Fort Rinella : Malta


Wirt Artna

The building of Fort Rinella was arrived at out of sheer necessity in 1878, when the British Military authorities decided in great haste, to bolster the coastal defences of Malta and Gibraltar four Armstrong 100 ton guns.
This decision was taken in full view of the fact that the Italian navy was building a new fleet made up from massive and powerful ironclad ships also armed with 100 ton guns.
At that time, Malta and Gibraltar stood as highly prized British coaling stations along the strategic commercial route to India. The British saw a potential threat in the Italian naval re-armament, which led them in forcing Sir William George Armstrong, the English ordnance maker, to let them have the second batch of four guns which he was making for the new Italian battle ship "Dandalo" for the defence of their two Mediterranean stations. Although there existed no belligerency between the two nations, the British could not for a moment compromise their first rate naval superiority status in the Mediterranean.

As expected, this move generated harsh protestations from the Italian government, since it jeopardised, albeit for a short period, its re-armament programme. Nevertheless, the British still got their guns first, and on 10 September 1882, the gun designated to arm Rinella Battery arrived safely in Malta on board the War Department steam ship "Stanley".

In the meantime, the local military authorities lost no time in following the advice by the Inspector General of Fortifications; Lt. General Sir John Lintorn Simmons R.E. who in 1877 visited Malta to report on the state of defence of the island. Work was started on two new batteries at Rinella and Tigne (Cambridge) in 1878, in which the two 100 ton guns were to be mounted

The Armstrong 100 ton gun was a rifled muzzle loader, built from a number of wrought iron hoops that were shrunken around an inner steel tube made from two parts. It had an effective range of roughly 3 miles, firing a 1 ton shell that could pierce 21 inches of wrought iron armour at that distance. The gun was ignited in two ways; friction tube or electrical spark.

The main tactical use of these two batteries was that of engaging any target within a minimum range of three miles. With this being also the effective range of the armament on board the new Italian ships, their possibility of bombarding or blockading the Grand Harbour with impunity was now eliminated.

The new battery at Rinella, took the shape of an irregular pentagon, surrounded by a vertically cut ditch for its defence against attack by infantry. It was built on three levels and generally divided in two main parts; the rear serving as the main accommodation area, whereas the front part was totally occupied by the machinery supporting the gun and the munitions. The gun was mounted on a carriage and slide, firing over the parapet of an open emplacement.

The battery was originally served by a rolling bridge, which could be pulled inside in case of an attack. It also had three caponiers defending the front and side flanks of its ditch, and a counter-scarp gallery that covered the rear stretch.

The 100 ton gun, being of such massive proportions could not be worked manually and therefore had to be provided with an ingeniously designed steam powered hydraulic system, which with the least human effort could traverse, depress and load it.

Late in 1883, preparations were set afoot for the transportation of the 100 ton gun into place. For this purpose, the gun was loaded on board a specially designed barge from Somerset Dock, within the dock yard, where it stood for a number of months after its arrival from the UK. It was then fern-ed across the harbour into Kalkara Bay, where it was un1oaded and placed on a massive wooden trunnion sleigh. Thereupon, it was pulled all the way to the battery by 100 men from 1 Battery 1 Brigade Scottish RA Division, using capstans, rollers, hydraulic jacks and sheer muscle power!

The entire operation took 87 days to complete. And on 12 Jan 1884, the gun was finally brought into position. At the end of it, the gap left at the back of the fort to allow the passage of the gun, as well as the narrow cause way left uncut across the ditch were closed and cleared. But work on the battery lingered on until 1886.

The gun was fired in position for the first time in 1884, were it was found generally satisfactory.

In 1887, a military commission made up from Capt. 0'Callaghan R.A. and Capt. Clarke R.E. sent by the War Office to report on the new batteries at Gibraltar and Malta reached the island to inspect Rinella and Cambridge batteries. In doing so, they assisted with the firing of the two guns, which they found safisfactory except for some minor mistakes and the black colour which they had been painted. According to them this colour markedly exposed the guns from the sea. This led to quite a lot of experimentation which finally resulted in the painting of the guns a stone colour that blended with their natural background.

The hydraulic machinery by which the gun worked was also inspected and found, in parts, wanting. So modifications were quickly carried out.

Another cause for concern was the supply of fresh water for the feeding of the hydraulic system which had to be increased. This was achieved after mains water was brought into the battery from a nearby underground aqueduct and a new tank was built at an elevated position, on top of the accommodation block to increase storage of water.

Other modifications resulting from this visit were the removal of two musketry pits formed into the bomb proofing on top of the engine room and the artillery store, and the two masonry slopes that stood on the sides of the gun emplacement, which according to the two military inspectors served only as effective shell-traps.

Once all work was completed, the 100 ton guns at Rinella and Cambridge formed the island's main bulwark against the potential Italian naval threat. But this hard gained peace of mind, was not to be enjoyed for long. For once again,in 1884, another of Sir W.G. Amstrong's men, Sir Andrew Noble, took the lead and invented smokeless powder, which significantly altered the offensive properties of gun powder, making it more powerful then ever before. The new powder needed longer gun barrels for its full powers to develop. So, a new breed of breech loading ordnance came into use, with a smaller calibre, but with a much more devastating effect than any other gun using black powder. This was the death of the 100 ton gun!

Nevertheless, the battery continued in its coast defence role, with the gun being fired occasionally on practice days, but its active service life was now fast running out.

By the beginning of the century, 100 ton guns in British service, although still maintained in active use, were simply reduced to mere curiosities from a distant past. Until 1906, when Horse Guards in London, authorised their official demise from service.

After that date, Rinella Battery had all the steam and hydraulic machinery removed from it and was closed down.

It remained abandoned until the 1930s, when in the wake of another world war, it was re-occupied, this time by the Admiralty to be used as bomb-proof stores. It remained in this use until 1965, spending the last 30 years of its service life as the Royal Navy's main store for rum!

In 1991, the battery was taken over by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna - National Heritage Foundation, who by using volunteer work is restoring it back to its former state.

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For more information about Wirt Artna or The Friends of Fort Rinella contact
Mario Farrugia, Keeper of Fort Rinella, St. Rocco Road, Kalkara CSP11, Malta.

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