By the Autumn of 1940, Nazi Germany controlled most of mainland Europe, France had surrendered, and the British Army had been forced to evacuate the continent and in the process had lost much of its arms and equipment.
Arms production in Britain was ramped up in order to arm the returning troops and the new units being formed to defend against the imminently expected German invasion. Existing designs like the Bren light machine gun and the Lee-Enfield Rifle were simplified to increase production however new options were also examined. The cheap, quickly manufactured STEN submachine gun was introduced and calls were made for a simplified light machine gun which could be made in any machine or workshop with simple tooling. Even before the fall of France the British Ordnance Board sent out a memo in June 1940, requesting a light machine gun which could be produced in garages and smaller workshops throughout Britain in the event that the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield was bombed.
In December 1940, the Chief Superintendent of Design outlined a light machine gun based on the Lewis Gun’s rotating bolt, which fed from Bren gun magazines.
The Birmingham Small Arms company (BSA) were approached to develop a design. BSA tasked their chief designer, Henry Faulkner, with the project. Members of the British Army’s Ordnance Board, however, began to question the decision to have an established manufacturer build a prototype for a gun that was supposed to be assembled in small ad-hoc workshops. As a result the contract was cancelled, however, BSA and Faulkner persisted anyway.
Faulkner, with the help of Roger Wackrow, came up with a weapon which later became known as the BESAL. The design was developed to be simple, cheap and quick to manufacture. The standards of finish were significantly lower than those of the standard Bren then in production. The plan was to issue the BESAL in the event Britain’s armed forces found themselves engaged in a last ditch defence with German invasion either imminent or already underway.
Faulkner’s design was chambered in .303 and fed feeding from standard Bren gun curved box magazines. It used a basic trigger mechanism, a simple pressed gas cylinder and a body held together by pinning and spot welding. The first prototype had a folding but non-adjustable bipod and a skeleton butt stock with a wooden insert. With the manufacture of barrels expected to be a bottleneck to the weapon’s production it was suggested that the spare barrel issued with each Bren gun be recalled for use in the new BESAL. This clearly illustrates just how desperate the situation was expected to be. The first prototype BESAL was ready by late 1941, and testing began in March 1942. The BESAL proved to be reliable and effective during trials.
Faulkner’s design went through a number of iterations but the gneral design had been finalised by May 1942 when BSA, Faulkner and Wackrow filed three patents protecting the design. The principle feature of the later BESAL patterns was the use of a cocking system which saw the operator push the pistol grip forward to catch the bolt, and then pull it to the rear to cock the weapon. This is a system that was later seen in the Czechoslovakian Vz 52/57, 59 series and the Finnish KVKK-62 general purpose machine gun.
Iterations of the BESAL:
(Artists impression of 1st BESAL prototype – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
- Right side cocking handle
- Skeleton butt
- Simple fixed peep sight
- Non-adjustable bipod mounted on the receiver
(Photograph of a 2nd Pattern BESAL with a pan magazine, note the right-side cocking handle – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
- Bipod moved to front of the gas tube
- Universal magazine adaptor fitted for Bren and Motley Pan magazines
- Full wooden stock – similar in profile to the Lewis Gun’s
- 2-position sight
- Disassembly knob introduced
- Pistol grip cocking mechanism replacing the conventional cocking handle
(Photograph of a 4th Pattern BESAL, note the selector on the pistol grip – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
- Introduction of a selector switch on the left side of the weapon’s pistol grip
In August 1942, BSA submitted the 3rd Pattern Prototype for trials. It was extensively tested between September and November 1942. On 6th January, 1943, BSA renamed the BESAL the ‘Light Machine Gun, Faulkner, 0.303-In Mk1’ in order to prevent confusion with the 7.92x57mm BESA machine gun used in some British tanks. The BESA, also produced by BSA, used a similar pistol grip cocking mechanism. We hypothesise that the the BESAL’s name might come from the BESA, meaning BESA-Light. This, however, is unconfirmed.
It seems that over time as BSA and Faulkner improved and refined the design the BESAL ceased to be a cheap, simple, quickly-made alternative to the Bren. Instead it appears that BSA hoped the weapon might be adopted as a somewhat cheaper substitute standard to the Bren. Final testing of the BESAL were held in March 1943, but by now the weapon’s original purpose had been made defunct by the huge increase in Bren manufacturing capacity. By 1943 the Bren was in production on four continents: at Enfield in the UK, at John Inglis in Canada, at Ishapore in India and Lithgow in Australia. Inglis alone was producing 10,000 Brens a month by 1943.
With the need for a new light machine gun gone the BESAL project was cancelled in June 1943. BSA produced an estimated 20 guns, of various patterns, during the BESAL development project. Today, it is believed that only a handful remain.
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Length: 118.5cm (46.6in)
Weight: 9.7kg (21lb 8oz)
Barrel Length: 56cm (22in)
Action: Gas operated, short recoil
Feed: 30-round Bren box magazine or 100-round Motley pan magazine
Cyclic Rate: 600rpm
The Bren Gun Saga, T. B. Dugelby (1999)
Bren Gun, N. Grant, (2013)
Military Small Arms, I. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)
Modern Small Arms, F. Myatt (1979)
‘Improvements in or relating to gas-operated automatic firearms’, GB572925, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)
‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572926, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)
‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572924, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)