Students of early safari hunters have a more than passing knowledge of the venerable .577 Nitro Express, while firearms enthusiasts are very aware of the British military’s workhorse the .303 British and its many Marks. While the two may not seem to have much in common, they share an ancestor: The .577 Snider, England’s stop-gap military cartridge at the very beginning of the breechloading era.
Studying the Snider is like reading Genesis, poring over details for clues to what actually happened, and why. If you are of a collecting bent, you can get lost in the Snider and never come out.
The .577 Snider came into existence because the last British infantry muzzleloader, the 1853 Enfield, had a .577 bore. That size was chosen because it’s the diameter of a lead sphere weighing exactly one twenty-fourth of a pound, or 24 gauge.
Britain’s two great conflicts of the 1850s were the Crimean War (1854) and the Indian Mutiny (1857), and the 1853 Enfield musket saw action in both. By 1864, however, British observers had witnessed the effectiveness of various rudimentary breechloaders
used in the American Civil War and in Europe, and the War Office was determined to equip the British Army with a breechloader.
Having tens of thousands of Enfield muskets in stock, however, they decided the best short-term solution was to find some way of converting those, and invited inventors to present their ideas. A half-dozen were chosen for testing. Interestingly, only one–Jacob Snider’s–used a metal cartridge case. The others employed various means of stuffing the components in separately.
The Snider-Enfield, as it became known, was always a stopgap, so it was Britain’s infantry rifle for only a short time. In 1871, after extensive trials, the Martini-Henry was adopted to replace it, and it led not long after (1888) to the Lee-Metford and the .303 British.
Although its official life was less than a decade, the Snider was an excellent design that served many purposes and was simply too good to die. Uncomplicated, powerful, and reliable, it was issued to police units throughout the British Empire (including Canada’s North-West Mounted Police), prison guards, native troops and game scouts.
The cartridge went through so many iterations they would take a book to list. The first cases were a combination of metal and paper, like early shotshells, and evolved through many “marks” as the technicians at Woolwich Arsenal, under Col. Edward Boxer, worked to develop the modern centerfire cartridge.
The Boxer primer was developed specifically for the Snider, and the Snider rifle and cartridge were the first to use the famous British system of marks and asterisks, denoting model variations and sub-variations.
The cartridge was loaded, at different times and for different uses, with buckshot, round ball, Minié balls, and modern cast slugs. It
began life resembling a paper shotshell, and only later evolved into a bottlenecked cartridge. Today, Snider owners can have cartridge cases made from brass 24-gauge hulls, which are still manufactured in Brazil.
The English gun trade also took up the .577 Snider, and many early hunting guns were chambered for it by makers like Alexander Henry, E.M. Reilly and Thomas Turner. Of the really early cartridges, this is the easiest one to get shooting again, and a lot of fun into the bargain.—Terry Wieland