Category Archives: Crew-Served

Great Research, Weak Conclusions on Defective Small-Arms Parts

We do a lot of posts based on tips commenters send us, but this one was tipped at least three times:

And yes, the article is worth reading in full (don’t neglect the sidebars and the documents). That said, we’ll have some critical comments after a short synopsis for  those of you disinclined to click the link.

The story is a remarkable body of research by Damian Spleeters of Spleeters has conducted interviews, sent in (and pursued) FOIA requests, and all-around done the sort of job of shoe-leather reporting one seldom sees any more. His subject: the Defense Logistics Agency and the Army’s near-criminal failure to trace defective firearm parts, and (and this bit should sound familiar to readers) their apparent lack of interest in holding anyone responsible.

Again, we’re astonished and pleased at the hard work Spleeters put into the story, work which clearly took him months to do and aroused his passions. We strongly recommend that you read the story, the sidebars, and especially the documents.

But as he isn’t familiar with the Army, with guns in general, or with the two for which he found trails of bad parts (the M2HB .50 Caliber and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon), he tends to ride wildly off in all directions, following not the evidence but The Narrative™ — in this case, Narrative, Greedy Corporation edition.

The most extreme example of this may be the case of Northside Machine Company (NMC) or Duggar, IN, which had a contract to run off 482 M2 backplates in 180 days, delivered, for $56,380.36, or $116.93 each. (The backplate houses the trigger, bolt latch releases lock, buffer tube sleeve, and Left and right spade grips).

buttplate removal

That’s an aggressive contract for a complex part with dozens of machining operations involved (We’re not clear whether they started from billet or from a forging. If a forging, the timeline was extremely tight). The parts were ordered in March, 2007 and delivered a little behind the 180-day schedule in November and December. In the interests of speed, the government waived the First Article Test (an in-depth test of a first run off the line, to ensure that the vendor is on the right track). The parts passed routine acceptance testing and were taken into inventory.

Browning_50_Cal_M2_HB_Back_Plate_1944_850In anticipation of further orders, NMC had run off some extra backplates. They decided to conduct random checks on these against the drawings, and made an unpleasant, but hardly unprecedented, discovery. One dimension on the plate was wrong, and it probably wouldn’t fit on a gun. (They didn’t have a gun at NMC to check it with). They checked another plate, and another. All 40 plates in their inventory were bad.

They quickly determined what had happened. A machinist had set up his machine wrong. The production operator didn’t catch the error, and the quality manager missed the bad dimension in his inspections. They figured out how to prevent this error in the future, and contacted their Contracting Officer (CO) and Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative (COTR) immediately, explaining the error and taking full responsibility.

M2HB backplate assy

Mike Smith of Northside Machine, who wasn’t making a fortune on these parts to begin with, then volunteered to redo every backplate at no cost to the government, including shipping both ways. Here’s what Smith wrote in a later, follow-up letter:

We have found a dimensional issue on the Back Plate, P/N 6535475 (NSN: 1005-00-918-
2618). There is a slot dimension (0.10 + 0.01) found in zones A-61A-7 on the back side
of the Back Plate that will cause an interference issue when it is assembled to the end
of the .50-cal machine gun. We noticed this issue during the week of 12/10/07 while
performing a random inspection before stocking our spare parts to inventory. Upon
finding this mistake, we notified Robert Heavrin and Cheryl Middleton on 12/18/07 via
email requesting a return of all the parts for repair.

We are willing to incur all costs for this return and repair. This error was entirely our
fault and we take full responsibility for any actions needed to correct this issue. After
receiving the Back Plates, we should be able to repair and be ready to re-ship within
two weeks time. We currently have 40 Back Plates in inventory that we have pulled for
repair. We would be able to repair these parts within two weeks.

M2HB backplate assy2

The reason behind the mistake is a failure to interpret the drawing during machine setup
by the setup machinist, production operation by our operator, and inspection by our
quality manager. We have initiated an in-house corrective action in order to eliminate
this problem from future shipments. We also completed a corrective action for Tom
Smith, QAR DCMA Indianapolis.

With the assistance of NSWC Crane, three Back Plates were tried on a .50-cal machine
gun this morning. There was an interference problem. This action was witnessed by
Robert Heavrin, QAR DCMA Indianapolis.

After that, the original documents collapse into a chaotic set of government employees in various stovepiped logistic activities asking the same questions that had already been answered:

  1. M2HB backplate assy completeWas the problem a safety one? (No, the mistaken plates won’t go on the gun at all).
  2. Was the contractor willing to fix them (Yeah, he’s said so from Day One).
  3. Can we lay hands on the parts? Do we know the contractor’s “CAGE1 Code” ID, which is marked on every part? (Yes).

Then the whole thing would move to a new stovepipe and the questions begin anew, either because no one clued in the Army in general that the questions had been answered already.

By now, months later, many of the bad plates had been distributed in repair-parts kits. Any time they tried one on a gun, they discovered it wouldn’t go.

This is the story that Spleeters tells as a dull and pedestrian “greedy contractors gouging the .gov” tale. Despite their error, it’s hard to see the contractor in this case as anything other than a good guy, doing his best to correct the error. What’s depressing is the military in general’s poor leadership on this score. and what appears to be the extreme difficulty of something simple, getting everyone who has an M2 or spare parts thereof, to check the CAGE Code on the parts and send them back to Northside in the event of error.

That, to us, is the scandal. Not that a contractor made an error, but that when it stepped up to correct the error, the Army couldn’t be shifted to look for the defective parts.


  1. CAGE code stands for Commercial And Government Entity, and is used in various ways in the logistics system.

German MG5 Accuracy Issue was Barrel Changes — Updated

Bear with us a bit as we’re still sick as the proverbial dog, and translating a long document, courtesy of Nathaniel F of The Firearm Blog. Along with a couple of interesting series on oddball magazines and the mid-20th-Century Light Rifle concept (which yielded the NATO rifles of the second half of the century, until the resurgent intermediate assault rifle concept and the 5.56 cartridge replaced them), he’s also stayed on the Bundeswehr’s small arms scandals.

The base MG5 replaces the MG3 in Bundeswehr service. It's mostly a scale-up of the MG4, a successful 5.56 mm LMG.

HK’s base MG5 replaces the MG3 in Bundeswehr service. It’s mostly a scale-up of the MG4, a successful 5.56 mm LMG. It has a close resemblance to the Mk,48, a scale-up of the Mk.46 US version of the Minimi which the MG4 resembles, in design and ergonomics.

These scandals have tested the tight relationship between the Bund’s ordies and their major supplier of shootin’ irons, Heckler & Koch. The Oberndorf firm has been rocked by various accusations of a too-tight relationship with the service, which has resulted in undertested weapons that fell short of some sensible expectations, particularly in sustained accuracy with a hot gun (where the G36 rifle flags) and holding point of impact after a barrel change (where the specs were altered to meet what the 7.62mm MG5 could practically do.

It's most commonly seen in this version with a comfortable inline collapsible stock.

The HK MG5 is most commonly seen in this version with a comfortable inline collapsible stock. Any NATO optic can be attached, like the EOTech seen here..

Note that this is not a problem of precisionThe new barrel puts the bullets in as tight a group as the old one did. It is a problem of accuracy — the new group is in a new position. This is fairly normal with an MG barrel change (it’s why some MGs incorporate adjustable foresights on the barrels, so both barrels in a typical GPMG’s suite of two can be zeroed to the same point of impact). The initial specification called for a very tight 5 centimeter — two inch — shift in mean point of impact after a barrel change in semi-auto fire, and 10 cm (four inches, 4.16 if you want to be pedantic, and we do, don’t we?) in automatic fire. In the end, these numbers were not achievable, which shouldn’t shock anyone who’s ever worked with the design, maintenance, or operation of machine guns. You’re not going to get that out of anything you change barrels on without insane amounts of hand fitting, at least, for a production service firearm. You can’t get that consistency out of a Minimi/249, a 240, a PK, or a 60 or 1919 for you Old School guys.

HK MG5 in a vehicle mounted version. All images courtesy HK.

HK MG5 in a vehicle mounted version. The German service is all in for this gun. All images courtesy HK.

They changed the mean-POI-shift spec, by agreement between the ordnance officers and H&K, to 10 and 15 cm respectively — still pretty impressive numbers.

This document relates to those specs and that change. It is a series of increasingly suspicious questions put by the Bundestag, Germany’s unicameral Parliament, to the Ministry of Defense. Indeed, the suspicion towards the end of the questionnaire devolves into nearly-paranoid badgering.

HK MG5 in a solenoid-operated version for aircraft, armor, CROWS, etc.

HK MG5 in a solenoid-operated version for aircraft, armor, CROWS, etc.

We have already shared the translation of the first parts of with Nathaniel (it was only fair, as his source Axel brought him the original document), and shortly we’ll post a couple excerpts of it to this post, and attach a .pdf. Meanwhile, Nathaniel went live with a robotranslated version.


In our bozosity we looked at the sentence several times, sure we had something wrong, and sure enough published with accuracy and precision starring in a swapped places farce, like the Prisoner of Zenda. Honest, Germany only sometimes resembles Ruritania, and we only sometimes confuse the two.


This post has been updated. Some small typos have been corrected. Our original intent was to post the document here, but it will be posted later this week (there’s a lot of it to translate).


Dahlgren and the Civil War

This is going to be a brief post, but that’s because we’re sending you to a long .pdf.

Dahlgren Model

Dahlgren Gun model by Kent Hobson. This one’s on a 360º traversing, recoiling carriage — cutting edge for 1865.

The Dahlgren guns were named for their inventor, in the naval tradition of the era a competent engineer as well as a serving naval officer. John A. Dahlgren was nearly killed by an exploding 32-pounder1 cannon.

I said, “Fire.” An unusual explosion took place instantly. The battery was filled with smoke, and a great crash of timber was heard. Behind me I heard the ground ploughed up, and of the things that fell, something grazed my heels, which afterwards proved to be a part of the breeching, a piece weighing two thousand pounds. Much stunned by the noise and the concussion, I turned to the battery. Amid the smoke, yet lifting slowly, the first object I saw was the body of the unfortunate gunner, stretched out on the deck and quite dead.

That moment of shock and chagrin in November 1849 was the impetus behind the Dahlgren gun, and Dahlgren is probably best remembered today as the name of the gun, rather than the man — even though we went on to fly a rear admiral’s flag and assault Charleston himself in the Civil War (the city held at that point).

Dahlgren concluded that the only real defense against a bursting gun was the thickness of the barrel. His genius was to lighten the gun only forward of the trunnions — the section of the barrel called the “chase” — and to have the change in sizes be turned to produce an aesthetic (and stress relieving) soda bottle shape. While a 15-inch Dahlgren would be a bit of a dog (for one thing, due to a Navy Department screw-up, the OD of the muzzle was wider than the width of the slots in the turrets of the monitors for which the guns were built. But the 9- and 11-inch Dahlgrens were vital naval and fortress weapons during the civil war — and beyond.

Dahlgren, who was held back by skeptical seniors early in his career, lived to be the skeptical senior holding back talented juniors.

The whole Dahlgren story and its context in the Civil War and beyond is recorded in a well-developed, -illustraed, and -documented couple dozen pages [.pdf] by historian Robert. J. Schneller, Jr., for the American Society of Arms Collectors. Read The Whole Thing™!


  1. A 32-pounder had a 6.4 inch bore and weighed three to four tons; the powder charge was something over five pounds of black powder.


The Twilight of Bronze Cannon

This Bronze 1857 "Napoleon" is a Steen reproduction. They didn't shine like this in field use!

This Bronze 1857 “Napoleon” is a Steen reproduction. They didn’t shine like this in field use!

Bronze was a very, very early weapons material, being used for swords and spears millennia before the birth of Christ. It came to be replaced in those roles by wrought (forged) iron, but would have a renaissance after the advent of gunpowder.

Why? Because until the development of steel had reached a point were cannon barrels could be made consistently of steel, bronze remained a nearly ideal cannon-barrel material, suitable to be cast and machined, and fairly durable.

As late as 1860, the metals available to the cannon foundry were cast iron, wrought (forged) iron, some primitive steel, and bronze.

Cast iron was the cheapest of these metals, and it could be used to make very large muzzle-loading cannon, if weight was not an issue. That’s because the designer could always add more thickness of iron to beef up his cannon — if it could be used. This meant that cast iron was less than ideal for field artillery, which had to be transported (usually by horse team) and emplaced in the field.

Peacemaker explosionWrought, which today we would call Forged, iron,  was a superior metal — in theory. In practice, it was hard to make. Two early forged cannon were made for USS Princeton in 1843. One, called Orator, was found to be deficient due to cracks, and was reinforced with welded-on bands for greater strength. The other, Peacemaker, was not as thoroughly tested, and during a demonstration for dignitaries on 28 Feb 1843, its breech shattered, killing a variety of people from the personal slave of President John Tyler to the Secretaries of State and the Navy. In the freak accident, the gun crew and gunnery officers of the ship (who were hands-on in service of the gun in front of the VIPs) were not seriously injured, while the fatalities were among the watching VIPs. The captain of the ship, Robert F. Stockton (who had supervised the design of the ship and the guns) was standing with the VIPs, and survived with severe injuries.

The officers and men of the Princeton were examined by a board of inquiry, and cleared. But a Congressional Committee was of the opinion that large wrought iron guns were “an unusual species of armament, attended with danger.”

Simpson reported that a scientific analysis was made of the shattered gun Peacemaker by an eminent committee from the Franklin Institute:

[The] committee reported the iron had decreased very much in strength from the long exposure to the intense heat necessary in making a gun of that size, while it was impossible to restore the fibre by hammering, the strength before and after welding being about as 6 to 5.

Looking forward in 1862, Simpson continued that paragraph:

Some guns of smaller size have been made, however, and with such success, as to render it probable that wrought iron or steel will be extensively used, especially for rifled field cannon. Pieces of this material may be made very light, but their carriages will be strained accordingly.

In fact, forging iron at that size was bleeding-edge tech in 1843, and even by the early years of the civil war, the full promise of forged and welded cannon barrels had yet to be fulfilled. (Civil War practice would become to reinforce cast cannon with welded bands). The Princeton investigation discovered that many European experiments in forged cannon had likewise failed. To complicate matters, wrought iron cannons were over six times as expensive as cast-iron.

Steel, at that time, an alloy formed by iron with certain low percentages of carbon evenly diffused throughout the alloy, was the promising “material of the future”. Simpson’s comparison noted that:

Refined steel, therefore, which has about one per cent. of carbon, is a metal that both forges and melts. Cast iron, with five per cent. of carbon, only melts, and wrought-iron, having no carbon, only forges.

Production of steel was difficult and required a cementation process with high heat in which iron took up carbon from charcoal in the absence of oxygen.  Only low quantities could be produced and not enough for mid-19th-Century martial purposes such as ship armor (called “ship cuirasses” by Simpson!) or, for our purposes, cannon. Thus, steel was not practical at the outbreak of the Civil War. That left bronze.

Bronze is copper alloyed with tin — there are now many numbered alloys, but about 10% tin was the early rule of thumb. And in many ways bronze was an ideal cannon material. The tin increased the hardness of the copper without negatively impacting its “tenacity”, in the terms of the time. Yet it was practical to cast; by happy accident, normal casting procedures produced a gun stronger in the breech than the muzzle end. And it was comparatively light in weight, making it suitable for light horse and even hand-emplaced artillery, and light guns on small vessels.

Like cast, and unlike wrought, iron, bronze could be and was recycled in the mid-19th Century cannon foundry; a failed casting was a waste of time (as we will see, quite a lot of time) and labor, but not material, as the botched casting could be readily sawn apart and remelted. .

16th Century bronze cannon foundry, Italy. Guns are not yet cast vertical. Buti, Lodovico (1550/60-1611); Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

16th Century bronze cannon foundry, Italy. Guns are not yet cast vertical. Buti, Lodovico (1550/60-1611); Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Simpson was not blind to the mystery of using such an ancient material on what was then high-technology weaponry:

It is a singular fact, that the ancient composition of bronze has remained almost unchanged to the present day, and the metal from cannon is found to be almost identical in the proportions of copper and tin with the rude weapons of Scandinavian, Celtic, Egyptian, Greek and Roman warfare. The amount of tin in bronze varies in different countries from 9 to 12.5 parts to 100 of copper: 12.5 parts are used in this country; and in France, 11 parts is fixed by law as the proper amount.

The alloy was never uniform throughout the gun.

As with many other metallic alloys, the combination between the two metals in bronze is so imperfect, that very slight forces are sufficient to cause its separation into two or more different alloys, which, on cooling, are found to occupy different portions of the mass. In casting a gun, for example, the outside, which cools first, has a constitution different from that assigned by the proportions of the metals, as fixed for fusion. The interior, which cools last, has another, different from both, and always richer in tin. On being examined after cooling, portions at different heights are found to differ from each other; and this difference varies along the exterior and interior portions, so that no two adjacent portions have strictly the same chemical constitution; the maximum of copper being found in the exterior and breech of the gun, making these portions less flexible, and the maximum tin in the interior and higher parts.

This shows a hollow-cast iron Rodman gun, but shows the vertical orientation of period foundries' casting pits

This shows a hollow-cast iron Rodman gun, but shows the vertical orientation of period foundries’ casting pits

This metal distribution in the cast gun could produce a gun optimally strong in the right places:

Specimens taken from the top and bottom of the casting, show also a very great difference in density and tenacity, the density at the breech being much greater, and the tenacity, in one instance cited, more than double. The sinking head (which is the additional length cast on the muzzle of a gun) is, in consequence of these facts, made much longer in casting bronze guns than is otherwise necessary.

As you might imagine, a gun cast muzzle-down would, conversely, be weak where it needed to be strong. Cannon founders had worked this out empirically, long before the samples Simpson writes about were ever analyzed.

Once the gun had been cast, significant amounts of effort went into post-casting machining processes, regardless of whether the cannon was made of iron or bronze.


The Downsides of Bronze

Bronze was not without problems. It was harder to find than iron, and by the Civil War it cost as much to make a bronze field piece as it did to roll the dice on a wrought iron one — over six times the cost of cast iron. And bronze guns were life-limited. Simpson noted:

The fusibility of tin is such also as to render it liable to melt by slow degrees during the heat of a brisk cannonade, and thus bronze pieces sometimes become soft and spongy about the bore. The gases produced by the combustion of gunpowder, also produce an injurious effect upon this kind of piece by acting chemically on the bronze.

Casting a bronze piece was difficult and time consuming. The copper was melted first, which could take seven hours, and at the exact right point the tin had to be added. Too late and you had inclusions rather than a uniform-ish alloy; too soon and the tin burned off as scoria, or scale. To maintain the uniformity of the alloy, the molten bronze had to be constantly agitated, which workers did with sacrificial wooden poles (while another foundry worker skimmed the scoria and ash resulting from the poles’ combustion).

Other materials were considered for cannon manufacture in the mid-19th Century. Copper alloys with zinc were perhaps better than bronze, copper’s alloy with tin, but Simpson wrote that, “the difficulty of making this alloy, has caused its use in the manufacture of cannon to be abandoned.”

In the end, ingenuity would finally produce a working forged iron gun, the US 3-inch Ordnance Rifle of 1864. Its production was a brutal combination of fire & iron, worked by muscle, as modern reproducer of vintage artillery, Steen Cannons, notes:

[N]ew forging and welding methods brought new promise for wrought iron. A pile of wrought iron rods 7/8″ X 7/8″ X 4-1/2 feet were welded together to form a mandrel. A long bar 3/4″ X 4-1/2′ was wound spirally around this by revolving the lathe, three successive layers were thus applied to the mandrel, each layer spiraling in a direction opposite of the previous one. A thin layer of staves was applied to the outside, and a plug driven to form the breech. Welding heat was then attained and the mass was rolled out to the length of seven feet. Trunnions were welded on and the gun was bored and rifled from the solid. The 3-inch Ordnance Rifle was the second most common rifled field gun found in the Union and Confederate armies.

(Steen’s reproduction isn’t made that arduous way — they cast iron around a rifled liner!). The other common answer to the metallurgical problem was the Parrott approach, to wrap a wrought-iron band or bands around the breech of a cast iron gun for strength,

The 19th Century would see a revolution in metallurgy, rendering the state-of-the-art bronze field piece of 1860, by the 1870s, a quaint, obsolete artifact suitable only for guarding a courthouse or a village green. (Simpson probably didn’t envision either the short life of his textbook at the Academy, or its long tail of utility to us historians). But for the first half to nearly two-thirds of the century, the Bronze Age hung on in warfare.


Parmenter, William, et al. Accident on Steam-Ship “Princeton”  Report Nº 479 of the Committee on Naval Affairs, 28th Congress. Washington, 1844: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from:

Simpson, Lt. Edward. A Treatise on Ordnance and Naval Gunnery: Compiled and Arranged as a Text Book for the US Naval Academy. Second Edition. New York, 1862: Van Nostrand. Retrieved from:

More Depth: TD Accident Fatalities

Thanks to more news stories and an informative email from a frequent commenter, we have more information on the individuals who lost their lives and the circumstances of the accident. The two men fatally injured were Steve Preston, 51, the owner of the tank and a Board member and Convention Chairman for the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, and Austin Lee, 22, a friend (or relative?) of Preston’s. Both were residents of Oregon CIty, OR; Preston owned Sergeants Towing in Portland.


As we noted, the vehicle was an M18 Gun Motor Carriage (tank destroyer). Preston bought the TD in Denver in 1999 and enjoyed displaying it — at car shows (“It’s a 1944 Buick!” he would say, parking it in the appropriate area) or for charity fund-raisers. He painted his wife’s name — Rachel — on the vehicle’s flank.

prestons vehicle name oregonianThe vehicle served in World War II for the US and had wound up back in the US after being surplused by the Yugoslavian Army. Preston, a school-trained mechanic as well as a pilot and philanthropist, also owned a DUKW amphibious truck, and, reportedly, an M5A1 Stuart light tank. He had owned a firearms dealership.

He old the Portland Oregonian once:

“The craziest thing I’ve ever done with it? At a car show in Portland, I showed up early and towed a 1984 Camaro with no engine in it into the middle of the grounds. Soon there were hundreds of cars there, and I had the announcer say: ‘Would whoever owns the 1984 Camaro, please move it, or we’re going to have it towed away.’ Of course, nobody moved it. With everyone watching, I fired up the tank destroyer and crushed that Camaro. The crowds loved it.”

Steve Preston in his M18's gunner's seat (Portland Oregonian).

Steve Preston in his M18’s gunner’s seat (Portland Oregonian).

For all his love of military vehicles, Preston never served in the military. He did take special pride in showing his vehicles to vets who had used similar machines, and giving them a chance to drive their old mounts again.

The other victim, Austin Lee, was an avid World War II buff who’d become fascinated by the great war as early as age 6 or 7.  He was a professional restorer of World War II vehicles, weapons, and equipment.

The two were firing live 76mm rounds for a film crew, making a film for an interactive exhibit. How the round exploded — if that’s what it did — inside the Hellcat’s open turret is under investigation. As the accident happened on the range of the Central Oregon Shooting Sports Association in unincorporated territory, the investigation will be led by the county Sheriff, L. Shane Nelson. ATF and Oregon State Police have provided investigative assistance.

An emergency call was made immediately. First responders found the victims in the turret; some stories say they still had minimal signs of life, but they were pronounced at the scene.

There has been no indication of whether they were firing continuously (which seems unlikely) or responding to a misfire at the time of the mishap. Overheating (cook-off) or a premature or mis-run misfire drill can produce out-of-battery firing, very bad news in an armored vehicle’s main gun. Mechanical failure can’t be ruled out, also: the gun was 71 years old, which shouldn’t matter much with a steel gun, but the ammunition may have been past its use-by date.

In the long run, this mishap may have consequences for every member of the small community that live-fires vintage Destructive Devices. In the short run, it is a tragedy for the families concerned, including Austin Lee’s parents and Steve Preston’s wife and two kids. May they find comfort, and may the accident victims find rest in peace.


The (Portland) Oregonian has especially good coverage:

The Wall Street Journal did a photo essay last month:

Additional media coverage:

Personal media:

For the Man who Has Everything

Or, hey, the woman. We’d like to see Tam put 1,000 rounds through this! (Although, truth be told, it’s demilled). Available for sale on a European armor and armament sales website, along with its 203 mm howitzer counterpart, the 155 mm “Long Tom” gun was the staple US military heavy piece of World War II. The seller has a French name and a French (33) telephone code.

WWII 155 mm Long Tom

Of course, moving this gun between the USA and France is possible — it’s been done before, right? — but you can’t just click the Pelican case shut and check it like a bag.

At the time the M1 gun was developed during and just after the First World War, most world armies maintained both “guns” (which shot a smaller higher-velocity projectile a longer distance at a lower angle) and “howitzers” which shot a larger, lower-velocity projectile a shorter distance at a higher angle. Later, technical improvements in howitzers would render most guns obsolete, and today, howitzers fill both roles.

Both the 155 and 203 were US improvements on foreign guns, a WWI French 155 and the WWI British 8″ howitzer. (In inches, 155 mm is a hair over 6″). The American-designed chassis had a number of improvements, including the hydraulic “equilibrators” which made up for having the gun’s pivot point so afar aft of its center of mass, and the carriage that used eight road wheels and a two-wheeled bogey or limber to support the tow end of the trails and connect to the towing pintle of the tow vehicle. The tow vehicle was either a heavy truck or a “high-speed tractor” that used light-tank running gear.

This period Popular Science article describes and illustrates some of the then-new features of the M1 “Long Tom” 155.

The seller, Jean Petit (whose name is the French opposite of Long Tom, we note) describes it like this:

Very rare and impressive piece of history, deactivated main gun, weight 14 tons, towed by High Speed tractor or 7 ton truck, Price on application, this historic artillery is properly deactivated. Also available one each deactivated heavy howitzer 203 mm version, WW2 manufactured, probably the only one’s available in this good original condition.

M Petit has a large number of other historic pieces and vehicles for sale. The European site has an extensive set of interesting classifieds.

Hat tip, Miguel at GunFreeZone.

Two Dead in Tank Destroyer Explosion in Oregon

tank_destroyer_explosion_bend_orHere’s a real puzzle. It looks like a mishap during an armored vehicle live fire has killed two people inside the fighting compartment of the vehicle. The vehicle was on a public firing range. Those slain have not been identified. Local TV:

Two people were killed Tuesday afternoon by an explosion inside a World War II-era tank at a public firing range 24 miles east of Bend, Deschutes County sheriff deputies said.

Deputies, Oregon State Police and Bend Fire Department medics responded shortly after 3 p.m. to the reported explosion, off U.S. Highway 20 East near milepost 24, said sheriff’s Sgt. Nathan Garibay.

via Two killed by explosion in WWII-era tank east of Bend | News – Home.

tank_destroyer_close-up_bend_orThe vehicle appears in this picture (see blow-up above), from its sloped armor and large road wheels, to be an M18 Hellcat tank destroyer. The road wheels look too large to be an M10 or M36. Technically, it was the M18 Gun Motor Carriage, but it was assigned to Tank Destroyer units and everybody called it a Tank Destroyer. It had a high-velocity 76 mm gun and very little armor. With a similar 975-cubic-inch radial engine as the one in many Sherman variants, it was fast, hard-hitting and had the armored-vehicle equivalent of a glass jaw; in the last years of the war, the 2500 or so M18s built fought in both major theaters of the war.

This picture of this next M18 was taken during a live fire in 2010 and may be a photo of the mishap vehicle. The vehicle in the photo is based in the West, but there are a number of M18s in private hands, at least one of which is known to be in Oregon.

M18 Hellcat Winter 2010 148 regrets the loss of life and continues to develop the story.


Combat Tricycle of a Century Past

These things look like they came out of some Hollywood prop shop for an Indiana Jones reboot. Or something like that. But they’re real, these combat tricycles, and they have a story.


While World War II is thought of as the first mobile war, and World War I is considered a static war, it was the Great War that first saw motorization used (apart from railways, of course, which were key terrain in many 19th-Century wars).

Russia had the worst roads, and the most backward motor vehicle industry, of any wartime power. No firm could mass-produce military vehicles, and so the Tsar’s needs for trucks, tractors and especially for the new category of armored vehicle were met largely with imports.

One of these hastily produced vehicles was the Filitov Tricycle Armored Car. It looks, frankly, impractical — not many three-wheeled vehicles were made between Cugnot and Reliant, and we don’t know of any others made for combat. But according to Jim Kinnear — whose real focus was on later, Soviet, armored cars –some 20 of them were made and deployed. Kinnear’s write-up of the Tricycle is confined to a single picture caption, and as far as we know, it’s the only English-language source on this combat vehicle.

The narrow wheels and tires look unsuited for rural Russian roads even today. While Kinnear notes contemporary vehicles like the Russo-Baltic Model M packed either three M1905 Maxim water-cooled machine guns, or one 37mm cannon, Filitov’s tricycle appears from the photo to be innocent of any armament, but we learn below it was, indeed, well if unconventionally armed.

The competing Russo-Baltic Model M was not without its limitations. Despite being well armed and stout enough for Russian roads, it had a top speed of only 12 mph. (Engineering always demands a trade-off!) Before the war, the Russo-Baltic company in Riga, Latvia (not then an independent nation, but occupied by the Russian Empire) was the main producer of armored cars, but its early production was probably only in the dozens. (During World War I, the factory would reiocate East, and remain part of postwar Russia). Beginning in 1913, the Russian War Office ordered many (hundreds) of armored cars from overseas makers, mostly British and German (the German orders stopped when the war began of course), and many Russian firms began designing and building in hopes of getting one of those military contracts.

Subsequent Leninist historiography has obscured some of this, but Russian capitalism in the time before the war was highly entrepreneurial and dynamic (it was the fastest-growing economy in Europe, but then, it started from behind the western powers). And Russian education, particularly in the fields we now call STEM, was first rate, which created a great bounty of imaginative engineers and led them to develop such new technologies as armored vehicles, the half-track (a Russian invention, as we’ve noted before) and large aircraft (pioneered by a Russian engineer from Kiev, Igor Sikorsky). Initially, the war provided more impetus for these concepts ahead of their time, with Sikorsky (working with that same Russo-Baltic Company!) to develop his four-engined le Grand into the Ilya Muroumetz bomber, the world’s first four-engined bomber, and the Putilov Plant (in St. Petersburg) to develop a category-breaking armored car:

Late in 1914, the Putilov Plant in St. Petersburg began production of an 8,000 kg armored car armed with a 76.2 mm field gun. The new Putilov-Garford armored car was designed by F.F. Lender, who placed the 76.2mm gun in a rear turret. This provided a good arc of fire, with additional machine gun armament being provided for close support. It was later claimed by Russia as the world’s first wheeled self-propelled gun. The Putilov Garford was built in small numbers and made a significant contribution during the First World War and the Russian Civil War, which followed the 1917 Revolution. The vehicle, with its impressive 76.2 mm armament, was often used to engage armored trains and served with the Red Army into the 1930s as a railway artillery vehicle, with its wheels converted to run on the Russian rail system.1

Kinnear goes on to describe how the environment at the time reinforced this groundbreaking spirit and produced an engineering Big Bang of sorts:

During the First World War,before the major armored car manufacturers of the 1930s became established, many enterprising private individuals also designed armored vehicles on imported chassis in an attempt to have their projects accepted for lucrative military contracts. Many Russian armored car designs developed in the period 1914-18 included innovative features which were not included in series-produced vehicles until many years later. Noteworthy developments included the engineer Poplavko’s Poplavko-Jeffery (AB-9) armored car of 1915 with its 4×4 chassis, twin engines, twin driver’s positions, five forward and five reverse gears, and 16 mm frontal armor. The Renault Mgebrov, designed in 1914 with its highly faceted armor for maximum ballistic protection and the incorporation of armored glass was also an interesting design concept. The futuristic-looking Renault Mgebrov was manufactured in small numbers from the spring of 1916. During the same period, 1915-17, N.N. Lebedenko designed several armored cars in the town of Dmitrov, near Moscow. In 1915 Colonel Gulkevitch designed a 40 tonne armored car on the imported Lombard chassis armed with a field gun intended for heavy fire support for infantry. Gulkevitch’s design was impractical and not developed beyond conceptual stage, however he was particularly interested in the advantages of half-tracks for crossing obstacles, including barbed wire defenses. He went on to significantly modify his original plans and developed his designs into the first Russian half-track armored car for which the Putilov plant provided the armored body.

Though their ideas were not generally developed beyond prototype or limited series production stage at the time, these designers would play a prominent part in the development of future series-produced armored cars, while many of the ideas, such as the twin engines used on the Poplavko-Jeffery AB-9, were to be incorporated many years later in post World War Two vehicles such as the BTR-60 APC series.2

It was during this flowering of military technology that the Filitov Tricycle was produced.

A little digging found a Czech web page which has more details from a Russian source, and a crude (Google?) machine translation into English, and more photos. The weapons (Maxim M1910 machine guns or a short-barreled 76.2 mm artillery piece) were mounted to fire to the rear.

The pictures include this side view of the MG and cannon version. The strut under the cannon version was to brace the armored car so the recoil of the gun did not flip it! It looks like there was a different chassis for the two different versions; there is certainly a different armor arrangement.

from Kolomiets and Baratinsky filatov

According to the page, which cites the work by Kolomiets and Baratinsy, Filatov (note the different spelling) was a major general in command of an officer’s school at Oranienbaum. He started the design in early 1915 and in December they produced an MG-armed prototype.

MG-armed Filatov on the range

MG-armed Filatov on the range

It says eIght production vehicles were made by May 1916, one cannon prototype (apparently the only one made), and eight more production vehicles after that. They used a variety of chassis from auto wrecks; there was no standardization and they must have been maintenance-challenged. They had 4-6 mm of armor (presumably face-hardened armor) and the MG version weighed 1.8 tonnes. The gun version was 0.8 t heavier and was thought to be impractical, hence the single prototype.

The two most salient identification features are the rear-mounted, rear-firing armament, and the large spotlights.

The prototype 76.2 mm Filatov firing. These pictures appear to be taken at the same place and time as the leading picture.

The prototype 76.2 mm Filatov firing. These pictures appear to be taken at the same place and time as the leading picture.

(It’s not clear if these are gross weights including fuel, ammo and the two-man crew, or net weights).

They don’t appear to have been used against the Germans, but perhaps in the Civil War. None are known to survive.

Finally, here is the Czech site’s version of the same photo Kinnear used. Is it a bit clearer?



  1. Kinnear, p. 7.
  2. Kinnear, pp. 7-8.


Kinnear, James. Russian Armored Cars: 1930-2000. Darlington, Maryland: Darlington Productions, 2000.

Kolomiets, M. & Baratinsky, M.: Bronjeavtomobili Ruskoj Armii 1906-1917, [Armored Cars of the Russian Army]. Technitsky Molodyezh, Moscow 2000 (via

Our “Partners” Iran… Still Bein’, Well, Iran

On their way to Yemeni terrorists, a shipment of ATGMs in a lawless, stateless ship. It was briefly detained by an allied navy — and its cargo of missiles dumped into the sea.

Shipload of Iranian mischief apprehended on the high seas.

Shipload of Iranian mischief apprehended on the high seas. Registration indicia were spurious.

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, said a member of the Combined Maritime Forces, a longstanding multinational coalition, intercepted the vessel in international waters last Friday.

An American guided missile destroyer, the USS Forrest Sherman, arrived to assist once the weapons were found aboard the dhow, a type of vessel commonly used in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

Crates and tripods. The tripods look like the ones for the BGM-71 TOW, a missile Iran produces an unauthorized copy of.

Crates and tripods. The tripods look like the ones for the BGM-71 TOW, a missile Iran produces an unauthorized copy of.

In a pretty rare occurrence… a DDG (“guided missile destroyer”) actually destroyed guided missiles.

More crates and tubes. Some might be TOW reloads.

More crates and tubes. Some might be TOW reloads.

A search of the ship determined that it was “stateless,” or not formally registered to any country, although it appears to have been coming from Iran, according to the U.S. Navy.

“Based on statements from the dhow’s crew, the port of origin of the dhow and its illicit weapons cache is believed to be Iran,” the Navy said, adding that the weapons included anti-tank arms thought to be of Iranian and Russian origin.

This Sept. 27, 2015 photo released by the U.S. Navy on Sept. 30, 2015, shows weapons and equipment confiscated from a dhow, aboard the deck of USS Forrest Sherman. A ship carrying illicit arms believed to be from Iran was intercepted last week off the southern Arabian Peninsula by a member of a U.S.-backed naval coalition and was not registered with any country, the U.S. Navy said Wednesday. The American description of the ship’s seizure conflicted in some instances with an earlier account provided by a separate Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen’s Shiite rebels, which claimed it had foiled the smuggling attempt. (Combined Maritime Forces photo via AP)

These might be AT-5 Spandrel missiles, Russian name 9M113 Konkurs. They are produced in Russia, Iran, and several other nations. Note defacement of stenciling, common among trafficked weapons. These particular examples were taken for analysis by US experts.

So the ship had a rocket in its pocket — a lot more than one rocket, though.

Another view of the crates etc. on the stateless ship from lawless Iran.

Another view of the crates etc. on the stateless ship from lawless Iran. What’s that missile there?

The dhow’s crew alleged that the vessel was bound for Somalia, which sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. They were allowed to depart once the weapons were confiscated, the U.S. said.

Most of the weapons were dumped into the sea, though some were retained for further analysis by sailors aboard the American warship.

via Weapons believed to be from Iran seized in Arabian Sea – Yahoo News.

Sure enough, it's an AT-5 Spandrel (aka 9M113 Konkurs).

Sure enough, it’s an AT-5 Spandrel (aka 9M113 Konkurs).

It’s tough work out there, being the top negotiating partner of the Top Men in the United States. Top. Men.

You have to wonder what percentage of these shipments gets through.

A Quick Review of US Coastal Fortifications (long!)

In the days ahead, we’re going to be looking at some historic fortifications around the East Coast of the United States, and their place in history. Before we get deep into fort design and history, we thought it would help to review the history of fortifications.

Until World War II, the greatest projectors of national power were fleets of warships. This was how nations figured their greatness; this was what earnest, quavering diplomats sought to negotiate reductions in. While the warships changed over the centuries, they still remained the same general “thing” They were vessels that could cross oceans, if need be in large groups, and then destroy enemy fleets, fortifications, and shore installations by fire from shipboard cannon, or by landing marines or soldiers embarked in the ships. Such seaborne ground forces could also, if strong enough, seize and hold ground. (Amphibious warfare didn’t begin with the Higgins boat; it had a history centuries old when a few guys met over a beer and started the US Marine Corps).

To prevent the loss of one’s harbors, cities (which tended, of course, to be at river mouths and harbors), and other goods and chattels, defenses were erected against these ships; frantically in wartime, and more lackadaisically in times of peace. (History is replete with cycles of construction, neglect, and panicked restoration, amongst all the coastal nations of the world). In time, shorelines came to be studded with fortifications that could take advantage of two native superiorities of ground-based versus shipboard armament: the ground doesn’t pitch, roll and yaw, and the ground can support an unlimited amount of weight. This meant that ceteris paribus the guns of forts had substantial range, accuracy and throw-weight advantages over ships’ armament, or could have, if the defenders spent on forts as they did on ships.

The ships had their own advantages: they could run, hide (make smoke, once steam became the motive power), and concentrate their forces to defeat the forts piecemeal, if the mutual support of the fortifications was weak. They could also land their marines or soldiers to flank the fortifications; defending against ships and ground-based infantry (let alone infantry, cavalry and artillery combined arms) was substantially more complex than defending against the land or sea attack alone. Indeed, the history of forts includes many more reduced by landward attacks than by cannonades from the sea.

Forts were not the only anti-ship defense available. Blockships, booms, chains, and other obstacles were popular, in part because they were cheaper than forts. They were effective, just like obstacles against infantry, only when covered by observation and fire. Mines (also called “torpedoes” until that term began to be applied only to self-propelled torpedoes in the 20th Century) were another vital type of sea defense. These “dumb” passive defenses sometimes get short shrift from historians, but they were very important defensive works, and you may be sure that they got careful consideration by the admirals facing them. Both contact and command-detonated mines were established as early as the 18th Century, and they and their controls were part of American minefields until after World War II.

These principles held all through the period from the discovery of the New World in the 15th Century and its settlement by squabbling colonists from Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and England over the next two centuries. They continued to hold as the Europeans withdrew from the New World and new nations grew up there, and the first sign that the balance of power between ships and forts was going in a new direction was probably the demonstration sinking of the relatively modern captured battleship SMS Ostfriesland off the East Coast of the United States by primitive biplane bombers in 1923.

Just as weapons evolved, fortifications did also. There were earthen fortifications, then stone, then brick, then concrete. Military engineering was a highly developed science by the time of the founding of the United States.

The US inherited colonial fortifications from the colonial powers, and then developed its own seacoast installations. For the United States, fortifications were an economy of force proposition: as expensive as they were to build, they were dirt cheap compared to keeping a standing army or navy (something that was anathema to early Americans).

Colonial era forts were used by the US where practical. Some of these works still stand and may be visited. Because they tended to be placed on key terrain, they were often overbuilt or replaced by subsequent generations of fortifications.

Thanks to two brilliant engineers, Vauban who worked mostly in the 17th Century and Montalembert in the 18th, the language of fortification is French. The typical star-shaped fort comes from Vauban’s work, but so do many details. Here’s a section of a Vauban fort in plan view (source). Green represents earthworks above surface level, the side towards the enemy may faced with wood, brick or stone; brown the surface; tan represents excavations below surface level. Campagne is the field, outside the fortification; Ville is the town, inside:

vauban dessus

A: the level of the ground. B: the glacis, smooth rising earth designed to absorb shot or deflect it over the low-lying fortification; C: chemin couvert, a covered (from fire) and concealed path around the perimeter where musketeers may be positioned; D: a demi-lune, literally “half-moon,” an outlying position where guns may be emplaced; E: Fossé, a ditch to delay, collect and expose would-be breachers; F: Courtine, the main wall; G: a Bastion, or defensive protuberance on the wall. G1 Orillons provided flank protection to G2 Embrasures, holes or crenellations in the wall that permitted enfilading fire:

defending a bastion

Demi-lunes and bastions were modules that could be repeated as many times as necessary to complete a wall. The floor of the Fossé also had entrenchments and works that allowed defenders to fire from covered positions at any attackers that got in.

This is a section view along Axis 1 (axe 1) of the first sketch.

Coupe_fortification_vauban_(french).svgThere are many, many, details in the design as well, a design that followed careful mathematical models. A well-manned Vauban fortification was a tough nut to crack. Vauban, in his brilliance, addressed that too and wrote about reducing forts as well as constructing them. He had many able and imaginative followers in France and abroad who, for a century after his death, extended his ideas as far as they were able to go. This was the state of the military engineering art at about the time of the Revolution.

For an overview of the US implementation of these principles, overleaf, click “more.”

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