Heckler & Koch’s first 5.56×45 rifle, the HK33, was introduced in the late 1960s as a response to the emergence of the new 5.56x45mm round and the introduction of the FN CAL. The HK33 is little more than a scaled down version of HK’s successful 7.62×51 G3. Developed by Tilo Möller, the HK33 used the same roller delayed blowback action and shares most of the G3’s features.
It has a stamped receiver and uses the same plastic furniture and pistol grip/trigger mechanism housing as the G3. The rifle is 39 inches or 92cm long and is by no means a light weapon, weighing around 4kg or 8.7 lbs. The HK33 feeds from 25, 30 or 40 round proprietary HK magazines.
The rifle came in main two main variants a full length version with a fixed stock, which could be fitted with a collapsing stock, and a shortened K-variant with a shorter barrel. The weapon came with either a safe, semi and full auto or safe, semi, 3-round burst fire control mechanism.
The HK33 was not adopted by the West German Army, however, it did see extensive use with Germany’s federal state and police forces and the Bundeswehr special forces. While it wasn’t adopted at home it was a successful export weapon with dozens of countries purchasing and adopting the rifle. France tested the improved HK33F in the Army 1970s and although it performed well the FAMAS was adopted instead. A production license was sold to Thailand who adopted the HK33, purchasing 40,000 rifles and the license to manufacture 30,000 more. Thailand also developed their own unique bull pup version of the rifle, the Type 11.
Malaysia also purchased 55,000 HK33s and the Spanish Guardia Civil used them for a time. The manufacturing rights for the HK33 were also sold to Portugal for production at Fabrica Militar de Prata and to Turkey where it remains in production at MKEK.
HK produced the HK33 from 1968 through to the late 1980s. It also provided the basis for the HK53 5.56 ‘submachine gun’ which we have covered previously. It was also the basis of the less successful G41, which we’ve also covered in a full length episode, you can find this here. The similarities with the HK33 are easy to see but the G41 has a number of subtle changes.
If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here.
I’m very pleased to announce that we now have some ‘Thank You’ perks for everyone that supports TAB on Patreon!
All Patrons will continue to get access to our regular sneak peek and behind the scenes blogs about what we’re working on and what’s coming up and in addition: $1 Patrons will get a thank you postcard featuring some very cool, specially commissioned art – an illustration of the inner working of the Heckler & Koch G11!
$5 & up Patrons will receive the G11 postcard AND a 2×6″ (5cm x 15cm) The Armourer’s Bench logo sticker!
We’re really excited to be able to offer tangible perks to say thank you for your support. In order to cover postage costs we’ll send off the perks once you’ve been a supporter for a month – this is purely to cover the postage costs (for instance it’s just over £1.20/$1.60 to post a postcard to the US from the UK) to where ever you are around the world!
TAB is an entirely viewer supported project so we can’t tell you how excited we are to finally have a way to thank you for going that extra step and supporting our efforts with your own hard earned money. Thank you to all our existing Patrons (who will of course be able to get their hands on the new Perks right away) and thank you for reading this and considering becoming a TAB Patron.
The British Army entered the First World War with very few mortars, and certainly none at the battalion level. As the stalemate of trench warfare set in and the effectiveness of enemy mortars became clear it was decided that trench mortars of various sizes would be needed.
Nicknamed ‘plum pudding’ or ‘toffee apple’ mortars after their projectile’s characteristic shape, the 2 inch Medium Mortar or 2 inch Trench Howitzer, was one of Britain’s first effective light trench mortars to be introduced.
Trench mortars were the army’s most forward artillery, right up on the front line. These short range weapons were able to throw large, high explosive projectiles, short distances across No Man’s Land at the enemy trench system opposite. The 2 inch mortar was considered accurate out to 350 yards with a maximum effective range out to just under 600 yards.
Introduced in 1915, the 2 inch mortar was originally crewed by men taken from the battalion it was stationed with, along with some specialists from the Royal Artillery. However, with the introduction of the 3 inch Stokes mortar which was operated by the infantry themselves the 2 inch mortars became the sole responsibility of the Royal Field Artillery.
Mortar positions were often in secondary trenches just behind the infantry’s frontline. This was to help protect the infantry from potential counter-battery fire. The trench mortars were often deployed to sectors to provide counter battery fire against German minenwerfers or in the run up to an offensive or local action. A British Army report on artillery use, drawn up in February 1917, noted that “Owing to their liability to be destroyed by hostile artillery fire it may often be advisable to defer opening fire with these mortars till the last day of bombardment.” The mortars were also tasked with keeping gaps made in the wire clear and with supporting any feint attacks made by infantry during gaps in the bombardment running up to a larger offensive.
Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, a captain with the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers and later a novelist, recalled in his war memoir:
“At night a trench mortar officer set his guns in a derelict trench about twenty yards behind the line and carried up his ammunition, heavy globes of iron with a little cylindrical projection like a broken handle. In the morning I moved the men from the bays between the trench mortars and their target, to lighten the risk of loss from retaliatory fire.”
Sometimes the width of No Man’s Land required saps to be cut extending out from the frontline so the mortar rounds didn’t fall short. The 50 lb lollipop-like projectile had a maximum effective range of 570 yards (depending on the size of cordite charge used), and could create a crater 5 feet deep and 14 feet wide. The ideal mortar position was a 6 feet wide by 9 feet deep sandbagged pit with the weapon’s heavy wooden bed at the bottom and room for the crew to load the mortar.
Crews could manage to fire approximately once every two minutes. Much slower than the lighter 3 inch Stokes Mortar and but faster than the heavy 9.45 inch Heavy Mortar. The mortar comprising of just its tube, bed, stand and ignition system weighed 320 lbs (145kg), not including the accompanying tools and the Temple silencer system which could be fitted (which weighed 47 lbs or 21 kg alone).
Typically manned by a 5 man mortar crew comprising of an NCO, gunners, and ammunition bearers. To operate the 2 inch mortar a cordite charge was first placed down the tube, the projectile’s shaft was then inserted on top of the charge, the projectile’s fuse was set and checked and a new blank cartridge chambered in the ignition system. The crew then got clear of the weapon and pulled the lanyard to fire the mortar. To reload the crew ran a clearing stick down the tube and then repeated the loading process.
Interestingly, the 2 inch Medium Mortar, like the larger 9.45 inch Heavy Mortar used a cut-down rifle, which screwed into the ‘breech’ end of the mortar tube. This particular mortar has an 1894-dated cut down Lee-Enfield MkI as its ignition system, the cutdown rifle has a wooden insert in its magazine well but it still has its rear volley sight attached. This reusable system replaced the T-tube Friction ignitor, which was in high demand by Britain’s bigger guns. The Lee-Enfield-based system enabled the cordite propellant charges to be ignited by a blank .303 round instead. The rifle’s trigger was pulled with a lanyard from nearby cover. These cutdown ignitor rifle are sometimes confused for Obrez-style Lee-Enfields.
The weight of the cordite charge used dictated the range while a variety of different fuses were used with the projectiles, these screwed into the nose of the bomb. The sphere was about 9.3 inches in diameter with a 2 inch thread for the fuse at its head and a cup for the 22 inch long, 2 inch thick solid cast iron stick or spigot at its base. The sphere was filled with high explosive (Amatol or Ammonal). The high explosive bombs were painted white with a green or pink stripe around their middle.
They were often deployed in batteries of four with three Royal Field Artillery medium mortar batteries attached to each division. The mortars were predominantly tasked with cutting enemy barbed wire and destroying enemy trenches and forward positions, such a machine gun nests.
Captain Griffith described a battery of 2 inch mortars opening fire on enemy lines:
“A pop, and then a black ball went soaring up, spinning round as it went through the air slowly; more pops and more queer birds against the sky. A stutter of terrific detonations seems to shake the air and the ground, sandbags and bits of timber sailed up slowly and then fell in a calm deliberate way. In the silence that followed the explosions, an angry voice called out in English across No Man’s Land, ‘YOU BLOODY WELSH MURDERERS.’
The 2 inch medium mortar entered service in spring 1915 and remained in use into 1917 with British and Empire troops. It was used on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia. Over 800 were ordered initially with 675,000 bombs, many of the mortars were made in railway and agricultural machinery workshops, allowing larger factories to focus on more complex weapons. The 2 inch mortar was superseded by the larger bore Newton 6 inch mortar later in the war. Some of the remaining 2 inch projectiles were re-purposed as makeshift anti-tank mines, buried in no man’s land in anticipation of possible German tank attacks.
If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here.
The interwar period saw many countries under invest in their militaries, Britain was no exception. One area of equipment that went lacking for many years was adequate anti-tank weaponry. This was finally addressed in the mid-1930s with the Superintendent of Design at Woolwich arsenal developing the 2pdr anti-tank gun, which adopted in 1936.
Officially designated the ‘Ordnance QF 2-pounder Mark IX’, the 2pdr was an attempt to provide a light and mobile high velocity anti-tank gun which was relatively cheap to produce and effective against contemporary tank armour. It was also intended that the gun would itself be mounted in armoured vehicles and tanks.
In 1934 development contracts were awarded to Woolwich and the Vickers-Armstrong company for the design of carriages for the new gun, the Vickers Mark I and the Mark II from Woolwich. The Mark I had a slightly different armour shield and leg design.
These two carriages were tested against one another with trials taking place from November 1935 through to the summer of 1936. The Vickers design initially won out and the first order for 44 guns was placed in 1936. A subsequent re-evaluation of an improved version of the Woolwich carriage found it superior and the Mark II carriage was adopted.
The 2pdr fired a 40×304mmR armour piercing round which weighed 2lbs 6oz or 900g and was effective out to 1,000 yards against up to 1.5 inches of armour. It had a four man crew and was capable of firing up to 20 rounds per minute. It had an all steel barrel with a removeable breech ring and a vertically sliding breech block. The gun had an innovative and very stable three-legged collapsible platform, rather than a split-trail carriage, that also allowed the gun to be rotate through 360 degrees when its road wheels were removed. The 2pdr had a semi-automatic action with a hydraulic/hydrospring recoil system which used hydraulic fluid to absorb the gun’s recoil. This allowed the gun to be rapidly aimed and fired despite recoiling approximately 20 inches (or ~50cm).
A number of variants of the gun were developed during the war, with the original Mark IX, a simplified production model the Mark IXA, the Mark X which had a barrel made of higher-yield steel which was not autofrettaged – making it easier to manufacture and the Mark XA which was produced to lower tolerances and able to use the Littlejohn adapter.
Here’s a Royal Army Ordnance Corps training film on the 2pdr (courtesy of the AWM) in full:
Weighing around 1,800lbs or 816kg (or 4/5 of an Imperial Ton) the 2pdr was deemed to be too heavy for the infantry it had been designed for and in 1938 it was transferred to the Royal Artillery. Typically the guns were grouped together in anti-tank battalions each with three batteries made up of four troops which operated four guns each. That’s 16 guns per battery and 48 guns per battalion. Typically a battalion would be assigned to support a division. They were designed to be towed by a variety of vehicles with trucks, jeeps and Universal Carriers often being used.
The 2pdr was typically equipped with a No.24B 2x sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun. It also had an iron sight but the armoured shield had to be lowered to use it. On the right side of the breech an ammunition box, holding 16 rounds was be stored for easy access, another two boxes holding 8 rounds each could be strapped to the carriage behind the ammunition box (described as the emergency ammunition box). The rest of the ammunition in twelve more 8-round containers, giving a total of 96 rounds assigned to each gun, was carried on the truck which towed the gun.
The gunlayer sat in a small seat mounted to the carriage and the loader knelt to the right of the breech. The gun was turned by a small traversing wheel operated by the gunlayer. In low gear one rotation of the wheel would turn the gun 3 degrees, in the higher gear (activated by the right foot pedal) one rotation traversed the gun 20 degrees. This meant the gun could be traversed the full 360 degrees with 18 rotations of the wheel. The right hand wheel controlled elevation of the barrel. The gun was fired by the gunlayer using the left foot pedal or two emergency firing levers if the pedal became inoperable. While the breech would typically open automatically ejecting the spent shell casing after firing a breech handle was also located on the right side of the breech.
The gun could be brought in and out of action in under a minute, including removing or replacing the road wheels. The 2pdr could, however, be fired from its road wheels, this was described as ‘emergency action’. The wheels limited the traversing arc of the gun and turns greater than 14 degrees right or 10 degrees left had to be done by lifting the gun’s trail and turning it manually. While less stable and accurate the gun could be brought into action from being towed in less than 20 seconds.
In 1939, the British Expeditionary Force to France embarked with 509 2pdrs. During the 1940 Battle for France the 2pdr was found to be an adequate anti-tank gun. One problem identified with the 2pdr was that its armour shield, designed to protect the crew, gave it a quite high profile making it easier to spot and more difficult to conceal.
During the retreat to Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation all of the guns brought to France were lost. 60% of Britain’s 2pdr Anti-Tank guns were left behind in France, just 333 guns which hadn’t accompanied the BEF remained. Many of the guns captured after the Dunkirk evacuations entered German service under the designation 4.0cm Pak 192(e).
As the thickness of enemy armour increased the 2pdr began to struggle. The German Panzer II had 1.2 inch thick frontal armour while the Panzer III more than doubled this to 2.8 inches. On paper at least the 2pdr, firing a APHV round, could penetrate up to 2.2 inches of armour at 500 yards (460m). But in reality the Panzer III was the last German tank the 2pdr could expect to engage with a decent chance of success. With the emergence of the later mark Panzer IV, with their 50mm or 2 inch thick frontal armour, they became much less effective. If not adequately concealed gun crews could expect to be engaged by AP and high explosive rounds from the Panzers at ranges outside their effective engagement range.
Despite this, however, the 2pdr proved to be a more than a match for Japanese tanks such as the Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks, which had armour less than an inch thick. At the Battle of Muar in Malaya, in January 1942, Australian 2pdrs, of the 13th Battery, 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, knocked out six, of possibly eight or nine, Japanese tanks as they attacked up a road near Bakri. Sgt. Charles Parsons, commander of one of the guns was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Interestingly. the Australians referred to the QF 2pdr AT Gun as the “Tank Attack 2pdr” apparently a designation common to Australian anti-tank weapons as they also called the PIAT the Projector, Infantry, Tank Attack.
The 2pdr remained capable of destroying heavier Japanese tanks too, the Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tank had at 1 inch thick front armour which the 2pdr could easily penetrate at ranges of over 1,500 yards.
Lieutenant Ben Hackney of the Australian 2/29th Battalion described the engagement during the Battle of Muar:
“A couple [of tanks] attempted to turn and make a get-away but still those boys with the anti-tank guns were sending a stream of shells into them. At last they could not move forward any further and became as pill-boxes surrounded, sending fire in all directions; until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, and rendered useless and uninhabitable. There came then from the tanks sounds which resembled an Empire Day celebration as the ammunition within them burnt, and cracked with sharp bursts, and hissed, with every now and again a louder explosion as larger ammunition ignited.”
In addition to being used as a towed anti-tank gun the QF 2pdr was used in a wide range of light and cruiser tanks, it provided the main armament for the Matilda II, the MKVII Tetrach light tank, the first six Marks of the Valentine infantry tank, the MKI & MKII Crusaders, the Cruiser Marks I to IV, the Covenanter tanks and it was also used in the Australian cruiser tank, the AC1 Sentinel.
It was also widely used to arm armoured cars including the Daimler, the MKI AEC, the MKI Coventry and the Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car. In the desert it was also mounted and operated simply on the back of adapted trucks – known as Portees. Trucks built by Chevrolet, Ford or Morris were all pressed into service to create Portees. The 2pdr was deployed on its tripod on the truck bed with its wheels removed. In this setup the guns became highly mobile with the crew able to operate the gun from the truck moving in and out of action rapidly. They were widely used in North Africa with a number of medals including a Victoria Cross being awarded to men who manned them.
Second Lieutenant George Ward Gunn, J Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in November 1941 during Operation Crusader. Gunn commanded a troop of four Portee 2pdrs which engaged a German counter attach, with all but one of his guns knocked out and the remaining gun’s crew killed and the truck on fire, Lieutenant Gunn manned the gun himself, engaging the enemy at 800 yards, he managed to destroy two Panzers before he was killed.
The example we are examining began its life as a Mark IX but was subsequently upgraded into a Mk XA, capable of using a Littlejohn adaptor. The Littlejohn adapter used the squeezebore principle, the device was about a footlong with a smooth tapered bore. With the adaptor fitted to the muzzle of the 2pdr the round would be compressed by the taper going from 40mm to 30mm in diameter. This had the effect of increasing muzzle velocity giving the round a flatter trajectory and more energy. An armour-piercing, composite non-rigid round with a tungsten core was used, designated the APSV (from ‘armour-piercing super velocity’). It had the effect of almost doubling the muzzle velocity of the APSV round when compared to the original 2pdr AP shell. The adaptor was invented by Czech designer, František Janeček, the founder of the JAWA motorcycle company. The Mk I Littlejohn device entered production in January 1943 and the Mk II was approved in May 1944.
While design of the 6pdr anti-tank gun, the 2pdr’s replacement, had been completed by 1938, production of the gun did not begin until 1942. Following the huge losses at Dunkirk and with invasion believed to be imminent the decision was taken to focus on the 2pdr gun as its production line was already established. They remained in service throughout the war equipping anti-tank batteries and armoured vehicles. Over 34,000 2pdr anti-tank guns were produced between 1936 and 1944, over 11,000 of these were deployed as anti-tank guns on carriages while the rest were used in various vehicles.
If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here.
Overall Length: 135.5in or 343cm
Weight: 1,800lbs or 816kg
Action: Semi-automatic, hydrospring recoil buffer
Calibre: 2pdr or 40×304mmR
Elevation: -13 / +15 degrees
Traverse: 360 degrees
Rate of fire: 20 rounds per minute
Anti-Tank Weapons, T. Gander, (2000)
British Anti-Tank Artillery 1939-45, C. Henry (2004)
‘British equipment Losses at Dunkirk and the Post-Dunkirk Situation’, WWII Equipment.com, D. Boyd, (source)
2 Pounder Anti-Tank, Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) training film, via AWM, (source)
Here’s Vic’s video on the XM148, check out Matt’s article below:
There have been attempts to fire grenades from the infantryman’s weapon since the 17th century. Up until the 1960s these almost entirely involved muzzle attachments or grenades which could be fired off the end of a rifle’s barrel. In May 1963, the US military called for a new ‘underslung’ grenade launcher to complement the AR-15/M16, then in early testing. The grenade launcher program had its roots in the ultimately unsuccessful Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW) program which had begun in 1952.
While a series of designs were developed by various manufacturers and designers, May 1964 saw Colt unveil the CGL-4. The Colt was tested against designs from Springfield Armory and Ford, a design from AAI was promising but it was not able to chamber the 40x46mm rounds used by the M79 and was rejected. The US military sought munitions commonality between the M79, already in service, and the new rifle-mounted grenade launcher.
In March 1965, the CGL-4 was chosen for further testing and a contract for 30 launchers was signed. The CGL-4 was reportedly developed by Karl Lewis and Robert E. Roy in just 48 days. However, the design was complex. To load the barrel housing slid forward allowing a grenade to be placed in the breech, the weapon was then cocked and a long trigger, which projected back towards the rifle’s trigger guard, could be pulled to fire the weapon.
Despite some problems with barrel housings cracking an order for 10,500 of the new launchers, now designated the XM148, was placed in January 1966. Production capacity issues and problems with the launcher’s sight lead to production delays and it wasn’t until December 1966, that the first shipment of 1,764 launchers arrived in Vietnam for field testing.
Initial reports from the field were promising with troops praising the “tactical advantage of both the point fire and area fire system” concept. The XM148 was well received by the SEALs and the Australian SAS. The armourers of the Australian SAS, deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Australian Task Force, were also hard at work attaching XM148s to L1A1 rifles. Removing the L1A1′s handguard and attaching the XM148 to the rifle’s barrel.
Field testing was carried out by 12 units from six different divisions which were operating in various parts of Vietnam. This gave a wide variety of terrains and yielded some interesting results. In general it was found that the XM148 decreased rate and quantity of the grenadier’s fire, it slowed his reaction times when firing at a target, it hampered his movement in dense vegetation and also meant the grenadier had to spend longer caring for his weapon.
It was noted that the sight mount which was overly complex and prone to snagging on brush and kit, it was also felt that too much force was needed to cock the XM148 (around 30 lbs) and the trigger mechanism was felt to be overly complex and difficult to repair and disassemble. One safety concern was the XM148′s long trigger bar, which could snag and launch a round – not ideal for special forces patrols infiltrating through thick bush. Problems with the launcher’s quadrant sights also continued causing deflection errors out at longer ranges. The bulkiness of the sights exasperated these problems as when they were knocked the XM148′s zero could be effected. The XM148 also precluded the use of a bayonet as when fired it would blow the bayonet off the muzzle. Overall, troops felt the XM148 was too fragile and complex for use in the field.
At least one unit found use for the launchers, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)’s Operational Report for Quarterly Period Ending 31 October 1967, noted that the XM148
“proved unsatisfactory in infantry units due to its lack of durability; consequently, USARV directed that they be turned in. However, 1/9 Cav has devised a method of mounting the launcher coaxially on the M60C machine gun used by scout observers on OH-13 scout helicopters. Durability in this environment is
not a problem since the weapon deos not receive the rough handling it did in the hands of ground troops. Firepower on scout helicopters is significantly increased. Fifty-two XM148s have been retained for use by 1/9 CAV.”
Finally, despite Colt’s efforts to rectify the growing list of problems the Army Concept Team In Vietnam deemed the XM148 unsatisfactory for deployment in Vietnam and recommended they be removed from service and a new improved launcher be developed. This was a massive blow to Colt who had already manufactured 27,400 XM148s. Many of these were already in Vietnam.
The US Army launched the Grenade Launcher Attachment Development (GLAD) program in the summer of 1967. A large number of manufacturers submitted designs including Colt, who offered the improved Henry Into-designed CGL-5. The Army turned down Colt’s offer of 20 free improved launchers and rejected the CGL-5 outright. The GLAD program saw the resurgence of the earlier AAI design, designated the XM203, this simple design, now chambering the 40x46mm shell, was eventually selected in August 1968. Ironically, as AAI was predominantly a research and development company and after an initial run of 10,000 made by AAI, Colt was subsequently awarded the contract to manufacture the M203 from 1971 onwards.
While the XM148 proved to be a failure it played an important role in proving the operational viability of the rifle mounted grenade launcher system. The muzzle-launched rifle grenade is all but obsolete, superseded by the under-slung grenade launcher.
If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here.
Length: 16.5 inches
Action: single shot, striker-fired single action
Rate of Fire: ~4 rpm
In early 1865, in the wake of the Danish-Prussian War which had shown how effective breechloaders could be, Britain’s Board of Ordnance began to explore retrofitting Britain’s muzzle-loading Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Muskets with a breech-loading cartridge conversion. Along with this interim solution the Ordnance Department also began the search for a breech-loading rifle designed from the ground up. Dozens of designs were examined from engineers and gunsmiths from across Britain, Europe, and the United States. One of these came from Johann von der Poppenburg, a Birmingham based engineer. Poppenburg’s rifle was tested along with 24 others during the initial phase of testing. The Ordnance Department’s Breech-Loading Rifle Committee were largely unimpressed by the rifles submitted and selected only four to progress, Poppenburg’s design was not included.
Poppenburg patented his first breech-loading design in February 1865 (#421) with an American patent following in October (US #50,670). It was this system which was first submitted to the trials, the rifle while described as ‘Poppenburg’s principle’ was made or at least submitted by Messers. Benson and Co., also of Birmingham.
Poppenburg’s patent describes a system that could be loaded with either loose powder and a projectile – with a percussion cap igniting the charge held in the ‘charge-chamber’ or with a paper cartridge which was detonated when pierced by a needle. It was the latter, more modern, option which was chosen for submission to the British trials.
The submitted design used a needle fire action, which ignited a paper cartridge by piercing through the paper and powder to ignite a copper cap in the base of the projectile. Poppenburg patented this cartridge design was on 3rd April 1865 (#932), it lapsed three years later and became void in April 1868. The action was hinged to the right, with a hollow breech chamber swinging out to allow a cartridge to be loaded into it. The estimated unit cost to produce these rifles, for quantities over 5,000 rifles, was £3 each. The needle fire action and hinged breech proved “too complicated, and liable to accident for a military arm” according to the Trials report.
Interestingly, in October 1866 Poppenburg also patented specific system for a breech-loading conversion (#2580). The system used a vertically hinged breech block which locked using a rack and pinion system attached to a lever. It does not appear that this system was tested by the Trials Committee. This action may have been developed following the failure of his more complex action and the adoption of the brass-cased .577 round. This patent lapsed and became void in October 1869.
The October 1866 patent (#2580), appears to be the last patented solely under Poppenburg’s name. Subsequently patents were granted jointly between Poppenburg and John Solomons Benson. This may have been due to the cost of applying for and maintaining patents, which in the 1860s could cost over £45 for three years of protection. Today that’s the equivalent of over £5,000 or nearly $7,000. Both Benson and Poppenburg were based in Birmingham, Britain’s leading centre for small arms manufacturing at the time. In a patent notice, dated 22nd December 1866 (#3382), Benson is listed as a merchant while Poppenburg is described as a mechanical engineer. It may be that Benson provided the financial backing for Poppenburg’s breech-loading system, this was an arrangement that was common at the time.
In 1866-7 Benson and Poppenburg submitted a number of rifles for testing in the Prize Competition launched by the War Office to find a new breech-loading rifle. The system submitted was radically different to Poppenburg’s earlier needle fire designs which used hinged breeches. The patent for the new system was granted jointly to Benson and Poppenburg on the 22nd December 1866 (#3382).
Benson and Poppenburg’s new rifle had a breech which opened horizontally with a ‘tubular breech-block’ which slid to the rear when a hinged lever was liftedand pulled backwards. To open the breech the rifleman first depressed a small catch on the left side of the breech cover, once depressed the breech block could then be pulled back by the hinged lever. This movement also actuated the rifle’s T-shaped semi-circle extractor allowing the rifleman to remove the spent case. A new cartridge could then be loaded and the breech closed and the striker was then pushed forward with the thumb to cock the weapon. Once the hinged lever was pushed forwards again the breech block moved forward, closing the action, and locked with a pair of lugs cut into the receiver (described as the ‘breech-shoe’ in the patent) and at the rear by the catch.
Depressing the breech release button with the striker cocked will de-cock the action and in theory allow a round to be carried in the chamber. The example pictured in the accompanying photographs may be a slightly more refined version of the rifle submitted as it differs from another rifle, said to be a trials gun, which more closely resembles the December 1866 patent.
Breech Closed (Matthew Moss)
Breech Open (Matthew Moss)
The rifle with its breech closed (left) and open (right)
At least four rifles (with some differences in design between them) were provided for testing, the War Office’s April 1868 Report on Breech Loading Arms found that three of the rifles submitted were shorter than the required length while a fourth was too long – with the maximum overall length allowed being 51 inches. Examples of both full-length rifles, with 32 inch barrels, and carbine models with 23½ inch barrels exist (both of these lengths are significantly shorter than the Snider-Enfield’s barrel length). The trials rifles appear to have been sighted out to 1,100 yards and were chambered in a .577 calibre cartridge (probably the Boxer cartridge selected officially in 1866). At least two probable trials example were also chambered in a .450 cartridge. From a survey of the remaining examples it seems that the serial numbers for the rifles range up to at least 239.
The Benson-Poppenburg was unsuccessful during the trials, being rejected from both the Prize Competition and the Breech Action Selection Trials. With the Committee’s report stating that despite the rifles having “several good ideas embodied in their breech action”, they “appear to have been hastily manufactured and the inventions are as yet in an incomplete state”. The specific reasons given for this were that the rifles were of unsatisfactory overall lengths. It seems they were submitted in a rush, in an ‘incomplete state’, with the report also noting that the extractors on two of the rifles submitted destroyed cartridges during extraction, probably ripping the base from the case.
The Committee’s report explained that its rejection from the separate Breech Action Selection Trials was due to issues: “if dirt or sand enters the shoe of this rifle it causes misfires, and even prevents the bolt from entering the aperture in the block.” They also noted that “The working of the breech mechanism is slow.”
The British Army’s extensive trials eventually resulted in the selection of Jacob Snider’s system, adopted in April 1866 to convert existing Pattern 1853s and the selection of Friedrich von Martini’s action and Alexander Henry’s barrel, which when combined as the Martini-Henry was formerly adopted in March 1871.
Mathieu Willemsen, curator of the Netherlands’ Military Museum, was kind enough to share some information about The Dutch Army’s trials with the Poppenburg in 1868. The Dutch trialled a version similar to that tested by the British but chambered in 11x42mmR. The rifle’s action has a more angled external appearance than the example we have examined but works along the same principle.
The rifle was found to be rapid firing but suffered from some issues with fouling and failed a pressure test. Later testing with a smaller calibre round was also carried out but the rifle was not adopted. We hope to have a chance in the future to examine a Dutch trials rifle for comparison.
If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here.
Treatise on the British Military Martini, I. Skennerton, (1995)
Reports of a Special Committee on Breech-Loading Rifles (1869)
Abridgements of the Specifications Relating to Fire-Arms and Other Weapons, Ammunition, and Accoutrements, Commissioners of Patents, (1870)
‘Poppenburg’s Projectiles’, Newton’s London Journal of Arts and Sciences, (January, 1866)
Experiment and Trial, M. Willemsen (2012)
Various British Patents:
‘Breech Actions, Hinged-Chamber’, J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #421, 14th Feb. 1865
‘Projectiles and cartridges for central-fire breech-loading fire-arms and ordnance’, J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #932, 3rd Apr. 1865
‘Breech Actions, Hinged Breech-Block’, J. von der Poppenburg , UK Patent #2580, 6th Oct. 1866
‘Breech Actions, Sliding Breech-Block’, J.S. Benson & J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patnet #3382, 22nd Dec. 1866
‘Breech Actions, Hinged Breech-Block’, J.S. Benson & J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #1950, 15th June, 1868
‘Improvement in breech-loading fire-arms’, J. von der Poppenburg, US Patent #50670, 24th Oct. 1865, (source)
Special thanks to our friends at the Hayes Collection for letting us examine their rifle, and thanks to David Minshall over at the Research Press for his help researching Poppenburg’s numerous patents.
While doing some research into the British Army’s breechloading trials for another upcoming episode I came across an offshoot report into repeating rifles. This offshoot trial tested the repeating rifles that were then available, not with the goal of selecting one to adopt, but to see what was currently available.
Following the Prussian Danish War of 1864 and the decisive advantage the breechloading Dreyse Needle Gun gave the Prussians most of Europe scrambled to make the transition to breechloaders. In 1865 the British Army began a series of trials examining new breechloading rifles. The aim was first to find an adequate conversion as a stopgap measure – Jacob Snider’s action won that competition, but also to find the ideal breech-loader that was best suited to service all around the British Empire – the Martini-Henry was eventually adopted.
But as an offshoot to these breechloading trials the Army also carried out testing on new repeating arms. I like many people have often wondered why the Winchester lever action or other repeaters weren’t taken more seriously by European powers during the 1860s. Today, we’re going to take a look at the February 1869 report on repeating arms and try to answer that question.
A testing committee headed up by Lt Colonel H.C. Fletcher (of the Scots Fusilier Guards) with officers from the 48th and 3rd regiments began examining repeating rifles in 1867. Six repeating rifles were tested, the Henry, the Ball & Lamson, the Larsen, the Spencer, the Vetterli (misspelled ‘Vertelli’) and the Winchester Musket. The Norwegian Larsen was provided without ammunition and was quickly dropped due to concerns about the safety of its action. The Vetterli and Winchester were added during the later stages of the trials. As I mentioned the aim wasn’t to select a repeater for adoption rather to get an idea of what was available. So the trials weren’t exhaustive but they did test for accuracy and ran the guns through sand tests.
To test accuracy 20 rounds were fired at 2 targets at 500 yards to find the mean deviation, the Spencer was found to be the most accurate, while not surprisingly the Henry chambered in .44 Rimfire fared the worst. The rifles’ rates of fire were also tested: the Ball and Lamson fired 40 rounds in just under 3 minutes, the Spencer fired 14 rounds in 1 minute 33 before jamming and being dropped from testing, and the Henry fired 45 rounds in 1 minute 36 seconds. The rifles were also subjected to sand tests with the Ball and Lamson and Henry performing well, the Spencer, however, jammed and became unserviceable.
At this point the Committee liked the Henry best stating that it was “the most suitable for a military weapon” but that it would be better if it could be single loaded and the magazine held in reserve for emergencies. The late entry from Winchester was examined following the first round of tests, having heard about the improved Henry, Fletcher and the committee contacted Winchester and requested a rifle to test but it seems that some modifications were made at their request – probably to address the shortcomings of the Henry that had become clear in testing.
The exact configuration of the Winchester is a bit of a mystery. It wasn’t a standard Model 1866 Musket chambered in .44 Rimfire. The report describes it as a 50 inch long rifle, weighing 8lbs 12.5 oz, with a 29.75 inch barrel and a 12 round magazine. It chambered a .45 calibre, centrefire rather than rimfire round, with a 320 grain bullet. The Cody Firearms Museum, which houses the Winchester factory collectio,n has a number of prototype 1866-pattern rifles chambered in larger calibres than .44. The rifle tested by the British committee may have looked similar to those.
As the Committee contacted Winchester directly it is possible that they directly requested a rifle chambered in a larger, centrefire round to improve on the Henry’s poor accuracy at longer ranges. When tested at 500 yards the Winchester achieved groups with less than 1.5 feet of deviation and when pushed out to 800 yards managed 3.6 feet.
The rapidity of the Winchester was also tested and fired it managed 25 rounds in just 1 minute 18 seconds reloading 3 times. The new rifle included the new loading gate in the receiver, designed by Nelson King, this was seen as a much more practical method of loading.
When sand tested the Winchester, unlike the Henry, became jammed, with its lever becoming bent and unserviceable. Despite the weakness of the lever the trials committee decided that the Winchester “was simpler in construction and better adapted to the purposes of a military weapon” than the other rifles and the Swiss Vetterli, which they described as not as well suited to “the purposes of a military rifle”. But the committee wasn’t prepared to recommend a repeater for general adoption based on the testing.
So why wasn’t the Winchester adopted, even in small numbers, it seems that a repeating rifle may have been useful for scouts or mounted infantry. The Committee’s final report in February 1869, concluded that while they felt the Winchester was the best of the rifles tested, and it could be improved further, it was believed that the heavy weight of the rifle when fully loaded and the complexity and weakness of the action made it “objectionable” for service. The committee felt that “the mechanism of the Winchester was more complicated than that of the Martini and many other single loaders; it is also more liable to injury, and not so well calculated to resist the wear and tear of service.”
The Committee, however, could see the benefits of rapid magazine-fed fire, with the report stating “there may, however, be occasions when a repeating arm might be useful” As a result the Snider-Enfield remained in service and was replaced during the 1870s by the Martini-Henry, it wouldn’t be until the adoption of the Lee-Metford in 1888 that the British Army adopted a repeating rifle.
This article has only examined British opinion on the repeating rifles of the period and has not explored how other European nations felt about their military applications and value. Indeed, much has been made of Turkish use of Winchester repeating rifles during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) but that’s a topic for another day. This 1869 report is merely one case study, from one country, but it does add some interesting perspective. Hopefully the wider reaction to repeating rifles during the late 19th century is a subject we can touch upon in the future.
If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here.
‘Report on Repeating Arms’, Reports from Commissioners, Vol. 12, 1869, (source)
Our thanks to Danny Michael & the Cody Firearms Museum for sharing the photograph of the Winchester prototype featured above.