Swinburn Henry


Gun Review – Swinburn Henry

by Phil Cregeen

The Swinburn Henry Carbine in outward appearance is very similar to a Martini Henry, however while it has a Henry barrel of .577/450 calibre the action is of the Swinburn patent. In simple terms this has a falling block and cocking lever as in a Martini, but employs a V leaf spring and hammer to strike the firing pin and a side lever which allows the hammer to be cocked without operating the under lever. For a full description see The Single Action Patent Site listed below.

The carbine has a 23.25 in. barrel and is fitted with a bayonet bar, the fore-end is secured by a pin and the sling eye. The rear sight is graduated to 800 yds. on the ladder and 1 -3 on the bed, with two screws in the stock for a leather cover. The butt, fitted with a steel butt plate, is secured by a screw through an upper tang forming part of the body and lower tang which is a component of the action.

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RHS marked V & R Blackmore London Note cocking lever

LHS Marked Swinburn Patent

Barrel marked Henry Patent A & T 1064 with Birmingham proof marks, 52 (bore) and crown over AS

Barrel marked Henry Patent A & T 1064 with Birmingham proof marks, 52 (bore) and crown over AS

MP 139 issue mark believed to be Natal Mounted Police, the barrel and butt have a crown over AS inspection mark. Although not Ordnance Board issue Swinburn rifles and carbines were inspected at RSAF Birmingham and records show that between 1875 and 1886 a total of 450 rifles and 1340 carbines were processed in four batches, it would appear that all of these were sent to Natal. Was this carbine one of them? Were other Colonial forces armed with the Swinburn?

MP 139 issue mark believed to be Natal Mounted Police, the barrel and butt have a crown over AS inspection mark. Although not Ordnance Board issue Swinburn rifles and carbines were inspected at RSAF Birmingham and records show that between 1875 and 1886 a total of 450 rifles and 1340 carbines were processed in four batches, it would appear that all of these were sent to Natal. Was this carbine one of them? Were other Colonial forces armed with the Swinburn?

You will find the Swinburn Patent here along with others of the period: The Single Shot Action Patent Site

The Swinburn Henrys of the Natal Volunteers

by Terry Willson

Formed in 1854 to protect the young colony from the perceived threat of the Zulu Nation upon its border, the Natal Volunteers saw more active service than any of their counterparts within the British Empire. Up to the time of their incorporation as militia into the Union Defence Force in 1912 they had participated in four campaigns, the Zulu and Boer Wars and also the Langalibalele and Bambata Rebellions. Over this period almost sixty units had been formed, retained, disbanded and even resurrected. Some are with us to this day though their future is now uncertain. During their fifty-eight years of independence they were issued with thirteen different rifles and carbines. Of these, the longest serving and perhaps the most famous, was the Swinburn Henry, the rifle of the Zulu War which in its carbine version armed the Volunteer Units and Natal Mounted Police at the battle of Isandhlwana.

Following the marginal performance of the Calisher Terry Carbine during the Langalibalele Rebellion of 1873 and continued presence of the Zulu threat, it became obvious to the Natal Government that rearmament with a modern rifle was both essential and very urgent. Some Sniders had been acquired, but at best these could only be considered as a stop-gap measure. The obvious choice was the newly introduced military Martini Henry, but in view of commitments to the British Government, the manufacturers were unable to supply. The eventual compromise involved the purchase of the Swinburn Henry in its rifle and carbine versions. This weapon, manufactured by the Abingdon Gun Works, traded upon its external similarity to the British service rifle but was in effect a patent circumvention with a different but more fragile action. Perhaps, its only advantage was an external cocking lever, but it did at least take the standard Martini Henry cartridge thus simplifying supply.

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Although the Swinburn retained the Henry rifling, its action was more complex and prone to wear with a troublesome firing pin assembly.

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The Swinburn Henry Rifle and Carbine as used by the Natal Volunteers with their bayonets, the Patterns 1871 Cutlass, 1875 Commercial and the Bowie Knife. The two rifles with the Pat.’75 and Bowie bayonets are stamped “J.K.L.” This is believed to stand for “John Kerr London”, a possible agent.

 

Over the period 1875 to 1886 some 880 rifles and 1380 carbines were purchased, mostly just before the Zulu War. With these came 190 bowie knife bayonets for the carbines and an unknown number commercial Pattern 1875 for the rifles. The carbines were issued to the mounted units and the rifles to the infantry. At a later date, probably in 1885, a batch of Pattern 1871 ex-naval cutlass bayonets were obtained for the newly formed Naval Volunteers based in Durban. The bowie knife bayonets were mainly issued to the Natal Mounted Police and two of the Mounted Rifle Regiments. They were not considered a success, with a survivor of Isandhlwana even referring to his as a “foolish thing”.

Early Volunteer Marking on a Swinburn Henry The mark between the V and the rack number is obviously a stylized Union Jack.

Early Volunteer Marking on a Swinburn Henry The mark between the V and the rack number is obviously a stylized Union Jack.

Later Volunteer Marking on a Swinburn Henry Probably a locally made replacement die

Later Volunteer Marking on a Swinburn Henry Probably a locally made replacement die

At Isandhlwana on the 22nd January, 1879, the Swinburn Carbine had its moment of glory, or perhaps rather, its darkest hour, for at that battle some 55 of the Mounted Volunteers and Natal Police met their end fighting to the last. Back to back they fought, volleying into the Zulu warriors with their carbines until their ammunition was exhausted. Then with revolvers, knives and bayonets until they were finally overrun and slaughtered to a man. The seared hands of some of the disembowelled bodies bore witness to the rapidity of their fire and the fierceness of the fight. “Tell England that we died doing our duty” reads the memorial tablet in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg and few could disagree.

Conversely, the Swinburn Rifles saw limited active service in a war where mounted men were mainly needed as scouts. Volunteers in the infantry units served as town guards and as such saw no action.

Sir Evelyn Wood’s Bodyguard during the Zulu War with Swinburn Henry Carbines. Whiles these men are not Natal Volunteers, it is highly probable that their carbines are Natal Government issue .

Sir Evelyn Wood’s Bodyguard during the Zulu War with Swinburn Henry Carbines.
Whiles these men are not Natal Volunteers, it is highly probable that their carbines are
Natal Government issue .

Natal Naval Volunteers parading with their Swinburn Henry  Rifles and Pat.1871 Cutlass Bayonets.

Natal Naval Volunteers parading with their Swinburn Henry
Rifles and Pat.1871 Cutlass Bayonets.

Volunteer Marking on a Commercial Pat .1875 Bayonet.

Volunteer Marking on a Commercial Pat .1875 Bayonet.

The Swinburns remained in service until 1895 when they were replaced by Martini Metfords, By this time, after up to twenty years of use, they were out of date, in poor condition with bad sighting and worn out barrels. They had become most unpopular and few lamented their passing – a sad end to an historic rifle.

These two articles were first published in the NZAHAA e-Gazette # 16 April 2012