Introduce in British service in 1938, the Bren remained in use into the 1990s. Based upon the Czechoslovakian series of ZB light machine guns, its name comes from an amalgamation of its origins: BR for Brno, the factory in Czechoslovakia, and EN for RSAF Enfield where it had been adapted for British service and was to be produced.
The Bren is chambered in .303, is gas operated and fires from an open bolt. It feeds from a top-mounted 30 round box magazine, as such the sights are offset to the left meaning the Bren can only be fired from the right shoulder – which as a lefty, I quickly realised.
This example does not have the scope mounting dovetail machined into the left side of its receiver, or the folding grip and the hinged shoulder rest indicating that it is a Mk1 (Modified) ‘Pattern A’ gun, which was introduced after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the British Expeditionary Force lost most of the 30,000 Brens that had been taken to France. Only around 2,000 remained in inventory in the summer of 1940, so increasing production was essential, this model and the even more simplified MkII were introduced. While at the same time the BESAL light machine gun was developed as an emergency alternative by BSA – check out our earlier video on the BESAL here.
As a Mk1, the gun has the original profile buttstock, with the fitting for a rear folding grip and tripod attachment point as well as a buttcap. It also has the drum rear sight rather than the later ladder sight of the Mk2 & 3. It also had a folding cocking handle and this Mk1(M) gun also has the earlier pattern height adjustable, rather than fixed, bipod legs. This gun is marked ‘MK1, with an E within a D, 1942’ indicating it was made at RSAF Enfield.
The Bren’s relatively slow rate of fire (of around 500 rounds per minute) makes it controllable and very easy to fire single shots while in full auto. The Bren does, however, have a selector on the left side of the gun, just above the trigger guard, which can be set to safe, semi or fully automatic. The Bren has a rocking recoil impulse as its heavy bolt moves back and forth, easily manageable if held tightly into the shoulder with the off-hand holding onto the wrist of the stock. The top-mounted magazine when fully loaded does have a tendency to want to fall to the side but once you’re used to this it’s not really an issue. The legend surrounding the accuracy of the Bren is certainly somewhat valid, at the time it was recognised as an accurate weapon and I found it accurate from my short time behind the trigger. I found the Mk1’s rear sight aperture and drum adjustment easy to use.
Spent cases eject out of the bottom of the receiver, the weapon had a sliding dust cover for when the magazine was removed and the charging handle is non reciprocating and folds forward.
The Bren has a quick change barrel system. To remove the barrel the release catch in front of the magazine was rotated upwards to unlock and then the barrel was rotated 90 degrees clockwise by bringing the carrying handle up to the 12 o’clock position and then sliding it forward.
We’ll have a more in-depth look at the Bren and its Czech predecessors in the future. My thanks to my friend Chuck over at Gunlab for letting me put some rounds through his Bren, I got a real kick out of it!
The interwar period saw many countries under invest in their militaries, Britain was no exception. One area of equipment that went lacking for many years was adequate anti-tank weaponry. This was finally addressed in the mid-1930s with the Superintendent of Design at Woolwich arsenal developing the 2pdr anti-tank gun, which adopted in 1936.
Officially designated the ‘Ordnance QF 2-pounder Mark IX’, the 2pdr was an attempt to provide a light and mobile high velocity anti-tank gun which was relatively cheap to produce and effective against contemporary tank armour. It was also intended that the gun would itself be mounted in armoured vehicles and tanks.
In 1934 development contracts were awarded to Woolwich and the Vickers-Armstrong company for the design of carriages for the new gun, the Vickers Mark I and the Mark II from Woolwich. The Mark I had a slightly different armour shield and leg design.
These two carriages were tested against one another with trials taking place from November 1935 through to the summer of 1936. The Vickers design initially won out and the first order for 44 guns was placed in 1936. A subsequent re-evaluation of an improved version of the Woolwich carriage found it superior and the Mark II carriage was adopted.
The 2pdr fired a 40×304mmR armour piercing round which weighed 2lbs 6oz or 900g and was effective out to 1,000 yards against up to 1.5 inches of armour. It had a four man crew and was capable of firing up to 20 rounds per minute. It had an all steel barrel with a removeable breech ring and a vertically sliding breech block. The gun had an innovative and very stable three-legged collapsible platform, rather than a split-trail carriage, that also allowed the gun to be rotate through 360 degrees when its road wheels were removed. The 2pdr had a semi-automatic action with a hydraulic/hydrospring recoil system which used hydraulic fluid to absorb the gun’s recoil. This allowed the gun to be rapidly aimed and fired despite recoiling approximately 20 inches (or ~50cm).
A number of variants of the gun were developed during the war, with the original Mark IX, a simplified production model the Mark IXA, the Mark X which had a barrel made of higher-yield steel which was not autofrettaged – making it easier to manufacture and the Mark XA which was produced to lower tolerances and able to use the Littlejohn adapter.
Here’s a Royal Army Ordnance Corps training film on the 2pdr (courtesy of the AWM) in full:
Weighing around 1,800lbs or 816kg (or 4/5 of an Imperial Ton) the 2pdr was deemed to be too heavy for the infantry it had been designed for and in 1938 it was transferred to the Royal Artillery. Typically the guns were grouped together in anti-tank battalions each with three batteries made up of four troops which operated four guns each. That’s 16 guns per battery and 48 guns per battalion. Typically a battalion would be assigned to support a division. They were designed to be towed by a variety of vehicles with trucks, jeeps and Universal Carriers often being used.
The 2pdr was typically equipped with a No.24B 2x sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun. It also had an iron sight but the armoured shield had to be lowered to use it. On the right side of the breech an ammunition box, holding 16 rounds was be stored for easy access, another two boxes holding 8 rounds each could be strapped to the carriage behind the ammunition box (described as the emergency ammunition box). The rest of the ammunition in twelve more 8-round containers, giving a total of 96 rounds assigned to each gun, was carried on the truck which towed the gun.
The gunlayer sat in a small seat mounted to the carriage and the loader knelt to the right of the breech. The gun was turned by a small traversing wheel operated by the gunlayer. In low gear one rotation of the wheel would turn the gun 3 degrees, in the higher gear (activated by the right foot pedal) one rotation traversed the gun 20 degrees. This meant the gun could be traversed the full 360 degrees with 18 rotations of the wheel. The right hand wheel controlled elevation of the barrel. The gun was fired by the gunlayer using the left foot pedal or two emergency firing levers if the pedal became inoperable. While the breech would typically open automatically ejecting the spent shell casing after firing a breech handle was also located on the right side of the breech.
The gun could be brought in and out of action in under a minute, including removing or replacing the road wheels. The 2pdr could, however, be fired from its road wheels, this was described as ‘emergency action’. The wheels limited the traversing arc of the gun and turns greater than 14 degrees right or 10 degrees left had to be done by lifting the gun’s trail and turning it manually. While less stable and accurate the gun could be brought into action from being towed in less than 20 seconds.
In 1939, the British Expeditionary Force to France embarked with 509 2pdrs. During the 1940 Battle for France the 2pdr was found to be an adequate anti-tank gun. One problem identified with the 2pdr was that its armour shield, designed to protect the crew, gave it a quite high profile making it easier to spot and more difficult to conceal.
During the retreat to Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation all of the guns brought to France were lost. 60% of Britain’s 2pdr Anti-Tank guns were left behind in France, just 333 guns which hadn’t accompanied the BEF remained. Many of the guns captured after the Dunkirk evacuations entered German service under the designation 4.0cm Pak 192(e).
As the thickness of enemy armour increased the 2pdr began to struggle. The German Panzer II had 1.2 inch thick frontal armour while the Panzer III more than doubled this to 2.8 inches. On paper at least the 2pdr, firing a APHV round, could penetrate up to 2.2 inches of armour at 500 yards (460m). But in reality the Panzer III was the last German tank the 2pdr could expect to engage with a decent chance of success. With the emergence of the later mark Panzer IV, with their 50mm or 2 inch thick frontal armour, they became much less effective. If not adequately concealed gun crews could expect to be engaged by AP and high explosive rounds from the Panzers at ranges outside their effective engagement range.
Despite this, however, the 2pdr proved to be a more than a match for Japanese tanks such as the Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks, which had armour less than an inch thick. At the Battle of Muar in Malaya, in January 1942, Australian 2pdrs, of the 13th Battery, 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, knocked out six, of possibly eight or nine, Japanese tanks as they attacked up a road near Bakri. Sgt. Charles Parsons, commander of one of the guns was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Interestingly. the Australians referred to the QF 2pdr AT Gun as the “Tank Attack 2pdr” apparently a designation common to Australian anti-tank weapons as they also called the PIAT the Projector, Infantry, Tank Attack.
The 2pdr remained capable of destroying heavier Japanese tanks too, the Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tank had at 1 inch thick front armour which the 2pdr could easily penetrate at ranges of over 1,500 yards.
Lieutenant Ben Hackney of the Australian 2/29th Battalion described the engagement during the Battle of Muar:
“A couple [of tanks] attempted to turn and make a get-away but still those boys with the anti-tank guns were sending a stream of shells into them. At last they could not move forward any further and became as pill-boxes surrounded, sending fire in all directions; until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, and rendered useless and uninhabitable. There came then from the tanks sounds which resembled an Empire Day celebration as the ammunition within them burnt, and cracked with sharp bursts, and hissed, with every now and again a louder explosion as larger ammunition ignited.”
In addition to being used as a towed anti-tank gun the QF 2pdr was used in a wide range of light and cruiser tanks, it provided the main armament for the Matilda II, the MKVII Tetrach light tank, the first six Marks of the Valentine infantry tank, the MKI & MKII Crusaders, the Cruiser Marks I to IV, the Covenanter tanks and it was also used in the Australian cruiser tank, the AC1 Sentinel.
It was also widely used to arm armoured cars including the Daimler, the MKI AEC, the MKI Coventry and the Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car. In the desert it was also mounted and operated simply on the back of adapted trucks – known as Portees. Trucks built by Chevrolet, Ford or Morris were all pressed into service to create Portees. The 2pdr was deployed on its tripod on the truck bed with its wheels removed. In this setup the guns became highly mobile with the crew able to operate the gun from the truck moving in and out of action rapidly. They were widely used in North Africa with a number of medals including a Victoria Cross being awarded to men who manned them.
Second Lieutenant George Ward Gunn, J Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in November 1941 during Operation Crusader. Gunn commanded a troop of four Portee 2pdrs which engaged a German counter attach, with all but one of his guns knocked out and the remaining gun’s crew killed and the truck on fire, Lieutenant Gunn manned the gun himself, engaging the enemy at 800 yards, he managed to destroy two Panzers before he was killed.
The example we are examining began its life as a Mark IX but was subsequently upgraded into a Mk XA, capable of using a Littlejohn adaptor. The Littlejohn adapter used the squeezebore principle, the device was about a footlong with a smooth tapered bore. With the adaptor fitted to the muzzle of the 2pdr the round would be compressed by the taper going from 40mm to 30mm in diameter. This had the effect of increasing muzzle velocity giving the round a flatter trajectory and more energy. An armour-piercing, composite non-rigid round with a tungsten core was used, designated the APSV (from ‘armour-piercing super velocity’). It had the effect of almost doubling the muzzle velocity of the APSV round when compared to the original 2pdr AP shell. The adaptor was invented by Czech designer, František Janeček, the founder of the JAWA motorcycle company. The Mk I Littlejohn device entered production in January 1943 and the Mk II was approved in May 1944.
While design of the 6pdr anti-tank gun, the 2pdr’s replacement, had been completed by 1938, production of the gun did not begin until 1942. Following the huge losses at Dunkirk and with invasion believed to be imminent the decision was taken to focus on the 2pdr gun as its production line was already established. They remained in service throughout the war equipping anti-tank batteries and armoured vehicles. Over 34,000 2pdr anti-tank guns were produced between 1936 and 1944, over 11,000 of these were deployed as anti-tank guns on carriages while the rest were used in various vehicles.
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Overall Length: 135.5in or 343cm
Weight: 1,800lbs or 816kg
Action: Semi-automatic, hydrospring recoil buffer
Calibre: 2pdr or 40×304mmR
Elevation: -13 / +15 degrees
Traverse: 360 degrees
Rate of fire: 20 rounds per minute
Anti-Tank Weapons, T. Gander, (2000)
British Anti-Tank Artillery 1939-45, C. Henry (2004)
‘British equipment Losses at Dunkirk and the Post-Dunkirk Situation’, WWII Equipment.com, D. Boyd, (source)
2 Pounder Anti-Tank, Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) training film, via AWM, (source)
I’m very pleased to present the first of the videos filmed during my recent research trip to the US. My thanks to my friend Chuck Kramer, of the excellent GunLab blog, for his generous help and assistance making this video on a special little rifle. – Matt
By early 1945 Nazi Germany’s situation was desperate, with no real hope of victory left desperate holding actions became the order of the day. It was hoped by many on Hitler’s staff that if they could hold back the Russian’s long enough the Western Allies would reach Berlin first. This was not to be as the Red Army was making rapid progress into German territory, covering up to 35 km a day by March 1945. Once the Soviets encircled Berlin on the 20th April there was no possibility of a surrender to the Western Allies who in reality had long since lost interest in the ‘Race to Berlin’.
While the war had seemed hopeless for many months the German High Command continued its efforts to construct a formidable defence against the oncoming Russian forces. This saw the activation of the German militias and the forming of a new corps, the Volkssturm or in English: ‘people’s storm’. This optimistically named force made up of all men aged between 13 and 70 were called up and expected to defend their local areas, much like the British Home Guard formed in 1940.
In order to arm these men stores of older weapons were re-issued and the Volkssturm were issued Mauser G98s and old MG08s along with a large variety of captured foreign weapons which were in store including French, Polish and Russian small arms.
There were not enough modern weapons to equip the struggling regular forces let alone the newly improvised ‘volunteer’ force. As such Germany’s weapons factories were directed to create prototypes of simpler, cheaper weapons that might be mass produced quickly with minimal tooling. This project was dubbed the Primitiv-Waffen-Programm. These primitive weapons had to be made quickly with the materials at hand. This spawned a number of prototypes with varying degrees of sophistication, the so-called VolksGewehr or ‘people’s guns’. The best known of these is perhaps the Gustloff Volkssturmgewehr or MP 507 -often referred to as the VG 1-5.
The Gustloff Volkssturmgewehr was undeniably the most complicated of the Primitiv-Waffen. A semi-automatic, delayed blowback operated, carbine chambered in Germany’s new intermediate 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge. This weapon will hopefully be the topic of a future blog/video.
Rheinmetall Volkssturm Carbines
The focus of today’s blog/video, however, is another Primitiv-Waffen chambered in 7.92x33mm developed by Rheinmetall. Rheinmetall developed a series of several prototypes, the VG45 or VG3 was the only prototype to be tested, however, a stamped receiver prototype was also developed.
Formed in 1935 as Rheinmetall-Borsig AG, Rheinmetall while perhaps best known for their larger calibre guns, they also developed a number of small arms designs – including several weapons for the Volkssturm. The VG45, chambered in 7.92mm Kurz, was developed in late 1944 and according to Wolfgang Peter-Michel, in his book Volksgewehre which quotes a contemporary British report, the VG45 was somewhat similar to the Walther designed VG1 in design, but chambered in 7.92 Kurz rather than 7.92x57mm Mauser. There is only a single, grainy photograph purporting to be the VG3 (with a missing bolt), which can be seen here.
Using a tube receiver simple forgings, spot welds and rivets the VG45’s design was utilitarian with one-piece beech wood furniture. It weighed around 6.8lbs or 3.1kg unloaded and had an overall length of 34 inches / 86cm. With a simple two lug bolt and no safety the carbine was extremely utilitarian. In October 1944, rifles from five companies were submitted in response to a call for a weapon of “simplified construction for mass production.” Rheinmetall’s design was not one of these first five designs.
However, by mid December Rheinmetall had submitted their carbine, the VG45, for testing. It reportedly performed well during testing in Kummersdorf, firing some 2,000 rounds and 20 rifle grenades successfully without major malfunctions. A report to Heinrich Himmler, dated 28th December, who had been tasked with overseeing the Volkssturm’s formation, noted that “most of the rifles’ stocks cracked when shooting the rifle grenades… the rifles are not yet [fully] examined and the current status of development do not yet permit a final test-firing.” Of the rifles submitted to testing only the designs from Mauser and Rheinmetall continued to be considered. While the VG1 and VG2 were ‘officially’ accepted Rheinmetall also received an order for 25,000 of their VG45 carbines – later referred to as the VG3.
Full scale production never began as the factory was heavily bombed in the closing stages of the war. Prototypes of the VG45 were found by the Allies when they captured the Rheinmetall plant in Sömmerda in Thuringia, central Germany. The British tested one of these rifles, marked ‘Rh Nr.4 VG45K’ on the receiver.
The British also captured another prototype 7.92mm Kurz bolt action carbine. It had a two-piece stamped receiver – welded together at the top of the receiver, with spot-welded inserts that formed the magazine housing simple two-lug bolt and a two-piece stock. It is unclear if this prototype carbine was submitted for testing. It is likely that it was still in development at the time of the December 1944 testing.
Another 7.92mm Kurz Carbine
Ermawerke, or Erfurter Maschinen- und Werkzeugfabrik GmbH, was established in Erfurt, Thuringia in the early 1920s, throughout the war they manufactured the Erma EMP, the MP38/40 and developed the prototype MP44 submachine gun. In late 1944, Erma set about developing their own entry for the Primitiv-Waffen program.
Erma’s prototype is very similar to Rheinmetall’s stamped prototype – a small, light, bolt action carbine chambered in the 7.92x33mm cartridge and able to feed from standard 30-round Sturmgewehr magazines. Unlike the Rheinmetall’s carbines, Ermawerke’s had a rudimentary trigger block safety at the rear of the trigger guard. Erma’s rifle also went through the December 1944 tests with no function issues. It appears that very few were manufactured and that only one or two examples survived the war. One surviving carbine, said to be in Russia, is missing its bolt and has had reportedly had replacement furniture fitted.
The Ermawerke carbine also made extensive use of stampings and simple forgings with rivets used to attached crudely finished wooden furniture. The receiver is similar to a VG-2 with an ejection port on the right. It weighed 6lbs or 2.7kg and had a 16.5 inch or 42cm barrel. The original carbine reportedly had no Wehrmacht/Waffenamt (WaA) acceptance marks. In his book, Deutsche Sturmgewehre, Peter Senich suggests that an example of the rifle was tested at the US Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1945.
VG45K replica bolt #5 (Matthew Moss)
VG45K replica bolt #4 (Matthew Moss)
VG45K replica bolt #3 (Matthew Moss)
VG45K replica bolt #2 (Matthew Moss)
VG45K replica bolt #1 (Matthew Moss)
Shooting the Rheinmetall Volkssturm Carbine
Check out our short live fire & slow motion video with the carbine here
Rheinmetall’s stamped Volkssturm carbine used a simple two-lug rotating bolt action which was cocked on opening. It had a simple fixed rear notch sight and weighed just over 6.5lbs or 2.95kg unloaded, had a 15.45 inch or 39cm barrel and an overall length of 34 inches / 86cm. Unlike the VG45, the stamped prototype had a lever on the left side of the receiver which acted on the trigger sear to prevent it being depressed.
This video features a replica of Rheinmetall’s stamped Volkssturm carbine produced by Range Facilities (Burnham), one of a small batch made, which attempts to reproduce the original prototype. I had the opportunity to handle and fire one of the carbines. As such my appraisal of the rifle’s handling characteristics and shooting experience are based on the replica not the original. But I feel my experience with the reproduction is representative of how the original Rheinmetall carbine, and the other Primitive Waffen 7.92mm Kurz carbines might have handled.
Both the carbine and the 10-round magazine featured in the video were handmade to a high standard. There are, however, a number of key differences between the replica and the original, as described in the original British intelligence report. No markings were reported on the stamped prototype, however, the reproduction borrows markings from the VG45 and is marked ‘Rh Nr.5 VG45K‘ on the left side of the rifle. Another key difference is the addition of a utilitarian safety bar which blocked the trigger rather than a lever reported to be used by the original prototype. The replica also had a rounded bolt handle while the original is described as having a “straight and hollowed out bolt with no bolt knob, similar to the VG1. The reproduction has had a cleaning rod added beneath the barrel and its wooden furniture may also differ slightly.
A close up of the rifles forend, cleaning rod, barrel and foresight (Matthew Moss)
A look at the carbine’s markings. The reproduction’s manufacturer information is stamped horizontally on the magazine housing (Matthew Moss)
The carbine’s simple wooden stock is similar to that seen on the VG1-5, not the most ergonomic shape but utilitarian (Matthew Moss)
Close up of the carbine’s simple notched rear sight (Matthew Moss)
The replica was very well made and care has been taken to give it a suitably aged appearance. Light and handy the carbine handled well and the 7.92x33mm Kurz chambering made it a light shooting carbine. While the replica’s bolt was a little stiff, this is probably quite representative of how the original would have handled.
The softer shooting 7.92 Kurz round certainly would have made sense for a rifle designed to be issued to poorly trained volunteer units made up of old men and young boys. The very basic rear sight necessitated the use of some Kentucky windage as the rifle shot a little low and to the left at ~70 metres. But within firing a single 10-round magazine I was able to quickly bring my shots to within a man-sized target with relative ease.
Here’s some photos of the carbine’s safety and magazine release:
While both the VG1, VG2 and VG1-5 all entered limited production the war ended before serial production of the the VG45/VG3 could begin. Rheinmetall’s stamped prototype probably did not see official evaluations and probably only one or two were produced before the bombing and subsequent capture of the factory.
However, the various 7.92mm Kurz Volkssturm carbines and the other Primitive Waffen remain important examples of the desperate measures Nazi Germany was forced to resort to at the end of the war in an effort to equip its troops.
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Specifications for Original Prototype Rheinmetall Volkssturm Carbine:
Matt recently had the opportunity to visit the excellent Menorcan Military Museum at Es Castell, on the Spanish Balearic Island of Menorca. The museum is well worth a visit with some very rare and extremely interesting weapons on display.
The M45 Quadmount was developed by the W.L. Maxson Corporation for the US Army. It mounted four .50 calibre M2 Browning Heavy Machine Guns on a lightweight, rotating powered mount. I recently had the opportunity to take a closer look at an M45 while visiting the Menorcan Military Museum.
Introduced in 1943, the M45 was capable of 360 degrees of rotation and 90 degrees of elevation. It was manned by a three man crew: two loaders, who loaded the M2 Browning’s 200-round belt drums, and a gunner.
The M45 was extremely versatile and could be mounted on a number of trailers and vehicles including the M20 and M17 trailers and the M16, M17 and M51 half-tracks.
The gunner sat on a canvas seat inside the M45, between the two pairs of guns. He controlled the aiming of the guns with two control handles and aimed the M45 through a reflex sight which was mounted to a sight bar.
The M45 was powered by two 6-volt batteries and weighed approximately 2,400lb (1,090kg). The gunner was protected by an armoured plate at the front with two hinged armour plates either side of the M1X reflex sight. The M45 mounted four M2 TT (Turret Type) varriant machine guns – these were fired by solenoids. All four of the guns could be fired at once but gunners normally alternated between the upper and lower pairs in order to allow the guns to cool and loaders to replenish the drums.
When all the guns were fired together the M45 had an impressive rate of fire of approximately 2,300 rounds per minute. The Quadmount saw action throughout World War Two, the Korean War and in Vietnam. However, with the beginning of the jet age the M45 became increasingly obsolete in the anti-aircraft role. It continued to be used against ground targets with many mounted on vehicles to create ‘gun trucks’.
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By the Autumn of 1940, Nazi Germany controlled most of mainland Europe, France had surrendered, and the British Army had been forced to evacuate the continent and in the process had lost much of its arms and equipment.
Arms production in Britain was ramped up in order to arm the returning troops and the new units being formed to defend against the imminently expected German invasion. Existing designs like the Bren light machine gun and the Lee-Enfield Rifle were simplified to increase production however new options were also examined. The cheap, quickly manufactured STEN submachine gun was introduced and calls were made for a simplified light machine gun which could be made in any machine or workshop with simple tooling. Even before the fall of France the British Ordnance Board sent out a memo in June 1940, requesting a light machine gun which could be produced in garages and smaller workshops throughout Britain in the event that the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield was bombed.
In December 1940, the Chief Superintendent of Design outlined a light machine gun based on the Lewis Gun’s rotating bolt, which fed from Bren gun magazines.
The Birmingham Small Arms company (BSA) were approached to develop a design. BSA tasked their chief designer, Henry Faulkner, with the project. Members of the British Army’s Ordnance Board, however, began to question the decision to have an established manufacturer build a prototype for a gun that was supposed to be assembled in small ad-hoc workshops. As a result the contract was cancelled, however, BSA and Faulkner persisted anyway.
Faulkner, with the help of Roger Wackrow, came up with a weapon which later became known as the BESAL. The design was developed to be simple, cheap and quick to manufacture. The standards of finish were significantly lower than those of the standard Bren then in production. The plan was to issue the BESAL in the event Britain’s armed forces found themselves engaged in a last ditch defence with German invasion either imminent or already underway.
Faulkner’s design was chambered in .303 and fed feeding from standard Bren gun curved box magazines. It used a basic trigger mechanism, a simple pressed gas cylinder and a body held together by pinning and spot welding. The first prototype had a folding but non-adjustable bipod and a skeleton butt stock with a wooden insert. With the manufacture of barrels expected to be a bottleneck to the weapon’s production it was suggested that the spare barrel issued with each Bren gun be recalled for use in the new BESAL. This clearly illustrates just how desperate the situation was expected to be. The first prototype BESAL was ready by late 1941, and testing began in March 1942. The BESAL proved to be reliable and effective during trials.
Faulkner’s design went through a number of iterations but the gneral design had been finalised by May 1942 when BSA, Faulkner and Wackrow filed three patents protecting the design. The principle feature of the later BESAL patterns was the use of a cocking system which saw the operator push the pistol grip forward to catch the bolt, and then pull it to the rear to cock the weapon. This is a system that was later seen in the Czechoslovakian Vz 52/57, 59 series and the Finnish KVKK-62 general purpose machine gun.
Iterations of the BESAL:
(Artists impression of 1st BESAL prototype – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
Right side cocking handle
Simple fixed peep sight
Non-adjustable bipod mounted on the receiver
(Photograph of a 2nd Pattern BESAL with a pan magazine, note the right-side cocking handle – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
Bipod moved to front of the gas tube
Universal magazine adaptor fitted for Bren and Motley Pan magazines
Full wooden stock – similar in profile to the Lewis Gun’s
Disassembly knob introduced
(Our photograph of a 3rd Pattern BESAL)
Pistol grip cocking mechanism replacing the conventional cocking handle
(Photograph of a 4th Pattern BESAL, note the selector on the pistol grip – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
Introduction of a selector switch on the left side of the weapon’s pistol grip
In August 1942, BSA submitted the 3rd Pattern Prototype for trials. It was extensively tested between September and November 1942. On 6th January, 1943, BSA renamed the BESAL the ‘Light Machine Gun, Faulkner, 0.303-In Mk1’ in order to prevent confusion with the 7.92x57mm BESA machine gun used in some British tanks. The BESA, also produced by BSA, used a similar pistol grip cocking mechanism. We hypothesise that the the BESAL’s name might come from the BESA, meaning BESA-Light. This, however, is unconfirmed.
It seems that over time as BSA and Faulkner improved and refined the design the BESAL ceased to be a cheap, simple, quickly-made alternative to the Bren. Instead it appears that BSA hoped the weapon might be adopted as a somewhat cheaper substitute standard to the Bren. Final testing of the BESAL were held in March 1943, but by now the weapon’s original purpose had been made defunct by the huge increase in Bren manufacturing capacity. By 1943 the Bren was in production on four continents: at Enfield in the UK, at John Inglis in Canada, at Ishapore in India and Lithgow in Australia. Inglis alone was producing 10,000 Brens a month by 1943.
With the need for a new light machine gun gone the BESAL project was cancelled in June 1943. BSA produced an estimated 20 guns, of various patterns, during the BESAL development project. Today, it is believed that only a handful remain.
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Length: 118.5cm (46.6in)
Weight: 9.7kg (21lb 8oz)
Barrel Length: 56cm (22in)
Action: Gas operated, short recoil
Feed: 30-round Bren box magazine or 100-round Motley pan magazine
Cyclic Rate: 600rpm
The Bren Gun Saga, T. B. Dugelby (1999)
Bren Gun, N. Grant, (2013) Military Small Arms, I. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)
Modern Small Arms, F. Myatt (1979)
‘Improvements in or relating to gas-operated automatic firearms’, GB572925, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)
‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572926, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)
‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572924, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)