X11 Belt-Fed Bren Derivative

At the end of the Second World War the British Army had two primary infantry machine guns: the Bren light machine gun and the Vickers medium machine gun. These weapons had proved their worth, the Bren was especially well liked and the venerable Vickers continued to be a reliable workhorse.

In the late 1940s, the British Army recognised the Soviet threat to Western Europe. In 1947, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the newly appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff wrote a paper outlining rearmament plans based on intelligence estimates of how quickly the Soviet Union was likely to be ready for another full-scale war. Montgomery believed that Britain had just 10 years to develop new weapons and begin rearmament before the Soviet Union had recovered enough to launch an invasion of Western Europe. As such the British Army felt that rearmament needed to be complete by the late 1950s.

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Two Vickers medium machine guns in action in Wesel, 1945 (IWM)
A number of large budget programmes were launched while small arms projects were also undertaken. These included the Infantry Personal Weapon programme which sought to develop a new intermediate calibre infantry rifle – the IPW programme later yielded Stefan Janson’s EM-2, a bullpup chambered in .280, which was briefly adopted as the Rifle No.9. The FN FAL was later adopted due to changes in political circumstances – a long, fascinating story for another article. The companion to the IPW programme was the development of a Sustained Fire Machine Gun also chambered in .280.  The TADEN, a belt-fed derivative of the Bren firing the new .280 round was designed by Harold Turpin (‘T’), the Armament Design Establishment (‘AD’) and Enfield (‘EN’). With the abandonment of the IPW the TADEN was also abandoned but its design greatly influenced the later X11.

Centrefire automatic machine gun - Experimental SFMG
.280 TADEN SFMG mounted on a tripod (Royal Armouries)
Another major small arms programme was the search for a new machine carbine (or submachine gun). This saw the testing of designs from Sterling, BSA and Madsen – with the Sterling finally adopted as the L2.

The other major small arms project was the programme to find a new section level machine gun. The German MG34 and MG42 had impressed the Allies during the war, so much so the US went as far as to clone it with the T24. After the abandonment of the EM-2 and TADEN machine gun the British issued a new specification for a lightweight sustained fire machine gun, chambered in the 7.62x51mm round recently adopted by NATO, in the mid-1950s.

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US T24, MG42 clone, complete with US-pattern bipod (Springfield Armory)
The design team at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield developed a belt-fed derivative of the Bren light machine gun. The X11 series of prototypes sought to convert the Bren’s proven design into a weapon capable of sustained fire. The X11 made a number of changes to the Bren included the addition of a detachable butt/grip/trigger assembly which could be swapped for a pair of spade grips and a paddle trigger for static sustained fire from a tripod. This resulted in the pistol grip being located much further back than the traditional Bren’s.

Centrefire automatic machine gun - Experimental SFMG (about 1956)
The X11E2 set up for the sustained fire role on a tripod with the spade grips and an optical sight similar to the UNIT sight. (Royal Armouries)
It appears that during the mid-1950s British military parlance described the General Purpose Machine Gun as a Sustained Fire Machine Gun (SFMG). From the available photographs it appears that the L4 and X11 use the same barrel with its distinct flash hider. The receivers of all the prototypes appear to be milled to attach the optical long range sight seen above.

The main drawback with the X11 was its feed mechanism. The feed slide was indexed by a rotating vertical feed shaft which was driven by the gas piston’s recoil. This created a considerable amount of friction within the action. It had the effect of causing failures to feed during adverse conditions testing and elevated firing tests. A series of four X11 prototypes were developed with Harold Turpin (co-designer of the STEN gun and later TADEN) working on the new gun. Each prototype appears to have a sightly different trigger configuration. The most interesting of these is a two-finger double-crescent trigger reminiscent of the MG-34’s – from the photographs it appears that the conventional selector lever, used in the X11E2, was replaced with a fire-selector system similar to the MG-34’s (upper crescent – semi-auto, lower crescent – full-auto). However, the trigger of the example of the X11E4 examined by Vic (serial number #11) was fully automatic only, despite its crescent shape. 

Below are photographs of examples of the three types held at the Royal Armouries:

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X11E2, note the large cutout in the receiver in front of the trigger group (Royal Armouries)

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X11E3 (Bren Gun Saga, Dugelby)

Centrefire automatic machine gun - SFMG Experimental Turpin X11E4
X11E4, note double-crescent trigger (Royal Armouries)
The X11 was tested against the M60, French AA-52, Swiss MG51, Danish Madsen-Saetter, German MG-3, and the Belgian FN MAG. The FN MAG, designated the X15E1 by the British, fared best in the trials with the X11 coming second due to its feeding issues. In January 1958, the British abandoned the X11 and moved to adopt the X15E1 general purpose machine gun, negotiating a license for its manufacture. The weapon was finally adopted as the L7A1 in 1961, with production at Enfield beginning in 1963. It seems that the Birmingham Small Arms Company were a latecomer to the competition having developed the another belt-fed Bren gun derivative known as the X16.

The Bren did continue in service after the switch to 7.62x51mm. In 1954, before beginning work on the X11, Enfield had developed the X10E1. Taking a Canadian manufactured 7.92x57mm Bren breech block and converting it to cycle the new round. The X10E1 was formally adopted as the L4. The L4 remained in service, alongside the L7, into the early 1990s. The L7 GPMG continues to be used by the British Army.

 


Bibliography:

The Bren Gun Saga, T. B. Dugelby (1999)

 

Photographs: Durs Egg Breech-Loading Carbine

Matt was recently lucky enough to examine a 1785 Pattern Durs Egg Breech-loading cavalry carbine. Based upon Giuseppe Crespi’s breech-loading system, the Egg carbines were tested by British cavalry regiments in the late 1780s. You can check out our full-length article on the weapon here and our video here.

Below are a some photographs I took of the carbine showing some of the details of its design:

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A right-side view of the length of the carbine
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The carbine with its breech fully open from the right-hand, lock side
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Detail photo of the carbine’s lock and breech handle
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An overhead view of the Egg Carbine’s open breech showing the chamber into which powder and ball were placed
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A closer overhead view of the carbine’s breech
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A close up of the carbine’s spear point bayonet showing the extension of the brass trigger guard into which the bayonet point sits
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With the carbine’s breech partially open its possible to see the small touch hole into the breech block, just above the frizzen and pan, which allows the flash from the fan to ignite the powder charge
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The carbine and its bayonet

 

Our thanks to the collection that holds this example of the Durs Egg Carbine, 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 2017.

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:

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(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:

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(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.


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)