The Hotchkiss Portative was one of the earliest light machine guns to see general service. It was used in action by a number of countries during the First World War, the example we’re examining today is a British Mk1 Hotchkiss Portative light machine gun.
British Portative’s were chambered in .303, and were initially issued to cavalry regiments as a light machine gun before arming some of Britain’s early tanks during World War One.
The gun was also known as the Hotchkiss Model 1909 and saw service with France, chambered in 8mm Lebel and the US, chambered in .30-06, where it was known as the 1909 Benét–Mercié Machine Rifle.
To cock the weapon the charging handle at the rear of the gun is turned to the unlocked position, at 12 o’clock, and pulled to the rear. It is then returned forward and the gun can be put in either safe, semi and full automatic.
Weighing around 25 lbs or 12kg the Portative was extremely heavy for a light machine gun. It had a small, unergonomic pistol grip to which the stock attached. This makes it difficult to hold the pistol grip and the stock attachment jabs into the hand during firing. The low position of the Hotchkiss’s stock provides a chin weld at best.
The Portative feeds from a 30-round metallic feed strip. Rounds are placed in the metallic strips and loaded into the weapon with the cartridges facing down. If not seated properly in the strip, vibration from firing can loosen the rounds causing them to fall out or induce jams. The strips were so fragile a sizer, used to realign bent or misshapen strips, was standard issue. Once the strip is empty it is thrown out of the gun with some force.
The Portative’s tripod while small and highly adjustable is poorly designed, it is unsuited to use in the field. As the gun is already top heavy and unbalanced, due to feeding from a side-loading ammunition strip, the gun has a tendency to topple over if not held firmly by the operator. This also complicates clearing jams and stopages.
We will have a full video and blog exploring the design, development and history of the Hotchkiss Portative in the future. My thanks to Chuck Kramer of Gun Lab for letting me shoot his Hotchkiss and helping with filming, check out his blog here.
During World War One the British Army had been early adopters of the light machine gun concept, recognising the mobility and firepower offered by the Lewis Gun as early as 1915. Despite the Lewis Gun’s proven track record after the war a lighter weapon was sought.
In the final months of World War One the US had begun fielding the Browning Automatic Rifle, Model of 1918, in what they had envisaged as a ‘walking fire’ role. Relatively soon after the war British Ordnance began the search for what they termed a ‘light gun’. They took an interest in the BAR ordering 25 Colt Model 1919 commercial guns for testing and evaluation at a cost of £1,575 in November 1920. According to James Ballou’s book on the BAR, Rock & a Hard Place, the serial numbers of these guns ran between C-100374 to C-100398. The Colt Model of 1919 differed little from the earlier US military model, the principle changes were the lack of a flash hider and the use of relocating of the recoil spring to the butt, acted on by a transfer rod, from inside the gas cylinder tube.
This batch of guns was adapted to chamber the rimmed British .303 round, necessitating a curved magazine, a .303 barrel, an adapted bolt, extractor and ejector. In April 1921 the BAR along with four other light machine guns (the Madsen, Beardmore-Farquhar, a Lewis Gun and strip and magazine fed Hotchkiss guns) at the School of Musketry at Hythe.
The Browning fared well in the testing with the evaluating officer stating that for a “light gas-operated weapon the Browning has done remarkably well…” In fact the Browning was selected as first preference out of the five weapons tested. The testing board felt it was suitably light and would be the cheapest to manufacture. The board made a series of suggestions to improve the BAR for British service:
Move the cocking handle to the right side of the weapon
Fit a light bipod which is height adjustable
Ejection port and magazine well dust covers
Gas regulator hole to be clear of threads of regulator
Improved method of fixing position of gas regulator
Magazine well capable of receiving Lee-Enfield rifle magazines
No further action was taken until 1927 when it was decided that the Superintendent of Design should adapt several Brownings to improve the weapon for British service. According to Jame Ballou’s book these new modified BARs were not all from the original batch of test guns, at least one was a Colt gun purchased through FN.
The adapted BARs had carrying handles, flash hiders, bipods, Lewis Gun-style pistol grips, new rear sight and protected front post, an ejection port dust cover and a redesigned butt stock. A number of other changes were also made including switching the charging handle to the right (this change was found to be less necessary with the addition of a pistol grip).
While the modified BAR’s came fairly close to being adopted the principle problem remained the weapon’s limited 20 round magazine. Various larger magazines such as a 40-round box magazine from Colt and a 30-round drum were considered. By 1930 several new light machine guns had appeared and the Browning was beginning to look obsolescent. The Czech vz. 26 would eventually be adopted as the Bren.
We recently had the opportunity to examine what we believe to be a British trials BAR. Vic examined the gun finding that rather than a commercial Model of 1919, purchased for the first set of evaluations, it was marked as a Model of 1925. Interestingly, however, rather than resembling a Colt M1925 it had all the characteristics of an earlier M1919.
The gun examined, serial number C-102723, falls outside of the serial range James Ballou states belonged to the 25 original .303 BARs. While it is marked M1925 the gun shares none of the characteristics of an M1925 – lacking the reshaped wooden foregrip, stubby pistol grip and rate of fire reducer. It does, however, have the 1919’s style of stock, foregrip and its relocated recoil spring. Additionally, the gun has had a folding carry handle, very similar to that of the later British trials BARs, added.
With little solid information available there could be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the BAR Vic was able to examine was purchased for the later trials (between 1925-30) and it underwent minimal alterations – there is some variation between the documented surviving examples. The discrepancy between parts and the model name is curious. It is possibly a mix of parts were used to assemble the weapon during experimentation with configurations and an M1925 receiver was used as the basis of the gun but it was assembled with an M1919 barrel and furniture.
Length: ~115cm / 45 in
Weight: .303 M1919 approximately 7kg, later trials guns between approximately 7.5-8.5kg
Sights: M1917 Rifle sights
Action: Gas-operated, rising bolt lock
Feed: 20-round curved box magazine
The Browning Automatic Rifle, R.R. Hodges, (2012)
Rock and a Hard Place: The Browning Automatic Rifle, J.L. Ballou, (2000)
Video from the Institute of Military Technology showing a .303 M1919 BAR (source)
In the late 1970s James Sullivan, one of ArmaLite’s former chief designers and one of the men responsible for the M16, began developing a new light machine gun for a company in Singapore. The Ultimax 100 is a 5.56x45mm, gas-operated magazine-fed light machine gun. It uses a short stroke gas piston system that acts on a continuously recoiling bolt.
Sullivan was originally approached to develop a new select-fire intermediate cartridge rifle for the Singaporean military. Working with Chartered Industries he developed a very lightweight light machine gun. Sullivan was especially interested in recoil mitigation and developed the Ultimax’s bolt to travel rearward without ever hitting a buffer or the receiver. This greatly lowers perceived recoil and makes the weapon much flatter shooting.
The Ultimax fires from an open bolt (which uses a multi-lug rotating bolt head) and has a non-reciprocating charging handle. It’s buttstock can be removed to make the weapon even more compact. The absence of a buffer in the butt allows the weapon length to be reduced to just 81cm (32 inches), making it an excellent weapon for jungle or urban combat. The Ultimax is also extremely light for a squad automatic weapon, weighing approximately 4.7kg unloaded, and around 6.5kg when loaded with a 100-round drum.
While the MkII Ultimax has a fixed barrel, the MkIII has a quick change barrel which releases by pulling a catch the the rear and simply twisting the barrel and pulling it forward. Unlike other machine guns the bolt can remain forward when the barrel is being removed.
The Ultimax feeds from either an adapted STANAG magazine or a 100 round drum magazine, which has a controlled internal feed rather than a belt. The drum was co-developed by Sullivan and Bob Waterfield. The weapon’s rear pistol grip is similar to the Stoner 63 weapon system’s (which Sullivan had also worked on) while the smaller, grooved front pistol grip is reminiscent of the classic Thompson submachine gun’s.
It is said that Singapore’s government would not allow the Ultimax to be entered in the US’ Squad Automatic Weapon trials as the US government had refused them the technical package for the M16. Other sources suggest there was a commercial disagreement between Colt and Chartered Industries Over region sales of the M16. As a result the FN Minimi won the trials and was adopted as the M249. Those who have fired both claim that the Ultimax would have given the Minimi more than a run for its money. Despite this the Ultimax has seen action around the world and has been in service with the Singapore Army since 1982.
An updated version was offered in the US Marine Corps’ Infantry Automatic Rifle trial but was beaten by Heckler & Koch’s HK416, now the M27. ST Kinetics, formerly Chartered Industries, continues to improve and produce the Ultimax with the Mk8 introduced in 2012.
Matt recently had the opportunity to visit the excellent Menorcan Military Museum at Es Castell, on the Spanish Balearic Island of Menorca. The museum is well worth a visit and the Maxim-Tokarev was one of the very rare and extremely interesting weapons they have on display.
The Maxim-Tokarev (MT) Light Machine Gun was developed at the request of the Soviet military high command in the early 1920s, following the end of the Russian Civil War. Influenced by the German MG08/15, Tokarev set out to lighten the Maxim M1910. The MT was one of two designs submitted for testing. Designed by Fedor Tokarev, at the Tula Arms Factory, the MT was tested along side Ivan Kolesnikov’s similar Maxim-Kolesnikov light machine gun. Development ended in 1924 and the MT went into initial production in 1925 with the first weapons successfully tested against the Maxim-Kolesnikov.
Production continued until at least 1928, while many sources suggest 1927, the example featured in the video dates from 1928. Sources suggest Tula produced 3,500, however, this number does not match with the suggested export numbers and the featured example is serial number 5283.
The MT is based upon the Russian M1910 Maxim gun, using the same short recoil, toggle locked action. It was hoped that established tooling would be able to make some of the new light machine gun’s parts. The weapon weighed 12.9kg unloaded and Tokarev made extensive efforts to lighten the weapon with the the water-cooled barrel jacket replaced by a perforated shroud to allow air cooling. The receiver also has a large number of lightening cuts to shave off weight.
In his 1952 book ‘The Machine Gun Vol.2, Pt. VII’, George Chinn suggested that the Tokarev may have been influenced by an earlier design patented in 1909, by Vickers Sons & Maxim Ltd. designers Arthur Dawson and George Buckham. The patent shows a Maxim-derived light machine gun with a very similar layout to the MT.
The M1910’s spade grips were replaced by a wooden butt stock and a new trigger mechanism and a non-adjustable bi-pod was added at the muzzle. The butt-plate was hinged to offer additional stability and the weapon’s barrel could be changed in the field.
The MT fed from a 100-round canvas belt and chambered the standard Russian 7.62x54mmR cartridge. The belt was held in a drum suspended beneath the weapon and when loaded weighed approximately 15kg. Following troop trials a number of changes were suggested, some improvements were made but the decision was made to move away from the MT.
The MT was eventually replaced in Russian service in the late 1920s by the Degtyaryov-designed DP-28 light machine gun. The remaining MTs were sold to Spain and China during the 1930s. These guns saw extensive use during the Spanish and Chinese Civil Wars.
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:
(Artists impression of 1st BESAL prototype – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
Right side cocking handle
Simple fixed peep sight
Non-adjustable bipod mounted on the receiver
(Photograph of a 2nd Pattern BESAL with a pan magazine, note the right-side cocking handle – from 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
Disassembly knob introduced
(Our photograph of a 3rd Pattern BESAL)
Pistol grip cocking mechanism replacing the conventional cocking handle
(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.
Length: 118.5cm (46.6in)
Weight: 9.7kg (21lb 8oz)
Barrel Length: 56cm (22in)
Action: Gas operated, short recoil
Feed: 30-round Bren box magazine or 100-round Motley pan magazine
Cyclic Rate: 600rpm
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)
‘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)