Written by Neil Harmse
Chapter 24. A Martini Henry – Resurrecting an ‘Oldie’
A number of guns were put up for sale by a retired hunter and among these was a very rusty, badly pitted sporting Martini Henry .577/450 made by Isaac Hollis & Son, an established British gun-maker. At first glance, the gun was in terrible condition and about all it was good for was a ‘wall-hanger’. Apparently the gun had at one stage been wrapped in canvas and buried inside an anthill. The reason for this was unclear, but it might have been during the Boer War when guns were being confiscated, or perhaps during WWI or WWII, for the same reason. At one stage, it had been a beautiful sporting gun made with pride by this prestigious Birmingham gun-maker.
On examination, I found that the inner working and barrel were actually in good condition. These must have been well greased and lubricated to protect the firearm from the elements.
A friend, Glyn Dennis, mentioned to me that he was looking for an old gun to work on and restore as a project. When I showed him this Martini, he thought I was mad! I said that it was mechanically sound and that once the ‘cosmetics’ had been restored, it would be worthwhile as a shooter. Rather hesitantly, he took my word for it and applied for a licence. We took the gun to Hennie Mulder, a competent gunsmith who I knew could do justice to this project.
The first order of business was to dismantle the gun and start removing all surface pitting from the action, barrel and external parts. The gun in its original state was embellished with tasteful engraving in typical ‘English’ style. Removal of the pitting on the surfaces and polishing would also remove a lot of this engraving, so we carefully took clear, close-up photos of the engraving before sanding and polishing began. Hennie had an engraver, Whitey Loggenberg, whose work was excellent and who would be able to re-cut the engraving the same way it had originally been. (Sadly, Whitey passed away a few months after he had worked on this gun – another great loss to the gun industry.)
With a lot of careful polishing on the flats of the action, the barrel and other parts were cleaned of all pitting and blemishes, after which all traces of oils and grease were removed.
The Martini action before restoration.
The gun parts were now ready for preparation for the blueing process. Hennie decided to use his special ‘Rust Blue’ process to give the action and barrel an attractive, deep blue finish, similar to the one it had originally had. This is a fairly long procedure, as the parts must be coated with the blueing chemicals and placed in a humidity cabinet for about 12 hours to allow the chemicals to start the rust process. These are then removed and the parts placed in boiling water. The excess oxidation is ‘carded’ or rubbed down and then the process is repeated. This is done over and over for a few days, until the desired deep blue finish is acceptable.
Once ready, the parts receive a final polish with very fine steel wool and are then oiled to retain the blue finish. Hennie’s able assistant, Sam, is excellent at this polishing and manages to get the metalwork to a mirror-smooth finish.
While the metalwork was being attended to, it was time to tackle the woodwork, stock and fore-end. The stock was not in good condition and required quite a lot of sanding and filling of the grain. The scratches, dents and dings were removed by steaming and more sanding. Once the stock was almost completed, the final rub-down was done with fine water-paper and then fine steel wool to smooth the wood. The gun was then ready for staining. The checkering then had to be carefully re-cut and a final oil finish applied.
The fore-end had to be repaired, as there were a few places where wood had been chipped off. To fill these, pieces of matching wood had to be shaped and glued into place, then sanded and smoothed, before staining and oiling. The front of the fore-end had originally had a piece of buffalo horn tip and this had to be remade and fitted. The plates for the wedge pin that held the fore-end to the barrel also had to be fitted flush with the wood.
The gun had originally come with a ramrod which fitted under the barrel. This had disappeared and an original one could not be found, so Hennie made one from a hardwood rod which he turned on the lathe. He also made brass fittings for jag and brush attachments and fitted these to the ends of the rod.
When Glyn collected his gun, he could hardly believe his eyes. The old Martini Henry had been transformed from a piece of rusty scrap into a gun to be proud of, worthy of a place in any collector’s armoury.
Many of these fine sporting Martini Henry guns made their way to Africa and India in the battery of guns of ‘gentlemen adventurers’ who came to hunt in areas of the British occupied colonies. Who knows where this gun had travelled to and what game had fallen to its shots? If only it could talk!
It is an immense pleasure to see a gun that left the gun-maker’s bench about 150 years ago being brought back to life and again taking its rightful place on the hunting field.
The Martini rifle after restoration.