Africa: The Impact of Firearms II

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Battle of Isandlwana (Charles Edwin Fripp)

Africans often tried to compensate for the inadequacies of their muzzle-loaders by ramming in enormous charges of powder. Not only did this risk bursting the barrels, but the recoil made it difficult and dangerous to hold the gun to the shoulder. In Gabon in 1856 the explorer Paul du Chaillu watched his companions load their muskets, and ‘wondered why the poor cheap “trade” guns do not burst at every discharge. They put in first four or five “fingers” high of coarse powder, and ram down on this four or five pieces of iron-bar or rough broken iron, making the whole charge eight to ten fingers high’ (du Chaillu, 1861). The Austrian explorer Ludwig von Hohnel once borrowed a porter’s gun to finish off a wounded zebra, and was nearly killed by the recoil. He later swore that he would never again use a weapon which he had not loaded himself. According to Weeks the firing method used on the Congo was as follows:

he holds the butt of the gun against the palm of his half-extended right hand, and, without taking aim, he pulls the trigger with a finger of his left hand. By this mode of firing he guards his eyes from the sparks of the powder as it flashes in the pan, and his head from being blown off should the barrel burst from the excessive charge of powder.

Not surprisingly the results of shooting in this manner were unimpressive. On one occasion during F D Lugard’s campaign in Bunyoro, for example, an estimated 1,000 rounds were fired at his marching column with both muskets and breech-loaders from the far side of the Semliki River, a distance of about 100 yards, but no one was hit.

Even troops in European employ were often inadequately trained, because ammunition was too expensive to be wasted on target practice. Commander Verney Cameron, who took thirty-five African ‘askaris’ with Sniders on his trip across the continent in 1873, once had each of them fire three rounds at a roughly man-sized packing case set up 100 yards away. ‘Although there were no hits,’ he remarked resignedly, ‘the firing was fairly good.’ Another British officer, Captain Wellby, once saw two of his men firing repeatedly (against orders) at a friendly Turkana tribesman who was walking slowly towards them, obviously not appreciating the danger. Luckily they missed him completely, leaving Wellby unsure whether to be more angry about their disobedience or their marksmanship. W D M ‘Karamoja’ Bell, who made his name as an elephant hunter in the Karamojong country of northern Uganda in the first few years of the twentieth century, was once forced to issue .450in. calibre cartridges for his men’s .577in. rifles; the poor fit naturally meant that the trajectory of the rounds was completely unpredictable once they left the barrel, but Bell claimed that the men’s aim was so wild that if anything their accuracy was improved. On the other hand Paul du Chaillu (who had made his fortune from a previous book on Africa) took with him on his 1864 expedition 35,000 rounds of ammunition, most of which was intended for target practice before setting out for the interior. This stood him in good stead when he and seven of his men were attacked by hostile tribesmen, and du Chaillu is one of the very few African campaigners who does not complain about his men’s poor shooting.

Another potential problem was that the world view of many Africans encouraged them to think of shooting skill in magical terms, and countless European soldiers and explorers were asked for charms that would make the locals’ musketry as effective as that of the invaders. Speke encountered a classic statement of this attitude from King Mtesa in Uganda:

The king turned to me, and said he never saw anything so wonderful as my shooting in his life; he was sure it was done by magic, as my gun never missed, and he wished I would instruct him in the art. When I denied there was any art in shooting, further than holding the gun straight, he shook his head. (Speke, 1863)

Given these disadvantages, it might seem strange that Africans did not prefer their traditional weapons to the expensive imported firearms. Certainly not all the reasons for the popularity of guns are explicable in terms of technical performance. They no doubt included questions of prestige (firearms being associated with wealth), and simple fashion. But there were also practical considerations. Most traditionally armed warriors carried shields made of animal hide, which were effective against spears and arrows but could usually be penetrated by a musket ball. Guns were also popular because of their usefulness for hunting. Even large antelopes were seldom killed outright by spear or arrow wounds, even if poisoned, and usually had to be followed on foot for miles before they succumbed. A musket ball, however, with its much greater velocity and penetrating power, would bring the game down much more quickly, saving the hunter hours of walking. In the same way, if a man was hit by a bullet he seldom got up and carried on fighting as would often be the case with a superficial arrow or spear wound.

The musket, despite its poor long-range performance compared with more modern firearms, may also have had a greater effective range than traditional missile weapons: most African bows were designed for hunting in dense cover rather than for distance shooting, and the arrows rapidly lost hitting power at more than a few dozen paces, as well as being easily deflected by intervening vegetation. Firearms could therefore be an effective counter to skirmishing tactics. Among tribes such as the Ila of present-day Zambia, who specialized in throwing their spears, a show of bravado in the face of enemy missiles was much admired. The Ila took this to an extreme by doing without shields, relying instead on flourishing an elephant’s tail, or a stick ornamented with a bunch of feathers, to distract an opponent’s aim. But they had no effective counter to the guns adopted by their Barotse and Matabele enemies, whose balls travelled too fast to be seen and avoided, and they suffered a series of crushing defeats.‘When guns are pointed at you,’ one warrior complained helplessly to a missionary, ‘what can you do?’ (Smith and Dale).

The noise and smoke of gunfire could have a decisive moral effect on opponents who were not used to it, and there are numerous examples of spearmen who refused to face firearms, even though theoretically they should have defeated them easily. Richard Burton recorded that the Tuta tribe, who terrorized the region south of Lake Victoria, had ‘a wholesome fear of firearms’ (Burton, 1860). They would avoid contact with a caravan carrying the red flag of Zanzibar, knowing that it would be accompanied by men with guns. According to the account of the not always reliable Portuguese explorer Major Serpa Pinto, when he was attacked in his camp on the Zambezi by an overwhelming force of Barotse spearmen, one of his askaris accidentally loaded his Snider with explosive rounds filled with nitroglycerine (presumably brought along for use against elephants). After firing a few rounds the gun inevitably burst, but by then several of the enemy had been literally blown to pieces. The Barotse, faced with this gruesome spectacle, quickly retreated, even though the weapon which had done the damage was now out of action.

Spears Versus Guns

Of course it should not be forgotten that not all African warriors were afraid of guns, and their psychological effects might wear off quickly. In 1871 David Livingstone reported that a tribe on the Upper Congo which had been victimized by Arab slavers had recently ‘learned that every shot does not kill, and they came up to a party with bows and arrows and compelled the slavers to throw down their guns and powder-horns’ (Coupland, 1947). Ignorance might provide the motivation for men to face guns, just as much as familiarity. Bell says that the Karamojong at the time of his visit ‘were then at a most dangerous stage of ignorance with regard to firearms. Their experience of them had been gathered on raids with the Swahilis, and they all firmly held the conviction that all you had to do to avoid being struck by the bullet was to duck when you saw the smoke.’

Most Africans who came into contact with firearms eventually adopted them. This included even successful warrior peoples such as the Zulus and Matabele, although they tended at first to incorporate them into their traditional close-combat tactics as a sort of superior throwing weapon, to be discharged just before closing with their stabbing spears. But there were those who never saw the need to make the transition. The best known of these conservatives were the Masai, who in one battle in 1895 speared around 900 Swahili and Kikuyu gunmen with minimal loss to themselves. Their neighbours the Hehe had begun to rely on guns in the 1870s, but by the time of their fight with the Germans at Lugalo in 1891 they seem to have fallen back on traditional methods. In this battle, a Hehe eyewitness said, they ‘shot one gun (probably as a signal to attack); they all moved quickly and fought with spears’ (Redmayne). Certainly the results vindicated their decision, as the German column was almost annihilated.

The ducking tactic described by Bell among the Karamojong was widely adopted as a counter to firearms by those who still relied on handto-hand fighting. It required agility and quick reactions as well as courage, but it was frequently successful, and it is worth examining the facts behind it. When a flintlock musket is fired there is an appreciable delay between the flash of the priming powder in the pan and the detonation of the main charge (though ignition by means of percussion caps, which had become commonplace in Africa by the late nineteenth century, does not produce the same highly visible flash, and so the situation is less clear-cut). Precise data on the muzzle velocities of African firearms is lacking, but we can assume that the low quality of the powder and the large amounts used would cancel out, so that when it left the muzzle a round from a smoothbore would be travelling at about the same rate as one from a contemporary British Army musket. This could be as high as 1,500 feet per second, but modern tests have suggested 800 feet per second as more reasonable, especially if the round does not fit tightly in the barrel. Even with a proper round ball the velocity falls to about half that after 200 yards, and the irregularly shaped pieces of scrap iron often used in Africa would lose speed more quickly because of increased air resistance. So, as a rough approximation, over the first 300 feet (i.e. 100 yards) the ball might average 600 feet per second. This would give an attacker half a second to dive for cover on seeing the smoke from an enemy’s shot at that range, or a quarter of a second at 50 yards. Of course this whole calculation is very crude and the situation oversimplified, but it does indicate that the tactic is theoretically feasible.

However, it would only work in the manner suggested against a single opponent, or a unit firing a simultaneous volley on a word of command, which is unlikely to have happened with the undrilled troops who formed the bulk of African armies. A more likely scenario would be that one man would open fire and his companions would then follow suit, producing a scattered volley or ripple of fire over several seconds. Perhaps the main advantage of the tactic lay not in the physics but in the psychology: if a warrior believed that he could avoid being shot he would charge more determinedly, and the more determined he appeared the more nervous his opponent might be, making the attacker’s confidence self-fulfilling.

The time taken to reload a muzzle-loading musket would vary according to the training and steadiness of the shooter, and whether prepared cartridges were supplied or – as was usually the case in Africa – loose powder had to be measured out for each shot. But there seems little reason to doubt the general assumption at the time that a man on the receiving end of a charge could expect to get off only one shot. None of these tactics would be much use against breech-loaders, which usually had higher muzzle velocities as well as being much quicker to reload – though the effect might be the same if the rifleman was too nervous or excited to lower the sights as the enemy got closer, as happened sometimes even to the British regulars in the Zulu War. Almost invariably the firepower of the breech-loaders was sufficient to stop a charge by spearmen in the open, however great their advantage in numbers might be. Writing of his fight with the Banyoro at Masindi in 1872, Samuel Baker recalled ‘how impossible it appeared for natives in masses to produce any effect against Snider rifles’ (Baker, 1873). Most African successes against troops equipped with such weapons were the result of ambushes and surprise attacks, but there were occasional exceptions to this rule. The best known of these was at Isandlwana in 1879, where the Zulus minimized the advantages of the British Martini-Henrys by clever use of ground, even after the element of surprise had been lost. This achievement is justly regarded as the high point of nineteenth-century African warfare.


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