Category Archives: Crew-Served

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).


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).


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.


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.


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.


(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).


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.

Badass, circa 1914

The USA was one of the first nations to adopt a light machine gun, the Benet-Mercie Machine Rifle of 1909. It was a Hotchkiss man-portable, gas-operated, strip-fed gun and was never very reliable, but the sheer novelty of a machine gun that one man could carry and and a crew of two put into action in ordinary military operations carried it into the inventory. (Cycle cavalry picture below from


Indeed, the Army was so taken with its portability that they replaced at least some of the far superior, but 170-plus-pound, 1905 Maxims with it. Its unreliability was an issue when troops loyal to Mexican rebel Pancho Villa invaded Columbus, NM, and none of the Benet guns (as they were called for short) was able to sustain fire. During those lean-budget years the USA bought very few machine guns, and the handful of Benets would be replaced by a reversion to the Maxim system with the Vickers gun (which was less than half the weight of its Maxim forebear, in part by using little more than half of the water coolant, 7 1/2 pints instead of 7 quarts — for metricated readers, a quart is loosely approximate to a liter [~1.06Q] and a pint is half a quart).

In Machine Guns (1917), Julian S. Hatcher discusses the emplacement, operation and maintenance of the B-M at some length, including inspecting it for all the things that could go wrong, and clearing all the practically clearable stoppages and jams. He also has numerous photos, including this one, which shows the B-M to best advantage:

Screenshot 2014-04-27 16.01.50

The accompanying text explains what the two badass bolos, a knife which the Army had adopted after the Philippines wars, are doing behind the bipod — or “barrel rest” as the Army called it — of the Benet-Mercie. The bolos are probably the 1910 model (they’re either that or the 1917, and the book was published in 1917, making one wonder about the lead time of the picture. Also, the 1917 has plastic grips, these appear to be the 1910 wood).

The Use of Bolos to Steady the Barrel Rest :

When the Benet Gun is used on the field mount the front legs may be moved in cocking the gun, loading, or reducing a jam. This accident, which will cause a serious loss of time owing to the necessity of resetting the barrel rest and relaying the gun, can be prevented by driving a pair of bolos behind the barrel rest legs, as shown by the photograph.

The Benet was sighted — or “laid,” in the quasi-artillery terminology of early machine gun experts — using either iron sights or the Warner & Swasey prismatic telescope, which was also used (with, we believe, a different reticle) as a sniper sight on Springfield rifles. It was fed from the right, using flat cartridge strips of the Hotchkiss design, and fired the standard US .30-06 M1 ball round. The feed strips were finicky and needed to be “sized” from time to time with a special tool, which itself had to be set to .05″ — for which Hatcher suggested using a penny, as the common coin was just the right thickness. He also recommended a blank-firing adapter, which needed specially loaded blanks to make the gun operate.

The leather strap from the bipod (“barrel rest” through the trigger guard around to tension the other “barrel rest” leg was called a “latigo strap,” a familiar term to horsemen (it’s a strap used to cinch a Western saddle girth, made from a particular type of leather, like this strap). Latigo leather was well-suited to being used outdoors in all weathers. Later LMGs would tension their bipod legs with slings, but the Benet was in the vanguard of the new concept.

Another modern feature first found on the Benet gun was a removable barrel. (The next gun to have it was the 1914 version of the Colt potato-digger). The assistant gunner could change the barrel with thick gloves if it had become to hot. He was also advised to drip water on the barrel using a sponge that was part of the gunner’s kit, or even to dunk the muzzle in water, if available. Hatcher again:

If water is available the barrel should be cooled after about 300 rounds have been fired. This is done by applying water to the radiator of the barrel with the cooling sponge. An other method of cooling, which is very effective when circumstances permit it, is to lift the gun up and dip the muzzle into a cup or bucket of water. The formation of steam will cause the water to geyser up through the barrel, cooling it rapidly. In case water is not available, the barrel should be changed after about 500 rounds, if practicable. If it is impracticable to cool the gun or change barrels, 1000 consecutive rounds may be fired without permanently injuring the gun.

The British called essentially the same weapon the Hotchkiss Portative, and they and the US were the main users of this early LMG design. The British version had a small tripod under the forearm instead of the American “barrel rest” and latigo strap arrangement.

Britain rapidly replaced it with the Lewis during World War I. The Lewis was more reliable and had a better feed mechanism, more stable head space, and far superior cooling.

Ian at Forgotten Weapons has a video disassembly of a Portative, and a period manual.

When the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace Went to War

Major General Snow after the war, with US and Allied decorations.

Major General Snow after the war, with US and Allied decorations.

It was 1918, and the organization was then known as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The very able Maj. Gen. William J Snow had just been appointed to the new position of Chief of Army Artillery. The position was desperately needed: at the US entry into the war in 1917, the Army had barely 275 officers and 5000 men in its trained artillery, yielding, apart from colonial garrisons, one understrength regiment each of light, heavy, and horse artillery. You would think that the branch would have grown as the Great War roiled Europe, but the 1917 numbers, and the situation, were practically identical to those that obtained in August 1914 when the war broke out. Snow recalled:

In 1914 the Field Artillery of the United States Regular Army consisted of 266 officers and 4,992 enlisted men organized into six regiments. This was sufficient only to provide small overseas garrisons and what might be considered “display samples” of the different classes of field artillery in the United States.

There were no mortars (in WWI, the US would consider these infantry weapons artillery, but they hadn’t got to the point of having any yet), and no echelons above the artillery regiment, which was suited to be part of no combined-arms or infantry formation larger than division. In the four-million-man army built after 1917 for the war, all these things would be rectified, but not without drama. After Snow’s appointment as the Army’s chief of cannon-cockers, he found, initially, there was no office for him in Washington. (The Pentagon, of course, was 25 years in the future). But he had brought some resourceful staff officers with him:

On my third day in office two assistants reported for duty. They were Majors Bacon and Channing, who had been on my staff at Camp Jackson. I told them to go out and hire an office and engage some clerks, while I again spent the day in the staff and supply departments. Late that afternoon they returned and told me that there was not an office to be rented in Washington but that they had secured the loan of the building occupied by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and that for my personal use Elihu Root was lending me his office!

And so it was that I began my work in the War Department in this Peace Endowment building, the Carnegie Peace people paying the rent. I always thought this quite appropriate, for certainly so far as practical results go I accomplished more to restore international peace than Mr. Carnegie ever did to maintain it.

That last was a bit of a zing, but then, as now, the peaceniks have it coming. For “peace”, most of them mean, “surrender”; and for resolving conflict, most of them take the bold approach of the ostrich of legend. Root’s Carnegie Peace office would continue to serve Snow, and by extension, the nation, even after Major General Snow had an office of his own:

The Secretary of the General Staff kept his promise in a few days he assigned me one room6 and one clerk in the War Department building. He also furnished me the money-saving rubber stamp, Office of the Chief of Field Artillery.

For some time, even after my office was well established in a suite in the State, War, and Navy Building I kept Mr. Root’s office as a place where I could worked quietly and undisturbed on knotty problems; for frequently when I arrived at my main office in the morning I found, extending down the corridor, a line of people waiting to see me.

One of the perks, if that’s the word, of being Chief of Artillery during wartime, is that inventive Americans being their high-tech solutions to you:


Of course, the Office had an Inventions Section. The American is quite prolific with ideas. One contractor thought guns and ammunition were obsolete and that what was needed was modern machinery on a large scale, so that a veritable subway could be dug under the enemy with steam shovels and the whole German army be blown up. Another man suggested a loaded club so arranged that when you hit a man over the head it would shoot him too. A very modest fellow proposed a pencil that would make its writing visible in the dark. Another had a plan for a folding bullet-proof steel umbrella. Still another suggested chemical powder to sift on one’s body to cleanse it like a bath.

And so on. These schemes poured in. And they all had to be treated with polite consideration. As an illustration, I may mention the idea of a man from the southern part of the United States, who suggested that instead of high explosive, we load a rattlesnake into each shell. We thanked him and mentioned several obvious disadvantages and invited him to communicate with us when these difficulties were solved.

That was a general with a dry sense of humor indeed. And, even then, Congressional inquiries were a bane of pre-Beltway existence:

Then there was an Information Bureau, principally for members of Congress. We took the position of never saying “You have the wrong office.” On the contrary, when a member of Congress called up about hand grenades or whatnot, we would tell him that, while this did not pertain to field artillery, we would get the information for him. We were always definite, specific, and helpful.

General Snow’s reminisces are excerpted in the January-February 1940 number of the Field Artillery Journal. They’re worth reading in depth, including his visit to the respected training expert General Morrison, who advised him, “if you value your reputation, get away from the War Department,” and his frank assessment of General Pershing’s criticism of the War Department, and Woodrow Wilson’s performance as Commander-in-Chief. Still a good read, almost a century after the events he describes. More of his memoirs were excerpted in at least one subsequent issue, perhaps more.

Tank Go Boom

Everybody knows about RPGs — the ubiquitous Russian anti-tank weapon that began as a few improvements to the last few German Panzerfaust antitank grenade launchers, and now are one of the characteristic arms of every war large and small. But the 1950s vintage RPG-2 and its much improved 1960s scion the RPG-7 are long out of date in the service of Russia and its close allies and weapons customers; the last several AT weapons have actually contained the rocket inside the tube in the fashion of western bazookas (or the Panzerfaust’s 1944 competitor, the Panzerschreck). The current AT weapon is the RPG-29 Vampir.

This video purports to be a Syrian rebel attack on Syrian Arab Army T-72M1 tanks using an RPG-29.

The tank crews are at two very serious disadvantages here. While they’re under direct observation by the rebels (and the rebel videographers), they seem to be without infantry support. We know some tankers, and nothing gives them the heebie-jeebies like being in close terrain full of hostile infantry without any friendly grunts.

The second is that they’ve withdrawn under their armor. (As we’ll see, at least one of them didn’t have his hatch dogged down, which procedure violation saved his life). But buttoning-up means that they’re very close to being blind. If you’ve ever spent any time in a tank or AFV, the contrast between the situational awareness a TC can have when up in his hatch, and the SA he can develop while sealed in the can, is enormous.

The tanks’ lack of rifleman support is why they’re oriented the way they are. Clearly they expect trouble from the right, but the foreground tank is facing back to cover their vulnerable rears — with its own vulnerable rear backed up against a building to deny the rebels a shot. It’s a fairly good formation for taking on a thankless operation like MOUT in a main battle tank.

When the RPG-29 round hits, its first warhead of the tandem pair initiates on the rear of the engine deck, and the main shaped charge fires seemingly instantaneously. The Vampir’s warhead has over double the penetration of the common PG-7V round for the RPG-7. The crew? They stand no chance as the round ignites the tank’s ready ammunition. The temperature and pressure inside the fighting compartment (and the driver’s compartment, which is not isolated from it) are instantly more like the inside of a gun barrel than a shirtsleeve environment.

The exception is one of the turret crew, identified as the gunner by Russian analysis (a meatball machine translation of one of those analyses is here). He either bailed out or, more likely, was ejected through the above-mentioned unsecured hatch; you see him pull himself together and run off to the building on the right, the tatters of his clothes trailing behind his burnt body. And he’s the lucky one.

It will be hours before the tank is cool enough to be approached and for someone to take on the thankless, ghoulish task of removing the incinerated remains of his fellow crewmen.


The RPG-29 has a diameter of 70.2mm and, as mentioned above, a tandem warhead which defeats reactive armor. It’s scored penetrations and kills on some of the world’s best MBTs, including the M1A1 and the Challenger; it has more range, more accuracy, and more penetration than the familiar RPG-7. And it’s not the last word. The RPG-32 is an updated reusable anti tank ballistic rocket system, that offers further advantages over the RPG-29; meanwhile, a parallel line of development has produced updated disposable launchers as well. The RPG-30 is a disposable launcher with a parallel self-contained decoy to defeat active protection systems, and a tandem warhead to defeat reactive armor also.