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Military & police handgun cartridges of South Africa.

In the mid-16th century the Dutch East Indies Company established a supply station at the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. The settlement became known as Kaapstaad (Capetown) and Dutch settlers were brought in to raise crops and livestock to provision the Company's ships on their voyages to and from the Indies. While the practice was discouraged, settlers began to move into the interior to find land suitable for farming. Thus evolved a unique frontier society known as the Boers (from the Dutch word for farmer or Afrikaners).


Tough, self-reliant, independent and pious, the vast interior of southern Africa allowed the Boers to travel (trek) whenever they needed more land and settle where they pleased. The inevitable conflicts with native Bantu tribes led to the creation of commandos. Made up of all males from 16 to 60, these groups of mounted riflemen would gather together when danger threatened and their mobility and firepower usually enabled them to defeat their more numerous foes.

In 1795, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British occupied the Cape and, later, the east coast, eventually creating the Cape Colony and Natal. British officialdom proved so meddlesome that large numbers of Boers trekked further inland to escape them, eventually establishing two independent republics--the Oranje-Vrystaat and the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (a.k.a. Transvaal)--which the British recognized in 1854.


During this time, the growing numbers of English settlers in the Cape Colony and Natal came into conflict with the native tribes and in response established volunteer units patterned on the Boer commandos.

Firearms played a vital role in the settlement of South Africa and, as did the Boers, the English volunteer units tended to purchase British pattern small arms. Thus, the earliest, cartridge firing handguns to see use in South Africa were the Adams Mark I, II and III revolvers and various models of the Webley RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) revolvers.

* .450 Revolver--better known as the .450 Boxer or .450 Adams, this cartridge used a straight-walled case .69" in length that had a riveted on iron (Mark I) or brass (Mark II) disk which functioned as a rim. A charge of 13 grains of blackpowder propelled its 225-grain lead bullet to 650 fps.

* .442 RIC--used a straight-walled, rimmed case .74" long containing 19 grains of blackpowder that moved a 220-grain lead bullet to 700 fps. It was sometimes referred to as the .44 Webley or the .44 Centrefire.

The discovery of diamonds in the region led to renewed British interest. In 1877, encouraged by the growing political turmoil in the Transvaal, the British peacefully annexed the republic. By 1880 Boer resentment boiled over, and a rebellion broke out under the leadership of Paul Kruger and Piet Joubert. Known as the First Anglo-Boer War, the commandos rather handily defeated British forces and reestablished their independence.


Realizing that they faced danger from both native tribes and the rapacious British, the Boers set about improving the armament of the commandos. Both Republics had established European-officered artillery corps, dispatch services, prison guards and police forces, all of whom needed handguns. In 1879, the Transvaal placed an order for several hundred Webley New Model Army Express and "Bull Dog Constabulary" revolvers. The former were chambered for the .450 Revolver, while the latter were a mixed lot in " ... either .320, .380 or .450 bore." (1)

* .320 Revolver--also known as the .320 Webley, it consisted of a rimmed, straight-walled case .62" long topped with an 80-grain lead bullet that 6 grains of blackpowder pushed to an uninspiring 550 fps.

* .380 Revolver--about the same time, Webley introduced a larger caliber cartridge that used a straight-walled, rimmed case .70" long topped with a 124-grain lead bullet backed by 10 grains of blackpowder. Muzzle velocity was approximately 625 fps.

In the mid-1880s, the discovery of vast gold deposits in the Transvaal led to large numbers of Uitlanders settling in the region and resulting tension between these (mainly British) foreigners and the Boers. But it also gave the Boers the financial wherewithal they needed to purchase modern weapons. In 1888, the Transvaal purchased a quantity of the odd Kynoch revolver, in .450 cal, from the manufacturer for the municipal police force in Klerksdorp.

In 1894, Thomas W. Webley himself visited Pretoria and signed a contract with the Transvaal for 500 of his firm's Mark II revolvers chambered for the new 455 cartridge. In 1896, in the aftermath of the ill-fated Jameson raid, the order was increased to 1,000 and then--with war with Great Britain looming--to 5,000 revolvers and 500,000 cartridges! To fill the order on time, Webley included Mark II, Mark III, Webley WG and even some obsolete No. 4 revolvers.

* Cartridge, .455, SA, Ball, Pistol, Revolver Webley Mark I--utilized a 265-grain lead bullet in a case .860" long backed by 18 grains of blackpowder that produced a muzzle velocity of 600 fps.

* Cartridge, .455, SA, Ball, Pistol, Revolver Webley, Cordite Mark I--in 1894, the propellant was changed to 6.5-grain of smokeless Cordite although the muzzle velocity remained unchanged.


* Cartridge, .455 ... Mark II--in 1897, it was discovered that more efficient propellant combustion was achieved in a smaller capacity case, so the Mark II used a case .750" in length although, once again, the ballistics remained the same.

* Cartridge, .455 ... Mark III & IV--the Boers purchased quantities of these cartridges that featured the "Manstopper" bullet--a 218-grain hollow-point wadcutter--backed, by 7 grains of cordite. It was designed for use against "savage" foes in Africa and on India's northern frontier.

At this same time, a Portuguese firm in Mozambique provided Vechtgeneraal Piet Joubert with samples of the new Mauser Selbstaladepistole C96 (the famous "Broomhandle"). The Boers were impressed with the Mauser's firepower, range and accuracy, but only purchased 100 of them and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. (2) Besides government purchases, individual burghers purchased a wide variety of handguns--including additional Mauser pistols--for their own use.


* 7.63 x 25 Mauser--the most ballistically impressive pistol cartridge of its day, the 7.63mm Mauser used a rimless, bottlenecked case 25mm in length whose 86-grain full metal-jacketed bullet was pushed to an impressive 1400 fps.

Handguns did not figure prominently in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the battlefields being dominated by the long-range accuracy of the 7 x 57 Mauser rifle and artillery.

In the aftermath of the Boer capitulation, all of southern Africa came under British control. The new South African Defense Forces were organized along British lines with various .455 Webley revolvers being the standard sidearm. In 1913, the South African Police (SAP) was established as a national gendarmerie. Their main duty was to provide law enforcement outside of those areas policed by municipal police.

When the Great War erupted, South African forces conquered neighboring Deutsch-Sudwestafrika and then spent four frustrating years chasing the forces of Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck around Deutsch-Ostafrika. South African troops also fought on the Western Front and in Palestine. During the war they received quantities of the British standard Webley Mark VI revolver.

In the postwar years, the SAP purchased a quantity of Webley .32 Automatic Pistols for use by detectives.


* .32 ACP--also known as the 7.65mm Browning, this round consisted of a straight-walled, semi-rimmed case 17mm long whose 71-grain FMJ had a rated muzzle velocity of about 900 fps.

While the SAP continued to issue revolvers--mainly the .455 Webley--to their uniformed personnel, in 1921 they adopted the Webley M1909 9mm Automatic Pistol.

* 9mm Browning Long--designed by John M. Browning in the early 20th century, this cartridge used a semi-rimmed, straight-walled case 20mm in length whose 110-grain FMJ bullet achieved a velocity of 1100 fps.

With the outbreak of World War II, under the leadership of Prime Minister Jan Smuts, South Africa sided with the Allies. Their troops were instrumental in expelling the Italians from Ethiopia and Somalia and they fought with distinction in North Africa and Italy. While originally equipped with the Webley Mark IV, during the war they obtained quantities of No. 2 Enfield, Webley Mark VI and S&W Victory Model revolvers chambered for the .380 cartridge.


* Cartridge, SA, Ball, .380 Mark 1, 2, & 2z--the new cartridge utilized a straight-walled, rimmed case .79" long loaded with a 200-grain, blunt-nosed, lead bullet moving at approximately 605 fps and was commonly referred to as the ".380 / 200." So as to abide by international conventions, in 1938 the .380 Mark 2 was adopted, whose 178-grain FMJ bullet was propelled to 700 fps. During World War II, the .380 Mark 2z with nitro-cellulose powder replacing Cordite was approved for service. (3)

In 1939, Commonwealth armies began loading the venerable .455 cartridge with a FMJ bullet.

* Cartridge .455 ... Mark 6 & 6z--it featured a FMJ bullet of the same weight and velocity as the Mark II (see above). The later "Mark 6z" used nitro-cellulose powder instead of Cordite.

Postwar internal political struggles in the disgruntled and impoverished Afrikaner community led to the rise of the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party, which instituted apartheid, a total separation of the races and political disenfranchisement of non-whites in South Africa.


In the postwar years the SADF continued to use various 380 revolvers while the SAP's aging Webley handguns were replaced with S&W revolvers. At first these were surplus Victory Models in .380, but in the 1950s they purchased additional Model 11 revolvers (chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge) directly from S&W. The 200-grain Mark I loading was produced locally for police service.

In 1961, South Africa left the British Commonwealth. Two years later, the UN established a voluntary arms embargo against them because of the government's apartheid racial policies, With their primary sources of firearms in Belgium and Great Britain cut off, in 1968 the South African government created a native arms industry,, Armscor (later absorbed into the Denel Corporation), which produced military small arms, except for handguns. Apparently Spain and France did not abide by the embargo, because during this period the SADF adopted the 9mm Star Modelo B pistol while the SAP standardized on the Manuhrin-made 9mm Walther P1 for uniformed officers and 7.65mm PPK pistols for detectives.

* 9mm Parabellum--both the P1 and Modelo B were chambered for the 9mm Parabellum As loaded for the SADF and SAP, this round uses a rimless, tapered case 19mm long topped with a 115-grain FMJ bullet moving at approximately 1160 fps.

South African intransigence as regards apartheid led to the UN adopting a mandatory arms embargo in 1977.

During the 1980s the SADF supplemented the Modelo B with a variety of 9mm pistols, one of the more common being the Czech-made CZ75--apparently the Czechs cared more for Krugerrands than they did UN embargoes. The CZ75 was, and still is, used by a number of municipal police forces in South Africa.

With the end of apartheid and the coming of majority rule in 1994, the armed forces and police have been reorganized and reequipped. In 1992, the Denel Corporation obtained a license from Beretta allowing their subsidiary Vektor, Ltd. to produce the M92F as the Vektor Z88, which was adopted by the SAP. Those officers needing a handier weapon are issued the Vektor RAP-410 while to arm undercover officers they have purchased the F.E.G. PMK-380 pistol.

* 380 ACP--also known as the 9mm Browning Short, it consists of a rimless, straight-walled case 17mm long loaded with a 95-grain FMJ bullet at a muzzle velocity of 950 fps.

The SADF's new sidearm is a somewhat highly modified version of the Z88 known as the Vektor SP1.

I would like to thank the following for providing information and photographs used to prepare this report: Keith Dyer, Gregor Woods, Bob Meyer, Roy Jinks, Dr. Ron Bester, Kris Gasior and Vincent Scarlata.

(1) Bester, Ron. Small Arms of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Pages 236-237.

(2) Bester, Ron. Small Arms of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Pages 252-255.

(3) The British .380 cartridge was little more than the venerable .38 S&W loaded with heavier bullets.

* Photos by Lou Behling & James Walters
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Author:Scarlata, Paul
Publication:Shotgun News
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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