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Project complete: Irish Handcarts

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.

History

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.

Construction

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.

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  • 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  These were originally made with finger-pieces to undo without a spanner but replacements of just a nut, albeit large enough to tighten by hand, have been seen.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.

Loading

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.

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Additional equipment, such as the rifles of the machine gunners, picks and spades, could also be carried.

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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.

Using

Handle

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.

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Wheels

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.

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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.

Lifting

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.

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Restoration

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.

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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).

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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.


Sources

First post of 2018: 2017

Given that this site allows for blog posts, I think I’m going to start trying to use them to write about things that don’t really fit anywhere else on the website.  This might be something that’s in the media or just in thinking at that time (I had thought about writing something on the use of the Vickers at Dunkirk when the film came out but was too busy and didn’t have enough content on the new site yet).  I can also write a bit more about new items that come into the collection and show them off a bit.  It’s usually some time between getting something and being able to incorporate it properly into the website and I use twitter and facebook to share these but you can’t get a lot of information across that way so I might use the blog for that as well.

These are my thoughts and musings so I’ll try to write them a little more colloquially and from my personal perspective, rather than the academic or ‘professional’ perspective that the website needs to be.

The first topic of 2018 though is aptly titled ‘2017’.  I want to take the opportunity of a first post to reflect on how the collection and the Association have developed.  This was the first year that I started to record who has visited the collection.  I’ve also done some ‘proper’ talks at the collection for interested groups, including the Western Front Association and the Ordnance Society.  I’ve really enjoyed them and it’s good to get a mix of explanation, discussion and demonstration that is difficult if you aren’t talking where you have the equipment to be able to pick up and explain what something actually means or how it was used.  There have been 88 unique visitors to the collection this year, with 51 repeat visits to bring the total ‘through the door’ to 139.  That includes some regulars who now access the archives as a routine part of their own research, and some helpers who help me look after the collection, keep it cleaned and oiled and loan some of their own items to display and store alongside the Association’s items.

The collection has continued to grow as well.  There has been a huge amount of archive material transferred as part of the Machine Gun Corps History Project, and has resulted in there being sufficient value to register the Association with The National Archives so that it is known about as widely as possible.  There are some real gems in this material that will provide some content for writing about in the future.  The physical objects related to the Vickers MG have also increased in number, including another Vickers:  Serial number L311 which identifies it as having been built in November 1914 and becoming the earliest Vickers in the collection.  Buying deactivated weapons has been frustrated in the UK because of 2017 legislation changes so I’ll have to see how that develops and whether the exemptions that were put into the legislation could apply to the Association as it develops.

It’s really important to have everything documented on an inventory and this is an ongoing project for new items but also including material that has been part of the collection for some time but never included on the inventory, such as books.  As of today, there are 6,177 records on the inventory, representing 15,371 identifying items (which could be a single round of inert ammunition, or a bundle of related papers).

Then there’s the website:  Much to my annoyance, Photobucket decided to change its sharing arrangements earlier in the year which meant that all of the images on the HTML-based site disappeared and were replaced with a ‘holding’ image.  Given that I had wanted an easier way of updating the site anyway, this spurred me to find another hosting solution and I’ve moved across to this wordpress site.  It’s been very successful.  I’m currently only using the free option which limits me a little bit but the downloadable manuals are the mainstay of the site and these are hosted perfectly and the links don’t drop out like they did before (I was using dropbox in the background before).  I made the first page live in July and the stats for 2017 show:

  • 9,779 views in total across all pages
  • 2,191 visitors from around the world
  • The most popular page was Small Arms Training Manuals
  • The most popular download was the Armourers’ drawing SAID 2062

There are still a lot of pages to transfer across to the new site but the content can still be accessed from www.vickersmachinegun.org.uk for the time-being.  Once nearly all of it has moved, I’ll redirect that link to come here.

My challenges for the year include raising more money through the site as well.  I’ve not made any sales of manual DVDs since putting this site and the easier access manuals online.  There are higher-resolution images of all the manuals available to purchase through the sales page.  I’ve also had fewer donations through the new site as well which is a little bit worrying as I thought it would improve.  Thankfully, the visits have been supported by donations to keep things going and the external talks and work for the likes of the Army’s Land Warfare Centre, the Small Arms School Corps and the Bicester Heritage Flywheel Festival have kept turnover up by covering the expenses of travel.

Hopefully 2018 can build on these successes and develop more links, more visits I’d like to see it reach 100 unique visitors) and more research.  I’ve got a couple of active projects on the go to try and improve the Association’s standing and get recognition for the website and the work so hopefully they will happen and 2018 will be a positive year.