Many say that the Second Boer War was the first of the modern era. They will site the use of magazine rifles, the machine gun and trenches. Unfortunately that is not quite true. The Spanish American War of 1898 precedes the events of the Boer War by more than a year. Trench warfare in some form has been around since man started beating each other with stones. The machine gun can be debated as far back as the American Civil War depending on your definition. Dr. Gatling was making a machine to make war so terrible we would stop (like that’s going to work!). One turn of the crank handle would send multiple rounds downrange from a number of the Gatling Gun’s multiple barrels. One can say it was a machine gun. However, the common definition requires a single pull of the trigger to send multiple rounds down range from a single barrel. Both these weapons were used in the Span-Am War (Gatlings and Colt M1895 Machine Guns). Also seeing action were Mauser and Krag magazine rifles with high velocity, small caliber, smokeless cartridges. So the Second Boer War was the second war of the modern era. But in neither case did the generals learn enough to keep from making the horrendous blunders of the Great War where thousands of men were sent against entrenched machine guns across open fields.
The arms carried by the Boers were somewhat varied. Their small arms were quite modern and it had a huge impact on the opening days of the war. Over the course of several years the tension between the independent Boer governments and the “outlanders” who immigrated to their lands kept growing. By the time of Jameson’s Raid (funded by Cecil Rhodes) there was little doubt that the Boers must be ready for a possible push by the British into the gold fields of the Transvaal. Therefore, the Boers started buying modern weapons.
At the start of hostilities (the Boer invasion of Natal) the Boer Burgher was fairly well equipped. He was required to bring a horse, saddle, rifle, ammunition and food for eight days upon mobilization. The Boer government distributed large numbers of smokeless powder magazine rifles to the Burghers (citizens) for their use. They were a combination of weapons including Mauser carbines, Krags (both of which were magazine rifles) and Martini- Henry single shot rifles that had been converted to smokeless powder. The trouble with this system was that while well-armed each type rifle used a different caliber of ammunition. This created a resupply problem, especially once the war actually started. The Boers were also armed with a large variety of pistols. While the Mauser auto-loading pistol with ten round box magazine was popular, they were in short supply and everything from Colt Single Action Army revolvers to Webleys to Smith and Wessons and a variety of European weapons were in use, again, each in it’s own caliber. Later in the war, as ammunition resupply became a greater and greater problem the commandos used captured British weapons extensively
The British used a combination of small arms also but had the advantage of most rifles being in a single caliber, i.e., .303. This was true for both colonial troops as well as those coming from Great Britain. One finds the Empire forces using Martini-Henry rifles and carbines, Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield carbines and rifles. The latter two being rifles with ten round magazines. The carbines generally had five or six round magazines depending on type. While the pistol situation was slightly better among the Empire forces there was also quite a variation. Webleys, Smiths, Colts and Mausers were all used to some extent.
British & Boer Weapons
Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles
1886 had seen the invention of smokeless powder by the French. It changed everything! Smokeless powder not only eliminated the clouds of white smoke produced by Black Powder, it increased muzzle velocities and made small caliber long range weapons possible. No longer would the soldier be limited to a close range battle where the smoke obscured his target and gave away his position. He could now engage the enemy at distances up to 800 or even 1000 yards.
In 1888 the British adopted the bolt action, magazine fed Lee-Metford rifle. The rifle was a great success (there were growing pains like any new system). In 1895 they converted to the Lee-Enfield rifle. The major difference between the two rifles was the barrel, but that change increased both range and accuracy. The effective range of the rifle was now 500 to 800 yards. (Effective range means the average shooter can hit a human target 50% of the time at that range.) This was a great advantage but also a disadvantage. It means a soldier can kill at a much greater range. (Old infantry adage: If the enemy is within range – so are you!)
New Zealand Martini-Henry Carbine
Carbines came in different variations of Martini-Henrys and Lee-Enfields. Carbines were issued to cavalry, lancers and in some cases to mounted rifles. Most mounted rifles, however, continued to carry their full size rifle. The advantage of the carbine was less weight and easier to use from a horse. The disadvantage was a decrease in muzzle velocity meaning less range and accuracy.
Above is a Lee-Enfield carbine, note the smaller five round magazine compared to the ten round magazine of the rifles. Also the bolt handle knob is flattened and the upper hand guard is very thin wood which broke easily.
Boers with both Enfields and Mausers
The Model 95 Mauser was bought in large quantities by the governments of to Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, China, Persia, and the South African states of the Transvaal and the Orange Free Statee. These rifles were given by the Boer governments to the Burghers in case they were needed to defend against natives or the British. A safety feature offered by the Model 1895 was a low shoulder at the rear of the receiver, just behind the base of the bolt handle, which would contain the bolt in the unlikely event that the front locking lugs sheared off due to excessive pressure. The Mauser was a magazine fed, bolt operated rifle that, like the Enfield, used striper clips to reload the magazine. South African Mausers were highly effective against the British at long ranges. Resupply of ammunition was to be the problem once the war started.
General Smuts leaning on his Krag
Also bought ahead of time and used by the Boers was the Krag-Jorgensen Rifle. This rifle was used by Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the United States. The unique feature of this rifle was, that where the bolt must remain open to reload a Mauser or an Enfield, the bolt could remain closed and ready to fire while reloading the Krag. The major disadvantage was that the rounds were loaded singly from the side instead of in one motion from the top. Several hundred of these weapons were bought by the Boers and ended up being used by foreign volunteers. Some actually turned up in 1916 in the Irish Rebellion.
Among the latest instruments of war was the machinegun. There were two major machine guns of the Second Boer War: the Maxim and the Colt M1895. The first was what is called a heavy machine gun, it fired the same caliber .303 ammunition as the rifles but the cartridge was loaded with a different powder which led to some operational problems until switched to the rifle cartridge. The Maxim could fire 600 rounds per minute from a 250 round belt and required a crew of four to keep firing, spotting targets and loading ammunition. The maxim was water cooled and could be broken down to be carried by pack animals or placed on a two wheeled carriage much like an artillery weapon. The Maxim weighed sixty pounds without any of the equipment but while it was difficult to move it had the sustained firepower of over 30 men. It was first used in combat in Egypt in 1886 and by the British in the First Matabele War in 1893.
South Australians with Colt MG
Another newcomer to combat (but already used by the US Army and the US Marines in the Span-Am War) was the Colt-Browning M1895. This weapon was nicknamed potato digger due to its unusual operating mechanism, is an air-cooled, belt-fed, gas-operated machine gun that fires from a closed bolt with a cyclic rate of 450 rounds per minute. The US Marines used the weapon in the Philippines in 6mm Lee-Navy caliber and the US Army in 7mm Mauser. Later the weapon would be produced in .303, .30-40 and .30-06. This machine gun was much lighter than the Maxim and, being air cooled, required no water to be hauled about with it. The Colt was also mounted either on a tripod or on a carriage and could easily be pulled by a single horse. Two men plus a driver could easily handle the weapon of 35 pounds.
Australians with Pom-Pom
The first gun to be called a pom-pom was the 37 mm Nordenfelt-Maximm or “QF 1-pounder” introduced during the Second Boer Warr, the smallest artillery piece of that war. It fired a shell one pound in weight accurately over a distance of 3,000 yds. (2,700 m). The barrel was water-cooled, and the shells were belt-fed from a 25-round fabric belt. The Boers used them against the British to great effect so the British were wise enough to get their own. The Pom-Pom had more of a devastating effect on morale than accounting for actual casualties.