The Vickers machine gunner was a specialist in his occupation. The gun he would have to use was one of the most complicated pieces of weaponry on the battlefield, he would have to know, off by heart, how to work, fire and maintain the gun in the some of the most adverse conditions in the world. The Vickers was a weapon that would take lives but save lives and to save lives it had to work at all times and in all conditions.
Machine gunner training took place within the infantry battalion or cavalry regiment he was a part of. He would often be training with the other men in his section, platoon or company. Wider exercises, latterly called machine gun ‘concentrations’ would include machine guns from across brigades or divisions and they would fire large scale exercises together, in preparation for war. During wartime, machine gunners received their training at Machine Gun Training Centres that were converted from the regimental depots of the Machine Gun Corps (for the Great War) or the Divisional (Machine Gun) Battalions (in the Second World War).
The table below shows the preliminary training that a Machine Gunner would have undertaken in 1951. This four week course was what every gunner undertook before he would serve in action with the Vickers MG. A further course, the Fire Controllers’ Course was an extension to this for those selected as possible Fire Controllers to co-ordinate the Vickers MGs lethal fire.
To decode the lesson numbers please go to the lesson list:
Having successfully passed his Elementary Training, the Machine Gunner would take an Annual Machine Gun Course. If successful, he would classed as a “trained” machine gunner and be awarded the Skill at Arms insignia and trade-related pay, if applicable.
The qualification was initially awarded in different categories:
- Qualified gunner;
- First-class gunner; and,
- Marksman gunner.
The classification would depend on the number of points scored during the MG Course.
In May 1939, Army Council Instruction 252 was issued that authorised the wear of the metal variants of these badges on walking out dress but they were not allowed to be worn on service dress. They were surplus stocks left over from the Coronation (on 12 May 1937) and charged as follows:
- CB5140 – M.G. in gilded metal: 0s. 3d.
- CB5141 – M.G. and star in gilded metal: 0s. 7d.
- CB5142 – M.G. in wreath in gilded metal: 0s 4d.
- CB5143 – M.G. in wreath, and star, in gilded metal: 0s. 8d.
This is the most common qualification and all “trained” machine gunners would be entitled to wear the “M.G.” in wreath; however, as of January 1914, this insignia was worn only by 1st Class Machine Gunners.
This badge was also worn by 1st Class Lewis and Hotchkiss gunners until 6th February 1917 when their own badges (L.G. and H.G. respectively) were authorised for wear by Army Order 80 of 1917.
It was worn on the left wrist by other ranks Corporal or below; however, prior to 1942, it could be worn by ranks above Corporal on the right sleeve above the rank insignia. After 1942, ranks above Corporal were not permitted skill-at-arms or trade insignia.
First class gunner
Later, those who achieved the first class standard of machine gunnery were entitled to wear the ‘MG’ surmounted by a star.
Those who achieved the marksman standard were permitted to wear the ‘MG’ surmounted by a crown.
Development of training
Prior to the the Great War, training was as laid down in the Musketry Regulations 1910, with amendments in 1912 and 1914. It was a generic machine gun course fired for both the Vickers and the Maxim machine guns.
With the outbreak of the war, it was necessary to quickly train machine gunners for the expanding army. This included reducing the requirements for ammunition and range-time to allow for the throughput of men and the shortages of both equipment and facilities. It was also necessary to change how instruction took place, with the School of Musketry at Hythe unable to cope with the increased requirements.
38. Rifle and Machine Gun Courses for Special Reserve (S.R.) Units
On arrival of S.R. units at their war station, rifle and machine gun courses will be assembled at each of the defended ports for the instruction of officers and N.C.Os.
2. Officers and N.C.Os. detailed to attend courses will not be detached from their units, but will attend the courses daily, and when not actually under instruction will be available for duty with their units.
3. At the posts where the instructors (officers) from the School of Musketry, Hythe, are stationed, the courses will be under their superintendence, whilst at the other defended ports officers from the garrison will be detailed to superintend the courses. Hythe staff-serjeants posted to the defended ports will assist the officers superintending the courses, this assistance being supplemented, when necessary, by specially selected N.C.Os. from the reserve battalions.
4. Courses will be of about 10 days’ duration.
The syllabus of the rifle and machine gun courses respectively, are laid down in “A” of Appendix VII.
No ammunition will be fired during the courses without W.O. authority.
5. “B” of Appendix VII shows the distribution of officers and N.C.Os. of the Instructional Establishment of the School of Musketry, Hythe, to the various defended ports.
(L. 104/S.R./64, M.T. 2.)Army Council Instruction 38, 7th August 1914.
During the time that the musketry instructors were located at the defended ports, there was conflict with the port commanders to ensure that they weren’t used for other tasks, even other training tasks, as musketry training was considered their most important duty (Army Council Instruction 216, 24th August 1914).
There wasn’t sufficient ammunition to train every man in the machine gun detachment and, as such, special instructions were issued on who was trained and the number of rounds available. There were also restrictions on the numbers of rifle rounds fired.
245. Rifle and Machine Gun Ammunition for Courses of Instruction.
Approval has been given for the expenditure by cavalry and infantry army reservists and recruits of the infantry of the S.R. of the following allowances of rifle and machine gun ammunition, and for the under-mentioned courses to be carried out:-
I. ARMY RESERVE, CAVALRY AND INFANTRY
Ammunition, 25 rounds per man.
Course.- To commence at once, and to be as laid down in Army Reserve Regs., viz:-
Description of practice / class of target / Distance in yards / No. of yards / instructions for conduct of practice.
1. Slow / 2nd Class Figure / 200 / 5 / Lying.
2. Slow / 2nd Class Figure / 200 / 5 / Kneeling. Taking cover behind stones or sandbags representing a parapet, and firing over them with wrist or rifle rested.
3. Slow / 2nd Class Figure / 300 / 5 / Lying.
4. Slow / 1st Class Figure / 500 / 5 / Lying.
5. Slow / 1st Class Figure / 500 / 5 / Lying. Taking cover behind stones or sandbags, and firing round them, with side of rifle only rested.
II. SPECIAL RESERVE INFANTRY
Ammunition, 150 rounds per man.
Course.- Table “A,” App. I, Musketry Regs., Part I, Parts I, II, III and IV, and 10 rounds Individual Field Practice Part V.
No firing to take place until two months after enlistment.
4,000 rounds per gun; firing to be commenced at once.
Course.- Half the detachment to fire Parts I and II, Table “C,” Musketry Regs., Part I.
The other half of the detachment only 200 rounds per man. Part I, Table “C,” Musketry Regs., Part I, should be included in the 200 rounds.
2. With the exception of the ammunition allowed as stated above, no service ammunition, either Mark VI or Mark VII, is to be fired by officers or soldiers of the S.R. or soldiers of the Army Reserve, pending further orders.Army Council Instruction 245, 26th August 1914.
By the end of August 1914, the new divisions being formed had training centres in the process of establishing. These were assigned musketry officers and ‘ex-Hythe’ staff-serjeants to aid those officers. The same restrictions on courses and ammunition applied (Army Council Instruction 270, 28th August 1914).
The restrictions on courses to be fired and ammunition expended continued during the expansion period of the war, when fighting in France required the ammunition to be sent there. As an example of the control that the War Office held on ammunition, they issued Army Council Instructions that specified the period in which courses could be held: in Army Council Instruction 224 of 20th October 1914, the machine gun sections of Yeomanry and Infantry of the Territorial Force were allowed to fire their course between 16th November and 15th December 1914. They were again restricted to 4,000 rounds per gun. It’s worth noting that the ammunition stated in this Instruction is Mark VI ammunition, only in use with Maxim machine guns and not the Vickers.
By 24th October 1914, the restrictions had eased slightly and machine gun sections of Reserve Cavalry Regiments and Reserve Infantry Battalions were permitted 2,000 rounds of Mark VII ammunition each month for practices and courses. It was intended to allow men to fire so they replaced those who had been drafted (Army Council Instruction 267, 24th October 1914). Blank ammunition also began to be issued at a rate of up to 40 rounds per man (depending on type of unit) but it appears this was only for rifles as no mention of the machine guns are made in the Instruction (Army Council Instruction 287 of 26th October 1914).
In November 1914, 7,000 rounds per machine gun were authorised for training Colonial contingents (initially the Canadian, Newfoundland and Ceylon contingents, with others to be notified later) (Army Council Instruction 135 of 12th November 1914).
When the Commands received their own Musketry Staff, their duties were quite clearly defined to avoid them being used for other tasks, this included detailing who (including machine gunners) should be trained by who.
147. Employment of the Musketry Staff in Commands.
Ref. L.* [ACI 150] 104/Gen. No.]3586 (M.T. 2), of 13th Nov., 1914, it is notified that, in organizing any scheme for the employment of musketry staff allotted to commands, it is desirable that the following considerations should be kept in view:-
(1) The first consideration must be the maintenance of the standard of musketry and machine-gun training in those units which are, or are likely to be shortly, called upon to furnish drafts; and the necessity for ensuring that a sufficiency of trained machine-gun personnel is available in those units to meet draft requirements.
(2) There should be in all units (reserve units, and T.F>, and New Armies) one officer and two N.C.Os. who are competent musketry instructors, i.e., capable of training other instructors in their units.
(3) Arrangements should, if possible, be made to ensure that all officers and platoon serjeants should have the opportunity of receiving some instruction in the handling and control of fire directly from the musketry staff, before they are required for service overseas.
(4) One officer and one serjeant per section of machine guns should, if possible, receive instruction directly from the musketry staff. In the case of units and formations not yet armed with machine guns, notification of the probable date of issue will, if possible, be given in time to enable arrangements for training to be made in good time before receipt of the the guns.
(5) As soon as one-man range finders are available for issue, one officer per regiment or battalion and one N.C.O. per range finder should be trained in the use of this instrument.
Subject to the above considerations, it is important that the musketry staff allotted to commands should be kept as free as possible from administrative duties, and that any system established should aim at reducing the clerical work to a minimum. In view of the large numbers of troops to be trained and the limited instructional staff available, any office work thrown on to the latter which is not absolutely unavoidable should be considered a waste of their time, which should be devoted as completely as possible to actual instruction.
(L. 104/Gen. No./3586, M.T. 2.)Army Council Instruction 147, 16th December 1914.
Members of the Royal Garrison Artillery in this period were also restricted with training on their coastal defence machine guns (probably Maxims) to 420 rounds per machine gun (Army Council Instruction 181 of 19th December 1914). As well as shortages in ammunition, there remained shortages in actual machine guns for training. Despite this being known, demands continued to be sent to the War Office for machine guns for instruction. The War Office issued Army Council Instructions (ACI 189 of 20th December 1914 and ACI 194 of 21st December 1914) asking General-Officers-Commanding to stop forwarding the demands.
Army Order 350 of November 1918 inserted confirmation in the Musketry Regulations, Part I, that “Parts I., II. and III. [of the Machine Gun Course] will be fired by the Guards Machine Gun Regiment and the Machine Gun Corps.“
Machine Gunners were required to fire an Annual Machine-Gun Course to demonstrate their skills and current proficiency. It was a requirement that officers commanding cavalry regiments and infantry battalions sent the results of these Courses to the Commandant of the Machine Gun School. This had to include: (i) The averages from summary of totals – classification practices; (ii) Numbers and percentages; (iii) Troop or platoon average. This had to be sent at the end of the weapon training year (which varied across the different parts of the World).
Prior to 1922, the training of machine gunners had been part of the Machine Gun Corps; however, when machine guns were returned to the infantry battalions, their training had to be separated from that of the rifle companies, who were training according to the Musketry Regulations; whereas machine gunners now had the Machine Gun Training manuals.
Ammunition for training was allocated on an annual basis, for the weapon training year (which started at different times around the world). A proportion of the amount available was allocated on a unit-by-unit basis, depending on the type of unit. For 1939, the allocation of Vickers machine gun belted ammunition (in stripless belts) was determined in Army Council Instruction 169 of 29 March:
- Small Arms School, Netheravon Wing: 159,000 rounds.
- Each regular horsed cavalry regiment: 1,500 rounds.
- Each regular M.G. battalion: 48,000 rounds.
- Each T.A. M.G. battalion: 5,000 rounds.
- Each yeomanry regiment: 500 rounds.
For the Regular Army units, this was to fire Part IV of the annual machine gun course, whereas in Territorial Army units, it was for Part III of the course. For individual practices, Army Council Instruction 191 allowed a scale of cartridges on a ‘per man’ basis as set out in the range course manuals; however, it also allowed for an additional 99,300 rounds for instructional purposes. They were also allowed 56 rounds of .38-inch ammunition per man armed with the revolver.
Second World War
Post-Second World War
- The National Archives, WO 123/56, Army Orders 1914.
- The National Archives, WO 123/59, Army Orders 1917.
- The National Archives, WO 123/60, Army Orders 1918.
- The National Archives, WO 123/63, Army Orders 1921.
- The National Archives, WO 123/64, Army Orders 1922.
- The National Archives, WO 293/1, Army Council Instructions 1914.
- The National Archives, WO 293/14, Army Council Instructions 1939.
- War Office, 1921
- War Office, 1951a