The fort was built to contain a single Armstrong 100-ton gun: a 450 mm rifled muzzle-loading (RML) gun made by Elswick Ordnance Company, the armaments division of the British manufacturing company Armstrong Whitworth. The fort was originally one of a pair; however, the paired Cambridge Battery near Tigne, west of Grand Harbour, no longer exists. The British installed a second pair of 100-ton guns to defend Gibraltar, mounting one each in Victoria Battery (1879) and Napier of Magdala Battery (1883), which did not have Rinella's self-defence capabilities. Only two 100-ton guns survive; one at Fort Rinella, and one at Napier of Magdala Battery.
The British felt the need for such large guns as a response to the Italians having, in 1873, built the battleships Duilio and Dandalo with 22 inches of steel armour and four 100-ton Armstrong guns per vessel. By arming both Gibraltar and Malta, the British were seeking to ensure the vital route to India through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, which had opened to traffic in 1869.
The fort is modest in size as it was designed to operate and protect the single large gun, with its associated gun crew, magazines, bunkers, support machinery and the detachment of troops stationed within the fort to defend the installation.
The gun was mounted en barbette on a wrought-iron sliding carriage and gun fired over the top of the parapet of the emplacement. This enabled the gun-crew to handle and fire the gun without exposing themselves to enemy fire. The fort was designed to engage enemy warships at ranges up to 7,000 yards. The low profile of the fort and the deeply buried machinery rooms and magazines were intended to enable it to survive counterfire from capital warships.
The massive gun is far too heavy to be laid by hand, and the fort therefore contained a steam powered hydraulic system that traversed, elevated and depressed the gun, operated a pair of hydraulic powered loading and washing systems, and powered the shell lifts that moved the 2,000-pound shells and 450-pound black-powder charges from the magazines into the loading chambers.
In the image above, one of the pair of iron casemates that protected the hydraulic loading and cleaning mechanism can be seen behind the gun.
The gun was intended to operate at a rate of fire of a single shell every six minutes. The firing cycle was for the gun to be traversed and depressed until it aligned with one of loading casemates, with the barrel pushing aside an iron plate that normally closed the aperture in the casemate. The gun was then flushed with water to cool it, clean any debris and deposit from the barrel, and douse any remaining embers from the previous cartridge. The ramming mechanism then inserted and tamped a silk cartridge containing the propellant charge, which was followed by one of the range of shells the gun was adapted to fire. The loaded gun was then traversed and elevated using the hydraulic system, and fired by an electrical firing mechanism. The gun then slewed to the other casemate to repeat the loading process, while the first casemate was recharged from the deeper magazine.
The two separate loading casemates, each fed by an independent magazine, and the provision of man-powered backup pumps for the hydraulic system, such that a team of 40 men could maintain the hydraulic pressure to operate the gun, would have allowed the fort to continue firing even if substantially damaged.
Originally the inner faces of the emplacement were revetted with masonry. Subsequent review of the fort's defences after its completion identified this as a weakness, and the stone revetting was removed from most of the emplacement and replaced with plain earthworks, presumably to better absorb the energy of incoming shellfire. The revetting was retained around the loading casemates, as one can see in the image above.
The 100 ton guns were in active service for only 20 years, with all being withdrawn from active service by 1906, without ever firing a shot in anger. Because a single shell cost as much as the daily wage of 2600 soldiers, practice firing was limited to one shot every 3 months.
After the Armstrong gun was retired from service, Fort Rinella was used as an observation post for the guns of Ricasoli Fort, and unfortunately at some point the now obsolete steam engine and hydraulic system were removed. During World War II, the Navy used the Fort to store supplies, and it received seven bomb hits. The fort was ideal because from a plane's view it blends into the fields as it was covered in moss and grass. The Navy gave up the site in 1956.
Emplacing the gun
The 100-ton gun arrived in Malta from Woolwich on 10 September 1882. There it sat at the dockyards for some months before it was ferried to Rinella Bay. One hundred men from the Royal Artillery manhandled it to the fort in a process that took some three months. The gun was finally in position and ready for use in January 1884.
Fort Rinella today
Since 1991, the Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna - Malta Heritage Trust has been restoring the fort, which is now open to the public as a Museum. Unfortunately, the steam engine and hydraulic machinery have not yet been replaced. Once a year, on 5 May, a crew of volunteers fires the gun (using only black powder) to keep it active, and also to attract more visitors.
Throughout the year, at 13.00pm, re-enactors dressed as 19th Century British soldiers provide a tour of the fort that combines lecture, demonstration and live re-enactment. This includes the firing, without shot, of a Victorian-era muzzle-loading fieldpiece.
In the 1960/70s, the Fort was used as a location in the films, Zeppelin, Shout at the Devil, and Young Winston.
In 2010 Malta and Gibraltar jointly issued a four-stamp set of stamps featuring the two jurisdictions' 100-ton guns. Two stamps show the gun at Fort Rinella, and two the gun at Napier of Magdala Battery. One of each pair is a view from 1882, and the other is a view from 2010. The stamps from Malta bear a denomination of 0.75 euros, while those from Gibraltar bear a denomination of 75 pence.
Media related to Fort Rinella, Malta at Wikimedia Commons
- Bonavita, R. V., "The 100-ton Gun at Rinella Battery in Malta", Fort 1978 (Fortress Study Group), (6), pp26–34
- Military Architecture of the 100 Ton Gun Batteries
- Victorian Forts description