Category Archives: Crew-Served

The “Proximity Fuzed” RPG that wasn’t

In Russia, the improved RPG-7 replaced the RPG-2 in 1961, but it took years for the improved antitank weapons to filter to the Soviet Union’s client states and it took even longer to get to Soviet-supported terrorists and insurgents, even the ones that the USSR recognized militarily, like North Vietnam. When the new AT weapon emerged, it was immediately a threat to American and Republic of Vietnam aircraft, especially low- and slow-flying helicopters.

Here’s the story of a Air Force special operations helicopter gunship pilot’s nerve-wracking experience, while covering a South Vietnamese Air Force recovery of a Vietnamese reconnaissance team. The RT came from TF3AE, the command that replaced Command and Control South in Vietnam. We draw the story from Fred Lindsey’s fantastic doorstop, Secret Green Beret Commandos in Cambodia. (We’ve mentioned the book before). You can find it on page 670-671, and it’s worth reading for the adventure of it, before we start discussing dry RPG facts.

03/26/71 Recon, TF3AE ARVN RT Rescued With Air Support by 219″ VNAF Kingbees and
20th SOS Gunships: AC CPT Charles D. Svoboda DFC (2OLC) with co-pilot LTC Harmon
Brotnov; AC CPT Jim Schuman SS.
The only details of this event are from the remembrance of CPT Svoboda’s and [his] DFC citation. In his written recollection he notes:

It was on my first week on the mission as an aircraft commander. My copilot was my brand new squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brotnov, who was on the mission for the first time, and my gunners were this new “student” gunner and a highly experienced instructor gunner. Jim Schuman was flying lead, and I was flying on his wing. We were called out for
a team taking extremely heavy fire. We arrived at the location, and were briefed by the FAC on where the team was (we certainly don’t want to hit our own troops). We saw a very unfriendly situation, with a rather large landing zone, with the team on the south, and Charlie on the north. Unfortunately. Charlie was ensconced on a long, low ridge, overlooking the LZ and the team. We hated going below the enemy, as we could not fire upward through our own rotor blades. If we flew high, we were sitting ducks. If we flew low, with Charlie on a ridge, above us, we could only make short bursts of gunfire in his direction by banking the aircraft in the opposite direction, and raising the rotors above the path of our own minigun bullets.

Jim (Gunship lead) directed that we make an ‘aggressive’ entry, meaning that we would dive toward the LZ, and toward the enemy, firing rockets and miniguns at maximum rate of speed (4.000 rounds per minute). Jim was checking out a new pilot, allowing him to fly, and the new pilot lost the target, forcing his bird to cease-fire. He told me of this, and I told him that I still had the target, and would assume flight lead, so that he could then roll in on my rockets and become my wingman.

We made an aggressive dive, after which the FAC radioed “Cease Fire, you’re hitting the team.” We always feared this! Guns firing 4,000 rounds per minute each, along with rockets, can tear up a group of soldiers ferociously. And my new commander was my copilot!

I ordered both birds to cease firing, and we began flying “cold” passes over the LZ, between Charlie and the team. We did this several times, and I could see what appeared to be cigarette lighters flashing in the shadows on the ridge. I could also hear static on the radio, which we had learned was caused by the static field of many closely passing bullets. But we continued to hear explosions, with the FAC yelling for us to hold our fire. Damn it, we WERE holding our fire, and we were hanging ourselves out doing it. I spoke to Jim, and said we had better silence the ridge or it would silence us. He agreed, and despite the directives from the FAC, we shot the hell out of the ridge. But they were everywhere. As I cleared the LZ on one pass, below many of the trees, I fired a couple of rockets. One does not usually fire rockets so low, because there is no time to achieve stabilized flight, allowing one to aim. Therefore, they frequently zoom off into oblivion. But we had learned to “lob” rockets by pulling up on the collective just before firing. This would cause the rocket stabilizing fins to hit the air with an upward load, causing causing them to fly upward initially, then to arc downward because of the aerodynamic load on the fins.

My copilot appeared to be mesmerized by his first combat action, about as hectic as one could be. I called for him to flip the weapon selector switch from guns to rockets (they could not fire simultaneously, because the one trigger activated whichever weapon was selected for firing). He was frozen, so I had to take my eyes off the horizon for a millisecond and change the setting. This was hazardous because we were flying through the trees, dodging around the higher ones, trying to keep from being shot down. One minor mistake would be fatal for all. We tried to avoid passing over the same spot on succeeding passes, to keep Charlie from drawing a bead on us, but because of the ridgeline, we were forced to repeat ground tracks. We passed around one taller tree a couple of times, and I cursed the tree. On the following pass I fired a rocket to keep the bad guys’ heads down, and it knocked the tree down. Colonel Brotnov was flabbergasted, as was I. To this day I wonder if he really believes that I did that intentionally!

It turns out that the rockets into the team which were blamed on us were actually new shoulder-mounted Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG’S) being fired at us as we passed over the LZ between the team. The original RPG’s were designed for light armor and infantry, and had contact fuses. This new version was designed for helicopters, and had contact AND proximity fuses. Luckily, none must have passed close enough to us to detonate, but many passed by us, exploding among the team we were protecting. A few also exploded in the LZ, causing the tall elephant grass to catch fire. The flames were about as high as we were flying, and were spreading out in ever increasing circles. On one pass over the LZ, when I passed through the smoke, the other chopper was coming directly at us, only about 50-100 feet away, with closure speed of over 200 mph. Luckily we both broke quickly and in opposite directions, and the gunner said he thought he could reach out and touch the belly of the other chopper. Finally, the firing from Charlie cut down, and we called the slicks to come in for a pickup.

We said they would have to wait awhile because of the fires in the LZ. All of a sudden the team ran THROUGH these very high flames, leaping into the smoking ash left by the expanding fire. The slicks came in, one at a time, landed in the smoking ash, raising a huge, black ashen cloud, and picked up the team. We escorted them out of the area. Then, as the slicks headed for home, Jim and I returned to the site, expending the remainder of our rockets and ammo on the ridge line.

CPT Svoboda was an Air Force officer, a gunship pilot in the 20th Special Operations Squadron. The “slicks” were Sikorsky UH-34s, obsolete piston-powered helicopters flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force’s 219th Squadron, “King Bees.”

A gathering of SF RT guys and their air support guys is always interesting, because the aircrews think the recon teams were nuts to do what they did, but the RT guys know the copter crews were nuts to come get them.

Now, this is a very stirring story of action and audacity. You can almost smell the shellbursts of the RPGs. Thing is: RPGs don’t have proximity fuzes. (There is a Chinese “airburst” round for use against infantry, but it bounces off the ground before it detonates, and it postdates the war). So why did Captain Svoboda think they did? It goes back to a fundamental difference between the RPG-2, or B-40 as it was known to most during the Vietnam War (from the Chinese export stencil on the ammo), and the improved RPG-7. The RPG has become one of the most universal systems in war; there’s even a US-made, Westernized version we provide to allies under MAP.

But the initial mass-produced version, the Ruchnoi Protitankoviy Granatomyot-2 (“Hand AT Grenade Launcher”), was a reusable improvement of the German Panzerfaust and like its disposable ancestor, its designers’ watchword was simplicity. Indeed, US Army intelligence manuals on the Soviet Army at the time described it only as an “antitank weapon of the improved Panzerfaust type,” and lacked any photo or sketch of it.

It had no optical sights, just a flip-up pair with a front bead and rear ladder. It was a straight tube with sights and a grip piece, no shoulder rest, blast shield or cone. The RPG-2 was made in Russia from about 1948 to 1961, and in China from about 1956 to about 1970. And — important from our point of view — the warhead, which showed its later Panzerfaust ancestry, had a simple contact fuze and no self-destruct mechanism.

The RPG-7 was introduced to the Soviet Army in 1961 and into the Vietnam War sometime in 1967 or 68, although it remained outnumbered by RPG-2s until the last, 1975, offensive. It had iron and optical sights and considerably improved range (we’ve hit stationary tank-size targets on the range at 800m; practical combat range on moving armor is probably half that). Most interesting for our present purposes, the PG-7 warhead has not one, but three means of initiation:

  1. Piezoelectric contact fuze in the warhead nose (“1″ in the illustration);
  2. electric contact fuze between inner (“2″) and outer (“3″) cones of the warhead;
  3. pyrotechnic timed self-destruct mechanism (“8″).

pg-7v_of_rpg7_sect

All three fire the charge (“6″) from its base, creating a Munro Effect jet made up of hot gases and the molten copper alloy charge liner (“4″). The self-destruct mechanism detonates the round if it hasn’t hit anything in five seconds, by which time the round has covered 900-920m.

rpg7 training aid

That’s what was happening to CPT Charles Svovoda, his copilot LTC Harmon Brotnov, and his wingmen and the other US and RVN airmen on this mission. Airbursts of RPGs around them certainly seemed like the proximity fuzes they knew from enemy 37mm and 57mm anti-aircraft artillery.

It is possible that the airbursts’ threat to the rotorcraft was coincidental, but it is also possible that the NVA were deliberately using the self-destruct mechanism for its airburst effect; this is something Islamic terrorists would develop into a fine art in the nineties and the oughts, but it would certainly be consistent with what we know of the leadership and initiative of the North Vietnamese forces that they could have been doing this 20 years earlier, over Cambodia.

We can’t blame them for thinking they were facing “a new version, made for helicopters.” In any event, we concur with Fred Lindsey, who wraps up this post by quoting the citation for Svoboda’s Distinguished Flying Cross from this flight:

He was participating in aerial flight as a UH-1N helicopter Gunship Commander near Due Lap, RVN …CPT Svoboda made repeated firing passes at low level in support of a long range reconnaissance patrol which was under heavy opposing automatic weapons fire deep in hostile territory. The extremely accurate and devastating firepower from CPT Svoboda’s helicopter allowed the rescue of the entire patrol…

per Hqs 7th Air Force Orders dtd 09/24/71.

Captain Svoboda survived the war; along with the DFC, he received 10 Air Medals for combat missions in 1970 and 1971.

For more information on the RPG, look at this previous Weaponsman post, or this quite excellent history by Dan Shea in Small Arms Defense Journal. We cannot overstate the quality of the Shea article; it’s really good and accurate.

The Best Example of the Worst US Machine Gun

Technically, this isn’t exactly a US machine gun. Although it’s true that this French-made light machine gun, commonly called the Chauchat, was issued to the American Expeditionary Force when it arrived in France. It was probably the first machine gun ever designed to be manufactured cheaply and rapidly using stampings, sheet metal and steel tube, and simple screw machines with the barest minimum of time, and set-ups, executed on traditional lathes, shapers and milling machines. Many of the automotive industry techniques that were applied to the Sten and the M3 grease gun were not yet available in 1915, so the manufacturing technology that went into this gun is even more remarkable.

Chauchat 1

The evolving conventional wisdom is that the 8mm version was not all that bad; the true disaster was the American attempt to Bubba it to fire the .30-06. But the bad reputation of the Chauchat ensures one thing: you can get an example for quite short money for a transferable machine gun. This excellent-condition example is the best we have seen, and it’s on GunBroker right now with a buy-it-now of $7,500!

That is a bargain for a transferable, historically significant machine gun, and right in time for the centennial of the Great War. Here’s the other side, just to prove we’re not showing you the star’s best side:

Chauchat 2Now, the beauty of the Chauchat is kind of an acquired taste. It’s pretty rudely functional, in a way that few polished, blued, walnut-stocked service weapons of the day were. That’s one way in which this old poilu is a harbinger of modern times. But it was an early example of a shoulder-fired, bipod-equipped, single-gunner (with one a/gunner making a crew of 2) light machine gun.

The Chauchat, called by its reluctant doughboy operators the “Sho-Sho Gun,” was formally the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 C.S.R.G. from the initials of the members of the committee that brought it forth. Mechanical engineer Col. Louis Chauchat and hands-on machinist Charles Sutter were the designers; Paul Ribeyrolles wasthe production engineer who prepared it for industrial mass production, and Gladiator, Ribeyrolles’s velocipede and motorcar factory in suburban Paris, was where the bulk of them were manufactured (a second factory came on line late in the war).

The Mle. 1915 was a revision of a 1907 Chauchat-Sutter design that was manufactured by more traditional methods. While France only built 100 of the Modele 1907 C-S, zero of which survive, they were able to produce hundreds of thousands of the 1915 CSRGs in two converted automotive plants, enough that they had them to spare for their Allies like Belgium and the USA, and a Chauchat diaspora carried the guns as far as Russia and Greece after the war.

It is a long-recoil design, which means that the bolt and barrel remain locked until the assembly has recoiled the entire length of the cartridge — for the 8 x 50 Lebel, 70mm or about 3 inches — and then the barrel returns forward when the bolt is held back. The empty is ejected from this rear position, the feed system (here, a 20-round, half-moon curved box magazine) pops up a fresh round, and the arrival of the barrel forward trips the release of the bolt, chambering and firing (if the trigger remains depressed) the next round. This is the system of the Browning Auto-5 shotgun and the Remington Model 8 rifle (essentially Browning’s rifle version of the same action), but the Chauchat is the only successful application to automatic weapons that we’re aware of. (This is the point in the article where Daniel E. Watters is invited to correct us if we’re wrong!). Recoil is boosted by the conical booster that many have mistaken for a flash hider; it’s actually there for the same reason the MG42 has a similarly conceived muzzle attachment. The long recoil action yields long movements of heavy parts, and therefore, potentially more dispersion than comparable weapons, at least partly offset by a lower rate of fire.

This brief video, from our friends at Forgotten Weapons, shows you the cyclic rate of an 8mm Chauchat.

The bizarre half-moon magazines, unique to the Chauchat, were required by the rimmed 8mm Lebel cartridge, which is dramatically tapered: 16mm at the rim and 8.3mm at the case mouth. Some people have concluded there is a solid type of magazine (see the one in the gun on the left side picture), and another version with large cut-outs, but in fact, all mags we’ve seen have one smooth side and one cut-out side. We don’t know whether the cut-outs were meant to lighten the mags or to allow round counting; We do know it was a rotten idea for a gun used in the gooey muck of trench warfare. But at least one intended employment of the CSRG was as a lightweight gun for aerial observers, where your fate was more likely to be a long fall, or burning to death, than mud, trench foot and typhus.

This example is also extremely well accessorized, with AA sights (visible on the gun and a spare set in the accessory shot below), and spare mags and carriers. It hasn’t been fired in years, but the seller says it worked when it last was put to the test.

Chauchat 3

The starting price of the auction is $5,750, but there’s a reserve. As mentioned above, the Buy-it-now is $7,500. Here’s the seller’s blurb:

This is a splendid condition Chauchat with numerous accessories. 8 m/m Lebel, C & R and fully transferable. Model of 1915 by C.S.R.G. 5 Magazines, Anti-Aircraft sight installed, spare set of anti-aircraft sights, very rare musette magazine bag, even more rare wooden magazine case, bipod, original sling. Can supply about 1000 rounds of ammo with gun, extra price. This is a high quality Chauchat that when last fired about 8 years ago, ran like a top. Even with English manual.

It’s really a rare chance to add a museum-worthy, historically significant firearm — the wellspring of all light machine guns and squad automatic weapons! — to your collection.

Of course, if you’re inspired with desire for one of these unusual French ticklers, but shrink from spending quite so much, there’s a less minty Chauchat that Ohio Ordnance is offering for a starting bid of $4,500 and no reserve. Certainly the minty one is the better investment-grade gun.

The seller of the minty Chauchat, WDHaskins, has quite a few other enticing rarities, including a 1909 Hotchkiss Portative (English Army version of what the US called the Benet-Mercié Machine rifle, a Japanese Lewis aerial observer’s gun, and a really nice collection of English double guns — shotguns and rifles. This link goes to all his current auctions.

 

Physical Security: 6 Facts about Safes

vault-door-family-imageHaving just been through the rodeo of safe-buying, and about to do it again, we came away with some wisdom we’re willing to share with you. If you learn from our pain, you will experience less of your own when you do this, so we’re putting it out there.

  1. An expensive safe is usually better, but a cheap safe now beats a perfect safe in the indistinct future.
  2. The best safes aren’t “gun” safes, but commercial safes that might be too heavy for your floors.
  3. A safe that can be walked off with is not a safe, it’s a gift basket for your burglars.
  4. How you install the safe is as important as the safe itself.
  5. Electronic locks are a single point of failure.
  6. All safe manufacturers lie about their products’ capacity. A lot.

Also: customer service counts, and it might not be where you expect to find it. Make sure you know, in muscle memory, the combination. And once they’re locked up inside, don’t put your guns out of mind. We’ll also tell you which accessories we like best.

An Expensive Safe is Usually Better, But…

If you have no safe now, go out and buy the biggest one you can reasonably transport, and then come back and read this article. Very cheap safes don’t seriously deter or slow down burglars, and provide minimal fire protection. There are ways to save money on a safe. For example, summertime is usually good, as dealers have incentives to move last year’s model. Craigslist can be a source of old safes, but most of the safes we’ve seen there are home-store junk. Some brands make only junk. For example, Stack-On sells nothing but crap under their own name. They make higher quality safes under house names for some sporting-goods chains, like the anti-gun gun store, Dick’s (Dick’s brand is “Field and Stream 1871″. These are Stack-On safes, but better built than the ones Stack-On puts its own name on).

An old jewelry-store or bank safe can sometimes be found at business supply store or antique shops. These may or may not provide the burglar and fire security one hopes to gain from a safe, but in most cases will actually be better than a new “gun safe.” To understand why, read this website: http://gunsafereviewsguy.com/.

The Best Safes Aren’t Gun Safes.

Two things have been driving the design of gun safes for years: relentless competitive pressure to lower prices, and customer demand for more volume and lower weight. This adds up to thin sheet metal safes that burglars can brute force in minutes. The commercial safes that jewelers, for example, have long relied on, provide much better security. But a long-gun-sized one may be hard to install in a home — their weight can be reckoned in tons.

A Safe That Can Be Walked Off With isn’t a Safe.

Imagine you’re a burglar, and you are looking through YOUR house for whatever can most rapidly be turned into the largest quantity of heroin and meth. (The last thief to steal to feed an orphan was Jean Valjean, and he’s a fictional character. Since then, thieves steal to stay stoned, and because they’re too lazy to work). A burglar that finds a safe is sure he is having a happy day. IF that safe can be physically removed, that’s what he’ll do with it, to work on opening it at his leisure. There are several ways to make sure the safe is still there when you come home:

  • Make it heavy. Your typical burglars work solo or in small crews. You do not want a safe that three men can remove, loaded, using the tools available in your building and grounds. They may be stupid but they’re sly and cunning and very creative when it comes to the TTTPs of stealing. So on top of the weight of the guns, some heavy weights (for example, discarded gym weights) in the bottom of the safe can complicate the burglar’s target solution.
  • Anchor it down, and make it impossible to get a pry bar in, attack the sides, or knock over the safe. More on this in the next item.
  • Welding is your friend. Three safes in a row? Tack ‘em together. Just one? Put it on two eight-foot sections of railroad rail — and weld it to ‘em. Now they have a safe they can’t get out the door, unless the burglar is also a dab hand with your welding/cutting gear.

Remember, the strength of the safe is in the time and effort burden it imposes on a burglar (and the time and temp resistance it offers a fire).

How you install the safe is as important as the safe itself.

Just about every gun safe on the market comes with a couple of bolts and instructions on how to bolt the safe to the concrete floor of your basement. Hardly anybody does that. That’s a mistake. When you bolt down the safe, you limit the burglar’s options. He now has to break it in situ, or give up.

Your installation can also create other limits or complications to his ability to remove or attack it. Corners are good because he now can attack only two sides. Installed in a narrow passageway (or maybe one created by two facing safes), he now can’t get a very good mechanical advantage with a lever. This also limits his ability to attack it in situ. Burglars are lazy men; otherwise, they’d get a better living by working. So keep any or your tools that might help them break in well out of sight of the safe.

If your collection will not fit in one safe, consider multiple safes in multiple locations. Burglars know to hit certain locations first — like the master bedroom and associated closets.

Finally, there’s camouflage, concealment and deception. Given the size of the typical gun safe, and the need for regular access, any sophisticated concealment is not an entirely practical option for most people, but at an irreducible minimum you do not want your safe visible from a window. When we’re going to be away, a parachute canopy goes over the banks of safes, and moving boxes full of papers and old clothing are stacked in front of them.

Our deception plan includes a small, man-portable safe that contains nothing of value.

Electronic locks are a single point of failure.

These are currently trendy. They were, and are, a bad idea. The better-designed ones fail closed and lock you out of the safe; the worse-designed ones fail open. But sooner or later they all fail. The mechanical lock will fail, too: when it wears out, in 1000 years’s worth of opening. It won’t be your problem then.

What happens when your e-lock fails closed? You call a locksmith or safe-smith and he comes expensively to your premises and drills the safe open. If the safe has the latest anti-theft features, it’s irreparable at that point; if it’s a little more old-fashioned, it can then be repaired. At even more expense.

You don’t want other electronic gingerbread like power outlets, AC-powered lights (battery LED lights are OK, put the batteries on a replacement schedule) or powered dehumidifiers. You don’t want anything that requires a wire to go through the perimeter of the safe. (Where wire goes, fire goes).

All safe manufacturers lie about their products’ capacity.

If you have 16 guns, you think an 18-gun safe gives you room to grow. But that’s because you’re unaware of how safe manufacturers figure guns. In their world, long guns have no scopes, magazines, or bolt handles. You can get 32 guns in a 32-long-gun safe if they’re 32 H&R Toppers (single shot break-action shotguns). If they’re anything else, rotsa ruck. An “18-gun” safe is probably good for 8 to 10 guns. As a rule of thumb, deflate the manufacture’s claim by 50%.

Capacity isn’t all that the manufacturers lie about, either. You’ll notice that no gun safes have a GSA rating, and very few of them have an Underwriters’ Laboratories rating. That’s because the manufacturers don’t submit them to testing. This may be because the testing is expensive, and few buyers look for these certifications.

But it may also be because the manufacturers know their safes would not pass the stringent GSA or even the looser UL standards.

Some Closing Comments

We went to Famous Shooting, Hunting and Fishing store, complete with a pickup and tie-downs, for a safe.  We didn’t want to buy something so major online, and the store offered attractive discounts on last year’s safes. We thought for sure we’d be better off with this place’s renowned customer service. But that was not the experience we had.

In fact, on a slow weekday, in a store teeming with workers, we couldn’t get anyone to talk safes. “Not from here, it’s that department,” they offered with a desultory wave in no particular direction. After talking to four workers and a manager, we concluded they just weren’t in to selling the $2k safe we’d selected, and we went elsewhere. (And bought a less expensive safe, in keeping with Fact About Safes #1 above). Remember: secure enough and now is better than loose now and more secure next month, maybe.

There are ways to recover a lost combination, assuming your safe maker stays in business. But the best way is not to lose it, and the way to do that is to drill it into your muscle memory. All of the Schools of Education in the USA insist that drill is unnecessary and kills motivation; all of the football coaches at those same schools’ universities insist that only by drill does learning become real. Who has the better of it? Simple to answer, is a typical state university better known for its Ed.D output, or its team’s gridiron performance? So practice with the combination until you get so your fingers work the lock intuitively. (This gets harder to do when you are older, and have lots of safes). Then, open and lock the safe frequently to make sure you don’t forget. You should be doing this to inspect the firearms, rejuvenate moisture-removing silica, etc, at least weekly.

Accessories we have found useful include a canister of silica (you can refresh it by baking out the moisture, using your kitchen oven) and battery-operated LED lights. Many other accessories are crap.

The whole point of a safe or safes is to keep your property safe (what else?) and secure. A good safe should cost you about what a year of homeowner’s or renters’ insurance goes for. And keeping your guns out of criminal hands might just save a life.

Haunting video of Japanese World War II Tanks

Some of them have been reclaimed by the jungle. Some, shattered by American fire. Some, parked in rows and left at war’s end. Some lie where salt water is reducing them to iron oxide day by day. Most of them have been looted, and some defaced by graffitti.

You may find the new-agey music with its Bolivian wind instruments and whatnot fitting, or you may like it. Personally, we’d have gone with something with traditional Japanese instruments, but then, we’re not making the video,it churlish to squawk about the decisions of the guy who actually made it.

The split, shattered armor of some of the tanks is mute testimony to the fate of the crews. Most Japanese families have a story of men who went to war, and whose fate is unknown, except that they did not return. Apart from a few prominent war criminals who faced the gallows at war’s end, the price of expansionist Japanese militarism was paid mostly by conscripted private soldiers on all sides.

Japanese tank technology was about where European tank tech was in the years running up to the war. The Japanese were engaged for a decade in China before taking the USA on, and their tanks, based on 1920s Vickers designs (which were world-leading at the time) and similar to English, Italian or Russian machines of the era, didn’t need much improvement to be effective against Chinese infantry and cavalry forces.

Most of them were only equivalent to the early-war US M3 Stuart light tank, if not outclassed by it. The best common Japanese tank, the Type 97 Chi-Ha, was outgunned and outarmored by the American M4 Sherman, a tank that was marginal in the ETO. It also didn’t help the warriors of Nippon that they had few anti-tank guns, and those were of inferior calibers. Lacking the evolutionary pressure of the tank battles of the ETO, Japanese tank development stagnated. Had the Home Islands been invaded, they’d have been helpless against Pershings.

They’d have rolled out anyway, fill of fight and Yamato damashii. It’s just as well that war was never fought. How many of those doomed tankers went on to have creative jobs and happy families in the postwar State of Japan?

The Japanese forces, scatttered across specks of islands in the vast Pacific, fought with immense bravery, but struggled always with logistics. The reason many of these tanks were captured intact is not that the Japanese ran out of fight, but because they ran out of fuel and/or ammunition.

 

On this Day in 1962: Infantry Nuke Test

The USA fired its last above-ground nuclear test at a test site in Nevada on this day, 17 July, in 1962. The operation was a culmination exercise that brought together nuclear warhead tests (code-named Little Feller, as a nod to the W54 warhead’s light weight and low yield) and nuclear weapons employment maneuvers code-named Ivy Flats.

Screenshot 2014-07-17 12.50.48

The test was a pretty-much full-spectrum test of an actual tactical nuke, and a very unusual one — a nuclear infantry weapon called the Davy Crockett. A lot of tripe is written about the Davy Crockett, including that it could not fire a projectile further than its blast radius, but most of that tripe is written by people who either apply unreasoning fear to all nuclear weapons (something that was encouraged during the Cold War by the Soviet Union and its witting and unwitting agents of influence), or by the sort of uninformed juicebox mafiosi that become “national security” writers for Wired. Even more-respected anti-nuclear campaigners often got it wrong, like some of the details on this basically solid page at the Brookings Institution. In fact, this test demonstrated that the weapon was safe, within its limits, and effective.

After many rehearsals, including a live-fire of an actual warhead suspended three feet above the ground (Test Little Feller II on 7 Jul 62), a Davy Crockett crew fired their weapon at a simulated enemy force 2,852 meters distant. They launched the projectile in front of trench-covered friendlies and — much further back — bleachers full of observers, including such VIPs as Robert F. Kennedy (then Attorney General) and Army Chief of Staff Max Taylor. (This test was Little Feller I, even though it was 10 days after Little Feller II). The weapon functioned flawlessly. Within half an hour, military units advanced through the blast zone. The entrenched troops were 1600m from the detonation; the Army calculated that the low-yield W54 would produce immediate casualties from radiation only within 250m, and delayed casualties only within 350m, of its impact point. These radiation effects were much more long-ranged than the heat and blast effects of the .02 kiloton warhead. A tank 100m from detonation would be usable, apart from the effects of radiation, which would have killed its crew.

Here’s a video of the test. We tried to find the original because this one has too much compression and a lot of video artifacts, but sometimes you have to take what you can get:

The actual burst is at about the half-way point, about nine minutes in. Other reports suggest that its yield was later calculated to be 0.018 kt, a little lighter than the 0.022 produced by the confusingly earlier Little Feller I test. As none of the surviving documentation suggests that this yield variation from the nominal 0,02 kt setting upset anyone at the time, it suggests that variance of plus or minus two-thousandths of a kiloton was considered nominal.

It’s interesting to see the other equipment the troops, from the 4th Infantry Division then at Ft. Lewis, Washington, have: Garand M1 rifles, M48 tanks, a Hiller UH-12 helicopter.

The Davy Crockett was actually an ingenious weapon, and for its time, an effective one, if only psychologically. How effective? Decades after it was retired, it was still taught to Soviet tank officers as a battlefield threat to be feared and targeted. When the weapon was withdrawn (due to further miniaturization allowing longer-range and more-accurate delivery of tactical nukes), the GRU managed to convince itself, and the Soviet General Staff, that the withdrawal was all a ruse by those perfidious Americans.

Here’s how it worked: the DC came in two versions, the M28 and M29. The “light” DC had a 2000 meter range, and the heavy 4000 meters. The caliber of the main recoilless gun was different: 120mm versus 155 mm, and even the caliber of the spotting gun, which was used to check trajectory before firing, differed: the “light” Davy Crockett has a 20mm recoilless spotting gun firing the M101 spotting round, and the “heavy” had a 37mm. Because the gun was recoilless, it and its tripod could be light. Both versions could be carried by Jeep or M113 Armored Personnel Carrier, and the M28 could be broken down into manpack loads (if heavy ones) and carried by its own crew.

davy crockett jeep

When XM101 spotting rounds were found in Hawaii, the media went haywire. Typical of the products of their “layers and layers of editors” was this graphic.

davy crockett

What’s wrong with it? Count the legs on the tripod.

The projectile, the M388, was roughly the size and shape of a prize watermelon, and could contain conventional explosives or a W54. It worked with both guns because it was a “supercaliber” projectile. (Imagine a watermelon-sized rifle grenade). A different piston was used in the smaller and larger guns. They also fire two non-nuclear (or simulated nuclear) Davy Crockett rounds.

A war in which battalion commander had their own nukes would have been… interesting. Army planners expected the US warhead stockpile to grow to over 150,000 warheads to support their Pentomic Division warfighting scheme. (That was about five times its actual 1967 peak).

The dummy version was of the M388 the M421. Almost all surviving documentation shows these weapons as non-type-classified, “XM” weapons (i.e. XM388, XM29, etc).

FM23-30-Davy-Crockett-warhead

Authority to deploy the Davy Crockett was devolved almost as low as nuclear weapons commit authority ever got: the battalion commander had full authority to use the weapons as he saw fit, once a general release was granted.

Most Davy Crockett launchers were allocated only one or two warheads, plus several conventional high-explosive ones; this was because the system’s survivability on a tactical nuclear battlefield was somewhat constrained. It had to be fired within field-gun and mortar range of the targeted enemy (4,000m max), it was an unprotected weapons system, and it was

The launch produced a considerable backblast, and would have exposed the firers to enemy retaliation. This gave a small advantage to the light weapon, which was usually fired from its jeep. The heavy weapon had to be dismounted from a charmer personnel carrier or truck and fired from the tripod every time. Then, after exposing its position, it would have to be reloaded before the crew could skedaddle.

The Davy Crockett had a short service life; it was an interim weapon before warheads could be miniaturized into standard gun artillery weapons.

Because the M101 spotting rounds contained depleted uranium, which is now managed as a hazardous material, we’ve learned that 75,318 rounds of spotting M101 were produced. Some 2000 were expended in lot qualification tests at the factory, 44,000 were destroyed by firing into a containment after the weapon was scrapped, and a max of 29,000 were fired from the deployed launchers at a variety of field sites. Apart from the Ivy Flats/Little Feller I test on 17 Jul 62, no Davy Crockett was ever live fired. (There were warhead live tests earlier, during development).

Both versions of the Davy Crockett used the same projectile, the M388.

At the end of FY 62, the USA had 25,540 operational warheads in its stockpile, and growing. About 2,900 of them were Davy Crockett warheads. At the end of 2013, we had 4,804 total warheads, and shrinking. Among the entire classes of nukes that were eliminated were small-yield nukes like the Davy Crockett warhead, and battlefield nukes — like the Davy Crockett warhead.

The old V3-position of Hermes-Lampaden

V3 luxemborg

This appears to be of the Ardennes type but it may have been a test unit in Miedzyzdroje, Poland.

One of the most interesting weapons of World War II was the V-3, the little-known third Nazi “vengeance weapon.” It was an ultra-long-range cannon that used multiple breeches or powder-chambers, fired in order as a projectile shot down the barrel, right as it passed each chamber, to overcome the limits of standard artillery. It fired a subcaliber “arrow-shot” (Pfeilgeschuss) and was expected to hit London, accurately, from mainland France.

A site at Mimoyecques, France was the main location for the V-3. Over fifty tubes were planned for this weapon at this site, but the site was destroyed by bombardment by the RAF, using gigantic Tallboy bombs. As a result, the V-3, the “London Gun,” never fired a shot at England.

A German-language web page on the V-3 site at Hermes-Lampaden adds to our knowledge of this odd weapon’s history, because the Hermes-Lampaden V3s were fired in anger, at the allied-held city of Luxembourg. The website provides us with a launch pad to look at this weird weapon.

In 1942 engineer August Coenders, Chief Engineer of the Röchling firm, began to research the idea of the multi-chamber cannon, an idea in existence since the 19th Century. With the multi-chamber cannon principle, side-mounted propulsion-charge chambers were added to a cannon barrel, chambers whose propulsion charges were detonated after the projectile had passed them by, and which therefore brought higher velocities.

Coenders developed a multi-chamber cannon in 1942 under the cover name “High Pressure Pump. Soldiers nicknamed it, due to its unusual form for a cannon, “Tausendfüssler” meaning “Millipede,” or “Fleißiges Lieschen”, meaning, approximately, “Busy Lizzie.” The Nazis named it, in their taxonomy, V3, for the third operational “Vengeance Weapon.” The maker of the barrel sections for the piece was the firm Röchling Steel Works in Völklingen, Saarland, with finishing (final machining?) at Wetzlar.  The arrow-shaped, two meter long projectiles (150 mm caliber) which were designated “Rö Be 42″ were also developed by Röchling.

via V3-Stellung bei Hermeskeil-Lampaden.

Coenders developed versions of his very long, fin-stabilized sub-caliber shell for conventional artillery also — his big idea was to increase penetration by increasing sectional density, and it can be argued that his research led, after the war, to the common APFSDS (Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot) round that tanks these days fire at enemy tanks.

The V-3 version of the Coenders round weighed 40 kilograms, of which 7-9 were explosive. It was 100mm with fixed tail fins and used front sabots and a rear sabot/obturator to fit in the HDP’s 150mm bore. The round left the muzzle at about 1050 meters/sec (3445 fps), almost instantly shedding its sabots, at least according to the drawings. Other sources suggest that the round barely broke 3,000 fps in combat applications).

v3ammo

The Mimoyecques installation was destroyed by the RAF’s legendary 617 Squadron in July, 1944, and then soon afterwards overrun. But as the site explains (in the German; translation is ours with notes [in brackets], or you can try the goog thing):

After the Allies captured the Channel coast near Mimoyecques in September 1944, the plan to bombard London with up to 50 HDPs from the bunkers had to be abandoned.  SS-Gruppenführer [~Colonel] [Hans] Kammler, to who the Vengeance Weapons detachments were subordinate, wanted to prove the combat suitability of the V3 beyond question, and sought from Hitler the permission to employ the HDP against the City of Luxembourg during the Ardennes Offensive [Battle of the Bulge].

To this end two shortened versions of the HDP with the designation LRK 15 F 58 (Langrohrkanone) [Long Barrel Cannon] were emplaced in Ruwertal near Hermeskeil-Lampaden. They were put into action by the Firts Battery of the Army Artillery Detachment 705. [This unit was an independent artillery unit that was under the command of the Kammler-controlled Vengeance Division (Division zur Vergeltung)]. The emplacement of the first gun took from 28 Nov 44 to 23 Dec 44, the second needed a little more time. Two steel guns were erected, which were positioned on a wooden substructure. The wooden substructure was half buried in the slope. The barrel elevation was 34°. This shortened version of the High Pressure Pump was no more than 50 m long and was fitted out with 12 side chambers attached at right angles. The cannons had a range of up to 60 km with a dispersion of up to 4 km.

That’s a pretty large group; an online angular size calculator tells us it’s 3.8 degrees, or 229 minutes of arc/angle. We suppose that if your target is, as was the norm for V-weapons, “minute of major metropolitan area,” that accuracy was acceptable.

The Mimoyecques guns had been meant to be 150m long and range 165km; the whole battery was supposed to be capable of firing 300 shells an hour on London. One gun intended for Mimoyecques provided some parts for both Hermeskeil-Lampaden guns, except that the Mimoyecques guns had the auxiliary chambers aligned in herringbone fashion, and the H-L guns had them set orthogonal to the gun’s bore.

The H-L guns, illustrated in this 26 Nov 44 drawing, were set at 34º and were made up of 13 straight sections and 12 cross-sections (where the chambers attached), and they hoped to deliver 3-4 shots per hour.

V3 plan

The V3 bombardment of Luxembourg was irritating and frightening, but of no military consequence. The pair of V-3s fired a total of 183 rounds, of which only 44 were confirmed as hits in the target area.  It’s uncertain whether it was the rounds on target, or the 139 that landed somewhere off target, that killed 10 people and wounded 25 — a pretty pathetic result. The guns were dismantled in February 1945 when the Germans withdrew from the area; the second gun was not taken out of action until the US Army was closing in. In 1945, parts of four HDPs were found at the Röchling plant, and removed to the USA for testing. They were subsequently scrapped.

Here are some links in English on the V3:

Bubba the Mortarsmith

Take a look at this field-improvised 120mm mortar. Bubba is in Da House! With the Syrian rebels:

syrian_120mm_improvised_mortar(It does embiggen if you click on it).

The image is from a PBS Frontline segment, embedded below, which shows a Syrian rebel group that has purportedly received some US training and weapons (one of the weapons they received was a Russian 120mm mortar, which could let them retire the home-grown example above). The video shows them discussing, using, and complaining about the US-supplied, mostly Soviet-pattern, weapons. (They need and want anti-aircraft weapons).

According to the TV show, the mortar was made by welding up a carriage and improvising the barrel from a section of destroyed tank barrel. Because the Syrian Arab Army uses tanks with 100mm and 115mm guns, the gun had to be bored or reamed out to make a 120mm smoothbore mortar.

This thing looks about as safe as juggling chainsaws, but if you’re a Syrian rebel, you don’t have a lot of choices.

Report of the New Weapons Board, 1944

In 1944, the Army’s Ordnance branch (via the War Production Board) had mobilized the factories of industrial America to previously unimaginable levels of production, and arms flowed out of the factories and the warehouses in an iron river to the war fronts. Not just the American ones, either: vast quantities of armaments went to our British and Commonwealth allies, we fully armed the Free French, and Lend-Lease equipment was shuttled past the U-Boat threat to Russia via Murmansk, and end-run via Iran. While the Soviets also produced prodigial quantities of high-quality armaments themselves, they welcomed the Sherman tanks, White halftracks, Studebaker and GMC trucks and other hardware from America’s smokestack cities, and sent them into combat in the hands of young Russian and Soviet soldiers.

The US kept developing its weapons, but wanted to know: how good is our stuff, up at the sharp end? Since we couldn’t very well send officers to grill front-line Britons and Russians, we sent a commission to Europe to see how our troops were getting on with our ordnance equipment. The board stood up on 14 Jan 44, flew to North Africa, England, and Italy, and turned in their report on 27 April 44.

The mission of the board was to: 1. Disseminate among the theaters information concerning successful solutions to problems encountered in the theaters; 2. Obtain advice concerning the performance and suitability of standard weapons and equipment now in use in the theaters and assist in on-the-spot corrections of defects; 3. Introduce and demonstrate in the theaters new standard weapons and equipment which are available but are not in the theaters and new items which may be available within the following eight months, and to determine the requirements for the various items and; 4. Assist in increasing the effective use of weapons and equipment now in theaters.

The original report is available at the Combined Arms Research Digital Library (click the Download button, at eye level on the right; the downloaded file will be named 3351.pdf and will open automatically if your system allows it).

By and large, the Report shows an Army satisfied with its weapons. The section on small arms is brief; there was no controversy, and no suggested improvements, to the M1 rifle.

To date, all small-arms items have been in limited use in the North African theater and have been used only in training in the European theater. The extent to which small arms are being used is reflected by the ammunition expended. Based on a recent 30-day period, the following was the average expenditure per day per active weapon in the Fifth Army:

average_ammo_expenditure(note: we replaced the inline small-arms only numbers with ones from a more thorough appendix. In January, 1944, ).

Conversely, the M1 carbine got decidedly mixed reviews.

The opinion as to the worth of the carbine is divided. Many officers expressed a high regard for this weapon, whereas others look upon it more or less as a toy with insufficient striking power. The officers in this latter group would rather carry a rifle or a submachine gun, and a few prefer the pistol. It is believed that more information on the striking power and accuracy of this weapon should be supplied the theaters. The adjustable rear sight was immediately popular in both theaters, and a large demand for this item was established.

…The carbine is not popular with the infantry units in Italy. The main reason for this is that the personnel authorized the carbine are subject to fire chiefly from snipers, against which the carbine is ineffective. No solution or suggestions for a substitute were offered.

But one of Ordnance’s home-grown projects, the M1 Carbine bayonet, got thumbs down from the carbine’s foes and fans alike. Three different types of carbine bayonet were shown to troops in the North African and European theaters (the T4, T5 and T6 designs), and none were desired (Ordnance went on to make them anyway). There are several references to the desirability of a trench knife, and positive references to the new, short M1 rifle bayonet.

Little interest was shown in any type of bayonet for the carbine in either theater, although a request was made by the North African theater for the knife, T8, which is a combination trench knife and carbine bayonet. The new, short M1 bayonet for the rifle is preferred to the old, long bayonet. No breakage difficulty with this bayonet was reported. It should be remem- bered, however, that this bayonet has not seen extensive use in either theater, as there has been very little hand-to-hand combat.

Pistols are not a factor, except to note that some officers preferred them to carbines whilst others preferred rifles. Two new weapons, though, were a hit right off:

A real demand exists in both theaters for the M1919A6 machine gun. This weapon is entirely acceptable as a light machine gun until such time as a weapon meeting all the requirements of a light machine gun is available.

and:

The simplicity, reliability, and ease of operation of this weapon [M3 .45 submachine gun]  were recognized immediately. A real demand was submitted by NATO; in the European theater this weapon is now arriving with troops. This submachine gun should be a real answer to the German Schmeiser [sic].

NATO in this case means the North Africa Theater of Operations, which requisitioned 7,300 of the M3 submachine guns. The ETO didn’t request them because M3s were already being pushed forward to those units, with no requisition necessary. The biggest problem with the 1919A6 was that previous promises hadn’t been kept, and the ordnance board was asked to expedite deliveries.

An inordinate amount of space is spent, by modern standards, on rifle grenades and gadgets for launching them. There’s also a discussion of the logistics of spare barrels and artillery tubes, and whether the burden can be reduced by using chrome plating to extend the heat rejection and durability characteristics of barrels.

The report also goes into heavy equipment. It has become conventional wisdom among historians that the M4 Sherman was badly outclassed by its German opposite numbers, so it’s surprising to see the glowing report about it:

 

The tanks of the M4 series are well liked by the using personnel, and they do not want a new tank unless it will offer very greatly improved military characteristics. There are, however, a number of components, such as tracks, suspension, and armament, that should be given immediate attention to improve combat efficiency. The using troops desire the following improvements in tank characteristics, listed in order of importance:

(1) Fire power.

(2) Mechanical reliability.

(3) Armor protection.

b. It should be noted that American troops are not particularly interested in thicker armor or in protected ammunition stowage, as it is generally felt that complete protection cannot be obtained and that the price to be paid for more protection would be undesirable from a standpoint of maneuverability.

 

And the newest version was even more enthusiastically awaited:

Tank, medium, M4E6.-This vehicle was accorded the most enthusiastic reception of any vehicle shown. General Eisenhower and General Devers both expressed a high regard for it and desired that it be supplied in quantity. This vehicle does not appear on the requisitions made from either theater, because plans for its supply were under way prior to the arrival of the Board and in ETO the exact number desired had not yet been determined and was awaiting General Eisenhower’s decision.

According to Green and Brown, M4 Sherman at War, p. 116-119, the M4E6 was the best of several ways of mounting a 76mm gun, with which the Ordnance experts promised Tiger kills at 2,000 yards. It used a completely new turret that was originally designed for a completely different prototype tank. The 76mm gun began to be used across the board in all Sherman variants (a different suffix A1, A2, etc. usually signifying a different engine). Within a few months of this report, the 76mm gun’s penetration would turn out to be seriously oversold.

The tank crews knew that the Germans had better tank guns:

ll the tank crews and armored battalion officers feel that the German tank guns are superior in all respects and particularly in their muzzle velocities. They believe that the 75-mm PAK 40 has more than double the muzzle velocity of our 75-mm gun, M3. There is an overwhelming request for increase in tank-gun muzzle velocities and for installa- tion of 76-mm guns in medium tanks of the M4 series.

One battalion engaged at Monte Cassino reported that most of its tank losses came from that PAK 40 gun, particularly in armored self-propelled versions. They also lost guns to 50mm PAK, Panzerschreck bazookas, and simple breakdowns, thrown tracks, and plain dumb getting stuck in places where enemy fire didn’t allow recovery.

This is what the board said about the troops’ desires vis-a-vis tanks:

Combat troops have definite ideas as to what improvements should be incorporated in tank design. First, the Board inquired as to what they considered the most important features in a tank. The replies were unanimous: the gun was of first consideration; second came dependability; third — whatever armor they could get after the first two requirements weremet; fourth — nothing was to be introduced in stowage or otherwise that would interfere in any way with carrying the maximum amount of ammunition.

With respect to the gun for the medium tank, they demand larger caliber and higher velocity. The T25 and T26 tanks with the 90-mm gun meet the requirement for more gun power, as does the M4 tank with the 76-mm gun. With respect to ammunition, they want nothing to interfere with ready rounds and they are willing to forego watered ammunition containers if this additional protection involves reducing the number of rounds of ammunition that can be carried.

The M4 tank is good and is well liked by everyone. However, the fact that the M4 is the outstanding tank of the war to date should not deter us from giving them a better one, especially when a tremendous improvement in battle efficiency may be attained.

There are also numerous specific And finally, there is a little bit of D-Day foreshadowing in “Weapons for Assault of Beaches.”

It was gratifying to note the progress that has been made in ETO in developing the use of weapons for landing operations. Although considerable progress has been made in the United States and in the theaters in providing fire power for landing operations, much remains to be done. The work done in the United States in developing floating tanks and gun motor carriages is outstanding. A few of these devices have been furnished ETO and arrived the day the Board left. The outstanding characteristic of these devices is that the guns may be used during the landing operation. The M4 tank gun with its stabilizer is one of the most accurate weapons for this purpose.

That is, of course, a reference to the famous Duplex Drive (DD) Sherman tanks of D-Day, many of which wound up on the bottom of the sea.

Full opportunity is being utilized to fire self-propelled and tank guns from landing craft. Rocket ships developed by the British and those of our Navy provide a lot of fire power on the beaches.

Those rockets would also be a D-Day flop, not because they didn’t work but because they fell into empty dunes between German fortifications and German reinforcements.

The addition of the self-propelled mounts recommended in this report will materially increase fire power in landing operations. This type of operation affords an outstand- ing use for all tanks and self-propelled mounts. Standard artillery is difficult to use and materially slows up unloading unless it can be fired from the traveling position. The Navy was contacted in Italy and England. It is wide awake to the situation and is making every effort to provide the required fire power. During landing operations naval and aerial bombardment of obstacles and offshore mine areas is essential. These types of bombardment will extend to landing areas on the beaches.

In light of all a German intelligence officer might have been able to deduce from this document, it’s hardly surprising that it was originally classified SECRET. Now it’s unclassified, and free for you to download.

(If you’re more interested in the tank firepower situation, and how the high confidence of January-April 1944 fared when the Shermans hit a peninsula full of Panthers and Tigers in June, here is a pretty well documented blog post on the subject. It turns out one reason the US overestimated its firepower is that the Germans used armor of greater hardness, face-hardened in addition; the US used homogeneous armor, and valued ductility more. The German armor may also have been of uneven quality).

 

I didn’t want the war!

Found in a remarkable Flickr on World War I German Artillery, here’s a Hun with a trio of British duds somewhere in an urban setting (judging from the brick wall and what appears to be a roller shutter behind him).

I didn't Want the War

The label on the large shell translates as: “I didn’t want the war — I’m staying neutral” and both of the little guys are saying, “Me neither!”

What is that under his right boot? It looks like it might be a sheet of paper. One wonders what is written on it!

The big shell is probably a 12 or 15-inch howitzer shell of the Royal Garrison Artillery, the branch of the Royal Artillery responsible for heavy, siege, or railway guns and howitzers. Here’s another picture of a German soldier mugging with a dud from the BL 15-Inch Howitzer. In the metric system this is a 381mm shell, and the BL 12-Inch Howitzer fires a 307mm round.

EnglishShell38cm

The Wikipedia caption suggests that the cylinder in front of this shell is “probably the rendered-safe fuze” of the shell, and that the image is from the photo album of Stefan Kühn, although whether Kühn is the trooper lying down with the shell, or the guy who now owns the picture, is unclear.

The 12 and 15 inch howitzers and their shells were conceptually similar and differed primarily in dimensions. The 15-inch weapon was a limited production one, and usually crewed by sailors or marines, but the 12-inch howitzer was produced in large quantities and was a mainstay of the Army. The next picture is a diagram of the 12-inch shell.

BL_12_inch_Howitzer_Shell_Mk_V_Diagram

(All the pictures embiggen with a click, naturally).

Several things are apparent from this drawing:

  1. You really don’t want one of these dropping on you;
  2. They’re quite a high-tech device in their own way, for the period;
  3. The most interesting feature may be the waved ribs, apparently for retention/adhesion of the driving band. Yet the shells are often seen in period photographs without their driving bands.

Duds were a fact of Great War artillery life. There’s no consensus about how common they were, although the number of 30% crops up here and there. That seems intolerably high, until you remember that the manufacture of artillery shells was largely a governmental enterprise, and government seems to be content with a 70% score for, say, someone seeking a pilot’s license.

There’s an explanation for why they were so common, even if we can’t pin down exactly how common that was. The armies of Europe had a voracious appetite for shells in 1914-18, and with the manpower of the nations mobilized, women reinforced the labor pool in factories across the continent. New factories, war profiteering, due haste, and a more relaxed attitude towards safety than today’s EU would be likely to smile upon led to truly dismal quality control for the shells of all combatants. These kinds of dud photos are common, as are 100-year-old duds surfacing in the tines of farm tillers and the buckets of excavators today, and they represent one of the failure modes resulting from the weak QC of the age.

The other failure mode was also common, and resulted in the shell exploding all right, but on firing or immediately out of the muzzle. This was hard on the gun — whose burst barrel might add to the shrapnel — and the crew. There were few safety provisions on Great War ordnance, explosive charges, gaines and fuzes tended to contain highly volatile compounds like picric acid, and much of it was setback armed with no delay, something even manpower-rich Russia and China eliminated on safety grounds many decades ago.

Given the staggering quantities of ordnance fired, even if only one in a million rounds was a dud or a premature detonation, that implies staggering quantities of duds and destroyed gun positions. And much more than one in a million rounds were duds (although premature-dets were probably rarer than that, mercifully).

W. Edwards Deming would not be amused.

Aimo Lahti

Aimo Lahti

Aimo Lahti with a Suomi KP/31.

Aimo Lahti was born 118 years ago today in Viiala, Finland. He was the greatest gun designer in Finnish history, which makes him a big frog in a pretty small pond. But he was influential far beyond the borders of his Scandinavian homeland.

As a Finnish biography by Simo Kärävä says:

Asesuunnittelija Aimo Johannes Lahti (28.4.1896 Akaan Viiala – 19.4.1970 Jyväskylä), jonka suunnittelemat aseet tulivat 1930-luvun sotilaille ja suojeluskuntalaisille sekä sotiemme veteraaneille tutuiksi usein toistuneen koura- ja olkatuntuman kautta, on jäänyt ihmeteltävän vähälle huomiolle sotia ja puolustusvoimia käsittelevässä kirjallisuudessa sekä tämän vuoksi myös melko tuntemattomaksi muille suomalaisille, sotilaita ja aseharrastajia lukuun ottamatta.

via Aimo Lahti.

Lahti-designed 20mm AA gun VKT 40.

Lahti-designed 20mm AA gun VKT 40.

Yeah, that. There’s really no run-on sentence like a run-on sentence in Finnish. Anyway, Aimo is little known in the Anglosphere, but his name rings a bell because two of his best-known guns bore his own name: the Lahti M/35 automatic pistol (also adopted in Denmark and in Sweden as the M/40) which combined the natural-pointing grip angle of the Luger with a completely different mechanism, and the Lahti M/39 semiautomatic antitank rifle, advertised for years in the pages of American Rifleman and other 1960s gun magazines. The M/39 was the object of every boy’s envy, later, even if by 1939 it was already marginal medicine on tanks. Lahti would use the same basic mechanism in the beefier VKT 40 anti-aircraft gun, usually seen as a twin mount.

He also co-designed the standard Finnish light machine gun of the Winter and Continuation Wars, the Lahti-Saloranta L/S 26. (It would be replaced by Russian DP LMGs which were captured in vast quantities). He was also responsible for some of the Finnish improvements to the Mosin-Nagant rifle, and for a modified Maxim for aerial and AA use called the VKT. All in all he designed over 50 weapons, counting designs like the M/27 rifle (a modified Mosin).

Suomi_submachine_gun_M31_1_(1)

Lahti’s most influential gun did not bear his name at all. It was the Machine Pistol (“Konepistooli” or KP) 31, the famous “Suomi” (a word which just means “Finland.”) While by 1931 this submachine gun was not entirely revolutionary, we need to bear in mind that the 1931 model was an update of a 1926 model, which in turn was an update of a 1922 run of prototypes. That makes the Suomi, for all intents and purposes, a contemporary of the early Thompson, yielding primacy only to the Thompson and the German MP18.

Like those guns, the Suomi featured sturdy, machined parts and a wooden stock and was very heavy, especially with a loaded drum magazine. The first Suomi drum was unreliable; it was replaced, while a new drum was being designed, by the four-column “casket” mag, that squeezed the four columns down to a single feeding position. The casket mag was a Suomi original that has echoes today in some Russian designs and the Surefire 60- and 100-round magazines.

Suomi 50-round Casket mag. From ARFCOM.

Suomi 50-round Casket mag. From ARFCOM.

The Russian submachine guns of the mid-20th Century all owed a great deal to the Suomi design. The PPSh drum is a rather direct copy of the second, reliable Suomi design and shares its 71-round capacity. The Soviet designers were never slow to adapt a foreign idea that could be turned to Soviet military purposes.

Sweden, which built Suomis under license, used the Suomi mags as the feed system for their indigenous submachine gun, the M45 Carl Gustav (and M45 “Swedish K” mags work in a Suomi). But that’s another post.

After the Continuation War ended in 1944, Finland was occupied by a Soviet-dominated Allied Control Commission (there were a couple of token Brits) and by Finnish communist quislings who had been indoctrinated for years in the USSR and were determined to bring the joys of the Russian Revolution to Finland. However, the Finns had hidden tens of thousands of arms, and the thought of the whole nation rising in guerrilla warfare terrified the Soviets a little and their puppets a lot. The Finnish communists reinvented themselves as a political party, competing at the ballet box, and their secret police withered away when their Soviet puppetmasters withdrew.

The spiteful Soviets, whose troops had been shot full of holes by many Lahti designs, demanded that that the Finn retire from arms design, and he did, living on a pension until 1970. His only child became a Finnish Air Force aviator and perished during the Continuation War.

There is a biography of Lahti, Aimo Lahti: Finnish Weapons Designer by Maire Vaajakallio, but it is, alas, only available in the Finnish language.