Great War Small Arms and Weapons
Pat Martin, the Society’s chair welcomed a good sized audience of members and new visitors to the meeting at The Ruskin Centre. She recognized the importance of the day, being Armistice Day, which she felt was “special “and conducted a minute’s silence in memory of those lost in The Great War and other conflicts which continue to this day. She then introduced the guest speaker for the evening, David Dunham, to take the Society back to the Great War.
David’s presentation started with a photograph of weary troops on a Great War battlefield splattered with and walking through thick mud. It led to him to query “just how bad was it?”, as his grandfather had never said and his grandmother just described it as terrible / awful, which it clearly must have been. That picture spoke a thousand words and the photograph below shows a stark landscape in which the troops used the weapons David then proceeded to describe.
Mud flats in Belgium 1918
David described the fighting from trenches as being “up close and personal” and the weapons used were designed for this type of combat, though using a range of armoury which dated back to the late 1800’s. The first rifle he talked about was the Martini Henry (1871-1904) which was used in the Zulu Wars - many of the audience would have remembered the film and when shooting was going on the barrels emitted white smoke (which was bit of a give-away in alter years) due to the ignition of gunpowder in the cartridge. It also had the problem of the smoke and residual powder causing corrosion in the barrel making it unreliable. Rifles were quickly modified to give greater accuracy, range and magazine operation to speed up firing.
The Lee Metford Mk1 in 1888 was such a rifle and also featured volley sights, a .303 cartridge and had a range of 2800 yards. Alfred Bernhard Nobel (of Nobel peace prize fame) then introduced the use of a “smokeless” charge using cord powder (cordite) though Sir Frederick Abel actually patented the propellant Cordite in 1889.
Ammunition was not immune from development and the traditional rounded bullets .303 became more pointed. In fact the “dum-dum” round used in India for hunting was actually outlawed in 1889 as it was designed to expand on impact to cause maximum damage. Similarly in 1914 .303 ‘tail heavy’ bullets were designed to spin around on impact to maximise damage.
Left to right: .303 British, 6.5×50mm SR Arisaka and .30-06 Springfield soft point ammunition
The Germans had 7.92mm (.311) which was larger than British ammunition and also had a “stripper clip” to help to speed up reloading. In 1915 steel core armour piercing bullets were introduced.
David then went on to talk about the rifles that each country involved in the conflict, and there were more than a few, were equipped with. The Steyr Mannlicher was a ‘straight pull’ bolt rifle, the Mauser Gewehr (abbreviated G98, Gew 98 or M98) was a German bolt action Mauser rifle firing cartridges from a 5 round internal clip-loaded magazine that was the German service rifle from 1898 to 1935 which held 35 rounds and had a range of 600 metres. Subsequently the position of the firing bolt became more important as it needed to be made less obtrusive by turning it downwards for use in severely confined and difficult spaces such as the trenches.
Indeed there were various forms of the Mauser - the Turkish used one at Gallipoli and the Belgian army also used it. France had the 1886 Lebel rifle. David was projecting quite a few really interesting photographs at this stage showing troops of all sides with a variety of firearms which David recognised and pointed out - our expertise was developing! Italy used the Carcano Fucile Modello 6.5mm which later in history became infamous as a variant of the rifle which was used to assassinate President Kennedy. Japanese troops used the Arisaka of which there were various types and interestingly the London Scottish regiment initially used them but found loading difficult. Russia had the Mosin-Regant and the USA were fortunate to utilise the Springfield which was a fantastic Mauser ‘look alike’.
In 1896 Great Britain adopted the Lee Enfield which was still used in 1914 due to the shortage of rifles. The short magazine Lee Enfield Mk1 of 1903 went on to be the best rifle of the war and was manufactured locally in Small Heath at the BSA factory - it was shorter, lighter, fast loading, held 10 rounds and troops didn’t need to re-sight after each shot. It was also easy to clean and so was reliable though wasn’t the best weapon for a sniper to use as the barrel expanded significantly due to barrel resonance during extensive use. The rifle itself was cleaned using oil and rope and was also distributed as the SMLE to the USA in 1918. A further upgrade saw the introduction of the Pattern 1914 Enfield (making use of the best features of the Lee and the Mauser) and this was very reliable and robust. Canada deployed the Ross Rifle which was operated by a “straight pull” bolt but tragically could be lethal if the bolt was inserted the wrong way around as it then shot back towards the soldier and some fatalities were recorded - they were ultimately surrendered.
A selection of David Dunham’s rifle collection on display
David then went on to talk about how the troops were trained to use their rifles using various sight training techniques and testing for group of shots on targets which were initially round but became triangular as this shape enclosed the figure of an opponent. Soldiers nearly always attached bayonets before firing, especially when “going over the top” and were trained to kill without any weapons at all.
Some soldiers were issued with handguns for use as a side arm to support them in various roles such as a machine gunner or operating within a tank. Amongst popular handguns was the Webley Mk VI 1915 which had a 6 shot chamber and was extremely powerful but consequently packed a large recoil. The well-known US Colt .45 calibre handgun used the recoil to reload and had a 7 round capacity and was effectively a semi-automatic pistol. The famous German brand was Luger (1898) which had 8 rounds of 8mm bullets which was effective between 50-80 metres. Variations of the Luger were developed having a larger barrel which increased the range and some holding 32 rounds.
David described and illustrated on screen and amongst his display the massive array of grenades used during the war talking about the primitive but effective “jam tin” grenade which was loaded with Baratol (an explosive made of a mixture of TNT and barium nitrate, with a small quantity [about 1%] of paraffin wax used as a phlegmatising agent). Upon detonation these grenades discharged a variety of shrapnel such as ball bearings. In 1915 the Mills Bomb became the adopted British standard and this was made using Baratol, a plunger & spring and a detonation fuse. It weighed about 2lbs and could be thrown 25-30 yards, usually from the cover of a trench or from higher ground.
Bombs. From left to right: N°5, N°23 and N° 36
A number of Mills bombs and the German Stick grenades were passed around the fascinated audience at this stage while David described other German devices such as the Discuss (or Oyster) grenade which exploded on impact and could be thrown up to 60metres. The German Stormtrooper tactics were to lob and grenade and charge as it was in flight to catch their enemy off guard or in chaos. More powerful anti-tank grenades and mines were also developed as tanks (generally unreliable armoured vehicles) were introduced into the fray as were anti-tank 13.2mm calibre guns with a range of 500metres but having the disadvantage of being a hefty 41lb in weight to carry in difficult conditions.
Machine guns were next on David’s agenda – developed to increase range and to optimise rounds per minute fired, and henceforth the ability to kill and injure the enemy. Surprisingly the Maxim machine gun had been in use in 1883 and could fire 600 rounds per minute up to 4000 yards. Britain modified the Maxim and invented the Vickers and in 1915 the machine gun corps was started. A problem with fast firing devices was that they quickly over-heated and therefore need to have water cooled jackets to ensure they kept working properly. The US then developed the Hotchkiss and Browning machine guns and later in 1915 a “light” machine gun which enabled greater mobility.
M2 machine gun: Browning's design has been one of the longest serving and successful machine gun designs
Britain then in 1913 manufactured thousands of Lewis machine guns, again at the BSA factory in Birmingham. We often hear about the use of barbed wire on the battlefields of The Great War and indeed there were fields of it, manufactured in Sweden for both sides of the conflict! It was all about strategic field entrenchment with machine guns trained on deliberate gaps left in the wires in order to concentrate fire onto what at the time must have been a bloody massacre of the enemy troops.
Increasing mobility and firepower for soldiers was the German machine gun pistol, the “parabellum” (translates: prepare for war) which had a 32 round magazine. One of the first semi-automatic pistols, the Luger was designed to use a toggle-lock action, which uses a jointed arm to lock, as opposed to the slide actions of almost every other semi-automatic pistol.
Luger P08 (Parabellum)
After a round is fired, the barrel and toggle assembly (both locked together at this point) travel rearward due to recoil. After moving roughly 13 mm (0.5 in) rearward, the toggle strikes a cam built into the frame, causing the knee joint to hinge and the toggle and breech assembly to unlock. At this point the barrel impacts the frame and stops its rearward movement, but the toggle assembly continues moving (bending the knee joint) due to momentum, extracting the spent casing from the chamber and ejecting it. The toggle and breech assembly subsequently travel forward under spring tension and the next round from the magazine is loaded into the chamber.
As the battles continued new weapons were introduced such as flamethrowers (Flammenwefen) and widespread use of gas (chlorine & mustard) which caused devastating injuries and loss of life. Gasmasks then had to be provided for the front line troops and the innovative use of “football rattles” was used to forewarn of gas being released, because you couldn’t communicate effectively verbally whilst wearing a gas mask.
Gas drifts across the battlefield
Often troops of both sides would undertake “raiding parties” behind enemy lines, often at night, using improvised weapons such as clubs, knuckledusters etc. because use of firearms would give positions away.
Wicked caltrops were commonplace and caused horrible injuries particularly to the hooves of horses - the caltrop is a simple antipersonnel weapon made up of two or more sharp nails or spines arranged in such a manner that one of them always points upward from a stable base and was actually used in Roman times. Flechettes (darts) and mortar fire was also rained down on troops in the early stages of the war when tin hats were not in use, though these were hastily provided as sharp and red hot shrapnel began to take its toll.
Artillery also began to change with 8” howitzers exchanging fire over hills up to 6 miles away with a range of field guns and cannons. Anti-aircraft guns fire flak were also in operation from 1917.
So, David had covered a lot of ground in his presentation and went over the top when he and Pat Martin exchanged whistle blowing signals to fix bayonets and charge the enemy for King and Country at the end what was a short but very detailed insight into the weaponry used and developed during the Great War.
At the end of the presentation there was a question and answer session and also many members and visitors couldn’t resist getting their hands on some of David’s fine collection.
Geoff Longmore helps Becky to take careful aim!
Pat then formally thanked David for his informative talk and presented him with a certificate from the Amblecote History Society as a record. David very generously waived his fee in lieu of a donation to the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, a charitable gesture he was roundly applauded for.
to contact us