Monday, July 4, 2011
By the early 1950s, the newly formed US Air Force realized that the speed of new jet fighters had made conventional gas or recoil-operated machine guns or cannon obsolete. The General Electric Company was approached to produce a new fast-firing gun under the project name "Vulcan". Multi-barrelled weapons seemed a promising research path, since between shots the barrels would have time to cool. In trials, 19th-century Gatlings were fitted with electrical drive instead of the manually operated crank. No longer reliant on muscle power, the gun had a staggering rate of fire of about 4,000 rounds per minute.
While the Soviet PK machine gun and even the Belgian FN Minimi are significant improvements on the concept of a General-Purpose Machine Gun; the Ml34 and M61 look back to the Gatling concept.
The M60 machine gun was a weapon that seemed fine in theory but for soldiers in Vietnam terrible design defects were obvious. The bipod and the gas cylinder were permanently attached to the barrel, so quick barrel changes after firing bursts of 200 rounds proved extremely difficult during a contact. To handle the barrel, the Number 2 on the gun required a heat-protecting mitten, which was often lost on patrol or in a contact. Finally, key components in the operating group, such as the firing pin, were prone to fracturing. Unsurprisingly, the gun came to be known by frustrated soldiers in Vietnam as "the Pig'.' A lighter version of the gun, designated the M60E3, was subsequently produced but it was actually no great improvement. It did have a non-removable gas cylinder supporting the bipod, and the new barrel had a carrying handle so barrel changes were quicker and easier. However, the new lightened gun was actually less reliable; the light barrel would burn out if 200 to 300 rounds were fired on fully automatic, so it had to be changed after 100 rounds in rapid fire.
Originating from the MG42, the German MG3 machine gun can truly be called an old soldier in the world of small arms design. The Russian RPK-74 is in concept a 7.62mm RPK scaled down to 5.45mm ammunition. The American M60, however, was a machine gun that caused considerable problems and was therefore very unpopular with its users.
At 04.45 on 27 April 1965, in Plaman Mapu, Sarawak,a position held by 34 men from the British B Company HQ 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment and a platoon of young soldiers fresh from the depot came under three attacks by a Javanese Para-Commando Regiment. Company Sergeant Major (CSM) Williams and other officers were with them, along with cooks, mortar crews and radio operators.
The GPMG (general-purpose machine gun), which was exemplified by the MG42, would be regarded as an essential weapon by all armies after the war, and widely copied. The French had their AAT-52 and the Belgians their highly successful MAG, while the Russian belt-fed RPD LMG was a step towards the GPMG concept.
The German MG42 and Soviet DShk and SG43 are three machine guns that have enjoyed a remarkable operational life. The MG42 has been the basis for numerous automatic weapons and remains the touchstone for all general purpose machine guns.
In the last weeks of World War II on 2 April 1945, Corporal Tom Hunter's troop from 43 Royal Marine Commando came under heavy and constant fire from three German MG42s dug in close to a group of houses near to Lake Comacchio in northern Italy.
The Japanese Type 96 light machine gun (LMG) drew on some of the design features of the earlier Czech ZB 26. The Bren gun, also based on the Czech ZB 26, became the British and Commonwealth section LMG in World War II. Even as late as 21 November 1965 it was the weapon with which brave junior NCOs such as L. Naik Rambahadur Limbu of the 2/10th Gurkha Rifles won the highest award for gallantry: the Victoria Cross. Another Czech weapon, the ZB vz/53, was fielded by both the Germans and the British in World War II.
In July 1942, Major David Stirling of the British Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) decided to attack Landing Ground 21, the airfield at Sidi Haneish, Egypt, using a V-shaped formation of two columns of seven jeeps commanded by Earl George Jellicoe and Paddy Mayne, with Stirling leading. They were to drive down the runway, engaging the lines of aircraft with their Vickers K guns, a total firepower of 68. To ensure surprise, the attack would be on a night with a full moon.
The light .303 drum-fed Vickers-Berthier machine gun would prove an ideal weapon for the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) jeeps in World War II - armed with these machine guns they caused chaos behind German lines in North Africa and Europe. Sometimes the jeeps came under fire from German MG34s, their weapons firing almost twice as fast as the VB guns. In contrast, the Japanese Type 92 had a slow rate of fire.
Machine guns firing rifle-calibre ammunition were only effective against low-flying aircraft if they were used en masse. Weapons such as the heavy Browning .50 and DshK1938 were capable of taking down aircraft. Yet one of the most effective features of these weapons was the deterrent value of the tracer ammunition. For the gunner, the burning tracers allowed him to correct his aim against moving targets. For the pilot of a bomb-laden aircraft diving towards a target on the ground, the sky filled with flashing tracer, which could put him off his aim. Tracers proved effective against aircraft as late as the Falklands War in 1982.
The Italian Mitriaglice Fiat 1914/35 has the appearence of a good medium machine gun, just as the Breda Modello 30 has the look of a good light machine gun. However, appearances can be deceptive. Both guns had some troublesome design defects that only came to light when the unfortunate soldiers were in action in the front line. The German Flugzeugmaschinen-gewehr MG 15 and 17 were tested in action in Luftwaffe bombers, before they were modified for a ground role.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Born on 2 January 1880 at Tula, south of Moscow, Vasily Alekseyevich Degtyarev was to become a prolific Russian weapons engineer. For this work his titles and honours would include Major General of the Engineers and Artillery Service, Doctor of Technical Sciences in 1940, and two weeks after Joseph Stalin had been awarded Hero of Socialist Labour that year, Degtyarev received the second such award in its history. Interestingly for a man so closely involved with the Soviet Union, he did not become a Communist Party member until 1941.
Light machine guns developed in the 1930s played a profound part in World War II, as well as in conflicts for years afterwards. The French Chatellerault was fielded by paratroops in the doomed battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in 1954, while numerous liberation armies in Africa and Asia used the Soviet-supplied DP LMG. The Czech ZB vz/26 was used by all the combatants in World War II and forms the model for the British Bren gun.
The son of a Mormon gunsmith, John Moses Browning was born in Ogden, Utah in 1855. Working with scrap metal, he produced his first gun when he was 13. At the age of 24 he patented a breech-loading single-shot rifle.
The diversity and durability of the small arms designed by John Moses Browning are remarkable. His BAR and M1919 machine gun would see US forces through World War II and the Korean War, and in the case of the M1919, were still used by armies around the world in the 21st century. While never in the Browning league, General Kijiro Nambu was also a very talented designer, producing pistols, rifles and machine guns.
The heavy weight of the German MG 08/15 (a "light" machine gun) must in part have been the inspiration to produce the genuinely light MG34 and later the well-designed MG42. The American Browning M1917 would serve through two world wars, but the Browning .50 would be a true survivor; it remains in service in the 21st century.
In 1911, a serving American officer and amateur inventor, Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, perfected a light machine gun originally designed by another American, Samuel Maclean. The American Army showed no interest in its production, so Colonel Lewis retired and moved to Belgium in January 1913, where the Belgians undertook its manufacture. Surprisingly, its calibre was 7.7mm or .303, the calibre of the standard British rifle round.
The Italian Fiat-Revelli M1914 must have been a gunner's nightmare, with a complex mechanism that was prone to jamming. The unreliable French Chauchat LMG was designed by three men - Chauchat, Suterre and Riberolle - and as such has been called a gun designed by committee. The American-designed British-built Lewis gun, however, would be one of World War I's success stories.
In 1914 a German Army battalion had six Maxim MG Modell 1908 machine guns; in contrast, a British battalion had only two Vickers Mark 1s, or Maxims. However, from the outset of the fighting, the Germans tactically concentrated these already co¬ordinated battalion teams into batteries and thus gave the appearance, and effect, of having even more machine guns than was actually the case. They gave this impression at Loos, where German machine-gun crews opened fire at 1,400m/1,530yd on the advancing British infantry on the afternoon of 26 September 1915. They inflicted 8,000 casualties (50 per cent) on just two British New Army Divisions (21st and 24th). One German single machine-gun crew is said to have fired 12,500 rounds.
Three machine guns that were the cornerstones of infantry operations in World War I - the Russian PM1910, British Vickers MMG and French Hotchkiss M1914 - were still in use during World War II. Indeed, the Vickers was still in use in the mid-1960s, before the British Army switched to 7.62mm NATO calibre ammunition.
Born in Watertown, Connecticut, in 1826, Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss became a skilled designer in the family's engineering business, working on new weapons designs. When he failed to interest the US Government, he moved to France and set up the Hotchkiss Company in 1867.
Prior to World War I, Austria-Hungary had an established small arms industry in what is now the Czech Republic as well as in Austria, where it produced the Schwarzlose MG07/12 In France, Hotchkiss, a firm established by an American, produced two reliable machine guns, while the German Maschinengewehr 08 was used to great effect against British and French forces on the Western Front.
Born in Sangersville, Maine, USA in 1840, Hiram Maxim became a coachbuilder in an engineering works in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. When he was 26, he obtained the first of many patents for a hair-curling iron. This was rapidly followed by a machine for producing illuminating gas and a locomotive headlamp.
Hiram Maxim's invention at the close of the 19th century dominated the 20th century. Colt and Browning, two American small arms giants, combined to produce a machine gun, the Colt-Browning "Potato Digger", while the Danish produced the Madsen - significantly, the first light machine gun (LMG) - which has often been overlooked.
The Swedish engineer Torsten Wilhelm Nordenfelt (1842-1920) teamed up with his fellow countryman and inventor Palmcrantz to produce the M1877 25mm/1in four-barrelled semi-automatic weapon for the Royal Swedish Navy. The gun was gravity fed and fired at 120 rpm. As the Royal Navy was the largest in the world in the late 19th century, Nordenfelt set up a factory in London to supply guns. He teamed up with Maxim to produce guns that were supplied to the Ottoman and German navies. In 1906 the US Navy adopted its first light automatic anti-aircraft gun, the Maxim-Nordenfelt 1 pdr Mark 6.
In the mid-19th century, weapons such as the Gatling were used in action by the Americans in the Civil War, while the French used the Montigny mitrailleuse, one of the first secret weapons, in the Franco-Prussian War. The Swedish-designed Nordenfelt was adopted by the British for use by the Royal Navy.
Although the Gatling gun, patented on 4 November 1862, would prove a superior weapon, the Billinghurst-Requa battery, an advanced organ gun patented on 16 September 1862, predates it and is widely regarded as the first "practical" machine gun to be used during the American Civil War. It was the invention of the self-contained metal cartridge that made the organ gun (also known as the volley gun) a practical weapon. The cleverly arranged breech, which closed on a piano hinge, allowed for the ammunition strips to be loaded, fired, extracted, and reloaded quickly by the crew of three.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the first multi-shot weapons, such as the English Puckle gun. They were not machine guns, but they pointed to future wars in which heavy volumes of fire could dominate the battlefield. The industrial base of the Union forces in the American Civil War gave inventors the facilities to develop these weapons, notably the multi-barrelled Organ gun and hopper magazine-fed Agar "Coffee Mill".
Without the percussion cap and the self-contained round, the machine gun would never have been developed. As a minister, the Reverend Alexander Forsyth would perhaps have been horrified to discover his major part in this innovation. It was the method of ignition he invented to make wild fowling less vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather that became a key element of the machine gun. Rounds - the bullet and cartridge with its percussion cap and powder - could be fed on a belt or from a spring-loaded magazine into a rapid-firing and brutally effective weapon of war.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
During the 1970s, NATO members signed an agreement to select a smaller-calibre cartridge to replace the 7.62mm round. While there was agreement within NATO on the 5.56mm calibre, the M193 round used by US forces was rejected in favour of the more powerful Belgian FN SS109.
The United States' M24 sniper weapon and the Beretta SC-70/90 assault rifle are well established, classic designs. By contrast, the Barrett M82 .50in calibre rifle, known as the "Light Fifty", and the Heckler & Koch G-36 are more innovative weapons, and both have attracted great interest outside their countries of origin.
The success story of the L85A1 rifle is the compact Sight Unit Small Arms Trilux (SUSAT), developed by the Royal Armaments and Research Department (RARDE). Weighing 417g/14.5oz, it is only 14.5cm/6in long and can be fitted or removed quickly using its universal mount on rifles, machine guns and recoilless rifles. It has a magnification of x4 and a field of view of ten degrees. The sight has been adopted by several armies including those of Sweden, Oman, Spain, Cameroon and, of course, Britain.
While the British L96A1 PM sniper rifle enjoys an excellent reputation, this cannot be said for the L85A1 rifle - the British soldier's issue rifle. The French FAMAS has had its critics too, but it is in wider use around the world. The French FR F2 sniper rifle is well regarded, but lacks the unique features of the L96A1.
Although the Germans had pioneered the use of early plastics such as Bakelite in automatic weapons prior to World War II, it was in the late 1960s that the American M16 rifle first caught the general public's attention. It used black polymers for the "furniture" (the butt and stock), where wood would traditionally have been used. Materials such as polymers and ceramics have considerable advantages over more traditional wood and steel: they do not corrode and deform in wet and humid conditions, which makes them ideal in a maritime or tropical environment; they are often lighter and actually stronger; and polymers can be cast in a colour that suits the theatre in which they are likely to be used - black, sand or olive drab.
Modern assault rifles, such as the Austrian Steyr AUG rifle, are commonly made from polymers and GRP (glass-reinforced plastic, or fibreglass). They are made in weapons "families": individual parts are interchangeable between models, and a rifle can be converted into a light support weapon in minutes. The Israeli Galil came from a different family that took design ideas from the Finnish Valmet, which itself had adopted them from the Soviet AK-47. The Soviet AK-74 is an update on the AK-47.
The first M16 rifles, issued to US troops in Vietnam in the mid-60s, were loathed because men were killed or wounded when they jammed in combat. One of the major causes for these malfunctions was that the US Army replaced the originally specified Dupont IMR powder with standard ball powder, used in 7.62 x 51mm NATO ammunition. This produced much more fouling, which rapidly caused the actions of the M16 to jam unless the weapon was cleaned thoroughly. However, the initial M16 rifles had been promoted as "low maintenance", requiring no cleaning, and therefore no cleaning kits were issued and soldiers received no instructions in weapons cleaning.
The German G3 rifle is one of the small arms success stories of post-war Europe. An excellent and reliable design, the weapon has been widely exported and manufactured under licence. The American Ml6 has enjoyed even greater success, and this rifle and its derivatives are in use across most of the world. The Russian SVD's claim to fame is that it is the only semi-automatic sniper's rifle with bayonet fittings.
Developed by the Belgian Fabrique Nationale company, the FN FAL (Fusil Automatique Leger - light automatic rifle) is one of the most widely known rifle designs of the 20th century. Its popularity is reflected in the fact that more than 70 countries have used it and at least ten countries made it themselves.
In the 1950s new rifles were developed in the United States, Soviet Union and Europe. The American M14 had a short operational life, as did the Soviet SKS. The French MAS-49 soldiered on for many years, but the Belgian FN FAL was a real winner, widely built and used.
In the latter years of World War II, the German small arms industry came up with the assault rifle, which fired an intermediate round - smaller than a rifle round but bigger than a pistol. This was a weapon that would change the whole philosophy of rifle design. Meanwhile, at the end of the war, the AK-47, which would become the weapon of the late 20th century, was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov.
Friday, July 1, 2011
During World War II, German after-action analysis in 1939-40 established that most firefights took place at comparatively short ranges, around 400m/437yd - not the 800-875m/1,005-1,100yd for which weapons such as the Kar 98K rifle had been designed.
War pressures produced some very successful designs, such as the American Ml carbine; some very innovative designs, such as the German FG42; and some rugged, conventional but battle-worthy weapons, such as the British bolt-action No. 4 rifle. The German Gewehr 41, by contrast, was unreliable and too heavy to be popular.
Bom on 1 January 1888 on a small farm in Quebec, Canada, John Cantius Garand was working as a floor sweeper at a Connecticut textile mill by the time he was 11, where he was fascinated with the machinery he saw around him. In his spare time, he learnt from the mechanics and by 18 he had taught himself enough to work as a machinist.
As the prospect of World War II loomed in Europe, designers looked at systems for self-loading or semi-automatic rifles. The most famous and successful was, and remains, the US Ml Garand. However, the Soviet Tokarev 38 and 40 were imaginative designs that impressed the Germans. The French bolt-action MAS 36 would prove a rugged and reliable weapon in some of the toughest campaigns.
An American hero of World War I, Corporal (later Sergeant) Alvin Cullum York of the 328th Infantry was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine-gun nest during the battle of the Meuse-Argonne on 8 October 1918. Armed with the Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifle, he and his section killed 32 German soldiers and captured 132 others as well as 35 German machine guns, and took control of the fortified position.
At the turn of the twentieth century some international rifle designs were conventional while others were innovative. The Mexican Mondragon was remarkably advanced, as was the philosophy proposed for its tactical employment. In Japan and Russia, two countries that had fought for dominance in the East, two reliable but conventional weapons, the Arisaka and the Mosin-Nagant, were produced for the infantry.