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Zulus using British rifles at Rorke’s Drift

     It is still widely believed that the Zulu army looted the camp at iSandlwana, capturing hundreds of modern British Martini-Henry rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Then, at Rorke’s Drift later that same day, the Zulus used these very rifles against the British garrison. ’That’s a bitter pill,’ says Michael Caine in that movie; ’Our own damn rifles!’


     It is quite true that the victorious Zulu army at iSandlwana stripped the camp of almost everything of value, and certainly took away all the modern firearms. There were probably the best part of a thousand Martini-Henry rifles and Swinburne-Henry carbines, together with a smaller number of older muzzle-loading Snider or Enfield types, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. These were nominally presented to King Cetshwayo but the king, aware of how jealously those who had one prized it, allowed those who captured them to keep them. And these were certainly used to good effect at later battles in the war, once the warriors had had time to practise with them - notably at Khambula Hill (29 March 1879).


     But the rub is that the regiments who attack Rorke's Drift had been in reserve at iSandlwana, had not encountered significant numbers of British troops before crossing into Natal, and had not taken part in the looting of the camp - so their opportunities to acquire a  British firearm that day were so limited as to be nigh on impossible.


      In fact, the Zulus already possessed many thousands of firearms before the war began and, powerful though the image of a ’warrior nation’ armed only with shields and spears is, the truth - as usual - was far more complex.


     Guns had been a staple of traders operating in Zululand almost since the beginning of contacts between the Zulu and European worlds, and indeed one reason King Cetshwayo so valued his white friend and adviser John Dunn was that Dunn procured thousands of guns for him through Portuguese Mozambique. Most of these guns were obselete British, European or American patterns dumped on the world market when the the super-powers upgraded their armaments. Most were percussion muzzle-loaders and some were older flintlock patterns. They were often in poor repair, good powder was in short supply and bullets often had to be home-made. Those factors, together with a general lack of training, made most Zulus very poor shots.


     Despite some convoluted theories which suggest the Zulu reserve might have wiped out isolated British detachments on their way from iSandlwana to Rorke's Drift, there is no proof of this. It's possible they might have captured the odd rifle from British fugitives fleeing the battle but it's highly unlikely that the new owner had time to work out how it worked before going into action at Rorke's Drift.


    The only real evidence that Martini-Henrys were used by the Zulus at Rorke's Drift comes from Col. Sgt. Bourne who recalled that he recognised the sound of Martini-Henry bullets whistling over-head. But Bourne - an otherwise credible source - was  writing many years later and was familiar by then with the established regimental lore regarding the rifles captured at iSandlwana; it's far more probable that if he did genuinely hear Martini-Henry rounds they were the result of the cross-fires that occasionaly developed during the battle.


     The Martini-Henry was undoubtedly the most accurate weapon employed on the battlefield and it is likely that - as they did in later battle - if the Zulus had been using them then they would have achieved more casualties by rifle-fire than they actually did. British medical reports regarding the soldiers hit by Zulu bullets are unanimous that all of the wounds were caused by musket balls rather than Martini-Henry bullets.


     It's interesting to note, though, that whilst most Zulus were poor shots not all of them were. Some had been employed by European hunting parties who secured permission to operate in Zululand in the 1860s and 70s, and had been taught to shoot; Prince Dabulamanzi himself was a noted shot, having been taught by John Dunn, and it's likely his entourage were too.


     So it's particularly interesting to note that several soldiers, including Cpls Allan and Lyons, were all picked off and wounded in a short space of time while manning the same section of barricade facing the Shiyane hill, from where a good deal of Zulu fire was directed. Nestled in behind the mealie-bag barricades these men must have presented very small targets at ranges of about 300 meters - only their helmets would have been clearly visible - and yet still suffered hits from bullets which only narrowly missed their heads.


     Which raises the interesting possibility that at least one Zulu on the hillside was a very good shot - and since local legend has it Prince Dabulamanzi himself stood in that area during the battle, who knows - it might even have been him.


     And if he had had a good captured Martini-Henry to hand, the damage he might have wrought could have been much greater indeed, and perhaps even affected the outcome of the battle itself.