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2nd August 2005Muskets and misfires
By Paul Cubbin
I was watching a repeat of the Michael Palin series where he travels to the Sahara when I saw something fascinating.
I don't remember the name of the place, but he was on the way to Timbuktu (spelling optional) and he stopped at a town to chat to a fella who was a professional hunter.
This guy shot monkeys in the surrounding rocks and hills and used - wait for it - a flippin great black powder musket. Now, I'm no expert and the thing was pretty grotty, but it was definitely a flintlock (it wasn't a jezzail, too short). Ol' Mikey asked for a demonstration and the guy charged up the pan, cocked it and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He gave it another go, nothing happened. Eventually after about half a dozen abortive attempts it went off, hurling sparks and smoke six foot in every direction. This gave me some clue as to how Zulu 'snipers' above Rorkes Drift managed to cause so few casualties. Obviously the musket on the programme was much older, but here was a guy with an obsolete weapon (and he's probably more practised than most Zulus were) with low grade gunpowder (not much call for the good stuff anymore) and with questionable ammunition. As for the stinging cloud that it produced; not having seen one so graphically demonstrated before I can understand why many Zulus were loth to hold the weapon too close to their body.
3rd August 2005Bill Cainan

I've had a look at the question of RD defenders being hit bysniper fire from the Shyiane terraces. The medical records show that those defenders hit were struck by musket balls as opposed to bullets (which confirms the Zulus were armed with either smoothbore or rifled muskets as opposed to more modern rifles such as the Martini-Henry. You then need to consider the range involved. It is 385 yards from the south wall of the defence to the caves on the Shyiane terrace. This is between three and four times the maximum range of the smoothbore musket, and just outside the maximum effective range of the rifled musket !

My conclusion therefore, is that any hits on RD defenders were probably inflicted by snipers that were much CLOSER than has been previously assumed - possibly in bushes between the terraces and the south wall. It would have to have bene a remarkable shot for a rifled musket to have hit from the caves on Shyiane, though not impossible.

The fire from the terraces against the south wall would have been almost totally ineffective, and would certainly have not carried to the north wall.

3rd August 2005Paul Cubbin
Bill - I have a couple of questions with reference to the extreme (musket) range from the heights to the south wall.
Firstly, it has been fairly well documented (accurately?) that the Zulus had an imperfect grasp of the adjustable sight mechanisms on more modern fireamrs and often put them to maximum in the belief that the bullet went faster. Is there any evidence that Zulus on the heights adopted 'mortar' techniques and pointed the barrels in the air to achieve a greater range? Astonishing as it may seem, French infantry actually did this in the Franco-Prussian War, mush to the annoyance of senior officers! Unsurprisingly such a bizarre act reduces the accuracy to almost zero, but would Zulus have even understood enough about projectiles and parabolas to try it? Their experience with thrown weapons may have made it obvious. And if so, would even this, combined with the superior height, have increased the range sufficiently?
Your comments about snipers closer to the post make sense as Zulus did demonstrate a remarkable ability to conceal themselves in grass not much higher than a cricket pitch (no, Peter, no, control yourself). One thing that bothers me, though, is that contemporary accounts suggest the southern fire was almost exclusively from Shiyane (Oskarberg) and a musket fired any closer would leave a dirty great cloud to betray the firer. Is it your opinion that this is just 'heat of the battle' with the defenders merely mentioning the greatest concentrations of attackers and not every stray individual?
3rd August 2005Bill Cainan

No, pointing a musket barrel in the air will only make the musket ball land closer to the firer ! I think what you are referring to relates to the Martini-Henry. By putting the sights up to their maximum, the barrel actually does point considerably higher than horizontal !

I have no problem with the bulk of musket smoke coming from the Shyiane, it's just my belief that these snipers would not be hitting anything. I'm sure that there would have been, as youu say, "stray individuals", maybe survivors of the first attack, under cover behind bushes/long grass/folds in the ground who were firing at the south wall from a much closer range.

3rd August 2005Paul Cubbin
Hmmm, my schoolboy Physics may be a little rusty, but an arced parabola will throw a projectile further than a flat one. Anyhoo, I agree that its pretty iffy for a musket to fire 300-odd yards even so. And yes, I knew that the old chestnut about the sights referred to the Martini Henry; I was quoting it as a referral to the unfamiliarity of Zulus with firearms in general. Such are the pitfalls of internet communication - it would all be much easier and more satisfying over a pint in the pub!