US Military Railway Guns In Action

While doing some research in the US National Archives’ online catalogue I came across a very interesting video composed of footage from a couple of US Army Ordnance demonstrations so I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about some very big guns.
Railway guns emerged during the late 19th century as a way of moving massive, large calibre guns which had a reach far beyond that of field artillery. Before aircraft were able to effectively attack behind enemy lines railways allowed armies to bring huge guns within range and harass their enemies lines of communication and supply.
This footage comes from Ordnance demonstrations at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in the early 1920s.

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16in Coastal Gun (US National Archives)

First up we have a US-built copy of the French 305mm Canon de 305 modèle 1893/96 à glissement, which according the original footage notes, was a 10in sliding mount for a gun firing a 150lb projectile. I also found some contemporary images of the gun being built at the US Watertown Arsenal, in Massachusetts, which describes it as the Model 1919. It may be the only example built by the US, Schneider built 8 of these guns for France during the war.  When the gun fires we can see the whole gun and carriage recoil back a meter or so. Guns on sliding mounts cant be traversed and have to be aimed with specially laid track.

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M1895 12in Coastal Gun in a ‘disappearing#’ mount (US National Archives)

Next we have a 12 inch M1895 gun, mounted on a M1918 railway carriage which was based on the French Batignolles mount, with 360-degree traverse. Originally designed as a coastal defence gun, here’s a photograph taken in 1918 of the gun firing from a disappearing mount.
The M1895 had long been used as a coastal defence gun, and with US entry into the war surplus or unnecessary coastal guns were remounted as railway guns. The railway mounted M1895s had a large recuperator to mitigate the gun’s recoil. 12 were mounted, however, none reached France before the end of the war. We also get a nice shot of the shell hitting its target in the distance.

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A 14in Railway Gun in Bassens, France c.1919 (US National Archives)

The 14 inch railway guns were the only big US guns to see action during WW1. Taking spare US Navy 14in naval guns, the 14″/50 caliber Mk 4 gun, which had been mounted in the New Mexico and Tennessee-class battleships, and mounting them in a carriage built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Once in position the guns had to have a recoil pit dug out beneath the carriage to allow space for the gun to recoil when it was at high elevation. They had a range of up to 25 miles.
Five Mk1 guns made it to France operating as single gun batteries manned by US Navy Sailors. The guns fired a total of 782 shells during the war, with Battery 4 firing its last shell at 10:57:30 a.m. on 11 November 1918.

Unlike the MkI guns that made it to France in this footage we see the gun without an armoured gun house, with the gunners working the gun in the open.

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An M1919 16in Coastal Gun in a Barbette mount (US National Archives)

Finally, we have the truly massive 16 inch M1919 coastal gun . Designed for the Army Coast Artillery Corps to defend the US’ major coastal ports the 16-inch gun could throw a 2,340 lb shell up to 28 miles. In this footage we can see the gun mounted on an M1919 barbette carriage which could be elevated up to 65-degrees.
This second piece of footage dates from between 1929 and 1931, with dozens of West Point cadets gathered eagerly to see the gun in action.

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Bibliography:

Demonstration of Ordnance Materiel at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, 1920-1926 (source)

Railway Artillery: A Report on the Characteristics, Scope of Utility, Etc., of Railway Artillery, Vo.1, H.W. Miller & US Ordnance Dept. (1921) (source)

Railway Artillery: A Report on the Characteristics, Scope of Utility, Etc., of Railway Artillery Vol.2, H.W. Miller & US Ordnance Dept. (1922) (source)

The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France, E. Breck (1922) (source)


 

Rheinmetall G3

We’re all familiar with the Heckler & Koch G3 and its roller-delayed blowback action. What is less well-known is that H&K were one of two companies originally contracted by the West German government to produce the Bundeswehr’s new service rifle. The other company was Rheinmetall and today we’re lucky enough to be taking a look at an example of an early production Rheinmetall G3.

Left side (courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The rifle which became the G3 was of course originally developed by German and Spanish engineers working at the Centro de Estudios Tecnicos de Materiales Especiales (CETME) and was intended to equip the Spanish armed forces. Initially, the West German Bundesgrenzschutz (border guards) were interested in purchasing a substantial number of the new CETME rifles, with an initial order for 5,000 agreed, however, in September 1955 the order was cancelled due to delays in production and the Bundesgrenzschutz subsequently ordered the FN FAL instead.

In November 1955, the Bundeswehr (West German military) was formed and began to search for a suitable new 7.62x51mm service rifle. Having observed the Bundesgrenzschutz’ testing the fledgling Bundeswehr took an interest in the CETEME rifle. 400 ‘STG CETME’ rifles were ordered for troop trials and these were assembled in Germany by Heckler & Koch. The rifles were delivered in late 1956, and comparative trials against the FAL began the following year.

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CETME Model A (Courtesy of P. Hokana)

The trials found the ‘STG CETME’ to be satisfactory in terms of features and design but lacking in durability. A number of small changes were requested including a flash hider suitable for launching rifle grenades, either a flip-up or dioptre rear sight instead of a traditional tangent style, a case deflector, a simpler more ergonomic pistol grip, a longer more ergonomic cocking handle, changes to the recoil spring guide and tweaks to the shape of the buttstock. Additional improvements such as a stronger bipod, lighter magazine, a last round hold open mechanism, overall lightening of the rifle, a lighter 20-round magazine and a proper handguard were also requested.

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Left-side of the G3’s receiver, note the partial reinforcing rib on the magazine housing (Matthew Moss)

FN were unwilling to grant Germany a manufacturing license and the $110 per rifle price for the FAL proved substantially higher than CETME’s production estimates (The ArmaLite AR-10, J. Putnam Evans (2016), p.204). With adoption looking likely, legal wrangling over patent ownership began between Mauser, Rheinmetall and Heckler & Koch. All claimed the ownership of the roller-delayed blowback principle used by the CETME rifle. Eventually, however, the West German government awarded Rheinmetall and H&K future production contracts for the new rifle with the government supporting H&K’s claims but the legal battles continued for almost a decade.

In the meantime, with production of the CETME rifle not yet initiated and in light of some durability/reliability issues suffered during the STG CETME’s troop trials, 100,000 ‘Series C’ FN FALs were ordered for the Bundeswehr in late 1956. In 1957 the Swiss SIG 510 (designated the G2) and the American ArmaLite AR-10 (designated the G4) were also evaluated. Once the modifications requested after the troops trials were completed by H&K, a run of twenty rifles was produced and tested again.

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A view inside the ejection port of the G3 with the charging handle locked back (Matthew Moss)

 

In 1959, the West German government finally adopted the CETME rifle, designating it the G3. The German federal government decided that they wished to purchase the worldwide manufacturing rights to the G3, which naturally the Spanish government was reluctant to agree to. An agreement was finally reached in January 1958 and the contract giving West Germany worldwide rights to the G3 was finalised on February 4th, 1959.

One issue was that in June 1957, CETME had agreed a licensing deal for manufacture and sale of the rifle with a with a Dutch company Nederlandsche Wapen en Munitiefabriek (NWM). In order to gain the manufacturing rights sold to NWM the German government awarded the Dutch company a lucrative contract producing 20mm ammunition (Full Circle, p.234).

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A close up of the trigger mechanism housing, note ‘Germany’ faintly scratched into the surface (Matthew Moss)

Interestingly, as the German government owned the manufacturing rights, H&K initially had to pay the government 4 Deutsche Marks per rifle, despite having been awarded the contract by the German government. In late January 1959, H&K were awarded the first substantial production contract, amounting to 150,000 rifles. Rheinmetall were subsequently awarded a similar contract (Full Circle, p.235).

According to R. Blake Stevens’ book on the roller-delayed blowback action, Full Circle, Rheinmetall produced 500,000 G3s during the 1960s, delivering 8,000 rifles per month (Full Circle, p.287). As H&K had been designated as the technical lead on the G3 project, Rheinmetall’s engineers made no attempts to develop modifications or improvements and even when H&K had switched to plastic furniture the Rheinmetall guns continued to use wood. Rheinmetall’s only other G3-related project was the RH4, a 7.62x39mm chambered, roller-locked but gas-operated rifle designed for export (Historical Firearms).

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W. German Army Armoured Reconnaissance car, with MG3 team with No.2 armed with G3, c.1960 (US Army)

In addition to the G3, Rheinmetall were the sole manufacturer of the MG3, the 7.62x51mm MG42. Blake Stevens explains that in 1969, when a new tender for G3 production was due, that H&K moved to undercut Rheinmetall who had until now held the monopoly on MG3 production (Full Circle, p.292). As a result an agreement was reached where Rheinmetall retained their monopoly on MG3 production and H&K became sole manufacturer of the G3 for the West German military.

Examining An Early Production Rheinmetall G3

The G3 went through a large number of changes both before and after it went into service. The rifle we’re examining today is a good example of an early production rifle, as adopted in 1959. This rifle is lightly marked with ‘G3 [Rheinmetall’s ‘star-in-a-circle’ logo] followed by a serial number of 745 and below that it is date marked with the ‘3/60’, for March 1960.

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A close up of the G3’s front sight and sling attachment point (Matthew Moss)

Working our way from the muzzle back; the rifle has the early style of flash-hider/grenade launcher support which was introduced in 1957 and altered in early 1961, an enclosed front sight and a detachable bipod (which was not Bundeswehr general issue). It has a stamped metal handguard which was replaced by one with a wooden insert in 1961, before H&K introduced plastic furniture in 1964.

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The G3 field stripped (Matthew Moss)

The folding carrying handle seen on the troop trials rifles has been removed, the receiver is stepped for the attachment of a scope base and the magazine housing has a single strengthening rib, rather than the later ‘full-frame’ continuous rib. It has an S-E-F selector (S – Sicher/safe, E – Einzelfeuer/semi, F – Feuerstoß/auto) and black plastic pistol grip. Internally, the rifle has a captive mainspring. Unlike later G3’s the rifle has a 2-position folding L-shape rear aperture sight with apertures for 200 & 300 metres rather than the later dioptre sight adopted officially in mid-1960. The rifle has a wooden stock held with a stamped metal sling attachment and a plastic buttplate.

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Specifications:

Overall Length: 40 in /1.2m
Barrel Length: 17.7in / 45cm
Weight: 8.6lbs / 3.6kg
Action: Roller-delayed blowback
Capacity: 20-round box magazine
Calibre: 7.62x51mm


Bibliography:

HK G3 Operator’s Manual – early 1970s (source)

Full Circle: A Treatise on Roller Locking, R. Blake Stevens (2006)

The ArmaLite AR-10, J. Putnam Evans (2016)

The CETME Assault Rifle, Small Arms Review, J. Huon, (source)

Our special thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum, at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, for their kind permission to film items from their collection and their assistance in filming and research.

Ford M1918 Light Tank- America’s First Tank

When the US entered World War One in April 1917, the US Army had no experience with tanks. American observers in France had reported on the early Allied uses of tanks at the Somme and American enthusiasm for the new machines was lacking in many of the Army’s upper echelons.

This began to change after the arrival of General Pershing and his staff in France, ahead of the American Expeditionary Force. Pershing directed that a Tank Corps be raised and detailed a number of officers, including the enterprising young officer, Captain George S. Patton, to establish a training ground and report on how best to deploy tanks.
Patton was instrumental in shaping the US Army’s early tank doctrine, he wrote a highly detailed report on how to deploy tanks to maximum effect. Patton, a cavalry officer by training, admired the French Renault FT’s speed, mobility and manoeuvrability but felt the two doctrines of French light and British Heavy tanks could be combined. In December 1917, Colonel Samuel Rockenbach was placed in command of the new, but still tank-less, US Tank Corps.

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A Ford Model 1918 Light Tank, weighing 3 tons it was armed with a single .30 calibre machine gun (US National Archive)

Britain and France shared their tank designs with the US but in early 1918, the American automobile giant, Ford, began work on an American light tank. The result was a light and mobile tank weighing in at 3 US tons (or 2.7 metric tons). Sometimes referred to as the Ford 3-Ton Tank or the Ford Model 1918. Ford hoped to produce the new tank using as many off the shelf components, from their automobile and truck production, as they could. So the new tank was powered by two 4-cylinder Ford Model T engines, in theory developing around 40 horsepower, with a maximum speed of 8 mph and an operational range of just over 30 miles. Taking cues from the French FT, the M1918’s engines, fuel tank and transmission were mounted in a compartment at the rear of the tank. Some sources note that the tank was developed with the assistance of the Van Dorn Iron Works, in Cleveland, Ohio, presumably assisting in the manufacture of bullet-proof steel plates making up the tank’s armour.

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An early version of the 3-Ton Ford being assembled in one of Ford’s Detroit workshops (US National Archive)

Contemporary photographs show the prototype during assembly in one of Ford’s Detroit workshops. We’re extremely lucky to have these photos showing the development process, they show that the initial shape and layout changed very little but some important changes were made as the tank was tested. The photographs date to April 1918, suggesting that by late spring the first prototype was assembled.

Like the French FT, the M1918 had a two-man crew but was significantly lighter weighing 4 tons less. The Ford could reach speeds of up to 8 mph while the slower FT could achieve around 5 mph. The Ford M1918 was 14 feet (or 4.3m) long, making it slightly shorter than the FT. The Ford’s armour was much thinner than its French counterpart, while this helped with weight, it would have left the crew vulnerable. It had just 7 to 13mm of armour compared to the FT’s 8 to 22mm. The tank’s tracks were also extremely narrow, and while the tank was light, this could have conceivably led to issues with getting bogged down in thick mud. Some of the contemporary footage of the prototype shows it with wider, more practical looking, tracks but the later pre-production models seem to have reverted to the narrower tracks.

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The M1918 was powered by a pair of 4-cylinder Model T engines (US National Archive)

The earlier prototype Ford tank did not have a gun fitted and the front doors for both driver and gunner were hinged at the sides, rather than at the top. Some of the contemporary footage shows the gun-less prototype becoming trapped nose-up, at an almost 90-degree angle, after trying to cross a relatively narrow trench. To prevent this we see that the later tanks were subsequently fitted with a ‘trench tail’.

In terms of armament, the Ford was also limited with a single .30 calibre machine gun, mounted on the right side of the hull in an armoured casement. The casement doesn’t appear to have a prominent sight aperture or vision slit for the driver so how the gun was aimed is unclear. The gun also appears to have a very limited firing arc compared to the FT’s turret mounted gun, which could rotate a full 360 degrees. It is unclear exactly what sort of gun was going to be mounted in the tank although an Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié (also used in British tanks) may have been an option. Another more likely option would have been the specially-developed M1919 air-cooled Browning Machine Gun, which had been specially developed for tank mounting. Judging from the size of the armoured housing for the gun, however, it may have been intended to mount the M1918 Marlin Tank Machine Gun, which had large aluminium cooling fins.

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If we look closely we can see that the gunners hatch appears to be hinged, suggesting it can be opened too. Just to the right of the gun there is a round hole in the armour with what appears to be a starting handle sticking out of it (US National Archive)

The Ford had a two-man crew with the driver on the left and a gunner on the right. The driver also had a cupola, with vision slits, on the roof of the tank which allowed him to drive when the hatch was closed. But this must have been difficult to see out of unless the driver changed his driving position.

The tank had an exposed front axle connecting its large front track idlers, this would have been susceptible to damage from enemy fire and from hitting obstacles. At the rear is the drive sprocket and along the body of the tank are two sets of three suspension wheels with two track support rollers above. Note that the support rollers are mounted on a truck leaf spring, another example of off-the-shelf parts being utilised. This represents a change from the single support roller seen in the earlier prototype

The later footage shows as many as half a dozen pre-production tanks on the move during a demonstration at Ford’s plant in Detroit. We get a good feel for how fast and manoeuvrable the Ford tanks were. But they also struggle to navigate some of the more difficult terrain and don’t appear to have the power or traction to tackle some of the steeper hills or ditches. The tanks much have been difficult to steer, likely using a pair of clutch levers to control the tracks on either side. Two tanks even collide with each other and there’s a couple of other near misses as the Ford’s navigate around the test area. One tank becomes stuck requiring two others to pull it clear of the bank.

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Six pre-production Ford M1918s lined up before a demonstration (US National Archive)

The War Department was eager to get tanks into production ordering 15,000 M1918s from Ford, with 500 to be delivered in January 1919 with production continuing at 100 per day after that. An initial batch of 15 were ordered for testing. At least one of these was sent to France for evaluation before the end of the war. The French were unimpressed finding it inferior to the FT, they did consider it as an artillery tractor for the French 75. The US also considered the Ford for this role and some photograph captions from early 1919, of Battery A, 140th Field Artillery, describes it as a ‘3-ton tractor’ for pulling “the new American 75mm split trail gun”, the M1916. These photographs also prove that more than one M1918 reached France.

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Several Ford M1918s in use as ‘3-ton tractors’ for pulling the M1916 75mm gun, taken at the Artillery Training School in Le Valdahon, in 1919 (US National Archives)

The Ford tanks were not well regarded by those with practical experience, with the men of the US Tank Corps in France not consulted about the tank before it was ordered by the Ordnance Department. The war ended before large scale production of the M1918 could begin, With just 15 M1918s built we’re lucky to have this much film of it in action. Today only two of the Ford light tanks survive in US Army collections.

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A post-war development of the Ford, note the slightly different gun mount, now in a ball mount with a prominent aiming aperture, this photograph was tank in early 1919 – gun type unknown (US National Archives)

In reality the M1918 was more a Machine Gun Carrier than a tank. How effective it might have been is a matter of speculation. It’s difficult to say, while the French may not have felt it was an improvement over the FT, it certainly showed enough merit for the War Department to make a large order. Its narrow tracks, lack of protection and minimal armament may have proved to be problems. The M1918’s real legacy is that it while the US had built other tanks during the war, including the M1917, a copy of the FT, and the MKVIII heavy tank, in collaboration with the British, the M1918 Ford was the first truly American designed and built tank.

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Specifications:

Length: 14 feet / 4.3 metres
Height: 5.9 feet / 1.8 metres
Width: 5.9 feet /1.8 metres
Weight: 3 US tons / 2.7 metric tons
Powerplant: 2 Ford Model T 4-cylinder engines producing ~40HP
Speed: 8mph
Armour: 7 – 13mm
Armament: .30 calibre machine gun, likely M1918 Marlin Tank Machine Gun or M1919 Browning Tank Machine Gun


Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

All photographs and footage was sourced from the US National Archives.

Contemporary Footage:

https://catalog.archives.gov/id/7419799
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/7419811
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/7419095
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/7419804
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/7419628
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/7419174
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/89506
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24823
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24615

Contemporary Photographs:

https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45506351
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508549
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508547
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508551
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508430
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508545
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508428
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508446
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508462
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508450
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508448
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45508444

Secondary Sources:

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Military Vehicles, I.V. Hogg & J. Weeks (1980)
The Complete Guide to Tanks & Armoured Fighting Vehicles, G. Forty & J. Livesey, (2012)
Camp Colt to Desert Storm: The History of U.S. Armored Forces, G.F. Hofmann & D.A. Starry (1999)
The Machine Gun: History, Evolution, and Development of Manual, Automatic, and
Airborne Repeating Weapons, G.M Chinn (1951)

Live Fire: Bren Mk1 (Modified)

Introduce in British service in 1938, the Bren remained in use into the 1990s. Based upon the Czechoslovakian series of ZB light machine guns, its name comes from an amalgamation of its origins: BR for Brno, the factory in Czechoslovakia, and EN for RSAF Enfield where it had been adapted for British service and was to be produced.

The Bren is chambered in .303, is gas operated and fires from an open bolt. It feeds from a top-mounted 30 round box magazine, as such the sights are offset to the left meaning the Bren can only be fired from the right shoulder – which as a lefty, I quickly realised.

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Bren Mk1(Modified) (Matthew Moss)

This example does not have the scope mounting dovetail machined into the left side of its receiver, or the folding grip and the hinged shoulder rest indicating that it is a Mk1 (Modified) ‘Pattern A’ gun, which was introduced after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the British Expeditionary Force lost most of the 30,000 Brens that had been taken to France. Only around 2,000 remained in inventory in the summer of 1940, so increasing production was essential, this model and the even more simplified MkII were introduced. While at the same time the BESAL light machine gun was developed as an emergency alternative by BSA – check out our earlier video on the BESAL here.

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The BSA-developed BESAL light machine gun (Matthew Moss)

As a Mk1, the gun has the original profile buttstock, with the fitting for a rear folding grip and tripod attachment point as well as a buttcap. It also has the drum rear sight rather than the later ladder sight of the Mk2 & 3. It also had a folding cocking handle and this Mk1(M) gun also has the earlier pattern height adjustable, rather than fixed, bipod legs. This gun is marked ‘MK1, with an E within a D, 1942’ indicating it was made at RSAF Enfield.

 

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Bren Mk1(Modified) with magazine off and dust cover closed, note the drum sight but lack of receiver cut for optic (Matthew Moss)

The Bren’s relatively slow rate of fire (of around 500 rounds per minute) makes it controllable and very easy to fire single shots while in full auto. The Bren does, however, have a selector on the left side of the gun, just above the trigger guard, which can be set to safe, semi or fully automatic. The Bren has a rocking recoil impulse as its heavy bolt moves back and forth, easily manageable if held tightly into the shoulder with the off-hand holding onto the wrist of the stock. The top-mounted magazine when fully loaded does have a tendency to want to fall to the side but once you’re used to this it’s not really an issue. The legend surrounding the accuracy of the Bren is certainly somewhat valid, at the time it was recognised as an accurate weapon and I found it accurate from my short time behind the trigger.  I found the Mk1’s rear sight aperture and drum adjustment easy to use.

Spent cases eject out of the bottom of the receiver, the weapon had a sliding dust cover for when the magazine was removed and the charging handle is non reciprocating and folds forward.

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Bren Mk1(Modified) with magazine off, dust cover closed and barrel removed (Matthew Moss)

The Bren has a quick change barrel system. To remove the barrel the release catch in front of the magazine was rotated upwards to unlock and then the barrel was rotated 90 degrees clockwise by bringing the carrying handle up to the 12 o’clock position and then sliding it forward.

We’ll have a more in-depth look at the Bren and its Czech predecessors in the future. My thanks to my friend Chuck over at Gunlab for letting me put some rounds through his Bren, I got a real kick out of it!


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Heckler & Koch HK33

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.

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Left & right views of the HK33 (Matthew Moss)

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.

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HK factory brochure showing the variants of the HK33 (Heckler & Koch)

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.

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HK33 field stripped (Matthew Moss)

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.

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A comparison of the HK33’s bolt with the later HK G41 (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Specifications (from 1985 factory brochure):

Overall Length (with fixed stock): 36in /92cm
Barrel Length: 15.7in / 40cm
Weight: 8.7lbs / 4kg
Action: Roller-delayed blowback
Capacity: 25, 30 or 40-round box magazine
Calibre: 5.56x45mm


Bibliography:

Full Circle: A Treatise on Roller Locking, R. Blake Stevens (2006)

HK33 Factory Brochure, c.1966 (source)

HK33E Factory Brochure, c.1985 (source)

TAB Update & New Patreon Perks!


Hi guys

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!

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$5 & up Patrons will receive the G11 postcard AND a 2×6″ (5cm x 15cm) The Armourer’s Bench logo sticker!
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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!

If you’d like to become a Patron and support TAB, check out our Patreon page for full details here.

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.

Thanks,
Matt & Vic

WW1 2-Inch Trench Mortar

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.

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Right-side view of the 2in Trench Mortar (Matthew Moss)

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.

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A young gunner loads a 2in spigot mortar bomb into his mortar (Imperial War Museum)

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.

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A British 2in Mortar position in Mesopotamia, note the ignitor’s breech is open (Imperial War Museum)

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.

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The business end, a view down the length of the mortar (Matthew Moss)

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.

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A close up look at the 2in Mortar’s SMLE ignitor (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps playing cards on a dump of trench mortar ammunition during Battle of the Somme (Imperial War Museum)

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.

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Specifications:

Barrel Length: 3 feet (90cm)
Overall Weight: ~340lbs (154kg)
Projectile Types: High explosive & smoke
Projectile Weight: 51lbs (23kg)
Effective Range: 100-570 yards (90-520m)


Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Field Artillery Notes No.7, US Army War College, (1917) (source)

‘Artillery in Offensive Operations’ GHQ Artillery Notes No. 4 January/February 1917 (source)

‘History of the Ministry of Munitions’, Volume XI, Part I Trench Warfare Supplies (1922)

Up to Mametz, L.W. Griffith,  (1931)

Newsreels:

The Battle of the Somme, 1916, Imperial War Museum (source)

With the Forces in Mesopotamia, 1917, Imperial War Museum (source)

Secondary Sources:

British Artillery 1914-1919. Field Army Artillery, D. Clarke, (2004)

Tommy, R. Holmes, (2004)