thus not enough boxes had been opened before and during the action.
4 The copper bands had to be forced open, using anything at hand from stones to bayonets!
5 The tin-plate lining of the ammunition boxes was not easily torn open to get to the packets of cartridges inside. (This tin-plate lining was used to keep the cartridges dry by preventing moisture seeping through.)
6 The Martini-Henry cartridges, could not be easily extracted, as they frequently jammed in the breech. The extractor was inadequate, and thus valuable time was lost during the action: the ramrod had to be used via the muzzle of the rifle to push the cartridge case out of the breech, thus the overall firepower of the troops was reduced, especially as the Martini-Henry was a single-shot rifle.

The other firearm used by the British troops was the Westley Richards capping breech-loading, single shot carbine, using a paper cartridge with black powder — which fouled frequently and the barrel had to be cleaned often.

Excuses are easily found and many were expressed during the official enquiry following the battle.

With hindsight and knowing most of the facts 100 years after the event, I have, with an open mind made an appreciation of the situation pertaining on that fatal day.

Undoubtedly the Commanding Officer and his staff felt that as long as the ammunition lasted, and there were 500 000 rounds in the camp, the 1 800 men at Isandlwana were sufficient to withstand any attack, provided that the force was adequately trained, reliable, well led and suitably deployed.

What were the facts?

The site appeared suitable and wood and water were available. The space seemed adequate to contain the large force of approximately 4 313 men, 2 747 British troops and 2 566 or so Natal Native Contingent. In addition there was space for the large wagon park at the saddle, for the 220 wagons, 82 carts, 346 conductors, room for 1 500 oxen, hundreds of mules and horses, and indeed the whole camp stretched for 800 yards, with units spaced at a greater distance at the base of the Nqutu escarpment.

2 500 men left the camp with Col Glyn on the morning of the 22nd January, 1879; thus only 1 800 men remained in the camp for its defence.

What were the faults:-
The site was unsuitable, as the ground was hard and rocky for the digging of trenches; no laager was formed and in any case there were not enough waggons to contain the large numbers of men, oxen, horses, mules or stores; no sangars were constructed or deemed necessary; and indeed no defences at all were made.

The British forces had experienced officers and NCOs and the men were well trained and disciplined; besides they had the well-made and sturdy Martini-Henry rifle.

The Natal Native Contingent, however, were badly trained, undisciplined and bad shots, and had little experience of battle conditions. Some were armed with the long Martini-Henry rifle. Durnford’s Natal Native Horse had the Westley Richards carbine rifle, (monkey-tail) which used the black-powder paper cartridge.

The main rifle was the Martini-Henry supplied to all troops at Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, and Ulundi.

The Martini-Henry was a modified American Peabody (Patent 1862), a single-shot, hinged falling-block rifle, developed after an exhaustive series of tests during 1866 to 1871. The weapon chosen was approved in 1872, manufacture started and in 1874 delivery to troops commenced.

Frederick von Martini, a Swiss engineer, modified the Peabody by discarding the large external hammer and substituting within the breech block, an internal spring-and-lock system, which activated a centre-fire pin. Behind the trigger guard, a long lever extended, which when pulled downwards ejected the cartridge case from the breech of the barrel and at the same time automatically cocked the lock.

The rifled barrel of seven grooves was developed by Alexander Henry of Edinburgh and patented by him in 1860.

(Blockquote)Weight:- 9 lb (4,08 kg) without the bayonet.
Overall length:- 49,5 in (125,7 cm)
Barrel length:- 33,2 in (84,3 cm)
Cartridge calibre 0,45 in (1,13 cm) M1871
Cartridge case width 0,577 in (1,466 cm)
Rimmed, necked, centre fire, Lead bullet, paper patched, diameter 0,45 in (1,13 cm)
Cartridge was originally coiled brass, with an iron base head of the Boxer type.
Black powder. Muzzle velocity 1 350 ft (411 m) per sec.

The early coiled brass case was irregular and thus could jam in the breech after firing, when it would then have to be pushed out of the barrel with the ramrod supplied with each rifle. At the battles of Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift extraction problems occurred frequently, thus diminishing the firepower of the troops.

At Rorke’s Drift where the fire was heavy and persistent, the barrels overheated and the cartridge cases frequently jammed.

The later manufacture of drawn-brass cases, which were smooth, uniform and well-made, rarely jammed.

The bayonet supplied was the 1876 Enfield triangular pattern, 25.25 in (63,5 cm) long. Durnford’s Edendale Horse, were issued with Martini-Henry Carbines, without the bayonet lug.

Some of the Natal Native Contingent and the Natal Native Horse under Colonel Durnford, had the Westley Richards Carbine. This light rifle — [was] a capping percussion lock breechloader, was developed in 1858 and was known as the ‘Monkey-tail’, from the long curved lever at the top of the breech block, which, when lifted up, opened the breech.

This single fire rifle, used a paper cartridge with a 0,45 inch (1,13 cm) lead bullet at the tip and a felt wad behind. The black powder fouled the barrel and the breechblock lever and rapid fire was thus hindered and slowed down.

Some of the Natal Native Contingent still had the early muzzle-loading, percussion Enfields, using black powder, wad, and lead bullet rammed down the muzzle with the ramrod. Rate of fire was slow.

Others had the modified Enfield muzzle loader, in which the Snider breechblock was inserted. This unsatisfactory compromise weapon, was the first British breechloading, fixed cartridge (Boxer), centre-fire rifle. Rate of fire was relatively slow.

Wearing feathers and furs and loincloths of oxhide, etc., and armed mainly with assegais and large ox-hide shields, the Zulus also had a few muzzle-loading percussion smoothbore muskets at Isandlwana. Captured Martini-Henry rifles were used, however, the same afternoon and evening at Rorke’s Drift, against the gallant British defenders. Fortunately the Zulus were bad shots.

What went wrong?
The camp was widely spread out and concentrated firepower behind a fixed defence was not employed.

The 1 800 men, in 10 separate units were thinly spread on the ground for a distance of about one mile or 1 800 yards (1 640 in). They fell into two ranks, one behind the other, but the line was ragged with gaps between, allowing the enemy to rush through and attack the defenders from the rear. This especially occurred when the Natal Native Contingent early in the battle broke and fled, leaving a gap in the defence line, 300 yards (275 m) wide.

Furthermore any concentrated firepower of the main force was drastically reduced and thus weakened by the absence of a large body of men who had left the camp. Firstly, some with the Commanding General, Lord Chelmsford; secondly Major Dartnell with his mounted troops, and thirdly Colonel Durnford with his dismounted native horsemen, who were isolated away from the main force in a donga, where he halted and held-up the Zulu left horn, until eventually, when his ammunition ran out he had to vacate his strongpoint and retreat to the saddle. He made his second stand here, but being surrounded was overwhelmed and died fighting.

Quartermasters Pullen and Bloomfield were on standby at their ammunition waggons and had the assistance of the bandsmen and drummers, ready to supply the companies with extra ammunition.

At the second alarm the men were at lunch. Tumbling out of their tents, they only had on their belts with 40 rounds in the pouches, a few brought their haversacks which had two extra packets of cartridges and some did not wear the pouch which contained the loose ten rounds.

Most of the men only had 40 to 50 rounds on their persons, when in fact each soldier should have had 70 rounds. Cavaye’s ‘A’ company actually did!

Each battalion quartermaster had an ammunition reserve of 30 rounds per man and, in any case, were there not 480 000 rounds in the ammunition waggons parked somewhere on the saddle?

The first half hour of the battle went off well and firing steadily at all points, the battle was static, and the black mass ahead was stopped, the Zulus suffered enormous slaughter, but they still came forward. Slowly but surely the ammunition pouches emptied and messengers were sent back for extra supplies.

The 1st Battalion’s ammunition waggon was behind their tented camp, 1 000 yards from the 1st Battalion companies in the firing line. Cavaye’s A’ company was in fact 1 800 yards (1 640 m) away from his ammunition supply. QM James Pollen was inundated with demands for ammunition.

The 2nd Battalion’s ammunition waggoneaer QM Edward Bloomfield was actually only responsible for Pope’s ‘G’ company, 1 100 yards (1 005 m) away.

There was chaos at the waggons, the ammunition boxes being closed. Each box had the middle third top section as a sliding lid, held in position with only one cheese head brass screw, which when removed allowed the lid easily to slide out, revealing the tinlining which was easily opened by pulling on a tin strap in one corner. The whole procedure took a few minutes, and the complaint made after the battle by the few survivors, that the difficulty in opening the ammo-boxes was the cause of the men not obtaining enough cartridges is blatantly incorrect. The main cause was the fact that each company or section did not have its own ammunition supply readily at hand, and thus the long distances of many of the companies from their ammunition waggons resulted in the loss of valuable, and as it turned out, vital time, before a trickle of supplies arrived.

With the drying up of the available ammunition, and the resultant drop in the firepower, the Zulu impis numbering 25 000, taking advantage of the lull in the battle at all points, rushed through the available gaps in the line, not only attacking the isolated companies from the front, but now also from the rear. They were also able to overrun the camp itself, by then all supplies of ammunition were decidedly and completely cut off, the waggons being surrounded and all personnel slaughtered.

Hand to hand fighting with bayonet against assegai ensued, with the British forces in a very short space of time being completely overwhelmed by force of numbers.

Of approximately 900 British troops, 858 were killed and only 55 escaped, and of approximately 850 Natal Native troops, 471 were killed, the rest escaped but many I am certain were killed later, or died of their wounds.

The Zulus had approximately 25 000 warriors, under experienced leaders and they were well trained and hard fighters; about 2 000 were killed and many more died later from their wounds.

It is estimated that on the battlefield at Isandlwana and down the Fugitives’ Trail, a distance of 15 miles, (24 km) there were scattered 3 500 bodies.

The contrast between the actions at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift is so marked and noteworthy, that this is mentioned here in conclusion.

Lt. John Chard at Rorke’s Drift had only 140 men of the 2nd/24 Regiment, at his command, of which over 30 were in hospital or incapacitated. In fact only 81 men of 'B’ company formed a cohesive dependable unit.

The hastily reinforced defences were far from adequate and the few defenders were persistently and continuously attacked by about 4 000 Zulus, many of them armed with old muzzleloaders, and many had captured Martini-Henry rifles.

The defenders, however, fighting shoulder to shoulder using their Martini-Henry rifles expertly, and when necessary their bayonets at close quarters, held the massed Zulus at bay. Ammunition was plentiful, handed out to the fighting men by the wounded. Notwithstanding red-hot barrels, fouled barrels, and breeches that jammed — necessitating the use of the ramrod to eject the cartridge case — the firepower was sustained, and it is estimated that each active man fired about 200 rounds, a total of 20 000 cartridges during the action.

In contrast to the action at Isandlwana, Lt Chard lost 17 men killed, with James Langley Dalton and 7 others severely wounded. The Zulus lost from 400-500 warriors killed.


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