Today, we’re going to take a look at a little known type of weapon which rose to prominence in around the time of the First World War with a number of examples being developed and some even tested. As you can see from this footage it’s something pretty unconventional, seen here mounted on the back of a truck – is a centrifugal machine gun.
I found this short footage while doing some digging through the online catalogue of the US National Archives. The centrifugal machine gun was not a new concept by the time this footage was filmed in the early 1920s, sadly the footage notes done give an exact date.
While the technology had risen to a new prominence what was the allure of centrifugal machine guns? The principle of centrifugal force – an inertial force which appears to act on objects moving in a circular path, directs them away from the axis of rotation. As a result a centrifugal machine gun required no propellant powder to propel the projectile, or a case to contain it, nor a conventional rifled barrel to stabilise the projectile. Once released from the axis of rotation the projectile travels on a linear trajectory until it expends its energy. It works along the same principle as a primitive sling. The primary issue is providing power to exert the centrifugal force and a means of accurately firing the projectiles.
Some of the earliest work on centrifugal guns was done in the late 1850s in the US. The hand-crank or steam powered guns patented by William Joslin (US #24,031), C.B. Thayer patent for a ‘machine gun’ in August 1858 (US #21,109) and Charles S. Dickinson (US# 24,997) in 1859. Dickinson went on to secure financial backing from a wealthy Maryland industrialist Ross Winans and developed a steam powered version of his gun. Despite gaining much press attention Dickinson’s centrifugal gun saw no action during the US Civil War. In 1862 G.C. Eaton and S.W. Turner also patented a ‘machine gun’ (US #37,159).
It wasn’t until World War One that the concept began to be considered again. In June 1918, Major Edward T. Moore and Saul Singer filed a patent for a centrifugal machine gun powered by an electrical motor (US #1,332,992). The motor spooled up the centrifugal barrel assembly to rotate extremely quickly and impart centrifugal force on projectiles. According to Julian Hatcher the gun could fire steel ball bearing projectiles at approximately 1,200 feet per second. Fire was controlled by a stop pin in the ammunition feed tube. Moore claimed the weapon could fire a projectile 1.5 miles with enough force to kill a man. He also suggested the weapon’s rate of fire approached 2,000 rounds per minute. It appears that Moore’s gun may have been tested in 1918 but Hatcher described its accuracy as ‘extremely poor’.
Another centrifugal design developed during World War One was E.L. Rice’s half-inch centrifugal gun, sadly I’ve been unable to find any photographs or drawings of Rice’s design but the weapon was submitted to the US National Research Council in 1917. The NRC’s 1919 report states that the gun had been further developed by the NRC’s Physics Division in Pittsburgh but work had been slowed by “a common defect which has been difficult to eliminate”. Despite what the report described as ‘considerable headway’ the weapon was subsequently abandoned amid some controversy about credit for the design.
There seems to have been something of a centrifugal machine gun craze with several more patents filed between 1917 and 1926. A Scientific American article from March 1918, even noted that “every so often the daily press becomes enthused over a new centrifugal gun.”
One of the earliest patents granted appear to have been for a design by E.E. Porter, granted in January 1917. This was followed in July 1919 by inventor, Herbert A. Bullard being granted a patent (US #1,311,492) on a design which fired a disc rather than a ball. At the same time T.A. Gannoe was granted a patent (US #1,309,129) for a large, complex looking gun shown mounted on a pedestal.
In 1920, F.R. Barnes (US #1,327,518) and W.W. Case (US #1,357,028) were also granted patents which had been filed in 1917. In late 1921, Levi Lombard was granted a patent he had filed in March 1918, his gun even appeared in Scientific American. It appears to be notably smaller than Moore’s gun and has a spade grip for aiming. This was followed in 1923, by an interesting patent from Joseph T. McNaier for a centrifugal gun that could be powered by an electric or petrol engine, some of the patent diagrams show how the gun might be placed in an armoured car or aeroplane (US #1,472,080). Intriguingly, McNaier and Moore appear to have known each other quite well and were partners in a law firm together.
Here’s a gallery of some of the various patents mentioned above, not all are as detailed or as advanced as others:
The question is which of these guns is featured in the footage. The most likely bets are the Moore or the Czegka. Sadly, with only a side view and just 18 seconds of footage we don’t have much to go on. The accompanying reel notes, describing what is seen in each section of the film, describes the gun as being in the “experimental stages only” and that the prototype seen here “is intended for use as aircraft armament, for tanks and for landing parties of the Front line trenches.”
Sadly, we don’t get to see how the gun works but we can see the operator feeding the ball bearing projectiles into the hopper which has a powered feed system – he empties two cylindrical containers of balls into it one after another. It is unclear how many rounds might be in the containers, perhaps 50 each. The gun and its motor are mounted on a truck bed with a soldier in uniform, possibly aiming the weapon via a tiller.
Another of the later designs dating from the period came from Victor Czegka, a US Marine Corps Technical Sergeant, who is perhaps best known as the supply officer of Admiral Richard Byrd’s first two expeditions to the Antarctic. Czegka was granted a patent for a centrifugal machine gun in January 1922 (US #1,404,378).
With some further digging I managed to find several articles referring to the gun in the US Army Ordnance Journal. Interestingly, a photo from the same demonstration is printed in one article, from late October 1920, with the caption confirming the man loading the weapon is the inventor, however, he isn’t named. The footage was filmed during the Second Annual Meeting of the US Army Ordnance Association. Another article dating from May 1921, also notes that the tests took place at Aberdeen Proving Ground, with the gun firing at 16,000 revolutions per minute which required 98 horsepower from the engine powering it. The gun apparently needed a “very rapid increase in power required for operation” when the speed of its revolutions was increased incrementally from 12,000 to 16,000 rpm. The article concluded that “a horsepower above 100 would have no material effect in increasing the speed” suggesting that a much more powerful, and therefore larger, engine would be needed to increase the revolution rate.
Despite various designs seeing some US military testing none were ever adopted and relatively little information on them is available. It seems that they were relatively cumbersome weapons with extremely varying accuracy but this footage at least proves the concept. A short report in a may 1921 edition of Scientific American may shed some light, stating an unnamed gun was rejected “because of its great weight and its inability to obtain high initial velocity” concluding that “no centrifugal gun can have military value”. It appears that the range of the centrifugal guns was limited to the speed of their revolution, which in turn was limited by the power of the engine and motor that powered them. The larger the motor, the more cumbersome the weapon system was.
There are very few photos of centrifugal machine guns so stumbling across actual footage of one guns actually operating is very exciting. They are a fascinating tangent to the history of the machine gun – one that occasionally still garners interest.
What’s interesting about the concept of an Obrez or cut-down SMLE is the myth that has grown up around them. They’re often described as being used by men during trench raids or by tunnellers digging beneath No-Man’s Land. But it’s very difficult to confirm the use of cut-down rifles by tunnellers or trench raiding parties.
British tunnelling operations began in 1915, as an attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front, with the formation of the tunnelling companies of the Royal Engineers. Tunnelling had historically been a feature of siege warfare since the medieval period and the Western Front proved no different. Occasionally, opposing tunnels may meet or a counter tunnel might break through often resulting in a short, sharp fight followed inevitably by one side blowing the other’s tunnel up. The final aim of the tunnelling was to lay massive explosive charges beneath enemy strong-points, no fewer than 19 were detonated on the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Of course cutting down serviceable rifles was strictly prohibited and patrols were mostly issued with revolvers, grenades and knives or clubs. For tunnellers who encountered the enemy deep underground they were also normally armed with revolvers, knives and their mining tools.
The only contemporary reference of using cut-down SMLEs, that I was able to find, comes from a sketch drawn by a tunnelling officer, Major R.S.G. Stokes, who sketched a cut-down SMLE supposedly used by Canadian tunnellers near Ypres. The rifle Stokes drew had a completely exposed barrel and an added front sight post.
The rifle we’re examining differs from the truly Obrez SMLE’s we might normally imagine. The provenance and origins of this rifle are unknown but with its stock still intact it differs from others and actually, in my opinion at least, makes the rifle more user friendly. With the extra point of contact from the butt you can work the bolt faster and don’t have to lower the rifle to work the action. While the SMLE was already one of WW1’s shortest service rifles. This cut-down SMLE is about 64cm or 25 inches long, with a 4 inch barrel.
From descriptions of these subterranean fights they were short, vicious affairs which began with both sides blazing away at one another with pistols before fighting hand to hand.
Most accounts describe revolvers and pistols being the primary weapon used. Captain Basil Sawers, of the 177th Tunnelling Company, described using “little automatics which were meant to shoot where your finger pointed.” Captain Matthew Roach of the 255th Tunnelling Company personally carried two revolvers. Another account from Captain William Grant Grieve describes British tunnellers breaking into a German tunnel, “they encountered a party of Germans and immediately opened fire on them with pistols.”
From the contemporary accounts we have available it appears that immediate volume of fire was key in tunnel fights. For this double-action revolvers and small pistols like those described by Captain Sawers would have been ideal. A cut-down rifle would have been deafening and the muzzle flash would have been blinding in the confines of the tunnel.
This rifle has no sights, which while not a problem for short distances in the confines of a trench or a tunnel, anything over 25 yards is going to be challenging. Interestingly, however, who ever cut the rifle down left the long range volley peep sight in place. The rifle itself is a SMLE MkI, originally built in 1906, and as such does not have a charger bridge, which was introduced later with the MkIII, instead it has a pair of charger guides.
Despite cut-down rifles not being officially sanctioned, it is very likely that at least a small number were made – perhaps from damaged rifles which had been salvaged. How many were adapted we will probably never know.
There were of course a number of occasions when cutting down a rifle was permissible such as the use of cut-down SMLE’s as ignitors for various trench mortars like the 2in Trench mortar that we have covered previously. These ignitors are sometimes confused with unofficial cut-down rifles but the metal grip plates and threaded muzzles are the easiest way to spot them. Some SMLEs were also later adapted as smoke dischargers, one was famously used as a prop in Star Wars: A New Hope, appearing as a Jawa blaster.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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The first viable firearm suppressors appeared just after the turn of the 20th century with a series of patents being granted on various designs between 1909 and 1920. In 1895 Hiram Percy Maxim, son of Sir Hiram S. Maxim – inventor of the machine gun, established his own engineering company. Initially this company focused on the burgeoning automobile market. But in 1906, Maxim began developing a series of designs to moderate sound. Initially, he experimented with valves,vents and bypass devices, however, he eventually finalised his basic idea based on baffles and developed a series of practical suppressors; which were sold through the Maxim Silent Firearms Company (later renamed the Maxim Silencer Company.) He filed his first patent on 26th June, 1908, which was granted in March the following year (US 916,885).
The US military first took interest in silencers in 1908. The 1909 annual report of the Chief of Ordnance notes that:
“The reports of tests so far received recommend that the silencer be not adopted for use in the service in its present form. On damp, cloudy days the slow escape of gas from the silencer might assist an enemy in locating the position of a firing line; it is also difficult to handle the silencer when it becomes heated, and additional manipulation is required when it becomes necessary to fix the bayonet.”
The following year the Annual Report from Chief of Ordnance describes the Model 1910 silencer, which overcame “most of the defects found in the original”, the report then describes the Model 1910’s mounting method:
“The rear of the silencer is extended to fit over the end of the barrel and takes the place of the front sight fixed stud. The silencer is prevented from turning by means of a spline on the barre, and is held from moving longitudinally by means of a pin. The front sight movable stud is mounted on the silencer.
Intriguingly, the report confirms that “five hundred of the silencers are now being procured with a view to the issue of one or more to each organisation for instruction of recruits in target practice, and for issue to the militia, on requisition.”
In 1910, Springfield Armory tested Maxim silencers fitted to both a M1903 and an older .45-70 trapdoor Springfield. Colonel S.E. Blunt, the Armory’s commanding officer, reported in January 1909 that the Maxim silencer reduced report at the muzzle and felt recoil by around a third with no loss of accuracy. The initial tests put 400 rounds through one silencer before it failed, noting that the silencer could “withstand any rapid fire to which they could be exposed in service under ordinary conditions.”
The US School of Musketry also tested the Maxim silencer. Twenty four soldiers were issued silenced M1903s for the test. The School of Musketry’s testing found that the report at the muzzle and the recoil felt by the rifleman was reduced when compared to a normal, unsuppressed, M1903. The School of Musketry’s report noted that:
“It greatly facilitated instruction of recruits in rifle firing. It materially lessened the fatigue of the soldier in prolonged firing, such as would occur in modern battle, which is a distinct military advantage.
The muffling of the sound of discharge and the great reduction in the total volume of sound which permits the voice to be heard at the firing point about the sound of a number of rifles in action, greatly facilitate the control of the firing line.”
They also reported that “the silencer annuls the flash” a quality that they felt was a “positive military advantage in view of the extent to which night operations may be employed in future wars.”
They also felt that the silencers would help “conceal positions of sentinels and to deceive the enemy as to the position of the firing line” especially at night. As the silencer was used with standard ammunition it could do nothing to reduce the crack the round made as it travelled down range, without subsonic ammunition the silencers were only able to moderate the report of the rifle firing.
Maxim did his best to develop a robust silencer that would meet the military’s needs. He incorporated a mounting point for a bayonet on the military variant of the Model 1910. The model 1910 silencer for the Springfield M1903, however, required the removal of the rifle’s front sight. This attachment method was felt to be the Model 1910’s weakest point and something Maxim himself actively looked to address.
The Maxim Silencer Company subsequently developed the Model 1912 and subsequently the further improved Model 15, which Maxim christened the ‘Government Silencer’. Encouraged by this early military interest Maxim envisioned a military silencer being useful in roles such as sniping, guard harassment and marksmanship training. He believed that the increasing number of American men joining the military from cities who lacked experience in shooting were struggling to master the .30-06 M1903 because of its loud report and stout recoil. Maxim felt that using a silencer would prevent recruits being intimidated by their rifle and help them to learn the fundamentals of marksmanship faster. This was an issue that was subsequently resolved by the use of .22 calibre training rifles.
Maxim was not the only designer working in the field and Robert A. Moore, his most competent competitor, also submitted a design for military testing. The Moore Silencer Company secured a number of patents protecting designs for both civilian and military rifles (US 956,717 & US 1,021,742). Moore’s designs used large gas expansion chambers which sat beneath the rifle’s muzzle as well as a series of vortex chambers ahead of the muzzle. The muzzle gases were supposed to be deflected by concave surfaces down into the silencer which had a number of partitioned chambers. The sides of Moore’s first silencer were ported with vents to allow cool air to rush into the casing theoretically cooling the gases, but this was abandoned by his second 1911 design (seen below).
US Ordnance tests with Moore silencers began in 1910. When the two silencers were compared the US Army found that there was little difference between the two rival designs with regards to the reduction of sound, recoil and flash. Colonel S.E. Blunt later reported:
“the opinion that there is but little difference between the Moore and Maxim silencers as regards, reduction of sound, recoil and flash; that the method of attachment of the Moore silencer to the service rifle is superior to the attachment provided with the Maxim silencer, model 15; that while the Moore silencer gives higher velocity and does not deflect shot group as much as the Maxim silencer; yet the endurance of the Moore silencer indicate that it has not yet been sufficiently perfected to withstand rapid fire and is therefore inferior to the Maxim silencer.”
The Springfield Armory’s report in July 1912, found that the Moore silencer was more accurate and had a better attachment system. The Maxim silencer, however, was more durable and could withstand more prolonged rapid fire. Moore’s silencer attached by latches behind the front sight post and at the bayonet lug and required no tools to fit. It could mount a standard M1905 bayonet while Maxim’s design required a specially adapted proprietary bayonet. While the Maxim required some minor modifications to the front sight to enable it to be mounted to the M1903. The US Army subsequently purchasing 100 Moore silencers for a full trial (this was confirmed by the 1911/12 Annual Report of the Chief of Ordnance) – these were still in inventory in 1918, but no evidence of their use in service has been found.
With field trials planned, there appears to have been discussion of equipping two rifles per company with silencers for use by sharpshooters in conjunction with two star-gauge (accurate barrelled) rifles and the M1908 or M1913 Musket Sights. This was not the large-scale contract that Maxim had hoped for believing silencers might become standard issue, however, the funding was not available and the idea behind the silencer’s use was not fully embraced by the military.
Between 1912 and 1915 Maxim improved his silencer offering the military Model 14 and Model 15. The US Army appears to have only purchased the Model 15 for testing, although secondary sources suggest the purchase and testing of some Model 1912 silencer. In his February 1913 patent (US 1,054,434), filed in April 1910, protecting his new attachment system Maxim explains how it worked:
“The improved coupling comprises a sleeve adapted to fit upon the barrel, a split grip-v sping ring to encircle the barrel and a nut or internally threaded sleeve adapted to engage the threaded portion of the coupling sleeve and at the same time to clamp the gripping ring tightly about the barrel.”
This patent appears to protect the later Model 15 or ‘Government Model’ silencer’s attachment method which required no removal of parts from the rifle. While the Model 14 could mount a standard M1905 sword bayonet with no modification to the bayonet the Model 15 did not have an attachment point for a bayonet.
In August 1915, the commanding officer of Rock Island Arsenal requested permission to transfer “20 rifles fitted with maxim silencers, 20 bayonets for same turned in from field” to Springfield Armory. This tantalising primary document fragment confirms that further testing occurred during 1915.
In terms of primary source information about testing and deployment of silencers by the Army before the First World War there isn’t a great deal available. Secondary sources, including William Brophy and David Truby, note that the US military’s first deployment of silencers came in 1916, when General John Pershing’s Mexican expedition against Pancho Villa included a squad of snipers apparently armed with silenced M1903s, however, little is known about their use in the field.
In addition to the military’s continued testing, the Maxim silencers had gained some public notoriety and President Woodrow Wilson was familiar enough with them to raise concerns about public ownership of the devices on the eve of America’s entry into the war. On the 30th March 1917, just three days before the US entered the war, President Wilson had his personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty, write to the Department of Justice requesting that they look into the threat German Fifth Columnists might pose if they used Maxim Silencers to attack key infrastructure. His letter stated that the sale of Maxim Silencers “should be prohibited and all outstanding weapons collected by the police.” The President was concerned that sentries guarding isolated posts such as bridges and munitions factories might become targets of opportunity for assassins with silenced weapons. His memorandum said “great damage could be done before main guard… discovered sentry’s death.” On the 3rd of April, the Department of Justice in turn wrote to the Secretary of War and asked for his comment on the issue.
Brigadier General William Crozier, Chief of US Army Ordnance, was consulted by the Adjutant General. Crozier responded on the 7th April, saying that the use of a Maxim Silencer by ‘unauthorised persons’ was not considered sufficiently important to require special action by the War Department. He continued saying it should be noted that: “a silencer reduces the intensity of the report at discharge, but does not entirely eliminate it.” Despite the War Department’s lack of concern about silencers the Maxim silencer has the distinction of being mentioned in the US declaration of war on Germany. Presidential Proclamation #1364, published on 6th April, 1917, stated:
“An alien enemy shall not have in his possession, at any time or place, any firearm, weapon or implement of war, or component part thereof, ammunition, maxim or other silence, bomb or explosive material used in the manufacture of explosives.”
I’ve been unable to find any mention of silencers being used by ‘alien enemies’. Maxim’s military silencers, however, reportedly shipped around the world with orders from Mexico, South America, China, Japan, Britain, France, Belgium, Russia and Germany. One pre-war Maxim advert boasted that the design had been approved by the German military. During the First World War both the British and Germans reportedly deployed snipers equipped with Maxim silencers in small numbers. In February 1916, the Greek government wrote to the US War Department enquiring about obtaining the Army’s test results for what they called ‘Maxime Silencers’. The Ordnance Office provided the requested report in March but it is unknown if it was forwarded on.
Did the US Army Use the Maxim Silencer During WWI?
The extent of the use of silencers by the US Army during World War One is unknown but recently uncovered Ordnance Office documents show that silencers did reach France but the desire for them was mixed.
Both William Tantum and Clark Campbell suggest that an order for 9,100 silencers was placed. This is said to have been part of a plan to deploy silencers with rifles with accurate star-gauged barrels fitted with M1913 Warner & Swasey Musket Sights for sniper use. Alex MacKenzie, Curator of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, notes that reports from the Armory show that 1,041 “U.S. Rifles, Cal. .30, Model of 1903, Fitted for Tel. Musket Sight” were assembled but with no mention of the rifles being mounted with a Model 1910 or a Model 15 silencer. He also notes that Springfield Armory produced 3,100 “Knife Bayonets, Model of 1905, for Use with Maxim Silencer” during the fiscal year of 1918. The production of these bayonets would suggest the use of the Model 1910, as the Model 15 could not fix a bayonet.
The documents recently found by researcher Andrew Stolinski, of Archival Research Group, suggest that Maxim silencers did indeed reach American Expeditionary Force (AEF) stores in France.
In June 1918, the Chief Inspector Machine Guns and Small Arms at the GHQ of the AEF suggested the supplying of “Maxim silencers for use with Springfield rifles”, this suggestion, however was rejected by General Pershing himself, replying that “Maxim Silencers not desired in Europe. Recommend that they be left out of equipment tables.” It seems that the Chief Inspector of Machine Guns and Small Arms may have made the suggestion at the behest of Major T.J. Hayes, Division Ordnance Officer for the US 5th Division, who wrote to the Chief Inspector again on August 17th to make the case for silencer use saying:
“I wish to make the recommendation that 15 of these be issued to each infantry regiment, to be used by the Scout platoons of each battalion. Their use would tend to increase the efficency [sic] of these Scout platoons and allow them to perform their work with less chance of detection… I urgently recommend that they be issued and given a thorough trial. I am convinced that some sort of flash arrester [sic] or Silencer is needed for dangerous night patrolling. The Shotguns [likely Winchester Model 1897s] have given most excellent results but the silencers should be provided in addition.”
On the 27th August, Lt.Colonel H.K. Hathaway, an Ordnance officer with the supply division, circulated a memorandum stating that Maxim silencers “are no longer an article of issue” but that “there are in stock at Intermediate Ordnance Depot No 2[in Gievres], 200 of these Silencers and from 100 to 150 Springfield Rifles fitted with these silencers.” While at “Advance Ordnance Depot No 1 [in Is-Sur-Tille], there are 20 Springfield rifles so fitted.” This confirms that silencers both individually (likely Model 15s) and mounted to rifles (probably earlier Model 1910s) were sent to France for use by the AEF. It seems, however, that very few of them left the Ordnance stores.
On the 30th August, a Major Herbert O’Leary, of the Ordnance Department, wrote to the Supply Division on behalf of the AEF’s Chief Ordnance Officer, to inform that “if Maxim Silencers are fitted to rifles, it precludes the use of bayonets as an essential weapon for raid purposes. It is the opinion of this Division that Silencers should not be issued.”
On the 7th September the matter appears to have been settled by a letter from Brigadier C.B. Wheeler, the Chief Ordnance Officer, to the Chief Inspector Machine Guns and Small Arms in response to his suggestion in June. Wheeler quotes General Pershing’s earlier rejection and states that “it is not considered desirable to issue them”. From these documents it appears to suggest that the silencers saw little to no use in France with the AEF, despite the enthusiasm for them among some more junior Ordnance officers like Major Hayes.
The 1918 Ordnance Storage Catalogue, Vol. V, listed the ‘SILENCERS, Maxim, M1910 for U.S. rifles, M1903’, ‘SILENCERS, Maxim, Model 15 for U.S. rifles, M1903’, and the ‘SILENCERS, Moore, for U.S. rifles, M1903’. Although no numbers are given.
After the war the silencer’s remained in US Army inventory well into the 1920s. In March 1922, Rock Island Arsenal requested spare parts to repair some Model 1915 silencers from the Chief of Ordnance’s office only to be told that “there are no repair parts for the Maxim silencers available. It is not believed necessary to repair the Maxim Silencer as they are more or less obsolescent.”
Campbell states that after the war some of the rifles fitted with Model 1910 silencers were offered for sale through the Civilian Marksmanship programme in 1920. Archival research has found later enquiries from the head of the programme requesting silencers to mount on Krag rifles. In May 1923, the Director of Civilian Marksmanship wrote to the Rock Island Arsenal enquiring if the Model 1915 silencer would fit the M1892 Krag and if they were available for sale. Rock Island Arsenal’s commanding officer Colonel D.M. King replied advising that only a small number were available. As a result the Ordnance Office refused to sell a substantial number of the Model 1915’s for fear of depleting “the small stock” still remaining.
In his 2016 Small Arms Review article on the Maxim silencers Frank Iannamico suggests that a small number were given to National Guard units for training purposes. A 1916 Maxim sales brochure mentions that it was sold “to individual members of the National Guard” but makes no mention of larger sales. Hiram P. Maxim himself also appeared on the front cover of the February 1910 edition of the National Guard Magazine, demonstrating his device fitted to a M1903 (see photo above).
On March 23rd 1925, the rifles mounted with silencers listed as ‘Maxim Silencer & U.S. Rifles Cal .30 fitted for same’ were declared obsolete. While the First World War offered a brief boom in sales of silencers this did not last and Maxim’s company continued to diversify after the war. The Maxim Silencer Company manufactured not only firearm silencers but also sound moderating devices for everything from automobiles to naval engines; from plant machinery to building silencers which were fitted to heating and air conditioning systems. Similarly Moore, like Maxim, also later developed silencers for automobiles filling a patent for an Exhaust Muffler in 1930.
A Closer Look at the Maxim Silencer
The Model 1910 silencer is 7.3 inches (18.5cm) long which when fitted gave the M1903 an overall length of 50.5 inches (128cm). Despite the attachment of the silencer this was still around an inch shorter than the French Lebel Mle 1886.
To fit the Model 1910 silencer to the rifle a coupling piece was used. First the front sight was removed, then the coupling piece slipped onto the barrel and was secured against rotation by the barrel’s front sight spline (a rib on the top of the barrel which the front sight sat upon). A pin was then passed through the standard front sight stud hole to secure the silencer to the muzzle. The front sight, which had a dovetailed base, was then fitted to the top of the coupling piece.
The Model 1910 had 18 baffles inside a steel outer casing with a blued finish. Unlike earlier Maxim silencers that had a central channel, down which the bullet travelled, the Model 1910 had a channel off set to the top the silencer, so as not to interfere with sight picture. Maxim’s silencer has a female dovetail on its underside, into which a specially adapted proprietary M1905 bayonet with a male dovetail was fixed. This mounting system rendered about half the bayonet’s length useless as the silencer projected out above it. While not a serious issue, when compared to the Moore’s attachment method, it did hamper the bayonet somewhat.
The Model 1910 silencer was sealed an could not be easily cleaned, the Maxim Silent Firearms Co.’s literature advised running warm water through the silencer and letting it soak overnight before drying it on a hot surface to evaporate the water inside and oil it thoroughly. Not the most practical method of cleaning.
A Maxim Silent Firearms Company brochure dating from 1916 priced the Model 15 at $8.50. Seven years later, in 1923, the Ordnance Office noted that the Model 15 was valued at $5.34.
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Specifications (taken from 1910 US Army Annual Report)
Weight: 11 ounces or 312g
Length: 5.9 inches or 15cm
Diameter: 1.3 inches or 3.3cm
Baffle Bore Diameter: .341 inches or 8.7mm
Special thanks to both the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for allowing us to examine and film their rifle and to Andrew Stolinski for his archival research into the US Army’s use of the Maxim Silencer. Check out his website, Archival Research Group, here.
Presidential Proclamation #1364, 6th April, 1917, US National Archives, (source)
Various War and Ordnance Department files at The National Archives in Washington, DC (Archive 1) and The National Archives at College Park, Maryland (Archives II) courtesy of Andrew Stolinski at Archival Research Group
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1909, Vol.6 (source)
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1910, Vol.1 (source)
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1913, Vol.1 (source)
M1903 Springfield with Maxim Silencer, Cody Firearms Museum, online catalogue entry (source)
M1903 Springfield with Maxim Silencer, Springfield Armory, online catalogue entry (source)
Moore Silencer, Springfield Armory, online catalogue entry (source)
The Springfield 1903 Rifles: The Illustrated, Documented Story of the Design, Development and Production of All the Models of Appendages and Accessories, W.S. Brophy (1987)
The ’03 Era: When Smokeless Powder Revolutionised US Riflery, C.S. Campbell (1994)
Silencers, Snipers & Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death, J.D. Truby (1972)
Firearm Silencers, N. Wilson (1983)
Hatcher’s Notebook, J.S. Hatcher (1947)
History of the Maxim Silencer Company, Small Arms Review, F. Iannamico (source)
This week’s TAB Short episode takes a concise look at the German Schmeisser-designed Dreyse 1907, my thanks to Chuck at GunLab.net for allowing me to take a look at his pistol!
The Dreyse Model 1907 was manufactured by Rheinische Metallwaaren & Maschinenfabrik (RM&M), who later became Rheinmetall. The pistol was designed by Louis Schmeisser and produced by RM&M under the Dreyse brand name.
The Model 1907 was striker-fired, blowback pocket pistol, chambered in .32 ACP / 7.65mm Browning, which fed from a 7-round single stack magazine. Introduced in 1907, but not entering meaningful production until 1908, production ceased in 1918 with approximately 250,000 manufactured.
Schmeisser filed his patent protecting the design in the US in June 1908, it was granted two years later in April 1910. Earlier German patents were filed in 1906-1907. The pistol was designed to avoid infringing on some of John Browning’s semi-automatic pistol patents. To do this Schmeisser’s pistol had a ¾ length slide which attached to a breech block.
Louis Schmeisser’s 1910 patent (Us Patent Office)
Louis Schmeisser’s 1910 patent (Us Patent Office)
Louis Schmeisser’s 1910 patent (Us Patent Office)
To cock the weapon, the user grasped the slide at the front and used the slide serrations to pull it to the rear, chambering a round. Spent cases were ejected out of a port on the right side of the pistol. The pistol’s front sight was situated at the front of a scalloped trough in the slide while the rear sight consisted of a raised a notch in the upper receiver.
When fired the slide and breech block recoiled rearwards, the travel of the slide was stopped by the solid upper receiver housing. There was a frame mounted safety on the left side of the gun, with the safe position pointing to the rear. The 1907 had a heel type magazine release, typical of European pistols of the period.
The pistol’s receiver is hinged and pivots apart for cleaning, clearing and disassembly (see the original patent drawings above). There was some substantial variation, with the 1907’s design evolving during the course of its production life. Early models lacked the scalloped slide that we can see in the pictured model. Internal changes were also made with the addition of a disconnector.
The 1907 was favoured by the German police and gendamarie, with John Walter noting that most of the initial 1,000 pistol production run being purchased by Saxony’s gendamarie and later by the Berlin municipal police. In 1910, there were abortive attempts to develop a larger 9x19mm version of the pistol. Introduced in 1911, various German state police forces and Prussia’s Border Customs officers strongly interested.
The design, however, was still an unlocked blowback and relied on an extremely strong recoil spring. The spring was so strong that it necessitated a cocking lever which disconnected the spring. This version is often referred to, but not officially marked as, the M1910. The flawed design and production problems at Rheinmetall saw the project abandoned before the outbreak of World War One.
The .32 ACP Dreyse 1907 continued to be manufactured during the war and saw service with elements of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies during, as an auxiliary side arm. The Norwegian reportedly examined the 1907 during their pistol trials (1902-1914) and found it lacking. The Czech military purchased some 1907 pistols but they were quickly removed from service and replaced with the Pistole vz. 24.
In Germany the pistols remained in police service into the 1930s, and some saw auxiliary and late-war Volkssturm service during the Second World War.