The US entered the Great War with no tanks of their own – by the end of the war they had designed and built their first tank, collaborated on a leviathan heavy tank with Britain and built their own copy of the French FT. In this video we look at how the US Army hit the ground running and formed two tank corps and built their first tanks.
In recent videos we’ve looked at all of the US Army’s early tanks, here’s a round up:
The tinny 3-ton Ford was the first American designed and built tank. Aiming to use readily available parts and materials it took inspiration from the French Renault FT but was smaller and lacked the FT’s revolutionary turret. The Ford was only lightly armoured and did have the best cross country handling. Check out our full article on the Ford here.
The MkVIII was a truly ‘international’ effort with the US, UK and France all working on the project. The US and UK provided the mechanical components while France provided a factory to assemble the formidable vehicles. The MkVIII wasn’t ready in time to see action during the war but remained in US service into the 1930s. Check out our full article on the MkVIII here.
The US also sought to produce their own licensed version of the French Renault FT, making some slight changes the tank was adopted as the M1917 but despite production being well underway by late 1918, none of the M1917s reached the front. Instead they became the backbone of the US Army’s interwar tank force. One even climbed a mountain!Check out our full article on the M1917 here.
This is the last of our series of videos/articles on the US Tanks of WWI, you can find all episodes here.
The MkVIII Heavy Tank holds the distinction of being the result of the first successful international co-operative tank project. Developed with input from British and American designers and engineers, intended to be equipped with British weapons and an American engine, with parts made in the US and Britain and to be assembled in France – a truly international undertaking. The MkVIII, sometimes referred to as ‘The International’ or ‘Liberty Tank’, owed its basic design to earlier British heavy tanks but a number of important changes were made.
Intended for introduction in 1919, the war ended before the MkVIII could enter service and even before its French factory had been completed. It did, however, see some production and inter-war service providing the heavy tank backbone of the US’ tank force for many years.
The design evolved from work by British Lieutenant G.J Rackham with later input from American engineer Major Herbert Alden. The MkVIII heavy was very much an evolution of the earlier British rhomboid heavy tanks but Rackham and Alden made some important improvements. Chiefly the redesigning of the tank’s sponsons which housed a pair of British 6pdr guns. While the tank was a foot narrower than its predecessors, the new folding sponsons could enabled the tank to be transported more easily by rail and to also, in theory, navigate narrow spaces. Alden patented this feature in December 1918 (US #1366550). Additionally, the commander’s ‘outlook turret’ positioned on top of the tank’s turret, which had vision slits on all four sides, was also retractable. Alden’s sponsons were hinged at the front and mounted on rolling bearings so they could pivot inwards.
The MkVIII directly addressed several shortcomings of earlier British heavy tanks, firstly the engine was insulated in its own compartment to prevent exhaust fumes overwhelming the crew. A new ventilation system was also added with a fan keeping fumes out of the fighting compartment. Secondly, overall visibility was improved with protected vision and revolver slits and the addition of the tank’s commander’s turret.
Another important design change was the move to longer tracks, about 5 inches in length, which required a dozen less links than the MkV. Each of the links was shallowly stamped to increase its strength. In terms of armament the MkVIII was designed as solely ‘male’ – with guns in its sponsons, not machine guns – however, with a raised tower on the tanks roof this provided positions for five machine guns in hemispherical ball mounts. Two more machine guns could be mounted in the tank’s hull doors located behind the sponsons. The ammunition for the 6pdr guns was held in a central ammunition storage box but the sponsons also had shell storage space surrounding the guns themselves.
The 37 ton tank was to be powered by an American V12 aircraft petrol engine manufactured by the Liberty company. Although a cheaper, water-cooled Liberty was eventually used in the American tanks. The British developed a similar 12 cylinder engine from Ricardo. This, in theory, produced 300 horsepower with a top speed of just over 6mph and a range of just under 40 miles. The MkVIII’s engine was moved from the centre of the tank to a separate engine compartment at the rear of the tank. This not only reduced engine heat and fumes in the fighting compartment but also made communication easier. Some sources also suggest that the MkVIII was the first tank to have an electronic intercom system.
The American Preliminary Handbook for the MkVIII listed the tanks as being equipped with 7 ‘Hotchkiss .303-inch machine guns’, these are likely to be Hotchkiss Portative MkI*s popular in British service. In US service, however, the tanks were likely later equipped with the new Browning M1919 Tank Machine Guns. The tank carried 182 rounds of 6pdr ammunition and an additional 26 smoke rounds as well as 21,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition to keep the 7 machine guns fed.The tank’s armour was also increased lightly from the previous MkV, with 16mm of frontal armour and between 10 and 12mm at the sides. Less vulnerable areas had armour 6mm thick.
The American MkVIIIs were initially planned to be manned by an eleven-man crew made up of a driver, commander, two gunners and two loaders to man 6pdrs, four machine gunners and a mechanic. Later crew complements probably dispensed with two of the machine gunners as the US MkVIIIs operated during the inter-war period dispensed with two of the midships machine guns. The British crew was planned to be smaller with 8-men fighting the tank, made up of a driver, commander a pair of gunners and loaders for the main guns and two machine gunners who were tasked with manning the tank’s various machine guns. Impressively the 34 feet long tank also had room for as many as 22 infantry to be transported.
As an allied collaborative project the production of parts was to be a collaborative effort. Britain was to contribute armour plate, structural frame work and armament. The American contribution was to include the automotive parts including the engine, brakes, drive sprockets, gears and transmission.
The French were largely uninterested in British heavy tanks and their primary contribution to the MkVIII project was a factory site near the village of Neuvy-Pailloux, 165 miles south of Paris, in central France. Critically located well away from the fighting on a main rail route north, through Issoudun. Construction of the impressive factory appears to have begun in early 1918, with the framework of seven long production halls and the installation of a powerplant and generators and the building of railway sidings completed before the armistice in November 1918. Production barely got underway in Britain, let alone in France. Contemporary photographs taken in January 1919, by the US Army Signal Corps show the factory with its roof in various stages of completion, its shop floors unfinished and empty and open to the elements. The factory would eventually be completed and used by the French army as an artillery park and later a maintenance depot.
The oringal plan was for the tank parts to be shipped across the channel and the atlantic through France’s western coastal ports to be shipped by rail to Neuvy-Pailloux where they would be assembled into working tanks. It was envisaged that the workforce would be made up of Chinese labourers with British and American foremen and managers.
As many as 3,000 tanks were planned for 1919. The British intended to build 1,450 MkVIIIs of their own use in addition to the 1,550 to be produced for general allied use. The British tank parts were to be manufactured in Manchester, by the various workshops of the Manchester Tanks Association, and in Glasgow, by the North British Locomotive Company. Mass production in Manchester never got underway and the initial British MkVIIIs were built in Glasgow – just 24 are believed to have been built, all but six of these were scrapped almost immediately. The first American tanks were assembled by the Locomobile Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The American-assembled MkVIII completed acceptance trials in the spring of 1919. With the end of the war the US order was reduced from 1,500 to 100. 100 sets of hull components were bought from Britain and assembled with corresponding American parts at the Rock Island Arsenal.
The MkVIII was the last of the British rhomboid heavy tanks. The handful of British MkVIIIs built never entered service but the 100 American tanks along with American built M1917s, MkV Heavies and Renault FTs brought back from France, formed the backbone of the US Tank Corps throughout the early inter-war period. The US MkVIIIs remained in use as training tanks until 1932. Today, just three are believed to survive; two in the US and one in Britain.
In April 1919, a lone US-built M1917 light tank climbed over 11,000 feet up a mountain in Colorado. We are lucky enough to have some original photos and footage of the tank’s climb up Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains.
The tank with ‘Pikes Peak or Bust’ painted on its hull (US National Archive)
Why was a tank driving up a mountain?
Simply put the expedition was a publicity stunt to help raise cash to pay off America’s war debt. By 1919 the cost of US involvement in World War One had reached $32 billion – that’s around $547 billion today.
The purpose of the stunt was to encourage Americans to purchase ‘Victory Liberty’ War Bonds which would help pay off some of the debt accrued by the war. This was the fifth, and final, round of Liberty Bond sales. The drive began in mid-April 1919, and aimed to sell $4.5 billion of government bonds.
The tank arrived in Colorado Springs at the beginning of April and on the 14th a crowd of nearly 1,000 people watched Mrs W.H.R. Stote, the chairwoman of Colorado Springs’ Victory Liberty loan committee, christened the tank ‘Little Zeb’ – after explorer Brigadier Zebulon Pike – who led an expedition that attempted to climb the mountain in 1806)
Mrs Stote reportedly declared “I charge you with making the trip to the summit. As the Victory Loan shall not fail, you must make it to the top!” The tank’s commander Sgt. A.H. Worrell, told The Colorado Springs Gazette that he had “driven tanks over trees and trenches on the western front and I am betting we get to the top.”
The road up to the summit of Pikes Peak, photographed in 1934 (US National Archive)
At the time the 19 mile road up to Pikes Peak was said to be the ‘World’s Highest Motor Drive’ with the summit at 14,115 feet (or 4,302m). Cpl. Howard Brewer, the tank’s driver told reporters “I know we can climb it. Given time, the tank could go to the top of the world.” In terms of publicity having the tank make it up the mountain would certainly have been quite a feat.
On the front of the tank’s hull the words ‘Pike’s Peak or bust’ were painted in white – this is a reference to a phrase coined by prospector’s during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of the 1860s.
The tank on the road up Pikes Peak (Pikes Peak District Library)
The tank was driven by Corporal Howard Brewer and tended by a crew of mechanics and support vehicles. The road which climbed the mountain was unsurfaced and had only been completed in 1916. The tank’s ascent began on April 15, and incredibly over the next two days the tank climbed to 11,440 feet, 13 miles along the road and through several deep snow drifts, reportedly up to 20-feet tall, before a track plate snapped. After repairs the tank and support convoy pressed on – but the tank never made it to the summit. Not because of mechanical failure but unbelievably because it was needed to appear in other Colorado towns as part of the Victory Loan drive.
While the tank may not have reached the very top of the mountain, it unsurprisingly became a record breaker – setting the first elevation record for tanks. Western Union claimed that it also set a distance record for continuous distance travelled and penetrated the farthest into the snow than any other vehicle had ever done at that time of year – battling snow drifts up to 20 feet tall. While the US-built M1917 was never tested in battle the drive up the mountain proved it was a capable, hardy vehicle – demonstrating the tank’s abilities.
Various photos and contemporary footage taken from the US National Archives (source)
Additional photos held by the The Manitou Springs Historical Society (source)
‘Army’s Tank Assault on Pikes Peak Was About More Than Being Macho’, The Gazette, M.L. Cavanaugh, (source)
U.S. Economy in World War I, Economic History Association, (source)
Continuing our series looking at US tanks of World War One, in which we have already taken a look at the Ford M1918 3-Ton Tank, in this video/article we will take a look at the M1917 Light Tank.
The US Army entered the Great War with no tanks or experience in armoured warfare. When the American Expeditionary Force’s Tank Corps was formed in early 1918, it was equipped with French and British tanks. With plans to rapidly expand the US Tank Corps with battalions training in the US, France and Britain, a large number of tanks would be needed. The corps trained with the French Renault FT light tank and the British MkV but with French production stretched to capacity they could not hope to provide the US with the tanks it was expected to need for operations during 1919.
As a result the US negotiated with France for a license to produce the FT in the US, commissioned a smaller 3-ton light tank from Ford and entered into an agreement with Britain to build a new heavy tank – the MkVIII. The American-made FTs were designated the Model 1917 6-ton light tank. 4,400 were ordered, with deliveries to begin in April 1918. The Ordnance Department finalised the M1917s design and contracted a number of private companies to build the tanks.
Delays in production, however, meant that the first American tanks were completed in October 1918, and none of the M1917s reached the Western Front before the war ended. As a result, the primary US tank of the war was the original French Renault FT, revolutionary for its turret which could rotate 360-degrees and its rear-mounted engine. It was cheaper to manufacture than the heavier British tanks and could be transported by lorries behind the lines. The FT equipped the 1st Provisional Tank Brigade, what would become the 304th Tank Brigade, commanded by Lt. Colonel George S. Patton. The American FT’s saw action for the in September 1918, at the Battle of St. Mihiel.
144 US FT’s took part in the battle and both the tanks and crews performed well. The Five of Hearts, a 37mm-armed FT with the 344th Tank Battalion took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and while making an isolated attack on German positions in support of bogged down US Infantry, the tank was immobilised and its gun mantle jammed by enemy small arms fire. The tank’s commander Sergeant Arthur Snyder recalled:
“My wounded driver kept filling pistol clips and I produced as much fire as possible with our pistols and the crippled 37mm. I paid more attention to the volume of fire than its accuracy for I fear the enemy would close in if the volume diminished. Three machine guns were set up at very close range, but just out of range of our piece with its limited elevation. The fragmentation of our shells did afford some protection but I could not train this fire on the German field piece. The constant hammering of these machine guns at close range was terrific. The hinges on the doors could not stand up under it for long, but it was the mushroom ventilator on top of the turret that gave way. I was hit in the back of my head with fragments of it and bullet splinters.”
Luckily for Snyder the German infantry made no attempt to rush the tank, content to pepper it from a distance, and they quickly retreated when infantry from the 16th Infantry arrived.
In terms of protection Snyder felt that “the armor plate on those old French Renaults was good, but when you came to close quarters the splinters from bullets hitting around the vision slits did considerable damage.” Two of Snyder’s drivers were badly wounded one by bullet splash splinters and the other in the throat.
The M1917 was manufactured by the Van Dorn Iron Works, the Maxwell Motor Co., and the C.L. Best Co. Of the original wartime order for over 4,000 tanks, in total just 952 M1917s were produced. 375 of these are believed to have been equipped with 37mm M1916 cannons, while 526 armed with Marlin M1917 tank machine guns. The remaining 50 were outfitted as unarmed signal tanks.
The M1917 has a number of small differences from the FT. Its exhaust is located on left rather than right side of the tank. A new US-designed gun mount and mantlet was used. Solid steel idler wheels at the front of the tank rather than the spoked type used by the French. Additional vision slits for the driver were added and a bulkhead sectioned off the engine from the cab. Like their French cousins the M1917 was manned by a two-man crew, the driver and the commander who also acted as loader and gunner.
A different, American-made, engine – a water-cooled 4 cylinder engine built by the Buda Engine company was used. Developing 42 horsepower, it had more torque than its French counterpart but was no faster, with a top speed of between just 6 – 8 miles per hour. The tank weighed just over 7 US tons and was 16.5 feet long and 7ft 7” tall. Its armour was 0.25″ to 0.6″ (6.35mm to 15.25mm) thick – slightly thinner than its French counterpart. The majority of the tanks were armed with machine guns, using the .30 calibre M1917 Marlin tank machine gun, rather than the French Hotchkiss. The ‘male’ or cannon armed tanks had a 37mm gun and carried more than 230 shells for the gun. The Marlin was later supplanted by the early iteration of the M1919 Browning tank machine gun. 50 command and signals tanks were also built, these unarmed tanks were similar to the French TSF (télégraphie sans fil) and fitted with a wireless radio.
Perhaps the M1917s most impressive feat stemmed from a publicity stunt in April 1919, when a M1917 climbed Pikes Peak, a mountain in Colorado. At the time the road up Pikes Peak was said to be the ‘World’s Highest Motor Drive’, a single tank was driven up the mountain as part of fund raising efforts for the fifth, and final, round of Liberty Bond sales, which hoped to raise $4.5 billion from the sale of government bonds. We’ll have a separate looking at this exploit at a later date!
None of the M1917s reached the frontline but many were used a props for selling war bonds – in this photo dated April 1918, a platoon of M1917s is seen after they arrived at Camp Meritt by train, they are about to be painted up in camouflage for a Victory Loan parade in New York.
After the war the M1917, along with just over 200 French-made FTs brought back from France, formed the backbone of the US Tank Corps. In these photos we can see several tanks taking part in a mock-battle with supporting infantry at Camp Meade in May 1919. This photo show men learning to service their vehicles at Camp Meade, in December 1919.
But by 1921, the Corps had lost its independence and been all but disbanded with the Infantry given control of America’s tank force. A handful of the M1917s were deployed briefly overseas with the USMC, during the 1920s, but the M1917 was resigned to training as it became increasingly obsolete. They were finally removed from service in the mid-1930s. When World War Two broke out the remaining M1917s were sold to Canada and were reportedly used to help train the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps before many of them were finally scrapped.
Footage courtesy of the US National Archives (source)
Camp Colt to Desert Storm: The History of U.S. Armored Forces, G.F. Hofmann & D.A. Starry (1999) Tanks: 100 Years of Evolution, R. Ogorkiewicz (2015)
Light Tank M1917, Tank Encylopedia, C. Moore, (source)
The Saga of the Five of Hearts, Armor, July-Aug. 1988, Maj. Gen. W.R. Kraft Jr. (source)
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.
A still from footage of the demonstration (US National Archives)
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).
An illustration of the Winans Steam Gun, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 1861
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’.
Photograph of Moore’s gun during testing (Hatcher)
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).
Czegka’s 1922 patent (US Patent Office)
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.
While researching I came across this set of images from a March 1922 edition of Popular Mechanics showing an unnamed centrifugal gun set up on a truck, powered by an engine on the truck bed. From the images it appears to be a gun similar to Moore’s with a single rotating ‘barrel’. The captions also note that the photographs were taken in New Jersey and Moore was a Major with the New Jersey National Guard, which may also indicate the gun is Moore’s.
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.
A viewer shared a Pathe Newsreel with us which included more footage from the same demonstration. The footage title suggests it dates from 1938, however, I believe this to be incorrect.
Despite the incorrect date the footage shows us the internals of the centrifugal gun and its aiming mechanism!
The Vickers Gun is an iconic weapon, developed from the Maxim and adopted by the British in 1912. It served for over 50 years in conflicts all around the world. In this video, we’re lucky enough to have Richard Fisher of the Vickers Machine Gun Collection and Research Association shows us how to disassemble a the gun and talk us through its internals.
Big thank you to Rich for taking the time to help with this video and provide the voice over explaining the process! We’ll have more videos on the Vickers Gun in the future! Check out Richard’s work over on the Vickers Machine Gun Collection and Research Association’s site here.
I’ll let Rich explain the disassembly process in real time in the video but here are a couple of photographs of the gun disassembled:
This is the gun in its fully field stripped condition, with lock still assembled, but with its fusee spring and cover off and its barrel and action removed. Just below the barrel is the feed block.
Here’s the Vickers Gun’s lock disassembled into its 14 component parts:
This photo gives us a good look inside the receiver with the barrel, action and side plates removed, The spade grip assembly simply folds down to allow the action and barrel to be slide out of the gun.
Finally, here’s the gun reassembled and ready for action.
Thanks again to Richard for his help with this video, it was great to collaborate and hopefully we’ll have more videos with Rich in the future. Please check out the Vickers Machine Gun Collection & Research Association’s site to find out more about what they do. They have some wonderful resources, including a comprehensive collection of manuals, for not just the Vickers but also the wider British Army from the past 100 years. You can also order copies of the brilliant instructional posters which were featured in the video over on the the associations website too!
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.