Boer Rifleman


From 1870s on British interests in South Africa was being threatened by the expansion of Boer settlers, A small war had been fought between the two groups in 1880-81 which ended in a stalemate. The standoff didn’t last long and in 1899 a large military force was sent to deal with the problem of the Boers.

“The men of the Queen Victoria’s Regular Army were tough, well trained and believed themselves to be equal of any professional army of the world. The problem was, the Boers were not a professional army, and no one had informed them that they should agree to be beaten by the British.”

In reality the Boers were not any kind of army. It was an alliance of farmers. All of them expert horseman who owned the latest cutting edge bolt action rifles. All of them excellent shots. They knew their home turf and how to use the terrain to their advantage.

The British had no concept of the type of war they were about to wage in Africa, and if they expected a short, sharp decisive battle, they were soon to find out different. “Despite marching hundreds of miles in pursuit of their enemy, the soldiers almost never saw a Boer, yet frequently came under devastatingly accurate rifle fire, from positions so distant their attackers could not be identified.”

F.M. Crum was serving as a lieutenant in the 60th Rifles. Crum was a rifle enthusiast himself and made early comments on the marksmanship of the Boers.

“it was a new kind of war. The invisible, galloping crack shot Boer, with the modern quick firing long range rifle, was thoroughly at home. While we, to make up for our slowness of movement, often had to make long and exhausting night marches over difficult ground.”

The Boer shooting was so effective that nigh movement became the norm. “The lines of soldiers and straggling baggage trains made pitifully easy targets for the Boer marksman in the daylight.” The Brits had no means to deal with the problem. While the British had expert shots in their ranks, they had no training in long range shooting or guerrilla warfare tactics. In head to head traditional fighting the Brits showed their skill on the battlefield. On the whole, the British were out shot and outmaneuvered.

“the Boers were above us..Peeping over the crest, I counted 500 ponies and many Boers. What was the range? Major Greville thought it was 1.200 yards, I put it at more, We called for a range finder, but it had been left behind..”

Over than their shooting ability, another reason for the Boers’ success was in their use of natural cover and their personal clothing. They understood the benefit of using the terrain to its best advantage and were used to the problems of shooting up and down hill and the difference it makes in bullet trajectory. They could also judge the distance of the veldt very accurately as they lived and worked on it all of their lives. Boer clothing was useful green and brown colored jackets and pants with large brimmed hats to protect them from the hot African sun.

“…they did not waste water by daily shaving, and most had thick beards as well as being tanned from years of living in the open. As a result, they did not have that tell tale pale facial disc, which normally provides such a good target for rifleman. When hidden in scrub or dug into a ridge they were practically invisible.”

It pretty quickly became obvious that the British could not beat them militarily so they did what invaders always have to do and went after their families, destroyed their farms, burned crops and put survivors into concentration camps. “still the fighting continued, with the British taking unpalatable heavy casualties from accurate Boer rifle fire at battles such as Spion Kop, where the photographic images of huddled British dead piled in inadequate trenches shocked the nation.”

7×57 mm Mauser used by the Boers’. Cutting edge in the day and easily out performed the British service rifles. The 5 round stripper clip charger making reloading lightning fast.

The young Boer lady on this patriotic postcard is shown carrying a stylized rifle and antique bandolier. Plezier rifles (a sporter version of the Mauser) were purchased by some Boers, and apparently carried by a few women. The Boer women suffered disproportionately during the war, during which at least 24,000 women and children perished in Lord Kitchener’s infamous “concentration camps.”

The Transvaal also imported a few Model 1871 German single-shots. Unlike the German army-issue rifles (as seen here), they were manufactured at the Austrian arsenal at Steyr, and they bore no unit markings.

“One of the most unique arms to see service with the Boer republics was the single-shot Guedes rifle. Designed by a Portuguese army officer, the Guedes rifle had a distinctive tilting-block breech, and was chambered for the rimmed 8×60 mm cartridge. The Portuguese government contracted with the famed Austrian arms manufactory at Steyr in 1885 to have these rifles made, but then cancelled the order when they realized that magazine-fed repeating rifles had become the wave of the future. The rifles sat in Austrian warehouses until the mid-1890s, when the Transvaal bought at least 7,700 of them, and the Orange Free State acquired a few hundred from the ZAR (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek—South African Republic). Some of the Transvaal Guedes rifles, like some of the Martinis, were crudely stamped with a “ZAR”—but on the top, rather than the side, of the receiver.”

The surplus Martini-Henrys (both rifles and carbines) acquired by the Transvaal government were crudely stamped “ZAR”, and then sold to the Boer burghers at a price of four pounds each. Those acquired by the Orange Free State were marked with an “OVS” in the same manner.

.577/450 Martini-Henry

“Other lesser-known modern firearms that could be found in the hands of Boer burghers were the 10-shot .303 Lee Speed rifle, the 6.5 mm Norwegian Krag, some 8 mm German Gewehr 88 “Commission” rifles and a few Model 1888/90 Mannlicher rifles. Arms that had played a part in the 1881 First Anglo-Boer War were also pressed into service, but to a very limited extent. First and foremost were British Snider .577 rifles and carbines, Martini-Swinburne .577/.450 carbines, and Westley-Richards “Monkey-Tail” percussion carbines and falling block rifles. Swiss rifles, like the obsolete Milbank-Amsler muzzleloader conversion, and the Model 1878 Vetterli—both in .41 Swiss rimfire—apparently were in evidence (but with limited ammunition), as were Model 1873 and Model 1876 American Winchesters, and even Model 1860 U.S. Spencer carbines. A few Kropatschek rifles and French Model 1874 Gras rifles also reportedly saw use by Boer commandos.”

American Rifleman- 2016

Out Of Nowhere- Pegler

The Boer Wars


  1. Nice article!

    Shooting SACRA in South Africa and CAFSAC in Canada afforded me the opportunity to visit the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa on different trips within a few months of each other.

    Their difference in descriptions of the Boer Wars was… interesting. The lesson to be learned is that you’re wise to learn lessons from multiple sources and perspectives.

  2. The thing about the Boer War that I’ve taken up is that it’s a near-perfect example of what happens when an ossified and channelized “professional” mindset encounters the gifted amateur who does not know the standards and shibboleths of the “profession”.

    Boers were used to dealing with the African tribal warriors, defending themselves effectively against things like the Zulu Impi units of spearmen. They knew how to wage the incessant irregular warfare on the veldt, and knew their environment intimately. The British did not; witness Islandwana and Rorke’s Drift.

    In the Boer, the Brits encountered irregular warfare armed with the latest in modern small arms; they did not fare well, and had to resort to atrocity in order to win. The Boer War saw the very first concentration camp, and the very first campaign of extermination by an organized nation state inflicted on an ethnic minority. Some of it was inadvertent, but the Brits finally got around to finishing the job back in the 1990s after persuading South Africa to surrender to the black majority. South Africa would have likely been better off giving free rein to their genocidal impulses, because the whites in South Africa are almost certainly going to be victims of a genocide before the century is out. Good, bad, or indifferent, that’s what is coming. They were foolish not to have landed the first blow. I doubt that there will be any whites in South Africa by 2030, and I’m sure that the region will be starving by then, as well.

    What is interesting is to contemplate where there are similar situations to the conditions obtaining during the Boer War. Particularly when you look at technology–With cyberwarfare and drones, what’s on the horizon? Will some small and sophisticated polity like Estonia or Singapore hand their neighbors an epic ass-kicking using unexpected tools?

    I don’t know where, I don’t know when, but there are a lot of “unexpecteds” due to come home and roost somewhere. I think that both China and the United States are terribly, terribly overextended, and may wind up just devolving into their component parts when the contradictions become too overwhelming. What cannot go on, will not. And, in the space created by that? Who knows what happens.


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