Pistola Automatica Beretta modello 1934

Beretta automatics were amongst the most sought after of war trophies. Although of excellent design, they were really too light to be effective service pistols, but as personal weapons to officers they were highly prized.

The little Pistola Automatica Beretta modello 1934 is one of the joys of the pistol collector’s world, for it is one of those pistols that has its own built-in attraction. It was adopted as the standard Italian army service pistol in 1934, but it was then only the latest step in a long series of automatic pistols that could be traced back as far as 1915. In that year numbers of a new pistol design were produced to meet the requirements of the expanding Italian army, and although the Pistola Automatica Beretta modello 1915 was widely used it was never officially accepted as a service model, These original Beretta had a calibre of 7.65mm, although a few were made in 9 mm short, the cartridge that was to be the ammunition for the later modello 1934.

After 1919 other Beretta pistols appeared, all of them following the basic Beretta design. By the time the modello 1934 appeared the ‘classic’ appearance had been well established with the snub outline and the front of the cutaway receiver wrapped around the forward part of the barrel to carry the fixed foresight. The short pistol grip held only seven rounds and thus to ensure a better grip the characteristic ‘spur’ was carried over from a design introduced back in 1919. The operation used by the mechanisms was a conventional blowback without frills or anything unusual, but although the receiver was held open once the magazine was empty it moved forward again as soon as the magazine was removed for reloading (most pistols of this type keep the receiver slide open until the magazine has been replaced). The modello 1934 did have an exposed hammer which was not affected by the safety once applied, so although the trigger was locked when the safety was applied the hammer could be cocked either by hand or by accident, an unfortunate feature in an otherwise sound design.

In honor of Benito Mussolini’s assumption of power, fascist-era Model 1934s are not only stamped with their date of production in Arabic letters but also the year of Il Duce’s rule in Roman numerals.

It is light and compact, weighing just 1.25 pounds, and measures 6 inches in overall length. Its simple blowback mechanism functions smoothly, and its exposed hammer allows it to be lowered on a loaded chamber for safer carrying. A catch on the bottom of the grip secures the seven-round magazine that is equipped with a finger extension to aid steadier aiming. The Model 1934 is also chambered for a much more efficient cartridge than most earlier Italian service pistols. Known in Italy as the caliber 9mm corto (short) cartridge, the Model 1934’s loading is also known as the 9mm Kurz in Germany and the caliber .380 ACP in the United States. Although not as powerful as the 9mm Parabellum, it is ideal for such a compact weapon and much more powerful in its ballistics than such cartridges as the popular caliber 7.65mm (.32 ACP). The Model 1934 was also used by Romanian and Finnish troops during World War II. Actual usage of the Model 1934 by Italian troops during World War II did little to prove its value as a combat weapon.

The modello 1934 was almost always produced to an excellent standard of manufacture and finish, and the type became a sought-after trophy of war. Virtually the entire production run was taken for use by the Italian army, but there was a modello 1935 in 7.65 mm which was issued to the Italian air force and navy. Apart from its calibre this variant was identical to the modello 1934, The Germans used the type as the Pistole P671(i). Despite its overall success the modello 1934 was technically underpowered, but it is still one of the most famous of all pistols used during World War II.

Specification

Beretta modello 1934

Caliber: 9mm Corto (.380 ACP)

Operation: blowback

Length overall: 152mm (6″)

Barrel length: 94mm (3.7″)

Weight empty: 680g (24 oz)

Magazine capacity: 7

Muzzle velocity: c. 251 mps (825 fps)

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Firearms in Japan

By the start of the 13th century Japan was already on a descending path from aristocratic-emperor rule to fragmented provincialism under warlord clans, to protracted civil war and anarchy. The Mongols twice tried to invade Japan but were repulsed at Hakata Bay in 1274 and 1281. The Kamakura shogunate ended in violence in 1333. The Ashikaga shogunate (1333–1603) was born into chaos and bloody strife as rival military houses backed rival imperial lines, and as turmoil in China spilled over into destabilization and civil war in Japan. This ‘‘War Between the Courts’’ lasted from 1336 to 1392. As central power collapsed Japan’s coasts and outer islands were preyed upon by wakō(pirates). In the mid-15th century more decades of civil war climaxed in a shogunal succession dispute, leading to the Ōnin War (1467–1477). Thus began a period known as the Sengoku jidai or ‘‘Warring States,’’ during which power shifted to the ‘‘Sengoku daimyo,’’ or military houses of the regions, and Ashikaga shoguns ruled only on paper. Several emperors despaired and fled ruined Kyoto; others were assassinated. This era of so-called gekokujōsaw general anarchy, widespread arson (a favorite weapon of the ashigaru), a plague of ronin, and ubiquitous civil warfare marked by endless small battles. One defense against this anarchy was the growth of jōkamachi (‘‘castle towns’’). A better defense would have been unification and pacification, but before 1560 no one among the daimyo could provide this.

The arrival of firearms in Japan changed all warfare and politics. Samurai faced gunpowder weapons (small rockets) at Hakata Bay, but not guns. Korea acquired firearms from China around 1300 but kept the technology secret from the Japanese for over 200 years. Some primitive Chinese firing tubes were used during the Ōnin War, but did not catch on. Japan acquired its first true guns not from China but from Europe, when several Portuguese merchants shipwrecked at Tanegashima. Portuguese records set the date as 1542; Japanese histories say 1543. What is important is that they brought with them two matchlock arquebuses. These merchants, the first Europeans to visit Japan, were followed by Jesuits, experts in forging guns and peddling Catholicism. Spanish traders arrived in 1581 with more guns and cannon, by which time some Japanese daimyo were manufacturing their own firearms and were already using them to overwhelm more traditional neighbors (in battle, perhaps as early as 1549). This is when large infantry formations first appeared in daimyo armies, partly in response to the breakdown of samurai loyalty during Sengoku, but also due to the introduction of peasant levies armed with arquebuses.

The last half of the 16th century saw the unification of Japan by three great warlords, each effectively using guns in combination with older arms to wage and win the Unification Wars. The first was Oda Nobunaga, who put an end to the Ashikaga shogunate and the old daimyo order. He conquered the most advanced and heavily populated third of Japan, crushing daimyo and Buddhist opposition by 1582. The second unifier was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from modest origins to rule much of Japan from behind the imperial throne. Hideyoshi twice sent massive armies into Korea. He planned this as the start of an empire to include Indochina, Siam, the Philippines, and China, but was not able to conquer even Korea. In 1587 he ordered Christian missionaries to leave Japan. Ten years later he oversaw mass executions of Japanese Christians, whom he feared as a fifth column and as adherents of a subversive cult. In 1600, Dutch traders arrived and Western trade interests and influence looked set to make headway. The last of the unifiers, Tokugawa Ieyasu, triumphed at Sekigahara in 1600 and became shogun in 1603. His successors, the Tokugawa shoguns, chose a path of isolation from the West trod by Japan for 250 years. Having overcome endless civil wars and the arrival of strange and perhaps threatening foreigners, the Tokugawa steadfastly resisted externally induced change. This policy was undertaken at a time when China was overrun by the Manchus and penetrated by Europeans, India was conquered by the Mughals, and Europe itself was wracked by sectarian wars. However, the price of the Tokugawa ‘‘great peace’’ was suppression of creative social forces and a self-imposed technological and military inferiority to the West. The Tokugawa shoguns gave Japan political stability and domestic peace, albeit harshly enforced, along with seclusion from Western and Christian influence. Isolation was not as extreme toward Korea and China, however. Ieyasu restored relations with Korea in 1609 and during the Tokugawa shogunate Korea sent twelve major missions (tsūshinshi) to Japan. Westerners, on the other hand, met harassment and were forbidden to take up permanent residence. Thus English traders who arrived in 1612 left in frustration in 1623, while the French established no trade links with Japan in this period.

After 1613, Buddhism—its martial monks now disarmed and so mostly harmless—was reestablished as the state religion, while ‘‘Kirishitan’’ (Japanese Christians) were sharply persecuted. In 1614 all Catholic clergy were expelled. In 1618 other Christian missionaries were killed or forced to leave. A ferocious persecution of Christianity followed, including a series of ‘‘seclusion decrees’’ passed from 1633 to 1641. These aimed at tightening control over the daimyo, among whom a handful were ‘‘Kirishitan,’’ and ending all Christian subversion of Japan’s putatively homogenous religious and social order. Under pressure from enforcement of anti-Christian edicts by the Tokugawa inquisition, the Kirishitan Shumon Aratame Yaku, in 1637–1638 the Kirishitan of Shimabara rebelled. Mostly converted peasants supported by a few samurai, and with some aid from Europeans in the area, they were brutally crushed: some 35,000 were butchered in their last stronghold at Hara Castle. With the rebellion ended, survivors went underground as Kakure Kirishitan (‘‘Hidden Christians’’). Western trade also fell away: England’s East India Company left in 1623, the Spanish were expelled in 1624, and the Portuguese were thrown out in 1639. That left only the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compaagnie (VOC), and it was confined to the single entrepôt of Deshima. Chinese merchants were more welcome, but they too were controlled in their movements and trade. Additional ‘‘seclusion decrees’’ by Shogun Tokugawa Iyemitsu forbade any Japanese from leaving the home islands and enforced execution of all who returned from abroad, even shipwreck survivors. Shipbuilders were ordered not to construct vessels capable of ocean travel, trade with Europe was limited to regulated and authorized goods through Deshima, and all Korean and Chinese junks were directed to the confined port of Nagasaki. Korea retaliated by limiting Japanese traders to Pusan while China banned official trade with Japan, though an extensive private trade (smuggling) flourished that was permitted by the shoguns as a valued source of intelligence on the wider world.

There has been a fierce argument among military historians as to whether or not the Japanese ‘‘gave up the gun’’ during the long Tokugawa shogunate. At one level, they clearly did not: firearms were still produced in Japan and gun militia were maintained under strict shogunate and bakufu control. Yet, prohibitions on anyone other than samurai owning firearms (but also any other deadly weapon, including bows and swords) were enforced by occasional gun and ‘‘sword hunts’’ in the spirit of Hideyoshi’s 1588 decree banning ownership of military weapons by commoners. The main argument in favor of the ‘‘Japan gave up the gun’’ thesis is that after the isolated rebellion of 1637–1638 it saw no more battles for 200 years, not until 1837. But it would be more accurate to say that Japan gave up civil war rather than guns. Once Japanese made war again in the second half of the 19th century they took guns out of storage, bought modern models from the West, and took to battle again with real gusto.

Suggested Reading: W. G. Beasley, The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan (2000); J. Hall et al., eds., Japan before Tokugawa (1981); George Sansom, A History of Japan, 1334–1615 (1961); R. Toby, State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan (1984); Conrad Totman, Early Modern Japan (1993).

WWI Sniping I

Trench warfare and machine guns characterized World War I and stagnant positional warfare allowed sniping to flourish. This allowed for the periscope rifle, a modernization of the American Civil War concept, to flourish.

Australian Ion Idriess fought in Gallipoli as well as in the Middle East and this gave him an opportunity to use a periscope rifle, which he describes:

The opposing trenches are so close that the loopholes are useless to either side. Any loophole opened in daylight means an instant stream of bullets. So Jacko [slang for Turk soldier] uses his periscope rifle and we reply with ours. A periscope is an invention of ingenious simplicity, painstakingly thought out by man so that he can shoot the otherwise invisible fellow while remaining safely invisible himself. Attached to the rifle-butt is a short framework in which two small looking-glasses are inserted, one glass at such a height that it is looking above the sandbags while your head, as you peer into the lower glass, is a foot below the sandbags. The top glass reflects to the lower glass a view of the enemy trenches out over the top of the parapet. It is a cunning idea, simple and deadly…

The German firm Leitz received an order for 10,000 periscope rifle rests from the Prussian War Ministry. These were detachable units that could be used with the ordinary service rifle. They had a separate stock that held the periscope and was clamped onto the rifle stock. The periscope stock also had a trigger that was attached to a cable that ran up and through the framework and hooked onto the rifle’s trigger. Like its British and American counterparts, this invention allowed the soldier to safely aim and fire his rifle without exposing himself. Seeking to similarly equip its army but with domestically manufactured products, the Bavarian War Ministry ordered 2,500 rests from Bogen-Lampen und Apparate-Fabrik GmbH in Nuremburg. Initially mirrors were employed by Bogen-Lampen but as they tended to fog up, sealed periscopes were used in later models. Delivery was slow and by October 1917 only 432 had been received. U-boat periscopes were a higher priority for the firm. What ended the periscope rifle were unfavorable evaluations as well as troops’ complaints about the weight and unwieldiness. No further orders were made.

Captain Herbert McBride disliked the periscope rifle and complained, “The use of various skeleton mounts for rifles, by which the firer aims through a periscope and manipulates the rifle through a system of levers, never appealed to me. True, I sometimes used them, but never had much confidence as to my ability to hit anything …”

Other nations, including the French, Dutch, British and Americans, had their own variations. All shared in common the characteristic of being top heavy and awkward to use. The final German innovation was detachable radioactive glow-in-the-dark night sights that function like modern night sights. The rear sight unit had two horizontal bars between a V-notched peephole and the front sight a large luminous globe. Either unit could be attached or detached by turning a knob.

Germany

With the failure of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan and France’s Plan 17, the war on the Western Front degenerated into trench warfare. Appreciating the lessons of the Boer War and in response to good marksmanship exhibited by some British and French soldiers, the German Army wanted scoped rifles. It was assisted by the General German Hunting Association President, the Duke of Ratibor, who in January 1915 appealed for scoped rifles:

German hunters! You hunters in the homeland can and must help to defeat the enemy. The special conditions of trench warfare, which must be waged by our brave soldiers at short range on the western theatre, demand special weapons! A sure and quick effect against small, well covered individual targets must be heightened by particularly suitable weapons! These weapons, effective rifles with telescopic sights, are in your hands. On the request of the HIGH COMMAND and with consent of the WAR MINISTRY the FATHERLAND makes the following REQUEST: Increase your sacrifices! Give up your beloved weapons! Make your telescopic rifles available to our soldiers! Make the sacrifice that is not small for a true German hunter.

Over 20,000 hunting rifles were collected but after inspection many were unsuitable for the newer ethyl-alcohol-based propellant and spitzer bullet “S-Patrone” cartridge. The suitable rifles were marked with a “Z” on the butt and the unsuitable with a “M.” The “M” stood for the older ethyl-acetate propellant and roundnose bullet cartridge. Even the rifles that accepted the S-Patrone cartridge were not ideal since their shorter barrels recoiled more and had a larger muzzle blast that betrayed the shooter’s location. Until replacement rifles could be provided, they would have to do.

Starting in 1916 the hunting rifles were withdrawn from service and replaced with newly manufactured sniper rifles, the development of which began in 1914 under the Rifle Inspection Commission. With the exception of rifles made by Goerz, the Bavarian rifles generally had their scopes centerline with the bore whereas the Prussian-issued scopes were offset to the left to allow for loading via stripper clips. Bavarian scopes were 4×, had a vertical post and crosshair reticle and were adjustable from 200, 400 and 600 meters and the Prussian ones had a cross-hair reticle, 3× magnification with its wider field of view and adjustable in 100-meter increments from 100 to 1,000 meters. Each scope mounting system had its advantage and disadvantages. The rifles with offset scopes were difficult to aim through the small loophole of a shield. The centerline mounting system’s disadvantage was that the rifle could not be reloaded rapidly, the sniper had to dismount his scope in order to reload. As the war endured, the distinction diminished and the Prussians adopted the Bavarians centerline-bore-mounting system and the Bavarians for their part the Prussian cross-hair reticle.

Initially each company was issued three scoped rifles (four in the Bavarian Army). By February 1918 the Prussian War Ministry raised it to five per company. It was generally left to the company commander to determine who received them. Unfortunately, the rifles were issued to the soldiers with little training nor were there guidelines to the company officers who distributed them. Some soldiers had superior field craft because of their hunting background. Additionally the Bavarians had greater familiarity with scoped rifles, cared for them better and used them more effectively than the Prussians who lacked hunting experience. Captain Herbert McBride shared some insights into the German snipers’ skill:

And right here I want to say that, at the short ranges—up to three hundred, possibly four hundred, yards—those German snipers could shoot. I do not think they were much good at long range; in fact I doubt whether they often attempted any of what we would call long-range shooting. I know we showed ourselves, with impunity, at anything beyond six or seven hundred yards. Sometimes they would snipe at us with a 77 mm wiz bang, especially if there were more than two or three in the party, but, with the rifle, never. The greatest range at which I ever knew a German sniper to fire at any individual was about five hundred yards. This fellow did get Charlie Wendt; but, as he fired some fifteen or twenty shots at me while I was administering first aid to Charlie and trying to get him under cover, and never hit me …

British Empire

The onset of static trench warfare was followed by German snipers asserting their dominance. Reported losses of “five killed per week per battalion” were initially greeted with disbelief and later frustration. Major Frederick Crum, now of the 8/60, described their plight:

My first visit to the trenches left a lasting impression on me. … We went all round the trenches, noting the hundred and one points requiring attention; but the thing which haunted me steadily after my visit was that the Bosche was undoubtedly “top dog” in the matter of rifle-shooting. … At one point we crawled to an isolated trench, sniped at as we went, wherever the communication trench was exposed to view. Arrived there, we found the sniping particularly active. Bullets were ringing on an iron loophole plate our men had inserted in the parapet, and the tops of the sandbags were constantly being ripped open. The Colonel put his periscope up. It was shot at once, and he got a knock in the face. Covered with mud, he turned to his men and said: “We mustn’t let them have it all their own way.” But neither he nor I had any idea how the thing was to be stopped.

Initially the British gathered scoped rifles and, like the Germans, distributed them among the men who received neither instructions on sniping nor the care and use of scoped rifles. Major Hesketh-Prichard met one “sniper” who asserted being a dead shot at 600 yards. At Hesketh-Prichard’s suggestion, he fired at a German loophole and his bullet was seen to strike six feet to the left of it. “I questioned the sniper as to how much he knew about his weapon. It is no exaggeration to say that his knowledge was limited.” He added, “The men have no idea of concealment, and many of them are easy targets to the Hun sniper.”

While the British officers were pondering their next move, the 4th Gordon Highlanders had Sergeant John Keith Forbes training its sniping section. As a child, Forbes carried a telescope during his long hikes in the Scottish hills. He became adept in its use and was a keen observer. Forbes earned his M.A. at Aberdeen University and after becoming a teacher, enrolled into divinity school. War interrupted his studies and Forbes enlisted as a private with the 4th Gordon Highlanders. Sent to France in February 1915, his battalion served four months before being pulled back for a rest. During the rest Forbes was authorized to raise a sniper section of sixteen men. Drawing from the battalion’s best shots and most active men, he trained them in marksmanship, use of the telescope¸ observation, recognizing and describing targets. Forbes also exercised them to develop their eye for the land and in camouflaging their posts. Range estimation and stalking over open ground in snakelike fashion were honed to perfection and when the battalion returned to the front, Forbes’ men first neutralized and then dominated their German counterparts.

Being only a sergeant, Forbes’ activity was limited to his immediate battalion. At the corps level, I Corps’ Colonel Langford Lloyd began instructing snipers and he was soon joined by Hesketh-Prichard. Crum and some colleagues spent a day with 4th Gordon Highlanders’ Sergeant Forbes and Crum wrote, “from that time onward I was sniping mad.” In May 1916, Crum started his sniping school in the French town Acq. For field craft instructions, Crum drew from Sir Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts Handbook and in the course of operating the school, published a manual, Scouting and Sniping in Trench Warfare. After a month, his school was closed (19 June) and one month later General Skinner invited Crum to Arras to be on his staff as officer in charge of the brigade’s snipers and Intelligence Section.

Not merely an instructor, Hesketh-Prichard was a practiced sniper:

There were no loopholes in our parapet, and a little watching showed that there was a Bosche sniper quite close. He had a little door he opened and shut, and the plate above was a decoy, and the only way to get him was over the parapet. So I gave him a cap and a stick, and he had a go at that and missed it, I think. I may be wrong, but I think they expected me to shoot over the parapet, but this I refused to do. Instead of having a false loophole put in, I pierced our parapet low down just at his angle of fire. Some day when his little door opens he will get a bullet through it. Patience, I must preach, and again patience. I am determined that no risks shall be taken that are avoidable; it is the only way. Then I found a goodish loophole further down, and, therefore, put [a shot] through a German shield without getting any reply. This was quite a safe shot.

Patience paid off and the next day Hesketh-Prichard bagged his man:

I killed that sniper at 11.25 today—very exciting. To continue from my last letter. They put in the loophole, and when I arrived the sniper Fritz had found it, and had blown it about. He had a telescopic sight, I am sure. He very nearly killed a sergeant who was looking through; another two inches would have done it. Well, it was impossible to shoot through the loophole, so I directed them to show a periscope near our loophole, while I went to the right, past the tree, and go up, and pressing my head against a sandbag, got a stick and shoved No.2 [plate] round till, with my head covered by No. 1 [plate], I got on to Fritz’s plate. The first shot hit it, and I fired two more. Then as it was raining, and for other reasons, I went to smoke a cigarette in a dugout. While doing this the sergeant reported that the Bosches were mounting the shield with a white sandbag. This was splendid. Meantime Fritz had shot twice more at the loophole, so I went to the same place as before, and when Fritz, who thought I thought he was behind the plate, shot, I shot also. The shot went right into his loophole, and after it no more reflection could be seen, nor did he shoot again.

WWI Sniping II

Sergeant Jack Winston, Canadian 19th Battalion, witnessed his lieutenant stalk and capture a German sniper:

Our lieutenant was looking hard across No Man’s Land through the trench periscope, and I wondered what was keeping him so long looking at a spot I thought we all knew by heart. He stood there perfectly immovable for at least fifteen minutes, while several star-shells, fired both from our own lines and the German trenches, flared and died. Finally he turned to me and whispered, “Jack, I do not remember that dead horse out there yesterday. Take a look and tell me if you remember seeing it before.” I looked at the spot indicated and sure enough there was a dead horse lying at the side of a shell-hole where I could have sworn there was nothing the day before.

I told the lieutenant I was sure that nothing had been there on the previous day and waited for further orders. German snipers had annoyed us considerably and as they took great pains in concealing their nests we had little success in stopping them. Several casualties had resulted from their activities. The lieutenant had evidently been thinking, while taking his long observation, for he said almost at once: “I believe that nag is a neat bit of camouflage. One of those Huns is probably hidden in that carcass to get a better shot at us.” He then told me to have the men at the portholes fire at the carcass, at five seconds intervals, to keep “Fritz,” if he were there, under cover—and taking advantage of the dark interval between the glare of the star-shells, he slipped “Over the top,” having told me he was going to get the Hun.

Imagine my suspense for the next half hour. I kept looking through the periscope but for the fully fifteen minutes but could not find my officer. Finally I spotted him sprawled out, apparently dead, as a star-shell lit up the ground within the range of my periscope. As no shot had been fired, except from our own portholes, I knew he was not as dead as he seemed. And sure enough when next I could make him out he was several yards ahead, and to the left, of the spot where I had last seen him. Then I knew what he was after. He was making a detour to approach the carcass from the rear, and as he could only move in the dark intervals between star-shells his progress was, of necessity, slow. At the end of another fifteen minutes I located him in a position, as nearly as I could judge, about ten yards in the rear and just a step to the left of the carcass.

Sergeant Winston assembled a patrol to help the lieutenant:

[W]e ran straight into the lieutenant who was driving the Hun before him at the muzzle of his automatic. We wasted no time on the return journey but hustled “Fritzie” along at a brisk pace… When we were all safe in the trench, the lieutenant called off the barrage and the enemy in our front was doubtless wondering what it was all about, until the sniper who, as the lieutenant surmised, was hidden in the camouflaged carcass, returned no more. The Lieutenant had arrived at a point about five paces behind the Hun before the sniper discovered him, and then had him covered with his automatic. Like most of his breed there was a wide “yellow streak” in this baby-killer and he cried “Kamerad” instantly. By the time the Lieutenant had secured his prisoner’s rifle our barrage was falling, and under its protection, he began his march back with the prisoner, and met us before he had gone twenty-five yards… The prisoner expected to be killed at once and begged piteously for his life, saying “he had a wife and three children.” One of the men replied that if he had his way he would make it a “widow and three orphans.” Needless to say he did not have his own way….

Another Canadian sniper matched wits with a Bavarian:

There was an old Bavarian sniper along this part of the front who had become famous for his killings. He had accounted for several officers in our brigade and the week before he came into this sector he killed a couple of our snipers of the 7th battalion. The post where they were killed had been given away by a new draft officer who did not understand what it meant to send his green men into a post of this kind, and having them banging and shooting at the landscape through it. I questioned this officer about it and he said the snipers did not use the post enough so he thought he was being efficient in sending men in there to shoot… The bullets that killed the two 7th Snipers came directly in through the loop hole[,] hit the timber and iron sheeting in the roof and glanced downward. This had been a good post and had been in use for a long time before the bright officer advertised it to the old Bavarian. This grizzled old Bavarian had been glimpsed on several occasions. He wore a beard appearing to be a man at least 50 years of age.

After the incident of the two 7th battalion snipers I quieted myself to the task of hunting for the old timer… I started out from our right flank into a maze of disused trenches that had changed hands several times and now were between the opening lines. They were filled with wire blockades or entanglements to prevent their use by either side in surprise attacks. … I worked my way forward cautiously till I thought I must be close to the enemy outpost positions. … When it was quite dark I caught a glimpse of a movement among that mess of wire. I did not make anything definite out of it that night. The following night I was back there again and set to watching that sag with its mess of wire coils. Dusk crept toward darkness and I was thinking about going in and calling it a day when there was a distant flare light. It lit up the skyline beyond that sag full of wire. There was the unmistakable outline of the head and shoulders of the old Bavarian. He had not taken the distant flares into account and he was outlined in a light that just enabled me to pick up the cross hair in the old Winchester A5 Scope. I fired before the light flickered and died out, then shifted my position off to one side[,] a bit of waiting for awhile to try to catch another glimpse of the spot by the aid of another distant flare. … I did get another glimpse across that sag full of wire. There was clear sky behind and I could not make out anything by the contour of the earth below. We never saw the old Bavarian sniper again, nor did I ever hear any more of him in the time we remained in the front.

To open the Dardanelles, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. Instead of advancing inland rapidly, they entrenched themselves in anticipation of a Turkish counterattack. The Turks also dug trenches and not having forgotten the lessons of centuries ago, began sniping at unwary ANZAC soldiers. As casualties mounted, reinforcements were needed and the Australian 5th Light Horse was called up and sent to Gallipoli where they fought as infantry.

Among the 5th Light Horse was Private William Edward Sing, better known as Billy. Being of both Chinese and English ancestry, he was ineligible for enlistment, as only men of European descent were qualified to enlist, but his origins were overlooked by the recruiting officer. Sing, after all, was an excellent horseman and the best shot in the Proserpine Rifle Club. Predictably Sing would be called upon to neutralize the Turkish snipers. Described as “a little chap, very dark, with jet-black moustache and a goatee beard,” Sing’s tally grew such that the Turks wanted him very badly. Ion Idriess recounted spotting for Sing:

He has a splendid telescope and through it I peered across at a distant loophole, just in time to see a Turkish face framed behind the loophole. He disappeared. A few minutes later, and part of his face appeared. That vanished. Five minutes later he would cautiously gaze from a side angle through the loophole. I could see his moustache, his eyebrows, and part of his forehead. He disappeared. Then he showed all his face and disappeared. He didn’t reappear again, though I kept turning the telescope back to his possy. At last, farther along the line, I spotted a man’s face framed enquiringly in a loophole. He stayed there. Billy fired. The Turk vanished instantly, but with the telescope I could partly see the motions of men inside the trench picking him up. So it was one more man to Billy’s tally.

As Sing’s fame spread, the Turks sent their best sniper, nicknamed Abdullah the Terrible by the Australians, to kill Sing. Sing got him first and went on to have over 160 confirmed kills as well as another 150 probables. After Gallipoli was evacuated, Sing transferred to the 31st Infantry Battalion and was sent to France. Wounded several times, Sing earned the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Postwar, Sing returned to Proserpine and died in 1943. Sing is interred at Lutwyche Cemetery, Brisbane and honored by Australia with a bronze statue of a sniper behind a sandbagged loophole in Hood’s Lagoon, Clermont.

An Ojibwa from Ontario, Canada, Francis Pegahmagabow was not formally trained as a sniper but his boyhood hunting and trapping experience was sufficient and he was near invisible as a sniper. Serving with Canada’s 23rd Northern Pioneers—which later merged with other units to become the 1st Battalion, Western Ontario Regiment—Pegahmagabow was the most accomplished sniper of World War I with 378 kills and over 300 captured. While he aspired to pen his memoirs, Pegahmagabow never did and we have but one statement that attests to his skill: “The best shot I ever made, about nine hundred yards away, long distance sniping. Man on horseback. Yes I got him.” He was one of only thirty-nine Canadian soldiers to receive the Military Medal with two bars.

United States

When the United States Army adopted the Warner & Swasey prismatic “Telescopic Musket Sight Model of 1908,” it was the first army in the world to adopt a scope sight. Having a short eye relief of only 1½ inches, this 6× scope had a rubber eyepiece; later eyepieces had airholes punched into them to prevent suction against the eye socket when the shooter lowered the rifle. The scope base was soldered onto the rifle and added 2¼ pounds to the total weight of the gun. It was succeeded in 1913 by the Model 1913 which reduced the magnification to 5.2×. The locking nut was changed for the elevation knob and a clamping screw was added to the eyepiece adjustment knob. The Model 1913 was adopted by Canada and one mounted on a Ross rifle is displayed at Quebec’s Museé Royal 22nd Regiment.

America’s late entry into the war meant it could benefit from Canadian and British experience and the first American sniping manual was directly copied from Crum’s manual. Besides the Warner & Swasey scope, equipment included the Winchester A-5 5× scope that was unique in having a tube bored from round stock. It had a simple crosshair reticle but others were available. It was unique in its time in having a groove milled on the underside of the tube. A spring-loaded plunger engaged the groove and prevented any rotation of the scope body while simultaneously allowing the scope body to move laterally. Not having internally adjustable reticle, the rear scope mount had micrometer dials for windage and elevation adjustment. Installation of the scope bases required drilling two holes in the receiver as well as two in the barrel. Criticisms against the Winchester A-5 included its high magnification with its small field of view, making target acquisition slow. The 6-inch space between the mounts meant the scope was not well supported and the scope had to be pushed forward of its firing position before the bolt could be operated. Afterward it had to be pulled back so it could be used. The narrowness of the ocular lens made it useless in poor light. Originally rejected in 1915, it was adopted in 1918 as an emergency measure. In Marine hands, the Winchesters A-5 scopes served as late as the campaign on Guadalcanal in World War II. It was also adopted in 1918 by the British and Canadians, who were desperate to catch up with the Germans and installed them on the Ross rifle and the Short Magazine Lee Enfield Mark III (abbreviated as SMLE Mark III).

Not all Americans were trained by British or Canadian instructors and Private Al Barker, 5th Marines, became a sniper without any training:

I was selected as a sniper with a few others. … I climbed a tall tree near as possible to the German trenches and stationed myself there very comfortably. We could see the Germans setting machine guns in position to be used against our forces. We both had our rifles and plenty of ammunition, so we began to pick off the men who were operating the machine guns. … We succeeded in putting four of these guns out of commission when we were discovered by German snipers. I received a bullet wound in my knee and fell twenty feet to the ground. …

The most notable American sniper fought under Canadian colors. Eager to get into the fight, Herbert McBride resigned his captaincy in the Indiana National Guard and crossed the border where he was gazetted to the 38th Battalion as a captain. As the 38th was not yet mobilized, McBride was assigned to instruct musketry to the 21st Battalion. While there, he learned that the 38th was being sent to France first and resigned his commission to become a private in the Machine Gun Section. McBride attended a sniping school near LaClytte and was issued a Ross rifle with a Warner & Swasey scope.

After sighting it in, McBride selected an observer who was not only a good companion but had keen eyesight:

Early one morning Bou and I were stretched out in our little hole, he with the big telescope and I with my binoculars, scrutinizing the German line, about five hundred yards away. Suddenly the Kid says, “There he is, Mac, right in front of that big tree just to the right of No. 4 post, see him?” I shifted my glasses a little and, sure enough; there was a man, evidently an officer, at the point he mentioned, standing upright, with a big tree behind him, and looking out over our lines through his glasses. Only the kid’s keen eyesight discovered that fellow. I had passed him over several times, but, when my attention was called to it, I saw him quite plainly— through my glasses. When I tried to pick him up through the sight, however, I had considerable difficulty in locating him, but, finally, by noting certain prominent features of the surrounding background, I managed to find the right tree and got him centered in sight and cut loose. I got him.

On Christmas Eve an officer believed the Germans would not fire on stretcher parties and that it was safe to move in the open. As they crossed, an unseen German shot down one stretcher bearer, then another and finally the officer who was rendering aid to a stretcher bearer. McBride observed the shot and determined it came from a tree top in the woods behind the German line. Unsure which tree concealed the sniper, McBride opened with his machine gun. Other machine guns joined in as did an artillery battery. It is unclear who was responsible for dropping the German, but that he was killed was all that mattered.

* * *

By war’s end, all major powers practiced sniping and the British sniping effort reduced British losses to “only forty-four in three months for sixty battalions; that means in three months … [a saving of] 3,500 lives.” The Germans lost their initial advantage and Crum described the success of British sniping: “It was sometimes enough to kill a single really troublesome Hun sniper to secure complete moral superiority. In one sector, I remember, on our arrival, it was unsafe to show your little finger. When we came away, three weeks later, I saw one of our men coolly lathering his face in full view as he did his morning shave.” Postwar, sniping was forgotten and overshadowed by emerging technology like aeroplanes, submarines and tanks.

PLUG BAYONET

The late 17th century saw the final demise of the pike, and its replacement by the bayonet. The plug bayonet, which blocked the muzzle of the musket and needed to be removed for firing, did not catch on. The earliest military use of bayonets was by the French Army in 1647, at Ypres. These were plug-fitted into the barrel. That prevented firing once they were mounted, but allowed musketeers to act as their own pikemen, which gave infantry formations greater firepower. By 1650 some muskets had bayonets fixed to the gun at manufacture, hinged and foldable back along the barrel. French fusiliers adopted the plug bayonet as standard equipment in 1671; English fusiliers followed suit in 1685.

However, in 1669 the socket bayonet was developed, which created no such impediment. It was introduced to the French Army by Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban. By 1689 it was becoming standard issue for French infantry.

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The trouble with firing in successive lines was that it was only practical on a narrow front. In open country, the musketeers could easily be flanked, especially by cavalry. In most battles, the musketeers relied on pikemen to protect them while reloading. Infantry practiced various formations and drills that allowed musketeers to hide behind the pikes while reloading and to take up firing positions as soon as their weapons were ready to use. This system worked pretty well, but it obviously cut down the army’s firepower-sometimes by more than half.

The solution to the problem was to turn the musket into a spear. According to some sources, this was the idea of Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, the great French military engineer in the armies of Louis XIV. It was a solution at least for soldiers. Hunters in France and Spain had for some time been jamming knives into the muzzles of their muskets for protection against dangerous game. It seems that Bayonne, a French city noted for its cutlery, made a type of hunting knife that was favored for this use. When the French army adopted this weapon, it was called a “bayonet.” The earliest reference to the use of the bayonet is in the memoirs of a French officer who wrote that on one campaign, his men did not carry swords, but knives with handles one foot long and blades of the same length. When needed, the knives could be placed in the muzzles of the guns to turn them into spears. The bayonet proved to be a much more effective defense against cavalry than the sword.

There were some drawbacks to these “plug bayonets.” If someone put a plug bayonet in the muzzle of a loaded musket and then fired it, the gun might blow up. This sort of accident seems to have been much more prevalent among civilians who, unlike soldiers, did not load and fire on command. It was so prevalent that in 1660, Louis XIV had to issue a proclamation forbidding the placing of daggers in the muzzles of hunting guns. The trouble with plug bayonets in military guns was that, when the bayonet was in place, the gun could not be loaded or fired, although there were situations when it would be most helpful to be able to do either with the bayonet in place.

Walther PPK

Modern PPK variants are finished in a traditional deep blue or stainless steel.

The Compact Pistol That Shook, Not Stirred

Produced: 1930–Present

Pocket pistols first appeared in Walther’s product line in 1908, making them one of the very first firearm companies to manufacture small, compact pistols. That DNA has always been entwined in all Walther pistols, especially in the svelte-looking PPK.

In 1931-1932 Walther followed the Model PP with the smaller Model PPK. Although some sources claimed that the “K” in the pistol’s designation refers to kurtz (German for “short,” as in Police Pistol Short), most favor kriminal as the more correct choice. The designation Polizei Pistole Kriminal thus indicates the pistol’s intended use by the Kripo or Kriminal Polizei, the detective branch of the German police. At 6.1 inches in overall length and 1.25 pounds, the Model PPK was essentially a smaller Model PP with a shorter grip and slide and a 3.4-inch barrel. It was offered in the same calibers as its larger predecessor. Walther also eliminated the Model PP’s metal back strap and instead manufactured the Model PPK with a comfortable one-piece wraparound plastic grip. Owing to the PPK’s shortened grip, its magazine accepted seven cartridges rather than the Model PP’s eight. The shorter grip also necessitated the addition of a plastic extension to the magazine base for the shooter’s little finger-a feature found on some Model PPs.

Walther manufactured approximately 150,000 Model PPKs during the Nazi era. The small pistol became a favored sidearm of the civilian police and the notorious Gestapo-the Nazi secret police. High-ranking Nazi officials and military officers also considered smaller sidearms more prestigious than the larger service pistols and purchased numbers of engraved Model PPKs as personal status symbols. Some PPKs manufactured for Nazi Party officials were embellished with special grips molded with the Nazi eagle and swastika motif or party insignia stamped on their slides. The Model PPK played a role in hastening the end of World War II when, on 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide with his engraved, gold-plated model in his bunker in Berlin as Russian troops closed in.

Today steel stampings are common, and the PPK is iconic. The pistol is still extremely popular today with law enforcement agencies as a backup gun and civilians holding concealed carry permits. The German military used it extensively during World War II, and Ian Fleming armed his famous spy character, James Bond, with the PPK. The PPK’s size, caliber, simple controls, ease of use, and the pistol’s relentless reliability make it a benchmark in compact pistols. All compact pistols manufactured since owe many design characteristics to the PPK.

The compact PPK pistol uses a simple blow back operating system and features a traditional DA/SA trigger; a single stack magazine with a thin grip, a barrel fixed to the frame, exposed hammer, and decocking lever are some of the other features. Some magazines also include a floor plate with a finger rest. The checkered plastic grips of the pistol form the pistol’s back strap. Old school for sure, but ever so effective. A trademark feature of the PPK is the decocking safety lever. With the hammer cocked all the way back the safety is rotated downward, decocking the hammer and allowing it to fall against the decocking lever. This model also has loaded chamber indicators that can be seen and felt in the dark if need be, telling the user a round is in the chamber. Models are available in a matte stainless steel finish or a traditional deep blue.

The PPK/S is mechanically the same as the PPK but uses a longer full metal frame that holds 7+1 rounds, of .380 ammo. PPK/S models mate a PP frame to a PPK slide to meet United States firearms importation guidelines set down by the Gun Control Act of 1968. The PP, PPK, and PPK/S family of pistols are some of the most popular and successful small pistols ever designed.

During World War II the PPK was issued to numerous German military and police forces. Adolf Hitler is purported to have committed suicide with a PPK in his bunker stronghold in Berlin as the Allies and Soviets entered the city.

The PPK inspired other small pistol designs like the Soviet Makarov, Bersa Thunder 380 from Argentina, the Hungarian FEG PA-63, and more. Though smaller and lighter polymer-frame pistols have taken away market share, the PPK’s influence and notoriety was sealed when Ian Fleming issued the PPK to his secret agent character, James Bond, in his series of spy novels. PPK has been licensed by Manurhin in France, and it is now licensed by Smith & Wesson. Originals were made in Zella-Mehlis, Germany.

Specifications

CALIBER: .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP; .380

BARREL LENGTH: 3.3 inches

OA LENGTH: 6.1 inches

WEIGHT: 21 ounces (unloaded)

STOCK: Checkered plastic

SIGHTS: Fixed notch rear/blade front

ACTION: Straight blow back, semiautomatic

FINISH: Deep blue or stainless (later variants)

CAPACITY: 8+1 (.22 LR), 7+1 (.32 ACP), 6+1 (.380)

Walther Brings Sexy Back

Postscript: The PK380 is built with a polymer frame and steel slide and barrel. The first thing you will notice when you pick up the PK380 is how good the grip feels in your hand. From a petite female to hulking brute, the PK380 feels right in anyone’s hand and it naturally points. A finger rest is built into the magazine floor plate so your little finger—if you have a big hand—does not dangle off the bottom of the grip. The PK380 is angular and aggressive looking. The controls consist of an ambidextrous safety mounted on the slide near the thumb of either a right- or left-handed shooter. Flip it up to fire the gun, rotate it down to put it on safe. The magazine release is also ambidextrous and built into the trigger guard so it is easy to release the magazine with whatever hand you shoot with. The trigger is traditional DA/SA meaning the first shot is first DA (double-action) requiring more effort to press the trigger, then once the round is fired the action goes into SA (single-action) which requires a lot less effort to press the trigger. The Walther PK380 is a provocative and inviting compact pistol.

While other pistol manufacturers have gone the micro design route, building .380 pistols that are small and ultra concealable, the PK380 is slightly larger though still very compact.

Late 19th Century Infantry Firepower

A French officer, Colonel Ardant du Picq, more than most, perceived that the high rates of fire and long range of modern weapons meant that close-order battle was no longer possible:

Ancient combat was fought in groups close together, within a small space, in open ground, in full view of one another, without the deafening noise of present-day arms. Men in formation marched into an action that took place on the spot and did not carry them thousands of feet away from the starting point. The surveillance of the leaders was easy, individual weakness was immediately checked. General consternation alone caused flight.

Today fighting is done over immense spaces, along thinly drawn out lines broken every instant by the accidents and obstacles of terrain. From the time the action begins, as soon as there are rifle shots, the men spread out as skirmishers, or, lost in the inevitable disorder of rapid march, escape the supervision of their commanding officers. A considerable number conceal themselves, they get away from the engagement and diminish by just so much the material and moral effect and confidence of the brave ones who remain. This can bring about defeat.

He drew the conclusion that the old ways of the close-order battle must be replaced, arguing that

Combat requires today, in order to give the best results, a moral cohesion, a unity more binding than at any other time. It is as true as it is clear, that, if one does not wish bonds to break, one must make them elastic in order to strengthen them.

His tactical conclusion was that infantry should fight in open order in which they could maximise the effectiveness of their weapons and take shelter from enemy fire:

Riflemen placed at greater intervals, will be less bewildered, will see more clearly, will be better watched (which may seem strange to you), and will consequently deliver a better fire than formerly.

He had seen men under fire, understood their actions, and argued that their instinct to seek shelter from the firestorm was right, but that it needed to be controlled and organised:

Why does the Frenchman of today, in singular contrast to the [ancient] Gaul, scatter under fire? His natural intelligence, his instinct under the pressure of danger causes him to deploy. His method must be adopted … we must adopt the soldier’s method and try to put some order into it.

Du Picq, who was killed in 1870 at the very start of the Franco-Prussian War, offered a brilliant analysis of the problems posed by the new firepower. But European powers found their way to a solution to the problem via hard experience, particularly in the wars of German unification which pitted Prussia against Austria (1866) and France (1870–1). In 1815 Germany had become a confederation of thirty-nine individual states and cities, dominated by Prussia in the north and Austria in the south. The year 1848 raised the prospect of a full union of the German people, and while Austria and Prussia united against the spectre of liberalism, they became rivals for leadership in Germany. The subsequent tensions were inevitably of deep concern to France whose rulers feared a strong state on their eastern frontier. Under Bismarck, Prussian Minister-President after 1862, Prussia played the national card. In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria broke into war.

The Prussian military system had been thoroughly reformed after Napoleon had crushed it at Jena in 1806. The crucial development was the growth of a Great General Staff, embodied in law in 1814. Bright officers were selected to what was effectively a military brotherhood, charged with continuous study of the art of war and the drawing up and review of plans. Essentially a managerial system, in the long run it proved brilliantly suited to control large complex armies. Because it was successful in the wars of 1866 and 1870–1 the General Staff developed enormous prestige and decisive influence in military affairs. General Staff officers formed specialised groups, such as that dealing with railways, and were skilful at spotting ways in which new technology could be adapted for military use. Ultimately every general in command of an army had a chief of staff who had a right of appeal if he did not like his superior’s plans. To prevent these officers losing touch with military reality they were rotated through regular periods of service in line regiments. The Prussian General Staff presided over an army of 300,000 raised by a highly selective form of conscription. These were backed up by 800,000 reserves, each of whom at the age of 32 passed into the militia or Landwehr which would only be called up in emergency. In 1859 Prussia had tried to move to support Austria against France, but mobilisation had been a fiasco. As a result the General Staff paid careful attention to the use of railways to get troops quickly to the front. At the same time reserve and regular battalions were firmly attached to local military districts so each got to know the other.

In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria over the leadership of Germany led to war. Prussia had only half the population of its adversary and the Austrians had a long-service conscript army of 400,000 which, in theory, could strike first into enemy territory. But the Austrian army could not concentrate quickly because its units were used for internal security, scattered in such a way that the men were always strangers to the people whom they garrisoned. Prussia thus had time to summon its reserves and to take the initiative under Helmuth von Moltke. Moreover, the Austrian advantage in numbers was partially nullified because Prussia allied with Italy, forcing Austria to dispatch an army there. In Italy in 1859 Austrian forces had failed to implement firepower tactics, and had been overwhelmed by direct (and very costly) French attacks. They were now armed with a good muzzle-loading Lorenz rifle, but thought that they should hold their troops together in large units that were trained to deliver bayonet charges. Also, aware of the inadequacy of their cannon in Italy, the Austrians had bought excellent rifled breech-loading artillery.

Moltke sent three armies along five railways to attack Austria through Bohemia, with the intention of concentrating them against the enemy’s main force. In the event, two of these armies confronted the Austrians in their strong and partly fortified position at Sadowa/Königgrätz on 3 July 1866. Each side had about 220,000 men. Fighting was ferocious but the Prussians held on until their third army arrived to bring victory. Prussian infantry tactics were the revelation of Sadowa. In 1846 the Prussian army had adopted a breech-loading rifle, the Dreyse needle-gun. This had a potential firing rate of about five shots per minute and it could be loaded and fired from the prone position. The Dreyse was scorned by other armies: it lacked range because the gas seal on the breech was inadequate and it was feared that such a high rate of fire would encourage soldiers to waste their ammunition before charging the enemy, so overburdening supply lines. At Sadowa the Austrian artillery did much damage, but the rapid fire of the Dreyse at close range cut down the Austrians whose forces were gathered in large close-order units highly vulnerable to this kind of firestorm. The British Colonel G.F.R. Henderson commented that the Prussians did not charge with the bayonet until the enemy had been destroyed by musketry: ‘The Germans relied on fire, and on fire alone, to beat down the enemy’s resistance: the final charge was a secondary consideration altogether.‘

Important as the Dreyse was, the real key to victory was tactical and organisational. Moltke, like Clausewitz, understood the fluidity of battle and the problem of control:

Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander’s intent.

He developed what would later be called the doctrine of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik), under which subordinate officers, even down to platoon level, were instructed in the intentions of the overall commander, but left to find their own way of achieving this end. At Sadowa the Prussians made their infantry firepower count by closing with the enemy in forest land where the strong Austrian artillery could not bear upon them. This enabled them to shoot into the packed Austrian ranks as their junior officers led them around the enemy flanks. Fire and movement was the solution to the conundrum so ably propounded by du Picq.

This was possible because junior officers in the Prussian army were thoroughly trained, and understood the need to accept responsibility for the progress of their soldiers, and staff officers rotated through the fighting units communicated what senior commanders wanted. In addition, at the core of the Prussian army was an excellent corps of long-term NCOs well able to support their officers. At Sadowa the Austrians suffered 6,000 dead, over 8,000 wounded and about the same number missing, and conceded 22,000 prisoners. The Prussians lost 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Austria made peace almost immediately and Prussia took over all the north German states, enormously enhancing her military capability. The obvious lesson of Sadowa was firepower. The Austrian Field Marshal Hess articulated another very clearly: ‘Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time … and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.‘ Strike first would become an article of faith amongst the general staffs of Europe in the years down to 1914.

The rise of Prussia threatened the France of Napoleon III. The nephew of the great Napoleon had taken advantage of the turbulence of the Second Republic to seize power and declare the Second Empire in 1852. He stood, above all, for the dominance of France in European affairs. The Prussian victory in l866 was therefore a blow to the very foundations of the regime, and all parties in French public life thereafter regarded war with Prussia as inevitable. This focused attention on the French army, a long-term conscript body very like the Austrian but with far more fighting experience. However, it lacked a reserve force, while French officers and NCOs enjoyed low pay and status and suffered a constipated promotion system. There was a General Staff, but its officers formed a tiny elite who had little to do with the army as a whole. At all levels there was an absence of initiative, partly because Napoleon, though lacking real military grasp, cultivated the ‘Napoleonic myth’ of the heroic and omnipotent leader.

In reaction to Sadowa the French adopted a new breech-loading rifle, the chassepot. This had an excellent breech mechanism which doubled both the rate of fire and, at 1,200 metres, the effective range of the Dreyse. Remarkably the mitrailleuse, a crude machine-gun, was developed, but it was surrounded by such tight security that the troops were never able to integrate it into their tactics. Because these weapons were costly, the smooth-bore Napoleon cannon of 1859 remained the dominant artillery piece. In 1868 legislation was passed to create a reserve whose members would ultimately pass into a territorial militia, the garde mobile. But Napoleon was unpopular, the Legislative Assembly obstructed the law and so the system was barely operating by 1871.

The French decided that tactically the new weapons favoured the defensive, so they grouped soldiers in large solid units to produce massive firepower, denying any flexibility to local commanders and laying units open to the risk of being outflanked; indeed, the French system was highly centralised and dependent on the will and capacity of the emperor. Even worse, despite bellicose intentions and pronouncements, no real plans were made for war against Prussia. This negated the key advantage of a standing army, that it could strike first before an enemy dependent on conscription could gather his forces. Moreover, the French army was very dispersed. Its troops were used for internal security, so units were spread out and not allowed to serve in their areas of origin.

When war came in 1871 the French planned to mobilise and concentrate their armies on the frontier at Metz and Strasbourg, but Staff planning was hopeless. Choked roads and railways and poor attention to logistics turned this process into a nightmare. At the end of July, when Napoleon arrived at Metz to assume command, barely 100,000 of 150,000 troops had arrived, and only 40,000 of 100,000 had reached Strasbourg. The reserve system worked so slowly that there was no support for the regulars, while the garde mobile was wholly untrained, unequipped and, in places, openly disloyal. Supplies of bread and other essentials failed, while there was indiscipline and even explicit grumbling against the regime. But perhaps the key factor in spreading demoralisation was that in the absence of plans Napoleon was vacillating.

The French had originally projected a thrust into the sensitive junction between north and south Germany. Then the notion of a defensive stance to repel a Prussian attack came to the fore. The hope of Austrian intervention, perhaps supported by the south German states who loathed Prussia, led to the establishment of strong forces at Strasbourg. This force, under Marshal Maurice MacMahon, was rather cut off by the Vosges mountains from Napoleon’s main force around Metz. It was unclear to Napoleon’s senior commanders which, if any, of these options, none of which had been properly thought through and planned, was to be taken. Such hesitancy quickly communicated itself to the soldiers, for armies are highly sensitive to this kind of doubt. Here, then, was an army without a strategy, led by a vacillating ruler tormented by painful illness but keenly aware that his regime needed military success.

By contrast, the Prussians were devout believers in speed and their planning enabled Moltke to deliver three armies to the frontier where French inaction permitted them to organise themselves at leisure. They were backed up by a steady flow of reserves, so that Prussian forces quickly outnumbered the French. The process of concentration was by no means perfect, and moving troops and supplies away from the railhead caused congestion. For both armies the frontier with its hills and rivers posed considerable problems. Moltke directed his superior forces to converge on the French. Since Sadowa he had systematised tactics so that the standard attack force was now the 250-man company. Moreover, Moltke had noted the heavy losses inflicted upon his infantry by Austrian artillery, and had bought Krupp rifled guns. There was uncertainty about how best to deploy these, but they were mostly brought up close to the front to support the infantry. Late on in the Sadowa battle the Austrians had launched a charge of their heavy cavalry to cover their retreat, but it was cut to pieces by rifle fire. As a consequence the Prussian cavalry was now trained very thoroughly for an active role in reconnaissance which it discharged very effectively.

The first encounter of the war, at Wissembourg on 4 August 1870, set the pattern. The Crown Prince of Prussia with 60,000 men and 144 guns bumped into a single division of 8,000 French with twelve guns, well entrenched and sheltered by the buildings of the town. Frontal attacks against intense fire from the chassepots of the well-entrenched French infantry cost the Prussians dearly. However, Prussian artillery moved up to blast the French positions; the few and outranged French guns could make no reply. This enabled the Prussian infantry to work around the French flanks and to force a retreat. But against a single division, the Prussians suffered 1,500 casualties, almost as many as against a vast Austrian army at Sadowa, though they inflicted 2,000. Ultimately they were victorious in five major battles. The failure of French command is all too evident, in that even on the one occasion they were not outnumbered, they still failed to win.

It cannot be said that the generalship on either side was of a very high standard. At Gravelotte on 18 August 30,000 Prussians attacked rows of trenches rising to St Privat: they advanced in what was virtually an eighteenth-century formation, a thin skirmish line succeeded by half-battalions backed up in a third line by massed battalions. Too many senior officers were just plain old-fashioned or distrusted the new methods of Auftragstaktik, which Moltke had applied at Sadowa. Within minutes of launching their assault they had lost 5,000 men. Gradually small units under junior officers fanned out, extending and thinning the line of attack, while twenty-six field artillery batteries bombarded the French positions which were seized at a cost of 8,000 casualties. Some 70 per cent of German casualties were caused by rifle fire, but about the same proportion of French casualties were inflicted by explosive shell. The French never really adapted their tactics to the aggressive Prussian artillery attack. Their commanders were hamstrung by tight central control and reluctant to take any initiative which at times could have snatched victory. At Mars-la-Tour on 18 August General Cissey saw an opportunity to destroy the Prussians and ordered his men into columns of attack but they refused, reflecting their distrust of the high command which had failed to develop sensible methods of attack.

The Prussians isolated Napoleon III and his army in Metz, then arrived before Paris on 19 September where Napoleon had been overthrown and Gambetta had formed a new French Government of National Defence which refused to surrender. As a result the city was bombarded and after the capitulation of Metz on 29 October, a close siege was set. Large numbers of French reservists had never reached the active front. Concentrated on the Loire, they threatened the Prussian army there, and even managed to reconquer Orléans on 10 November. But ultimately Paris starved and on 28 January 1871 an armistice was agreed which led to peace. The new Republic tried to wage a people’s war by calling every man to arms, and the Prussians suffered some casualties from a motley assortment of francs-tireurs, civilians, deserters and irregulars, who sniped at the invaders. But the French people saw no point in continuing a lost war, and refused to support it, so a guerrilla war never developed.

The Franco-Prussian War effected a dramatic change in the balance of power in Europe, symbolised by the proclamation at Versailles of the German Empire on 18 January 1871. The new Reich now became the dominant European power. This was apparently a triumph for the professionalism of the Prussian army and its aggressive tactics. On the face of it a well-trained European army had shown twice within five years that it could bring war to a rapid and successful conclusion. The role of the General Staff had been vital and as a result it was widely copied. But the logistical problems of the German army in 1866 and 1871 had been quite substantial and soldiers had often ended up foraging, with evil results for the countryside at their mercy. But these wars were fought close to bases on a continent with good communications and over short periods of time.