Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Violent Trajectories: A Cultural History of the Enfield Rifle in the British Empire

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posted on 2021-11-23, 08:55 authored by Thompson, Daniel M.

This thesis explores the material, cultural, and political significance of the Enfield rifle in the British Empire from c. 1850 to 1870. Unravelling the weapon’s links with imperial ideology and violence, it argues that the Enfield helped to produce discourses of race, gender, and civilisation during this era. Furthermore, it contends that these discourses shaped the ways in which Britons viewed the Enfield and influenced how they saw themselves. The rifle is best known for its well-chronicled role in the 1857 Indian Rebellion, where it was central to British narratives of the conflict. While acknowledging the Indian context, this thesis aims to draw the Enfield deeper into debates about British imperial culture, comparing the rifle’s physical and discursive influence across a range of imperial spaces.  The Enfield rifle was one of the most important weapons of the nineteenth century. The product of a revolution in rifle technology, it amazed the British public and military with its accuracy and range. The weapon’s invention prompted the introduction of large scale factory production techniques in Britain. It also stimulated a massive rethinking of military tactics and was a central component of the militarisation of British society during the 1850s and 1860s. The Enfield then had extensive use in conflicts including the Crimean War, the Indian Rebellion, the New Zealand Wars, and the American Civil War. It also found a home in the burgeoning Volunteer Movement in Britain and New Zealand.  Through its use in these arenas, the Enfield had a considerable physical impact on the British Empire, but it had even greater discursive significance. During the 1850s and 1860s, discussions about the Enfield’s invention, production, and usage promoted ideas of rationality, modern science, and individualism. After the 1857 Indian Rebellion, the rifle came to epitomise British technological might and racial ‘superiority’ in the minds of Victorians. The Volunteer Force, established in 1859, embraced the Enfield as its weapon of choice and conceived of it as a weapon that embodied the Force’s values of skill, education and respectability. In the New Zealand Wars however, the rifle failed to bring the decisive victories many settlers expected, and they began to disparage the weapon as a result. Nevertheless, the Enfield was still deeply implicated in the contested process of colonisation in New Zealand. Ultimately, the Enfield’s role in these events transformed the weapon into a deeply raced and gendered object.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Macdonald, Charlotte