Don Davie

This paper considers the origins of various machine guns of foreign design taken into British service, British modifications of foreign machine gun designs, and British designs that were not adopted for general service issue.

With the exception of a few perspicacious individuals, the British government, military establishment and industrial complex of the late 19th Century evinced little enthusiasm for the design and development of machine guns.  Although the first effective device for the production of a comparatively rapid series of shots, James Puckle’s ‘Defence’ of 1718, was a British design, Britain came reluctantly to the employment of machine guns in general military service.

While two of Puckle’s guns were taken on an expedition to the Caribbean in 1722, Britain has never adopted machine guns of essentially British design as standard service issue.  Her mechanical machine guns, the Gatling, Gardener and Nordenfelt, were of foreign design, as have been the later automatic machine guns adopted for British service.

The invention and production of serviceable mechanical machine guns, initially in the United States of America, coincided with the eruption of European and American imperialism in the second half of the 19th Century.  The British were quick to appreciate the advantage of machine guns in colonial service.  Small British contingents confronted large numbers of native warriors and machine guns were employed with considerable success in the founding of British dominion.

The first mechanical machine gun brought into British service, the American-designed Gatling, saw service in the first Ashanti campaign (1873-1874), the Zulu War (1879) and the Sudan War (1883-1888).  The Gatling was manufactured under licence in Britain and was employed in both naval and military service.  Colonial forces, including those of the Australian colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, also adopted the Gatling.

Although the Gatling continued in service for some time after the introduction of automatic machine guns, Britain also brought other mechanical machine guns into service issue.  Another American design, the Gardner manufactured by Pratt and Whitney, was taken up in 1880.  The Gardner was adopted by the Royal Navy in both two-barrel and five-barrel models and by the Army in the five-barrel version.

The Nordenfelt mechanical machine gun, designed by Heldge Palmkrantz and manufactured by the Nordenfeldt Gun and Ammunition Company in Sweden, Britain and Spain, was adopted at the same time as the Gardner.  The Nordenfelt company was established by Torsten Wilhelm Nordenfelt, a Swedish banker who was approached by Palmkrantz for finance to enable the manufacture of his gun.  The Royal Navy adopted a five-barrel pattern of the Nordenfelt as the Mark I on 20 March 1884 and a simplified version was approved for land and sea service as the Mark II on 27 April 1886.  The Nordenfelt was also issued to the naval and military forces of the Australian colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania in ten, five and three-barrel models.

The first automatic machine gun adopted for British service was the design of an expatriate American electrical engineer, Hiram Stevens Maxim.  Although Maxim was later granted British citizenship, and was knighted in 1901, he was a US citizen when his recoil-operated, water-cooled and belt fed machine gun was put on the market.  The Maxim was patented in 1883 and Maxim joined in a partnership with the Vickers armaments company in 1884.  After some modification by Maxim, the gun went into production in 1885 and became known as the Vickers-Maxim machine gun.  Although the Maxim is said to have been accepted into British service on 4 February 1889, it is also said that it saw earlier service in West Africa.  It was apparently taken to Gambia in November 1887 with a punitive expedition mounted against recalcitrant tribesmen resisting imposition of the Pax Britannica.

Initially chambered for the .577/.450 Martini-Henry cartridge, with black powder as the propellant, the Vickers-Maxim was later chambered for the .303 inch Lee-Metford cartridge, still using black powder, and then for the .303 inch Lee-Enfield cartridge, using the new Cordite propellant.  After some further modification, including a re-design of the lock in 1912, the weapon became simply the Vickers.  The Vickers medium machine gun (MMG) underwent many modifications in the course of its long service with the British, Empire and Commonwealth forces, including fitment of a muzzle attachment that provided a gas supplement to the recoil action, and was produced in several marks.  Even so, the weapon remained basically Maxim’s design.

The Vickers gave a good account of itself during the 1914-1918 War, the 1939-1945 War, the Korean War and innumerable campaigns between those wars and later. Nevertheless, fighting on the Western Front from 1914 and in the Middle East revealed the  requirement for a lighter machine gun for sub-unit issue.

The Lewis gas-operated, air-cooled light machine gun (LMG) was adopted for infantry service on 15 October 1915 and became a platoon issue. The Lewis had its genesis in a crude weapon based on patents held by Samuel McClean, an American. The weapon was reworked by Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, US Coast Artillery, to the extent that  the end product was deemed to be his design. In addition to its ground role, the Lewis also found naval and air applications. In its fitment to aircraft, the Lewis lost its radial barrel-cooling fins and surrounding jacket as passage of the aircraft through the air provided sufficient cooling. In British issue, the Lewis was chambered for the .303 inch rimmed cartridge used by the Lee-Enfield rifle and the Vickers. With a pan magazine holding 47 rounds and a cyclic rate of fire of 550 rounds per minute (rpm), the Lewis proved to be a most effective weapon in both attack and defence.

The Lewis was manufactured in America and Britain but was not accepted for US service. It appears that Lewis was a forthright man who did not always demonstrate the full measure of respect considered the due of his superior officers  and it is said that the US Army  Chief of Staff vetoed adoption of the Lewis. When the gun was eventually issued to US divisions bound for the Western Front, it was withdrawn on arrival in France in favour of the French Chauchat LMG – a weapon of particularly evil repute for its exorbitant rate of malfunctions.

Having a mass of 27 lb. (12.25 kg.) and an overall length of 50. 5 inches (12.82 cm.) the Lewis was considered too bulky for cavalry use. Surprisingly, the weapon selected for cavalry issue, the gas-operated and air-cooled Hotchkiss Portative, had the same mass and, at 46.75 inches, was only marginally shorter. Designed by Laurence V. Benet, the American manager of the French armaments company Hotchkiss et Cie and his assistant Henri Mercie, the Portative went into French service as the Mitrailleuse Modele 1909. It was also used by the US Army in the Mexican War of 1916 as the Machine Rifle, Benet-Mercie, Cal. .30, M1909.

The Portative, as the Hotchkiss Mark I, feeding from the standard Hotchkiss 30-round strips, entered British service in March 1916. The Mark I*, adapted to accept the strips or 150 round articulated belts, was adopted in June 1917. These weapons were later designated the Hotchkiss, .303 inch, No. 2, Mark I and Mark I* LMG. The use of the Hotchkiss in regular service declined as cavalry regiments were mechanized in the 1930s. However, Yeomanry regiments posted to the Middle East in 1940, still with their horses, took the Hotchkiss with them and the weapon was not made obsolete until June 1946.

The only machine guns of purely British design appeared after the 1914-1918 War. An LMG adapted by Colonel M.G. Farquhar from the unsuccessful Farquhar-Hill automatic rifle and produced by the Beadmore arms factory in Birmingham was offered for trials in the immediate post-war period. This was not a propitious time for military arms sales in Britain. The 1914-1918 War, the so-called ‘Great War’, had ostensibly been fought to end all wars and there was in any case a surplus of Lewis and Hotchkiss LMGs of proven worth. Farquhar nevertheless persisted with his approaches. While brief and rather cursory tests by the army and air force elicited a quite favourable reaction, the nation’s straightened economic circumstances militated against acceptance of the weapon.

The Beadmore-Farquhar LMG was again tested in 1922. Although the Beadmore manufactory had an excellent reputation, the weapon tested was poorly made of inferior materials and is believed to have blown up after some eleven thousand rounds had been fired in endurance trials. Undeterred, the Farquhar-Beadmore alliance in the same year submitted a .50 inch calibre heavy machine gun (HMG) designed for anti-aircraft service. This too was rejected.

Weapons evaluated in British LMG trials in the early 1930s included the Czech ZB26, designed by Vaclac Holek and manufactured by Zbrojovka Brno, and a gun designed by a French army officer, Andre (or Adolphe) Berthier, who assigned rights to the weapon to Vickers-Armstrong Ltd. in 1924. The ZB 26 was developed into the Bren LMG and Berthier’s design was taken up by the Indian government. Both were magazine-fed, gas-operated designs.

The ZB26 was modified to accept the .303 inch rimmed cartridge and the barrel-cooling rings were removed. Production of the weapon was undertaken at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Enfield, with the gun now known as the Bren, from Brno and Enfield. The Bren began to replace the Lewis in infantry service in 1938 and became the standard British army LMG. When Britain adopted the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle in the 1950s later marks of the Bren were adapted to accept the NATO 7.62 mm rimless cartridge. Production of the Bren in Britain was confined to the Enfield factory but the weapon was also manufactured in Australia, at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory, and by the Inglis company in Canada. It is said that Canadian Brens made for the Chinese Nationalist forces were chambered for the German 7.92 x 57 mm cartridge and it is known that some Chinese Brens were chambered for the US .30-O6 cartridge.

The Government of the Dominion of India was not bound by British government arms procurement policy and, tiring of the drawn-out testing programme, in 1934 chose the Vickers-Berthier as the standard LMG for British-Indian army service. While the Vickers-Berthier had proved inferior to the ZB26 in endurance tests, it was nevertheless an excellent weapon that was well regarded by its users. The Vickers-Berthier underwent some modification at the Ishapore Small Arms Factory but the Mark III and Mark IIIB patterns produced at Ishapore in .303 inch calibre remained true to the fundamentals of Berthier’s design.

The Vickers-Armstrong company used a redesign of the Berthier action in the Vickers ‘K’ or VGO (Vickers Gas-Operated) machine gun. The VGO was accepted into Royal Air Force (RAF) service as an observer’s gun pending the introduction of power-operated turrets in 1941. The VGO used the standard .303 inch rimmed cartridge and had a cyclic rate of fire of 1050 rpm, later reduced to 950 rpm. When replaced in RAF service, surplus VGOs were issuded to army special-operations units, including the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service.

As armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) gradually replaced the horse in cavalry service, Britain looked for machine guns suitable for fitment in tanks and armoured cars. Attention again turned to Czech patterns – the ZB53 in 7.92 x 57 mm calibre and the ZB60 with a calibre of 15 x 104 mm. The British had a rigid, and prudent, policy of having but one light and medium machine gun cartridge, the . 303 inch rimmed, but were prepared to make an exception in the case of AFV  machine guns that would be of limited issue.  Both the 7.92 mm and 15 mm gas-operated and belt-fed machine guns were manufactured by Birmingham Small Arms Ltd and took he designation Besa.

Manufactur of the 7.92 mm Besa began in 1939 and 59 322 were produced during the 1939-1945 War. The mechanism was based on the so-called ‘differential system’ which had a recoiling barrel and which discharged the round while the barrel was still moving forward in counter-recoil. The movement was reversed by the recoil produced by the fired cartridge and the action is said to have reduced recoil and stress on the weapon and its mounting. The gun was made in seven marks with two rates of fire. The Mark I., Mark II and Mark ii* had an accelerator that could be set to produce either  450-550 or 750-850 rpm. The Mark III was set at  750-850 rpm and the Mark III* at 450-550 rpm. All Mark III guns were later converted to Mark III*. The Mark III/2 was a modification of the Mark III with a new bracket and body cover and the Mark III/3 had a redesigned barrel and sleeve and larger gas vents to facilitate the use of belts of mixed cartridge types. Mark III/3 guns were all conversions of the Mark III/2.

The 15 mm Besa was essentially an enlargement of the 7.62 mm gun. It differed in that it could be fired on repetition (single shot), whereas the smaller weapon was designed for automatic fire only, and in its rate of fire of 450 rpm.  There was only one mark of the 15 mm Besa and a possible conversion of the gun to the Hispano-Suiza 20 mm cartridge did not eventuate.

When Britain came under German air attack in mid-1940, there was concern that destruction of the Enfield facility, at the time the only producer of the Bren, could prevent the supply of the urgently needed LMG. As a precision weapon of relatively complicated construction, the Bren required a high level of engineering competence and trades skill in its manufacture. It was felt that it would be impracticable in the critical circumstances facing the nation to create a new facility for Bren production.

Britain’s high level of industrialization provided a reservoir of factories, workshops and tradesmen capable of producing simple weapons. Under the direction of BSA’s chief designer, H. Faulkner, prototypes of a very much simplified Bren were produced in 1940. The milling and machining of components was bypassed wherever possible and resort was made to pressings, pinnings and spot welding. The weapon was called the Besal, or sometimes the Faulkner, and was made in Mark I and Mark II versions. The Mark I had a cocking handle attached to the piston but the Mark II was cocked by pushing forward the pistol grip, thus permitting the sear to engage with the piston, and then withdrawing the grip and piston to the rear. This cocking action was similar to that of the Besa machine guns manufactured by BSA.

In the event, Bren production continued unimpeded at the RSAF and the Besal was never put into service. In many respects, the Besal concept was comparable to that of the later Sten sub-machine gun (SMG), which had been so designed that it could be manufactured, with a smooth bore, by any competent tradesman.

Another war-time expedient did see limited service. In 1940, the Ductile Steel Company designed a simple LMG based on a modified Lewis action and suitable for mass production. The weapon was deemed unsuitable for infantry service but approval was given in May 1942 for production of the gun as the Hefah V Mark I by the Hefah Company. The Hefah V was acquired by the Royal Navy to provide anti-aircraft defence on small vessels but was made obsolete in November 1944.

The Browning .30 inch and .50 inch calibre machine guns that remain in British service are, of course, the product of the fertile mind of the prolific American firearms inventor John Moses Browning. In both calibres and in several models, the Browning saw service in land, sea and air applications and the .50 inch calibre Browning M2 HB pattern was adopted as an infantry battalion weapon.

The L7 series general purpose and tank machine guns currently issued are modifications of the mitrailleuse a gas (MAG) design of the Belgian armaments manufacturer Fabrique Nationale d’ Armes de Guerre (FN). Although the British-designed Enfield L86 light support weapon now fills the role of section automatic weapon in the British army, it has not been considered here as a light machine gun. It lacks the quick-change barrel that is an essential feature of modern LMGs. The L86 was developed from the L85 rifle and could more logically be classed as a fully-automatic rifle.

Given the extent of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and British inventiveness in so many technological fields, it is surprising that so little initiative was displayed in the design and development of machine guns. Even so, Britain developed a profitable armaments trade and British modifications of foreign machine gun designs were brought into British service, and were sold to all who could afford to pay for them.


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