Cold War British Vehicles – Anglesey Transport Museum

Late last summer we visited the Anglesey Transport Museum in North Wales. They had a great collection of classic and vintage cars and bikes and most interestingly they had a little collection of British military vehicles.

They had a number of trucks and special purpose vehicles from the Royal Engineers, REME and RLC and even a Green Goddess Fire Engine. They also had a couple of pretty cool Cold War British Army armoured personnel carriers.

Alvis Saracen

Alvis Saracen (Matthew Moss)

The Saracen was a six-wheeled armoured personnel carrier (APC) built by Alvis. It entered service in 1952 and was used extensively in Malaya and Northern Ireland. The Saracen could carry an 8 man section along with its 2 man crew. It had a 160HP Rolls Royce engine and depending on when during its service life its turret could be mounted with a .30 calibre M1919A4 or an L37 vehicle-mounted general purpose machine gun.

Humber Pig

Humber Pig (Matthew Moss)

Another APC which was in service alongside the Saracen, the ‘Truck, Armoured, 1 Ton, 4×4’, better known as the Humber Pig. Based on a truck chassis, it had a 120HP 6 cylinder engine and room for 6 men on the benches in the back. It could be mounted with an L4 Bren gun. It saw extensive use in Northern Ireland during operation Banner and was in service from 1956 through to the early 90s.

Daimler Ferret Mk1 Scout Car

Daimler Ferret (Matthew Moss)

Next to the Pig in the collection was a Mk1 Daimler Ferret scout car. Fitted out with an M1919A4 and six forward-firing grenade launchers – for smoke grenades. The later Mk2 had a turret but the Mk1 made use of its low profile. This one has its canvas cover over the fighting compartment. The 4×4 Ferret was powered by a 130HP Rolls Royce B60 straight six. Perfect little run-around to do the shopping in.

On the top of the hull is the pintle mounted Browning M1919A4 machine gun. This would have been operated by the Ferret’s commander. We can see the mount allows it to be aimed and fired from somewhat inside the hull. The Ferret entered service in the early 1950s and remained in use into the late 1980s/early 1990s. Just short of 4,500 Ferrets were manufactured.

Bofors QF 40mm Mk1

QF 40mm Mk1 (Matthew Moss)

At the centre of the military vehicle collection was a QF 40mm Mk1, better known as a Bofors. Both land and naval versions of the Bofors were used during the Second World War and after. Capable of firing 120 40mm shells per minute, it was normally manned by a four man crew. It filled the British army’s light Anti-Aircraft gun role and remained in service well into the 1980s.

We can see the gun’s huge recoil spring and to the rear of the gun is a case deflector which connected with a trough which channels the spent cases down below the gun. The gun still has most of its controls and traverse and elevation crank handles in place. On top of the gun are the huge guides for the four-round clips of 40mm shells.

Find out more about the museum here.


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John Browning’s 1895 Slide-Action Prototype

By 1895 Winchester had been considering a slide-action rifle for some time, in 1882 William Mason had begun work on one (US Patent #278987) to counter Colt’s slide-action Lightning only to drop it. Finally in 1890, Winchester introduced a slide-action .22 calibre rifle developed by John Browning. The Model 1890 became extremely popular.

Between 1887 and 1895 Browning patented four slide-action rifle designs. The first of these, US patent #367336, was granted in July 1887, this was followed in 1888 by US patent #385238. In September 1890, the Browning brothers were granted US patent #436965, which along with the previous 1888 patent protected what became the Model 1890. Three years later Winchester introduced the Model 1893 pump action shotgun, that would eventually evolve into the famous Winchester Model 1897.

Right-side close up of the rifle with its action open (Matthew Moss)

Finally, April 1895, Browning filed a patent for a design for a .30 calibre rifle which was granted in September 1895 (US patent #545672) This patent covers the rifle we’re examining here. The rifle itself is a slide or pump action in long barrelled configuration which Winchester described as a ‘Musket’.

The September 1895 slide-action design was purchased by Winchester but like so many other Browning designs, it never entered production and Winchester purchased the design purely to secure it and prevent other rival manufacturers picking it up. Winchester instead went with a lever-action design, patented in November 1895 (US #549345), which became the famous Winchester Model 1895.

A left-side view of the rifle’s receiver with Browning’s patent overlaid (Matthew Moss)

The September 1895 slide or pump-action rifle design had a laterally camming locking breechblock. As we can see, externally Browning’s toolroom prototype looks somewhat similar to the contemporary Winchester Model 1895, with a single-stack integrated box magazine but with a pump sleeve rather than a lever. 

An action-bar connects the slide/pump to the front of the breechblock/bolt carrieron the right-hand side of the rifle. The slide handle itself is made of a U-shaped piece of metal which wraps around the rifle’s forend. The slide has been roughly cross hatched to improve grip. There is a channel cut into the furniture for the action arm’s attachment point to travel. The slide is attached to the arm by a pair of screws.

A close up of the rifle’s slide/pump handle (Matthew Moss)

However, Browning developed this prototype to allow loading of the magazine from below rather than through the top of the receiver. He added a hinged floor plate, with a spring loaded follower, that allowed loose rounds to be dropped into the magazine and then closed.

As we open the magazine, hinging the cover plate down, we see the carrier flip down against the plate to allow loading. The rifle was designed to be loaded from below with the bolt forward.

Browning’s September 1895 patent (US Patent Office)

In the patent description Browning explained that his aim was to improve breech-loading box-magazine firearms by designing:  

“…a simple, compact, strong, highly effective, and safe gun, containing comparatively few parts and constructed with particular reference to provision for charging the box-magazine with cartridges from the bottom of the frame of the arm while the breech-bolt is in its closed position, so that the arm may be charged without operating its action mechanism or disturbing the cartridge in the gun-barrel, if one is there.”

Browning’s September 1895 patent (US Patent Office)

From the original patent drawings we can see the flat spring which acted on the carrier running below the barrel, ahead of the magazine. Inside the magazine are a pair of what Browning refers to as ‘spring fingers’ these act on the cartridges inside the magazine and keep them properly aligned, seen here in Fig.7 of the patent. In Fig.8 we can see what Browning calls a ‘box-like guideway’ which guide the rims of the cartridges, “preventing the cartridges from being displaced while being fed upwards.”

The rifle’s breechblock locked into a recess in the left side of the receiver, tilting at an angle with the rear of the breechblock canting to the left. When the pump handle was pulled rearwards the breechblock cammed laterally to unlock the action, extracted and ejected any spent casing and when the slide/pump was returned forward a new cartridge was picked up from the magazine, chambered the breechblock locked again ready to fire. The rifle’s hammer was cocked by the rearward movement of the breechblock.

A left-side view of the rifle with its action open, note the complex machining on the rear of the breech bolt (Matthew Moss)

Externally, the slide-action’s receiver looks similar to that of the production Model 1895 but internally they are very different. The action is certainly less open than the Model 1895’s but the lateral locking mechanism is less robust. Additionally, with no lever, as in the Model 1895, the slide-action rifle lacks the safety mechanism which prevents the action from opening accidentally.

A view inside the open magazine with the floorplate hinged open (Matthew Moss)

The model is in the white and while externally the machining and tool work is very neat, inside the action we can see where the cuts in the receiver wall have been more crudely made. In terms of design, the slide-action prototype was certainly simpler and had fewer working parts than the Model 1895 lever-action.

Winchester purchased the .30 calibre slide-action design but never produced it, it is believed that only Browning’s prototype was built to prove the concept. The prototype was part of Winchester’s collection and may now be found at the Cody Firearms Museum.

Check out our earlier videos on Browning’s lever-action box magazine-fed prototype and his en bloc clip-fed prototype.


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Bibliography:

‘Box Magazine Bolt Gun’ J.M. Browning, US Patent #545672, 3 Sept. 1895 (source)

‘Box Magazine Firearm’, J.M. Browning, US Patent #549345, 5 Nov. 1895 (source)

John M Browning: American Gunmaker, J. Browning & C. Gentry (1964)

Winchester Repeating Arms Company, H. Houze, (2004)

STEN Magazine Loaders

While the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has prevented some archival research I had planned which would have informed much of the STEN series, our good friend Richard at the Vickers Machine Gun Collection and Research Association, has come to our aid and we’re able to cover some of the loading accessories developed for the Sten’s magazines.

As we know the Sten uses a 32-round double stack, single feed magazine which can trace its origins back through the Lanchester Machine Carbine to the Haenel MP28,II’s magazine designed by Hugo Schmeisser [patented in 1931].

Sten Magazine, inert 9x19mm rounds and MkII and MkIV magazine fillers

The nature of the single feed makes the magazine difficult to load by hand with the last few rounds very hard to insert. So a series of four marks of ‘magazine fillers’ were developed. These are described in the British Army’s official List of Changes in February 1943.

The MkI is described as consisting of “a lever mounted on a short case which conforms to the shape of the magazine. It is hand operated, the loading lever being given a rocking motion during filling. The MKI slipped over the top of a magazine with a rivetted spring tab which indexed into a notch in the front of the Sten mag.

A cutaway showing the MkII filler

The MkII is very similar but simplified by having the spring catch mounted on the rear instead of the side and engaged a “small rectangular slot on the magazine”. The rear of the spring is turned up slightly to allow the user to remove its from the magazine.

The MkIII, which is possibly the rarest of the fillers, is described as:

“hand operated but of different design from the MkI and MkII. It consists essentially of a spring loaded vertical plunger which is attached externally to a case, the latter to assemble on the magazine. There is no retaining catch. It comprises the following parts:

Case. Is a rectangular shaped steel pressing with a tube of rectangular section welded thereto. The latter, which houses the plunger and spring, has a hole trilled at the lower end to accommodate a pin which restricts the amount of movement of the plunger and acts as a stop for the compressing spring.

Plunger, loading. Is made of two laminated steel strips welded together the top part of which is set to form a handle. The body of the plunger is slotted to accommodate the compression spring. The top part is splayed to form a suitable contact with the cartridge.”

List of Changes, Feb. 1943
Sten accessories including a sling and a MkII magazine filler

The other more common filler is the MkIV. Which is a much simpler design with a loading lever mounted on top of a clip which is attached to the rear of the magazine body and retained by a spring similar to that of the MkII.

Rich has very kindly demonstrated the use of the two most common fillers – the MkII and the simpler MkIV. It takes Rich just under 2 minutes to load that magazine, but he was doing his best to show various angles and unlike a British soldier during the war he hasn’t regularly loaded magazines with one of these fillers either. Despite that the clip gives a good idea of how fast you could load a mag once you’re in the groove.

With the MkIV filler Rich was able to load the mag in about 1 minute 15 seconds, the stability of resting the base of the mag on the table helped with the MkIV’s simpler design.

Manual diagram showing both the MkII and MkVI

Also, as a follow on to our previous episode looking at the Sterling Submachine Gun’s magazine Rich has also demonstrated the loading of a Sterling mag to its 34 round capacity. No magazine filler needed with George Patchett’s double-stack, double feed magazine.

Massive thanks to Richard for taking the time to film the clips used in the video. please do go and check out Richard’s channel and www.vickersmg.org.uk.


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XF-87 Blackhawk

Development of the XF-87 began at Curtiss-Wright in 1946, it would eventually be intended to be an all-weather interceptor. The Blackhawk was developed from an earlier ground attack, tactical bomber design, the XA-43. The Blackhawk was a response to the initial specification for a jet-powered night fighter, capable of speeds up to 530 mph, issued by the US Army Air Force in August 1945.

A number of companies responded including Bell Aircraft, Consolidated-Vultee, Douglas Aircraft, Northrop, Goodyear and Curtiss-Wright. The US Army Air Force down-selected Northrop’s design – then known as the N-24 and the Curtiss-Wright design- known as the Model 29A.

Curtiss-Wright XF-87 (US Air Force)

The XP-87 had a two-man crew seated side-by-side and was powered by two pairs of Westinghouse XJ34-WE-7 turbojet engines mounted on the wings. In comparison to the sleeker Northrop design, the Blackhawk was a slightly larger, bulkier and heavier aircraft with a straight wing profile. The XJ34-WE-7 turbojets only provided 12,000 lbf and Curtiss-Wright’s test pilot B. Lee Miller described performance in initial tests as sluggish. The Blackhawk’s armament was to consist of four 20mm cannons mounted in a nose turret.

The US Army Air Force designated the Curtiss-Wright jet the XP-87, while Northrop’s N-24 became the XP-89 and full-scale models of both were ordered.

The Curtis XP-87 (Curtiss-Wright, courtesy of Mark Lane)

In June 1948 the newly formed US Air Force re-designated fighters from P to F and the XP-87 became the XF-87 when prototypes were ordered. The XF-87 made its first flight in March 1948. During subsequent flight evaluations in October 1948, the Northrop XF-89 was found to be faster than the XF-87 and the US Navy’s XF3D (Douglas F3D Skyknight). While the Blackhawk was a capable and generally satisfactory aircraft it was deemed to be underpowered. It also reportedly suffered from buffeting at relatively slow speeds.

Walter Tydon’s patent for the Blackhawk’s landing gear (US Patent Office)

Evaluators disliked the Northrop and reportedly favoured the XF-87, however, one evaluating pilot likened its handling to a medium Bomber. An improved faster and more powerful Blackhawk was planned with J47 engines from General Electric. The fate of a second prototype is unclear and sources conflict. Most sources state that the XF-87 never had its armament fitted, however, photographic evidence clearly shows an aircraft, not with a turret, but with four nose mounted guns. This aircraft may be one of the airworthy prototypes or it could be a full-scale mock up built to show the USAAF during the selection process.

Despite the trials favouring the XF-89, the USAF initially ordered 57 F-87A fighters and 30 RF-87A reconnaissance aircraft from Curtiss-Wright in June 1948. Curtis-Wright and the USAF began a publicity campaign to unveil the new fighter, even appearing on the cover of an August edition of Aviation Week and in numerous other aviation publications, but the orders were abruptly cancelled in October 1948 and the USAF moved forward the development of the Northrop XF-89 instead. Check out our video on the F-89 Scorpion linked above.

The ‘F-87’ Blackhawk on the cover of Aviation Week (courtesy of Mark Lane)

The reason for this reversal of the decision is unclear. Only minor faults had been identified during testing and the more powerful J47 engines would have greatly increased the Blackhawk’s speed. The official reason for the cancellation was reportedly a disagreement on the price of a redesigned wing profile. According to his memoir, Walter Tydon, Curtiss-Wright’s chief engineer at the time, believed that some bad blood between Curtiss-Wright’s management and the then-President Harry S. Truman may have led the F-87 contract to be cancelled. Truman was Senator for Missouri from 1935 to 1945 and during that time Tydon believed he had come into conflict with the Curtiss-Wright’s management, perhaps regarding the company’s factory in St. Louis. Without substantial archival research it is difficult to verify either the official reason or Tydon’s theory.

Another potential reason for the cancellation was raised during the Congressional Hearings regarding the B-36 Program, Congressman Charles B. Deane noted that both Curtiss-Wright and Northrop had been informed that “unless they agreed to merge with Consolidated Vultee, business would be bad for them.” The testimony before the hearing notes that Curtiss-Wright were unenthusiastic about a potential merger and this might have been why the F-87 contract was cancelled. The Secretary of the Air Force denied this, however, stating that the cancellation was the result of “operating difficulties with the experimental model of the F-87, plus increasingly satisfactory operating data on competitive all-weather fighters.”

The XF-87 Blackhawk taking off (courtesy of Mark Lane)

Sadly, the prototype XF-87 Blackhawk’s was reportedly scrapped and photographs and footage of the initial flight testing of the Blackhawk is all we have left. The loss of the interceptor contract to Northrop led to the end of Curtiss-Wright’s aircraft production, with the Blackhawk being their last fighter design.

Special thanks to Mark Lane, the grandson of Walter Tydon, Curtiss-Wright’s chief engineer, for taking the time to discuss the Blackhawk and his grandfather’s role in its design.


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Bibliography:

Saga of the P-40 and Curtiss Airplane Division: Its Rise and Demise, W. Tydon

Newest Fighter In the Skies, Aviation Week, 2 Aug. 1948

Ad featured in Army & Navy Journal, Vol. 85, No. 40, 7 Aug. 1948 (source)

Ad featured in Air Force, Vo.31, No.9, Sept. 1948 (source)

‘Investigation of the B-36 Bomber Program’, US Congressional Hearing, Aug.-Oct. 1949, (source)

Curtiss Aircraft, 1907-1947, P.M. Bowers (1987)

American Attack Aircraft Since 1926, E.R. Johnson (2008)

The Big Book of X-Bombers & X-Fighters: USAF Jet-Powered Experimental Aircraft and Their Propulsive Systems, S. Pace (2016)

Curtiss-Wright Aeroplane Factory, Missouri, National Register of Historic Places, US National Park Service (2016) (source)

The Battle of Palmdale – WW2 Drone Hellcat vs F-89 Scorpion Jet Interceptors

The Battle of Palmdale is one of those historic events that could easily spawn clickbait titles: US Navy vs US Air Force, Drone vs Manned Fighter, Runaway WW2 fighter vs Rocket-armed Jet Interceptor. None of these would be a lie! 

Artists impression of the ‘battle’ (Pageant magazine, 1957)

On 16th August, 1956 a US Navy Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat a target drone went rouge over California and the USAF scrambled a pair of Northrop F-89 Scorpions to shoot it down. The F-89s failed to down the Hellcat but did manage to start a serious wildfire. 

Check out the video below:


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Bring Up The PIAT! – A Bridge Too Far Scene Analysis

A Bridge Too Far (1977) is undoubtedly a classic of the war film genre, massively ambitious it attempts to tell the story of Operation Market Garden. One of the key stories told is that of 2 PARA besieged in Arnhem awaiting relief from XXX Corps.

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A PIAT waits for the ‘Panther’)

Perhaps one of the most enduring scenes sees Anthony Hopkins, portraying 2 PARA’s commanding officer Johnny Frost, spot an enemy tank approaching and bark the order: “Bring Up The PIAT!”

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Set photo from A Bridge Too Far (Airborne Assault – PARA Museum)

If you follow me over on twitter you’ll know that I use this famous line as a hashtag (#BringUpThePIAT) whenever I discus the Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank. I thought it would be fun to break down the iconic scene and see just how accurate it is.

The scene itself is actually quite authentic. The PIAT gunner misses, and that isn’t too surprising as despite being a platoon weapon not everyone had a lot of training on them. While the PIAT misses twice – this is because the gunner was firing from an elevated position. This makes judging the range and lead which should be given to an advancing tank all the more difficult. It is something we see in contemporary accounts, including in Arnhem Lift: Diary of a Glider Pilot, by Louis Hagen. Hagen describes firing a PIAT at a self-propelled gun (likely a StuG) from an attic during the fighting in Arnhem: “The direction was perfect, but it fell about twenty yards short.” Similarly, there are accounts from Home Army members fighting in Warsaw during the Uprising which describe exactly the same thing.

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The second PIAT shot in A Bridge Too Far

While the flash we see in the scene might be excessive the recoil is quite authentic. While writing my book on the PIAT, I did a lot of research into the cultural impact of the PIAT and the numerous films it appeared in since World War Two. I recently wrote an article about the numerous films it has appeared in, you can read that here.

Perhaps the most important and realistic appearance was its first, in the fascinating 1946 film ‘Theirs Is The Glory‘. It’s a unique film that was filmed entirely on location with from veterans of the battle making up most of the cast and help from the British Army’s Army Film and Photographic Unit.

The PIAT appears twice in the film, scene some PARAs are trying to fight through to Arnhem but have been pinned down by what appears to be a French Char B. As a sidenote captured Char B1’s in German service were present in Arnhem).

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‘Theirs Is The Glory’ Film Poster (Airborne Assault – PARA Museum)

The PIAT team are seen to move to the flank to get a good shot at Char B. The short scene gives a good indication of how the No.2 would load the PIAT as well as showing the rate of fire possible – a good team could get off five rounds a minute. Theirs Is the Glory also features another brilliant PIAT scene with Corporal Dixon seen knocking out a Panther

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PIAT Team in action in ‘Theirs Is The Glory’

I would highly recommend both films as they are both interesting depictions of the battle and both good representations of the PIAT in action.


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SOE Sabotage – The Limpet Mine

During the Second World War Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) developed a whole series of sabotage devices for use behind enemy lines. Using unique archival footage this series of short videos examines some of the weapons developed for use by SOE agents in occupied Europe. In this episode we look at one of the numerous version of the magnetic Limpet Mine developed by SOE and other clandestine organisations.

In this very rare footage we see a Free French Air Force officer, possibly training as a member of the SOE, place a limpet mine on a substantial piece of metal plate.

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Free French officer attaching a Limpet to a steel plate (IWM)

The mine seen in the footage is clearly much smaller than the Limpets used against ships. The Limpet mine was developed by Military Intelligence (Research) in late 1939-40. Stuart Macrae and Cecil Vandepeer Clarke developed a mine with enough magnetic strength to attach an explosive charge to the hull of a ship. The initial design seen here was quite large but the design was refined as the war went on with various types and marks. Here’s a Type II limpet, a MkIII and here is a Type 6 MkII.

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Limpet MkIII (U.S.N.B.D.)

The idea was that divers or saboteurs in small boats could quietly attach the mines to enemy shipping while at anchor. However, the usefulness of magnetic charges was clear and it appears that smaller versions, like that we see in the footage here, were developed for use against armoured vehicles and other substantial armoured targets.

Placing_limpet_mines.jpg
A demonstration of the Limpet mines and mine carrier (UK National Archives)

It’s unclear from the film what the explosive charge was, how big it was or how it was laid out inside the mine but from the damaged plate displayed at the end of the footage it may have been a ring of plastic explosive held in place by the four magnets. This would blow the characteristic round hold in the plates.

Interestingly, the limpet mine seen in the film is very similar to a Japanese design, the Type 99 anti-tank mine, however, it has a different fuse design and the four magnets are blocky rather than rounded. Whether the Japanese magnetic mine influenced this design developed by SOE is unknown.

Type 99 Magnetic Mine
Japanese Type 99 anti-tank mine (IWM)

I’ve been unable to find out these mine’s designation, it may not have been given one but it does appear to be fairly well developed. In this photograph we can see that a metal plate carrier has been developed to allow a soldier to carry 4 mines on his back. Perhaps these mines were developed for a specific mission. The magnetic Clam charge, which we have covered in an earlier video, would have done a similar job for smaller task


If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here. We have some great perks available for Patreon Supporters. You can also support us via one-time donations here.


Bibliography:

World War II Allied Sabotage Devices and Booby Traps, G.L. Rottman (2006)

SOE’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies, (1944)

SOE’s Secret Weapons Centre: Station 12, D. Turner (2007)

SOE: The Scientific Secrets, F. Boyce & D. Everett (2009)

British Land Mines and Firing Devices, U.S.N.B.D. (1945)

The footage is part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection © IWM MGH 4324 and is used under the Non-commercial Use agreement.

Steyr AUG with HBAR Barrel

Sometimes all is not as it seems. That was the case when we examined this Steyr AUG. From the barrel and bipod it appeared to be an AUG in an HBAR or Heavy Barrel configuration but on closer inspection we found that it was in fact a rifle receiver, bolt and bolt assembly and chassis that had been paired with an HBAR barrel assembly.

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Vic with the Steyr ‘HBAR’ (Vic Tuff)

Ordinarily, the HBAR could be modified to fire from an open, rather than closed, bolt. This example has the standard AUG progressive trigger for semi and full-auto. It does not have the modified bolt carrier, striker or trigger mechanism.

The HBAR has a 4x optic, rather than the rifle’s 1x, while the HBAR-T can be fitted with an optic like a Kahles ZF69 6×42.

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A dedicated ‘LMG’ marked AUG stock and bolt carrier (Vic Tuff)

Adoption of the AUG HBAR does not appear to have been widespread and Steyr don’t currently list it as an option amongst their upgraded AUGs. For more Steyr we have previously examined a Steyr AUG SMG conversion and a Steyr MPi 81. We’ll take an in depth look at the AUG and AUG HBAR in the future.


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Specifications (for a standard AUG HBAR):

Overall Length: 35.5in (90cm)
Barrel Length: 24.4in (62cm)
Weight: 8.6lb (3.9kg)
Action: Gas operated, rotating bolt – the HBAR typically fires from an open bolt, but this rifle-based example fires from a closed bolt.
Capacity: 30 or 42-round box magazines
Calibre: 5.56×45mm

SOE Sabotage – Rail Charge

During the Second World War Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) developed a whole series of sabotage devices for use behind enemy lines. Using unique archival footage this series of short videos examines some of the weapons developed for use by SOE agents in occupied Europe. In this episode we look at how rail track could be destroyed by plastic explosive.

Destroying railway infrastructure was a key mission for the Resistance groups and SOE agents active in occupied Europe. Numerous methods of damaging or destroying railways were developed, including Exploding Coal, which we have covered earlier in this series. In this 16mm colour footage, believed to have been filmed in 1940, we get an early look at the methods the SOE were developing to destroy track. The ultimate aim was to derail the locomotive and wreck the train with minimal effort and explosive.

In the footage we see two charges have been placed on the piece of track, with detcord attached to both. A soldier, with what appears to be a lever-action Winchester 94, is then seen taking aim. It seems he’s aiming at a striker board attached to ignite the detcord. He fires, we see a puff of smoke and a second later the charges detonate.

The footage then cuts to several men collecting the debris of the shattered piece of track. The track appears to have two large chunks blown out and the top edge, between the two charges, completely blown off.

An early SOE demonstration with the charges set on the rail (IWM)

Later in the war more testing was done and more refined techniques were developed. In their book SOE: The Scientific Secrets Boyce & Everett note that trials of devices and techniques for destroying railway lines carried out at Longmoor where the British Army had extensive sections of track and samples of rails used in different European countries. Trials to find the right quantity and positioning of explosive charges were carried out in late December 1943, these tests would inform later operations.

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Fog Signal Igniter (SOE’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies)

The SOE’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies includes a pair of illustrations demonstrating two methods of laying and detonating these charges. A so-called ‘French’ method with a pair of what the catalogue terms ‘Igniters, Fuze, Fog Signal, MkIA’ ahead of the charges in the direction the train was expected from. The train would crush these Fog Signals firing them and igniting a length of detcord linked to a pair of 3/4lb explosive charges fixed to the track as we see in this film.

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Polish Rail Charge layout (SOE’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies)

The alternative ‘Polish’ method had the same sized and located explosive charges but placed a Fog Signal either side of the charges to ensure that no matter which direction the train came from the charges would be detonated. This method was used on single track stretches of railway. Both of these methods were rated to ‘remove about one metre of rail.’

In this photo we see a member of the French Resistance setting an explosive charge on a railway line. While likely a posed photo we do see the pair of Fog Signals which will stet the charge off. These photographs show a pair of trains reportedly derailed by explosive charges.

Déraillement-16-avril-1942-AIRAN
A derailed French train c.1942 (AIRAN)

Boyce & Everett in their book SOE: The Scientific Secrets suggest that as many as 48,000 ‘Railway charges’, presumable a kit, were produced by the SOE. From the footage we can certainly see this method of destroying rails was effective.


If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here. We have some great perks available for Patreon Supporters. You can also support us via one-time donations here.


Bibliography:

World War II Allied Sabotage Devices and Booby Traps, G.L. Rottman (2006)

SOE’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies, (1944)

SOE’s Secret Weapons Centre: Station 12, D. Turner (2007)

SOE: The Scientific Secrets, F. Boyce & D. Everett (2009)

Arthur John G. Langley’s Unpublished Memoir (1974)

Footage use is part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection © IWM MGH 4324 & 4325 and is used under the Non-commercial Use agreement.

Winchester 1866 Prototype Musket

Today, were taking a look at a Winchester prototype developed in the mid-1860s, a period when Winchester was seeking to build on the success of the 1860 Henry Rifle and place the company on a firm financial footing. Oliver Winchester had taken control of the New Haven Arms company before the Civil War and while for a time it had been known as the Henry Repeating Arms Company he eventually sought to put his stamp on the company, renaming it Winchester Arms Company in 1866. At the same time he decided to focus the company’s energies on winning military contracts around the world.

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Left & right profiles of King’s prototype musket (Matthew Moss)

This developmental prototype is in the ‘musket’ configuration: with a longer barrel, a bayonet lug and a wooden forend. The prototype represents one of the many developmental steps towards what would become the Model 1866. It has a number of interesting features – a steel, rather than brass, receiver and a hinged loading port developed by Nelson King, Winchester’s superintendent between 1866 and 1875.

The rifle itself was built by Luke Wheelock, Winchester’s model room mechanic and a designer in his own right who would go onto develop his own rifle designs for Winchester.

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King’s 1866 patent (US Patent Office)

The rifle is 54.5 inches long, with a 33.75 inch barrel. Believed to have been built in 1866, it is chambered for a .45 calibre rimfire round. King patented his loading port in May 1866. He described how the port worked:

“Through one of the plates S (preferring that one upon the right-hand side) I form an opening, 0, as denoted by broken lines, Fig. 1, and also seen in section, Fig. 7. This opening is formed so as to communicate through the frame directly to the chamber E in the carrier block, as seen in Fig. 3. Through this opening, and while the carrier-block is down and all parts of the arm in a state of rest, insert the cartridges, point first, through the said opening in the plate S into the chamber E the second cartridge pressing the first into the magazine, and so on with each successive cartridge until the magazine is filled, or until the requisite number has been inserted therein, the follower G being pressed up before the entering cartridges. In the rear of the chamber E2 the frame forms a shoulder to prevent the cartridges from being forced out through the opening in the plate S3 is a cover for closing the opening in the plate S3 and is hinged thereto, as seen in Figs. 1 and 7, the hinge being provided with a spring,a1, the tendency of which is to open the cover C. A spring-catch, d, (see Fig. 1,) secures the cover when closed, so that by pressing upon the said catch the cover will fly open. After the requisite number of cartridges have been placed within the magazine, close the cover, as seen in Figs. 1 and 2.”

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A close up of the hinged loading gate (Matthew Moss)

To paraphrase: ammunition can be loaded through the opening in one of the receiver side plate when the carrier block is down, insert the cartridges through the opening, pressing the first into the magazine and so on until the magazine is filled… a cover for closing the opening is hinged to the receiver side plate. A spring catch secures the cover when closed.

According to Herbert Houze, King developed the covered loading port design in early January 1866, with a design drawing dating to the 14th January, confirming this.

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Nelson’s loading gate cover prototype c.1866 (Cody Firearms Museum)

King altered the design of the rifle’s cartridge carrier so that a cartridge could pass through its lower section straight into the magazine when the action was closed. In theory the aperture could be placed on either side of the receiver, in practice is was placed on the right. Prior to this Winchester had experimented with systems where the tube could slide forward (G.W. Briggs US #58937), a port in the base of the receiver (J.D. Smith US #52934) or a sliding forearm covering a loading port at the rear of the magazine tube (O.F. Winchester UK #3284 [19/12/1865]).

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A look inside the hinged loading gate (Matthew Moss)

King’s system had the benefit of allowing the rifle to be quickly loaded or topped off without rendering the rifle unusable while loading. Positioning the port in the receiver allowed the magazine tube to be enclosed by a wooden forend.

A cartridge guide was fitted inside the receiver which guided rounds through the cartridge carrier and into the tube magazine. The rounds were prevented from popping out of the magazine, when the carrier was aligned and the cover open, by a shallow shoulder which projected in line with the carrier’s channel to hold cartridges in the tube by their rim.

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The musket with its action open, bolt to the rear and loading gate open (Matthew Moss)

The hinged cover is held shut by a spring catch mounted on the rear of the cover. When the knurled section on its front is pressed rearwards the cover pops open. The spring catch is actuated when it tensions against the cover’s hinge as it is closed. On the back of the cover there is also a cartridge stop for when the cover is closed.

Another small but interesting feature of the prototype is the catch at the rear of the lever loop, this differs from the manually turned catch seen on the Henry and production 1866. This design appears to be a much better safety feature, simply requiring the user’s hand to depress the catch to unlock it from the stock. It also appears to be a much simpler mechanism than that seen in later models like the Model 1895. The trigger also had an extension protruding from its rear which appears to prevent the trigger from being pulled when the lever isn’t full closed. Neither of these features appear in King’s May 1866 patent.

It appears that the idea of the port with a hinged cover was superseded by what we now recognise as the classic Winchester loading gate in the summer of 1866. King’s new system replaced the hinged cover with a piece of stamped spring steel attached to the inside of the receiver side plate by a screw. The spring steel gate could be pushed in, with the nose of a cartridge, to allow rapid loading. The front face of the gate formed a cartridge guide removing the need for the separate machined guide used in King’s earlier iteration of the system.

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(Rock Island Auction Company)

King’s revised loading port system required just five, rather than twelve, components: King’s altered cartridge carrier, receiver side plate, spring metal loading gate plate and retaining screws. This simple but elegant design continued to be used for decades on various models of rifle. The company were so pleased with the refinement of the rifle that, according to R.L. Wilson, King was awarded a payment of a $5,000 reward by the company’s board of directors.

Winchester introduced the rifle in 1866, with the first deliveries being made early in 1867, the new rifle was offered in various barrel lengths and patterns including carbine, rifle and ‘musket’. Winchester found some success selling 1866 rifles to the militaries of France and the Ottoman Empire, while many other countries purchased rifles for testing including Britain and Switzerland (whom came close to adopting the Winchester.) The rifles also found success on the civilian market with around 4,500 sold in the first five months.

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Right side profile of the rifle showing the hinged loading gate (Matthew Moss)

The Scientific American described the new rifles as “elegant in appearance, compact, strong, and of excellent workmanship. On examination we find its working parts very simple, and not apparently liable to derangement.”

King incrementally developed his loading system before radically simplifying it and this prototype rifle represents an important developmental step in the design of what would become the Model 1866 – one of Winchester’s most important rifles.


Special thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum for allowing us to take a look at this fascinating prototype rifle.


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Bibliography:

Winchester Repeating Arms Company, H. Houze (1994)

Winchester: An American Legend, R. L. Wilson (1991)

Patents:

https://patents.google.com/patent/US57808

https://patents.google.com/patent/US57636

https://patents.google.com/patent/US58937

https://patents.google.com/patent/US52934