The untold story of Mau Mau home-made pistols and guns

by Getrude Mirobi

At the Imperial War Museum in London, there is a homemade rifle that had been seized from Mau Mau fighters and taken as a souvenir by Flight Lieutenant John Tayor. This weapon is one of the existing, but rare, collections of Mau Mau weaponry.

While Mau Mau possessed few modern weapons, they used the expertise of former soldiers to make their own weapons.

At the same museum, there is a homemade pistol made of several strands of bicycle inner tubing . “It was captured from a Mau Mau band led by General Mawe who fired it at Major Willoughbt Thompson of the Kenya government during an attack on a Home Guard Post,” a description on the pistol reads.

Mau Mau improvised firearms have not been fully studied –  and as such little is known of the war armoury. What we know is that during the initial stages of the uprising, the fighters had little access to modern firearms – which were the preserve of government forces.

It can be said Mau Mau commenced the war without proper weapons. But as the war progressed, a dire need for guns became clear. In response, the Mau Mau fighters started raiding government armories for weapons. However, this approach was dangerous and unsustainable. Only a local solution could suffice.  

At the National Army Museum in London, there is evidence of the Mau Mau weaponry of home-made guns.  The rare pistol has a metal plate engraved with the word Mau Mau.

Besides the guns, the Mau Mau soldiers were armed with swords, spears, bows and arrows..

The Mau Mau fighters targeted shops and non-African homes for guns and funnelled the stolen weapons to the forest for distribution among troops. It was the growth of the movement and the commencement of attacks on Europeans that drove the demand for guns.  

In addition to the growth of the Mau Mau, the weapon supply within colonial towns began to dry up. The colonial government became aware of how the Mau Mau obtained precision weapons and made efforts to clamp down on the sources. In round-up operations, such as Operation Jock Scott, the colonial government forces cast a wide net and pulled Mau Mau leadership and any suspected supporters off the street.

The colonial government also set up checkpoints to stop and search anyone suspected of being involved in Mau Mau. The British did not exclude Kenyan women from these checks. In any case, most Kikuyu women were passive members of the movement and tasked with smuggling weapons.

The Mau Mau could also not rely on supply from neighboring African states and territories. At the time, Ethiopia was the only independent African state adjacent to Kenya. According to historical records, General China sent teams to smuggle weapons and ammunition into Kenya from Ethiopia. However, many such attempts were dangerous and often unsuccessful. 

The components of these homemade guns came from sources readily found in Kenya’s natural and urban environments. Although rudimentary, combination of many parts made guns.  

A home-made pistol (Source: National Army Museum)

While the Mau Mau saw great success in constructing their own firearms, the acquisition of ammunition was a big obstacle. The design of their homemade guns called for a modern cartridge, just as European-manufactured firearms. After the British declared a state of emergency, it was by law a capital crime for Africans to own even a single round of ammunition. This heightened the scarcity of available ammunition. 

British service rifles of the time primarily fired a 303-caliber round. This made the 303 the most common type of ammunition available. Therefore, Mau Mau gun makers endeavored to build firearms that supported this caliber round. The British were aware of this fact and placed ammunition security at the highest priority.

Theft and the black market did supply some relief, but the Mau Mau employed a few more creative ways to overcome the ammunition shortage. They would open a cartridge and remove a portion of its gunpowder. They would then use it to fill other gun shells, making up for the difference with crushed glass.

In addition to manufacturing firearms and modifying ammunition, they made hand grenades and explosives. They would fill a can with gunpowder, broken glass, stones, and petrol. They would then insert a flammable wick for ignition, creating a particularly nasty improvised explosive device. Smaller cans, such as soup or vegetable cans, made hand grenades while larger cans created larger explosives.

It is important to note that the Mau Mau made the guns integral to their military efforts and capabilities. To date, the guns hold a prominent place within the Mau Mau historical memory. Home-made guns represent a concrete example of how an oppressed society can resort to local innovations to obtain the necessary firepower to confront an enemy. 

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1 comment

James Methu April 7, 2021 - 9:04 am

Great education of the capability of the Mau Mau


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