In the 1880s, Charles Hartson Tried to Force a Magazine Onto a Single-Shot Rifle
It didn’t go well
by MATTHEW MOSS
With the advent of magazine-fed repeating rifles in the 1880s, the British Army decided to update or replace its existing, single-shot Martini-Henry rifles. Charles Greville Harston, a career soldier, developed the so-called “Harston magazine” in order to improve the Martini-Henry — by converting it to a magazine rifle.
Harston had been an officer in the Royal Marine Light Infantry before retiring and moving to Canada in 1871. In the early 1870s, he attempted to enter the gun trade. He patented several designs for breech-loading rifles. His falling-block rifle gained favorable attention during the 1873 Wimbledon Cup shoot. The Gentleman’s Magazine described it as the “acme of perfection.”
In 1883, Harston commissioned into the Canadian militia before becoming a captain in the Royal Grenadiers in Toronto in 1885. Harston approached the British War Office in June 1887, offering a system that modified the Martini-Henry to accept a magazine.
Harston patented his designs in Britain in October 1887 and again in February 1888. He delivered samples for trials in May 1888. He received American patents in 1888 and 1889.
In theory, Harston’s magazine could attach to any Martini-Henry by way of a dovetail on the left side of the receiver. The basic magazine held five rounds and some iterations held six. All versions stored the rounds in a single stack that the shooter loaded through the top of the magazine. A spring and follower elevated the cartridges.
The Martini-Henry’s lever attached to the magazine’s loading mechanism. The shooter pushed down the rifle’s lever to open the action. The rifle’s lever also worked a cam and lever system inside the magazine that opened a flap on the magazine’s right side.
An internal arm then pushed a cartridge out of the magazine onto the rifle’s breech block. The arm continued to travel, pushing the round into the chamber. As the rifle’s lever came back, the magazine’s flap closed. The rifle was then ready to fire.
The design went through at least five iterations. The Mk. IV appeared in August and the Mk. V in November 1888. Hairston contracted the Henry Rifle Barrel Company to produce several of the magazine’s iterations.
While the design was ingenious, it was also prone to jamming. The system of cams and arms required the rifleman to keep his weapon level in order for the magazine to reliably load the rifle.
Despite attempts to improve the magazine’s reliability, the War Office gradually lost interest. It didn’t help that, at a cost of £1,300, the project was expensive. The War Office eventually halted the magazine trials.
During the same period, American inventor Owen Jones developed a more radical adaptation of the Martini-Henry that the War Office tested against rifles featuring James Paris Lee’s new bolt action. The committee selected the Lee rifle in December 1888. It became the .303 Lee-Metford, Magazine Rifle, Mk. I.
Harston moved back to Britain some time after the death of his wife in 1912. He died in January 1931 at the age of 83.