Mmegi Blogs :: Batswana & Firearms (2)
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Thursday 22 February 2018, 17:30 pm.
Batswana & Firearms (2)

We had previously observed that modern conical bullets, along with percussion caps and improved rifles came to Botswana as then cutting edge technology in the 1840s with the appearance of state-of-the-art hunting rifles. Designed to accurately and swiftly take down big game from a safe distance, the new generation guns were tools of the regional ivory trade.
By Jeff Ramsay Mon 16 Oct 2017, 16:38 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Batswana & Firearms (2)

Amongst the technological pioneers in the region was George Nicholson who is known to have experimented at the beginning of the decade with conical shot from America, it being reported by a fellow traveller through eastern Botswana that he had brought down a Blue Wildebeest at over 300 yards with ‘an American rifle 22 bore, with iron points’.

In 1842 the American gun maker Edwin Wesson, had incorporated ballistics advance made by his fellow countryman, Alvin Clark to produce a conical shot rifle that is credited with marking the beginning of the end for smooth bores and ball shot. In the decade that followed commercial production of advanced ballistic designs happened on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the above context Nicholson, along with his acquaintance, the Bakwena Kgosi Sechele and others in the region, embraced new ballistic designs developed in the 1840s by the French military officer Henri-Gustave Delvigne, which were adapted by quality gunsmiths in England’s Birmingham Gun Quarter and elsewhere. In an 1848 publication Nicholson thus observed that:

“Great fatigue is endured in carrying the enormous rifles or guns necessary for this sport; but now that the French have invented and perfected the system of the cylindro-conical ball, of one half the usual size, has a much greater range and penetrating force, guns of such inconvenient weight are no longer necessary. As few sportsmen are as yet aware of the immense advantages of this newly-invented ball, I may as well mention that, from experiment, I have found that a rifle with charge of powder required for a round ball, had more than double the range with projectile I allude to, and, at enormous distances – even beyond 700 yards – requires but a trifling elevation; and thus it is very easy to shoot with accuracy, as far as the power of sight allows.

“The form of the projectile, too, prevents its being readily flattened by coming in contact with any hard or tough substance, and therefore, of course, the power of penetration is much greater. I have seen the extreme point of this ball formed of a piece of iron, and at 200 yards it pierced an iron plate, and the perforation had all the appearance of being drilled by a machine. The greatest obstacles to the enjoyment of the sport of shooting large game are, by this invention, much lessened.”

Nicholson’s description dovetails with David Livingstone’s


correspondence with Robert Moffat in which he enquired as to whether his father-in-law could obtain for Sechele “bullet mould (perhaps 2, & ramrods to fit) of 8 to lb. or rather fit 8 to the pound bore but conical, from Birmingham?” [while further noting that] “Those which have an indentation behind fire much further, the dotted line marking the indentation.” The missionary’s attached sketch of the desired bullet was of a Delvigne pattern. In addition to the “elephant guns” the secondary trade in ostrich feathers and other game products, as well as the indulgence of select European big game hunters further encouraged the early spread of advanced lower calibre rifles into the region.

The subsequent introduction of breech loading guns was initially motivated by their military advantage. Prior to breechloaders, shot was loaded at the gun’s muzzle. Besides being slower and less reliable, arming muzzleloaders generally required one to expose oneself by standing.    

In 1866 the battlefield superiority of breechloaders over muzzleloaders was decisively demonstrated by the crushing defeat of the Austrians by the Prussians at Battle of Koniggratz or Sadowa, an event that opened the door for Germany’s unification under the latter kingdom’s military leadership.

In 1876, Sechele imported a wagon load of breechloaders from the Irish smuggler Henry Boyne to counter the growing threat of cattle raids by Linchwe I’s Bakgatla bagKgafela.

Thereafter, the guns enabled the Bakwena to gain the upper hand in a one-sided fire fight on the outskirts of Molepolole against the Bakgatla and allied Batlokwa rustlers.

In the aftermath of the near massacre at Molepolole, possession of breechloaders became a common and critical factor in subsequent Batswana martial success. Amongst Kgosi Linchwe’s own praise poems, one thus finds reference to his use of Martini rifles against the Boers.

“Mekgakwana borranko-emoriti ntona tsaga Makopye aLekgoa; obafudile kamartini, mokgatla kamartini, Mokgatla wagaKgafela.”

“Red faced people with jutting noses, lieutenants of the white man “Makopye” (literally one with protruding head, identified as a certain Harklass Malan); the Bakgatla fired on them with Martinis, with Martinis, the Mokgatla of Kgafela.”

The arrival of lightweight, easy-to-load breechloaders further encouraged Batswana to incorporate gun wielding cavalry into their military formations and tactics. Horsemen armed with breechloaders thus played a decisive role in what is believed to have been the most sanguinary of Botswana’s many 19th century fire-fights, the 1884 engagement at Khutiyabasadi, where Batawana and Wayeyi slaughtered over 1,500 Amandebele invaders.


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