WW1 2-Inch Trench Mortar

The British Army entered the First World War with very few mortars, and certainly none at the battalion level. As the stalemate of trench warfare set in and the effectiveness of enemy mortars became clear it was decided that trench mortars of various sizes would be needed.

Nicknamed ‘plum pudding’ or ‘toffee apple’ mortars after their projectile’s characteristic shape, the 2 inch Medium Mortar or 2 inch Trench Howitzer, was one of Britain’s first effective light trench mortars to be introduced.

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

Trench mortars were the army’s most forward artillery, right up on the front line. These short range weapons were able to throw large, high explosive projectiles, short distances across No Man’s Land at the enemy trench system opposite. The 2 inch mortar was considered accurate out to 350 yards with a maximum effective range out to just under 600 yards.

Introduced in 1915, the 2 inch mortar was originally crewed by men taken from the battalion it was stationed with, along with some specialists from the Royal Artillery. However, with the introduction of the 3 inch Stokes mortar which was operated by the infantry themselves the 2 inch mortars became the sole responsibility of the Royal Field Artillery.

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

Mortar positions were often in secondary trenches just behind the infantry’s frontline. This was to help protect the infantry from potential counter-battery fire. The trench mortars were often deployed to sectors to provide counter battery fire against German minenwerfers or in the run up to an offensive or local action. A British Army report on artillery use, drawn up in February 1917, noted that “Owing to their liability to be destroyed by hostile artillery fire it may often be advisable to defer opening fire with these mortars till the last day of bombardment.” The mortars were also tasked with keeping gaps made in the wire clear and with supporting any feint attacks made by infantry during gaps in the bombardment running up to a larger offensive.

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, a captain with the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers and later a novelist, recalled in his war memoir:

“At night a trench mortar officer set his guns in a derelict trench about twenty yards behind the line and carried up his ammunition, heavy globes of iron with a little cylindrical projection like a broken handle. In the morning I moved the men from the bays between the trench mortars and their target, to lighten the risk of loss from retaliatory fire.”

Sometimes the width of No Man’s Land required saps to be cut extending out from the frontline so the mortar rounds didn’t fall short. The 50 lb lollipop-like projectile had a maximum effective range of 570 yards (depending on the size of cordite charge used), and could create a crater 5 feet deep and 14 feet wide. The ideal mortar position was a 6 feet wide by 9 feet deep sandbagged pit with the weapon’s heavy wooden bed at the bottom and room for the crew to load the mortar.

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

Crews could manage to fire approximately once every two minutes. Much slower than the lighter 3 inch Stokes Mortar and but faster than the heavy 9.45 inch Heavy Mortar. The mortar comprising of just its tube, bed, stand and ignition system weighed 320 lbs (145kg), not including the accompanying tools and the Temple silencer system which could be fitted (which weighed 47 lbs or 21 kg alone).

Typically manned by a 5 man mortar crew comprising of an NCO, gunners, and ammunition bearers. To operate the 2 inch mortar a cordite charge was first placed down the tube, the projectile’s shaft was then inserted on top of the charge, the projectile’s fuse was set and checked and a new blank cartridge chambered in the ignition system. The crew then got clear of the weapon and pulled the lanyard to fire the mortar. To reload the crew ran a clearing stick down the tube and then repeated the loading process.

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

Interestingly, the 2 inch Medium Mortar, like the larger 9.45 inch Heavy Mortar used a cut-down rifle, which screwed into the ‘breech’ end of the mortar tube. This particular mortar has an 1894-dated cut down Lee-Enfield MkI as its ignition system, the cutdown rifle has a wooden insert in its magazine well but it still has its rear volley sight attached. This reusable system replaced the T-tube Friction ignitor, which was in high demand by Britain’s bigger guns. The Lee-Enfield-based system enabled the cordite propellant charges to be ignited by a blank .303 round instead. The rifle’s trigger was pulled with a lanyard from nearby cover. These cutdown ignitor rifle are sometimes confused for Obrez-style Lee-Enfields.

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

The weight of the cordite charge used dictated the range while a variety of different fuses were used with the projectiles, these screwed into the nose of the bomb. The sphere was about 9.3 inches in diameter with a 2 inch thread for the fuse at its head and a cup for the 22 inch long, 2 inch thick solid cast iron stick or spigot at its base. The sphere was filled with high explosive (Amatol or Ammonal). The high explosive bombs were painted white with a green or pink stripe around their middle.

They were often deployed in batteries of four with three Royal Field Artillery medium mortar batteries attached to each division. The mortars were predominantly tasked with cutting enemy barbed wire and destroying enemy trenches and forward positions, such a machine gun nests.

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

Captain Griffith described a battery of 2 inch mortars opening fire on enemy lines:

“A pop, and then a black ball went soaring up, spinning round as it went through the air slowly; more pops and more queer birds against the sky. A stutter of terrific detonations seems to shake the air and the ground, sandbags and bits of timber sailed up slowly and then fell in a calm deliberate way. In the silence that followed the explosions, an angry voice called out in English across No Man’s Land, ‘YOU BLOODY WELSH MURDERERS.’

The 2 inch medium mortar entered service in spring 1915 and remained in use into 1917 with British and Empire troops. It was used on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia. Over 800 were ordered initially with 675,000 bombs, many of the mortars were made in railway and agricultural machinery workshops, allowing larger factories to focus on more complex weapons. The 2 inch mortar was superseded by the larger bore Newton 6 inch mortar later in the war. Some of the remaining 2 inch projectiles were re-purposed as makeshift anti-tank mines, buried in no man’s land in anticipation of possible German tank attacks.

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Specifications:

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


Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

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

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

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

Up to Mametz, L.W. Griffith,  (1931)

Newsreels:

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

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

Secondary Sources:

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

Tommy, R. Holmes, (2004)

Dreyse Model 1907

 

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.

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Right side of a Dreyse 1907 (Matthew Moss)

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.

 

 

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.

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Close up of the rear of the 1907, note the rear sight notch, the protruding cocking indicator, the disassembly catch and safety in the ‘safe’ position (Matthew Moss)

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.

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View of the 1907’s sights (Matthew Moss)

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.

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1911 British patent for the 9mm ‘M1910’ (British Patent Office)

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.

My thanks to Chuck Kramer of Gun Lab for letting me take a look at his Dreyse 1907, check out his blog here.

If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here.


Specifications:

Calibre: .32 ACP / 7.65mm Browning
Action: Blowback
Overall length: 16cm (6.3 inches)
Barrel length: 9cm (3.6 inches)
Weight empty: 7.1g (1 lb 9 oz)
Magazine capacity: 7 rounds

(taken from John Walter’s Military Handguns of Two World Wars)


Bibliography:

Military Handguns of Two World Wars, J. Walter, (2003)

1907 Dreyse, UnblinkingEye.com, (source)

Dreyse 9mm, UnblinkingEye.com,  (source)

Patents:

‘Automatic Firearm’, L. Schmeisser, US Patent #956431, 26 Apr. 1910 (source)

‘Improvements in the Breech Operating Mechanism of Automatic Firearms’, L. Schmeisser, UK Patent #13800, 16 Nov. 1911 (source)

Videos:

Small Arms of WWI Primer 020: German Dreyse 1907 Pistol, C&Rsenal, (source)

Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2018

Live Fire: Hotchkiss Portative

The Hotchkiss Portative was one of the earliest light machine guns to see general service. It was used in action by a number of countries during the First World War, the example we’re examining today is a British Mk1 Hotchkiss Portative light machine gun.

British Portative’s were chambered in .303, and were initially issued to cavalry regiments as a light machine gun before arming some of Britain’s early tanks during World War One.

The gun was also known as the Hotchkiss Model 1909 and saw service with France, chambered in 8mm Lebel and the US, chambered in .30-06, where it was known as the 1909 Benét–Mercié Machine Rifle.

To cock the weapon the charging handle at the rear of the gun is turned to the unlocked position, at 12 o’clock, and pulled to the rear. It is then returned forward and the gun can be put in either safe, semi and full automatic.

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Mk1 Hotchkiss Portative Light Machine Gun (Matthew Moss)

Weighing around 25 lbs or 12kg the Portative was extremely heavy for a light machine gun. It had a small, unergonomic pistol grip to which the stock attached. This makes it difficult to hold the pistol grip and the stock attachment jabs into the hand during firing. The low position of the Hotchkiss’s stock provides a chin weld at best.

The Portative feeds from a 30-round metallic feed strip. Rounds are placed in the metallic strips and loaded into the weapon with the cartridges facing down. If not seated properly in the strip, vibration from firing can loosen the rounds causing them to fall out or induce jams. The strips were so fragile a sizer, used to realign bent or misshapen strips, was standard issue. Once the strip is empty it is thrown out of the gun with some force.

The Portative’s tripod while small and highly adjustable is poorly designed, it is unsuited to use in the field. As the gun is already top heavy and unbalanced, due to feeding from a side-loading ammunition strip, the gun has a tendency to topple over if not held firmly by the operator. This also complicates clearing jams and stopages.

We will have a full video and blog exploring the design, development and history of the Hotchkiss Portative in the future. My thanks to Chuck Kramer of Gun Lab for letting me shoot his Hotchkiss and helping with filming, check out his blog here.


If you enjoyed the video and this article please consider supporting our work here.