Soviet WWII Machine Guns

The Soviets were latecomers to machine-gun development generally. Prior to World War I, the czarist army bought machine guns from other countries and manufactured some under license. For this reason, Russian machine-gun development and production had to start virtually from scratch after the Russian Revolution. A top priority was the development of a light machine gun to replace the Lewis, Hotchkiss, Madsen, and Chauchat left over from World War I. It had been difficult to get spare parts, and the weapons’ various ammunition calibers placed stress on the logistics system. The Soviets also had many water-cooled Maxims left and the factories to build them, so the initial effort went into developing a lightweight conversion of the Maxim. Several designers were given the task of coming up with independent designs for the conversion. F. V. Tokarev came up with the winner, in which he modified the Maxim by replacing the water-cooled sleeve around the barrel with a slotted jacket to produce a light, air-cooled weapon with a rifle butt and pistol grip. After extensive testing, the Maxim-Tokarev was finally approved in 1925 as the future light machine gun. However, Soviet troops complained that the weapon was still too heavy to meet the requirements for a light machine gun. Modifications were made, but the Soviet high command realized that the weapon was still only the extension of an outmoded design. So they gave another designer, Vasily A. Alexeyevich Degtyarev, the task of developing an entirely new light machine gun.

Degtyarev’s first successful model was the Degtyareva Pulemet (DP), which appeared in 1926. The DP was a simple, gas-operated weapon with only six moving parts. It proved very reliable in the harsh conditions it would be subjected to in the coming war. It fitted a visually distinctive drum magazine on the top of the weapon that held 49 rounds. In action, it was served by a two-man crew. The DP, including the infantry, tank, and aircraft versions, would be used in very large numbers throughout World War II.

A close relative to the DP, the Degtyareva Pulemet Tankovii (Degtyarev-Type Machine Gun, or DT) was first issued in 1929. It was designed for use in armored vehicles but was basically the same gun as the DP. Both weapons saw service with Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, during which some deficiencies in design were noted. Modifications were made, and the two guns went on to become the principal squad and antitank machine guns in the Red Army for most of World War II. In 1944, the DP was modified into the DPM. Although there were some problems with the fragile tin drum magazine, the DP, DT, and DPM proved remarkably reliable under the harshest conditions.

Because of the initial difficulties in establishing an indigenous machine-gun industry, the Soviets had to develop mediums and heavys for their forces, still armed with the Maxim 1910 model. As part of the first Five-Year Plan for reequipping the Soviet Army, the Maxim 1910 underwent modifications to modernize the design. However, as was the case with the light machine gun, the Soviets wanted a new design to replace the older weapon. In the late 1920s, specifications were published for a replacement for the Maxim. The new weapon was to be similar in mechanism to the DP and DT guns to ensure uniformity of training. It was to be air-cooled and belt-fed, with a rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute, weigh not more than 30 kilograms (66 pounds), and a tripod mounting with or without wheels.

In 1930, Vasily Degtyarev, in conjunction with G. Sergei Shpagin, produced a design that met the Red Army specifications. The Degtyarev Stankovy (Degtyarev Mounted, or DS) was a tripod-mounted machine gun in caliber 7.62mm using the same gas-piston and lock system as the DPs and DTs, but with a belt feed and a very heavily finned barrel. It was adopted in 1939, but there were serious problems with the design. The weapon ripped cartridges to pieces when withdrawing them from the belt, and it jammed in dusty conditions and froze up in cold weather. Ultimately, only 10,000 DS guns were made; production of the Maxim 1910/30 was restarted.

While trying to perfect the new MMG design, the Soviets also recognized the need for a true heavy machine gun that could be used against aircraft, light armor, and similar hard targets. Degtyarev was again called upon, although he was still busy trying to perfect the DS. He devised a caliber .50-inch gun that employed his locking and gas-piston system. Using a drum magazine, the new weapon, designated the Degtyarev Krupnokalibernyi (Degtyarev Heavy Caliber, or DK), was approved in 1933. The gun was reasonably well designed, but during tests users complained of a low cyclic rate of fire and difficulty in changing the bulky drum magazines. Production was stopped, and Degtyarev went back to the drawing board. Once again, he called in G. S. Shpagin to assist in modifying the design, particularly with regard to the feed problems.

The result of this collaboration was the 12.7mm Degtyarev-Shpagin Krupnokalibernyi (Large Caliber Degtyarev-Shpagin) 38 (DShK 38), submitted for initial testing in 1938. The DShK was similar to the Browning M2 but was gas-operated. Degtyarev contributed the gas operation and locking system from his DP LMG series, and Shpagin devised a novel way to extract incoming rounds from the belt by means of a rotary-feed cylinder. The DShK 38 saw extensive service during World War II; it became the infantry heavy-support machine gun and also became the universal air-defense machine gun in the Red Army; by the beginning of 1944, 8,000 were in the field.

By the beginning of World War II, all the major military powers had a range of choices of LMGs, MMGs, and HMGs. Many had been tested in combat during the 1930s in places like Manchuria beginning in 1931 and the Chaco Wars between Bolivia and Paraguay in 1932. The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, and the Italians invaded Abyssinia that same year. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Italy invaded Albania. In all of these conflicts, machine guns played an important role, providing firepower for infantry, close-in protection for tanks and other vehicles, and armament for ships, fighters, and bombers. Although the machine gun would not rule the battlefield in World War II as it had in World War I, it would still play a major role in combat on the ground, in the air, and at sea.

World War II

The Soviets entered the war with a mix of medium Maxims and light Degtyarevs, with the DShK being produced to replace the Maxims. However, when the Red Army attacked Finland in the 1939 Winter War, its DP and DT machine guns did not operate as well as hoped in the cold environment. They experienced major problems, especially the failure of return springs. Several quick fixes were tried but proved unsatisfactory. Eventually, the spring design and placement were radically changed; the resulting weapons were designated the DP Modernized (DPM). Similar changes were applied to the DT, resulting in the DTM, which was the tank and armored vehicle version.

Other modifications and revisions were made in the early years of the war, including converting them to belt-feed, but this made the DPM too heavy, and the long, flapping ammunition belt was a nuisance to the gunner when sprinting to a new position. It is suspected that the DPM was merely a stopgap pending the development of better weapons.

While production of the DPM continued, the Soviets put engineers to work developing a new 7.62mm LMG. A number of designers, including Vasily Degtyarev, Sergei Simonov, and Mikhail Kalashnikov (his first appearance as a designer; he would later become famous for his assault rifle), participated in this competition. Degtyarev offered two gas-operated guns, one belt-fed and the other with a top-mounted box magazine. Simonov designed a gas-operated weapon. Kalashnikov presented a short-recoil design. The Simonov design was selected after initial trials, but the weapon was neither durable nor accurate.

By the middle of 1943, the Soviets had developed a new short cartridge, the 7.62x39mm, and this led to a rethinking of the LMG concept in the Red Army.

Although the new round had been developed for the assault rifle, it was accurate out to 800 meters, sufficient for the squad light automatic weapon. A call went out for designs using the new cartridge. A number were submitted, and after trials the Degtyarev entry was selected. It was approved in 1944 as the RPD (Ruchnyy Pulyemet Systema Degtyarev-Light Machine Gun by Degtyarev).

The RPD was a derivative of the earlier DP and DPM models but was belt-fed from a drum clipped beneath the gun. For the first time, Soviet infantrymen had a machine gun that they could pick up and use in the assault. Unlike most LMGs, it had a fixed barrel, and the gunner had to be careful to avoid firing more than 100 rounds in one minute to prevent overheating. The war ended before this weapon could be perfected. It would go into full production in 1953 and proved to be a rugged and effective design; it became the standard squad automatic weapon for the Red Army and for Soviet client states.

The Soviets also developed a medium machine gun during World War II. The Degtyarev DS MMG had proved a failure in service, and production was halted in 1941. The Red Army reverted to the Maxim M1910, but when the Germans attacked in OPERATION BARBAROSSA, the supply of machine guns was woefully inadequate. The choices were to build more factories to turn out more of the older model, or to come up with an entirely new design. Pyotr Goryunov had already been working on a medium, and in June 1941 he demonstrated his design to the military. He was instructed to make 50 guns for extensive testing, including some sent to front-line units. The reports were favorable; after some revisions and more tests, it was adopted in May 1943 as the 7.62mm Stankovyi Goryunova 43 (SG43). The SG43 was gas-operated and air-cooled. It was fed by belt and was usually mounted on a wheeled carriage similar to that used with the Maxim 1910. During the Winter War of 1944 against Finland, the SG43 was mounted on a sled for easier movement over snow. It is extremely heavy but was very good for use in the defense. This gun was manufactured in some numbers during the war but never entirely replaced the PM1910, which stayed in production right till war’s end and remained in front-line service with the Soviet Army into the 1980s.

The Soviets also used the 12.7mm DShK HMG during World War II. It had originally been employed primarily as an antiaircraft weapon, but by 1943 it was in wide use in the infantry support role. With the increase in usage, problems with the weapon became apparent; chief among these was a feed problem. Modifications were made to the Shpagin feed system, and various other parts were strengthened, making the gun easier to manufacture, more reliable, and less likely to jam. The new model was designated the DShKM 38/46.

Degtyaryov machine gun DP-27

The Degtyaryov machine gun or DP-27 is a light machine gun firing the 7.62×54mmR cartridge that was primarily used by the Soviet Union, with service trials starting in 1927 followed by general deployment in 1928. Besides being the standard Soviet infantry light machine gun (LMG) during WWII, with various modifications it was used in aircraft as a flexible defensive weapon, and it equipped almost all Soviet tanks in WWII as either a flexible bow machine gun or a co-axial machine gun controlled by the gunner. It was improved in 1943 producing the DPM, but it was replaced in 1946 with the RP-46 which improved on the basic DP design by converting it to use belt feed. The DP machine gun was supplemented in the 1950s by the more modern RPD machine gun and entirely replaced in Soviet service by the general purpose PK machine gun in the 1960s.


    DPM, modernized version adopted in 1943–44, with a more robust bipod fastened to the cooling jacket and the recoil spring housed in a tube projecting from the rear of the receiver which necessitated a pistol grip for this model of the weapon (manufactured in China as the Type 53)

    DA, for mounting and loading in aircraft. Also used in tandem mounts known as DA-2. Employed in the early versions of the Tupolev TB-3 bomber and in the Polikarpov R-5 and Polikarpov Po-2 army cooperation aircraft. The DA weighted 7.1 kg empty and 11.5 kg with standard ammunition load. Its rate of fire was 600 rounds per minute. It was built between 1928 and March 1930 with 1,200 units delivered. It was soon superseded by the ShKAS, which had a much higher rate of fire.

    DT and DTM, for mounting and loading in armoured fighting vehicles. The DT (Pulemet Degtyareva Tankovii) is a close relative of the DP. It was originally designed for use in armored vehicles but is basically the same as the DP. It has an adjustable metal butt and can be fitted with a bipod for ground use. The DT was fitted to most of the Russian tanks used during World War II, including the famous T34 series.

    DTM-4, quad mounted variant.


    RP-46: metallic-belt fed version adopted in 1946 with a heavier barrel to allow prolonged sustained fire. About 500 rounds could be fired continuously before the barrel had to be swapped or allowed to cool down. Also had a user-adjustable gas system, with three holes of varying diameters provided, to cope with varying environmental conditions and residue buildup. Although the empty weight of the RP-46 exceeded that of DP by 2.5 kg, when considered together with a single ammo box of 250 rounds, the RP-46 weighed 10 kg less than the DP together with the same amount of ammunition in DP pans. The RP-46 remained in Soviet service for 15 years before it was replaced (together with the SGM) by the PK machine gun. The RP-46 was later manufactured in China as the Type 58 and in North Korea as the Type 64. The RP-46 could still fire from DP-style magazines by removing its belt-feeding system. The online tactical shooter game Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege features an RP-46 configured to feed from DP magazines as the signature weapon of Spetsnaz operator Alexsandr “Tachanka” Senaviev. The original belt-fed RP-46 is used by the NVA/PAVN and the VC/NLF in the tactical shooter Rising Storm 2: Vietnam.

The original DP is more commonly called the DP-28 (or DP-27), although there is some confusion as to whether these are official designations or not.

Degtyaryov DS-39

DS-39 was a Soviet medium machine gun, designed by Vasily Degtyaryov, that was used during the Second World War. The work on the gun’s design began in 1930, and it was accepted by the Red Army in September, 1939. About 10,000 were made from 1939 to 1941, but the weapon was not successful in service and its production was discontinued after the German invasion of June, 1941, with factories converted to produce the older, more reliable Russian M1910 Maxim machine guns. It was later replaced by the SG-43 in service.

About 200 were captured by Finland in 1941 and issued to Finnish troops.

SG-43 Goryunov

The SG-43 Goryunov was a Soviet medium machine gun that was introduced during the Second World War. It was chambered for the 7.62×54mmR cartridge, and was introduced in 1943 as a replacement for the older M1910 Maxim machine guns. It was mounted on wheeled mounts, tripods and armored vehicles.

PM M1910

The PM M1910 is a medium machine gun that was used by the Imperial Russian Army during World War I and the Red Army during Russian Civil War and World War II. Later the gun saw service in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The Soviet Union manufactured more PM1910 Maxim guns and would keep them in service until the end of World War II, manufacturing more than 600,000 units.


     Russian Empire

        Maxim’s machine gun model 1910 on a wheeled Sokolov’s mount

        Maxim’s machine gun model 1915 on a wheeled Kolesnikov’s mount

     Soviet Union

        Maxim’s machine gun model 1910 on an antiaircraft tripod

        Maxim’s machine gun model 1910/30 on a wheeled Vladimirov’s mount


        PV-1 machine gun



        Maxim M/09-21

        Maxim M/32-33

    Poland Second Polish Republic

        7.92mm Maxim wz. 1910/28

RPD machine gun

The RPD is a 7.62mm light machine gun developed in the Soviet Union by Vasily Degtyaryov for the 7.62×39mm M43 intermediate cartridge. It was created as a replacement for the DP machine gun chambered for the 7.62×54mmR round. It is a precursor of most squad automatic weapons. It was succeeded in Soviet service by the RPK.


During its service life, the weapon was modernized several times. Initially, the gas block was modified as was the rear sight, where the windage adjustment knob for the rear sight was moved to the left side of the notch. Later, the RPD was modified with a non-reciprocating cocking mechanism with a folding charging handle (replacing the fixed charging handle connected to the bolt carrier) that does not move during firing. The feed port received a dust cover, which when open, serves as a feeding ramp for the ammunition belt. This version of the light machine gun was produced mainly in China and Poland. A further modified variant (sometimes referred to as the RPDM) includes an extended gas cylinder and a recoil buffer mechanism in the stock. Late production RPD variants also had the fixed drum attachment removed (instead, the ammunition container was “hung” from the feed port cover) and feature a folding cleaning rod, that is stored in the weapon’s butt (in the Chinese Type 56-1 variant).


The DShK 1938 is a Soviet heavy machine gun with a V-shaped “butterfly” trigger, firing the 12.7×108mm cartridge. The weapon was also used as a heavy infantry machine gun, in which case it was frequently deployed with a two-wheeled mounting and a single-sheet armour-plate shield. It took its name from the weapons designers Vasily Degtyaryov, who designed the original weapon, and Georgi Shpagin, who improved the cartridge feed mechanism. It is sometimes nicknamed Dushka (a dear or beloved person) in Russian-speaking countries, from the abbreviation.


    DShKM: modernized version

    Type 54: Chinese unlicensed production. Also produced in Pakistan with a Chinese license.

KPV heavy machine gun

The KPV-14.5 heavy machine gun is a Soviet designed 14.5×114mm-caliber heavy machine gun, which first entered service as an infantry weapon (designated PKP) in 1949. In the 1960s, the infantry version was taken out of production because it was too large and heavy. It was later redesigned for anti-aircraft use, because it showed excellent results as an AA gun, with a range of 3,000 meters horizontally and 2,000 meters vertically against low flying planes. It was used in the ZPU series of anti-aircraft guns. Its size and power also made it a useful light anti-armour weapon on the BTR series of vehicles and the BRDM-2 scout car.


The first recorded combat use of the Maxim was in the British colony of Sierra Leone on 21 November 1888. A small punitive expedition under General Sir Francis de Winton was sent out to deal with a tribe that had been raiding various settlements. The British troops took with them a caliber .45 Maxim gun that de Winton had purchased. Using the Maxim, the British troops rapidly routed their opponents at the fortress of Robari. A contemporary report in London’s Daily Telegraph noted that the “tremendous volley” of fire caused the tribesmen to flee for their lives; it further stated, “Such was the consternation created by the rapid and accurate shooting of the gun that the chief war town was evacuated, as well as the other villages of the same nature, and the chiefs surrendered, and are now in prison.”

The British Army adopted the Maxim in 1889, originally in caliber .45 but later in caliber .303. The Maxim changed the equation in colonial battles, giving the Europeans a decisive advantage. One of the first uses of the new weapon after its official adoption by the British Army was by colonial forces in the Matabele War of 1893-1894 in the Northern Transvaal of South Africa. A detachment of 50 British infantrymen with four Maxims defended them- selves against 5,000 native warriors who charged them five times over 90 minutes. Each time, the charges were stopped about 100 paces in front of the English lines by the devastating Maxims. It was recorded that 5,000 dead lay in front of the English position after the battle.

Maxims were also used effectively by British colonial troops on the Afghan frontier during the Chitral campaign of 1895 against the mountain tribesmen of the Hindu Kush. Elsewhere, the Maxim continued to make a name for itself. In 1898, at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, the disciples of the Mahdi, the fabled Dervishes, repeatedly hurled themselves against British lines, only to be re- pulsed each time by six Maxim guns firing 600 shots per minute. “It was not a battle, but an execution,” reported G. W. Steevens. “The bodies were not in heaps … but … [were] spread evenly over acres and acres.” Another British observer proclaimed, “To the Maxim primarily belongs the victory which stamped out Dervish rule in the Sudan.” It is doubtful that Lord Kitchener and his troops could have prevailed without the Maxim guns.

Still, the weapon was not without its limitations. The Maxims were not well-suited for mobile warfare in mountains and jungles, where the enemy could fight dispersed or become invisible. There were also difficulties in effectively employing the weapons; pushed too far forward, they might become isolated and their crews overwhelmed. Also, the Maxim, at this point in its development, was not free of mechanical problems and had a tendency to jam at the most inopportune times. Nevertheless, the Maxim in the hands of British troops proved successful in colonial campaigns on the Indian frontier, in the Sudan, and in Africa. Still, progress in selling the army at home in Britain on the utility of the machine gun was very slow. This suggested that military authorities were not yet convinced of its applicability to more traditional concepts of warfare due to the limitations of the weapons. The British War Office exhibited little interest, regarding it as useful in warfare against colonials but having little utility on the civilized European battlefield. Such an attitude would inhibit the consideration of new tactics and doctrines to make the most efficient use of these deadly weapons.


Maxim went back to his workshop and dedicated himself to improving the weapon and making it lighter, simpler, and more reliable. Within three months, he completed a major overhaul of the original design. The weapon, reduced to just over 40 pounds in weight, still used recoil as the driving force, but Maxim replaced the flywheel crank with a toggle-type lock that greatly simplified the extraction, feeding, and firing cycle. This improved design was so effective that it was to serve largely unchanged in some armies until World War II.

In another major innovation, Maxim improved the feeding mechanism by devising a cloth belt stitched into pockets, each pocket carrying a cartridge. The movement of the block extracted a cartridge from the belt, fed it down in front of the chamber, and moved the belt one cartridge at a time. As long as the gunner pressed the trigger and the belt was long enough, the Maxim gun could fire indefinitely, deriving its energy anew from every shot it fired.

Even though Maxim made the modifications requested by the British Army, something that resulted in a much better weapon, he still met resistance. In European armies, most officers came from the landowning classes; left behind by the Industrial Revolution, they still thought of war in terms of the bayonet and the cavalry charge. They clung to their belief in the centrality of human power and the decisiveness of personal courage and individual endeavor; after all, one did not pin a medal on any gun. Additionally, they thought that the machine gun was an uncivil weapon to use against European opponents. Thus Maxim changed his approach and began to market the weapon for use in the colonies to pacify native colonial populations. Inevitably, cases of slaughter by machine gun among the major powers’ far-flung colonies tainted the weapon, making it even less palatable for European warfare in the eyes of many officers holding traditional ideas toward combat and warfare.


Undaunted by squeamishness among potential customers, Maxim traveled Europe while demonstrating his weapon. He was accompanied by Albert Vickers, a steel producer from South Kensington who had become intensely interested in Maxim and his invention. In 1887, Maxim took one of his guns to Switzerland for a competition with the Gatling, the Gardner, and the Nordenfelt. It easily out-shot all competitors. The next trials were in Italy at Spezzia. There the Italian officer in charge of the competition requested Maxim to sub- merge his gun in the sea and allow it to be immersed for three days. At the end of that time, without cleaning, the gun performed as well as it had before being subjected to this officer’s unusual demand. The next trial was in Vienna, where an impressed Archduke William, the field marshal of the Austrian Army, observed that the Maxim gun was “the most dreadful instrument” that he had ever seen or imagined.  History would prove the archduke’s observation to be only too true.

Many observers were first skeptical toward Maxim’s claim that his weapon could fire 10 shots per second and maintain that rate of fire for any extended length of time. At the Swiss, Italian, and Austrian trials and those that followed, Maxim made believers out of all who saw the weapon in action. One exception was the king of Denmark, who was dismayed at the expenditure of ammunition and decided that such a weapon was far too expensive to operate, saying that it would bankrupt his kingdom.

In 1888, Maxim formed a partnership with Vickers, an association that would last until Maxim’s seventy-first birthday. Having successfully demonstrated his weapon in Europe, Maxim and his new partner began producing the machine gun. The first production model was capable of firing 2,000 rounds in 3 minutes. It was very well built, easy to maintain, and virtually indestructible. By 1890, Maxim and Vickers were supplying machine guns to Britain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Russia.


Maxim continued to perfect his weapon. In 1904, he produced a new model that was the first gun to bear the name Vickers along with Maxim. The Vickers was stronger and more reliable than its predecessors. Maxim’s weapons were adopted by every major power in the world at one time or another between 1900 and World War I.

The success of the Maxim gun inspired other inventors, and guns based on its principles appeared in armies in Germany, Russia, the United States, and other nations. The weapons that would have such a devastating impact on the battlefields of World War I were, largely, direct descendants of the first Maxim design.


British troops advance to within musket range at Bunker Hill, as depicted by 19th Century American artist Howard Pyle.

The reasons why, in combating the American rebels, the British put so much emphasis on what were (by European standards) seemingly outdated shock tactics are explored in detail in the next chapter. Here it is necessary to examine how the redcoats delivered their fire in combat and whether or not it was generally effective.

Strikingly, there is little evidence that British infantry in action in America often employed the regulation firings, whereby volleys were delivered in strict succession by the battalion’s fire divisions (whether by the four grand divisions, the eight subdivisions, or the sixteen platoons) in prearranged sequences. This is hardly surprising for three reasons. First (as discussed in the next chapter), throughout the war the British preferred to spurn the firefight wherever possible in favor of putting the rebels quickly to flight at the point of the bayonet. Second (as noted in the last chapter), a combination of broken ground and the battalion’s extended frontage often prevented field officers from exerting close control over the whole in action, compelling captains to exercise an unconventional degree of tactical autonomy in handling their companies. It was only natural that this tactical decentralization extended to musketry. Third, because, for most of the war, the rebels lacked good cavalry and most of their infantry were unlikely to adopt the tactical offensive, the British did not need to ensure that a fraction of the battalion was always loaded to repel any sudden, determined enemy advance. These three factors ensured that British battalions on the attack seem commonly to have thrown in a single “general volley” (or “battalion volley”) immediately prior to the bayonet charge.

When sustained exchanges of musketry did occur, as at Cowpens or Green Springs, it seems likely that each company loaded and fired independently of the others under the command of its captain or senior subaltern. Evidence of this can be found in George Harris’s later account of the action at the Vigie on St. Lucia, where (as major in the 5th Regiment) he commanded the single grenadier battalion: “on my ordering the 35th [Regiment’s grenadier] company, commanded by Captain [Hugh] Massey (from a reserve of three companies which I kept under cover of a small eminence) to relieve the 49th [Regiment’s grenadier] company, he was in an instant at his post, and as quickly ordered the company to make ready, and had given them the word ‘Present!’ when I called out, ‘Captain Massey, my orders were not to fire; recover!’ This was done without a shot, and themselves under a heavy fire.” In another possible example, at the battle of Camden, a British officer was “ungenerous enough to direct the fire of his platoon” at the horse of Colonel Otho Williams. The rebel adjutant escaped injury from the British volley only because, as Williams recounted, “I was lucky enough to see and hear him at the instant he gave the word and pointed with his sword.”53 More conclusively, in August 1780 Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hope directed the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers that, when the “Preparative” was beaten in action, the corps was “to begin firing by companies, which is to go on as fast as each is loaded till the first part of the General, when not a shot more is ever to be fired.”

Although British musketry was supposed to have been quite effective by European standards, contemporary eyewitnesses and modern historians have tended to give the impression that the redcoats were generally no match for the American rebels in the firefight. It is of course impossible to qualify this phenomenon with any degree of precision since, for any given exchange of fire, we cannot precisely document the number of troops engaged on either side, the total rounds discharged, or even the casualties they inflicted. Yet one particularly striking example may serve to indicate how the premise may have had some basis in reality. At Guilford Courthouse Cornwallis’s initial attack pitted about 1,100 British and German regulars against roughly 1,600 smoothbore-and rifle-armed militia and light troops, mostly posted behind a rail fence that separated the ploughed farmland to their front from the woods to their rear. Once the British line had advanced to within about 150 yards of the enemy, the rebels opened a general fire that appears to have inflicted numerous casualties. For example, Lieutenant Thomas Saumarez (with the 23rd Regiment, on the left wing) noted that the rebel shooting was “most galling and destructive,” while Dugald Stuart (an officer with the 2nd Battalion of the 71st Regiment, on the right) later rued: “In the advance we received a very heavy fire, from the [North Carolina Scotch-] Irish line of the American army, composed of their marksmen lying on the ground behind a rail fence. One half of the Highlanders dropped on that spot, [and] there ought to be a pretty large tumulus where our men were buried.”

One participant on the rebel left later recalled that “after they [i.e., the rebels] delivered their first fire (which was a deliberate one) with their rifles, the part of the British line at which they aimed looked like the scattering stalks in a wheat field when the harvest man has passed over it with his cradle.” By contrast, the volley that the British battalions delivered at much closer range, immediately prior to their charge, was almost wholly ineffective (rebel returns having indicated that the North Carolina militia sustained only eleven killed and wounded in the course of the whole action). Indeed, Henry Lee later reported of the North Carolina militia (which comprised almost two-thirds of the first rebel line and fled when the British rushed forward) that “not a man of the corps had been killed, or even wounded.”

The apparent disparity in the effectiveness of the British and rebel fire in this incident does not appear to have been wholly unrepresentative. To explain this, one is tempted to point to the popularly accepted view that, unlike in Europe, most males in America had access to firearms, which they were very proficient in handling. Although some British participants in the war subscribed to this view,58 it is likely to have been the case only in the wilder backwoods and on the frontier. Moreover, because the Continental Army and the state regular regiments filled their ranks largely with landless laborers (many of them recent immigrants), it follows that a good proportion of rebel enlisted men were hardly dissimilar to their British and German counterparts.

If most rebel regulars and militia were not inherently skilled in handling firearms, then it is necessary to consider the common assumption that, unlike European regulars (who supposedly simply pointed their muskets in the general direction of the enemy and blazed away on command), the Americans tended to deliver independent, well-aimed fire in combat. This may well have been true of the lively skirmishing that characterized the petite guerre, in which individuals typically moved, sought cover, and fired largely at their own initiative. Moreover, rebel militia used rifles more often than is sometimes realized, particularly in the South (as in the case of the North Carolina militia at Guilford Courthouse). For decades historians have been playing down the combat effectiveness of riflemen in America by pointing to their inability either to match the rate of fire of smoothbore-armed troops or to perform bayonet charges. While both of these points are valid, riflemen were undeniably able to do horrifying execution when employed as auxiliaries to smoothbore-armed troops. If thrown forward as a screen, riflemen were able to get off one or two destructive fires at the advancing enemy before retiring to the cover of their musket-armed compatriots in the main line — as occurred at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. In addition, riflemen were able to support their fellow infantry during a static firefight by picking off enemy officers, as occurred at Freeman’s Farm.

But if smoothbore-armed troops were likely to deliver independent, aimed fire when engaged in the kind of skirmishing that characterized the petite guerre, this was not the case in stand-up engagements in the open field, for which rebel regulars and militia alike were trained to employ more or less conventional volleying systems. Indeed, for much of the war, the rebels used the 1764 Regulations or its British or colonial variants as their standard drill.63 Because the experience of three years of war showed that the British-style firings were difficult for the relatively inexperienced rebel forces to master, the drill manual that Major General Steuben compiled for them in 1778 prescribed a simpler variant, whereby the different battalions within the line of battle could deliver general volleys in sequence.

The counterpart to the questionable notion that rebel troops generally delivered independent and thus accurate fire in action in America is the widespread assumption that European volleying techniques were ineffective because they were calculated primarily to terrify rather than to kill and maim. Admittedly, by the time of the American War, this kind of “quick-fire” mania appears to have been the hallmark of the Prussian infantry, who reputably were able to loose an astonishing six rounds per minute and whose king wrote in 1768 that “a force of infantry that loads speedily will always get the better of a force which loads more slowly.” Interestingly, the subject of speed also figured in contemporary British directives on musketry training. For example, the 1764 Regulations laid down that, during the performance of the “platoon exercise,” the “motions of handling cartridge, to shutting the pans,” and “the loading motions” (that is, the fourth to sixth and the eighth to twelfth of the fifteen motions) were “to be done as quick as possible.” Similarly, in 1774 Gage reminded the British regiments in Boston that in plying the firelock the soldier “cannot be too quick” in performing the motions, “more particularly so in the priming and loading,” and that “there should be no superfluous motions in the platoon exercise, but [it is instead] to be performed with the greatest quickness possible.” Strikingly, after the costly Concord expedition, one flank company officer complained that the inexperienced redcoats had “been taught that everything was to be effected by a quick firing” but that the determined harassment they experienced during the return march to Boston had disabused them of the notion that the rebels “would be sufficiently intimidated by a brisk fire.”

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to argue that the Prussian quick-fire mania had permeated the British Army by the time of the American War. Significantly, when in 1781 military writer John Williamson decried the “very quick” time adopted for “the performance of the manual,” he reasoned that “it does not appear that a battalion can fire oftener in the same space of time since the quick method has taken place, than before it.” Another military writer, Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, made the same point in 1782. While he asserted that all motions with the firelock were “to be executed with the utmost celerity,” he nevertheless argued that British soldiers should be able to fire three times a minute (in other words, half the best Prussian quick-fire rate) and scarcely ever miss at ranges between fifty and two hundred yards. As Dalrymple’s comment suggests, if the British emphasis on rapid priming and loading did not markedly increase the battalion’s rate of fire, it certainly was not intended to diminish the accuracy of that fire. Indeed, the leading authority on the performance of British long arms in this period has argued that the eighteenth-century British fire tactics remained consistently and firmly wedded to making the infantryman’s musketry as deadly as possible. The dominant perspective probably remained that expressed by Wolfe when in December 1755 he reminded the 20th Regiment that “[t]here is no necessity for firing very fast; a cool and well-leveled fire, with the pieces carefully loaded, is much more destructive and formidable than the quickest fire in confusion.” It is instructive to note that Wolfe himself played a significant role in the introduction of the Prussian “alternate fire” volleying system into the British Army.

If the Prussian quick-fire method did not quite permeate into British training in the years before the American War, one might argue instead that volleying was in itself inherently prejudicial to accurate fire. There remains some disagreement on this question. Historians have commonly asserted that, to have had any chance of hitting his target, a man had to choose his moment to pull the trigger. Dr. Robert Jackson, who served in the American War as assistant surgeon to the 71st Regiment, subscribed to this view: “The firelock is an instrument of missile force. It is obvious that the . . .  missile ought to be directed by aim, otherwise it will strike only by accident. It is evident that a person cannot take aim with any correctness unless he be free, independent, and clear of all encumbrances; and for this reason, there can be little dependence on the effect of fire that is given by platoons or volleys, and by word of command. Such explosions may intimidate by their noise; it is mere chance if they destroy by their impression.”

Although Jackson’s argument sounds persuasive, not all contemporaries shared his opinion that volleying was incompatible with accurate, aimed fire. In fact the 1764 Regulations explicitly directed that, when given the order to present, the soldier should “raise up the butt so high upon the right shoulder, that you may not be obliged to stoop so much with the head (the right cheek [is] to be close to the butt, and the left eye shut), and look along the barrel with the right eye from the breech pin to the muzzle.” Military writers likewise commonly advocated that the men should aim carefully before firing. For example, Major General the Earl of Cavan recommended that officers “have at the breech [of the firelock] a small sight-channel made, for the advantage and convenience of occasionally taking better aim.” Similarly, in the directions for the training of newly arrived drafts and recruits issued three days before the battle of Bunker Hill, Lieutenant General Gage directed that “[p]roper marksmen [are] to instruct them in taking aim, and the position in which they ought to stand in firing, and to do this man by man before they are suffered to fire together.”

Furthermore, if volleying was incompatible with accurate, aimed fire, then it is difficult to understand why the army invested such effort in practicing the men in shooting. As John Houlding has shown, although before 1786 regiments did not receive sufficient quantities of lead in peacetime to fire at marks, in wartime troops spent a good deal of time shooting ball when they were not in the field. In America, shooting at marks was a common element of the feverish training that preceded the opening of each campaign season; indeed, it occurred almost on a daily basis during the tense months before the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Here two examples of the ingenuity and effort invested in this activity will suffice. At Boston in January 1775, Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Regiment wrote:

The regiments are frequently practiced at firing with ball at marks. Six rounds per man at each time is usually allotted for this practice. As our regiment is quartered on a wharf which projects into part of the harbor, and there is a very considerable range without any obstruction, we have fixed figures of men as large as life, made of thin boards, on small stages, which are anchored at a proper distance from the end of the wharf, at which the men fire. Objects afloat, which move up and down with the tide, are frequently pointed out for them to fire at, and premiums are sometimes given for the best shots, by which means some of our men have become excellent marksmen.


While target shooting commonly involved files of men firing successively at marks, and the fire divisions generally practiced volleying with squibs rather than with live ammunition, on occasion both methods were combined. A visitor to Boston witnessed one such session in late March 1775: “I saw a regiment and the body of Marines, each by itself, firing at marks. A target being set up before each company, the soldiers of the regiment stepped out singly, took aim and fired, and the firing was kept up in this manner by the whole regiment till they had all fired ten rounds. The Marines fired by platoons, by companies, and sometimes by files, and made some general discharges, taking aim all the while at targets the same as the regiment.” In New Jersey in May 1777, the battalions of the Fourth Brigade were urged to undertake a similar exercise: “Lieutenant Colonel Mawhood recommends to the officers commanding the several regiments of the 4th Brigade to practice the men in firing ball by platoon[s], sub[divisions] and grand-divisions and by battalion; and this [is] to be done by word of command and on uneven ground, so as to accustom the men not to fire but when ordered, and not only to level but to be taught to fire up and downhill.”

Frequent target shooting undoubtedly improved soldiers’ marksmanship, as David Harding has shown through systematic analysis of the extensive contemporary East India Company test-firing data. Although these impressive test results were unattainable under actual combat conditions, repeated practice with the firelock probably did have the effect of influencing the soldier (even subconsciously) to take more care when shooting in action. This is what Gage probably meant when he observed at Boston in November 1774 “that the men [should] be taught to take good aim, which if they do they will always level well.” Moreover, as Houlding has pointed out, practicing with the firelock had other practical benefits than simply enhancing accuracy — such as removing inexperienced men’s apprehension at firing live ammunition.

Earlier we noted that the effectiveness of troops’ musketry in action tended to deteriorate when orchestrated volleying degenerated into an uncontrollable “running fire.” It was therefore essential (as Cuthbertson put it in 1768) for the officers and sergeants “to attend very particularly to the men’s behavior during the firings; to observe if they are expert in loading, and to oblige them to perform the whole of their business with a proper spirit.” If British musketry was not as deadly in America as on European battlefields, it is possible that the adoption of the formation of two ranks at open files was partly to blame in that the dispersal of the men over a wider frontage weakened the fire control that their officers and sergeants were able to exert over them in combat. This theory gains credence from Thomas Anburey’s later account of the scrambling action at Hubbardton (where he participated as a gentleman volunteer with the grenadier battalion), which seems to suggest that that, in combat in America, the redcoats did not always load according to the regulation procedure: “In this action I found all manual exercise is but an ornament, and the only object of importance it can boast of was that of loading, firing and charging with bayonets. As to the former, the soldiers should be instructed in the best and most expeditious method. Here I cannot help observing to you, whether it proceeded from an idea of self-preservation, or natural instinct, but the soldiers greatly improved the mode they were taught in, as to expedition. For as soon as they had primed their pieces and put the cartridge into the barrel, instead of ramming it down with their rods, they struck the butt end of the piece upon the ground, and bringing it to the present, fired it off.” Here Anburey’s references to “self-preservation” and “natural instinct,” his comment that the men “fired . . .  off” their pieces once they brought them to the “present,” and the fact that he does not mention verbal commands strongly imply that the grenadiers were loading and firing at will. In the context of the furious, scrambling action at Hubbardton, this is not surprising. But the fact that former sergeant Roger Lamb reproduced Anburey’s passage almost verbatim in his memoir (though he participated in Burgoyne’s Albany expedition as a corporal in the 9th Regiment, he was not present at Hubbardton) would tend to suggest that he too was familiar with this corner-cutting loading technique.

While both Anburey and Lamb seem to have approved the way in which troops achieved a higher rate of fire by spurning the ramrod and firing at will, Anburey’s further comments reveal that at Hubbardton the combination of haste and a lack of supervision had an undesirable side effect: “The confusion of a man’s ideas during the time of action, brave as he may be, is undoubtedly great. Several of the men, upon examining their muskets, after all was over, found five or six cartridges which they were positive to the having discharged.” Clearly the malfunction of a proportion of the men’s weapons reduced the battalion’s volume of firepower and had major safety implications. Yet neither Anburey nor Lamb seems to have been aware that the practice of spurning the ramrod also significantly reduced the muzzle velocity of each discharge. As evidence of this one should note that, during a skirmish in New Jersey in February 1780, soldiers of the Queen’s Rangers were struck by rebel bullets that did not penetrate their clothes. Simcoe later judged that these rounds had been fired by militiamen “who had not recollection sufficient to ram down their charges.”

Inadequate supervision of the loading process in action seems to have been matched on occasion by a failure to ensure that the men directed their fire properly. For example, according to Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie, during the final leg of the return march from Concord, the panicky redcoats “threw away their fire very inconsiderately, and without being certain of its effect.” Similarly, another officer who complained that the redcoats returned the militia’s fire “with too much eagerness, so that at first most of it was thrown away” laid the blame for “this improper conduct” largely at the door of the officers, who “did not prevent [it] as they should have done.” Significantly, after the battle of Freeman’s Farm, Burgoyne’s public censure on his troops’ unsteady shooting went hand in hand with an avowal of the importance of maintaining fire discipline: “[T]he impetuosity and uncertain aim of the British troops in giving their fire, and the mistake they are still under in preferring it to the bayonet, is much to be lamented. The Lieutenant General is persuaded this error will be corrected in the next engagement, upon the conviction of their own reason and reflection, as well as upon that general precept of discipline, never to fire but by order of an officer.” Rebel eyewitnesses frequently observed that the King’s troops customarily overshot the enemy in action because, when they brought their pieces to the “present,” they did not level them low enough to compensate for the kick and for any difference in elevation between themselves and the target.

Coincidentally, the two most graphic examples of this phenomenon concern the storming of Fort Washington. According to the recollections of one rebel participant, when during the course of the action his militia party discharged a few rounds at two British battalions that were advancing in line against them, the latter

halted and began to fire on us at not more than eighty yards distance. Their whole battalion on the right of the colors were ordered to fire at once. I heard the words “Battalion, make ready!”; and, as few as we were (notwithstanding their boasted discipline), when the word was given and they came to a “recover” to cock their muskets, a considerable number went off and were fired in the air. When the word PRESENT was given (which means “take aim”), they fired, along the battalion as if it were a feu de joie; and when the word FIRE was given, there was but few pieces to fire. The battalion on the left of the colors fired much better than [that on] the right; but I do not recollect of my attending any more of their manner of firing, though it was very brisk for a few rounds. But at least 99 shot out of 100 went a considerable distance over our heads. . . . While we were here engaged with the enemy I saw [Lieutenant] Colonel [Thomas] Bull . . .  ride within fifty or sixty yards of the British along their whole front when they were firing briskly, as I supposed to show and demonstrate to the men . . .  that there was not so much danger as they might apprehend.

The British corps in question here may have been the 42nd Regiment. Interestingly enough, it was to a party from this corps that Captain Alexander Graydon and a fellow rebel officer attempted to surrender later that day, when they found that the British had cut off their retreat to the fortress. Although ten of the Highlanders discharged their muskets at the pair from various ranges between twenty and fifty yards, Graydon attributed the failure of these “blunt shooters” to hit him or his companion to the fact that the pair were ascending a considerable hill. But like Adlum, Graydon also noted significantly, “I observed they took no aim, and that the moment of presenting and firing, was the same.”

Nevertheless, any real disparity in the effectiveness of British and rebel musketry in combat in America was almost certainly rooted in other factors. One might argue that the variation in the type and quality of the long arms utilized by the contending armies affected their performance. Rifle-armed regulars and irregulars were to be found on both sides, particularly in the South, where the militia employed the weapon more commonly than is often recognized. But if the focus remains on the smoothbore muskets that the vast majority of troops wielded, there is little evidence that either side enjoyed a significant advantage. Houlding has shown that, while many British regiments’ firelocks were in shockingly poor condition in peacetime, the Board of Ordnance often issued ill-armed regiments with new weapons when they went on active service. Indeed, the record for last-minute issues was probably that made to the 52nd Regiment on Boston Common on the morning of 17 June 1775 — just hours before the corps fought at Bunker Hill. As for the rebels, both regulars and militia commonly employed old or captured British Land Pattern pieces or locally made imitations (the “Committee of Safety” musket), while from 1777 large numbers of imported French weapons became available. While there is some disagreement as to the respective ballistic qualities of British and French firelocks, it is interesting to note that, when Continental troops at the battle of Monmouth had the opportunity to acquire the muskets of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers’ dead and wounded, “[t]hey threw away their French pieces, preferring the British.”

If probably neither side enjoyed a substantial advantage in terms of the quality of their firelocks, the apparent disparity in the effectiveness of British and rebel musketry may have had something to do with ammunition. In particular, British troops appear to have been supplied with poor-quality flints. Captain the Honorable Colin Lindsay commanded the 55th Regiment’s grenadier company in America and during Major General Grant’s expedition to St. Lucia, and he later noted that the British musketry at the bloody action at the Vigie would have been even more destructive had it not been for the number of misfires caused by “the badness of a pebble-stone”: “In the attack, the bayonet is always a remedy for this deficiency, but to find in a defense that one-third of your men are useless from this cause is indeed extraordinary. . . . It was a common saying among the soldiers in America, that a Yankee flint was as good as a glass of grog. The government flints will often fire five or six shots very well, but they are of a bad sort of flint, and are too thick.” As for the propellant, there are hints that the black powder supplied to the army and navy during the American War was also of inferior quality (a problem that was exacerbated by poor storage conditions during the transatlantic voyage), while Henry Lee later asserted that British soldiers commonly overcharged their cartridges. In terms of shot, rebel practice differed from the British in that their musket cartridges customarily included (commonly three) buckshot along with the ball; irregulars sometimes fired these loose. While the redcoats lightheartedly styled these multiple projectiles “Yankee peas,” they were potentially lethal at up to about fifty yards. For example, they probably accounted for a good proportion of the approximately one hundred casualties that Ensign George Inman estimated the 17th Regiment sustained during its first charge at Princeton, he himself having been wounded in the belly by a single buckshot that penetrated his leather shoulder belt.

Leaving aside differences in weaponry, several other factors contributed to give the impression that rebel musketry was superior to that of the redcoats. First, as in the British attack on the first rebel line at Guilford Courthouse, it would often have been the case that the rebels simply had more men involved in an exchange of fire, largely because the British deployed and advanced at open files. The Hessian adjutant general in America made this point explicitly when he reported that, at the action outside Savannah, “the rebels at first withstood the fire of the British, who had opened ranks [sic], but . . .  they lost their coolness when the said regiment [von Trümbach] advanced with closed front and effectively answered their disorderly fire.” Second, one should not forget that rebel troops on the defensive often knelt or lay down to fire behind trees, rail fences, and walls, which provided stable firing platforms as well as varying degrees of cover.

Finally (and perhaps most significantly), it is well known that in conventional linear warfare a battalion’s first fire was the most destructive. This was because the soldiers had carefully loaded this round before the action, their barrels were clean, their flints were sharp, and their field of vision was clear of powder smoke. This is crucial because one should remember that the kind of “heavy though intermitting fire” that the British and rebel centers exchanged “for near three hours” at Freeman’s Farm was not typical of most of the war’s engagements. Indeed, whenever a genuine firefight of even a few minutes’ duration occurred in America (as for instance at Brandywine, Bemis Heights, Monmouth, Cowpens, Green Springs, and Eutaw Springs), participants noted this circumstance with genuine interest. Such prolonged exchanges were comparatively rare because (as discussed in the next chapter) the British tended to spurn them wherever possible in favor of dislodging the enemy quickly at the point of the bayonet. When these bayonet rushes succeeded in their purpose (as they commonly did), rebel troops did not have the opportunity to get off more than one or two rounds. Since these first shots were potentially the most destructive delivered in combat, it may well be that the historical record tends to give an inflated impression of the general effectiveness of rebel musketry. This idea gains strength when one considers, once again, that in the South the militia carried rifles far more commonly than is often realized; clearly the tactic of firing and then retiring played to the rifle’s main strength (its accuracy) while negating its principal weakness (the time it took to load).

This idea that the general effectiveness of the rebels’ musketry has been overstated tends to gain support from the fact that, when sustained firefights did occur, the redcoats’ musketry drew the same kind of praise that it did against European enemies. For example, Tarleton believed that the duel between the British line and the rebel regulars at Cowpens was “well supported” and “equally balanced”; indeed, from an analysis of the rebel casualties, Lawrence Babits has concluded that the 7th Regiment’s musketry must have been especially punishing. British troops appear to have shot similarly well at the action at Green Springs. One rebel and one British officer each wrote of the firefight between the Pennsylvania Continentals and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas’s brigade that the latter, “aiming very low kept up a deadly fire,” and that many of the rebel casualties “were wounded in the lower extremities, a proof that the young [British] soldiers had taken good aim.”

During the eighteenth century, technological advances spawned a significant increase in the volume of musketry that infantry could generate in action. This ensured that fire tactics gradually eclipsed infantry shock as the key to battlefield success. By the end of the Seven Years War, British infantry regiments had cemented their longstanding reputation for being among the most formidable practitioners of fire tactics in Europe. Yet against the shaky American rebels, Crown commanders instead relied overwhelmingly upon shock tactics to deliver quick and cheap tactical decisions. This meant that British musketry was most commonly delivered in combat in America in the form of general volleys, which the troops threw in immediately prior to the bayonet charge (rather than as regulation-style sequenced firings). When British infantry did become involved in sustained firefights, it is most likely that fire control devolved entirely to the officers commanding companies. As at Hubbardton, if these officers and their sergeants did not closely supervise the loading and leveling of weapons, the men probably did not execute these actions well, and the effectiveness of the battalion’s fire must almost certainly have suffered accordingly. Despite this, it is difficult to believe that the musketry of the generality of rebel regulars or militiaman significantly outclassed that of the King’s troops.

Brown Bess – The Story of History’s Most Famous Musket

Books By Brent Nosworthy


Some German research was far ahead of its time; this remarkable drawing of a caseless cartridge – one using a solid block of propellant to support the bullet instead of a brass cartridge case – was discovered in 1945, but it was to be another 40 years before the idea was successfully incorporated into a practical weapon system.

During World War II, Germany began an intensive program to research and develop a practical caseless ammunition for military use, which was driven by the rising scarcity of metals, especially copper used to make cartridge cases. The Germans had some success, but not sufficient to produce a caseless cartridge system during the war.

WWII – Germans experiment with caseless ammunition – Formed Nitrocellulose (NC) employed to save “strategic materials” (brass).  Steel cases were used instead.

Nitrocellulose or “guncotton” is formed by the action of nitric acid on cellulose fibers. It is a highly-combustible fibrous material that deflagrates rapidly when heat is applied. It also burns very cleanly, burning almost entirely to gaseous components at high temperatures with little smoke or solid residue. The burning rate of nitrocellulose is dependent upon the pressure a pile of uncontained nitrocellulose will burn slowly, with a high, bright flame, but when placed in a high-strength, sealed container, the same material will burn very quickly, bursting the container. Nitrocellulose, the primary component of modern, ignites at a relatively low temperature of around 170 °C (338 °F).

Gelatinised nitrocellulose is a plastic, which can be formed into many shapes of gun propellants such as cylinders, tubes, balls, and flakes. The size and shape of the propellant grains can increase or decrease the relative surface area, and change the burn rate significantly. Additives and coatings can be added to the propellant to further modify the burn rate. Normally, very fast powders are used for light-bullet or low-velocity pistols and shotguns, medium-rate powders for magnum pistols and light rifle rounds, and slow powders for large-bore heavy rifle rounds. These are known as Single-base propellants.

Solid propellants (caseless ammunition)

A recent topic of research has been in the realm of “caseless ammunition”. In a caseless cartridge, the propellant is cast as a single solid grain, with the priming compound placed in a hollow at the base, and the bullet attached to the front. Since the single propellant grain is so large (most smokeless powders have grain sizes around 1 mm, but a caseless grain will be perhaps 7 mm diameter and 15 mm long), the relative burn rate must be much higher. To reach this rate of burning, caseless propellants often use moderated explosives, such as RDX. (Caseless ammunition might be considered a return to the mid-19th century, since the first practical cartridge repeater, the “Volcanic” pistol, used a charge of black powder in a cavity in the bullet base. This weapon was the direct ancestor of the Henry and Winchester rifles, though they switched to metal-cased ammunition. Some early rifles and revolvers also used combustible-paper cartridges, but they required a separate ignition system.) The major advantages of a successful caseless round would be elimination of the need to extract and eject the spent cartridge case, permitting higher rates of fire and a simpler mechanism, and also reduced ammunition weight by eliminating the weight (and cost) of the brass or steel case.

While there is at least one experimental military rifle (the H&K G11), and one commercial rifle (the Voere VEC-91), that use caseless rounds, they are meeting little success. The caseless ammunition is of course not reloadable (a major disadvantage in civilian markets, where reloading is common) and the exposed propellant makes the rounds less rugged. Also, the case in a standard cartridge serves as a seal, keeping gas from escaping the breech. Caseless arms must use a more complex self-sealing breech, which increases the design and manufacturing complexity. Another unpleasant problem, common to all rapid-firing arms but particularly problematic for those firing caseless rounds, is the problem of rounds “cooking off”. This problem is caused by residual heat from the chamber heating the round in the chamber to the point where it ignites, causing an unintentional discharge.

Belt-fed machine guns or magazine-fed submachine guns designed for high volumes of fire usually fire from an open bolt, with the round not chambered until the trigger is pulled, and so there is no chance for the round to cook off before the operator is ready. Such weapons could use caseless ammunition effectively. Open-bolt designs are generally undesirable for anything but belt-fed machine guns and pistol-cartridge submachine guns; the mass of the bolt moving forward causes the gun to lurch in reaction, which significantly reduces the accuracy of the gun. Since one of the motivating factors for the use of caseless rounds is to increase the rate of fire to the degree that several shots can be fired to the same point of aim, anything that reduces the accuracy of those first shots would be counterproductive. Cased ammunition serves as a heat sink, to carry heat away from the chamber after firing; the hot case carries away much of the heat before it can transfer to the chamber walls, and the new case absorbs heat from the chamber, reducing the risk of cook-off.

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