Historical Accuracy in Film: Arms and Accoutrements in Zulu Dawn


By Patrick O’Neal

The 1979 film Zulu Dawn is the story of the opening days of the Anglo-Zulu War and the crushing defeat of British forces at the battle of Isandlwana. The events of this film immediately precede those of the film Zulu, which depicts the battle of Rorke’s Drift. This film provides a fairly accurate portrayal of the battle in terms of disposition of the armies involved, and the decisions by those in command, but the arms and equipment used by the British soldiers and native levies in the film leaves much to be desired from a historical standpoint.

The film begins with the issuing of an ultimatum to the Zulu chief Cetshwayo (Simon Sabela), stating that he must disband his impis, or armies, and cease the enforcing of laws contrary to the laws of the Empire, stating that some of his subjects had engaged in brutal and unwarranted attacks on British citizens and demanding that the violators be given up to be tried in colonial courts. When Cetshwayo refused, Lieutenant General Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole) decided a show of force was necessary, even striking a blow against the Zulu militarily. So, with a force of 8,000 Europeans and African troops, including infantry, cavalry, artillery and a rocket battery, Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River near Rorke’s Drift into Zulu land in an attempt to draw the Zulu impis into battle. As the British column advanced Chelmsford received various intelligences giving contrary positions of Cetshwayo’s impis, and eventually Chelmsford left a contingent under the command of Colonel Pulleine (Denholm Elliot) and Colonel Duneford (Burt Lancaster) encamped with the majority of the supply train at Isandlwana Hill while the rest of the column moved further to the east to support a reconnoitering party which had made contact with a small Zulu force. This would prove a blunder as Chelmsford ignored intelligence that the Zulu were in fact moving in force through the hills directly to the north of Isandlwana and the camp failed to prepare defensive positions in case of attack. It is at this point that the small force at Isandlwana of less than 2000 men came under attack by a Zulu impis numbering around 20,000 who attack them in the characteristic Zulu Bull, engaging them with the head while the horns wrap around the enemy flanks and encircle them. While the British troops put up a valiant effort the sheer numbers of Zulu overwhelm them, partially due to a lack of ammunition. Lord Chelmsford’s slow reaction to initial reports of the battle doomed the force at Isandlwana, and the main column arrived only in time to gather what little equipment remains from the bloody aftermath of the battle.

In 1879 the British army was armed with the Mk. II Martini Henry rifle. It was a powerful single shot breech-loading weapon chambered in the .450 Boxer Martini cartridges. The cartridge fired a heavy, paper-patched, solid lead bullet, propelled by an 85 grain charge of black powder. The thin rolled, or coiled, brass case walls of the cartridge led to some problems in the Martini Henry rifle: namely, they would often bulge or rupture when fired, leading to difficult extraction. This was particularly prevalent when the rifle was deployed in the Sudan. The cartridge was also susceptible to water damage, and could be easily bent or dented if handled improperly, rendering it useless. These common problems were not presented in the film, except the mention of water-damaged cartridges by the Quartermaster (Peter Vaughan) upon finding a drowned native porter with a bandoleer containing five ruined cartridges.


There were two major variants of the Martini Henry, a long barreled rifle intended for infantry use and a short barreled carbine for use by cavalry or mounted artillery. While the majority of the rifles used in the film up until the battle follow this basic rule, many of the infantry’s rifles magically transform into carbines on the firing line. While historically inaccurate, there is an explanation for this. The .450 Martini cartridges are extremely difficult to obtain as it was rendered obsolete in the late 1890s. There are no companies producing loaded ammunition for this antiquated cartridge and the only available source is a devoted cult-following of firearms collectors. With no loaded ammunition available it would have been even more difficult in 1979 to procure a sufficient number of blank .450 cartridges to make a film. However, in the late 19th century up until the First World War many Martini Henry rifles were re-barreled in .303 British, the cartridge first developed for the Magazine Lee Metford or MLM bolt-action rifle, and later used in the Short Magazine Lee Enfield or SMLE used by the British in World War I. These rifles were converted as a stopgap measure, used to arm soldiers, colonial troops and native levies in the Boer War and even World War One, while the Army attempted to acquire sufficient MLM or SMLE rifles to issue to their troops. It is these converted .303 Martini carbines that provide most of the weapons capable of firing in the film, and can be easily identified by the small diameter of the muzzles, cut down rifle stocks and generally better appearance in relation to the hard used .450 examples. .303 blank cartridges could easily be obtained from government stockpiles left over from World War Two and continued could easily be obtained from government stockpiles left over from World War Two and continued production of .303 blanks for war films. While most of the firing examples of Martini rifles in the film are undoubtedly .303, the filmmakers must be commended for the use of .450 Martini rifles seen in bandoleers and often being loaded into rifles in close-up shots.

Another point of contention with the Martini Henry rifles used in the film is their deplorable condition. Many of the examples have dark stained stocks from years of over-oiling and storage in a waxy rust preventative grease called Cosmoline. The stocks are also often scratched, dinged, splintered, chipped and in a general state of disrepair. On at least one occasion in the film it appears that one of the rifles was at some time painted white for drill or parade duty, and then hastily pointed brown again to give it a more martial bearing. In 1879 these rifles would have been brand new, and while it would have been undoubtedly difficult to provide pristine examples in 1979 a concerted effort would have made the British troops in the film appear far less ramshackle and rough in appearance. Despite the errors made, mostly by necessity, by the film’s armorer, the use of the rifles in combat scenes is without flaw and shows a clear understanding of Zulu War tactics by the film’s military advisors. In the face of a numerically superior enemy force equipped with primitive weapons the British used volley fire, much as they would have in the days of smooth-bore muskets against Napoleon. In this manner he film stays within the realm of historical accuracy and provides a great feel for the savage combat of the Zulu War.


In addition to the Martini Henry rifles used in the film there are several other long arms used of varying historical accuracy. While Lt. Vereker (Simon Ward) is seeking a commission he demonstrates his ability as a horseman and marksman by firing a double-barreled rifle at a beef carcass being prepared by army cooks while at a full gallop. The rifle is a hunting arm, generally referred to as an express, and popular among game hunters of dangerous game in Africa before the widespread use of bolt-action rifles. They could chamber powerful cartridges capable of easily dispatching an elephant or Cape buffalo and afforded a rapid follow up shot because of the second barrel. The one used by Vereker is an internal hammered model, which, while rare in 1879, was in use in small numbers. Given the character’s wealth it is feasible that he would have had such a firearm instead of the more common external hammered model. Another interesting and historically accurate arm is seen in the hands of a Zulu warrior in the initial encounter with the British. The Zulu in question fires his rifle to gain the attention of the forward elements of the column and inquires why they have entered Zulu land. The rifle appears to be a Snyder Enfield, and could have very well found its way in to the hands of a Zulu by this period. The Snyder Enfield was an outdated Enfield rifle musket converted into a breechloader by the addition of a swiveling breech at the rear of the barrel and chambered in a black powder .577 caliber cartridge developed specifically for the rifle. They were often issued to native levies during the Zulu War and were also common gifts and trade items with native tribes. Given the lack of other Snyder rifles in the film it begs the question of whether this rifle was provided by the armorer or was brought from home by the Zulu. All the Zulu in the film were actual member of that group of people and the rifle may in fact be a relic of the events depicted in the film. Other than these two interesting and accurate rifles the reporter Norris Newman (Ronald Lacey) is seen carrying a woefully incorrect Winchester model 1892 rifle during the initial skirmish with the Zulu scouts. While it is possible that historically Newman carried a Winchester it would have been the model 1873 or 76. Winchesters were never particularly popular in Africa as the majority of the rifles were chambered in pistol caliber cartridges incapable of bringing down dangerous game. Notable exceptions are the models of 1876, 1886, and 1895, the latter being Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite rifle which he used to great effect against many African animals. The 1892 was at this time obviously not being produced, and being a pistol caliber rifle is an unlikely weapon for a man in Africa.

While the majority of the long arms used in the film have at least the appearance of historical accuracy, the side arms used by officers and cavalry are not in any way historically correct. Pistols chambering brass cartridges had been common throughout the world since the early 1870’s, notably the Colt Peacemaker and Smith and Wesson No. 3. However, even in 1879, the standard issue service revolver in the British army was the aging Beaumont –Adams percussion revolver. This revolver was introduced in 1862 and at the time was a powerful contender with Colt’s percussion pistols. But, by 1879 it was a horribly outdated firearm. In 1880 the British would begin to issue the newly developed Enfield MK. I revolver, a break-action, 6 shot revolver firing a brass cartridge to replace the 5 shot, percussion Adams. In the film though, there are no examples of the Adams despite the use of revolvers by several officers and cavalrymen. The revolvers used in the film range from Enfields to Webley models from World War One and Two. None of these pistols were being produced in the 1870’s. Adams revolvers are rare and highly valued collector’s pieces and their absence from the film is reasonable but detracts from the historical accuracy of the firearms used. Also, the manner in which officers carry their pistols is another matter of poor accuracy. Beginnings in the 1860’s British officers were issued a sword or pistol belt that was commonly referred to as a Sam Browne. This consisted of a wide leather belt worn around the waist with a supporting cross belt that extended from the left hip over the right shoulder. The main belt often had pouches for spare ammunition and the cross belt usually had a small pocket for a whistle used to relay orders through the din of battle. The belt was intended initially for the use with a sword or saber, worn on the left side and drawn with the right hand. When the saber fell out of favor a pistol was generally worn in what is commonly referred to as a cross-draw in similar manner to the sword. In this film, however, officer are regularly seen wearing the main belt in bandoleer style slung diagonally across the body along with the cross belt slung in the opposite direction. While dashing and somewhat reminiscent of the bandidos and revolutionaries of the Mexican Revolution, this is not the proper way for a British Officer to wear his Sam Browne. Often in the manner used in the film the pistol is seen hanging from the thin cross belt alone, which would have been uncomfortable and impractical. This inaccuracy reflects a lack of knowledge of British military regulations regarding the wearing of such belts by the costume designer, and should have been corrected by the military advisors working with the director.


The film Zulu Dawn is an interesting story of what many consider to be the worst defeat of modern soldiers by native troops. The historical accuracy of the arms and equipment used in the film demonstrates many of the difficulties faced by an armorer when attempting to recreate military conflicts from more than one hundred years in the past. While the accuracy of many of the weapons is less than perfect, their use in the film is consistent with the history of the Battle of Isandlwana and provides a useful visual representation of this crushing defeat in the opening days of the Anglo-Zulu War.