At a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, few nations around the world, with the exception of the American colonies, had stood up to British rule. In 1879 the empire faced the Zulu people in South Africa, and at the battle of Islandlwana the Zulus, led by Shaka Zulu, eradicated the British army. The outnumbered Brits had only rifles and bayonets to protect themselves from the Zulu attacks.
Most of the British soldiers serving in the battles against the Zulus in South Africa carried Martini-Henry rifles into the fight.
The Martini-Henry rifle was a modified version of an American single-shot rifle. The gun featured seven rifled grooves inside the barrel, which helped to increase accuracy. The rifle weight about nine pounds without a bayonet attached, and fired a .45 calibre bullet that could hit a target from 400 yards and could pierce right through an attacker at 200 yards.
However, the Martini-Henry suffered from regular jams, like all black powder weapons at the time, as well as other firing problems. According to the South African Military History Society, the case for the rifle was coiled brass, and so shaped slightly irregularly. The irregular shape caused jams in the breech when the case was supposed to be pushed out of the gun. If the case jammed, the soldier had to manually remove it before firing the next shot, significantly lowering his rate of fire.
The jams from black powder complications and case catches may also have been more frequent due to the consistency of the attacks from the Zulus. The British soldiers were constantly firing, causing the guns to overheat and thus jam more easily.
Each Martini-Henry rifle was equipped with the ability to hold a bayonet, a standard-issue knife for close combat with British enemies.
The bayonet was more than 25.25 inches long, and could add an extra one to two pounds to the gun. Attaching the bayonet may have been necessary with the charging Zulus, but the forward weight of the knife could throw off the balance of the gun, ruining accuracy for some soldiers.
According to the South African Military History Society, British horse brigades carried Martini-Henry carbines instead of the standard issue rifles, which did not have the option for attaching the bayonet.
While the Martini-Henry rifle was the standard issue for the British soldiers in South Africa, some held alternate rifles.
Some soldiers carried the older issue Westley Richars Carbine rifle. This rifle also fired a .45 calibre bullet, but used a paper cartridge loaded with felt. It could not fire as quickly as a working Martini-Henry, and suffered from the same black powder jams as the Henry rifle.
Finally, some soldiers had to settle for even older, muzzleloading Enfield rifles. Though these rifles also used black powder, each shot had to be manually loaded into the muzzle, significantly slowing the rate of fire and leaving the reloading soldier exposed to Zulu attacks.