My name’s Dave Earl and I’m a volunteer intern in the curatorial department of the museum. For the past six months I’ve been researching and documenting the museum’s collection of naval and civilian small-arms.I’m no expert on weaponry—when I’m not at the museum I’m undertaking a PhD in social and cultural history at the University of Sydney— but the project is providing a great chance to become familiar with the museum’s staff, collections, and registration processes. I’ve been uncovering some intriguing new information about many of the small-arms held by the museum, and in the future will be performing a much needed update to the catalogue information stored in the museum’s digital catalogue, The Museum System.
The museum holds around a dozen swords, two dozen guns, and a handful of assorted small-arms, including pikes, dirks, and a walking-stick rumoured (but not proven) to conceal a rapier.
The significance of these weapons often lies in the people or the events with which they are associated. Rather than simply being objects d’ art or examples of technological innovation, these weapons can tell us something of the lives lived and values held by the people who owned and used them. For example, many of the naval swords feature elaborate etchings on the blade, hinting at imperial loyalties, significant events, or personal achievements. We can track how these symbols changed over time, gaining an insight into the way in which social attitudes have evolved through the decades.
Other items give us an impression of everyday events. One of my personal favourites is a whaler’s “bowie” knife, believed to be made during the nineteenth century. Someone, perhaps the owner, has crudely incised a three-masted clipper on one side of the blade, and a whaling scene on the other. In this image, four whalers—three rowing and a fourth standing with a whaling spear—face off a rampant whale in a choppy sea.
The object that I am currently investigating is a bolt action rifle, previously described in the museum’s catalogue as an “Austrian Model 1888 Rifle,” thought to have been acquired during the Boxer Uprising in China.
The Boxer Uprising, often called the Boxer Rebellion, began when a Chinese sect known as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists started agitating against Western Colonial influences in the late nineteenth century. In 1900, the Society, having gained popular support in northern China, attacked Western outposts in Beijing and Tianjin. In response, European and Japanese forces combined to form the Eight Nation Alliance. They brought 20,000 troops to China and suppressed the uprising in September 1901. Australia provided a contingent of several hundred troops from its colonial navies, primarily from the New South Wales and Victorian Naval Brigades. No Australians were killed in the fighting, but six troops were lost to illness. You can read more about the Boxer Uprising at Wikipedia, at The Australian War Memorial, or search Google Books. The Internet Modern History Sourcebook also contains a number of interesting contemporary resources.
The rifle I am researching is one of several objects held by the Museum that are associated with the Boxer Uprising or with the Colonial Naval Brigades.
A midshipman’s dirk on display in the Navy Gallery was used by the New South Wales Brigade, its unit insignia proudly etched on the blade’s surface.
A Martini-Henry rifle, the type used by the Naval Brigades, is also on display in the Naval Gallery. It features an elaborately carved dragon motif on its stock, suggestive of its Boxer links. Out of view are four Chinese characters and the text “J. C. Jamieson.”
Jamieson was a member of the Royal Victorian Naval Brigade and is known to have travelled to China as part of the Australian contingent. He is believed to be pictured in a photograph held by the Australian War Memorial which was taken shortly before the Victorian Brigade left for China.
A final item on display in the Naval Gallery is an officer’s sword which belonged to Lieutenant William Staunton Spain. Spain travelled to China as part of the New South Wales Naval Brigade. The sword was dispensed by the London cutlers Firmin and Sons, and its hilt features an elaborate fouled anchor motif which was common on British naval swords.
Spain was photographed leading a group of Naval Brigade troopers mounted on ponies in China during 1901.
Unlike these objects, the rifle which I am currently investigating is not associated with a particular person. It is simply described as being a “souvenir from Boxer Rebellion” in the Museum’s database. (Sadly, it didn’t make it into our current exhibition on souvenirs!) It is listed as an “Austrian Model 1888 Full Length Rifle.” The rifle has no distinct maker’s marks, but features what is possibly a manufacturer’s number, “51006.”
Austria-Hungary were a member of the Eight Nation Alliance, and at first I was inclined to assume the rifle was a version of the Gewehr Model 1888 Commission Rifle. This model and its variants were produced in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and a number of other European countries from 1888 until the early 1920s, although they were superseded by a number of later designs, and made officially obsolete with the introduction of the Model 1898 Mauser.
On closer inspection I was obviously wrong. The Gewehr 1888 features a distinctive protruding magazine which is integrated with the trigger guard. The museum’s rifle has a protruding magazine, but this is separated from the trigger guard.
In many ways, the museum’s rifle is similar to the 1898 Mauser– which replaced the Gewehr 1888– except that the Model ’98 did not have a protruding magazine at all. This suggests that the rifle held by the museum might be a transitional model, possibly a model 1890/91 or 1896 Mauser rifle. I am currently awaiting a number of rifle identification books from libraries outside the Museum which might shed some light on the rifle’s origins.
One possibility I am not ruling out is that the rifle is a Chinese “bootleg” Mauser. A number of Chinese foundries produced copies of Western-style rifles in the nineteenth century, sometimes going as far as replicating European maker’s marks and serial numbers. If this is the case, then this enigmatic rifle might signify the modernisation of China and the adoption of Western values which the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists fought hard to resist.