AAI Advanced Combat Rifle

This is the first of three introductory videos looking at the US Army’s ACR prototypes. We will be revisiting these later to show disassembly and how they worked. You can check out our introduction to the H&K G11 here. You can also find our in-depth ACR Program overview article here.

The AAI Corporation was founded in 1950, as Aircraft Armaments, Inc., and has long been involved in advanced firearms design, taking part in a number of the US military’s previous small arms programs. Throughout the Cold war AAI was involved in the US Army’s search for a new advanced infantry weapon system. Before we examine the AAI ACR, it is important to understand the context in which it evolved.

The Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW) program, an off-shoot of Project SALVO began in the early 1950s and ran until the late 1960s. During the SPIW program AAI developed a series of designs, including an entire family of weapons, which used flechette technology. These culminated with the XM19 rifle, or SFR – Serial Flechette Rifle.  The XM19 represented the pinnacle of over a decade of flechette technology development, however, the end of the US war in Vietnam saw the need for SPIW disappear and the program was wound down.

4 guns from AAI's family of weapons 60s SPIWs
AAI SPIW family of weapons from the early 1960s (Reproduced in Stevens & Ezell’s SPIW Deadliest Weapon)

In the early 1970s SPIW essentially morphed into the Future Rifle Program, but with the end of US involvement in Vietnam, this also proved a failure. During the early 1980s the US Army awarded development contracts to both AAI and Heckler & Koch to develop caseless ammunition and a weapon system capable of firing it. While H&K G11 is no doubt the better known of the two weapons, AAI’s Caseless Weapon, while a move away from flechette technology, was also an interesting design.

AAI's Caseless Ammunition Rifle (US Army)
AAI’s Caseless Ammunition Rifle, another image available here (US Army)

Firing a variety of ammunition the AAI design was capable of firing a high cyclic rate 3-round burst at 1600-1800rpm. The ACR program summary report noted that the AAI Caseless project was feasible and only lacked development funding to make it a reality, as the design was much simpler than the G11.

AAI were one of six companies to respond to the ACR program’s Request for Proposals, released in September 1985. AAI’s ACR was an evolution of the earlier SFR/XM19 rifle. The weapon AAI submitted was gas-operated, fed from a 30-round box magazine, and fired a brass cased flechette round in either single shot or a high cyclic rate three round bust – fired at a cyclic rate of ~1800rpm.

Left of the AAI ACR rifle (Matthew Moss)
Left-side view of AAI Corporation’s ACR entry (Matthew Moss)
AAI Corp ACR rifle (Matthew Moss)
Right-side view of AAI’s ACR entry (Matthew Moss)

AAI’s ACR fired from a closed bolt and used a muzzle device to reduce muzzle climb during burst firing. The 1990 ACR Program Summary report explains how the rifle’s gas system worked:

“…incorporate an ‘entrapped gas’ operating system. Gun gases enter a cylinder, drive a piston to power the system, and prevent any leakage of propellant gases and residues into the other mechanism parts.”

AAI developed a polymer saboted steel 10.2 gr ‘sub-calibre’ flechette which fitted within a standard M855 brass case. As a result the rifle used a proprietary magazine to avoid the accidental chambering of conventional 5.56x45mm rounds. The flechette rounds had a muzzle velocity of 4,600 ft/s with propellant produced by the Olin Corporation.

DSC_0146
An AAI Corporation ACR marked serial number 20 (Matthew Moss)

The rifle was designed to mount a quick detachable 4x optic and also had a white-highlighted shotgun-style rib sight along the barrel to aid snap shooting. The rifle was one of the longest entries with an overall length of 40 inches or 101.6cm. Interestingly, rather than a push-button magazine release, AAI opted for a large paddle release.

Front end of AAI ACR (Matthew Moss)
The fore-end of the AAI ACR, note the front sight post and muzzle device which reduced muzzle climb during burst firing (Matthew Moss)

AAI’s rifle borrowed some of its external ergonomic characteristics from the M16A2, then in service. With a moulded polymer pistol grip and butt, forming part of the lower receiver, shaped to mimic the M16’s. It also utilised the M16’s sling loops and butt plate.

According to the ACR program summary the AAI entry proved to be a “mature design which performed in a reliable fashion” during the field trials. It was regarded as a weapon with known reliability with a flechette round superior to the Steyr, the other flechette-based entry.

AAI ACR Ejection Port (Matthew Moss)
Close up of the right-side of the AAI ACR, note the ejection port and moulded plastic case deflector, selector level, paddle magazine release and sight mount (Matthew Moss)

Today, AAI continue to develop both small arms and other defence technologies. Now a part of Textron, they are currently involved in the US Army’s Lightweight Small Arms Technologies (LSAT) program.

Specifications (From 1990 ACR Program Summary):

Length: 40 inches / 101.6cm
Weight: 9.39 lbs / 4.26kg
Sights: Iron or 4x optic
Action: Gas operated
Calibre: 5.56mm brass cased flechette
Feed: 30-round box magazine

You can find out overview article on the ACR program and all of the rifle here.


Bibliography:

Advanced Combat Rifle, Program Summary, Vol.1, ARDEC, 1992 (source)

‘Revisiting the SPIW Pt. 1-3’, Small Arms Review, R. Blake Stevens, (123)

The SPIW The Deadliest Weapon that Never Was, R. Blake Stevens & E.C. Ezell (1985)

Our thanks to the collection that holds these wonderful examples of the ACR rifles


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2018.

Advanced Combat Rifle Prototypes

4 ACR program Rifle (Matthew Moss)
The four rifles tested during the final phases of the ACR program, AAI, Colt, H&K, Steyr (Matthew Moss)

With so few primary or secondary sources on the ACR program available, this article relies heavily on the 1990 program summary report written by the US Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC). Over the next three articles we will examine the AAI, Colt and Steyr ACR entries. The H&K entry was covered earlier – here.

In the early 1980s the US Army began looking into what form a replacement for the M16A1 might take. The Joint Service Small Arms Program undertook a study and found that in the long term a “technology base should be developed to support a significant improvement in capability.” This meant the US infantryman’s next rifle would move away from conventional ammunition and actions.

The Advanced Combat Rifle program began in January 1985, to foster the development and select a rifle that would give troops a distinct advantage on the battlefield. The project’s ambitious aim was to address the human shortcomings of the average soldier in the field. It was found that combat stress, fear and fatigue negatively impacted on a rifleman’s ability to hit a target once engaged in combat.

US Army Future Sldier 1959
US Army’s 1959 Future Soldier Concept, with M14 (LIFE)

The ACR program sought to compensate for this by maximising hit probability when engaging fleeting targets in battlefield conditions. The program called for:

“an enhancement in hit probability of at least 100 percent at combat ranges over the baseline performance of the M16A2 rifle… at extended ranges, the improvement required will be considerably greater than 100 percent. The weapon will be expected to enable the rifleman to detect rargets at ranges greater than 400m in offensive action and at least 1000m during the conduct of the defense.”

This was a tall order, calling for a weapon with an optic and the ability to engage long range targets, which were envisaged to be wearing body armour, but also engage fleeting targets. But the ACR program was far from the US military’ first ambitious small arms project.

The ACR program built on the Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW) program that had been established in the 1950s to produce the next generation of infantry weapon capable of firing busts of flechettes at extremely high rates of fire to improve hit probability. This task proved technologically insurmountable during the 1950s and 60s. The SPIW program ended in the late 1960s, but was followed in the early 1970s by the Future Rifle Program which also proved a failure. Despite these failures the programs helped to push small arms technological boundaries.

In the video below, produced by ARDEC for the US Department of Defence, we see the ACR program briefly explained and the various rifles introduced with some firing footage:

The approaches used by the companies that entered the ACR competition varied greatly. Ranging from rifles with complex buffer systems to weapons that fired duplex and flechette rounds.

The first Request for Proposals was released in September 1985, with six companies successfully submitting proposals. These companies, which were awarded a Phase I contract, were: AAI Corporation, Ares Incorporated, Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Heckler & Koch (H&K), McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems (MDHS), and Steyr Mannlicher. In 1987, following Phase I of the program the entries from Ares and MDHS were dropped due to ‘hardware immaturity’ – the concepts were not developed enough. Both companies appealed and were allowed to enter designs to Phase II but neither was sufficiently developed to compete in the later trials and testing.

Each company approached the program’s aims in a different way. Two utilised flechette technology, which had been developed during the SPIW program, with the AAI using a brass cased round while the Steyr ACR used a polymer case. Colt’s entry used a duplex round with two projectiles stacked in the cartridge case. Heckler & Koch’s G11 used a complex buffer system to reduce felt recoil after firing a ‘hyper burst’ of three rounds at ~2,000 rounds per minute.

Lets take a look at the individual weapon systems:

AAI Corporation

AAI Corp ACR rifle
AAI Corporation’s ACR entry (Matthew Moss)

Check out Vic’s video on the AAI ACR and an article with further detail here

AAI Corporation had long been involved in advanced firearms design, taking part in the US military’s previous programs. The AAI ACR was an evolution of the earlier SFR/XM19 rifle. AAI’s ACR was gas-operated, feeding from a 30 round box magazine and fired a brass cased flechette round in either single shot or a high cyclic rate three round bust.

It fired from a closed bolt and used a muzzle device to reduce muzzle climb during burst fire. AAI developed a polymer saboted steel 10.2 gr flechette which fitted within a standard M855 brass case. As a result the rifle uses a proprietary magazine to avoid the accidental chambering of conventional 5.56x45mm rounds. These rounds had a muzzle velocity of 4,600 ft/s.

Diagram showing AAI's saboted flechette round inside a 5.56x45mm M855 case (US Army)
Diagram showing AAI’s saboted flechette round inside a 5.56x45mm M855 case (US Army)

The rifle was designed to mount a quick detachable 4x optic and had a white-highlighted shotgun-style rib sight along the barrel to aid in snap shooting. The rifle was one of the longest entries with an overall length of 40 inches or 101.6cm.

According to the ACR program summary the AAI entry proved to be a “mature design which performed in a reliable fashion” during the field trials.

Specifications (From ACR Program Summary):

Length: 40 inches / 101.6cm
Weight: 9.39 lbs / 4.26kg
Sights: Iron or 4x optic
Action: Gas operated
Calibre: 5.56mm brass cased flechette
Feed: 30-round box magazine

Colt’s Manufacturing Company

Colt ACR rifle submission
Colt’s ACR entry (Matthew Moss)

Check out Vic’s video on the Colt ACR and an article with further detail here [Coming soon]

Colt’s entry was perhaps the most conventional of the designs submitted. Based on the rifle the program sought to replace. Colt’s ACR was essentially an improved M16, which fired both conventional 5.56x45mm ammunition as well as a new 5.56mm duplex round. While the duplex round increase hit probability at shorter ranges, it impacted long range accuracy requiring the additional use of conventional M855 rounds.

It incorporated a variety of improvements including a new oil/spring hydraulic buffer to mitigate recoil. A reshaped pistol grip and a hand guard which mounted a sighting rib for snap shooting. The weapon had a flat-top upper receiver which was railed so a 3.5x optic (an early ECLAN) or a more conventional sight/carrying handle could be fitted.

Colt's 5.56mm Duplex round (US Army)
Colt’s 5.56mm Duplex round (US Army)

The rifle’s collapsible six position telescopic butt stock was an improved version of that offered with Colt’s carbines. When at full extension the Colt ACR was the longest rifle tested, at 40.6 inch or 103 cm long. A distinctive proprietary muzzle brake compensator designed by Knight’s Armament was also added.

During testing one of the duplex rounds was not properly seated inside the cartridge case and when fired became lodged in the barrel and during the course of fire and the weapon’s barrel blew when another round was fired. This was addressed by a slightly larger propellant charge. Some of the features developed for the ACR entry were later employed in the M16A3 and later A4.

Specifications (From ACR Program Summary):

Length: 40.6 inches / 103cm (extended) and 36.7 inches / 93.2cm (collapsed)
Weight: 10.3 lbs / 4.67kg
Sights: iron or 3.5x optic
Action: Direct gas impingement
Calibre: 5.56mm duplex round & M855 ball
Feed: 30-round box magazine

Heckler & Koch

Heckler & Koch's G11K2, ACR entry
Heckler & Koch’s G11K2, ACR submission (Matthew Moss)

Check out our full article on the G11 and our introductory video showing two examples of the weapon partially disassembled here

Heckler & Koch had been involved in the West German Bundeswher’s attempts to create a next generation infantry weapon. The result was the G11, the G11 had been in development since the late 1960s and by the time it was entered into the ACR program it had evolved into a complex weapon unlike any other. Utilising a gas-operated, rotary breech to fire self-contained caseless 4.73×33mm projectiles. The rotary breech chamber was introduced as a means of clearing misfired, broken or defective cartridges from the enclosed system. Simplicity was sacrificed to achieve reliability.

The US had awarded H&K a contract to develop caseless ammunition, optics and the salvo concept in 1982. With the G11 in development they then entered the ACR program. The bullpup H&K was the shortest of the weapons entered into the trial at 29.5 inches / 74.9cm. It was equipped by a variable 1-3.5x optic designed by Swarovski.

g11round5
Diagram showing the composition of the G11’s telescoped caseless ammunition (source)

The revolutionary ammunition was developed by Dynamit-Nobel AG.
The 4.73x33mm, 51gr round which was finalised comprised of a solid propellant material body which encased a primer, booster, projectile and a plastic nose cap. Dynamit-Nobel developed the High Ignition Temperature Propellant (HITP) in an effort to prevent accidental ignition (cook-off) of the ammunition’s outer propellant body. The ACR program summary notes that “the majority of the malfunctions/stoppages experience in the field experiment were ammunition related.”

The H&K ACR fed from a single stack, horizontally orientated 45-round magazine which sat above the barrel.

The G11 used a counter-recoil buffer mechanism to allow high rates of burst fire – hyper burst. When firing three round bursts the weapon could send the rounds downrange at a rate of ~2,000 rounds per minute, only when the last round has left the barrel does the barrel and action begin to recoil inside the stock along a central guide. The recoil impulse was then quite strong. When in sustained fire the rate of fire is closer to ~460 per minute. A more detailed explanation of the G11’s action can be found here.

Specifications (From ACR Program Summary):

Length: 29.5 inches / 74.9cm
Weight: 9.15 lbs / 4.15kg
Sights: Variable 1-3.5x optic
Action: gas-operated, rotary breech
Calibre: 4.92mm caseless
Feed: 45-round single stack magazine

Steyr-Mannlicher

Steyr ACR Rifle
Steyr ACR entry (Matthew Moss)

Check out Vic’s video on the Steyr ACR and an article with further detail here [Coming soon]

Steyr-Mannlicher’s bullpup entry uses a gas piston driven rising chamber mechanism which rises and falls to chamber rounds as the action cycles. The Steyr ACR, like AAI’s entry, fires flechettes but Steyr’s are housed inside a cylindrical polymer case. The bullpup Steyr was the second shortest at 30 inches (76cm) and the lightest of the rifles submitted weighing 8.5 lbs (3.86kg).

The Steyr ACR borrows its ergonomics from its conventional forebearer, the AUG. With a moulded green plastic stock and a similar pistol grip, trigger and safety layout. Unlike the AUG, however, the ACR uses an AR-15 style charging handle located at the rear of the sight mounting block. The rifle could be fitted with a variable 1-3.5x optic.

The rifle does not use a conventional bolt, instead it has a rising chamber, as a result the rifle fired from an open bolt. A live round only entered the chamber after the trigger had been pulled, thus reducing the potential for cook-offs. Spent polymer cases were pushed out of the chamber and ejected from an opening just in front of the magazine well.

Steyr's Polymer Cased Flechette round (US Army)
Steyr’s Polymer Cased Flechette round (US Army)

Feeding from a 24-round box magazine, made from the same translucent material used in conventional AUG magazines. The magazine goes from double stack to single stack, to allow it to feed reliably, as a result the capacity had to be shortened. A high capacity drum magazine was planned but not provided for the trials. The polymer case held a fin stabilised 9.85 gr flechette with a moulded four piece sabot which broke up soon after exiting the muzzle. This was identified as a shortcoming as it risked hitting nearby troops.

Specifications (From ACR Program Summary):

Length: 30 inches / 76cm
Weight: 8.5 lbs / 3.86kg
Sights: Iron or variable 1-3.5x optic
Action: gas-operated, rising chamber
Calibre: 5.56mm plastic cased flechette
Feed: 24-round magazine


After several years of development, while the Army organised testing, the four firms delivered their prototypes in 1990. During Phase III the rifles were tested on the specially built Buckner Range – designed to recreate field conditions and create fleeting targets at various ranges. The M16A2 was used as a baseline weapon throughout all of the tests which included safety and engineering testing, lethality tests and testing in field conditions.

Initially planned as an all-services test both the US Navy and Marine Corps pulled out of the ACR program in 1987, leaving the Army and Air Force. With the testing complete it was found that none of the rifles proved to be significantly more lethal or effective than the M16A2 they were pitted against. The program summary put a rather positive spin on the program’s failings, concluding that despite the increased hit probabilities not being attained as a technology base program, the ACR program was a success. The soldiers taking part in the field tests performed better than expected and “the baseline performance of the M16A2 rifle was better than anticipated in terms of hit probability.”

The report concluded that the program had helped push small arms technology forward, noting that while flechettes proved to be too inaccurate for an individual weapon,

“The feasibility of caseless and lightweight plastic-cased ammunition has more than been demonstrated in this program. Few problems were experienced with the [H&K] caseless rifles in the test. The past technical barriers of cook-off and vulnerability have now been overcome. …plastic cases cannot be used in conventional weapons like the M16A2, but with weapons specifically designed for it, complete plastic cases are feasible.”

This last observation is something that is again now being developed in the Lightweight Small Arms Technologies (LSAT) program, which has now been linked with the US Army’s current Next Generation Squad Weapon program.

With the end of the ACR program the school of thought moved towards the use of high explosive and airburst munitions by individual soldiers. The Objective Individual Combat Weapon program ran throughout the early 1990s and while it lead to the adoption of some new weapons, such as the M320 grenade launcher, it also failed in its goal to create an integrated individual weapon system.


Bibliography:

Advanced Combat Rifle, Program Summary, Vol.1, ARDEC, 1992 (source)

‘Revisiting the SPIW Pt.3’, Small Arms Review, R. Blake Stevens, (source)

Our thanks to the collection that holds these wonderful examples of the ACR rifle


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2018.

Photographs: 15 Inch Vickers Coastal Guns, Menorca

In our latest video we take a look at the massive 15 Inch Coastal Guns that protect the port of Mahon in Menorca. The guns, built by the British Vickers company, could fire an 860kg shell up to 35km.

The battery of two 15 or 381mm guns was added to the Fortalesa Isabel II’s emplacements in the early 1930s and were in active service for nearly 80 years. For more information on their history and design, check out the video and full in-depth blog here.

Below are some photographs I took of the battery and its ancillary support buildings. While researching I also found a couple of great contemporary photos.

Rear of the gun
A view of the 15 Inch Vickers Gun from the rear (Matthew Moss)
Front of gun
A view of the front of the gun turret’s housing, while not thick enough to withstand a direct hit the turret would protect against shrapnel (Matthew Moss)
View of the front of the gun
A view of the front of the gun, note the small hatch in the front of the gun housing, this would have been the gun aimer’s postion (Matthew Moss)
Ammunition crane
The sliding hatch and crane used to bring up cordite charges when the gun was in action. (Matthew Moss)
6 Inch Vickers Gun Battery
A view of the rear of one of four supporting 6 Inch Vickers guns (Matthew Moss)
DSC_0422
The battery’s support buildings: Stores, offices, barrack blocks(Matthew Moss)
The Battery's other 15 Inch Gun
The Battery’s other 15 Inch Gun on the other side of the old quarry that houses the battery’s support buildings (Matthew Moss
DSC_0415
The left side of the turret, not the ladder for roof access (Matthew Moss)

A facebook group for those who served at Fortales Isabel II has a number of brilliant contemporary photographs of the guns:

These photographs show the guns being transported by a specially laid, segmented rail track in the early 1932s, the first shows the guns at the dockside with another showing it being moved through a busy street.

The group also has some contemporary photographs of the gun emplacements including the rangefinder and the inside of the gun housing:

The gun aimer’s position with communications to the rangefinder bunkers near by:

The group also has some excellent recent photos of the restored interior of the gun turret the magazine below. The first photos show the magazine and system for bringing the 860kg shells up from the projectile store:

Sign reads: ‘Ordinary projectiles will only be used with reduced load

Great shot of the various tracks, winches and lifts used to get the massive shells up to the turret:

Interior shot of the turret with a shell ready to be winched onto the loading tray and loaded into the breech:

View of the gun aimer’s positions complete with shining brass speaking tubes and controls:

For more information on the history and design of the guns, check out the video and full in-depth blog here.


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2018.

15-Inch Vickers Battery at Fortalesa Isabel II

Last summer I was lucky enough to visit the vast Fortalesa Isabel II which defended the port of Mahon, in Menorca. One of the fort’s most impressive sights is its huge 15 inch gun battery.

The Spanish island of Menorca, in the Balearic Islands, has a long and storied military history. The strategically important harbour of Mahon was historically the envy of the British, Spanish and French and was the reason for Fortalesa Isabel II’s construction. The for was the last major fortification built on the island, with the Spanish military beginning construction in 1850. A second phase of major improvements was made during 1853-1864. Work to improve and modernise the fort continued into the 20th century.

Fortalesa Isabel II main gate (Matthew Moss)
The ornate main gate of the fort, defended by a counterguard and rifle slits either side of the gate (Matthew Moss)

The Fortress is built on a beautiful rocky headland of La Mola at the mouth of the harbour and covers about a square kilometre. Construction was a massive undertaking and took over twenty years to complete, costing over nine million pesetas. The fortifications are some of the Mediterranean’s most impressive of the period.

The fort is a maze of tunnels, galleries, casements and buildings surrounded by a deep, dry moat. The fort’s first line of defence consisted of a moat 9 metres (30 feet) deep covered by rifle loop holes for infantrymen and embrasures for artillery. Interlocking fields of fire defend the landward approach to the fort’s main entrance, the Queen’s Gate.

Map of the La Mola peninsular and fort
Map showing the layout of the fort during the 19th century before the 15 inch guns were added (source)

Designed to dominate the entrance to the harbour the fortress was intended to hold 160 artillery pieces of various sizes, including Krupp guns and howitzers, many of these protected by strong stone casements. The fort’s armaments evolved overtime from muzzle-loaders to faster firing breech-loaders.

The Spanish continued to upgrade the fort’s guns over the decades mounting rifled guns and howitzers of various calibres ranging from 15cm to 30.5cm. In addition to the fort’s guns the defences also included mines in the harbour mouth and later a battery of shore launched torpedoes.

By the early 20th century the fort’s guns were increasingly obsolete against the backdrop of the naval revolution that saw Dreadnoughts come to dominate maritime warfare. With advances in naval architecture, armour and guns the Spanish government decided to purchase a number of massive 15 inch naval guns that could fire a 1,895 lb (860kg) shell up to 22 miles.

One of La Mola's 15 inch guns in position
One of the fort’s two 15 inch Vickers guns in position on Cape Espero (Matthew Moss)

Spain purchased 18 of these massive guns made by the British Vickers company, they had originally been designed for the cancelled Brazilian battleship Riachuelo. In Spanish service the guns were officially designated the Costa de 38.1cm Modelo 1926. During the 1930s the new coastal guns were installed on both the Spanish mainland and Menorca. Two guns placed in the Castillitos Battery, defending Cartagena, opened fire on a Spanish Nationalist fleet, during the dying days of the Spanish Civil War. While Menorca’s guns never fired a shot in anger, they acted as a deterrent.

The first guns reached Mahon in 1932, with a second arriving in 1936, these were mounted on the cliffs of Cape Espero on the La Mola peninsular. The guns were so huge they had to be transported to the fort on a specially built railway pulled by hand and traction engine. These formidable new guns brought Fortalesa Isabel II’s armament up to date, enabling it to protect Mahon from any modern warship.

15 inch gun being dragged by a traction engine through mahon
One of the massive 15 inch guns being pulled along its special track by a traction engine through the streets of Mahon (source)

The 15 inch (or 381mm) Vickers battery at the fort was positioned 70m above sea level and commanded the entrance to the harbour. Six guns were eventually sent to Menorca with two  placed on La Mola, two more installed in a battery at Favaritx (the remains of which can be seen here) in the north of the island and a pair at a battery near Llucalari in the south of the island.

While the guns at Favaritx were later removed, the guns at Llucalari remain. The fact that six of these massive and expensive naval guns were placed on Menorca shows its strategic value during the period.

Satellite photo of the 15 inch battery at Llucalari
Satellite photo showing Menorca’s other 15 inch battery at Llucalari (google maps)

The guns were mounted in barbettes which allowed the guns to traverse up to 300 degrees. The gun housing of the turret was armoured but while it would not protect the crew from a direct hit, it would protect against shrapnel. Below the guns were magazine stores for both cordite charge bags and projectiles, the machinery needed to rotate and move the gun and the motors to power it. Inside the turret were controls to open and close the breech, lift and lower the loading tray and aim the gun. The guns had a potential maximum range of 35km or 22 miles, however, the guns at La Mola lacked the necessary range-finding equipment to achieve this range.

Inside the 15 inch gun turret
A contemporary photograph showing the interior of the gun turret. A shell is sat on the loading try ready to be pushed into the breech. (source)

The ancillary buildings for the battery on La Mola are built just behind the two gun emplacements with offices, stores and barracks built in an old quarry. As well as the two main guns the battery was supported by four faster firing 6 inch Vickers guns.

15 inch Vickers gun firing in the 1980s
One of Menorca’s 15 inch guns firing c.1980s (source)

With the eruption of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Menorca was initially held by the Republicans. But in 1939, the island fell to General Franco’s Nationalists and the fort’s military prison was used to house a number of prominent Republican prisoners. Throughout the Cold War the fort continued to be used by the Spanish Army as a training centre but the rise of air power, the invention of the cruise missile and nuclear weapons rendered the fort and its guns increasingly obsolete.

The last of Spain’s 15 inch guns were finally decommissioned in the mid-2000s, after nearly 80 years in service. Fortalesa Isabel II and her two massive guns never saw action, and today the site is maintained as an impressive museum which is well worth a visit.


Specifications:

Length: 18m or 59 feet
Weight: 86.9 tons
Action: breech-loading
Calibre: 15 inch or 381mm
Elevation -5 / +40 degrees
Traverse: 300 degrees
Rate of fire: 2 rounds per minute


Bibliography:

The Fortress of Isabel II on La Mola in Mahon Harbour (19th 7 20th Century), F. Fornals (2007)

The Conquests and Reconquests of Menorca, M. Mata (1984)

Guns of Cartagena, espele.net, (source)

‘Yo hice la Mili en La Mola de Menorca’, Facebook group with excellent contemporary photos (source)

www.fortalesalamola.com


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2018.

Ultimax 100 Light Machine Gun

In the late 1970s James Sullivan, one of ArmaLite’s former chief designers and one of the men responsible for the M16, began developing a new light machine gun for a company in Singapore. The Ultimax 100 is a 5.56x45mm, gas-operated magazine-fed light machine gun. It uses a short stroke gas piston system that acts on a continuously recoiling bolt.

Sullivan was originally approached to develop a new select-fire intermediate cartridge rifle for the Singaporean military. Working with Chartered Industries he developed a very lightweight light machine gun. Sullivan was especially interested in recoil mitigation and developed the Ultimax’s bolt to travel rearward without ever hitting a buffer or the receiver. This greatly lowers perceived recoil and makes the weapon much flatter shooting.

Ultimax MKII
A MkII Ultimax which featured a fixed barrel (source)

The Ultimax fires from an open bolt (which uses a multi-lug rotating bolt head) and has a non-reciprocating charging handle. It’s buttstock can be removed to make the weapon even more compact. The absence of a buffer in the butt allows the weapon length to be reduced to just 81cm (32 inches), making it an excellent weapon for jungle or urban combat. The Ultimax is also extremely light for a squad automatic weapon, weighing approximately 4.7kg unloaded, and around 6.5kg when loaded with a 100-round drum.

Ultimax_100_cutaway
Diagram from an early marketing brochure showing the MkII and MkIII models of the Ultimax (source)

While the MkII Ultimax has a fixed barrel, the MkIII has a quick change barrel which releases by pulling a catch the the rear and simply twisting the barrel and pulling it forward. Unlike other machine guns the bolt can remain forward when the barrel is being removed.

The Ultimax feeds from either an adapted STANAG magazine or a 100 round drum magazine, which has a controlled internal feed rather than a belt. The drum was co-developed by Sullivan and Bob Waterfield. The weapon’s rear pistol grip is similar to the Stoner 63 weapon system’s (which Sullivan had also worked on) while the smaller, grooved front pistol grip is reminiscent of the classic Thompson submachine gun’s.

Ultimax 100 Sales Brochure cover
Cover of Chartered Industries sales brochure for the Ultimax 100, featuring a MkIII, note the bayonet lug (source)

It is said that Singapore’s government would not allow the Ultimax to be entered in the US’ Squad Automatic Weapon trials as the US government had refused them the technical package for the M16. As a result the FN Minimi won the trials and was adopted as the M249. Those who have fired both claim that the Ultimax would have given the Minimi more than a run for its money.  Despite this the Ultimax has seen action around the world and has been in service with the Singapore Army since 1982.

An updated version was offered in the US Marine Corps’ Infantry Automatic Rifle trial but was beaten by Heckler & Koch’s HK416, now the M27. ST Kinetics, formerly Chartered Industries, continues to improve and produce the Ultimax with the Mk8 introduced in 2012.

Technical Specifications (from 1982 Sales Brochure):

Length: 103cm (40 in)
Weight (unloaded): 4.7kg (10.4 lbs)
Barrel Length: 50.8cm (20.0 in)
Action: Gas operated
Calibre: 5.56x45mm
Feed: 100-round drum or 30-round STANAG magazines
Cyclic Rate: ~400-600 rpm


Bibliography:

The Interview: L. James Sullivan, Part II, 28th February 2007, Small Arms Review, (source)

1982 Ultimax 100 Sales Brochure, Chartered Industries of Singapore, (source)

The Past is Another Country: Ultimax 100, WeaponsMan, (source)

Military Small Arms of the 20th Century, I. V. Hogg, (1985)

F1 Submachine Gun

The Australian military adopted the F1 submachine gun in 1962, with the first guns reaching troops in April 1963, it replaced the venerable Owen gun. Like the earlier Owen the F1 had a top-mounted magazine – a position that lent itself to prone firing and more comfortable carrying when slung. But it also shared some similarities with the British L2A3 Sterling.

NUI DAT, VIETNAM, 7TH BATTALION, THE ROYAL AUSTRALIAN REGIMENT (7RAR) with F1 SMG
Men of the 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment demonstrate the F1 to the Australian Army Minister, Malcolm Fraser, in Vietnam in 1967 (Australian War Memorial)

The F1 entered service alongside the Australian L1A1 (self-loading rifle/FN FAL), it shared the rifles butt plate and pistol grip – slightly minimising additional unique parts needed by the submachine gun. Australian Ordnance had begun searching for a replacement for the ageing Owen gun after the Korean War. The Owen had been made quickly and cheaply during the Second World War and while it was well liked by Australian troops it was felt it could be improved upon. Maintenance of the older Owen guns proved difficult as each weapon had been hand fitted to speed up production and some parts proved not to be interchangeable.

F1 SMG (Matthew Moss)
Left side view of an Australian F1 submachine gun, from the 1970 production run (Matthew Moss)

A number of designs were developed including one designated the Kokoda (presumably after the Kokoda Trail campaign fought by Australian troops in 1942). This design was lighter than the Owen but suffered from overheating problems. A series of designs from the Australian Design Establishment, designated the ‘X’ series, were then developed. These weapons incorporated elements from both the Owen and the British Sterling. Including the Sterling’s perforated barrel jacket and magazine and the Owen’s bolt, magazine orientation and forward pistol grip – a feature many troops with experience with both the Owen and F1 lamented to loss of with the adoption of the F1. The first two ‘X’ series weapons developed into the X3 which in 1962, after successful trials, became the F1.

8RAR with F1 SMG (AWM)
Member of 8th Royal Australian Regiment stood too with his F1 SMG (Australian War Memorial)

The F1 used a standard blowback action with a non-reciprocating charging handle. The charging/cocking handle was positioned on the left side of the receiver with its slot protected from the ingress of dirt by a dust cover. The F1 has a two-position fire selector with up for ‘safe’ and down for ‘fire’. The trigger mechanism allowed for firing single shots by pulling the trigger to the half-way point, this allowed the sear to trip into the semi-automatic position (see the diagram below).

Semi-Auto sear position in F1 SMG
Diagram from Australian Army Parts List showing how the F1’s semi-automatic mode works (source)

Chambered in 9x19mm, the F1 fed from a 34-round curved magazine, although it could use straight, single-feed, Sten or Owen magazines. In the 1960s, in order to achieve commonality with Britain and other Commonwealth nations, that used the Sterling Submachine Gun, the Australian government contacted the Sterling Armaments Company to enquire how much a license to produce Sterling’s magazines would cost, only to be quoted an exorbitant fee. The Australian government were unwilling to pay for the license and produced them anyway. And as Sterling could not afford to take legal action were able to continue to do so – with the understanding they would not sell any commercially. The Australian government would later purchase a number of suppressed Mark 5 Sterling-Patchetts, also adopted by the British army as the L34A1.

The weapon’s ejection port was located on the bottom of the receiver ahead of the trigger guard. A small piece of metal was added in front of the ejection port, as a hand stop, to prevent the operator from inadvertently moving their hand over the port. The F1 had an in-line stock fitting into the rear of the tube receiver. The sights were offset to the right, the rear peep sight folded against the receiver when not in use while the front sight, rather than over the muzzle, projected from the right side of the magazine housing.  The F1 could also mount the L1A1 self-loading rifle’s standard L1A2 sword bayonet.

Australian Sailors with F1 SMG
Australian sailors aboard the destroyer HMAS Duchess wait to take part in a live firing exercise with their unloaded F1 submachine guns, c.1969. (Australian War Memorial)

The F1 weighed just over 7lbs (3.2kg), was 28 inches long and had a cyclic rate of approximately 600 rounds per minute. It had a solid butt stock, unlike the Sterling which had a folding stock. The F1 was produced solely by the Lithgow Small Arms Factory with most sources suggesting 25,000 were produced for the Australian military between 1963 and 1973. The Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum were kind enough to look into the exact number made for us, and reported that there is some uncertainty surrounding the exact number produced with production report totals varying, giving a total of either 21,916 or 24,828.

The F1s saw extensive service in Vietnam and later with Australian peacekeeping troops through to the 1990s. It was issued to rear echelon troops, ACP and aircraft crews and to infantry sections. While the F1 was appreciated for its reliability, for those troops who had experience with the venerable Owen Gun, the F1 lacked a certain something.  Colonel Warren Feakes noted that “every time I picked up an F1 I had the feeling that something was missing.” Another Australian veteran, Warrant Officer Kevin Konemann, who served in Vietnam in 1966-67, recalled: “It was awkward to fire from the shoulder and more awkward to fire from the hip” and that “the F1 wasn’t popular. Soldiers found it more difficult to point and bring on target than the OMC [Owen Gun] and firing from the shoulder… was decidedly more difficult without the front hand grip.”

Despite the shortcomings identified by some troops the F1 remained in service alongside the L1A1 self-loading rifle into the early 1990s, when both were phased out of use as the 5.56x45mm F88 (Steyr AUG) was adopted.


Technical Specifications:

Length: 28 inches (71cm)
Weight (unloaded): 7lbs (3.2kg)
Barrel Length: 8.35 inches (19.8cm)
Action: Blowback
Calibre: 9x19mm
Feed: 34 round box magazine
Cyclic Rate: ~600 rpm


Bibliography:

 

1966 Infantry Training Pamphlet, Platoon Weapons, Sub-machine Gun 9mm, F1, Australian Army, (source)

Repair Parts Scale, 9mm, F1 SMG, Australian Army, (source)

Vietnam ANZACs Australian & New Zealand Troops in Vietnam 1962-1972, K. Lyles (2004)

Military Small Arms of the 20th Century, I. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)

‘Another Australian Native: The 9mm F1 Submachine Gun’, Arms & Militaria Collector No.21, pp. 53-56, I. Skennerton, (source)

Modern Small Arms, F. Myatt (1979)

The Owen Gun, W. Wardman, (1991)

F1 Sub-machine Carbine, Lithgow Museum, (source)


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2018.