Tony Harris, firearms expert and Migration Museum volunteer, gives us a comprehensive look at the mystery surrounding a firearm in the South Australian Historic Weapons collection
How do we discuss a firearm which has no known provenance, no information on its maker, converter, retailer or purchaser? We cannot even confirm its State of origin, but hearsay suggests it has a South Australian background.
By repute these strange little Sniders were issued to and used by the South Australian Police camel patrols in the north of the State in the 1880’s and 90’s. The suggestion has been made that they were bought because they could be folded and then carried rolled up inside the trooper’s bedroll. As far as is known there is no documentary or photographic evidence of this. No such material was located by Max Slee when compiling his volume on the small arms of the SA Police. Similarly, I have found no evidence of acquisition, use or disposal in all my research in the South Australian government archives.
Unlike any other member of the family
Excluding the calibre, the dimensions and proportions of the carbine do not relate in any way to the well-documented British service Snider family of arms. Overall length of the carbine is 970mm (38¼ inches) and the barrel length (excluding the Snider breech) is 468mm (18½ inches). The calibre is the standard .577 inch. A single barrel band secures the barrel to the stock, the breech tang screw having been removed and replaced with a very crude and insubstantial locking mechanism for the hinged stock. The stock has been completely cut through at a point just ahead of the lockplate and aligned slightly to the rear of the rear sight bed. The stock has been rejoined using a heavy double-heart-shaped steel or iron hinge, anchored by 5 wood screws. The latching mechanism for the breech end of the barrel is a thumb operated side-swinging arm (not unlike the operation of the Anson & Deeley style locking latch frequently found on shotguns) which has a small ‘claw’ to latch into a cut made on the breech tang. Not at all substantial and highly likely to wear dangerously after relatively short use.
Poor quality folding conversion
The carbine is very much a Birmingham trade-quality piece, poorly finished and, if conversion to fold was effected after initial manufacture, poorly converted. There is a small wooden block added to the toe of the stock to support the muzzle of the barrel when folded, but no means of holding the carbine in the folded position. Also, the short fore-end ahead of the barrel band has been shaped to allow for the trigger guard when in the folded configuration. The barrel bears the standard Birmingham non-military proof marks and the lock carries a crown and the date 1884. There is no decoration or line embellishment to the lockplate or hammer, but the breechblock acknowledges Snider’s patent.
Now, do we de-bunk the myth of police issue and use, or is there a chance that an argument can be found to support the myth? For what it is worth, I can only find against the rumour for a number of reasons.
The date on a lockplate generally indicates a year of manufacture. Given that the South Australian Police were issued with the far superior Martini-Henry carbine from 1877 onwards, why on earth would the police authorities issue a now long obsolete breech loader as late as 1884 – the date found on the folding Snider? Similarly, why would those same authorities adopt such a conversion? The quality of the workmanship would have to be the first thing to create any doubt about its suitability for bush work. And why would the troopers be expected to keep their carbine folded and rolled into their bedroll whilst they were on patrol? Although it would be an effective way of keeping the weapon out of the way of flying dust and rain, it would be inconvenient to retrieve in a hurry. With the Mounted Police being issued with John Adams’ Mk.III .450 revolvers and the Martini-Henry carbines in the 1870’s, followed by the big Smith & Wesson revolver carbines in the early 1880’s, there would surely be no place for a poorly constructed obsolete carbine as late as the mid-1880’s.
So what is the place of these carbines in the scheme of things? Why or by whom were they made? Were they manufactured (i.e. converted) ‘on spec’ by a would-be gunsmith in the hope of marketing his brain-child? It all comes back to evidence – an advertising flyer or a block in a newspaper; a reference in a catalogue or even a bill of sale or receipt of purchase. In the absence of anything of this nature we must remain in less than blissful ignorance.
A collector’s delight!
Do these carbines have a place in the field of collecting, given their humdrum quality and lack of provenance? Of course they do! While the purist may well dismiss them as ‘a bit rough’, ‘not the quality I want to be associated with’, ‘blacksmith’s rubbish’ etc., they are the result of some thoughtful reasoning but inadequate execution.
In May 2006, one of these carbines went up for auction in Melbourne. It appeared to be identical to our specimen. Of course, the catalogue entry repeated the always quoted, but highly suspect, presumption on its possible history as an SA Police firearm. It would seem that the mystery of these carbines will remain until some satisfactory evidence can be found to confirm or refute the claim.
I would be most interested to hear of any examples in the hands of collectors, particularly if anything is known of their background. At this stage I suggest it is highly unlikely that the SA Police Force had anything to do with these arms, but it would be nice to hear from anyone who is better informed.