Birmingham Small Arms – BSA

The Birmingham Small Arms company of Birmingham, England, was founded in 1861 to manufacture rifle stocks. In 1863 the company built their factory at Small Heath and in 1866 they obtained a military contract to convert 100,000 muzzle-loading Enfield rifles into Snider breech-loaders. Two years later came orders for the complete manufacture of various military pistols and carbines. In 1873 a factory at Adderley Park was acquired for the manufacture of small arms ammunition, trading as the Birmingham Small Arms & Metal Company. This facility was disposed of in 1891 to the Nobel Dynamite Trust.

During the First World War, BSA factories produced 145,397 Lewis machine guns and 1,601,608 Lee-Enfield rifles. The company also began to take an interest in weapon development and in 1919 produced a -40 calibre military automatic pistol which failed to attract military attention. They then obtained a licence to develop the Thompson submachine gun patents in Europe and produced a number of prototype automatic rifles based on the Thompson designs, again without much commercial success. Another venture was the Adams-Willmott machine gun. Before the out- break of the Second World War the company had set up for production of the BESA tank machine gun and during the war developed the Besal or Faulkner machine gun. Anti-tank rifles, aircraft cannon and submachine guns, were also produced.

In postwar years the BSA submachine gun was developed, as was a 7mm automatic rifle, but neither gained military acceptance. Some of the 7.62mm FN rifles adopted after Britain standardised on the 7-62mm NATO cartridge were made by BSA.

After the First World War the company had entered the sporting gun field with an inexpensive shotgun, and they later followed it up with sporting and target rifles. Air rifles had formed part of the firm’s output since the early 1900s, and they were the developers of an unusual air rifle modelled on the service Lee-Enfield rifle and intended for inexpensive training of cadets and militia units.

BSA started to pro- duce submachine-guns in 1924 when they flirted briefly with the Thompson design from the US. This came to nothing, as did another licensing venture in 1939 for a Hungarian weapon designed by Kiraly. BSA put some effort into this latter model, including an element of redesign work, and it obviously disappointed them when the War Office showed no interest. Throughout the Second World War the company made weapons to government order, including Sten guns, but did no original work.

BSA submachine gun

The BSA submachine gun, submitted for trials in 1946-1949, was a compact and ingenious design in which the cocking action was done by rotating the forward handguard, thrusting it forward and back, and rotating it again to lock into place. This system meant that the firer retained his grip of the weapon throughout the cocking action, which was advantageous in the event of a feed stoppage. Of 9mm calibre, the gun had a magazine which, with its housing, could be folded forward alongside the barrel giving compact dimensions for packing and, again, allowing rapid action in the event of a malfunction. But in competitive trials, it suffered from having had less development time than its competitors and was rejected for military service. The same fate befell the P-28 automatic rifle, a weapon of great promise. It was an exceptionally clean design, using a laterally-locking bolt, but the abandonment of the projected British .280 cartridge in favour of the 7.62mm NATO round put an end to its chances.


British submachine-gun. The Welgun was one of many British attempts during the Second World War to produce a very small and light submachine-gun. It was called for by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which were at that time in Welwyn, hence the first part of the name. It was designed and built by BSA in Birmingham and the first military trials were in early 1943. From then on there seem to have been several trials, in all of which the Welgun fared quite well, but it was never adopted, not even for the SOE.

The design used some Sten components. The barrel, magazine and return spring were Sten, but the design was most compact. The spring was around the barrel and two long plates ran forward from the bolt to a ring in front of the spring. There was a stop just in front of the breech and rear movement of the bolt compressed the spring against this stop. The plates had serrations on them, and these were gripped to cock the weapon. The Sten magazine fed vertically upwards and the barrel was enclosed in a tubular jacket. The trigger mechanism was very simple, almost crude, and the safety was an external rocking bar which held the bolt either open or closed. A simple folding steel stock was fitted.

The bolt had a floating firing pin actuated by a plunger and rocking bar. When the bolt closed on the breech the plunger was pushed in and operated the rocking bar. This pushed the firing pin forward to fire the cartridge. With a little development the Welgun could probably have been every bit as good as the Sten, and perhaps better, but by then the Sten was already in production.

Welgun and Welrod


Multi-barrel Miscellany

In 1786 the leading London gunmaker Henry Nock devised one of the most satisfactory of all flintlock breechloaders. A reloadable cartridge which forms part of the breech is pivoted on a slide. When the slide is drawn towards the butt, the cartridge hinges upwards to a vertical position for loading. In the Firing position, in line with the barrel, it is locked by a vertical peg attached to a short chain which also serves as the handle when opening the breech. An example in the Tower Armouries shows that this was an efficiently-made arm, and much less complicated to use than its appearance would suggest. However, it had little success, although it was a considerable improvement over Guiseppi Crespi’s design of 1770, itself so like Bicknell’s breechloader of c. 1660.

Nock volley gun in the Charleston Museum. These guns were made 1779-1780 for the British Royal Navy. Nock’s Volley gun – 7 barrels brazed together with the outer 6 having their breeches plugged. The central barrel screwed on to a hollow spigot which formed the chamber and was connected to the vent. This chamber fired through smaller vents to ignite the charges in the outer barrels. At first, the barrels were all rifled but this led to loading difficulties and most were later made smooth bored. This improved the rate of fire but reduced range and accuracy.

The gun was made by James Wilson 1779 and named after Nock. Nock was contracted to manufacture the gun and 635 examples were sold to the Royal Navy. A flintlock mechanism fired through a vent that led to the central chamber. Firing cause dignition in the central chamber and resulting flash passed through and ignited the other 6 so all 7 fired more or less simultaneously. The gun was intended for the fighting tops of warships to fire down on the deck of the enemy vessel as it closed alongside. However recoil was so strong and the weapon so difficult to control that a smaller lighter version had to be produced. This made it shorter ranging but still effective as Admiral Howe’s fleet showed in relief of Gibraltar in 1782. Nevertheless, it was still unpopular because of the danger of a ship’s sails and rigging catching fire from the muzzle blast.

Overall length 37in, barrel length 20in, calibre 0.52in.

Henry Nock was also closely involved in the production of a volley gun offered by James Wilson to the British Board of Ordnance in 1779, when the inventor described it as “a new Invented Gun with seven barrels to fire at one time.” When the version with rifled barrels was recommended for use from ship’s rigging, Nock, who had made Wilson’s prototypes, supervised the manufacture between 1780 and 1788 of 655 at £13 each. Perhaps inspired by the interest shown by Colonel Thomas Thornton, several of London’s leading gunmakers made versions for game-shooting. The most distinctive survivor was the colonel’s own, an 11.5-lb (5.2 kg) sporting encumbrance by Dupe and Company with fourteen barrels in two sets of seven placed side by side. The gun is now in the Musee d’Armes, Liege. With the development of percussion ignition, the inventive Forsyth and Pauly designed neater seven-barreled sporting arms, and as late as 1900 the Belgian Henri Pieper made a rolling breech rifle firing seven .22-inch (5.6 mm) cartridges from seven barrels on a single pressure of the trigger. Pieper’s design was the last hand-held example of a series that began soon after the introduction of fire-arms and proceeded by way of a seven-barreled handgun mentioned in a Bastille inventory of 1453; sporting guns with several barrels drilled from a solid block; pistols with two, three or more barrels-of which the “duck’s foot pistol” is perhaps the best known -through J. Lillycrap’s patent of 1842, which shows a belt set with five pistol barrels that were fired simultaneously.

The appeal of the same idea to some artillerists resulted in the so-called “partridge mortar” of c. 1700, which had a large central bore surrounded by a ring of thirteen smaller bores firing one standard mortar shell and thirteen grenades. The vent of the parent barrel also gave fire to the smaller ones to produce an almost simultaneous discharge. Although never common or especially successful, they were used by the French in defense at Bouchain in 1702, and in attack at the siege of Lille six years later. One survives in the Museum fur deutsche Geschichte, Berlin.

Nebelwerfer trio werfing nebel. Company of Heroes computer game – I think not!

The psychological effect of these coveys of explosive shells must have been much the same in their day as the much more devastating clusters of rockets from the 5.9-inch (15 cm) Nebelwerfer 41 and its 8.3-inch (21 cm) successor, respectively six- and five-barreled, that rained down on the Allied armies at Cassino and later at the defensive complex occupied by the Wehrmacht east of the Orne. There, almost three hundred of these rocket-mortars were emplaced, each capable of discharging six rounds every 90 seconds at targets up to 7,700 yards (7,041 m) away.

Zielfeuergerät 38 Training Machine Gun

Drawing in an US Intelligence Report from January 1945. The barrel of the examined ZfG had rifling with right-hand twist. Certainly it was a reworked old machine gun barrel.

A German machine gun for static defense, Zf.Ger.38, c.1944. It was fired by a trip-wire. A bullet-cutter could be fitted to the muzzle to fragment the .31-inch (7.92 mm) projectile, thus giving the effect of a shotgun pattern. From the contemporary technical report.

The Zf.Ger.38 is a machine gun of German origin. The weapon is a blank firing training weapon also used for static defence. When the Allies examined the weapons discovered in the German Reich after World War II, they came across a device which was classified as a “spring gun” or “trip wire activated static defense machine gun”. It was a practice device with the name “Zielfeuergerät 38″.

The Zf.Ger.38 is a blowback operated magazine fed training weapon, using 7.92×57mm wooden bullet blanks. The simple construction was sturdily implemented, and reduced to the most necessary functioning parts. The device functions as a blowback operated weapon with unlocked bolt in full automatic mode only.

Zielfeuergerät 38 Training Machine Gun


The Assault Rifle

Six comparative views (left to right) of the 7.92×33mm MKb.42(W), MKb.42(H), and the MP.44.

Polte Company drawing of the 7.92mmx33mm kurz Sturmgewehr cartridge (all dimensions in millimeters). The Sturmgewehr and its intermediate cartridge, the 7.92x33mm Kurz (Short), gave the individual soldier vastly increased firepower by two attributes that neither the rifle nor the submachine gun could combine: controllable burst fire and good ballistic performance. It inaugurated a new concept in small arms: a short, handy shoulder weapon having a reduced recoil impulse that allowed accurate full-automatic fire, yet powerful enough to serve as a conventional rifle out to 400 yards- the range within which most infantry engagements occurred. This combination was achieved by utilizing a cartridge midway in size and energy between the relatively weak pistol round used in submachine guns and the full-power infantry ammunition common to then-standard rifles and machine guns. The smaller intermediate cartridge allowed the Sturmgewehr’s mechanism to be more compact, lighter, and less expensive, while the reduced weight of both gun and cartridge meant that the soldier could carry more ammunition into battle. Today virtually all infantry rifles embody the Sturmgewehr concept.

The universal application of the automatic principle to the individual weapon has made it necessary and convenient to give that weapon a new name, thus indicating its enlarged capabilities — the assault rifle.

Widespread use of assault rifles, particularly during the past five decades, has shown this individual weapon used by all adversaries involved in past and present conflicts; whether guerrilla wars, civil wars, “wars of liberation” and certainly by major combatants in larger wars. The increase in firepower for the individual has literally provided small groups of determined men armed with selective-fire assault rifles the force that here-to-fore was reserved for battalions and regiments.

When hand-held fully automatic weapons fed by detachable magazines first came on the scene, they were made in existing infantry rifle calibers. Some, such as the FN/FAL and U.S. M14 rifles, continued in such calibers until the advantages of an intermediate round — such as controllability on full automatic fire — were irrefutably demonstrated by the Kalashnikov AK-47. The early iterations of the assault rifle concept, such as the Federov, the BAR, the Simonov AVS-36 and others served to illustrate how advantageous such a design might be, but it was not until the German Sturmgewehr 44 (assault rifle 44) with its intermediate round proved just how advantageous such a design really was, that the concept was validated. Interestingly, the StG.44 was first called a submachine gun by the Germans (Machine Pistol 44), and the AK-47 was first called a submachine gun by the Soviets and by NATO in the early years. It was during WW II that the German designation of “assault rifle” was coined, and it was such a captivating term it has come to nearly universal usage, referring to a hand-held weapon capable of semi-automatic or fully automatic (selective) fire, fed from a detachable box magazine, which fires an intermediate rifle cartridge. Earlier designs firing a full-size infantry round, such as the Fedorov, BAR or AVS-36, however, were still assault rifles as well — just as a Model T, although an early design, was still an automobile.

The weapons of mass destruction held by national powers today exist primarily to checkmate similar hostile weapons. We must continue to discourage their use. But if future wars involve the employment of tactical atomic weapons against military forces, a modern field army would see much of its sophisticated equipment reduced to shambles in a matter of minutes. When the dust settles on an atomic battlefield, to a great extent the outcome will still depend on small groups of desperate men, the assault riflemen.

Today’s emerging threats include antagonists with a suicide mentality so base it does not care if all parties lose, and they are more likely to employ asymmetrical warfare and individual terrorist operatives, or work for their goals within “low-intensity” conflicts. When such faceless combatants can be engaged, however, the fighters on both sides mostly comprise small units of individual riflemen, armed with what has become known as an assault rifle.

In addition to the military context, modern police fighting organized crime find their new adversary so well funded and equipped that police elements are increasingly forced to train and operate as paramilitary forces to combat “traditional” crime, in addition to their role in responding to terrorist threats at street level, with an assault rifle in their hands.

Assault rifle performance and technical characteristics are largely determined by the ammunition used. Designers have been aware of this fact for many years, but prior to the appearance of the German Sturmgewehr in the early 1940s, all standard military automatic and semiautomatic rifles were chambered to fire cartridges that previously had been used in older weapons. (One exception was the U.S. carbine’s .30 caliber, 7.62×33mm cartridge, which was not a true assault rifle cartridge.)

Design limitations imposed by older “full power” rifle cartridges made it impossible to develop truly lightweight rifles that would shoot effectively during full-automatic fire. Not only was mechanical functioning violent with such cartridges, but projectile dispersion was very great. Muzzle climb during burst fire was the usual result. After the first shot of the burst, subsequent ones generally passed harmlessly over the target, or in compensation, lateral dispersion increased.

As a first step in changing Western thinking about infantry ammunition, French armament engineer Marcel Devouges offered the following observations about ammunition for automatic weapons in 1924: “The cartridges for automatic arms (except pistols) were originally designed for non-automatic weapons, and for tactical concepts which have been greatly modified since the experiences of the last war.” He noted that during World War I, each army designed its machine guns for the same cartridge used in their service rifles.

Devouges commented that there was a growing opinion favoring separate cartridges for each class of weapon, because of the contrasting needs in today’s terms of the general-purpose machine gun, those of the squad automatic weapon, and those of the automatic rifle (self-loading rifles). General purpose machine guns were expected at the time to kill out to as far as 3,500 meters. Squad automatic weapons and automatic rifles would be employed against targets up to 800 meters. Devouges suggested that 7mm would be the optimum caliber for lightweight automatics, and that 7.5mm would be suitable for GPMGs. His ideas and suggestions were far ahead of contemporary thinking.

In actual practice, those nations that employed a single cartridge (7.62mm or larger) for rifles and machine guns retained that type ammunition through the end of World War II. Those countries that had calibers smaller than 7.62mm (generally those in the 6.5mm class) adopted a larger, more powerful caliber cartridge during the 1939-1945 conflict. Most notable in this latter group were the Dutch, Greeks, Italians, Japanese, Norwegians, Portuguese, and Swedes. Adoption of a second cartridge was usually related to the needs of the machine gun. In some instances — such as the Italian 8×59mmRB Breda cartridge and the 7.9×57R M.v.M. Dutch — the new ammunition was provided exclusively for machine guns.

As with the American decision to keep its Model 1906 .30 caliber (7.62×63mm) cartridge, and not adopt the proposed .276 Pedersen (7×53mm) ammunition, other industrialized nations opted to retain their older munitions because of the enormous expense involved in fielding a new round — even if they agreed to the reduction in power and range of the service rifle ammunition. In addition to research, development and tooling costs, huge quantities of ammunition must be stockpiled in peacetime in anticipation of wartime usage. For nations such as the United States and the former Soviet Union, which have large territories and global commitments of troops, ammunition also must be prepositioned worldwide. Allied and enemy experience with the unanticipated magnitude of cartridge expenditures during the World War led to cautious behavior in the post-1918 period. Nearly all belligerents had artillery shells and small arms ammunition shortages. For some, for example the Russians, these shortfalls were chronic and fatal.

During the final years of World War II, and in the immediate post-war period, all major armed forces examined the tactical advantages of switching to less bulky and lower power infantry ammunition types. The decade 1943-1953 was a period of much experimentation with new rifle cartridges. Many competing designs appeared, with a few key ones surviving testing and evaluation through to adoption,

Within alliance groupings, “interoperability” has become a priority. Standardization of ammunition and weapon types simplifies logistics involved in the field supply of large armies. It also requires more stringent attention to common standards and quality control. The Warsaw Pact armies were all very successful in standardizing both guns and cartridges, NATO allies have settled for a few standard types of interoperable ammunition that will work in a wide variety of weapons of the same caliber. In theory, all 7.62×51 mm NATO cartridges will function equally well in the Fabrique Nationale FAL, Heckler & Koch Gewehr 3 (G3), U.S. M14 rifles, and FN MAG, Rheinmetall MG3, Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Saint Etienne (MAS) AAT 52, and U.S. M60 GPMGs, without concern about the country in which the weapon or ammunition was manufactured. As we shall see in subsequent discussion, this interoperable ideal is sometimes elusive. Weapons types respond differently to differnt cartridge case materials (e.g., brass vs. steel, material hardness) or to variations in chamber pressures or gas port pressures. Projectiles can respond significantly differently to even slight changes of barrel twist. The basic goal of interoperability is often difficult to attain.

Assault Rifle Operating Systems

Significant confusion and misunderstanding exists concerning the various operating systems of the world’s assault rifles (and other firearms). First it must be understood that all self-loading firearms are operated by expanding gases when the cartridge is fired, and are thus gas operated. It is how these gases are harnessed that more precisely defines the operating system. Although new operating and locking systems have continued to evolve over the years, the definitions of operating systems described below are based on those established by the late Colonel George M. Chinn, USMC (Retired). These systems are listed in Col. Chinn’s book, The Machine Gun, Volume IV, Parts X and XI, published by the Bureau of Ordnance, U.S. Navy.

  1. Blowback: An unlocked bolt opening by the opposite reaction of a cartridge case when the projectile travels forward. Blowback bolts depend on being relatively heavy to delay opening until pressure has dropped to a safe level, and thus are sometimes called an “inertially locked breech.” Although a blowback action can sometimes assist another operating system, the only assault rifle to use the simple blowback operating system was the Burton.
  2. Delayed Blowback: An operating system beginning with a fully locked breech being unlocked shortly after the cartridge is fired through a recoiling part, the movement of a primer, or another means of unlocking. No assault rifle using this system was ever mass-produced. Often confused with retarded blowback operation.
  3. Retarded Blowback: A system of operation beginning with a semi-locked breech that is opened by the opposite reaction of a cartridge case being fired, but only after overcoming a retardation caused by a mechanical means, usually a combination of leverage and spring tension. Examples of retarded blowback assault rifles include the German G3 and the French FAMAS. Often confused with delayed blowback operation.
  4. Long Stroke Gas Piston: A locked breech mechanism operated by a gas piston that travels a distance at least equal to the length of the cartridge being fired. Examples include the WWII German FG42, MP44, and Stoner 63.
  5. Short Stroke Gas Piston: A locked breech mechanism operated by a gas piston that travels a distance less than the length of the cartridge being fired. Examples include the U.S. M1 Carbine, M14 rifle, and the Steyr AUG.
  6. Long Stroke Piston and Cylinder Via Direct Gas: A locked breech mechanism operated by a gas, piston and cylinder that travel a distance at least equal to the length of the cartridge. Examples of this system include the AR-10 and M16 rifles where the bolt (piston) and the carrier (cylinder) are actuated by direct gas fed through a tube from the gas block.
  7. Short Recoil: A locked breech mechanism where the barrel and bolt recoil together for a distance shorter than the length of the cartridge before being mechanically unlocked, allowing the bolt to continue rearward while the barrel returns forward under spring pressure. An example is the Johnson assault rifle.

Assault Rifle Locking Systems

  1. Rotating Bolt: A locking system where the bolt rotates to bring two or more locking lugs into engagement with counterparts in the receiver or extension of the barrel. Examples include the AK-47, M14, and M16 assault rifles.
  2. Tilting, or Propped Bolt: A locking system where one end of the bolt is tilted to lock into a recess in the receiver of the rifle (usually the rear of the bolt). Examples include the MP44, and FN-FAL assault rifles.
  3. Toggle Lock: A locking system where an arm attached to the bolt is cammed into a recess in the receiver to lock the bolt. An example of this system was used in the U.S. Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).
  4. Locking Tabs: A locking system where two locking tabs (or lugs) are forced out from the bolt into locking recesses in the receiver. An example of this system was used in the British EM-2 assault rifle and was also used in the WWII German G43 rifle.
  5. Locking Block: A locking system where a block or wedge is forced into a recess or recesses in the bolt to lock it to the receiver. An example of this system is found in the Czech VZ58 assault rifle.
  6. Roller-Delay: A semi-locking system where roller-like lugs are forced out into rounded recesses in the receiver or barrel extension, and held there by a combination of leverage in the form of a wedge-shaped mass and spring pressure. Examples are the German G3 and the Swiss SG510 assault rifle series.
  7. Roller Lock: A locking system similar to Roller-Delay, except that the rollers are mechanically locked into their recesses and are unlocked when an operating rod moves the mechanical lock. An example is the SIG 530 assault rifle.
  8. Rocking-Lever: In this locking system a lever connects and bolt and bolt carrier and forces them into battery with leverage under pressure of the recoil spring while pivoting against a shoulder in the receiver. When fired, the cartridge case exerts pressure on the bolt, which in turn pushes against the carrier. This in turn forces the rocking lever out of engagement with the receiver to unlock the breech. This system is found in the retarded blow-back operated French FAMAS assault rifle, where the delay lever also acts an accelerator to add velocity to the bolt group.
  9. Rising Chamber: In this system the chamber is a separate cylinder that moves up and down into and out of battery within the receiver. This system is found in the Stoner and Steyr Advanced Combat Rifles (ACR).
  10. Rotating Chamber: In this system the chamber rotates into and out of alignment with the bore. The rotating chamber system is used in the German G11 assault rifle.
  11. Lockless Chamber: In this system the chamber and breech are integral with the barrel and neither move during operation. Instead, the cartridge is inserted through a side port, and the solid end of the barrel acts as the breech block with a separate means of sealing off escaping gas. The McDonald Douglas Advanced Combat Rifle uses the lockless system.


By the time of the American Revolution, Britain’s .75 calibre Land Pattern Musket head earned the unofficial nickname of “Brown Bess.” Even the 18th century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described the popular expression “to hug Brown Bess,” as slang for enlisting in the army

By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s Brown Bess musket had delivered nearly a century of service. The tactics of the time were for musket troops to fire as many volleys as possible into an advancing enemy formation. The 10.5-pound Brown Bess could propel a one-ounce lead shot to a maximum effective range of 175 yards. Since the weapon was virtually impossible to aim with any degree of accuracy at such distances, most engagements took place at the range of 50 yards or less. Still, an experienced shooter could unload three shots a minute.

The Long Land Pattern “Brown Bess” musket was the British infantryman’s basic arm from about 1740 until the 1830s.

Brown Bess is a 1742 Long Land pattern. The 1742 pattern added a pan bridle to the First Model Bess lock. Fitted with a correct wooden ramrod, issued with an armory bright finish, this gun should have a polished bright barrel and lock.

During the age of the Brown Bess musket the British army took part in five major wars: the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the American War of Independence (1775-83), the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Crimean War (1853-56). It fought the Seven Years’ War as an ally of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Operations against the French and their Indian allies in North America began in 1754, absorbed much of Britain’s military effort and helped initiate far-reaching tactical change. French possessions in Canada were snapped up, with Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in 1759 as the brightest star in a year of victories still remembered in the naval march ‘Heart of Oak,’ first heard in David Garrick’s play Harlequin’s Invasion

Come cheer up my boys ‘tis to glory we steer

to add something more to this wonderful year…

In India, too, there were successes, with Robert Clive’s defeat of the pro-French ruler of Bengal at Plassey in 1757 and Lieutenant General Sir Eyre Coote’s victory at Wandeswash in 1759 bringing much of India under the control of the British East India Company. On the continent of Europe, where the British always fought as part of a coalition force, their fortunes were more mixed. The Duke of Cumberland, George II’s son, was badly beaten at Hastenbeck in 1757, but a British force played a notable part in the victory at Minden in the annus mirabilis of 1759.

It is worth pausing to consider just what these battles were like for the men who fought in them. At Minden, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick with 41,000 Anglo-German soldiers faced Marshal Contades with 51,000 Frenchmen. What made the battle unusual was that it was decided by an attack on a vastly superior force of French cavalry by six British regiments, launched as the result of a linguistic misunderstanding. Hospital Assistant William Fellowes of the 37th Foot wrote that:

The soldiers and others, this morning, who were not employed at the moment, began to strip off and wash their shirts, and I as eagerly as the rest. But while we were in this state, suddenly the drums began to beat to arms: and so insistent was the summons that without more ado we slip’t on the wet linen and buttoned the jackets over the soaking shirts, hurrying to form line lest our comrades should depart without us. There was a keen wind blowing at the time, and with my wet shirt and soaking coat, it was an hour or more before I could find any warmth in me. But the French warmed us up in good time; tho’ not, you may be sure, as much as we warmed them!

Lieutenant Montgomery of the 12th Foot described the advance, with the redcoats stepping out to the rub-a-dub-dub-dub of the drums, and through:

a most furious fire from a most infernal Battery of 18 18-pounders…It might be imagined that this cannonade would render the Regt incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount any difficulty. When we got within about 100 yards of the enemy, a large body of French cavalry galloped boldly down upon us; these our Men by reserving their fire immediately ruined…These visitants being thus dismissed…down came upon us like lightning the glory of France in the Persons of the Gens d’Armes. These were almost immediately dispersed…we now discovered a large body of Infantry…moving directly on our flank in Column…We engaged this Corps for about 10 minutes, kill’d them a good many, and as the Song says, the rest then ran away.

The next who made their appearance were some Regt’s of the Grenadiers of France, and as fine and terrible looking fellows as I ever saw. They stood us a tug notwithstanding we beat them to a distance…we advanced, they took the hint and run away.

Montgomery added a postscript. The noise of battle frightened the regimental sutler’s pregnant wife into premature labour: ‘She was brought to bed of A Son, and we have christened him by the name of Ferdinand.’

The Seven Years’ War was ended by the Treaty of Paris, a triumph for Britain, who gained territory at French expense. But France was soon to have her revenge. A constitutional dispute, focusing on the right to tax, led to war between Britain and her North American colonies in 1775. Although the British won a costly victory that year at Bunker Hill, just outside Boston, and, indeed, won the majority of the war’s pitched battles, they were unable to inflict a decisive defeat on George Washington’s Continental army, and their strength was eroded by repeated small actions in a landscape that was often decidedly hostile. France, heartened by the surrender of an army under Lieutenant General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777, joined the war. In 1781 Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis, commanding British forces in the southern states, was besieged at Yorktown by Washington and his French allies. Admiral de Grasse’s fleet prevented the Royal Navy from intervening, and in October Cornwallis surrendered in what was the greatest British military humiliation until the fall of Singapore in 1942. The Peace of Versailles ended the conflict, depriving Britain of many of the gains achieved in the Seven Years’ War.

France’s victory was dearly bought, for her finances collapsed under the strain of the war. Her government’s attempt at reform led to the summoning of the Estates General in 1789 and began the slide into revolution. War broke out between revolutionary France and old monarchical Europe in 1792, and Britain was drawn in the following year. The French Revolutionary Wars saw Britain’s Prime Minister, William Pitt, assemble two successive anti-French coalitions, but with little success. Overall the war’s pattern was clear enough. There was little to check the French on land, and they overran the Low Countries, scarcely inconvenienced by the intervention in 1793-95 of a British force under the Duke of York, although a French expedition to Egypt ended in failure. At sea, however, the Royal Navy was supreme, and by 1801 the war had run its course, with neither side able to do serious damage to the other, and peace was ratified at Amiens in 1802.

It did not endure for long, and war broke out again the following year. Napoleon Bonaparte, an artillery officer who had risen to eminence by a mixture of stunning military success and deft political opportunism, had become ruler of France, and in May 1804 he assumed the imperial title, gaining popular approval for a new constitution by a plebiscite. By 1812 he had defeated all the major continental powers save Britain, imposing the ‘Continental System’ designed to prevent British commerce with Europe. But that year he over-reached himself by invading Russia. His former enemies, sensing that the tide had turned, took the field against him, and in 1814 was beaten and forced to abdicate. The following year he staged the dramatic revival of the Hundred Days, but was decisively defeated by the British and Prussians at Waterloo, and abdicated once more, this time for good.

During the Napoleonic Wars Britain’s principal theatre of operations was the Iberian Peninsula where a British force, from 1809 under the command of General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later created Duke of Wellington, operated from its base in Portugal against French armies which always outnumbered the British but were constrained by a broader conflict against a hostile population. The British army fought a dozen major battles and endured several painful sieges. The battle of Albuera, on 16 May 1811, came about when a British, Spanish and Portuguese army under Lieutenant General Sir William Beresford blocked Marshal Nicolas Soult’s attempt to disrupt his siege of the French-held fortress of Badajoz.

It was one of the hardest infantry contests of the entire period. Soult fixed Beresford’s attention by feinting at the village of Albuera, in the Allied centre. He then unleashed a massive attack against Beresford’s right flank, where a Spanish division swung round to face the threat and fought gallantly, buying valuable time. A British infantry brigade under Lieutenant Colonel John Colborne – one of the stars of the age, who was to become a field marshal and a peer – moved up to support the Spaniards. It was locked in a firefight with enemy infantry when French hussars and Polish lancers fell on its open flank, at the very moment that a sudden cloudburst drenched the mens’ muskets so that they would not fire. Lieutenant George Crompton of the 66th Regiment told his mother of the catastrophe that ensued. It was:

the first time (and God knows I hope the last) I saw the backs of English soldiers turned upon the French…Oh, what a day was that. The worst of the story I have not related. Our Colours were taken. I told you before that the 2 Ensigns were shot under them; 2 Sergeants shared the same fate. A Lieutenant seized a musket to defend them, and he was shot to the heart: what could be done against Cavalry?

Two fresh British brigades then came into line, and Captain Moyle Sherer of the 34th Regiment relates how the powder smoke, so utterly characteristic of these battles, was snatched away for a moment to reveal:

the French grenadier caps, their arms, and the whole aspect of their frowning masses. It was a momentary, but a grand sight: a heavy atmosphere of smoke again enveloped us, and few objects could be discerned at all, none distinctly…This murderous contest of musketry lasted long. We were the whole time progressively advancing and shaking the enemy. At a distance of about twenty yards from them, we received orders to charge; we had ceased firing, cheered, and had our bayonets in the charging position, when a body of the enemy’s horse was discovered under the rising ground, ready to take advantage of our impetuosity. Already, however, the French infantry, alarmed by our preparatory cheers, which always indicate the charge, had broke and fled.

Perhaps five hundred yards to Sherer’s right was Ensign Benjamin Hobhouse of the 57th Regiment, which was engaged in a prodigious close-range firefight.

At this time our poor fellows dropped around us in every direction. In the activity of the officers to keep the men firm, and to supply them with the ammunition of the fallen, you could scarcely avoid treading on the dying and the dead. But all was firm…Tho’ alone, our fire never slackened, nor were the men in the least disheartened…Our Colonel, major, every captain and eleven subalterns fell; our King’s Colours were cut in two, our regimental ones had 17 balls through them, many companies were without officers…

Lieutenant Colonel William Inglis, hit in the chest by grapeshot, lay in front of the colours and encouraged his men by shouting ‘Die hard, 57th, die hard’. The 57th Regiment and its post-1881 successor the Middlesex Regiment, were to be proudly known as Diehards.

Finally, the Fusilier brigade – two battalions of 7th Royal Fusiliers and one of 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers – arrived to clinch the victory. In the ranks of 1/7th was Private John Spencer Cooper, an avid student of military history who had enlisted in the Volunteers in 1803 at the age of fifteen and transferred to the regulars in 1806. His book Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns, written up when Cooper was 81, gives a soldier’s view of the battle.

Under the tremendous fire of the enemy our line staggers, men are knocked about like skittles, but not a step backward is taken. Here our Colonel and all the field-officers of the brigade fell killed or wounded, but no confusion ensued. The orders were ‘close up’; ‘close in’; ‘fire away’; ‘forward’. This is done. We are close to the enemy’s columns; they break and rush down the other side of the hill in the greatest moblike confusion.

The word ‘moblike’ goes to the very heart of the matter. As the French columns disintegrated, so Soult’s army reverted to the shoal of individuals in which all armies have their origin, and to which, but for the efforts of drillmasters, leaders, and steadfast comrades, they return all too easily. Soult told Napoleon that he had been robbed of victory. ‘The British were completely beaten and the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’ Well might Sir William Napier, himself a Peninsular veteran, celebrate ‘that astonishing infantry’.

Britain’s command of the sea, re-emphasised at Trafalgar in 1805, enabled her to mount smaller expeditions. Sometimes these were successes, like the descent on Copenhagen in 1807, and sometimes failures, like the disastrous Buenos Aires expedition of 1806–7. The epoch had a tragic adjunct. An Anglo-American conflict – ‘the War of 1812’ – had begun promisingly for Britain with the repulse of an American attack on Canada and the temporary seizure of Washington, but ended in British defeat at New Orleans in January 1815, a battle fought before news of a negotiated peace reached North America.

It was not until 1854 that the British army faced its first major post-Napoleonic trial, and the final major war of our period, when an Anglo-French force, with its British contingent under General Lord Raglan, invaded the Crimea in an effort to take the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. The Allies won an early victory on the River Alma in September and beat off two Russian attacks on their siege lines at Balaclava and Inkerman. After a dreadful winter on freezing uplands, they took the outworks that dominated Sevastopol and forced the Russians to withdraw the following summer.

There was sporadic fighting in India throughout the period. In 1764 the British strengthened their grip on Bengal at the battle of Buxar, and in 1799 Tipoo Sultan, ruler of Mysore, was killed when the British stormed his capital Seringapatam. There were three wars against the fierce Mahrattas, whose confederacy sprawled across central India, and in the second (1803–5) they were beaten, with the future Duke of Wellington striking the decisive blow at Assaye (1803). The Pindaris, piratical freebooters who lived on the fringe of the Mahratta armies, were beaten in 1812–17, and a third Mahratta war in 1817–19 saw the British extend their power to the borders of the Punjab and Sind.

In 1838 the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, decided to install a pro-British ruler, Shah Shujah, on the throne of Afghanistan to provide a bulwark against the threat of Russian expansion. The advance to Kabul went well, but in the winter of 1841–42 there was rising against Shah Shujah. The British and Indian force, weakly commanded, retired from Kabul towards Jellalabad, but was cut to pieces as it did so: only one man, Dr Bryden, managed to reach safety.

Better fortune attended the next expansionist step, and in 1843 the British annexed Sind. This brought them into conflict with the martial Sikhs, rulers of the Punjab. In the first Sikh War (1845–46) the British won hard-fought battles at Mudki, Ferozeshah, Aliwal and Sobraon. When hostilities broke out again in 1848 the British had the better of a scrambling battle at Chilian wallah and a decisive clash at Gujerat, and went on to annex the Punjab.

Brown Bess was now almost a thing of the past, superseded from 1842 by a musket ignited by a percussion cap, which was far more reliable than the flintlock, and from 1853 by a percussion rifle. Ironically it was the introduction of this rifle into the Indian army that helped produce the last conflict of the period. The rifle’s paper cartridge was lubricated with grease, and rumours that this was the fat of pork (unclean to Muslims) or cattle (sacred to Hindus) induced some soldiers of the Bengal army to refuse the cartridges and precipitated the Indian Mutiny in March 1857. The mutineers took Delhi, and overwhelmed a British force at Cawnpore, where the survivors were massacred. Lucknow, capital of the princely state of Oudh, held out, and was eventually relieved after the British had taken Delhi by storm in September 1857.

The Mutiny was the last time that Brown Bess was carried in battle by British soldiers. Lieutenant Richard Barter, adjutant of the 75th Foot, – ‘the Stirlingshire Regiment, good men and true as ever had the honour of serving their Queen and Country’ – describes how a hundred men from his battalion were issued with the new rifle, ‘all the rest of the regiment retaining old Brown Bess’. But the new weapon was not deemed a success, and ‘the men, with few exceptions, contrived to get rid of their rifles and in their place picked up the old weapons of their dead comrades.’ Hobden would surely have approved.

Brown Bess had held sway for more than a century. But within a decade she was as obsolete as the longbow, superseded first by percussion weapons and finally by breech-loading rifles in a process of accelerating technical innovation. There were other major changes too: the purchase of commissions was abolished in 1871, and the regimental system was recast shortly afterwards to produce county regiments, with two regular battalions (the 37th joined the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment to produce the Hampshire Regiment) linked to form a new regiment which would normally have one battalion at home and another abroad. The process was not popular, and traditionalists demanded the return of ‘our numbers wreathed in glory.’ In 1884 Colonel Arthur Poole angrily declared that he could not possibly attend a Hampshire regimental dinner. ‘Damned names,’ he wrote, ‘mean nothing. Since time immemorial regiments have been numbered according to their precedence in the Line…I will not come to anything called a Hampshire Regimental dinner. My compliments, Sir, and be damned.’

Fire and Shock

By the beginning of the eighteenth century there appeared to be two approaches to fire tactics for infantry; one stressed firepower, the other shock, the charge with the bayonet. The first method was a case of controlled volleying, in either battalion or company form, or by alternate ranks, three at a time, with the aim of reducing the enemy’s numbers. The purpose of the firepower tactic was to batter the opponents’ will to stand their ground or crush their attempt to attack by launching a continuous fusillade of fire by each of the three ranks firing in turn. By the nineteenth century the firing line became two ranks.

The three ranks of the British Army during the early part of the eighteenth century would ‘lock up’ the files in the ranks for firing. The front rank would kneel down, the second rank would move slightly to its right and the third rank would move half a pace to its right making each file in echelon with the firelocks of the two rear ranks levelled through the file intervals.

On the command ‘make ready’ (present your firelocks), then (give) ‘fire’ the firing would be continuous with each rank firing in turn, setting up a constant fusillade of fire. A battalion could divide its fire by firing volleys from each company or division in turn, with those who had fired having time to reload.

Battle of Mollwitz / Roechling / 1895 1st Silesian War 1740-42 / Battle of Mollwitz 10 April 1741 (Prussia led by Frederick the Great defeats the Austrians led by Neipperg).

The second method was considered the most economical: firing one volley and then, with bayonets fixed, charging the enemy in a rapid advance to put fear into them and cause them to panic and flee, thus winning the ground. Battles were in the end a case of winning ground and holding it. This second method was the basis of Frederick the Great’s tactic of ‘Fire and Shock’. Infantry shock tactics were planned to put fear into the enemy. It was intended that it should not end in a hand-to-hand, bayonet-to-bayonet melee. It was not meant to end in actual contact but to crush the defenders’ resolve to stand their ground and induce them to break their ranks and retreat in panic before the attackers got too close. But there was a case where there was fierce contact and that was at the Battle of Culloden where James Wolfe instructed his men on how they should, with bayonets, repel the fearsome clansmen as they hurled themselves in their Highland charge. The clansmen carried a targe, or shield, in their left hand covering mainly the left part of their chest. Their broadswords were held aloft in their right hands, leaving the right side of the chest exposed. So he told the men to thrust their bayonets not at the man to the front but at the man to his right, who was partly exposed.

The master exponent of warfare in Europe in the eighteenth century was Frederick the Great, King of Prussia or, as known by his troops, ‘der Alte Fritz (Old Fritz)’. In 1748 he argued that the advance was likely to stall if attacking infantry stopped to fire. This was fatal as Frederick the Great said, ‘It is not the number of enemies we kill which gives the victory but the ground which we gain. To win a battle you must advance proudly and in good order claiming ground all the time.’

Frederick II (The Great), King of Prussia, formed a small but very successful army and created the Kingdom of Prussia out of the small state of Brandenburg. He did this in a series of battles with the basic principal of winning territory economically and holding it without incurring too many casualties and without causing unnecessary damage; he did not want to take territory that was ruined. The battles were fought for the most part on the great plain of northern Europe, which at that time was less encumbered and ideal for wide sweeping manoeuvres. The Prussian tactics were successful until they confronted the Revolutionary Army of the new French Republic.

With all the musket’s faults exposed it was Frederick who created his tactics of ‘fire and shock’. The general practice in the latter part of the seventeenth century into the eighteenth was for the attacking force to start by preparing a plan of attack. Bearing in mind the limited means of communication during this period, which was left almost entirely to the services of aides de camp, once battle started it had its own momentum and it would be very difficult to change the plan during the course of the battle. However, it is known that Napoleon had with him on campaign a mobile version of semaphore apparatus.

But Frederick realized that, if he could train his troops to react quickly to new orders during a battle, he could with judicious moves outmanoeuvre the enemy. For this reason constant drill was carried out and by the introduction of cadence marching in the early eighteenth century he could parade them onto the battlefield doing the ‘lock step’, better known as the goose step.

The system of fire and shock as developed by Frederick’s infantry precluded the major use of light troops such as the Feldjäger Corps, but after Frederick’s defeat at Kolin he saw the necessity for skirmishers and raised a company of jägers. After the Battle of Mollwitz he also realized the need for light troops. By the Second Silesian War he was able to meet the Austrians with their Grenz troops. As Scharnhorst said, ‘The present war against the French Republic reminded us of the principal that one should always try to regulate one’s disposition according to the enemy’s methods.’ Jägers were of little practical use in Frederick’s tactics, so they amounted to few in number and, because they were armed with rifles that took longer to load, they could not contribute to the overall system of rapid fire. As the short rifle could not be fitted with a bayonet the jägers carried short swords for personal protection. When Ezekiel Baker designed his rifle, based on a German design, he adapted the sword, or spadroon, to be fitted as a long bayonet giving the Baker rifle the same length as a musket with a fixed bayonet. In the Rifle regiments the bayonet is still referred to as a sword, with the order to fix swords.

The key to Frederick’s system was its harsh iron discipline and drill practised on the drill fields of Potsdam to make the men totally obedient so that every soldier behaved as one man. It was to instil into his troops or, one could say, programme them, to react to orders with speed and without question to perform their complicated evolutions and bring to bear as many muskets as possible on the enemy and deliver a wall of lead shot in the form of rolling volleys, all at great speed. Their will and steadfastness would eventually crush the weaker will of the enemy. These complicated evolutions were executed automatically in the din of battle to the sound of the drum when commands were smothered by the crescendo of cannon fire and everyone disappeared in clouds of smoke. When asked if he would prefer his soldiers to be thinking soldiers, Frederick said ‘If my soldiers began to think, not one would remain in the ranks.’

So long as both sides adhered to the established formations and manoeuvres of the eighteenth century there was no practical need for arms of greater precision. The rifle was expensive to manufacture, required greater training and had the disadvantage that it took longer to load. It was for these reasons that Napoleon banned the use of rifles. He was himself a poor shot with a hunting rifle, injuring a marshal when out hunting. It was accepted that you took your chance in battle; the ritual of the system was that some considered it against the accepted tenets and rules of warfare to deliberately pick off individuals which was seen as ungentlemanly.

Most European armies were impressed by the show of powder, pomp and pipe-clay, and the successes of Frederick’s regiments; many followed his system, hoping that it would also give them victories. One firm believer in all that was Prussian was David Dundas, the Adjutant General, who made visits to Potsdam, to witness training, and to Silesia to watch the manoeuvres of Frederick’s troops. He was impressed at the Prussian troops executing their manual drills and manoeuvres, impressive in their massed ranks, resplendent in their uniforms, marching dutifully, or robotically, into position with the balance step or lock step. But behind the spectacle of parades, bands, colours and pomp was a military structure that was harsh, brutal and dehumanising. He was also very critical of the concept, and use, of light infantry as it went against all the rules of Fredrician tactics, the proof being that the army of Prussia was the most successful in Europe, or had been up to 1806.

In 1788 Dundas produced his drill manual The Principles of military Movements, a modified version reduced to eighteen movements, based on the Fredrician tactics of the Prussian General von Salden’s Elements of Tactics. Dundas emphasized the importance of the pivot man; in all the wheeling and counter wheeling, the pivot man became vital to the smoothness of the operation, and consequently Dundas had the cognomen of ‘Old Pivot’.

Controlled Firing

Once the battalion had been deployed into the firing line a system of close fire control was applied. It was imperative that fire discipline was observed. It was the repetitive manual drills that embedded into the men the automatic response to fire orders. The premature firing off induced by tension and fear could encourage others to follow and destroy the controlled fire pattern. There were two different systems. At the beginning of the eighteenth century it was known as ‘platoon firing’, or firing by ‘chequer’, which was much used by Marlborough’s regiments and was in common use until the 1750s. This was replaced by a system known as ‘alternate firing’, which continued until the turn of the nineteenth century and was easier to execute than ‘platoon fire’; but both required intensive training before they could function in any action. ‘Alternate fire’ consisted of fire given by companies, platoons, or other divisions going from right and left alternatively towards the centre of the battalion line; ‘platoon fire’ consisted of fire given by platoons grouped into three ‘firings’, all the platoons in each shooting together according to a prearranged sequence.

‘Alternate fire’ was officially adopted with the publication of the new Regulations in 1764, although those battalions who were well trained were already practising it. Such a regiment was the 20th Foot, whose commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel James Wolfe.

Wolfe was a first-class officer who trained his troops well according to the current regulations, but at the same time he thought ‘alternate fire’ far more practical than the current regulation ‘platoon fire’, the ‘impracticable chequer’ as he described it and so he taught both in the 20th.

Wolfe issued a regimental order in January 1755 which stated:

As the alternative fire by platoon or devisions [sic], or by companies is the most simple, plain and easy, and used by the best disciplined troops in Europe (i.e. the Prussians), we are at all times to imitate them in that respect … (and otherwise) to conform to the established discipline, and to practise all those things that are required at the reviews, to which the knowledge of other matters be no hindrance.

Not all commanding officers were as thorough as James Wolfe. Many did not observe the contemporary practices and follow the standard drill manual, which was rarely referred to, so drill was left very much to the fancy of each commanding officer. It was not always possible to assemble three regiments together to form a brigade for a field day or a mock battle; these could not take place until the commanding officers agreed beforehand to a common form of drill, as each regiment could be practising its own version.

Wolfe pointed out that officers should inform the soldiers of their platoons, before the action begins, where they were to direct their fire; and they were to take good aim to destroy their adversaries. Furthermore, ‘There is no necessity for firing very fast; a cool well levelled fire, with pieces carefully loaded, is much more destructive and formidable than the quickest fire in confusion.’ There were some particulars in relation to firearms that soldiers should know:

One is, the quantity of powder that throws a ball out of a musket in the truest direction to the mark, and to the greatest distance; a matter of experience and practice will best discover; soldiers are apt to imagine that a great quantity of powder has the best effect, which is a capital error. The size of the cartridge with ball is another material consideration, because when the musket grows hot with repeated firing, a ball too near the calibre of the musket will not go down without great force, and the danger of firing the piece when the ball is not rammed well home is well known (i.e. the musket will blow up); the soldiers should be informed that no other force in ramming down a charge is necessary than to collect the powder and place the ball close upon it. If the ball is rammed too hard upon the powder, a great part of it will not take fire and consequently the shot will be of so much less force.

Eighteenth-century drill books illustrated the positions of the soldiers in the manual drills. None of the illustrations of the soldiers at the ‘present’ and ‘fire’ positions show them actually taking aim along the barrel; the soldier is usually shown with his head held erect. Also, none of the front rank men in the kneeling position are shown supporting the weight of the musket to steady the aim by placing the elbow on the knee. None of the Land Pattern muskets were fitted with sights except the light infantry musket. They could use the bayonet lug as a guide, but this would be obscured if the bayonet were fitted. It was probably thought that taking aim after the first discharge was unnecessary as all would be shrouded in clouds of powder smoke and would be unable to see a thing.

As the eighteenth century progressed the British Army was gaining confidence in its standing as an army built on Marlborough’s successes during the War of the Spanish Succession against the forces of Louis XIV, confident in its prowess to bear arms and face all known enemies; proud of its reputation as a master of the delivery of firepower equal to all in Europe, especially the French. But the French were once again contesting Britain’s interests, although not in Europe. In 1754 disturbing despatches from Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia had reached King George II.

The Twenty-first Century’s Rifle

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, early 2006

The fourteen Marines, ready to dash, waited for the signal. It was a cold February morning on a firing range just inland from North Carolina’s coast. The Marines, members of Second Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, were preparing for a deployment in the Anbar province of Iraq, and on this day they had set aside their M-4s and M-16s. In front of them, a short jog away, were fourteen Kalashnikov assault rifles, disassembled, unloaded, resting on the ground. At the signal, the Marines were to sprint to the rifles, reassemble them, perform a function check, load a magazine, and fire into a man-shaped target, aiming for the face and chest. Their rifles were a mix of Kalashnikov variants. They came from Romania, Russia, China, and North Korea. One was an original AK-47 from Izhevsk, assembled from solid machined steel, date-stamped 1954. It was fifty-two years old—almost three times the age of some of the men about to fire it.

The Corps had a nickname for this test: Just In Case. In the tour ahead for these Marines, their officers wanted to be sure that they could pick up a Kalashnikov, in any condition, whether from an allied Iraqi soldier or from an insurgent in a close-range fight, and use the weapon immediately and well. The signal was given. The Marines were sprinting. Thirty seconds or so later, the first of them were firing. Holes began to appear in their targets’ heads.

After almost six decades, the long travels of the Kalashnikov assault rifle had achieved the inevitable state: full saturation. Decades earlier the first AK-47s had left Soviet hands, and in the years since they had become the hand weapon of choice for strongmen, criminals, terrorists, and messianic guerrilla leaders. In time the Kalashnikov had also become a preferred arm for those who fought against the Soviet Union or Russia, and those who organized genocide. And now it was institutionalized in the training of American infantrymen. It could not, with all prudence, be any other way. In the battles ahead, every one of these Marines would encounter Kalashnikovs in the hands of allies and enemies alike. To see Marines prepare themselves around these simple facts, training with the signature socialist arm on one of the most prominent American military bases, was to grasp the extent of Kalashnikov saturation in modern war.

What does saturation mean? It would be naïve to think that war would stop without these weapons. It wouldn’t. It would be just as naïve to think that many of the consequences of war as it has been waged in recent decades might not be lessened if these rifles were in fewer hands, and not so available for future conflicts. For how long will battlefields be so? The answer is straightforward—as long as the rifles exist in the outsized numbers the Cold War left behind.

Much attention is paid to accountability, security, and destruction of potential materials for weapons of mass destruction. With lesser urgency and smaller budgets, efforts to secure and destroy antipersonnel land mines have become widely accepted. In the past decade or so, similar attention has been given to efforts to eliminate stocks of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons, whose existence threatens the security of air transportation. The notion of regulating military firearms and destroying excess stockpiles enjoys much less support and faces considerable opposition, no matter that illicit uses of assault rifles have killed and wounded far more people than have all of these other weapons combined.

There are many reasons for this. Part of it is that surplus small arms are regarded as foreign-policy tools to be kept in reserve. Part of it is that to many government officials, honest and corrupt alike, surplus small arms are commodities, items to be converted to cash. Part of it is the manner in which priorities are set. Infantry arms that are loose in the field are exceedingly difficult to account for or collect. Surplus arms, locked up in armories, do not seem to cry for attention. Domestic and international politics play a role, too. The governments most responsible for the widespread distribution of military assault rifles—Russia, China, and the United States—have, for different reasons, shown little to no interest in destroying their excess weapons or those of other governments, even when they are not needed by standing military forces, and even when they endanger their own troops.

The United States has underwritten destruction programs. These have been small in ambition and scale, low in priority and funding, and undermined by official incoherence. Moreover, domestic politics in the United States have hindered any American government from trying to undo assault-rifle proliferation, at least as more than a backwater project. The climate of mutual distrust—between those who would seek to regulate and destroy more military assault rifles and those who claim that any such steps risk infringing the right of American citizens to bear arms—is of such an order that those who direct American foreign policy often steer clear of the issue. There is also a psychological hurdle. The near ubiquity of military assault rifles in conflict zones can send the subliminal signal that nothing can be done, except perhaps to arm more people against those who already have the guns. This is a typical course. Where armed groups threaten a perceived American interest, a common solution is to send in more guns to counter them. In this way, the United States military, since 2001, became one of the largest known purchasers of Kalashnikov assault rifles, which it has handed out by the tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The processes of arms reduction are not completely idled. Some aspects of nonproliferation have broad international support, and certain procedural and legislative elements of trafficking control are here to stay. But the efforts are patchwork and are undermined by inattentive and uninterested governments, and by governments that actively flout the rules. Local successes have occurred. More successes remain possible. Diligent researchers and nongovernment groups, along with individual officers, can stop bad practices here and there. But there is little momentum and many loopholes, and there is little reason to think that on the grand scale much will be done to keep the flow of illegal infantry arms in check. The case of Leonid Minin, the Ukrainian-Israeli arms dealer arrested near Milan, illustrated the state of affairs. Caught with documents describing the illegal shipment of nearly fourteen thousand Kalashnikovs and 9 million rounds of ammunition, Minin was released from custody after Italian courts ruled that Italy had no jurisdiction over his black-market brokering activities elsewhere. He walked. Had he been convicted and remained in jail, the trade would have continued. Where assault rifles are wanted, recent history shows, they appear. They move across borders like any other contraband, like heroin or hashish, like illegal immigrants, almost like rain. They are liquid. Demand ensures supply.

The comparison to illicit drugs has its limits. Like narcotics, assault rifles are difficult to find, secure, and remove once they have been distributed within a population. Unlike narcotics, they are not consumable. They remain in their users’ possession, sometimes for decades. From 2001 through 2009, it was possible to find Kalashnikov assault rifles in Afghanistan bearing manufacturing stamps from as far back as 1953.2 These were some of the very first AK-47s made. They had been forged, machined, and assembled nearly six decades before in Izhevsk. If they had been accompanied by log books revealing the names of those who had carried them, each would likely tell of years in the hands of Soviet conscripts, then of a period of reissue to the Soviet Union’s Afghan forces. They survived from there, in militias and caches, until they resurfaced in the hands of the current generation of Afghan police officers and soldiers, the proxies of the United States, alongside Kalashnikovs that originated in arms plants throughout the former communist bloc—Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Russia, China, and elsewhere. The wooden stocks of these most aged AK-47s showed dents and dings. Otherwise most of these rifles appeared to be in excellent order, ready to fire for decades more.

Of all the methods to limit illegal trafficking in military arms, only one way is sure: destruction. Destruction can happen any number of ways. The most straightforward and effective method is to destroy excess rifles in government stockpiles, or those that are collected in conflict zones. Programs along these lines have faced obstacles of all sorts, ranging from practical to ideological. The urge to redistribute the arms often outweighs suggestions to destroy them. In this way, efforts to disarm Iraq and Afghanistan failed. Few arms were collected, and commanders who did obtain working rifles often reissued them to people considered, at least at the moment, supportive of the American military’s mission. In stockpiles, other pressures prevented destruction, and many of the nations that have the largest stocks of weapons—Ukraine, for example—have participated in destruction programs only on a small scale. No sustained will has emerged to cut up the guns, in part because guns and ammunition can still be converted to money. The United States sent mixed messages and created uncomfortable situations in the Eastern bloc. During the past decade, one arm of the United States government, the State Department, was encouraging ministries to destroy excess weapons. Another, the Department of Defense, was shopping for the same items in the same countries and often purchasing through some of the same black-market middlemen who have been accused of smuggling.

Is there an end? Yes. But the end of the Kalashnikov’s role as a primary tool for killing will not result, in all likelihood, from any disarmament program or policies. The final factor will be time. Kalashnikovs are sturdy, but not indestructible. They can and do break—sometimes when backed over by an armored vehicle or car, sometimes when struck by bullets or shrapnel, occasionally when warped by fire. If left exposed and unattended long enough, they can succumb to pitting, corrosion, and rust. With the passing of many years, the combined tally of these forces will bring an end to these weapons. This will not be a short time. It will not even be decades. But in another half-century, or century, the rifles will have broken, one by one, and the chance exists that they will no longer be a significant factor in war, terror, atrocity, and crime, and they will stop being a barometer of the insecurity gripping many regions of the world. Until that time, they will remain in view and in use. Mikhail Kalashnikov was right. The AK-47 is one of the great legacies of the Soviet period. Its descendants will outlast the Soviet Union for decades more, products intended to strengthen nations that have made many nations weaker and put more people at risk.


One of the first breech-loading weapons that saw military service was the Ferguson rifle. This was designed by Captain Patrick Ferguson of the 70th Regiment (Surrey Regiment). In March 1776 he took out a patent in London for a flintlock screw-plug breech-loading rifle. Ferguson acknowledged his debt to Chaumette but incorporated in his design certain modifications that were intended to overcome the fouling problem that had bedeviled the design up to that point. He introduced a smooth section cut across the threads that faced the chamber when the weapon was loaded and closed, he had vertical grooves cut into the threads, and he had a small reservoir behind the breech plug.

The system operated in a very simple, soldier-proof fashion, in that one turn of the trigger guard opened the mechanism to the full extent. The soldier then put a ball into the hole on top of the rifle and let gravity feed it to the forward part of the chamber. He then poured powder in to charge the weapon and simply rewound the trigger guard to close the weapon. He could then brush any surplus powder left on top of the breech directly into the pan or, if it was windy or there was no surplus, could charge the pan, cock, and fire.
The Ferguson rifle was a remarkable piece of engineering in that the matched screw threads of the male (the rotating plug) and the female (the breech hole) were mated exceptionally well, making the action extremely smooth to operate. The example (by Durs Egg) held in the Weapons Collection of the Small Arms School Corps (at the School of Land Warfare on the outskirts of Warminster, Wiltshire, England) is still operable, and even fireable, and the rotating lever action functions perfectly.

The weapon was a rifleman’s dream at the time, being easy to load and fire and relatively easy to clean and maintain. It also has a pleasing balance. It was a weapon that would have made the British Army, had it adopted it wholesale, the leading force in rifle use and would have served the army far better than the rag-tag of weapons that were used in its stead.


The rifled arm as a military weapon did not truly come into use until the eighteenth century. However, the Landgraf of Hesse had a troop of riflemen in 1631, and ten years later Maximilian of Bavaria had several troops armed with rifled arquebuses. Louis XIII armed his bodyguard with rifles, and later ordered that two men from every light cavalry regiment should be so armed. These men were later formed into a regiment of carbineers, but the first issue carbine did not appear until 1793. The English learned the value of the rifle when it was used against them in the American War of Independence; they hired Continental Jäger to take on the American backwoodsmen, whose accuracy was streets ahead of the musket armed infantry of the line.

There are other examples of small rifle armed units in the eighteenth century, such as the Austrian chasseurs, sharpshooters, and skirmishers who were issued with a rifle in 1759. Austrian border guard sharpshooters were issued with special over-and-under rifles in 1768, with a smoothbore lower barrel and a rifled upper barrel for firing patched ball. The rifle was fired resting on the hook of a long pike, which served as a protection if the riflemen were attacked. The Russians issued a similar weapon between 1776 and 1796.
As far as the British Army was concerned, it received its first firearms in 1471, when the hand cannon was introduced. This was followed by the matchlock, which remained in use (only a few wheel locks were ever issued on the grounds of cost and complication) until the reign of James I (1603–1626), when some flintlocks were issued to the leading regiments. Muskets came into general use in the reign of William III; from these muskets developed the “Brown Bess” weapon, which served the British Army for over 100 years.
Brown Bess fired a ball two sizes smaller than its caliber, to allow for easy loading, but range and accuracy were laughable. Greener commented that “the immense escape of explosive matter past the ball prevented the possibility of any velocity worthy of the name being given to the ball, and the range is the most contemptible of any gun I know: 120 yards is the average distance at which the balls strike the ground when fired horizontally at five feet above the level.”

Rifles were issued to the British Army as early as 1800, but in such small numbers as to be ineffective. The 95th Foot, the Rifle Brigade, was the first regiment to have this new weapon, which it used, it seems, without being officially noticed by the British War Office, until the Brunswick rifle was introduced in 1835.