Disposal of obsolete Australian military firearms in 1905

On September 2nd 1905, Mr. George H. Oliver, representing W.W. Greener – the well- known English Gun, Rifle and Cartridge maker of Haymarket, London – wrote to the Australian Department of Defence with an offer to purchase 10,550 Martini-Henry rifles of .577/.450 calibre which were up for disposal. Mr. Oliver’s offer of four shillings per weapon was substantially more than the three shillings that had been paid by others who had tendered to purchase lesser quantities of the same weapons before this time.
Subsequent correspondence of September 29th 1905 included a higher offer of four shillings and sixpence per gun on a total quantity of 10,640 ‘more or less’ and after acceptance of the offer, a deposit of eight hundred pounds was paid as security for the completion of purchase within 12 months.

Mr. Cortese, gun dealer of Sydney, had already offered to purchase 4731 guns at five shillings each, the quantity being disposed of by the NSW Government, but it was decided to favour W.W. Greener with the contract at four shillings and sixpence per gun instead, for the following reasons:

  1. It enabled the Federal Government to sell off the whole quantity at once, instead of selling off the stores held in each individual state.
  2. W.W. Greener was a most reputable English firm and the guns were to be refurbished and converted into sporting guns, and there was no possibility that the weapons would finish up being shipped to the South Sea islands.

By October 17th, a directive from the Department of Defence had been issued to each State’s defence establishment Military Commandant advising to hand over the respective quantities without “jags, bayonets, scabbards or arm chests”. The quantities quoted in this correspondence was:

New South Wales 4731;

Queensland 2466;

South Australia 3000;

Western Australia 24 and

Tasmania 750,

in all a total of 10,971 rifles.

Later enquiries asked if the guns were to be registered or recorded prior to disposal, but a decision had already been made not to brand them individually prior to sale, but to use each guns’ existing register number which was already on record at each state’s military ordnance depots.

On April 6th 1906, Mr. Oliver wrote to the Secretary of Defence’s office relaying correspondence that he had been cabled from his London office, stating that 31 cases of Martini-Henry rifles had just arrived in London, shipped by a Mr. Barnett of Sydney to one of Greener’s rival companies and he had been instructed to enquire as to how could theses rifles have been supplied by another firm when Mr. Oliver had made a condition with the Australian Defence Department that he alone was to be the sole purchaser of the weapons!

An enquiry immediately took place and a reply from NSW HQ revealed that 500 weapons had been sold to Barnett through auction in 1904, and a further 1200 were sold to Cortese in February 1905, both transactions having taken place before Oliver’s offer.

Mr. Oliver, on accepting this explanation, put the matter to rest but only after again requesting that should any rifles come up for disposal in the future, that his company would expect to be offered them first.

Later information supplied from the Chief of Ordnance Department states that a revised quantity of 13,425 old and unserviceable rifles had been purchased by W.W. Greener, but there still remained the matter of six and a half million rounds of .577/.450 ammunition, now considered obsolete, and the question of inviting tenders for them.

Correspondence of April 8th 1907 suggested that further future commercial sales of obsolete military firearms would be inadvisable in view of future cadet requirements as they could be utilized for drill purposes.

In September 1907, letters were received from the British War Office calling attention to a report from the India Office stating that a number of Martini-Henry rifles bearing the mark “N.S.W.” were being sold to tribesmen on the North West Frontier of India.

W.W. Greener had already been contacted but had denied any involvement in selling guns from their company or guns that had been part of the Australian acquisitions.
It was later discovered that the rifles in question were part of a number sold by S.H. Harris, public auctioneer of Sydney in 1902, to various Australian second-hand dealers and they had been ‘gun-running’ to overseas buyers.

Future enquiries by Cowles and Dunn, and P. Cortese of Sydney, offering to purchase another 1000 Martini-Henry rifles held in Sydney Ordnance stores were denied in July 1908 and again in December 1908; the reason being given that these particular weapons would possibly be converted to .22 rimfire rifles for miniature rifle practice as in Britain, by the proposed Commonwealth Rifle Factory when established.

Final numbers of Martini-Henry rifles sold to W.W. Greener were:-

Queensland                 2465 rifles @ four shillings and sixpence ea.           ₤  554.12.6

New South Wales       5188    “      “     “         “          “          “          “               ₤1167. 6. 0

Western Australia           24   “      “     “         “          “          “          “               ₤ 5. 8. 0

South Australia           3750   “      “     “         “          “          “          “               ₤  843.15.0

Tasmania                     1998 “      “     “         “          “          “          “               ₤  449. 11.0

Total quantity 14,025 Total price paid         ₤ 3020.12.6

No figures were present for Victorian weapons so it is thought that this state did not dispose of unserviceable or obsolete rifles in this period.


District Headquarters, Adelaide.

Tenders are invited up to noon on Wednesday 22nd. August, for the PURCHASE of the WHOLE or any PORTION of the .45-in. MARTINI-HENRY ROLLED CASE BALL CARTRIDGES (Rifle and Carbine) on hand in the States of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania.

The total quantities in all the States mentioned is approximately six and a half million rounds.

Separate tenders are to be submitted for the cartridges for sale in each State, and such tenders must be sent direct to the Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General of the State concerned.

Tender forms, conditions of sale and full particulars regarding the quantity for sale in each State, where stored, etc., may be obtained on application to the Senior Ordnance Officer:- New South Wales-Ordnance Stores, Circular Quay, Sydney.

Victoria:- Ordnance Stores, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne.

Queensland:- Ordnance Stores-Petrie Terrace, Brisbane.

South Australia:-Ordnance Stores, Adelaide.

Western Australia:- Ordnance Stores, Perth.

Tasmania:- Ordnance Stores, Hobart.

By Order

C.J. Reade, Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, D.A.Q.M.G.         July 9th 1906

Australian Archives  MP84/1-1812.5.37

Contact Jeff Cossum about this article.

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