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