During the Second World War the British Home Guard were extensively issued American .30 calibre Browning M1917 machine guns. These water-cool medium machine guns contributed significant firepower to the Home Guard fighting units. They began to enter service in late 1940 and by November 1942 there were some 6,330 in service.
With so many guns in service there needed to be a way of describing, categorising and identifying the weapon’s parts so an identification list booklet was drawn up giving the American and British nomenclature for the gun’s individual parts.
The booklet draws on the US Army Ordnance Corps’ Standard Nomenclature List A5 for the American parts names. The purpose of the booklet was basically to allow soldiers familiar only with British designations to know the necessary American nomenclature for the various parts. This would have been useful for when requisitioning replacement parts.
I plan on digitising much of what is in the TAB reference collection when I have the time and funds to do so, in the meantime a PDF of the pages from this booklet is now available here. Acquisition of this parts identification list booklet was made possible by our Patreon supporters – if you’d like to join us and help us share pieces of history like this one please check out the Patreon page here.
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On the 14th May 1940, the British Government announced the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers. By the summer of 1940 nearly 1.5 million men had volunteered to serve. The force was later renamed the Home Guard in July 1940 but remained under-equipped throughout the summer of 1940. Many of the newly raised militia units had just ‘LDV’ arm bands, some civilian firearms and improvised weapons, as uniforms and service weapons were in short supply.
I recently came across a really interesting piece of footage showing a Hampshire Home Guard unit training with an ‘incendiary weapon’. With few heavy weapons available during 1940, some Home Guard units improvised. This remarkable original colour footage appears to show a reasonably effective incendiary weapon of some sort. But beyond what we can see we know very little about the weapon.
The footage shows a battery of five launchers, each seemingly with a 3 man crew. One man aiming, another loading and another firing. The footage is undated but from their arm bands we can see that the men are Home Guard so definitely post July 1940. The men also appear to be quite well equipped with caps, denim trousers and blouses and belts. No webbing is seen but we can potentially date the footage to between late 1940 and mid-1941.
The incendiary weapon itself is extremely intriguing! I haven’t seen a similar weapon before and I couldn’t find any direct reference to it in the available original documents, newspapers or photos. The footage comes from the Wessex Film and Sound Archive, it is described as showing Home Guard men from Swanmore, a rural village in Hampshire, demonstrating the weapons. Before the incendiary weapon is demonstrated we see a company sized force of Home Guard parading, without rifles or other equipment, and then a single Home Guard member demonstrates loading an SMLE. From the footage we can get an idea of how the weapon would have worked.
The men run to the launchers, which appear to be made of wooden boards. Beneath them are rifle stock shaped pieces which the man at the rear seems to shoulder – probably to aim the weapon. The other two crew members kneel either side of the launcher. The footage then cuts away to another angle from the other side and shows one of the kneeling men hitting the rear of the projectile with a hammer. Then with a flash and puff of smoke the projectile launches forward. The man who aimed the weapon appears to have moved away, out of shot. Frustratingly the footage is a bit underexposed and quite dark so we can see too much more detail but we can see that the chap with the hammer is definitely hitting the rear of what looks like a length cylinder. The cylinder shoots to the rear while a projectile fires forward and the launcher’s crew look downrange.
We then get footage showing what seem to be a series of impacts, likely from the projectile’s fired by the launchers. Then we get another clip of the men running to man the launchers and some more shots of the incendiary weapons exploding. From the available footage its pretty difficult to theorise how the launchers work. They appear to be using an almost proto-recoilless rifle-like principle with the launch cylinder shooting backwards and the projectile leaving the cylinder and firing towards the target. The crew member with a hammer may be hitting a percussion cap to detonate some black powder which projects the incendiary bomb. This system may have been developed to remove the need for a fixed, pressure bearing barrel. Making the weapon much simpler to manufacture.
The footage doesn’t give us too much indication of the range of the weapon but it’s distant enough that the men firing the weapon don’t appear to recoil when the projectile hits the target. The incendiary effect downrange is actually quite impressive and a battery of five of the launchers would have been an impressive sight and perhaps quite useful as a road ambush weapon which was something the Home Guard focused heavily on at the time. It wasn’t until later in 1941 that sub-artillery like the Smith Gun, Northover Projector and the Blacker Bombard began to enter service with the Home Guard. Until then some of the units took it upon themselves to create their own weapons, improvising contraptions like the one featured in this video.
The weapon somewhat fits the description of the ‘Jones-Wise Projector’ shared by David Lister in his book Forgotten Tanks and Guns. Thanks to BettongMI who brought this to my attention in the comment section of the video. The weapon was apparently developed by a pair of Home Guard officers and while turned down for regular service was used by some elements of the Home Guard in southern England, at least until official sub-artillery began to enter 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This rifle was manufactured by Remington in August 1918. By the end of production Remington alone 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.