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14th February 2005Zulu firearms - a matter of timing.
By Paul Cubbin
I was reading through an account of the battle of Khambula today and was struck by the assertion that Zulu snipers hiding in the famous dunghill were pouring accurate fire onto the defenders. They were using Martini Henry's (presumably from Isandlwhana) to good effect and had to be driven from their position swiftly to avoid heavy casualties. The account mentioned that at least some of them were skilled Zulu hunters familiar with with rifles. It struck me that had Rorke's Drift occured later in the war, or the Zulus had managed to get hold of modern rifles and ammunition in any numbers prior to 1879 then the result may well have been different. When looking at photographs of the terrain around the post it is shocking to me how few defenders were killed by firing from the rocky shelf above Rorke's Drift. The men behind the obsolete fireamrs were obviously unskilled in their use and this doubtless saved many British lives. Yet after only a couple of months (and presumably a decent supply of practise ammunition) the victors of Isandlwhana were proficient enough to cause serious damage with the rifle. A thousand modern rifles at Ulundi in mid 1878 with plenty of bullets would have spelled serious trouble for the boys of the 24th (and friends).
16th February 2005Coll

The battle at the Little Bighorn is a good example of an underestimated enemy, not only outnumbering you, but having more firearms and knowing how to use their knowledge of the terrain to use these weapons to their full advantage.

In the recent documentary on the archaeology at the Little Bighorn, evidence of several firearms in use during the battle were found, not all of them being older makes.

There was a compelling scene in which the point where a trooper met his death there was evidence he was being fired upon by 9 different weapons, the poor guy had no chance, stuck out in the open with a single-shot carbine.

To compliment this mentioned documentary I managed to purchase a great book about archaeology at the Little Bighorn along similar lines as the tv programme.

They Died With Custer.
by Douglas D. Scott, P.Willey, Melissa A. Connor.

It is fascinating.

19th February 2005Andrew Garton
Richard Fox as wrote a wonderful book on the archaeology of the Little Bighorn I think you would like it Coll.Lt.Col.Custer and his five company's which only numbered about 212 men where up againt 2,000 very skilled warriors of the Dakota[Sioux nation] as well Cheyenne.He had considerable less men then the British at Isandlwana.My opinion is that the British held together better then the 7th.While the British made attempts at making stands,the Little Bighorn was a compleate route.Capt.Benteen stated that if you where to take a handful of corn and scatter it on the floor you would get an idea of what the battle was really like.
Anyway need to get some sleep
20th February 2005Michael Boyle

It wasn't really a rout or even a complete massacre, most of Benteen's and Reno's portions of the 7th Cavalry survived. (Thankfully for me as my great-great grandfather was one of the civilian scouts sent with Reno's command that day!)(Actually some of your G-G-parents may have seen him as he ended his days with Bill Cody's 'Wild West Show', although I'm not yet sure he accompanied Wild Bill on his 'World Tour'.)

Custer's command was certainly routed, and based on recent archaeological evidence it seems that rather than a grand "Last Stand" there was more a series of "Little Stands" and running massacres not unlike Isandhlwana and Fugitive's Drift.The similarities however don't end there.

Custer, like Chelmsford had too little respect for his foe's ability (although each should have had more) too much expectation for his own troop's abilities and no clear idea of his foes strength and dispositions before splitting his forces. From there the battle took on less a text book approach than that of a Monty Python script.

To continue the analogy, Custer played the part of the Zulus while the Native Americans took on the part of the British ( the obvious discrepancy in total strengths not withstanding) Custer split his command in three parts ; He would lead the 'right horn' down through the north of the village (more of a city as it turned out), Reno would take the 'left horn' up from the south and Benteen, the 'chest', rather than press the attack would deploy to prevent the 'savages' from escaping (?!). (Custer's plan may have lacked 'loins' but the same can't be said of the man!)

Only upon engagement did the the scope of the folly become clear. No one will ever know what Custer said but I have it on good authority that Maj. Reno's first words were "HOLY S**T !!!" (or the Victorian equivalent).(Although a British officer in his place might have simply said "By Jove" and yawned.)

(Reversing the analogical roles.) As it turned out Reno was first to engage because Custer ran in to too many 'dongas' that he hadn't known were there (Hmm?) and upon realizing the full extant of the undertaking Reno uttered his famous second words " THIS ain't gonna work!! " and unlike the Zulus at Kambula who became pre-maturely engaged , promptly began a fighting withdrawal (not unlike Durnford, though at times 'routish') until consolidating with Benteen.

The fight lasted another day and took on many of the aspects of Rorke's Drift with Reno playing the part of Chard (I don't deny Dalton's involvement in the defences of RD but Chard was a RE officer and certainly capable of establishing an effective defence) and Benteen taking on the role of Bromhead (organizing counter-attacks and encouraging morale by both 'the boot' and by example).Not to mention the troops who did their duty.

In the end the 'Indians' broke off the battle. So as you can see ,by the the standard of who holds the field last, the 7th Cavalry actually won the "Battle of the Little Big Horn".

Or would have had they not taken that opportunity to flee, er... continue their strategic withdrawal.

For a far more inclusive view of the battle see :

Which contains a remarkably similar account to that passed down to me by my Grandfather from his Grandfather, neither of whom were named Herendon, and neither of whom I would put above embellishment. (Though I have nothing concrete to base that opinion upon as most of their stories have panned out.)

Little Big Horn was the apogee for Native Americans - Isandhlwana was the apogee for the Zulus.

Rorke's Drift was seen as the epitome of British Arms - Reno and Benteen's unnamed 'kopje' defence didn't even make the front pages. (Power of personality perhaps.)

Of course news of Custer's death reaching the East Coast amid the Independence Centennial didn't do too much to recommend it.



20th February 2005Peter Ewart

I had an idea there had been an article about these comparisons published in the Journal of the SA Military History Society & I've just located it. If you haven't seen it, it appeared in Vol 3 No2 (Dec 1974), entitled "A Comparative Analysis of the Battles of Little Big Horn & Isandlwana/Rorke's Drift and the similarities between the American Plains Indians and the Zulus." It is by Roderick G. Murchison III.

This is one of the JSAMHS articles which is available online and you'll find the society's website & index of articles very easily with a quick google search if you haven't done so before. (Didn't save the URL).

20th February 2005Coll
Although I've not read very much with regards to Custer, the man and his actions at the Little Bighorn, what I have seen does portray him as a kind of 'glory hunter'.

Do you think that is what some people might have considered Durnford to have been and would have added to the other issues of his character, that may have affected their judgement of him more severely ?.

20th February 2005Michael Boyle

Thanks for the reference, I'd read portions of the site through search queries but had never thought to take it from the home page. There's a ton of good stuff in there! (I may be forced to take a speed reading course if I ever hope to digest all the information on my ever growing list.)


My impression so far is that many,if not most, Victorian era officers from most countries could be described as 'glory hunters' but you do have a point in that there does seem to have been criticism leveled at Durnford for that trait none the less.

Perhaps there was an ill- defined 'glory' line that he was seen as crossing.


20th February 2005Coll

I think most soldiers want glory on one level, by performing a heroic act during a situation that happened 'naturally'.

However, it would take it to another, more dangerous level, if you 'create' a situation deliberately, in the hope that you obtain a kind of glory, but only resulting from a victory, which is an all-or-nothing type risk, that could end in not just your death but the deaths of most, if not all of your men, due to a personal search for fame.

A very high risk decision and also a very high price to pay if it all goes wrong.

21st February 2005Andrew Garton
I know Custer felt he was at a point where he felt the need to attack.Custer like the Zuli impi wanted to wait another day to attack.Soldiers going back along the trail discovered Indians going through some lost items.This in turn led Custer to belive he had lost the element of surprise and must attack as soon as possible.Plus to the best I know word of the Battle of the Rosebud had yet to reach him.Custer in my opinion should have dug in and waited,I think the Indians would have come out to meet him.
21st February 2005Coll

Judging on by what I've read and seen about Custer, I don't think he would have had the patience to wait, he wanted to take the fight to them and if he was a glory hunter, he wouldn't have wanted someone else to 'beat him to it'.

23rd February 2005Michael Boyle

Most accounts today fault Custer for his precipitous attack. True, he thought he would lose the element of surprise when spotted by the 40 or so Indians thus sending Reno's third of the 7th Cavalry after them and on to attack the village (which no one had yet seen) and formulating the rest of his attack plan on the spot not unlike Chelmsford's seemingly vague attack plans the morning of 22 Jan. However, had Chelmsford consolidated his command and 'dug in' he could well have won at Isandhlwana, if Custer had consolidated and 'dug in' the only likely change to the outcome would have been the massacre of the entire 7th Cavalry rather than just a third of it.(There were no re-inforcements near by and Custer was still vastly out-numbered and out-gunned.)

Custer was a self admitted 'glory hound' going back to his Civil War days and had always been considered very lucky. Unfortunately he seems to have used it all up by June of 1876. Chelmsford has never seemed to me to be a 'glory hound' (other than in his successful attempt to defeat Cetshwayo prior to Wolesey's taking command) and upon finding himself short of luck on his first invasion made sure to manufacture his own for his second go.

The Battle of Rosebud Creek holds some interesting comparisons to Isandhlwana as well in that both were very confused battles fought over a wide area by three different defending groups ,if one includes Chelmford's command along with Pulleine's and Durnford's as Chelmsford was close enough to join in. When Crook called back Mills' command(who was @ 8miles away), Mills caught the Lakota and Cheyenne in a pincer and forced them to retire from the field which could have happened at Isandhlwana had Chelmsford returned (intact) earlier in the day.

Further Gen. Crook's command included Native Americans (Crow and Shoshone) who are credited with saving the entire command from defeat by repeatedly beating back enemy attacks and by counter attacking and forcing them away.(Somewhat different from the NNC though not unlike Durnford's mounted men.)

It's also interesting that one can glean some insight towards the MH/ Repeater discussion ;the U.S. forces fired 25,000 rds. for a score of 13 dead foe (unknown wounded) with a similar amount expended by the Lakotas and Cheyenne for a score of 10-28 dead (debated)and @50 wounded. 455 Boxer-Henry vs. repeater pistol rounds!



23rd February 2005Michael Boyle

Back to the original topic, although the Zulus had many fire arms, the fact that they were never able to use them to great effect had,I now think ,less to do with lack of training than the 'foreigness' of ranged combat to their primary tactical combat doctrine.

For the Native Americans the long gun was a natural progression from their primary arm ; the bow,and fit in seamlessy with their tactical combat doctrine. The Zulus on the other hand, with little ranged combat emphasis, would have had to over-haul their entire combat system in order to effectively utilize rifles,not to mention their cultural system.

'Washing spears' is an entirely different concept than 'washing bullets' and they would have had to make a major leap in cultural reassement in order to effectively incorporate rifles. In fact I think it would have required an even greater 'revolution' than that of Shaka's.

Certainly by the time of Ulundi, when many Zulus would have had time to improve their skills, their marksmen could have had a telling effect on the packed square (not to mention the two pieces they had captured from Isandhlwana if they had been able to learn how to use them). However ranged combat seemed to be anathema to the Zulu culture and sense of personal courage.(Although Cetshwayo seemed to be trying to allow for it as best he could.)


23rd February 2005Coll

I watched a documentary which talked about how the progression of weapons through the ages, allowed you to be further and further away from your enemy when fighting.

However, rather than meaning that it was less of a risk, putting a distance between you and your foe, the programme was actually suggesting that it was more to do with making war less traumatic for the soldiers, if they were killing people from a reasonably long way off, in so doing, somehow making it less personal, I guess, if you can't really see your target clearly.

In many ways that is why snipers were quite different from other soldiers, as by using specifically designed weaponry with powerful telescopic sights, usually with the intention of selecting individual targets, unable to avoid seeing their victim very clearly, there would have been a sort of personal element involved.

In a book I was reading about snipers in Vietnam there was a comment made by an officer, I think, about the U.S. snipers when he observed them using M14 rifles fitted with telescopic sights and silencers, roughly along the lines of saying that to know there were experts like them on the battlefield, he was very glad they were on his side.

These very snipers became not only the hunters but the hunted as the Viet Cong started to use counter-sniping methods in areas where the U.S. snipers were known to be, making it almost a priority with regards to removing the threat of these lone gunmen from the battlefield.

23rd February 2005Keith Smith

The use of firearms by the Zulu went back many years before the Zulu War. There is a story that when Dingiswayo returned to his Mtethwa people, he brought a horse and a rifle. More certain, however, is that Dingane formed a mounted unit armed with rifles: the isiThunyisa. While it is suggested that this was a regiment, it was more likely to have been a special isigaba added to the iziMpohlo regiment after the massacre of Piet Retief’s party at Gungundlovu, when the firearms and horses of those killed were given to a special unit. They were so armed and horsed at the battle of Blood River later in the same year. The name is based on the hlonipha term isithunyiso for isibamu, meaning ‘gun’.
27th February 2005Andrew Garton
Custer simply needed to hold out 1 day,for Gen.Terry to arrive.Perhaps he should have sent Capt.Yates with several companies to lead a faint attack.Draw the Indians to the remaing 10 companies.Lets not forget Custer did have experince fighting Indians before.I have always taken exception to him be called a glory hunter.He did what he thought was right under the circumstances.Custer likewise was not without his Crow Scouts,Bloody Knife did warn Custer there would be lots of Sioux but like Chelmsford did not have enough respect for his enemy.Everyone who is familar with the fight knows Custer thought the Indians would run,just like Chelmsford thought the Zulu's would have to be forced to fight.Perhaps Tom Custer should be labeled a glory hound as well for his capture of 2 Confederate Battle Flag after all it did win him 2 medals of honor.Anyways.Would like to hear what you have to say Mike.Best Regards
28th February 2005Michael Boyle
This may take a while,I'm presently working 13 hour night shifts with no days off for at least another three weeks so little of my time is my own.


Custer was part of Terry's column and shouldn't have attacked without him although the order's he recieved from him were rather vague.(Sounds rather 'Durnfordish' doesn't it?)

George Armstrong Custer was always a hero of mine while growing up,right up there with Davy Crockett (the more so as my neighbor was one of the 'Gen'l's' great -great grandsons and had one of his Civil War sabers displayed over his mantel).

However,over the years further historical research of both of these gentlemen have brought them more into perspective. I none the less continue to hold them both in great esteem.

Thomas Ward Custer did indeed win two Medals of Honor (the only dual winner during the U.S. Civil War),a fact which seems to have driven George to ever greater feats of arms in an attempt to 'even-up' their sibling rivalry.(Competing with 'only' one MoH would have been bad enough! ) Ironically Thomas died with his brother at the Little Big Horn.No I don't consider Tom a 'Glory Hound' for he avoided promoting himself. (To the point that few people today even know he existed!)

(Aside- "Buffalo" Bill Cody recieved the MoH as a civilian scout for an action at Platte River Montana in 1872, one of few civilians to do so. However it was one of 900 that were recalled in 1916 as unwarranted, his only to be reinstated in 1989.)

George Custer had something of a bad luck life. After falling in love with his future wife her father hired him to do odd jobs but he never allowed him in the house.He finished 34th of 34 in his West Point class and in a matter of days was court-martialled for failing to stop a fight between cadets.(Mooted by the need for Union officers in 1861).

He did of course go on to be brevetted five times (for courage and leadership) becoming the youngest (at age 23) Maj.Gen. in the Civil War. He was only wounded once but had eleven horses shot out from under him and did indeed accomplish great feats.He is also remembered for having one of the largest casualty rates among his troops than any other commander's.(Quite an accomplishment in U.S.Grant's Army!)

Custer(during the CW) was famous for his "uniform" of black velvet gold-trimmed cape, crimson neckerchief, white hat, thigh-high boots and long curly blonde hair.His famous quote after Gettysburg "I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successfull charge of cavalry!" gives some insight towards his personality.

In 1866 his was promoted to Lt.Col. (and honorary Maj. Gen.) and assumed the command of the 7th Cavalry.

In 1867 15 of his troops deserted and he ordered his officers to hunt them down and execute them without benefit of courts martial. Shortly thereafter he himself deserted to spend a day with his wife and was arrested and court martialed for " disobeying orders,deserting his command,failing to pursue Indians who had attacked his escort and ordering his officers to shoot deserters". He was convicted and sentenced to one year's suspension and forfeiture of pay.Many incidents in his life can be seen as motivating factors to overcome mistakes and misfortune.

In 1868 he was recalled to service and promptly destroyed the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle claiming to have killed 103 "warriors" who turned out to mostly women and children.Not only was Chief Black Kettle a U.S. ally but at the time the U.S. wasn't even at war with the Cheyenne! (This incident is why the Cheyenne 'had it in for him' later.)

In 1874 he wrote "My Life on the Plains" to raise the public awareness of his exploits.(He was not yet widely known outside army circles.)

In 1876 he found eternal fame at the cost of one third of his 7th Cavalry including two brothers,one brother-in-law and one nephew.He was immediately iconized to the point that today most people still think that the entire 7th Cavalry was massacred with him.However not all fell into that lionization.(It must be remembered that he DID face the largest number of Native Americans ever assembled for combat in the history of North America.)(As far as we know.)

Part of his obituary from the Chicago Tribune:
"...He was an officer who did not know the word fear, and, as is often the case with soldiers of this stamp, he was reckless, hasty, and impulsive, preferring to make a dare-devil rush and take risks rather than to move slower and with more certainty. He was a brave, brilliant soldier, handsome and dashing, with all the attributes to make him beloved of women and admired of men; but these qualities, however admirable they may be, should not blind our eyes to the fact that it was his own madcap haste, rashness, and love of fame that cost him his own life, and cost the service the loss of many brave officers and gallant men. ..."

President Grant quoted in the New York Herald:
"I regard Custer's Massacre was a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary - wholly unnecessary."

The New York Times of 8 Jul 1876:
The facts as now understood dispose most people here to lay blame for the slaughter upon General Custer's imprudence and probably disobedience of orders. But criticism is kindly and charitable in tone, as it would not be had he not fallen with his command in the thickest of the battle.(Interesting when juxtaposed with Lord Chelmsford's inquiry.)

Chicago Tribune 7 Jul 1876:
"Custer . . . was a brave, brilliant soldier, handsome and dashing, but he was reckless, hasty and impulsive, preferring to make a daredevil rush and take risks rather than to move slower and with more certainty, and it was his own mad-cap haste, rashness and love of fame that cost him his own life, and cost the service the loss of many brave officers and gallant men. He preferred to make a reckless dash and take the consequences, in the hope of making a personal victory and adding to the glory of another charge, rather than wait for a sufficiently powerful force to make the fight successful and share the glory with others. He took the risk and he lost."

The above gives you some idea why I am not alone in considering Custer a "Glory Hound". I however don't consider the trait to always be a negative quality,only when it accounts for unnecessarily high casualties.Custer was not always guilty of this.His brashness often won the day,but his impatience (and quest for glory) played a large part in his final downfall.

A Custer comparison to Chelmsford would be more complete had Lord Chelmsford shared Custer's fate. As it is the similarities to the two battle's are none the less striking given the two commander's previous combat experience and surprising lack of respect for their opponents.However their personal lives couldn't have been more different.

Custer and Durnford comparisons should be similar but interestingly are not in one respect; Where the post battle inquiry to Isandlwana left the dead man holding the bag, the LBH inquiry tended to blame the living (if not writing it off as an act of God). However I can see some similarities in both men's personalities and motivating factors to 'make good' previous misfortune.


28th February 2005Andrew Garton
I do remember that Custer was told by the army that they placed to much confidence in his ability as an Indian fighter to place any real orders on him.And if I am correct Gen.Terry told Custer to do what he thought was best when he struck the trail.Don't be greedy Custer wait for us,was what Gen Terry told him.Just a quick thougt.Best Regards Andrew
1st March 2005Derek C
Paul, to answer your question ... the way I see it :

Shooting down hill from the from the rocky shelf above Rorke's Drift, one must firstly estimate the range resonably accurately, then compensate for the fact that you are shooting "downhill". Because you are shooting downhill, you are assisting the bullet in falling towards the centre of the earth, and must compensate by actually aiming "higher". In modern Rifles, this is roughly adding 1/8 to the distance (depending on gradiants/ballistics etc.). Hence, the Zulu's up above, should have increased their yardage, the Brits, to conpensate, should have reduced theirs because they were firing uphill.

The Zulu's were mainly using obsolete smooth bore rifles, which at the best of times is hit 'n miss, hence the low casualty count.

For the record, I was not a sniper during my millitary career, but what was termed a "sharp shooter", a few steps below.

In my opinion, while the Brits may have expended thousands of rounds during the Zulu war and out-shot them in all aspects, their greatest musketry lesson was learnt during the Boer war.