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.
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.