The Great War saw machine gunnery develop from a direct fire weapon through to mass indirect fire barrages. There is an account from High Wood in August 1916 that represents the pinnacle of these developments – firing one million rounds from ten guns in 12 hours. This research examines that account to determine what happened and the technical and logistical requirements of such a feat. By examining the war diaries and characteristics of the Vickers machine gun, it has been possible to identify what actually took place, what would have been necessary for one million rounds to be fired, the potential of Great War machine gunnery and challenge posed when citing first-hand accounts from veterans.
Given the heightened interest in the specialised armour of the 79th Armoured Division, often referred to as ‘Hobart’s funnies’, around the time of Operation OVERLORD, I thought I’d share one of the non-Vickers items in the collection. It doesn’t fit anywhere else on the website, so it warrants its own blog post.
This is the British Army’s manual on ‘The Characteristics and Tactical Employment of Specialised Armour’ that includes all of the technical and tactical aspects of the different equipment that was used.
It appears to have been a provisional manual produced in 1945 but then amendment in 1947 with handwritten updates.
The contents covers all of the variants employed.
- Tank Flamethrowers
- Assault Vehicles Royal Engineers (AVRE’s) (characteristics and organisation only)
- Specialised Armour in the Assault
- DD Tanks
- Landing Vehicles Tracked (LVTs)
It’s 166 pages of really in-depth information on all aspects of their use and isn’t something that is readily available elsewhere.
I hope it’s of interest to others; the specialised armour has held my interest since I was at school and wrote about it for my GCSE English Coursework – I didn’t do as well as I should have done as I got more interested in the subject than I did in the writing.
Those who want to download and read it, I’ve produced a low-resolution PDF that’s available here or by clicking on the image below. It’s still 18MB so a large file but definitely worth the download time.
If you would like the high-resolution version (62MB) without water-mark then please make a small contribution through the payment button below and it will be sent using wetransfer.com to the payment address.
Specialised Armour Manual (high-res)
A high-resolution version of the Specialised Armour manual without watermark.
The Vickers MG Collection & Research Association is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee and registered in England. All net monies received contribute to the running of the Association.
Inspired by the work of britishmuzzleloaders and Bloke on the Range, as well as conversations with The Armourer’s Bench, as well as the positive response to thebelt loading video, I think it’s time for a bit more video on the Vickers machine gun.
As you may be aware, the Association is currently permitted to have firing Vickers MGs as part of the collection so it’s possible to replicate quite authentically some of the original lessons from the Small Arms Training and Infantry Training manuals of the period (as per Britishmuzzleloaders).
Now, this poses a number of challenges and choices. The first choice is which period to do first: the Great War, the Second World War of the post-World War Two period? There are various compromises that have to be made and I’d welcome the potential audience’s view on which we should do. I say ‘first’ because as things develop, and if a success, I’d try to cover the whole use of the Vickers.
I’ve had to discount The Great War at the moment: We currently don’t have a Great War period Vickers. We’d have to compromise by using smooth-jacketed guns (not entirely inaccurate but clearly not the norm). Also, there wouldn’t be any lessons on the dial sight, the bar foresight or much of the later equipment that was used. The people who have agreed to be the ‘students’ don’t have Great War equipment readily available either.
The Second World War: Fine, it can be done. We have the right guns, it would cover the dial sight (from the 1941 and 1944 manuals anyway) and it would cover the majority of the learning from the war; however, we don’t currently have access to the Universal Carrier so we would compromise by using the Jeep in the guise of 7th Manchester with 52nd (Lowland) Div or in some of the airborne battalions.
The post-World War Two period. Early 1950s using the 1951 manual – all of the lessons from the Second World War had been learnt and the technical elements of the teaching were more extensive (incorporating much of what had only been used by armourers during the War). The Universal Carrier was replaced in the 1950s by the Land Rover Series 1 and we have access to this.
I’d welcome your views and then I’ll balance them with the equipment and lessons available. Please comment to let us know which you’d prefer.
The main challenge is going to be cost. As you’re aware, the VMGCRA is a not-for-profit organisation and the majority of the income it makes from the sales of DVDs, posters, books etc goes into expanding the collection or the running costs of the organisation. It has gone into purchasing firing machine guns that make this opportunity viable.
The ammunition requirements for the full firing practices from the manuals, as well as range hire are like to run to at least £2,000 for the whole scheme. I’m envisaging that it will take around two years to go through the whole of the three parts of the manuals (or the full ten week scheme for the Great War) so the costs will be spread over that period.
How much are people prepared to support this idea? This is a proper fundraising requirement as it’s not something I can support the direct expenditure on. Please comment with ideas of possible amounts and ways of raising and securing this money. I haven’t used Patreon but it’s been suggested as one option.
At the end of this, I think there will be a full DVD of the lessons that can be sent to ‘subscribers’ but I’ll never be able to guarantee when (but likely within two or three years). This would be the high definition versions of what will end up on youtube and the Vickers MG website.
The context would be a Small Arms School Corps instructor in period uniform delivering period lessons to students from the multitude of units using the Vickers MG at that time. A mix of lectures and range work. The actual lessons would be ‘reenactments’ and possibly some ‘extra’ videos with modern discussion about things and the collectables element.
I’ll be working up some of the detail in the background, including costs, and see how it comes about.
Please let me know what you think in the comments boxes below.
It’s always intrigued me as to how noisy it is to fire the Vickers. It’s been my view that’s it’s a ‘quiet’ gun for the No. 1 to fire as the cartridge is being initiated almost a metre away from their head.
This has a practical purpose as well, with the Association now able to do function and firing demonstrations for visits to the collection. Not only are there legal requirements about noise exposure, there’s the underlying need to ensure that we protect our hearing. To avoid disturbing our neighbours, the small-scale testing and firing demonstrations are done inside the collection building with all of the doors closed.
Using an application downloaded on my iPhone – so not scientifically accurate but a reasonable indication – I recorded the sound levels while firing.
On the first occasion, I had the phone 2 metres to the front right of the gun at around 1.5 metres off the ground and the other side of a jeep. This meant that the sound waves were deflected slightly. The maximum sound level was 105 decibels.
On the second occasion, the phone was on my lap in the No. 1 position. It’s worth noting that I was sat on a stool so the phone was actually at the head height of a No. 1 sat on the floor. This recorded only 102 decibels so slightly quieter in this position.
Both of these levels are below the peak sound pressure limit value of 140db and can be easily reduced below the exposure action limit value of 80db for daily or weekly limits if exposed repeatedly. Using standard commercial ear defenders, that the Association has bought for visitors, does this instantly.
I have to consider the variation in production of the PPU blank so I will continue to do these recordings whenever possible and keep the information up to date on this blog. I’d also like to engage a noise professional who can do multiple readings from different places around the gun. This would require an extended piece of firing so this could be a funded piece of research, possibly suited to a student project for an environmental health degree – please contact us if that’s something you could facilitate in any way. It’ll also be good to research it when firing live.
The video below shows one of the firing events from the second occasion when I was recording. From the difference in muzzle blast, it’s possible to see some of the variation in blank as the different amount of gases expended will relate to the noise.
During British Service
From a historical perspective, the British Army has had concerns over the hearing of its troops but I’ve not been able to find any related to machine gunners.
In 1944, Army Council Instructions 732 (June) and 1420 (October) were issued. The October amendment reads:
The discharge of weapons may, in certain circumstances, cause considerable damage to the ears of personnel serving in:-
- Gun detachments of Field, Medium and Heavy Artillery,
- Gun detachments of Light A.A., Heavy A.A. and Coast Artillery units,
- Gun detachments of R.A. and Infantry Anti-Tank units,
- Infantry Squads for Protectors, Infantry Anti-Tank and Mortars,
when not wearing some form of ear protection.
It is important, therefore, that personnel whose duties take them close to these guns firing protect their ears by plugs of cotton wool.
The 1943 (provisional) manual for the PIAT actually identifies using pieces of flannelette as well as cotton wool.
There were ear protectors issued to civilians with their respirators at the start of the Second World War and it’s possible that these were formally issued later on.
There’s no mention of ear protection for machine gunners but the problem certainly existed and many machine gunners, those who used the Vickers and those since, will have experienced hearing damage from small arms firing – certainly many of the Small Arms School Corps Comrades I have met wear their hearing aids where they didn’t wear their ear protectors.
- Health and Safety Executive (2019), Noise: Exployers responsibilities. Available from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/noise/employers.htm (Accessed 9 April 2019).
- The National Archives, WO 293/32, Army Council Instructions 1944 Part 1
- War Office (1943), Small Arms Training, Volume I, Pamphlet No. 24 (provisional), Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank (PIAT), London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
This article isn’t an extension of my previous blog article about light, medium and heavy machine guns, although it’s something I could rant about quite a bit.
When doing an annual ‘spring clean’ of the Vickers collection this month, we had to get all of the guns off of their tripods and give them a once-over. During this, I noticed that one of the guns felt significantly heavier than the others. It was a Mark I gun that had been converted from a Mark XXI when the Australians no longer required them in their armoured vehicles. It was a 1945 gun so one of the last few made and I thought it would be interesting to compare it with one of the earliest guns in the collection – L 1053 from May 1915.
This immediately showed a difference of 2.7 kg which equates to an increase of 20% over the 30 years of manufacture. Quite remarkable. It made me think what the differences would be on some of the other examples in the collection.
An early Vickers Mark I manufactured at Erith in May 1915. It is extensive lightened and features some of the earliest manufacturing techniques. They include the ‘five-arch’ top cover and side plates with extensive machining. This was very labour intensive and the machining reduces over the period of the Great War as production speeds had to increase to ensure that the needs of the army could be met regarding the numbers of machine guns in service. It was also made with the earliest type of fluted water-jacket.
Weight: 13.68 kg.
One of the most noticeable accessories affecting the man-carry of the gun was the Sangster Auxiliary Mounting. It meant the gun could be used without the Mark IV tripod in an emergency. It was left on the gun for the majority of the time as it wasn’t easily removed.
Weight: 17.21 kg (including Sangster Mount).
An Australian-made Vickers originally built as a Mark XXI but then converted, in 1945, to a standard Mark I. This meant that the original features of the Mark XXI, which included different filler plugs at the rear of the water-jacket and the pistol grip removed and replaced with a cross-piece. All the guns of this period feature the dial sight bracket as part of the standard equipment.
All of the Australian guns were made with very simply produced components that allowed for mass production. They were made with the smooth water-jacket.
Weight: 16.36 kg.
This example in the collection was built at the end of the Great War, in 1918, as is one of the early examples of a ‘smooth’ water-jacket. It isn’t, in fact, smooth as some excess weight was machined from the water-jacket, presumably by lathe.
All other components are, visually, the same as later examples and the early machined components are not used at all.
The example of a Mark I gun was made at Vickers-Armstrongs in Crayford. It was made in 1943/44 and is quite crudely finished compared to the other examples shown here.
It has undergone some repairs to the crosspiece as it’s believed that this example was in use with airborne forces and has been parachuted from an aircraft.
The variations in weight are affected by the accessories but, given the fact that similar accessories are in use on several of the examples, it doesn’t have a significant influence.
Another factor to consider is that all of these examples are deactivated and this involves some metal being removed and some being added. There may be some variations because of the different people carrying out the deactivation work but unlikely to be significant.
And of course, none of these are filled with any water so that has to be added when considering the weights that the machine gunners had to carry – in this case the No. 2 of the machine gun team.
The table below is a summary of the differences between the different guns, sorted by date of manufacture from left to right and top to bottom.
It’s worth adding that the 1914 handbook for the Vickers gives the empty weight as 28 1/2 lb (12.9 kg) so 0.8 kg from the tested weight. It’s more interesting that the 1945 data summary for the Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (armourers) shows that the weight of the gun is 30 lb when empty. This is 13.6 kg in metric weight and clearly reflects the earlier manufactured guns, not the later. It would clearly come as a surprise to the soldiers who then went on to carry the gun into action.