Category Archives: Pre WW1

Mannlicher 1886 Rifle

In 1886 the Austro-Hungarian Army introduced a new five shot repeating rifle firing a large black powder 11.15mmx58mm rimmed round. This rifle, designed by Mannlicher, was cutting edge technology when it was purchased and used an innovative en-bloc loading system that allowed five rounds to be loaded at once, rather than individually. This dominance was to last just a year as the French introduced smokeless powder with their new Lebel rifle that made the old large bore Austrian design obsolete overnight. Today this large 11.15mm cartridge has been designated as an obsolete calibre in the UK which means that the rifles that fire it are legal to own as complete firearms with none of the butchery that deactivation normally requires.

I recently picked up one of these M1886 rifles in what was described as Grade 3 condition. I was expecting the worst but was pleasantly surprised to find that although a little rough around the edges, the rifle I received was actually in remarkably good condition for a 133 year old firearm:imageimageThis rifle is a straight pull design which means the bolt does not need to be rotated in order to charge the rifle. The bolt is just pulled straight back and then pushed forward again to chamber a fresh cartdridge, the bolt running in a milled channel at the rear of the receiver:imageNote the safety catch that blocks the bolt and prevents the rifle from firing. As the bolt is not rotated, it does not have conventional locking lugs of more modern designs, instead there is a single locking wedge on the underside of the bolt:imageThis was perfectly adequate on slow moving black power but would be a weak point when some of the rifles were converted to small bore smokeless powder cartridges. The bolt itself has a spring extractor and a central firing pin, still extant here due to its obsolete calibre status:imageCartridges were supplied in sprung metal en-bloc clips that, unlike later chargers, were held inside the rifle during firing, the clips providing the feed lips for the cartridges. The clip was inserted into the top and a sprung arm inside the rifle pushed the cartridges up from below:imageOnce the last cartridge had been chambered, the now empty clip was free to fall away out a slot in the base of the large magazine under the rifle:imageA large sight is fitted at the rear of the barrel with the sights graduated in schritt- an obsolete Austrian measure of distance equivalent to a pace. The normal ranges are marked on the left side of the sight:imageThe right side is for use with the volley sight. This was the fashionable rifle feature of late Victorian era rifles and on this case a small V-Notch sight can be pulled out the right hand side of the rear sight:imageThis is lined up with this forward pointer on the right hand side of the barrel band:imageNote also the front sling swivel, a rear swivel is fitted to the butt of the rifle:imageThe front end of the rifle incorporates a front sight blade, a bayonet lug and a stacking rod to make a rifle tee-pee with:imageThe 1886 pattern rifle was sold to a number of other countries, including Chile and I believe that this is an export pattern rifle rather than one produced for the Austro-Hungarians as it lacks the Austrian proof marks and hasn’t been upgraded to an 8x50R smokeless round which was pretty much universal for those in the service of the Habsburg empire.

Is there any link then between this rifle and the blogs usual British Empire content? Yes, although I confess it is a very tenuous link. Anecdotally,  it seems that the British volunteers to the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War were issued Mannlicher 1886 rifles to practice with before being handed more modern arms to fight the fascists with.

Whether the story s true or not I don’t know, this is however a fascinating historic rifle with a mechanically very interesting action that happily is legal to own in live condition in the UK. World Wide Arms seem to have imported a large quantity of these recently and it is from them that I obtained this rifle for what I felt was a very reasonable sum.

Salvaging a Warship Postcard

Raising a sunken warship, even in shallow water, has always been a very difficult affair. Even today this remains one of the most difficult tasks facing any navy, as witnessed by the difficulties the Norwegian navy are currently having raising the sunken frigate KMN Helge Ingstad which sank last year. Modern technology definitely helps in the salvage of sunken warships, but even a century ago there were commercial companies who specialised in salvaging ships and despite the work being dangerous, the rewards could be substantial. The Royal Navy did not really have any established salvage equipment or expertise until the First World War and so commercial companies were used when a ship needed salvaging. This image dates, I believe, from the Edwardian era and is printed on extremely heavy card stock. It shows a warship being raised by means of ‘camels’:SKM_C284e18121008500The camels appear to be a set of flotation bags. Divers would have placed cables under the keel of the ship attached to these bags. Compressed air would then be flooded into the camels which would rise and lift the ship with them:SKM_C284e18121008500 - Copy (3)This action appears to have been successful and tugs are waiting to pull the stricken vessel to safety:SKM_C284e18121008500 - Copy (4)Whilst the flotation bags have lifted the ship, the freeboard remains miniscule and water is washing over her decks:SKM_C284e18121008500 - Copy (5)A large gaggle of workers stand, watching the operations from the vessels upper deck:SKM_C284e18121008500 - Copy (6)Sadly I have no context on this image, I am pretty sure it is a British warship and the style suggests it is a late Victorian or early Edwardian warship of a decent size, but beyond that I have no information. Which vessel it is and where and when it was salvaged are a mystery and as ever if you can offer up more information please get in touch.

Indian Army Pith Helmet Case

My thanks go to a friend and fellow collector who kindly gave me tonight’s object. Pith helmets were expensive but fragile purchases for officers at the turn of the twentieth century. They were easily crushed and so it was customary to purchase a special travel case for the helmets that protected them when not being worn. For the officer with money it was possible to purchase a very nice storage tin, with one’s name and posting sign written onto the outside. Tonight we are looking at an example of one of these tins purchased by a Major Berry before he went out to India:imageThe tin is oval in shape and made from tinplate that has been stamped, bent and then riveted and soldered into shape. Sadly this example has suffered over the years and when first discovered had a large dent on one side that has been carefully straightened out. It is by no means restored to new, but does look attractive enough to display now.
The top of the box lid has a carrying handle riveted to it:imageA metal hasp is fitted to the front of the box to allow the lid to be padlocked shut, a sensible precaution in early twentieth century India where the perception was that thievery was rife:imageThe exterior of the box is enamelled in a light brown shade, the interior though is painted a shade of blue:imageThe box is sign written in two places and the quality of this is first rate, suggesting that this was an expensive item when new. On the lid in black shaded white lettering is the owner’s name ‘Major Berry’:imageThe front is also marked, this time in red shaded gold lettering saying ‘Calcutta India’:imageThis was presumably Major Berry’s posting and this case would have accompanied him out to the Raj and back again. Until 1911 Calcutta was the capital of British India and I suspect this box dates to before the Great War so the Major would have been part of the military presence here.


West Yorkshire Rifle Volunteer’s Button

Late Victorian militaria does not come up too often, but occasionally a piece comes out of the woodwork like tonight’s object which is a little white metal button, marked up to the ‘4th Administrative Battalion, West Riding of Yorkshire Rifle Volunteers’:imageThe central feature of this button is a Tudor rose for the county of Yorkshire and the white metal was commonly used for volunteer regiments rather than the brass/gold coloured insignia of regular regiments. The rear of the button indicates that it was manufactured by Firmin of London:imageThe Rifle movement grew out of an invasion scare in 1859 which led to thousands flocking to locally formed Rifle Volunteer Corps. A large number of independent RVCs were raised in the West Riding of Yorkshire, including the ‘Barnsley Rifles’ and the ‘Rotherham Rifles’ and in August 1860 some of these were grouped into the 4th Administrative Battalion, Yorkshire West Riding RVCs, based at Doncaster (dates are those of the first officers’ commissions):

  • 18th (Pontefract) Yorkshire West Riding RVC, 2 March 1860
  • 19th (Rotherham) Yorkshire West Riding RVC, 29 February 1860
  • 20th (Doncaster, Great Northern Railway) Yorkshire West Riding RVC, 5 February 1860
  • 21st (Doncaster Burgesses) Yorkshire West Riding RVC, 5 February 1860
  • 36th (Rotherham) Yorkshire West Riding RVC, 19 October 1860, joined 4th Admin Bn 1862
  • 37th (Barnsley) Yorkshire West Riding RVC, 21 November 1860, transferred from 3rd Admin Bn 1863
  • 40th (Wath-upon-Dearne) Yorkshire West Riding RVC, March 1863, based at Hoyland Nether until 1866

The 20th RVC was recruited largely from employees of the Great Northern Railway (GNR) at Doncaster Works and was commanded by the railway’s locomotive superintendent, Archibald Sturrock. The other units in the battalion were mainly recruited from coal mining and related industries. A Rotherham Rifle Band was formed and by August 1861 it was competing in brass band competitions.

Walter Spencer-Stanhope (1827–1911) of Cannon Hall and Horsforth Hall, a Captain in the 2nd West Riding Yeomanry, who had raised the 36th RVC, was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the 4th Admin Bn on 11 February 1863. He later became Member of Parliament for the Southern Division of the West Riding (1872–80).

A drill hall was built at Wharncliffe Street, Rotherham, in 1873, prior to which the 18th and 36th RVCs had used the Court House and Corn Exchange in the town.

The RVCs in the 4th Admin Bn were consolidated as the 8th Yorkshire West Riding RVC at Doncaster in 1880, still under the command of Lt-Col Stanhope.

This then dates this little button to before 1880 and after 1860 so we have a nice twenty year window in which it must have been manufactured and used.

Life Guard’s NCO’s Mess Postcard

A mess is a social space in an army barracks where men can gather off duty to relax, drink and socialise together. Different ranks have their own separate messes, with one for officers, one for NCOs etc. These have been an essential part of barracks life for many centuries and tonight we are looking at a wonderfully evocative postcard of the mess of the NCOs of the Life guards, the country’s premier cavalry regiment:SKM_C284e18102411420This image probably dates from the Edwardian era, but many features would be familiar to men of today. A large and well stocked bar is still a necessity:SKM_C284e18102411420 - Copy (4)As is the provision of recreation facilities, today a pool table has probably replaced one for billiards, but the principle is the same:SKM_C284e18102411420 - Copy (2)Other features, such as the gas lighting, have long since disappeared:SKM_C284e18102411420 - Copy (3)This large and opulently furnished room is heated by a single, large fireplace at one end. It is surrounded by various trophies won by the mess:SKM_C284e18102411420 - CopyThese trophies also appear on the large central table, along with potted plants:SKM_C284e18102411420 - Copy (6)This table served a number of purposes. It allowed members of the mess to write and do work at it, but was also used for formal dinners in the mess when wives and senior officers might be invited for a night of food, drink and enjoyment.

Other details to note include a small letter rack by the bar, criss-crossed ribbons providing places for correspondence to be tucked into until collected:SKM_C284e18102411420 - Copy (5)Interestingly NCO’s messes were often held in higher regard than those of the officers. The author GM Fraser writing in 1970 commented:

The ignorant or unwary, if asked whether they would rather be guests of an officers’ mess or sergeants’, would probably choose the officers’. They might be motivated by snobbery, but probably also by the notion that that the standards of cuisine, comfort, and general atmosphere would be higher. They would be dead wrong.

A 1956 publication highlighted the importance of a well-run mess:

The prestige of a regiment or unit depends to a great extent upon the tone of the Sergeants’ Mess. A well-run Mess will ensure contented and hardworking members. A slack and bad Mess leads to general slackness and inefficiency amongst its members as well as getting the regiment a bad name outside from people who come as visitors.

The standards of the mess in the above photograph are clearly very high, as one would expect from a regiment as prestigious as the Life Guards. It has been suggested that it could be taken at either Hyde Park Barracks or Combermere in Windsor. Sadly both these barracks were demolished and redeveloped in the post-WW2 era and so this fine mess no longer exists.

Boer War Sweetheart Badge

Sweetheart badges from the First and Second World Wars are very common today and have appeared a number of times on the blog. Earlier examples though are much rarer and the concept only seems to have started becoming popular at the turn of the twentieth century. Tonight we have an early example of these badges that dates back, I believe, to the Boer War. This little badge is less than an inch across and consists of a pair of rifles on a ring:imageThe rifles are particularly well rendered and it is clear that they represent the old Long Lee Rifles:yxjthKuIt is impossible to say if it represents the Magazine Lee Metford, Magazine Lee Enfield or the Charger Loading Lee Enfield which were all visually similar, but from the nose it is clear it does not represent the later Short Magazine Lee Enfield introduced into service in 1903. The older Lee pattern rifles were used extensively in the Boer War and as these items of jewellery seem to be most popular during times of conflict then this seems a likely date for the badge. Tokens such as this were given by the departing soldier to a loved one to ensure they would think about him whilst he was away- the significance obviously greatly increasing if there was a chance of him being killed on active service.

The rear of the badge has a simple wire pin fastening that allows it to be worn on a lapel or scarf:imageThis badge then is a nice survivor from over 110 years ago and as is so often the case was bought for a couple of pounds from a seller who had no idea of its significance.

Print of Hector MacDonald

Normally I scan in photographs and postcards with a high resolution scanner for our regular Sunday night spot. Tonight however we are looking at a fine framed print of a Victorian major general that is currently hanging in my entrance hall so you will have to make do with a photograph of the print!imageThe print represents Major General Hector MacDonald, a controversial character from the late Victorian army. He is in his full dress regalia as an aide de campe to King Edward VII:imageThis print was clearly framed around the time it was printed and may have hung in the mess of a regiment, it is an impressive and particularly large picture. He wears an impressive range of medals including the DSO and the aiguillettes of an Aide de Campe to the King. Hector MacDonald’s likeness is seen on a daily basis by millions of people who have no idea who he is. This is because he was the soldier who inspired the label on the famous Camp Coffee brand:Im200904WCL-CampHector MacDonald won the rare distinction of rising from the ranks to major general. The son of a crofter-mason, he enlisted as a private in the Gordon Highlanders at the age of 18. In 1879 Macdonald took part in the Second Afghan War, where he gained a reputation for resourcefulness and daring. By the end of the campaign, he was nicknamed “Fighting Mac” and promoted to second lieutenant. Returning to Britain by way of southern Africa, he saw action in the First Boer War (1880–81). At the Battle of Majuba Hill (Feb. 27, 1881) he was conspicuously courageous.

From 1883 to 1898, Macdonald served in Egypt and the Sudan, taking part in the Nile expedition (1885) as a member of the Egyptian constabulary. Transferring to the Egyptian army as captain in 1888, he demonstrated an extraordinary talent for command during the Sudanese campaign (1888–91). When Kitchener undertook the reconquest of the Sudan in 1896, he placed Macdonald in command of an Egyptian brigade, which he handled so outstandingly at the critical Battle of Omdurman (Sept. 2, 1898) that he became a national hero and was given the thanks of Parliament. As a major general commanding the Highland Brigade in the South African War (1899–1902), “Fighting Mac” contributed much to Boer defeats at Paardeberg and Brandwater. In 1902 he was given charge of the troops in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). Confronted by an “opprobrious accusation” (apparently a charge of homosexual practices), he shot himself in a Paris hotel room.

Modern historians have treated Hector MacDonald more kindly than his contemporaries and it is today suggested by many that the rumours of inappropriate relations were spread by those in senior positions who were affronted that an ordinary man could rise through the ranks and become such a senior officer. Hector MacDonald remains a hero to many in his native Scotland and although his funeral was meant to be a small family affair, 30,000 turned out to pay their respects in Edinburgh.

This framed print appeared on the second hand market last year for just £7 and looks very impressive on the wall. Sadly due to its size my wife has relegated it to the back entrance hall but he now greets all visitors as they enter and leave!