US M1917s in British Home Guard Service

The transfer of rifles began in the autumn of 1940, with the training pamphlet ‘The Home Guard .300 Rifle P.17 (American Manufacture)’ published in September by the government. Which began “it now appears that all ‘Home Guards’ will ultimately be equipped with this rifle…”

In May 1941, the Home Guard’s .303 rifles began to be withdrawn and reissued to Regular Army units. These rifles were steadily replaced by American M1917s arriving from US stockpiles. This particular rifle was built by Remington in August 1918.

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M1917, right side (Matthew Moss)

By the spring of 1942, 80,000 M1917s had arrived, the first of 500,000 that were to be transferred. These would go some way to arming the over 1 million Home Guard members who needed weapons.

The Home Guard were stood up in May 1940, initially known as the Local Defence Volunteers, they were a sort of armed citizen militia made up of men ineligible for regular military service. They were formed into local platoons and companies and were initially poorly armed and equipped. But in time became a well-equipped home defence force.

The M1917 has a somewhat complicated origin. The story began with the British Army’s pre-World War One attempts to replace the SMLE. The Pattern 1913 was developed, based on a modified Mauser action and chambered in a new .276 round. Before the P13 could be fully evaluated and adopted – war were declared – and the British government placed contracts with US manufacturers to produce the Pattern 1914, the P13 adapted to chamber the standard .303 round. Due to a lack of parts interchangeability between the P14s which reached Britain it did not see front line service. In 1917 the US entered the war and found themselves in need of rifles quickly. With the production lines for the P14 already in place at Winchester, Remington and Eddystone the decision was made to produce the P14 chambered in .30-06. This was adopted at the Model 1917.

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.303 Pattern 1914 Rifle (Royal Armouries)

The per unit manufacturing cost of the US M1917 rifle in 1917-18 was only $26.00, they almost certainly cost Britain much more to purchase in 1940. Despite the M1917s being more plentiful in 1918, than the M1903 the US Army opted to retain the M1903 as their primary service rifle. As such the rifles sold to Britain had been in storage, often in cosmoline, for two decades and were in good shape.

As the M1917 was chambered in .30-06, or as the British referred to it .300, the rifles were painted with a red band around the wooden forend furniture to prevent the wrong calibre being used. The same measure was taken with the various Browning M1917 medium machine guns and M1918 Automatic Rifles also chambered in the American round. Some rifles also had a .300 stencilled on the butt.

Home Guard riflemen were to be each issued with fifty rounds of .300 ammunition, but in the early stages of the war ammunition was extremely limited. While this hindered familiarisation with the rifle somewhat, it didn’t hinder rifle training completely as many Home Guard units would have practiced with .22 rifles on miniature ranges and with rifles and ammunition provided at Regular Army Ranges. In this clip from some footage of Warwickshire Home Guard men, we see a corporal happily posing with a .22 Martini rifle.

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Home Guard on parade with M1917s (Imperial War Museum)

The M1917 is an excellent rifle and the Home Guard were lucky to have them. While those lucky enough to have received an SMLE may have been disappointed when they were given an American rifle in its place many appreciated the rifle. It was certainly better than the smattering of shotguns, civilian rifles, older service rifles and Canadian Ross rifles some units found themselves armed with during the Home Guard’s early days.

One Home Guard Unit In Denbighshire, Wales was initially issued 100 Canadian Ross rifles between 500 men until, in the spring of 1941, they received M1917s. One rifle for every two men.

Clifford Shore, a member of the Home Guard who later became an officer with RAF Regiment, recalled in his post-war memoir that the M1917s:

“were really splendid weapons; I never came across a bad one. In certain quarters they were not popular, but that can be primarily and summarily dismissed with the one word ‘ignorance’. …The higher velocity .300 cartridge gave slightly improved ballistics than the .303 cartridge in the P14, and I should say that the M17 was probably the most accurate rifle I have ever used.”

The Warwickshire Home Guard In Action

The video features footage of a Warwickshire Home Guard unit. In it we get a rare glimpse at the men at the range with their M1917s. They’re paired up with spotters and instructors and we also get to see the men in the butts running the targets for the shooters. 

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Home Guard at the range (Imperial War Museum)

In another piece of footage of the same Home Guard platoon we see them drilling with their rifles. they’re carrying out muscle exercises. The manual for the ‘.300 Rifle P.17’ lays these out.

The 1st practice trained men how to lift the butt of the rifle into their shoulders and how to level the rifle quickly for aiming. The second was to strength the grip of the hands and the 3rd laid down in the manual trained the soldier to hold the rifle steady while aiming building strength to increase stability.

Examining The M1917

The rifle weighs 9.2lbs (or just under 4.2kg) unloaded, it was 46.25in (117cm) long and had a fixed, internal double stack magazine, which because of the lack of a rim on the .30-06, could hold 6 rounds.

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M1917, left side view, action open (Matthew Moss)

The rifle has a Mauser-style bolt release on the right, pull back on that and slide the bolt out. The rifle has an aperture rear sight, zero’d for 200 yards, with a peep also mounted on a ladder giving graduations out to 1,600 yards.

The bolt of course has the dog-leg handle which was carried over from the P14, which in turn emulated the SMLE’s bolt handle position – falling nicely under the hand.

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Close up of the M1917’s receiver (Matthew Moss)

Unlike the earlier P14, the 1917 dispensed with the volley sights seen on the British rifles. The action is cock on close and the bolt itself is based on the Mauser 1898’s.

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M1917, right side view, action open (Matthew Moss)

This rifle was manufactured by Remington in August 1918. By the end of production Remington along had produced 545,541 rifles. At peak output almost 10,000 rifles were being produced per day, with the final number built standing at 1,727,449.


Specifications:

Overall Length: 46.25in (117cm)
Barrel Length: 26in (66cm)
Weight: 9.2lbs (4.2kg)
Action: Bolt-action
Capacity: 6-round internal box magazines
Calibre: .30-06


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Bibliography:

Britain’s Final Defence: Arming the Home Guard, 1940-1944, D. Clarke (2016)

With British Snipers to the Reich, C. Shore (1948)

Bureaucrats in Battledress, H. Smith (1945)

The U.S. Enfield, I. Skennerton (1983)

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