Over the past few years, I’ve been in the process of restoring some handcarts that were used for the Vickers MG by the Irish Army. Those that have visited the collection will have seen these in progress. They took much longer than I had hoped but I’m very pleased with the outcome, as are the friends that I restored them for.
This blog article goes into a bit of detail about the handcarts themselves and then talks through the restoration process that I went through.
It appears that these handcarts were only used by the Irish Free State. I haven’t found any written evidence of their existence or period of use but they are shown in Pathe News film clips made in 1940. I’ve also seen a single still photo in an ‘Images of War’ issue on Neutral countries from the 1990s.
I’ve now seen four examples close up. From their construction, they are simply made and use largely standard components; however, their are variations in construction. Construction is simple welding and pop-rivetting of sheet steel, angle pieces and a small amount of tubing. They are are all iron / steel with the following exceptions:-
- Four pieces of wood across the base.
- Wooden box into which the crosspiece of the gun fits.
- Wooden handle.
- Leather straps.
- Brass or steel (both seen) buckles on the straps.
- Horse-hair pads in the leather-covered pads.
- Rubber tyres.
The wheels are fitted to stub-axles that are detachable with large nuts. These were originally made with finger-pieces to undo without a spanner but replacements of just a nut, albeit large enough to tighten by hand, have been seen. Two types of wheels and tyres have been seen.
- The ‘Dunlop Handcart’ tyre is narrow, at about 2-inches wide, and appears to be the same type as used on an alternative pattern handcart (possibly for a mortar) and the same as used on the handcarts made for the Airborne Forces.
- The other type of wheel and tyre is a standard 2.75-inch motorcycle wheel of the period. The example on the handcart still has the brake hub casing as part of the wheel.
The cart is fitted for the following equipment:
- Gun – by placing the crosspiece in the box at the ‘front’ of the handcart and then resting in the cradle at the rear. The muzzle of the gun rests against a horse-hair pad fitted to the outer sheeting.
- Ammunition boxes – There are two sets of brackets for a pair of ammunition boxes. The No. 8 Mk I boxes fit and a number of these were sourced from the same location as the carts.
- Condensor can – In between the two pairs of ammunition boxes, the condensor can fits on a connecting piece.
There aren’t fittings for the tripod but this does fit between the gun and the ammunition boxes. A spare parts case will fit into the cart loosely at the end of the tripod space. A spare parts box will fit, loosely, into the spare of two ammunition boxes.
Additional equipment, such as the rifles of the machine gunners, picks and spades, could also be carried.
When loaded completely and the tripod is in an appropriate place, the cart will balance as the centre-of-gravity is at the axle line.
The handle of the cart can be raised and lowered by a butterfly screw at the front. This enables it to be carried by different height soldiers or lowered completely for dragging. It can also be undone and the handle folded back on itself for storage.
The length of the handle means it can be used to both push and pull the cart.
The wheels can be removed using the nuts on the stub axles. The cart can then be dragged on its base quite easily. It’s well-thought design means that when being dragged the overlap of the sheet steel plates is in the direction that the cart should be pulled.
The axles have a piece of steel at the end, outside the first nut but before the washer and split pin. This is a ‘figure-of-eight’ piece with two holes. One goes on the axle but the other can have a length of rope attached to help drag the cart forward.
There is a piece of steel tubing at each corner of the cart so it can be lifted by four men when full and two when empty.
This meant that they could be carried in lorries and then lifted down by the machine gunners.
The first set of images shows the cart in storage for a short while before any restoration work started. They came painted and largely intact but in need of a full strip-down to bare metal and replacement of a number of rotten and rusted areas, then building up again, painting along the way. All leather work would need replacing and the wooden components all needed inspecting once clean to determine whether they could be saved.
The first task was to clean the wheels off and see how corroded they were, selecting the best four wheels and tyres from six available for those carts that are likely to be used more. I used soda-blasting after wire brushing the loosest of paint. This is quite a gentle abbrasive and quite harmless as it’s bicarbonate of soda. It does kill the grass though. I wanted to use something gentle as I left the tyres on to start with. It also means that you don’t have to prime bare metal immediately which I needed to avoid as the tyres needed a lot of masking before this could happen.
I then began to dismantle the carts themselves and inspect beneath the panels. These are pop-rivetted onto the frame and were easily drilled out. There was a lot of surface corrosion and some deep corrosion on the sides that must have been most exposed to the weather (I suspect these have been stacked and some were on the outside of the stack). The sheet metal panels had rusted through on one cart at the point where they overlap. This meant they would need replacing with a suitable sheet metal material.
The inner frame for the ammunition boxes and cradle for the gun is a single piece. It is fixed by two counter-sunk crosshead bolts and two standard bolts. Several of these had seized and needed cutting to remove it. There was no need to take out the wooden box that receives the crosspiece as this can be accessed from all sides once the panels are removed.
The frame was stripped of paint using wire brushes and scrapers. This bared the metal suitable for priming. It shows the crude welding and construction techniques used for the production of the carts.
Whilst stripping the paint, it exposed some wood that had rotten over time. This was removed and the studs of the screws exposed. These were then ground out and new holes drilled.
An initial coat of primer was then applied to the frames prior to reassembly.
The wheels were completely stripped, any remaining bearings (although not needed for use) were greased and replaced. Some areas of corrosion were filled and then primed.
The panels were also stripped of any corrosion.
All leather was removed from the cradle (in place to protect the waterjacket of the gun). The rivets used on this piece were one-sided smooth with washers on the other side. This also protected the waterjacket. The cradle was then primed.
The frame was then reassembled while in primer only, and it was sprayed Khaki Green No. 3 mixed slightly darker – a British Standard paint from the period that was similar in appearance to that stripped from the cart prior to restoration.
All leatherwork was then cut and prepared. This included re-assembling the horse-hair pads (using a modern alternative) and hand-stitching with saddlery thread. Three different thicknesses of leather were used in the construction of the pads: The 1-3/4 inch wide strap; a thin piece of hide to cover the pad and a thick piece of leather (cut from a salvaged spares case) for the rear of the pads. All holes had to be pierced prior to threading. Stitching lines were copied from the originals that were retrieved from one of the carts but unusable.
The carts were then reassembled with the leatherwork, wheels and tyres (including a set of new tyres that had been found, with some difficulty, to replace a corroded set).
To show how the carts were used, and to ensure they were all fitted correctly, I used three guns from the collection to complete the equipment.
- Unless otherwise identified, photos are from the VMGCRA.
- Pathe Films (1940), On Guard In The Outposts Of Peace [online], Available from: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/on-guard-in-the-outposts-of-peace-aka-outposts-of clip.