Live Fire: Bren Mk1 (Modified)

Introduce in British service in 1938, the Bren remained in use into the 1990s. Based upon the Czechoslovakian series of ZB light machine guns, its name comes from an amalgamation of its origins: BR for Brno, the factory in Czechoslovakia, and EN for RSAF Enfield where it had been adapted for British service and was to be produced.

The Bren is chambered in .303, is gas operated and fires from an open bolt. It feeds from a top-mounted 30 round box magazine, as such the sights are offset to the left meaning the Bren can only be fired from the right shoulder – which as a lefty, I quickly realised.

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Bren Mk1(Modified) (Matthew Moss)

This example does not have the scope mounting dovetail machined into the left side of its receiver, or the folding grip and the hinged shoulder rest indicating that it is a Mk1 (Modified) ‘Pattern A’ gun, which was introduced after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the British Expeditionary Force lost most of the 30,000 Brens that had been taken to France. Only around 2,000 remained in inventory in the summer of 1940, so increasing production was essential, this model and the even more simplified MkII were introduced. While at the same time the BESAL light machine gun was developed as an emergency alternative by BSA – check out our earlier video on the BESAL here.

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The BSA-developed BESAL light machine gun (Matthew Moss)

As a Mk1, the gun has the original profile buttstock, with the fitting for a rear folding grip and tripod attachment point as well as a buttcap. It also has the drum rear sight rather than the later ladder sight of the Mk2 & 3. It also had a folding cocking handle and this Mk1(M) gun also has the earlier pattern height adjustable, rather than fixed, bipod legs. This gun is marked ‘MK1, with an E within a D, 1942’ indicating it was made at RSAF Enfield.

 

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Bren Mk1(Modified) with magazine off and dust cover closed, note the drum sight but lack of receiver cut for optic (Matthew Moss)

The Bren’s relatively slow rate of fire (of around 500 rounds per minute) makes it controllable and very easy to fire single shots while in full auto. The Bren does, however, have a selector on the left side of the gun, just above the trigger guard, which can be set to safe, semi or fully automatic. The Bren has a rocking recoil impulse as its heavy bolt moves back and forth, easily manageable if held tightly into the shoulder with the off-hand holding onto the wrist of the stock. The top-mounted magazine when fully loaded does have a tendency to want to fall to the side but once you’re used to this it’s not really an issue. The legend surrounding the accuracy of the Bren is certainly somewhat valid, at the time it was recognised as an accurate weapon and I found it accurate from my short time behind the trigger.  I found the Mk1’s rear sight aperture and drum adjustment easy to use.

Spent cases eject out of the bottom of the receiver, the weapon had a sliding dust cover for when the magazine was removed and the charging handle is non reciprocating and folds forward.

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Bren Mk1(Modified) with magazine off, dust cover closed and barrel removed (Matthew Moss)

The Bren has a quick change barrel system. To remove the barrel the release catch in front of the magazine was rotated upwards to unlock and then the barrel was rotated 90 degrees clockwise by bringing the carrying handle up to the 12 o’clock position and then sliding it forward.

We’ll have a more in-depth look at the Bren and its Czech predecessors in the future. My thanks to my friend Chuck over at Gunlab for letting me put some rounds through his Bren, I got a real kick out of it!


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Patents: BESAL Light Machine Gun

On the 21st May 1943, Birmingham Small Arms Ltd.’s chief designer Henry Faulkner, along with Roger Wackrow, patented a series of features used on the BESAL light machine gun. The BESAL had begun life as a stop-gap, emergency light machine gun design which could be quickly manufactured alongside the Bren gun in the event of an imminent German invasion of Britain.

Instead, the design evolved into BSA’s attempt to have the BESAL adopted as a subsitute standard light machine gun. The images below comes from three British patents filed in May 1943 and granted in October 1945. They show the basic layout of the BESAL along with detailed drawings of the sight, universal magazine adaptor, bolt and the take down knob.

You can find our in-depth video, complete with disassembly, here.

For a more detailed history of the BESAL check out our blog on the history of the weapon.


Patents: 

‘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)

Photographs: BESAL

We were recently lucky enough to examine a 3rd Pattern BESAL light machine gun dating from c.1942.  You can check out our full-length article on the BESAL here and our video here.

Below are a some photographs I took of the BESAL showing some of the details of its design as well as its stamped and spot welded constriction:

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Left-side profile of the BESAL, note the shape of the butt is very similar to that of the earlier Lewis Gun
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BESAL with magazine removed, the weapon appears to use a standard MkII Bren non-adjustable bipod
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Like the Bren, the BESAL has a universal magazine adaptor to allow it to feed from both box and drum Bren magazines

Some close ups of the BESAL

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Top-down view of the BESAL note the offset sights
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Rivet reinforcement of the bolt’s locking recess in the top of the receiver
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Right side – The butt-retention pin can be seen just below the rear sight assembly, this pin is captive and once pulled allows the butt to come off, the bolt and pistol grip can then be removed from the weapon
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Close up of the BESAL’s barrel removal catch – rotate to the rear to remove the barrel
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BESAL’s spring-loaded magazine dust cover closed, note the magazine catch on the left
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A shot from behind the BESAL showing the rear sight and the enclosed front sight, both off set to the left

 

Our thanks to the collection that holds the BESAL, whom wish to remain anonymous, which was kind enough to allow us access to their impressive array of small arms.


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

BESAL Light Machine Gun

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:

1st Pattern: 

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(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

2nd Pattern:

Besal 3 001

(Photograph of a 2nd Pattern BESAL with a pan magazine, note the right-side cocking handlefrom 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

3rd Pattern:

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(Our photograph of a 3rd Pattern BESAL)

  • Pistol grip cocking mechanism replacing the conventional cocking handle

4th Pattern:

Besal 4 001

(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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Technical Specifications:

Length: 118.5cm (46.6in)
Weight: 9.7kg (21lb 8oz)
Barrel Length: 56cm (22in)
Action: Gas operated, short recoil
Calibre: .303
Feed: 30-round Bren box magazine or 100-round Motley pan magazine
Cyclic Rate: 600rpm


Bibliography:

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)

Patents: 

‘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)