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In the late 19 th century, when Queen Victoria was on the British throne, her Government decided to build four state-of-the-art gun batteries - complete with enormous 100-ton Armstrong guns. They would protect the harbours in the colonies of Malta and Gibraltar. One of them - Fort Rinella – was built close to Valletta and you can still visit it today.
The fort was completed in 1878 with the intention of protecting naval shipping in the area from the newest generation of Italian battleships. Its fearsome gun – the largest muzzle-loading cannon ever built - could reputedly fire every six minutes and blast a one-ton shell for a distance of up to eight miles. The round would pierce armour plate of a thickness up to 65cm. That’s some serious firepower!
The mere presence of such a weapon proved quite a deterrent because the gun, which still stands at this historic fort, was never fired in anger … and perhaps just as well!
The story goes that on its first test, the 2,000-pound shell was propelled a distance closer to eight yards than eight miles. It barely made it out of the barrel and flopped down into the sea below.
One can only assume that Queen Victoria, whose default face largely resembled a slapped backside, would have been ‘not amused’ had she learned of the results of the embarrassing test. Not least because the single elongated 45cm calibre round required a ton of gun-powder to blast it out and the cost per bang was the equivalent to the daily wage of 2,700 soldiers. For that reason, the gun was fired only twice a year for practice.
Today, it is pressed into action only once a year, at a ceremonial annual firing event on the 5th May. You’re welcome to attend. It is maintained - along with the fort and a museum at the site - by some very enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable volunteers.
To avoid taking out any unsuspecting seabirds, fish or passing ocean liners, it is loaded only with black powder, so you can’t really prove or disprove the legend about its misfire.
The cannon and the fort that has housed it can be found at a place known as the Limits of Kalkara and for any military enthusiast they are well worth a visit. The Armstrong Gun is a masterpiece of engineering that was created by George William Armstrong, in Newcastle. It incorporated a steam-powered hydraulic system that allowed it to be moved and aimed in all directions.
You might hear the fort referred to as the Rinella Battery and it stands east of the mouth of Grand Harbour, between Fort Ricasoli and Fort St Rocco. Every afternoon the dedicated volunteers, dressed as 19th Century British soldiers, provide a tour of the fort combining lectures, demonstrations and live re-enactments. A Victorian-era muzzle-loading fieldpiece is fired daily too, again without shot.
Fort Rinella is a quirky yet fascinating little attraction – typical of the things you can find on Malta. It’s not hard to get there if you head for the Three Cities of Bormla, Isla and Birgu then look for signs to Kalkara and then Rinella. To find it on a map, the fort is a short distance up the coast from Valletta to the east. There are regular buses from Valletta.
Address: Notre Dame Gate, St Edward's St, Vittoriosa BRG9038
Phone: +356 2180 0992
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