African Hunter Magazine

Lever Action In Africa

'The Lever Action In Africa' by Ganyana

Lever Action In Africa
Matebele war 1893. An interesting mix of firearms, Winchester 92's, Gibbs .461's, Martini-Henry's and some sporting rifles.

There has been considerable discussion on the various web chat forums about the historical "correctness" of using a lever action rifle in Africa, whether it is "traditional" or not. Apart from the fact that such discussion is futile from a hunting point of view - "hunt with whatever you fancy provided it is powerful enough to do the job" - I thought it would be interesting to look at the truth behind Winchesters in Southern Africa. Indeed it is Winchesters we are talking about, because Marlin never caught on out here and the Savage 99 only burst on the scene after the pioneer period was over.

Most of the following relates to the use of rifles in war, rather than hunting. This is correct, in that unless a man was specifically outfitting a hunting expedition for the largest game, the rifle he carried was, first and foremost, for defence - of both himself and his livestock - against both human and animal predators. The rifles suitability for hunting was important and often dictated calibre choice, but it was definitely a secondary consideration. Warfare dictated the pace of firearms development and heavily influenced the popular choice of the day. It must be noted though that many of the colonists simply could not afford the latest and best technology, and in times of relative peace couldn't justify the expense. In some areas caplock rifles remained in regular use right up to the opening of the twentieth century.

The period of Africa's greatest colonial expansion took place at almost exactly the same time as the development of the American West, viz 1836 to 1900, and consequently there are many similarities, not just in the style of wagons used, pioneer attitudes, food, clothing etc but also firearms. North and much of west Africa, went mainly to the French and Italians, whose settlers were armed with the current military rifles of the day. The old Portuguese colonies in Mozambique and Angola were already in decline. Three hundred years of Portuguese rule was still just staggering along. In 1829, the Portuguese traders, settlers and missionaries in the protectorate kingdoms of Monomatapa and the Mambos, were annihilated, along with most of their friendly hosts, by Shoshangans warriors (an offshoot of the Zulu nation in Natal). The last battle in what was to become Rhodesia, took place in 1830 at Nyanga where the survivors from the outlying areas had joined with a few soldiers at the fort there. Forty two men, surrounded by 5000. They had run out of lead, and been shooting gold bullets at their besiegers for the previous two weeks. Now with food finished and insufficient powder and gold for a day's fighting they abandoned the fort, still wearing armour identical to that which the conquistadores had been wearing in 1596 when the post was established. Carrying halberds, swords and crossbows they hacked their way to safety through Shoshangans men (although only four would live to see Beira in Portuguese East Africa).

The old Dutch colony around the Cape of Good Hope was seething under British rule and in 1836 exploded into the great trek which began the scramble to colonise southern and central Africa. The trekboers who walked away from organised government in the summer of 1836 were well armed by the standards of the day, with their long flintlock muskets, designed to be loaded with the butt resting on the ground, whilst the hunter remained sitting on his horse! A generation later, the Boers on the frontier were well behind the times, having been cut off from most contact with the outside world. Change and modernisation came marching into Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria under a Union Jack!

Difficulties of supply severely restricted the introduction of metallic cartridge firing rifles. Percussion was so superior to flint as a form of ignition that change came smoothly (flints had to be imported as there is very little suitable locally so one might as well import percussion caps), but to self contained cartridges - no. The ideal frontier rifle in the eyes of most of the Boers was the interesting Westley Richards "Monkey Tail" rifle. A capping breech loader, that could readily be converted to muzzle loader and back as its owner desired. A prudent man, living in the wilderness, kept a few boxes of the paper cartridges so that the rifle could be used as a breech loader in times of war, or dealing with something large and nasty, and happily used as a percussion muzzle loader the rest of the time. As an added advantage, the "monkey tail" was superbly accurate - far better than the British Army issue Martini Henry cartridge rifle.

Apart from the ammunition supply difficulties, three factors combined to limit the appeal of the Henry's and Winchester 66's, despite the very turbulent nature of the frontier. Firstly, most African game required a more powerful round. Secondly, Zulu and Xhosa shields could often stop low powered bullets at all except the closest range, and thirdly, both Boers and British tended to try and fight any battles at the longest range feasible.

With a war brewing with the mighty Zulu nation in 1879, a fair number of new rifles were imported into Natal and the Transvaal, many of them Winchesters. The Zulus though never invaded Natal and officialdom ensured that even the volunteer units were armed with regulation Martinis. The first well documented use of them that I can find is at the Battle of Majuba in 1881. The Boers were fighting to free the Transvaal republic from British rule, and due to a quirk of liberal politics, a goodly number of Scottish settlers in "the disputed territories" along the Zulu frontier had the option of siding with the Transvaal or loosing their farms. (Britain, of course had gone to war two years earlier against the Zulu, partly to protect the claims of farmers in the disputed area, but having defeated the Zulu now wanted to give them everything anyway!). Majuba was a sure thing battle. The British held an impregnable position in a natural basin, on top of a virtually unclimbable mountain with a force of over seven hundred men. A force of about 110 men, less than half of them armed with breechloaders climbed up to drive them off, whilst several hundred provided covering fire from the base about 900 yards away. Amongst those climbing the hill to drive the British off were two young Scotsmen, the oldest recently returned from university in Edinburgh, and both armed "with the latest pattern of Winchester repeating rifle" (from the photo they appear to be '76's - a rifle and a carbine).

Lever Action In Africa
Cartridges of the frontier. The official rounds - left to right - .476 Webley revolver round, .44-40 Winchester, .577/450 Martini Henry, .303, and the popular civilian choices - .45-70, .461 Gibbs and .450 Musket - used in many 'civilian' Martinis

The British bungled the battle in style. Units were mixed together, the Highland brigade commanded largely by unfamiliar English officers, the under trained new officers forgot to tell the men to lower their sights as the attackers closed, and the best tactician on the hill was cut down early on by a bullet from a "monkey tail" rifle in the hands of a Boer at the base of the hill. The Scottish farmers fighting on the Boer side bellowed orders in Gaelic to the Highland brigade holding one portion of the rim, accurate Boer rifle fire picked off the officers and an unlead withdrawal became a rout. Sir George Coley, Governor of Natal and the Transvaal lay dead, with a musket ball through his head. What role those two Winchesters played is not clear, but in the close range fight for the lip of the basin, their fire-power must have been significant.

Lever Action In Africa
The survivors of the Mazowe patrol 1896. Civilians are armed with shot guns or Martini-Henrys. The militia with Lee Metford rifles and the lone policeman with a Winchester 92.

With the removal of the British, the Transvaal took a leap backwards in development, and most of its citizens were too broke to pay attention, let alone buy new rifles. Natal was a different matter. Greater prosperity meant more rapid adoption of new technology, and with the Zulu defeated, but in no ways crushed, sitting right on the border there was considerable incentive for isolated farmers and traders to own something with a bit of fire-power. An advert from a Durban gun dealer in 1884 announces recently arrived stocks of '73's and 76's as well as plentiful supplies of .44 WCF (44-40) and .45-75 ammo. I can find no mention anywhere of Winchester in other calibres being imported prior to the '86's introduction. In many ways, this makes sense. The .45-75 round was more than powerful enough for all of the plains game that a farmer would encounter, and, by virtue of its magazine, a better choice to confront a lion or leopard with than a Martini. For the few remaining buffalo, elephant and hippo, something larger was needed but these were not hunted "on chance" so specialised rifles could be taken along on such hunts. For everyday use though the Winchester '76 was a sensible choice for Natal, with its thicker bush and closer hunting and fighting ranges than were usual on the highveld. For children or a "house gun" the '73 in .44-40 was right. Adequate for the smaller antelope and sufficiently powerful to take care of all human adversaries. The settlers along the border needed them, for in March 1888, the new Zulu king, Dinizulu led a rebellion against British interference in his country's affairs. Dinizulu's warriors comfortably won the first round, killing off the magistrates imposed upon them but also killing most of the traders and farmers within reach. In a scene as old as the Cape colony, and often repeated thereafter, there were dozens of little engagements between isolated Europeans and organised mobs of natives. As always, a little warning and sufficient ammunition, proved life saving, but the plentiful supply of Winchester repeating rifles often proved crucial.

The next big push north took place in 1890, with the pioneer column of the British South Africa Company moving through present day Botswana to occupy, firstly Mashonaland, and then, within a few years, all of present day Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. Single shot Martini Henrys were the issue rifle of the pioneers, whilst old solid framed Webly 1876's were the standard revolver. The company may have been parsimonious in their choice of rifle (the bolt action, magazine fed, Lee Metford .303 was available) but many of the pioneers brought their own rifles with them, especially with the combined whiffs of gold and further war.

Lever Action In Africa
Stand to arms in a civilian laager. The rifles carried represent the best of what was available in the mid 1890's. Visible include a Mauser, Lee-Metford rifles and carbine and a couple of Winchester 92s

On the 4th December 1893, Major Allan Wilson and his men were annihilated by Lobengula's Matebele warriors. Both sides were armed with Martini-Henrys, and with odds of 4000+ to 34, the outcome was inevitable and the white troopers did the only thing possible - sell their lives as dearly as possible over the course of a memorable day's fighting. There was considerable political backlash. Would Major Wilson's party have been able to break off the engagement at 6am when the request for peace negotiations were rejected if they had been better armed? Would the main column, six miles away, have been able to drive the Matebele back and reach them before the last of Wilson's command fell in the late afternoon? There were a whole host of other political questions and much finger pointing to place blame on somebody's shoulders, but the Chartered company were forced to re-arm the police and militia. Winchester model '92's were the choice and a thousand were ordered in 1894.

A typical group of pioneers. The firearms carried represent each man's idea of the perfect survival piece or the best he could afford! Rifles L-R - Martini-sporter, military style Martini-Henry, muzzle loading elephant rifle. Double Rifle, Winchester 86, Cape double (Rifle shotgun combination)

Amongst the pioneers themselves Winchester '86's were common, with .45-90 and .40-82 being the most popular and .45-70 a distant third. The main competition to the Winchesters were the Lee Metfords. Winchesters were more expensive, but fired a heavier bullet of larger diameter. The .303 shot a lot flatter, but the early 215grn round nosed FMJ ammo was a poor performer on even medium sized game. Some model 92's and a very few '73's were bought in for private use since government ammo was available, but they lacked the range or the knock down power of the competition. As in the American West, every pioneer went armed outside of the few towns. A revolver was only necessary if you travelled on horseback and alone, but everybody needed a rifle to keep lion and human predators away from their horses, donkeys or draught oxen. Since neither human raiders nor lion came singly, a repeater made sense. For people, the .303 was OK, but for lion, big bullets were much in demand. Baden Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) recounts shooting a lion eight times in the chest with round nosed military ball from his .303 before it showed any signs of being hit - not what is wanted on a dark and stormy night, with the male roaring up-wind trying to stampede your stock, and three or four lionesses creeping in for the kill. Considering how common lion encounters were - (in the first seven years of Rhodesia's existence, not a single party made it from Fort Tuli, on the Botswana border, to Fort Salisbury, the capital, without at least one brush with lion) - it is not surprising that the big Winchesters were what the people wanted. Human troubles, prior to the '96 rebellions were much rarer events, and usually confined to petty pilfering and stock theft. There was only a single murder in the first six years.

The rebellions in Matebeleland and Mashonaland in 1896 spelled the end of the line for the Winchester in Africa. Large numbers of the model 92's had been issued to the native police, who had mostly deserted and joined the rebels. Imperial troops had to be bought in to suppress the rebellions and they brought with them large numbers of superb Lee Metford carbines, and the new smokeless powder .303 Mk V ammo which utilised the impressive 215 grn hollow point "Dum Dum" bullet. The Winchesters certainly acquitted themselves well in the opening engagements of the rebellions, and the firepower they provided was often the deciding factor in whether the small parties or individual men from the outlying areas reached the safety of the laagers, or died on the trail. By the end of the first few days though, ammunition stocks in Bulawayo and Ft Salisbury were running out. The only ammo available in quantity was .577/.450, .303, 12 bore shotgun and .44-40. The relief parties that rode out from the two main laagers to rescue those besieged in the smaller ones were all armed with Lee Metfords, and the big Winchesters, along with the Martini Henrys, relegated to "home guard" duties. The few Winchester '92's in European hands saw fairly extensive use, but at least 700 M '92 were in rebel hands by the end of the first week.

Lever Action In Africa
The early choices - top to bottom - A Gibbs .461 - the choice of many of the professionals including Selous and Colenbrander. A sporter Martini - popular with those who wanted the convenience of using Government ammunition but wanted greater accuracy than one could usually get with a military rifle. A Webley 1876 Army revolver - standard issue to the Pioneer Corps. A Police issue Winchester '92 and a 1876 Martini Mk II - noted for better accuracy than later models, but jamming was a common problem.

The common Winchesters - top to bottom - an 1873 sporter, an 1886 in 44-70 and a Police issue 1893 in 44-40.

Lever Action In Africa
The civilian choices for those who favoured repeating rifles - top to bottom - Mauser '98 - which emerged as the winner, the Lee Metford carbine - a handy size and effective with Mk V ammunition, and the Winchester '86.

Once the rebellions ended (one by force and the other largely through negotiation, although severe food shortages helped make the Matebele more inclined to be reasonable), the government took active steps to ensure that if such an event was to ever occur again, the rebels would not have a choice pick of repeating rifles. The reformed native police were issued with single shot Martini Henrys, whilst the departing Imperial troops left their Lee Metfords for the Colonial police and Militia. All the M92's that could be found were placed in storage but since at least 500 were unaccounted for importation of .44-40 ammo was banned for ten years. All surviving white males were basically required to purchase (at very subsidised rates) a Lee-Metford - either rifle or carbine, and all immigrants were required to own a .303. You could still own a Winchester and quite a few M95's (in .303) were brought in for those who liked the lever action. Most men who owned one presumably kept their big M86's, but since carrying two rifles was a pain, and the Mk V ammo from a .303 was nearly as effective on lion as a .45-90 slug, they quickly fell from use.

Baden Powell
Baden Powell during the Matebele campaign 1896. He has swapped his issue Lee Metford for a Colt lightning pump action rifle in .44-40.


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