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Training our Emma Gees

For the 2022 shoot to commemorate the centenary of the disbandment of the Machine Gun Corps, it was necessary to train nearly sixty people to safely handle and use the Vickers machine gun. This was a key part of the planning for the event and it became a piece of work that has continued beyond the event and an ongoing legacy of the commemorations.

Whilst the requirement for trained people on the firing point was put in place by the National Rifle Association (of the United Kingdom) who run the Bisley National Shooting Ground where the shoot was held, ensuring that we have trained people as part of the Vickers MG Collection & Research Association had developed from conversations several months before the 2022 shoot started planning. There were several different drivers for this.

The Association is a not-for-profit limited company registered in England. As such, it is an organisation to which our national health and safety legislation applies. Although all of our members are volunteers, the firearms we use are ‘work equipment’ and the Association is responsible for our members’ safety and ensuring that they are using that equipment with the risk to them and others reduced as low as reasonably practicable. Alongside this, the UK Ministry of Defence has requirements in place for users of their ranges that the firers are trained to a suitable, albeit unspecified, standard. We provide demonstration shoots on those ranges, as well as our own research activities so must have safe people in place. Finally, our principle object for the Association is to educate and inform people about the Vickers machine gun. Ensuring that people know how to use the Vickers in a safe and consistent manner is one of the ways to satisfy this object.

We are striving to professionalise what many people see as just our hobby. While it will always remain enjoyable and voluntary, professionalisation helps secure our position in many areas and have the opportunity to develop income streams that then gets recycled into running and expanding the collection.

What training to provide?

During the planning for a Bren gun firing event on a UK MoD range, we found that the historic drills, which we had practised and learnt previously did not match the range orders or current safety standards. We needed to bring them up to date. Rich Fisher and Tom Waite also identified that the basic safety requirement of ‘Normal Safety Precautions’ (NSPs) – taking a weapon from an unknown or an unsafe state to a known safe state – did not exist for our weapons either. We set out to develop those first, share them through our YouTube channel for ease of reference for us and others, and then develop the basic range drills of load, make ready, make safe, unload and show clear.

Alongside this, Rich recalled another organisation: the Defence Awarding Organisation (DAO) – part of the UK MoD – provides civilian-equivalent accreditation for a range of courses taught by the armed forces. One of these is a Level 2 National Vocational Qualification on the Safe Use of Personal Weapons. This set the standard and the unit titles for a generic small arms course. The DAO does not accredit organisations such as the VMGCRA and the Vickers is not a personal weapon, yet the standard covers all of the relevant aspects and we used it as a structure for our training as it would then be relevant to the MoD’s requirements to use their ranges.

Developing the content

With Rich’s knowledge of the Vickers, and the regularity of our use of it, we set aside the Bren drills and sought to develop the same for the Vickers as well as populate all of the elements of the standard for the Vickers. We have called our series the ‘Safe Use of Small Arms’ to avoid the potential confusion of ‘personal weapons’ but the structure remains the same.

By combining the historic information for the Vickers with Tom Waite’s knowledge of current range standards and drills, it was possible to develop all of the content to a modern standard that we believe reduces the risk to as low as reasonably practicable. It’s always worth remembering that the historic pamphlets were written for a training environment that wasn’t always safe and many soldiers had accidents and incidents during training that are no longer acceptable now and we are a civilian organisation that not only has the physical safety of our members and others but also the reputational impact of firearms incidents to consider, particularly in the UK where they are rare incidents to have.

The most obvious changes from the historic to modern were the ‘Load’ drill from the original Vickers manuals. It did not incorporate a separate ‘Make Ready’ stage as is now expected so we had to split those into separate processes. We also had to develop a ‘Make Safe’ process as this was now in the modern standard. Some of the text was taken almost directly from original publications but most had to be re-written because training manuals, designed for instructors, needed to be in plain English designed for learners. It also had to be accessible to people that may not have had any other firearms training. Some of the elements are generic and will be used across the different schemes we develop but there is not any pre-requisite knowledge to take on learning how to use a Vickers MG as it is unlikely that would ever be met.

As an inject during this work, the incident on the set of Rust happened. This highlighted a lot of confusion about terminology for ammunition with so many different words having the same potential meaning: live could mean ball or blank; is dummy ammunition truly inert or is it blank? We sought to clarify this within our training so all of those working with us know what we mean.

Building a training system

We all should know that merely passing on knowledge, in the form of the reference text we’d written, is not sufficient training. Sure, people can self-teach a lot, particularly if they have ready access to the weapons concerned but for it to be suitable training it needs assessing and verifying to maintain a suitable level of competence. Most people who were involved with the shoots don’t have the regular access to firing weapons either so they needed practical sessions before they could be assessed.

We also recognised that not everyone was likely to get to the same level of competence so identified how we could match roles for individuals with different levels of training. Three levels of competence were designed: Safe to Handle; Safe to Use and Competent. Each had progressive weapons handling tests (WHTs) that assessed the individual against the practical aspects of the level and an online theory test for the knowledge-based questions. All of this was recorded on an assessment sheet with each element recorded as taught, assessed and verified.

Safe to Handle was the most basic. It could be taught and demonstrated using a deactivated or drill purpose gun very easily. This meant that we were able to conduct the initial training without registering those people with the Police (part of the UK’s requirements for us as a Registered Firearms Dealer) and if they didn’t pass this level they wouldn’t be involved in the actual shoots or further training. Handling and identifying ammunition was key given the quantity we were using and that everyone was likely to come in contact with ball, blank, inert and spent ammunition as part of the training and firing. Also essential were the NSPs as this meant that any person on the firing point could render a weapon safe in the event of an emergency or if unclear and requested to help move stores. The NSPs were the first of the WHTs and the rest of the knowledge was tested online.

The Safe to Use level enabled the learner to fire the gun. Three further WHTs covered the load, make ready, fire, make safe and unload drills. For the majority of learners, they had not fired the Vickers with ball ammunition before the main shoot but we did have them all fire blank ammunition. Whilst many people don’t value the use of blank, it is a very useful training aid as it introduces a range of stoppages more frequently than ball ammunition. The mechanism of the gun, using the blank firing adapter, can be easily manipulated to incur additional stoppages as well. Stoppages and their immediate actions were tested using the online quizzes to ensure that all were covered and the learner linked the stoppage with the potential causes and the subsequent actions. Even for those who had shot other weapons, it was necessary to teach the sights on the Vickers. The sight picture is similar to most aperture sights but the range setting and adjustments are not the same.

After successfully completing the Safe to Use WHTs and online test, learners could progress to the competent level by demonstrating a full strip and assembly of the Vickers for WHT 5. This had to be narrated so they explained what they were doing and the correct names of the parts. Whilst not all the firers did this, a sufficient number to ensure that guns were cleaned safely and issues remedied quickly.

We developed an assessment sheet for the learner to record their progress and also their firing experience. On the reverse, further space was available for recording the WHTs and when they’d been passed. We recognised that for infrequent use, it is necessary to re-verify the practical elements at least annually and, ideally, prior to any firing. We really want people to become truly proficient with these firearms so that they can be as safe as possible.

Implementing the training

Firers were from across the UK. Getting them together for training sessions at the right point in their learning process required some scheduling and some ad-hoc sessions. We needed them to complete the safe to handle stage prior to registering them as an RFD servant and then have a second session where they could do the blank firing necessary to learn the IAs.

To support the written material, Rich prepared a series of videos that are available online. These link to the QR codes on each element page in the printed book. These are secure and require an additional subscription but provide extra material for either revision, clarification or just for those who prefer videos rather than writing.

Verifying the training

We have had the opportunity to run and test this training with around 60 people, with the end result of a major machine gun shoot. On the day of the shoot nothing other than a few corks broke and no one was injured. This was a controlled environment where we could capture any issues with training that we could incorporate into subsequent revisions of the training material. Despite the pace of the event, we were able to do this and identified some omissions that we needed to incorporate. This has been done through amendments to the original version of the printed book and we’ve printed the next edition with those amendments included, taking the lead from how the original Small Arms Training and Infantry Training manuals were printed in the British Army.

This will be an ongoing process and amendment sheets are provided on the sales page for the book so all customers can access them.

Expanding the scheme

The success of the book and the training, with the verification of the shoot, has meant we will expand the scheme. We are currently working on the text for a Bren light machine gun book, covering all marks of the gun, and we will then start on the Lee-Enfield rifle system, pistols and other weapons that the Vickers MG Collection & Research Association uses, remembering that these are the instructions for our ‘work equipment’ first and foremost and then make them available to others who require it and the books will be available for all who want to purchase them. We will share the NSP videos publicly so that anyone who comes across an unknown historic weapon may be able to take it from an unknown or an unsafe state into a known safe state.

There is a wide audience that use historic firearms and there is not a consistent approach to how they can be used safely. Through our study, the historic pamphlets and their drills no longer meet the required standards so we hope that this work can ensure they can be used safely and further the education around these guns.

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