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Vintage .22 Rifles

Something un-noticed is guaranteed to catch my attention before long. I like to look ‘off piste’ for guns and rifles that may offer something fun, different and inexpensive to play around with.

Looking over the racks of the Sealed Bids Auction at Holt’s is always an interesting way of passing an hour or so. The rifle section is filled with yesterday’s working rifles, things that have become overlooked and irrelevant to the shooters of this generation. I put the blame for this partly on the shoulders of modern firearms certification.

When a person is likely to be allowed only one rifle of a given calibre, or for a particular use, he is probably going to opt for a modern one in perfect condition. The option to have a few experimental or quirky rifles is no longer open to most people, or at least it is an option that is less than obvious or straightforward.

One particular action that has fallen out of general favour with manufacturers is the Martini. A single shot action, with the distinctive long lever running under the hand of the stock and a falling-block closure of the breech. It was once enormously popular as a military action and then as a target rifle in rifle clubs around the country. As the basis for a sporting rifle, it saw limited use but as a conversion it gained a new role in the 20th century as a cheap and reliable farmer’s small bore rifle.

The British Martini action traces its roots back to 1871 and its adoption, with Henry rifling by the armed forces as a .577/450 calibre rifle. Several variations will be encountered, including the later Enfield-Martini with a safety catch, and versions in .450 and .303. However, it so not the original calibre rifles that are my subject here. The rifle was not an unqualified military success, accurate and hard hitting as it was. The poor quality brass cases originally used and black powder fouling combined to cause jammed actions in battle. 

The Martini really became reliable and was at its most effective when teamed with drawn brass cases and smokeless powders. However, by then, the action was obsolete and was replaced by the British Army with the .303 Lee-Enfield bolt action rifle. It saw sporting use as a .577/450 cal. for African hunting purposes well into the 1920s, firing Kynoch Cordite loaded cartridges with a 500 grain bullet, which was quite effective as a big game stopper.

What I have started to notice during my auction visits are the civilianised versions of military Martini action rifles, converted when de-commissioned or produced for practice or cadet use. Notable among the converters are Birmingham gunmakers W.W Greener and C.G Bonehill. They took military actions and re-barrelled them for .22 rim-fire, also making the necessary firing pin adjustments and sometimes applying better wood and modified stock and forend patterns. 

These rifles will generally be stamped with the words ‘Converted for the NRA by W.W Greener’ etc. Generally these will be 1883 pattern .303 in origin, but earlier models, like the 1874, are also to be found. Most of the conversions date between 1902 and 1914 and today they can be bought in sound and shootable condition for well under £200. A rough one with a good bore and working action may only set you back £30.

Greener continued with the Martini action in miniature form as the ‘Cadet’ or ‘Miniature Club Rifle’, selling for as little as £2 12.s 6d and offering ‘King’s Cup’ and the ‘Queen’s Cup’ rifles (converted military models), retailing for around £7.00 and £5.00 respectively and both capable of shooting excellent groups at 100 yards. Specially engraved and finished versions of the .22 Martini were produced in small numbers and fitted with a telescopic sight as quality sporting rifles, known as the ‘Something Special’.

The Martini continued to be used widely as a target rifle for decades, some one encounters have been heavily customised as target rifles, with expensive sights, stocks and weights. However, it is as a sporting rifle that I find them most interesting, for, while quite heavy, they are very stable and accurate and surprisingly quick to fire and re-load. 

The last Martini-type .22 rifle one encounters takes the form of the ‘BSA International’ target rifles, which in the 1950s was expected to shoot sub 1” groups at 100 yards ten times consecutively before being released for sale. They seem in little demand nowadays and can be bought for £50 or less. They seem to me to be a very tempting basis for a custom rig to put accurate and inexpensive rounds into 100 yard quarry, like rabbits or squirrels from a stable rest, such as a vehicle or high seat. A pocketful of .22 ammunition makes for quick loading and an unexpectedly rapid rate of fire can be achieved.

Holt’s had a pile of Martinis in their June Sealed Bids auction. I noted one, a MKIV converted to .22 L.R by the London Small Arms Company for the Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs. It featured a slimmed 30” 

barrel, rear and fore sights, a neat, short forend and stock of good shape and colour. With an estimate of £150-£250 it was a nice piece of practical history. I duly submitted a modest bid and waited to see the result. 

I bought a beautiful Francotte Martini-action miniature .22 six months ago in the same sale, for under £200 and the quality was stunning. These are definitely worth looking out for. The workmanship that went into making them would cost a fortune today and the action is tried and battle tested. Every gun safe should contain at least one Martini action small bore.