As Canadian confederation loomed just over 150 years ago, few knew that the British troops guarding the
frontier against invasion from the United States were caught up in a major ammunition crisis.
By early 1867 the 12,300 or so regular soldiers in British North America had nearly all been
issued with new breech-loading rifles which were supposed to give them a fighting chance
against Fenian raiders, or perhaps even the United States Army. The new breech-loaders
replaced the muzzle-loaders used by British in 1866. The Canadian volunteer regiments were
due to have their muzzle-loaders replaced as soon as more of the new rifles arrived from
Britain. But things were not as they seemed.
“The new rifles were found to be defective in the breech, and alterations were made which
necessitated a new description of cartridge; and perhaps it is worthy of record that The
Regiment was, not withstanding the frequent incursions of the Fenians, a considerable time
without a single round of ammunition,” Richard Higgins, an officer in the British 25th
(King’s Own Borders) Foot was later to write regarding the arrival of the Snider-Enfield rifles in January 1867.
The new rifles had been rushed to Canada due to fears that Irish nationalists based in the
United States were planning a repeat of incursions they had made into Canada during the
summer of 1866. The Fenian Brotherhood, as they were known, included many veterans of the
Civil War and believed fomenting trouble in Canada would further the cause of Irish
independence from British rule. British and Canadian authorities feared that when the Fenians
returned in 1867 they would be armed with breech-loading rifles with a faster rate of fire than the
muzzle-loading weapons used by Canada's defenders the previous summer. The new British
breech-loaders fired three times faster than the rifles they were intended to replace.
The British put their faith in converting their existing stocks of Enfields into breech-loaders using
a firing system patented by US inventor Jacob Snider. The conversion involved cutting out the
lower part of the Enfields’ barrels, complete with the old firing mechanism, and replacing them
with Snider’s hinged breech fire system. The British decided it was cheaper to convert the
hundreds of thousands of Enfield muzzle-loaders they already had than it would be to buy one
of the better-performing models of breech-loader available at the time, or to commission a new
one. As well as being done as cheaply as possible, the British specified that the conversions
were to be as accurate as the old Enfield muzzle-loaders, first issued in 1853. The Snider-
Enfield came closest to meeting both criteria in two years of trials involving various breech-
loading mechanisms beginning in 1864.
The problem was that the Snider-Enfield rifles used in the trial and the ammunition for them had
been hand-made by skilled armourers. Conversion of the Enfields using machinery and millions
of rounds of factory-produced ammunition proved a disaster.
In March 1867 the British Secretary of State for War, Lieutenant-General Jonathan Peel, told
the House of Commons that he intended to fully test the first converted rifles to come off the
production lines before authorizing their general issue. However, his hand was forced by an
urgent demand for breech-loaders from the Governor General of Canada, Viscount Charles
Monck, who feared further Fenian invasion.
“We went on working at the gun factory day and night – and, I am sorry to say, sometimes on
Sundays – but we succeeded in sending out the converted Sniders to every British soldier in
Canada, before the navigation closed,” he said.
“In the meantime I sent sixty guns to Hythe for trial, and the first report was that the shooting
was more than favourable. Shortly afterwards the head of the Laboratory came to me and said
he was sorry to inform me that when the ammunition was made up in the millions there was a
slight escape of gas, which threw up the breech-loading apparatus. We therefore proceeded to
try a new or No.2 cartridge, which was sent down to Hythe and fired with exactly the same rifles
which had shot so well in the first instance. The report came back to us that the cartridges would
hardly hit anything, and scarcely hit the target at all.”.
In fact, the superintendent of the British Army’s musketry school at Hythe, Maj.-Gen. Charles
Hay, had told his political masters in November 1866 that, “The shooting (of the Sniders) has
been most wild; many of the shots fall short of the target and others go no one knows where.”
Hay left Hythe the following year.
The second, or No.2, cartridge had a stronger base than the original and the rifle breeches no
longer blew open when fired. The third version incorporated a shorter and lighter bullet which
restored its accuracy.
The ammunition had long been mired in controversy. The “laboratory head” referred to by
Lieutenant-General Peel, Colonel Edward Boxer, had broken government protocol by personally
patenting the original No. 1 cartridge. Serving officers were not supposed to patent the results of
work carried out at government facilities such as the Woolwich armouries where Boxer was the
superintendent. But it was not against the law and the Royal Navy allowed officers to take out
patents. Boxer eventually resigned from Woolwich in 1869 after questions were asked in the
House of Commons about his conduct.
There were also questions from people who saw remarkable similarities between the Boxer
cartridge and the patents of other firearms pioneers, particularly the work of London gunsmith
George Daw in the early 1860s.
The first four million Boxer cartridges for the Snider-Enfield had been factory produced by Eley
Brothers. But tiny flaws in the thin brass used to make the base of the cartridges allowed gas to
escape into the hinged breech when the rifle was fired, blowing it open. There were also
suggestions that the children employed by Eley to operate the cartridge-making machines were
not sufficiently skilled for the work. Consequently Eley Brothers were not asked to produce the
No. 3 cartridge or any of the subsequent versions for use with the Snider-Enfield – though the
ammunition was made until the early 1870s when the Snider-Enfield was replaced in the British
service by the Martini-Henry rifle. The unusable No. 1 cartridges were converted into blank
ammunition for training.
While Colonel Boxer at Woolwich experimented with the new cartridges, Snider was working on
alterations to the breech-loading mechanism, including an improved spent cartridge ejector.
The British Army not only had doubts about the Snider-Enfield in 1867 but also about their
regular soldiers in Canada. Questions were being asked about the loyalty of the Irishmen
serving in the ranks. About one-third of the soldiers in most of the nominally English and
Lowland Scots regiments were Irishmen and there were fears that they were being subverted on
both sides of the Atlantic by Fenian agents.
The men of the 25th Foot, later the King's Own Scottish Borderers, had already proven their loyalty to the Crown in June 1866 when, still
armed with the old Enfield muzzle-loader, they had deterred Fenian raiding parties from
crossing the border with the United States into Quebec. On June 9 around 300 men from the
regiment were part of a force including British regulars from the Rifle Brigade and volunteers
from Montreal, Waterloo and Granby which intercepted 200 Fenians near Pigeon Hill. The
Irishmen fled back across the border into the arms of waiting US troops.
It is possible that the sight of British troops drilling in Canada with their new Snider-Enfields may
have discouraged Fenian incursions in 1867. The Fenians, contrary to the fearmongering
spread by Canadian officialdom, were still armed in 1866 with muzzle-loaders. In 1867 the
Fenians sent 5,000 of them to New Jersey for conversion, by British gunsmiths, into breech-
loaders. These rifles were never used in anger and were finally confiscated in 1870 by the US
authorities following further failed Fenian incursions into Canada and auctioned off.
The Irish-Americans were perhaps fortunate not to have faced troops armed with Snider-
Enfields. The soft-nosed Boxer bullets were notorious for the horrendous exit wounds they
inflicted. Military historian Sir John Fortescue reported that he could put both hands into the
wounds inflicted on deer he had seen shot with a Snider rifle. In 1868 around 300 men of the
British 4th (King’s Own) Foot had blasted 7,000 charging Abyssinian warriors to a screaming halt
at the Battle of Arogee in present-day Ethiopia. The Africans kept coming after the first volley
tore numerous gaps in their ranks because they believed they could reach the British before the
redcoats had time to fire again. But the rapid fire, at least for 1868, of the Snider-Enfield came
into play as the British regiment managed to fire off thirty to forty soft-nosed rounds per second.
Despite the early problems with the Snider-Enfield , it became the standard weapon of Canada's
fledgling army. By 1869 the British had shipped around 82,000 of them to Canada. They were
used in both the 1870 Red River Expedition and the 1885 North-West Rebellion.
It was not only the men of the 25th Foot who appear to have breathed a sigh of relief that there
had been no major Fenian incursion into Canada during the ammunition crisis. The Times, that
Establishment mouthpiece, noted in March 1867 in an article about the first Snider-Enfields
shipped across the Atlantic, “Happily, these rifles were not required for actual service, or the
Fenians against whom they were intended to be used would have enjoyed an unexpected