Category Archives: Support Weapons

The Fight that Ruined a New Weapon’s Reputation

The weapon was new, made of cutting-edge materials. It had demonstrated its capability in the lab and on the range, and the men had such confidence in it, that when a Laotian unit, driven out of Laos by NVA forces with tanks, begged the SF camp commander for anti-tank weapons, team sergeant Bill “Pappy” Craig (who was acting as his own weapons man, having been sent a flaky kid as a replacement who more or less defected to the NVA) gave the Laotians his two old, if proven 3.5″ rocket launchers, aka Super Bazookas. He kept the new Light Antitank Weapons for his own team.

M72LAW

He would live to regret that decision.

The time was early February, 1968, as all of South Vietnam convulsed with what the People’s Army of Viet Nam called the “General Offensive/General Uprising” and the West knows as the Tet Offensive.1 The place was the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp on Route 9, a scrawny , risky road running west past Khe Sanh, where a large Marine force was besieged on one large hill and several hill outposts.

USSF Detachments in RVN 1967Lang Vei was the northwesternmost permanent Allied presence in the Republic of Vietnam. This map of Special Forces compounds the year before the attack hints at just how far out it was — it’s the solitary little dot in Quang Tri province. The Marines at Khe Sanh were almost as isolated.

The LAW is a 66 mm weapon, as its name implies a Light Antitank Weapon, which answered the question: “What if you took the German disposable Panzerfaust concept and redeveloped it with the latest Space Age propellants, explosives, and materials — could you make a compact tank killer?”

The result was a small, environmentally sealed, extensible shipping container/launch tube that was, on its design, marginal on modern tank front turret and glacis armor, but effective on side, rear, top or bottom skins. It was effective through 360º on armor of World War II vintage tanks, still widely deployed by potential adversaries.

The LAW’s adversary that night should have been well within its capabilities, as the 1950s-vintage PT-76 light amphibious tank was never intended to slug it out with AT defenses. It was built to support river crossings — something the Soviet Army’s offensive doctrine demanded an answer for — with a better-than-nothing tank mounting a descendant of the first generation T-34’s 76mm main gun in a truncated-conical turret. The NVA also deployed a Chinese copy of the PT-76 with a domed turret like that of the T-54/55, mounting a version of the improved 85mm gun from the improved late version of the T-34; they also used T-34s themselves, but the only tanks confirmed at Lang Vei were PT-76s.

lang_vei_aftermath

Lang Vei, with three destroyed PT-76s highlighted, the next day. Central PT-76 is adjacent to destroyed TOC bunker. The two visible in the upper right were killed by James Holt’s 106mm Recoilless Rifle.

 

The PT-76 would go on to perform adequately at another SF camp, Ben Het, the next year (in the light of Lang Vei, Ben Het was reinforced by attached artillery and tanks, but one of the PT-76s actually knocked out a defending M-48 MBT before being destroyed itself). The PT-76 was also used by the Egyptian Army in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel.

The Lang Vei TOC bunker entrance and tower. The bulk of the TOC was underground and the roof was supported by 8x8" beams.

The Lang Vei TOC bunker entrance and tower before the attack. The bulk of the TOC was underground and the roof was supported by 8×8″ beams.

Knocked-out PT-76 and ruins of TOC the day after. The bunker was blown by the NVA after the surviving USSF escaped to the Old Camp and then out by Marine CH-46.

Knocked-out PT-76 and ruins of TOC the day after. The bunker was blown by the NVA after the surviving USSF escaped to the Old Camp and then out by Marine CH-46. The fuel drums full of rocks, from which Schungel engaged tanks coming from the left are at the left of the TOC.

This 50-odd minute documentary is rife with errors2, and omits even the names of those Green Berets that did not talk to the filmmakers, but does include a broadly accurate reenactment of the fight, and snippets of rare interviews with  SF defenders, including men from all key groups (the defenders who held out in the TOC bunker, then evaded under air-strike cover; the guys evading on top of the hill, some of whom escaped and some of whom were captured; and the guys isolated with the Laotian battalion at Old Lang Vei). The story of the fight, though is complex enough that you ought to read an overview before trying to make sense of a 50-minute video retelling, or it may confuse you.

The reputation of the LAW never recovered both from the blow of its failure at Lang Vei (it didn’t work much better at the next camp attacked by tanks, Ben Het, either), and the Army’s failure to face that failure squarely and forthrightly. Denial kept things from being resolved.

The camp itself was overrun. Of the eleven attacking PT-76s, three were left on site, destroyed by the defenders or by air; four more were blasted by air or artillery and destroyed in the immediate area. A 12th PT-76 had been caught in the open and killed by the USAF on 24 January.

Of 24 USSF on the site, 10 were killed, captured or missing, and 14 got away, all but one of them wounded. When an awards formation was held shortly afterward, only half of the survivors could stand up to get their medals.

lang_vei_survivors_decorations

ashley_moh_presentationOne posthumous medal was presented in Washington: here VP Spiro Agnew presents the award to Eugene Ashley’s widow and uncomprehending son.

 

Rich Allen, who was single, had traded places with Ashley before a fifth and final assault of their small element at the Old Camp to try to relieve the besieged new camp. Because Gene had a wife and son, Rich asked to take the more exposed front position. He was reloading his BAR — the camp had a lot of BARs — when he heard a burst go past him and mortally wound his friend.

Allen would be the only man who survived without a wound.

The Vietnamese VNSF and Montagnard CIDG strike force suffered similar casualty percentages. 209 of the Yards would be missing or killed, about 70 wounded went out with the Americans from the Old Camp, and 160 more escaped overland to the Marine base at Khe Sanh — where the Marines treated them as POWs. A SOG element at Khe Sanh was able to get them sprung and evacuated to Nha Trang.

The Marine commander at Khe Sanh, Col. David Lownds, had been lying when he’d told General Westmoreland he would reinforce Khe Sanh if it were attacked. He never had any intention of risking his men on a night movement on a road on which the NVA would certainly have prepared ambushes. He did, however, authorize his transport helicopters to pick up survivors, which the Marine crews did (amid enemy fire).

The official Army history of Special Forces in Vietnam doesn’t mention the 1968 Lang Vei battle, and dismisses the 1967 fight at the Old Camp that ultimately forced the camp to relocate, with a very few lines, and an ominous foreshadowing of the tank menace:

In I Corps on 4 May 1967 at 0330 Camp Lang Vei, Detachment A-101, Quang Tri Province, was attacked by a company-size force supported by mortars and tanks. About one platoon of Viet Cong gained entry into the camp. With the assistance of fire support from Khe Sanh, enemy elements were repelled from the camp at 0500. Two Special Forces men were killed and five wounded; seventeen civilian irregulars were killed, thirty-five wounded, and thirty-eight missing. Enemy losses were seven killed and five wounded. 3

And referring to NVA armament, to wit, tanks…

…major changes in enemy armament occurred. Introduced in quantity were tube artillery, large rockets, large mortars, modern small arms of the AK47 type, antiaircraft artillery up to 37-mm., and heavy machine guns. Tanks were employed on one occasion against the CIDG camp at Lang Vei, and others were sighted in Laos and Cambodia near the border and in South Vietnam. In central and southern South Vietnam, North Vietnamese Army replacements were used to bolster main force Viet Cong units that had lost many men.

The enemy launched his Tet offensive on 29 January 1968. This was followed by a massive buildup at Khe Sanh and the armor-supported attack that overran the camp at Lang Vei in I Corps. Pressure on CIDG camps, except for the attack on Lang Vei, was unusually light during the entire Tet offensive and for approximately sixty days thereafter.4

The tank menace had been well reported by the border camps and by the secret cross-border penetration patrols of MAC-V SOG. A Mike Force patrol had found a recently-used tank park near Lang Vei shortly before the attack. But intelligence officers dismissed the eyewitness (and in the case of some of the border camps, ear-witness) reporting, as implausible. The data conflicted with the theory, and they threw out the data.

We suppose that’s why we have intelligence officers.

In the months and the years that followed the hilltop fight, the Army made many half-hearted attempts to understand why and how the LAWs had failed. The testimony that they did fail is clear: they failed to fire, squibbed, hit the PT-76s and bounced off, hit and didn’t penetrate. And the weakest tank in the enemy inventory, a tank with a bare 15mm or so of armor, rolled over the defenses with near impunity. But most of the investigations were aimed at proving “that couldn’t have happened,” and shoring up the reputation of the M72 which had performed well in tests and poorly in combat.

The most plausible explanation is that long-term storage, careless handling while in storage (in the Army, the hard left of the bell curve goes into ammo handling), environmental problems, or the shock of parachute delivery had somehow affected the functioning of the rockets. The Lang Vei survivors reported so many diverse problems with the weapons that engineers were at a loss to duplicate the failures or even come up with an Ishikawa diagram or failure tree that plausibly explained them.

Other than the ineffective LAWs, the anti-tank weapons the defenders had included obsolete 57mm and obsolescent 106mm recoilless rifles, lightweight cannon that used the discharge of a countermass (in the case of these ones, gases through a de Laval venturi) to “punch above their weight.” The guns had been scrounged by team members and there was very little ammo for the 106s — perhaps as few as ten rounds. The recoillesses were positioned, necessarily, in fixed positions that were located before the attack and attacked. The Montagnard crews were killed or wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Schungel tried to get one of the 106 RCLs into action during the fight; another was crewed by James W. Holt, an Arkansas soldier who went missing that night while seeking more 106 ammo or LAWs (his remains were recovered in 1989, and identified only in 2015, thanks to advances in DNA technology). Holt managed to kill three PT-76s, according to a DOD POW-MIA narrative of the fight stored in the Combined Action Combat Casualty File for Lang Vei reliever (and later DNH in an air crash) Major George Quamo of MAC-V SOG.

Shortly after midnight on February 7, 1968, a combined NVA infantry-tank
assault drove into Lang Vei. Two PT-76 tanks threatened the outer
perimeter of the camp as infantry rushed behind them. SFC James W. Holt
destroyed both tanks with shots from his 106mm recoilless rifle. More
tanks came around the burning hulks of the first two tanks and began to
roll over the 104th CIDG Company's defensive positions. SSgt. Peter
Tiroch, the assistant intelligence sergeant, ran over to Holt's position
and helped load the weapon. Holt quickly lined up a third tank in his
sights and destroyed it with a direct hit. After a second shot at the
tank, Holt and Tiroch left the weapons pit just before it was demolished
by return cannon fire. Tiroch watched Holt run over to the ammunition
bunker to look for some hand-held Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs). It was
the last time Holt was ever seen.

But the same narrative shows that apart from the 106, the other defensive means were ineffective.

LtCol. Schungel, 1Lt. Longgrear, SSgt. Arthur Brooks, Sgt. Nikolas
Fragos, SP4 William G. McMurry, Jr., and LLDB Lt. Quy desperately tried
to stop the tanks with LAWs and grenades. They even climbed on the
plated engine decks, trying to pry open hatches to blast out the crews.
NVA infantrymen followed the vehicles closely, dusting their sides with
automatic rifle fire. One tank was stopped by five direct hits, and the
crew killed as they tried to abandon the vehicle. 1Lt. Miles R. Wilkins,
the detachment executive officer, left the mortar pit with several LAWs
and fought a running engagement with one tank beside the team house
without much success.

.... NVA sappers armed with
satchel charges, tear gas grenades and flamethrowers fought through the
101st, 102nd and 103rd CIDG perimeter trenches and captured both ends of
the compound by 2:30 a.m. Spearheaded by tanks, they stormed the inner
compound. LtCol. Schungel and his tank-killer personnel moved back to
the command bunker for more LAWs. They were pinned behind a row of dirt
and rock filled drums by a tank that had just destroyed one of the
mortar pits. A LAW was fired against the tank with no effect. The cannon
swung around and blasted the barrels in front of the bunker entrance.
The explosion temporarily blinded McMurry and mangled his hands, pitched
a heavy drum on top of Lt. Wilkins and knocked Schungel flat. Lt. Quy
managed to escape to another section of the camp, but the approach of
yet another tank prevented Schungel and Wilkins from following. At some
point during this period, McMurry, a radioman, disappeared.

The tank, which was shooting at the camp observation post, was destroyed
with a LAW.

That’s the only reference to a LAW having an effect on a tank.

Team Sfc. William T. Craig and SSgt. Tiroch had chased tanks throughout
the night with everything from M-79 grenade launchers to a .50 caliber
machine gun. After it had become apparent that the camp had been
overrun, they escaped outside the wire and took temporary refuge in a
creek bed. After daylight, they saw Ashley's counterattack force and
joined him.

And there you have it.

Signals intelligence showed that the Lang Vei defenders weren’t making it up — the attackers, too, made note of the rockets’ poor performance in their after-action reporting.

(In an interesting aside, the degree of enemy success at Lang Vei was due in part to infiltration, not unlike the insider threat our guys have faced in Afghanistan:

Subsequent intelligence and prisoner of war interrogations indicated that the attackers were aided from inside the camp by Viet Cong who had infiltrated the CIDG units, posing as recruits. One prisoner of war said that he had been contacted by the Viet Cong before the attack and directed to join the CIDG at Lang Vei in order to obtain information on the camp. After joining the CIDG, the man recruited four other civilian irregulars to assist him. One man was to determine the locations of all bunkers within the camp, the second was to report on all the guard positions and how well the posts were manned, the third was to make a sketch of the camp, and the fourth was to report on supplies brought into the camp from Khe Sanh. The Viet Cong had contacted the prisoner who was under questioning on four occasions before the 4 May attack to get the information. On the night of the attack, the prisoner of war and another CIDG man killed two of the camp guards and led the Viet Cong force through the wire and minefield defenses into the camp’s perimeter. This technique of prior infiltration was a Viet Cong tactic common to almost every attack on a camp.5

Nothing to do with LAWs or tank fighting, but … interesting).

And there the situation stood. The Army continued to buy LAWs in the hundreds of thousands, and sponsored dozens of improvements great and small. The Soviets would even make a conceptual copy, after their proxies encountered the weapon in Vietnam (where no one was impressed by it) and Angola (where it proved a surprisingly useful antipersonnel weapon, although less so than the RPG-7). The first Soviet version was the RPG-18 and it was closer to the original M72 than to the current version at the time it was introduced, the M72A2.

The LAW would later be replaced in the United States by the combination of the extremely effective Javelin fire-and-forget ATGM, and much-improved LAWs, which continued to be produced as a multipurpose light weapon after most development and production was transferred to Norwegian licensee NAMMO. The LAW is now at M72A7 and counting, but its reputation hasn’t recovered much, and SF teams have preferred to kill enemy armor long before it gets within LAW range — which new weapons like the Javelin and AT-4 make possible. When in 2003 a small Special Forces team (from the same SF Group as was engaged in Vietnam, 5th SFG(A), as it happens) found itself attacked by an Iraqi armored and mechanized force, the Green Berets destroyed so many Iraqi tanks and APCs that what had started as a ferocious attack turned into a headlong rout.

The Special Forces guys used the Javelins. The Iraqis, who fought bravely if futilely, didn’t get the chance to get within LAW range.

But to this day, nobody really trusts the LAW, even though today’s M72A7 is far more effective than its 1968 version. Why not? Lang Vei, where men who trusted the LAW were killed and captured, and the post was lost.

Notes

  1. The offensive began on the Asian lunar New Year, known as Tet in Vietnamese; the Americans had been expecting the NVA to violate the traditional holiday truce — that is, after all, what Communists do — but were taken aback by the scale and fury of the offensive, which was led in many urban locations by local Viet Cong. The offensive was a failure for the NVA — their VC guerrillas were finished as a fighting force for  the rest of the war — but was reported in the US as an NVA victory, based largely on the Saigon hotel bar rumor reporting that characterized the “new breed” of war correspondents.
  2. Errors are too many to list here, but one of the most grievous is using random tubular mock-ups in place of LAWs. They also include the statement that the NVA/VC took the US Embassy during Tet, whereas none even got inside the chancery building (between the Marine guards and responding MPs, the NVA sappers that got inside the wall of the compound were all expeditiously slain); the use of later M16A2 rifles in some scenes; the lack of description of what became of the CIDG that surrendered (they were murdered); the use of wrong vehicles such as late-1980s CUCV trucks and 1970s-vintage Dodge M880s. It appears to be based largely on Phillips’s The Night of the Silver Stars, which seems to have been written in part to rehabilitate the reputation of certain Marine officers at Khe Sanh, who did not cover themselves in glory that night
  3. Kelly, Francis J. “Splash”. Vietnam Studies: US Army Special Forces, 1961-1971, p. 110
  4. Kelly, Francis J., pp. 126-127
  5. Kelly, Francis J., p. 110

Sources

Cash, John A.. Battle of Lang Vei. Chapter from: Cash, John A., Albright, John, and Sandstrum, Allen. Seven Firefights in Vietnam . Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, US Army, 1985. Retrieved from: http://www.history.army.mil/books/vietnam/7-ff/Ch6.htm

Jones, Gregg. Last Stand at Khe Sanh. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2014.

Kelly, Francis J. “Splash”. Vietnam Studies: US Army Special Forces, 1961-1971. Washington: Department of the Army, 1972. Available at: http://www.history.army.mil/books/Vietnam/90-23/90-23C.htm

Phillips, William R. Night of the Silver Stars: The Battle of Lang Vei. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Stanton, Shelby L. Special Forces at War: An Illustrated History, Southeast Asia 1957-1975. Charlotesville: Howell Press, 1990.

The Tanks of 1918

We’ve introduced before the American involvement in armored warfare in the last months of World War I. At the time we promised you a report on the battles, and a description of the hardware involved. This is the hardware post.

While American manufacturers, notably including Ford Motor Company, quickly pledged to build tanks, their industrial production had no material affect on the war; but a time tanks were coming off American production lines, the war was over. And the first American tanks were, or were intended to be, built on foreign patterns.

Renault FT17. This one is preserved at a Polish military museum, part of the global FT17 diaspora; this tanks was probably used in the Russo-Polish War.

Renault FT17. This one is preserved at a Polish military museum, part of the global FT17 diaspora; this tank was a gift from Afghanistan to Poland for Polish support. The tank may have been used in the Russo-Polish War and captured by the Soviets, then given to Afghanistan; or it could just be a tank the Kingdom of Afghanistanw bought on the world market in the 1920s or 30s. It is the 37mm, 20-caliber variant. The US Army also used these tanks, and built a copy under license.

This was because America was fresh in the war, and largely unprepared; apart from our tiny professional military caste, most Americans hadn’t even been following it very closely. There was a vague understanding of things called “tanks,” but no grasp of their design details, let alone how to build them.

That should’ve been slightly embarrassing, because the concept of the tank came from arming and armoring the American-designed Holt tractor in the first place.

With no tanks in production, the US certainly had no tank tactics or operational art, and it set out  to learn from the experienced nations that would provide the tanks: Great Britain and the Republic of France.

After over three years of war, the British and French were eager to share what they’d learned. You might think that they’d be reluctant to give up any share of their tank production to the war’s newcomer, but their problem was a mirror image of the Americans’: the Yanks had volunteers but no experience, training, or tanks, and the European Allies had too much experience, production lines producing more tanks than they could use, and a shortage of manpower after years of blind, wasteful attrition on the Western Front. Indeed, the French and especially the English hoped that the Americans would just provide them with warm bodies, to be expended as replacements in their own bled-out regiments, under the leadership of the same guys responsible for bleeding the regiments out. The US commander, General John Pershing, forcefully declined this offer every time it was made.

The Americans would fight in their own units, under their own leaders. Decision made.

Despite that one disagreement, coalition warfare went remarkably well. American tank units — once trained — worked with British Commonwealth and French units, and even incorporated, at one point, a French tank company in their task organization. At one point, this produced a moment of combat laughter when an American unit sent their valiant French interpreter to stop and redirect a supporting French tank — only to have the turret hatches clank open, and an American TC pop out — “What the hell do you want?”

This FT17 is on display in Compiègne, France. The card-suit markings were used by French and American tank units in WWI.

This FT17 is on display in Compiègne, France. The card-suit markings were used by French and American tank units in WWI. The high-contrast camouflage was intended to break up the tank’s outline, especially versus aerial reconnaissance. The TC’s ingress and egress was through the double-door hatch in the back of the turret. Most photos in this post expand with a click.

Light Tanks from France

The confusion was obvious, because the American tankers were in a French Renault FT, the light tank America adopted from France. Attempts to build this simple, light (about 7 metric tons) two-man tank in the USA bore no immediate fruit. Ford first redrew every Renault drawing and redimensioned them in Imperial units, with the predictable result that none of the Ford parts fit the Renaults, and vice versa. Even the tracks didn’t match: the French tracks were 13″ wide, and the US copy 13 3/8″. The US-designed and built Mk VIII Liberty tank was in the style of the larger British tanks, but powered by the US Liberty engine (the engine was one of the few success stories in American war production in WWI, but the tank wasn’t). In any event, mere token numbers of the American tanks got to the American Expeditionary Force by the Armistice. The hundreds of tanks actually used were all made in France.

The other side of the Compiègne tank. Note the 8mm Hotchkiss armament.

The other side of the Compiègne tank. Note the 8mm Hotchkiss armament.

The Renault FT light tank was a product of French doctrine, which emphasized small, maneuverable tanks that could act as mobile pillboxes for the infantry in the advance. France produced a couple thousand of the FT, which came in a single 8mm Hotchkiss MG version, or in a stubby 37mm L/20 cannon version (the gun barrel was only 720 mm, about 28″, long — shorter than a lot of duck guns). The USA used both versions, organized into Light Tank Companies and Light Tank Battalions, on the Western Front.

This FT was delivered to Switzerland for tests in 1921, in hopes of a sale. It is preserved today in Thun.

This FT was delivered to Switzerland for tests in 1921, in hopes of a sale. It is preserved today in Thun.

All these pictures make the size of the FT unclear — it looks pretty big. Actually, its nearest analogy might be a 1960s VW Beetle, although it’s taller. It would fit in the average garage. This maintenance photo, from tank expert Steven Zaloga’s photobucket, gives you a better idea of the sheer size, or lack of it, of the FT:

French FT17

In Wilson, this image is identified as American crewmen receiving training on the FT17 at the 311th Tank Center at Bourg, France. The men are wearing American uniforms.

This period French manual illustration doesn’t help as the poilus inside are drawn rather small. It does show the layout of the tank, though. The FT is laid out much like WWII and modern tanks — armament in a turret, engine in the back:

Renault_FT_17_sketch

There were quite a few variations of the FT17. For example, the British tank museum at Bovington preserves a prototype with a one-piece cast turret; versions exist with spoked steel idler wheels (the big wheels up front) and with built-up wooden idlers.

Cast armor was unusual in World War I. Most tanks were protected by face-hardened armor, which is obvious when you see the shattered plates of a destroyed one.

Frenh Heavy Tank. Fix this caption.

St. Chaumond Heavy Tank. The “prow” was for negotiating trenches, the main gun a French 75, the secondary armament 8mm Hotchkisses, fired by crouching soldiers who couldn’t stand up or sit down in the cramped tank.

France had made heavy tanks too, the Schneider and the St. Chaumond. In fact, France had been developing tanks for about as long as Britain had, but seems to get short shrift in English-language sources. In any event, the large French tanks were little loved by the French, and were rejected by the Yanks:

Neither vehicle could be truly classified as a tank. Instead, they were nothing more than armored artillery carriers requiring infantry skirmishers to lead them into battle, carefully marking the routes that should follow. Underpowered and lightly armored, they did poorly traveling cross-country, and their crews suffered badly if they received direct hits from artillery fire.1

The French, by late 1917, had put their faith in the light tank; while they still operated the clumsy behemoths, their production was heavily weighted to the small FT, optimized for accompanying infantry in the assault.

The Americans turned instead to Britain for heavy tanks.

Heavy Tanks from Great Britain

Britain had a completely different concept of tank warfare than France – attempts to reconcile these differences had been unsuccessful, with each nation going its own way – and their vision was of the tank going out ahead of the infantry to make a breakthrough, which infantry would then exploit. Each British tank, then, was a sort of a landship, capable of fighting independently or in conjunction with other tanks. They normally employed a team with a cannon-and-MG-armed “male” tank “married up” with an MG-only “female.” (A tank that bore both cannon and MGs? “Hermaphrodite.” Heh.) As you might expect these landships were large and well-armored and armed for the day.

bovingtons_surviving_mark_v

A rare operating survivor: Bovington’s Mark V.

British tank models were logically, if unimaginatively, numbered in sequence from the pioneering Mark I of 1915, and the two models the Americans acquired were the Mark V and the Mark V*, which Americans usually referred to in speech and even in writing as the Mark V Star. Readers familiar with British small arms of the period will recognize the * as a marker of a modification, but the Mark V* was quite a bit different from the ones which had no stars upon thars. (Apologies to Dr. Seuss. Couldn’t resist). It was longer, heavier, and improved in many small ways.

The Mark V is what you think of when you envision the classic, lozenge-shaped tank of World War I. Relatively few of these tanks survive; most of the survivors are in Ukraine, Russia or the other former Republics of the Soviet Union, and are remnants of UK/US intervention at Archangelsk, and Western support to the White Armies in the Russian Civil War. The Soviets preserved this history to a greater extent than the Americans or Britons did. For example, two Mark Vs were preserved in Luchansk, Ukraine. They were in bad shape, with battle damage, rust, e…generations of looting, more rust, and…

Surviving_Mark_V_2

…covered in grafitti (whoever Artyom is, he’s an asshat), but the tanks were removed and restored:

Restoration in Progress Mark V

…and replaced. (In he picture below, one of the restored tanks is in place, the restoration of the park is yet to get started).

Restored Lugansk TAnk

One fascinating find during the restoration: a rifle cartridge case. But it doesn’t look like a Russian 7.62 x 54R to us; it looks like a rimless case. Could this tank have belonged to the American contingent at one time? The case looks too short to be a .30-06. The button appears to be a British Army one, too. A mystery!

Mark V artifacts Lugansk

Another fascinating find: what appears to be one of the same tanks during the Civil War, captured by the White-aligned “Don Army” of rebellious Cossacks:

Mark_V_tank_of_the_Don_army_1919

Lugansk/Luhansk is in disputed territory in the Ukraine and was seized by Russian troops and Russian-controlled militia in 2014. It has been the scene of much fighting, and it’s unclear whether the monument tanks have survived. It’s the least of the many pities of that civil war, one supposes, but a pity nonetheless.

Returning to our American tankers of a century ago: as nearly as possible, American tankers tried to keep the Mark Vs and the different V*s sorted by assigning them to different Heavy Tank Companies, which were assigned to Heavy Tank Battalions.

All tanks of the period were very unreliable; for every one killed by enemy countermeasures (artillery, mines, and the Anti-Tank Rifle) literally dozens broke down or got bogged down. An important part of tank planning was the establishment of engineering organizations to recover, repair, and return to the combat force those abandoned tanks.

This artwork, The Tanks at Seicheprey by Harvey Thomas Dunn, is in the US Army collection. Dunn observed the attack depicted in this impressionistic illustration, the first day of the St. Mihiel offensive.

seicheprey-i

It’s reminiscent of this famous photo, which is often displayed divorced from the information about it. But this is actually a photo of an American tank in combat in the Great War — a very rare thing.

us_ft-17_in_combat

This photo was taken at Seicheprey. Compare the tank’s attitude to the background tank in Dunn’s illustration. But we know the unit, the 326/344th Light Tank Battalion2, and the driver, Corporal George Heesch.

All of the world’s tank types have their ancestry in these flimsy, brittle, unreliable machines.

Surviving WWI Tanks

Some tanks were produced in very low numbers, like the German A7V. Others were mass produced — there are images of production lines for the British tanks. All in all, thousands of tanks were produced, including nearly 2,000 Renault FTs and probably another 1,000 to 1,500, maybe more, of all other types combines. Yet, only a dozen or two tanks survived, not the war, but the century between then and now. 

We know of two lists of surviving Great War tanks: Dave Maynard’s which comes up as disabled due to nonpayment, and an illustrated list found on sub-pages of the Surviving Panzers page: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_Panzers.html

That includes ….

…this list of non-FT-17 type WWI tanks surviving, including reproductions: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_WW1_Tanks.pdf

…this list of FT-17s: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_FT-17.pdf

…this list of US M1917 Six Ton Tanks: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_6ton_M1917.pdf

Notes

  1. Wilson, Dale E. Treat ‘Em Rough: The Birth of American Armor, 1917-20. p. 9.
  2. Wilson, pp. 116-117, note 53, explains that Patton’s battalions were renumbered by HQ on the eve of the St. Mihiel offensive. At the time this photo was taken, in September 1918, the unit was already the 344th but the old 326th was still the name everyone was using.

How the M203 Got its Sights

In the beginning, as a super-duper flechette-launching grenade-launcher infantry weapon project (the Special Purpose Infantry Weapon, SPIW) collapsed, what survived was a small grenade launcher modeled on an H&R Topper single-shot shotgun with a thyroid problem. This was the M79 bloop gun so fondly remembered by Vietnam vets. The M79 was introduced in 1961 as an infantry weapon, to restore the grenade-launcher capability lost when the M14 rifle replaced M1 rifles and carbines, which could take a grenade launcher attachment. (Grenade launcher development has always lagged rifle development in the US. Early in World War II, Springfield rifles were kept in the rifle squad for grenadiers, because there was no grenade-launcher attachment for the M1 yet, five or six years after its formal adoption).

m79_grenade_launcherThe M79 became one of the signature weapons of the Vietnam War, and a skilled bloop gunner was a valued member of a combat unit. In dismounted infantry combat the M79 had some advantages and disadvantages versus the enemy counterpart, the B-40, which was the Vietnamese licensed copy of the Soviet RPG-2 antitank weapon employed as an anti-personnel weapon. The 40mm grenade warheads were superior antipersonnel rounds, being designed as antipersonnel or dual-purpose rounds (the Soviets would later bow to the widespread use of their squad AT weapon as an antipersonnel force multiplier by just about everyone who ever used it, and make fragmentation, thermobaric and other anti-personnel  rounds for the follow-on RPG-7V, but not in time to do the PAVN and VC any good). The M79 was highly effective against troops in the open, highly accurate with training and experience, and the light, compact rounds meant that the GI could carry a lot of them. It was useless against armor, but that was immaterial to the Americans in the first years of the Vietnam War (the NVA made tank attacks, finally, in 1968).

m79-3

The grenade launcher capability was much desired, as a Human Engineering Laboratory survey of Marine combat infantry man in 1967 demonstrated. Well only a few percent of them reported carrying the M 79 as their primary weapon, several commented that they wanted more M 79’s, more and 79 rounds, and a white phosphorus round for the M791.

The problem of the thing was in its very nature. Doctrinally, the grenadier’s primary weapon was the grenade launcher, and so to carry the launcher and the rounds left him with no close-in defense weapon except an M1911A1 pistol. The answer seemed logical: make a snap-on or bolt-on launcher as an accessory for the service rifle, the M16A1.

This was tried as early as 1964, when three prototypes were tested. The best of the pack seemed to be Colt’s slide-the-barrel-to-load launcher, which was developed by Colt’s Karl Lewis in a remarkable 57 days from concept to test-fire. It was combat tested in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 as the XM148. This picture shows the XM 148 without its extended trigger.

XM148_Grenade_LauncherAs part of that test, 5th Special Forces Group received a handful of the weapons sometime in the quarter ending on 31 January 67, and had these comments:

This item was designed to be mounted under the front hand guard of the M-16 rifle. It has an extension bar attached to the right side of the weapon to bring the launcher trigger near the trigger of the rifle. 5th SFGA is presently evaluating five XM-148’s. Two are located with Project Delta, two with Project Omega and one in IV CTZ. Results to date are excellent.2

Delta and Omega were reconnaissance projects.

In testing of the XM148, it turned out to have its own set of problems vis-a-vis the familiar M79. The Army Concept Team in Vietnam reviewed the XM148 and concluded “It did not meet Army requirements in Vietnam.”

The Army went back to the drawing board. Not one, but three launchers were developed to meet this need. An unknown firm developed a pivoting barrel grenade launcher, about which we’d like to know more.

AAI (formerly Aircraft Armaments Incorporated) developed what the Army called a pump-action grenade launcher, the XM203, by 1968. It was very similar to the version that was finally adopted in 1971, with some minor improvements.

M16a2m203_afmil

M203 on a later M16A2, nearly identical to the initial M16A1 hosted XM203.

AAI also developed a futuristic launcher on a principle called the Disposable Barrel Cartridge Area Target Ammunition principle. Lacking any official nomenclature or pet name, this beast was called the DBCATA, an acronym nearly as awkward as the full name. This 40mm grenade was a case that itself formed a throwaway barrel, and was an survivor of the years of engineering overreach called the SPIW project. (The projectile was exactly the same as the M406 used in the M79, except that the rotating band was pre-cut to interface with the rifling).

DBCATA cutaway

Its Achilles Heel turned out to be that ordinary 40mm rounds could be fired in the smoothbore, unchambered barrel — not just the standard low-pressure 40mm M79/XM148/XM203 rounds, but also the high-pressure rounds used in helicopter armament and the Mk19 crew-served grenade launcher, then being developed for the Navy’s riverine force. A high-pressure round in a low-pressure launcher turned the apparatus from a grenade launcher to an instantaneous grenade.

The comparison test concluded that the XM203 was the best of the bunch, but needed two improvements and a combat test in Vietnam to confirm the Proving Ground tests. The report of the comparison test of the three contenders is full of interesting insights. For example, for all launchers, the TOONK of firing the 40 mm round came with enough recoil to bounce an M16 or XM177 bolt back out of battery. Next time Joe went to fire his rifle, he might get a click and no bang. In the end, there wasn’t really a technological solution for this, and it was managed with training.

Here’s a training video on the then-new M203… in 1971.

When the final M203 was issued, it incorporated a number of improvements from the GLAD tests, including a folding battle sight atop the M203 handguard — the only part of the break-action launcher they’d liked — and a more robust peep sight called the “quadrant sight.”

“The system,” so often derided by the field soldier, had worked as advertised, getting him an improved weapon (which remains in service to this day). Although it was developed by AAI, the production contract went (initially, and for many years) to Colt.

An ACTIV evaluation of the M203, with 500 samples, found that it was suitable for service in Vietnam. It served for many years thereafter, and is only gradually being replaced by the H&K M320. But the ACTIV evaluation, which recommended standardizing the XM203 as the M203, reached an interesting conclusion:

The battlesight and quadrant sight are useful during training, but they are not needed once the firer becomes proficient in the pointing technique.3

They further recommended deleting the removable quadrant sight.

But by then, the M203 was in full production, and units in Vietnam were clamoring for them. The quadrant sights were never deleted, and ACTIV’s conclusion is still just right: it’s very helpful to a gunner learning to system, or getting back in the groove after some time off. But once he has his 203 knack back, it’s superfluous.

Notes

  1. Tech Note 1-67.
  2. 5th SFGA quarterly report.
    The report also notes two other new arrivals in the world of small arms, including:Submachine Gun, 5.56 mm, CAR-15. This weapon is similar to the XM-16 rifle, however, it has a shorter barrel and hand guard, a telescoping butt stock, and different type of flash suppressor. It weighs 5.6 lbs., is 28 inches long with stock closed, and has a cyclic rate of fire of 750-900 rounds per minute. 5th SFGA,will evaluate 100 CAR-15’s. They will be located in each CTZ.
  3. Reid, Final Report.

Sources

HEL Staff. Tech Note 1-67: Small Arms use in Viet Nam: M14 Rifle and .45 Caliber Pistol. Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD: US Army Human Engineering Laboratories, January 1967. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=AD0649517

Keele, Eric, and Hendricks, George. Final Report on Engineer Design Test of Grenade Launcher Attachments for M16A1 Rifle (GLAD) (U). Aberdeen, Maryland, 1968: US Army Aberdeen Proving Ground. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/393211.pdf

Reid, John E. Final Report: XM203 40mm Grenade Launcher Attachment Development: ACTIV Project No. ACG-14/691. Army Concept Team In Vietnam, September 1969. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=AD0860601

Uncredited. 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces. Quarterly Report for Period Ending 31 January 1967.

 

Bonus

Click “more” to see the comments combat Marines made on the 1967 Human Engineering Laboratory survey about the M79. (A lot of them apply to any grenade launcher).

Continue reading

Patton’s Lessons Learned for Tank Warfare, WWI

"Treat'em_Rough^_Join_The_Tanks._United_States_Tank_Corps.",_ca._1917_-_ca._1919_-_NARA_-_512447We’ve been reading Treat ’em Rough: The Birth of American Armor 1917-20 by Dale Wilson. It is the single book-length treatment of the US Army Tank Corps in World War I, and it filled its void so well — there was no such book before it — that it seems to have derailed future scholorship — there has been no such book since, although there has been an overview by Robert Cameron for the US Army Center for Military History: Mobility, Shock, and Firepower: The emergence of The U.S. Army’s Armor BrAnch, 1917– 1945. Cameron’s book is rather dependent on Wilson for its WWI details, and is available for free in .pdf format from the Army CMH web. If you’re interested in WWI armor, though, the Wilson book is the gold standard,

We’ve been surprised to learn how quickly the US established an effective tank arm, as we’ve been familiar with the terrible teething problems of US Army and Navy aviation in the Great War.

The term, “Treat ’em Rough,” was the recruiting slogan of the tank corps, which was characterized also by a mascot — a furious black tomcat, hair up and claws out. Wilson’s Treat ’em Rough uses the most colorful of these posters as its cover.

Join the Black Toms - They Treat 'em Rough Recruiting Poster by W.F. HoffmanThe tankers were plagued by many of the same problems as the aviators — American manufacturers who over-promised and under-delivered, and the resulting need to use foreign equipment — but they resolved them with grit and imagination. Many of the WWI tank officers would be important men in WWII, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton Jr.

By war’s end, Patton had developed a series of lessons learned. Many of these still apply today; others resulted from the novelty and relative unreliability of Great War Tanks.

Here are Patton’s perceptions (from Wilson, pp.208-09).

  • Senior officers, in their demands on the tanks, did not seem to realize their limitations and especially the fact the tanks must have infantry operating with them, if they are to be successfully employed.
  • A lack of liaison between tanks and the infantry severely handicapped the tanks during operations.
  • The infantry used the tanks as a crutch, expecting them to overcome enemy resistance and consolidate objectives after successful attacks.
  • Tanks, because of their mechanical weaknesses, should not be squandered in a reconnaissance role.
  • The distance between attack positions and lines of departure should be reduced in order to cut losses due to mechanical failure.
  • There is no substitute for physical ground reconnaissance by key leaders.
  • Measures such as smoke screens and dedicated artillery units for counterbattery fire should be employed to reduce the effectiveness of enemy artillery against tanks.
  • Tanks clearly demonstrated their value as an offensive weapon and as a separate combat arm.
  • Changes in tactics, especially with regard to better use of tanks in mass and depth, or needed.1

See what we mean about reliability? Patton clearly had been badly burned, and after action reports show that most tanks broke down in most operations.

Here's the Black Tom (in campaign hat!) perched on a Mk. V. These lozenge-shaped tanks are also visible in the other posters.

Here’s the Black Tom (in campaign hat!) perched on a Mk. V. These lozenge-shaped tanks are also visible in the other posters.

The Army got the best and most reliable tanks their allies made (the Renault FT light tank and the British Mk V and Mk V* (“Mark Five Star”) heavy tanks). It’s just that, in 1918, the best wasn’t all that good.

We’ll have more to say about these tanks in a future post, we hope, but the FT had a swiveling turret with a short 37mm gun or a Hotchkiss machine gun.It had a crew of two. The lozenge-shaped Mk V, the classic WWI tank, had a crew of eight or nine and was armed with machine guns and, in some versions, cannons, in hull-side sponsons. Both had a top speed of about 5 mph, a good match for a walking doughboy.

British and French tank concepts were entirely different, with the
French using light tanks to accompany and support infantry, and the British heavy tanks to force breakthroughs for exploitation by infantry. American doctrine hastily synthesized both nations’ approaches and then went into stasis for most of the period in between the wars, while British, French and Soviet tankers shook down new operational concepts.

The Germans countered the Allied tanks with anti-tank rifles, armor-piercing ammunition for their thousands of machine guns, and, most effectively, with direct-fire and indirect-fire artillery under the control of forward observers with their eyes on the tanks. But for every tank destroyed by enemy action, several fell to overheating, clutch failure, thrown tracks, or other breakdowns. One major weakness of the Mark V and Mark V Star was the fan belt, failure of which would quickly down the tank. The Americans carried spare fan belts in a designated maintenance tank, an idea that simply hadn’t occurred to their British mentors (but which the British wasted no time adopting).

Still, a hit from an artillery shell usually meant curtains for a tank, like this FT. WWI tanks had thin face-hardened armor, which shattered under artillery assault, as seen here.

renault_ft_killed_1918A number of the tank crewmen were recognized for acts of desperate valor, including two NCOs who received the Medal of Honor (one posthumously), and many officers and NCOs decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross.

Some tankers also received British decorations, especially after American tank battalions (and other American units) were attached to Sir John Monash’s Australians for a late-September 1918 offensive.

After the war, aviation managed to survive as a separate branch or corps, but tanks didn’t. They were subsumed under the authority of the Infantry branch, and neglected until the clouds of World War II made the Army start to improve its tanks, finally, in both mechanical and doctrinal ays. (They had used long-obsolete Ford Six Ton Tanks, a “copy” of the FT that managed to have zero interchangeable parts, well into the 1930s). Talented officers such as Patton and Eisenhower saw the writing on the wall, and rebranched to the branch of service that the Army brass of 1920 considered to have a future.

The horse cavalry.

That’s the Army for you.

Corrections

Several typos in the initial post have been corrected. WeaponsMan.com regrets the errors. Thanks to the reader who brought them to our attention.

Notes

  1. Wilson extracted this information from pages 9-10 of Patton’s Operations of the 304th Brigade, Tank Corps, from September 26th to October 15, 1918, from the Patton chronological files, to which he had access.

Rhodesian Mine Ambush Protected Vehicles 1975-80

We’ve mentioned before that long before the US decided it needed vehicles that could survive mines (or, technically, whose crews could survive mines — one mine FOOM and anything that came on its own wheels is leaving on something else’s). the Rhodesian Army invented, developed, and mastered the concept, on a shoestring budget.

The vehicles were called Mine Ambush Protected or MAPs, and a confusing variety were improvised and made in unit workshops and national steel-working firms from about 1972 to the end of the war.

These vehicles might be entirely lost to history, if not for two things: the cruelty & corruption of the Mugabe regime which produced a global Rhodesian diaspora; and the obsessive-compulsive tendencies of combat-vehicle modelers, who pursue the most minute details with a singlemindedness that Javert himself could only envy.

Between the proud Rhodies, wherever they may fetch up these days, and the fiddly autism-spectrum anoraks who seem to breathe a heady mixture of detail and toluene, plenty of information about Rhodesian vehicles is at hand (and more is emerging regularly).

The best place to begin is wargamer John Wynne Hopkins’s page. He has done an intensive study of these vehicles.

The Problem

This photo illustrates the problem:

Mercedes 4.5 under tow

The slick-sided Mercedes 4.5 ton truck hit a land mine enroute out, and is being towed back to base. Hopkins (from whom we light-fingered the photo) explains that this is a convoy of 5 Independent Company, Rhodesian African Rifles, enroute back from a trip in support of the elections for the brief (and internationally unrecognized) compromise Zimbabwe-Rhodesia government in January 1979. Their efforts were futile: American President Jimmy Carter and British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington had agreed to support only “one man, one vote, one time” elections as demanded by the nominally Communist kleptocrats who led the two guerrilla movements.

5 Indep Coy RAR convoy forms up at Derowa Mine for ‘Muzorewa’ elections Jan 1979. … Unfortunately, one of these pookies [mine countermeasures vehicle — Ed.] could not be spared on the journey out, with the result that the 45 seen being towed hit a mine (2nd in the convoy), as did a mobile surgical unit second from back. No casualties, thank goodness, although the driver of the 45 was severely shaken – the anti-mine armour had only been fitted the day before to an almost new vehicle.

Of course the driver was shaken! The mine went off right in front of him (vehicles in Rhodesia were right-hand drive).

Anti-mine armor on vehicle chassis or floorboards was an interim step; the definitive Rhodesian vehicles were full MAPs, but there were never enough to eliminate the use of slick trucks.

There are basically two classes of Rhodesian MAPs: transport/utility vehicles, and mine-clearing vehicles.

Mine Protected Transports

As you might expect from the improvisational, highly decentralized Rhodesian Army, a wide variety of vehicles were made, with some of the more exotic and lower-density ones appearing in elite forces’ motor pools.

We despaired of ever sorting these out, but Don Blevin came to our rescue (via Hopkins) with a great chart of the main variants, based on the three chassis they were produced on: the Nissan 2-ton commercial truck, the Mercedes 4.5 ton, and the Mercedes 2.5 ton Unimog.

We joined the two sides of the drawing and cleaned it up a bit. Don Blevin illustration.

We joined the two sides of the drawing and cleaned it up a bit. Don Blevin illustration. It embiggens thunderously.

This chart makes it look nice and neat. It wasn’t, though, because there were modifications and special purpose vehicles like weapons carriers and wreckers. Here’s some more Mercedes variants (same source):

rhodie_mercedes_4.5_variants

And if you have a hard time keeping the Mercedes family straight, wait till you check out the utility Unimogs.

rhodesian_rodef_25-unimog-drawings1

As you’ve seen from the initial image, a truck could take a TM-46 hit and still be survivable — it was luck of the draw based on where the blast took the vehicle. The truck in that picture was probably soon repaired and back in the field.

Mine Countermeasures Vehicles

If the Navy can use minesweepers, why can’t the Army? That simple question lay at the moment of conception of the Pookie, the principal Rhodie mine countermeasures vehicle. (There were others, built on the same principle.

A somewhat forlorn Pookie on display. From a photo essay here.

A somewhat forlorn Pookie on display. From a photo walkaround by Steve Barrow here.

There were never enough to keep earthen roads open, so vehicles ran in convoys — another lift from naval experience). The Pookie’s equivalent of a naval minesweeper’s nonmagnetic hull was its very low ground pressure, too low to trigger an AT mine. It could trigger anti-personnel mines, and anti-tampering devices attached to the secondary fuze wells on AT mines.

Between 1972 and 1980, it is estimated that more than 600 people were killed and thousands more injured by landmines on hundred of kilometres of roads and runways in Rhodesia. The toll would have been much higher but for the invention of Pookie, a small detection vehicle designed to travel ahead of military and civilian convoys and light enough not to detonate anti-tank mines.

Pookie, originally designed and developed by Ernest Konschel, an engineer and farmer from Rhodesia, was constructed on a lightweight chassis and carried a one-person armour-plated cab. The cab had a V-shaped undercarriage designed to deflect any blast away from the driver and to combat centre blast mines. The wheels were positioned some distance from the cab, again to protect the driver in the event of detonation by offsetting the seat of explosion, and they were housed in Formula One racing tires, apparently bought in bulk from the South African Grand Prix. Wide with low pressure, they exert a minimum ground force. The vehicle was propelled by an engine from a Volkswagen Beetle that was capable of taking Pookie to mine detection speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour. Two drop-arm detectors were mounted left and right and equipped with a detection system that bounced magnetic waves into the ground as well as an acoustic signal to indicate metal.

On first trials, Pookie detected every metallic mine and went on to prove itself both reliable and safe. Even though Pookies did detonate anti-personnel mines and several booby-trapped anti-tank mines in action with the Rhodesian army, this was only at the cost of new wheels and rim replacements, but no serious human casualty.

Only one Pookie operator lost his life during the vehicle’s long service. His tiny cab was hit by a lucky RPG-7 shot, and his number was up. Pookies shrugged off small arms, and a tank mine detonation only disabled the vehicle, blowing off one or more sacrificial wheels, but the operator survived — shaken and temporarily deaf, usually. None of the Pookies ever ditecyly tripped a TM-46, the Soviet anti-tank mine that was the Rhodesian terrorists’ primary weapon, but they did .

The initial detector used coils that were contained in long cylinders that could be lowered parallel to the surface of the road, or raised for transport.

The Pookie Today

The source of the above quote was this feature in a counter-mining journal by Willie Lawrence, which goes into detail about how wartime Pookies have been rehabbed and updated with ground-penetrating radar for detecting the improved (if that’s the word) anti-magnetic mines that international mine-clearing groups are dealing with today.

And the concept has been extended today with countermine vehicles like the Meerkat (caution, many spammy popups at that link). But the Pookie stands out as an example of brilliant simplicity, enabled as much as its designers were restricted by the fact that the Rhodesian Army had no choice but to run lean and on a shoestring.

How Long is an M2HB .50 Good For?

Nobody really knows, but this one came in to the Anniston Army Depot for conversion. They’d already stamped it M2A1 (as can be seen in this close-close-blow-up, along with the original maker marks of “Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Mfg Co, Hartford”) when they realized it wasn’t just any M2 heavy machine gun. It was older than the oldest one they had kept as a museum display! Serial Number 324 was probably made in 1921 or 1922, and had never been overhauled before.

m2_serial_324_extreme_close_up

The Army PR release was picked up by a site called We Are The Mighty, and from there, one of our commenters flagged us to it.

Roughly 94 years after the first production run of M2 machine guns came off the assembly line, the 324th weapon produced made it to Anniston Army Depot for overhaul and upgrade.

Cody Bryant, left, and Corby Tinney inspect the 324th M2 receiver ever produced. The weapon arrived at Anniston Army Depot to be converted to a M2A1 in May. Photo: Army Materiel Command Mrs. Jennifer Bacchus

In more than 90 years of existence, the receiver with serial number 324 has never been overhauled.

“Looking at the receiver, for its age, it looks good as new and it gauges better than most of the other weapons,” said John Clark, a small arms repair leader.

m2_serial_324_close_up

Despite the fact that the weapon still meets most specifications, it may be destined for the scrap yard.

Modifications made to the weapon in the field mean part of the receiver would have to be removed through welding and replaced with new metal, a process which usually means the receiver is scrap.

“I’d rather put this one on display than send it to the scrap yard,” said Clark, adding the weapon’s age makes it appealing as a historical artifact.

Currently, the 389th M2 is on display in the Small Arms Repair Facility. There is an approval process the older weapon would have to go through in order to be similarly displayed. Clark and Jeff Bonner, the Weapons Division chief, are researching and beginning that process.

via The Army found an M2 .50 caliber machine-gun still shooting perfectly after 90 years of service.

When you think about what has changed since 1921, two competing thoughts come to mind. This first is: it’s about time they did something about headspace and timing, long the one real anachronism of the brilliant Browning designs. And the second: while the M2HB has outlasted a half-dozen would-be replacements, what else from 1921 is still current?

Not cars. Here’s a 1921 Chevrolet:

1921 Chevrolet

Here’s another. This one’s for sale. Good luck, buyers.

Chev21Touring3

Here’s the telephone company in 1921:

1921 telephone office

Winners of a “Bathing Beauties” swimsuit competition:

bathing beauties 1922

(OK, we cheated a little, the Atlantic City Bathing Beauties are from ’22).

And in 1921, the US Army took two bold moves into the future. It established a new form of mobile unit, in answer to the trench warfare of World War I: the First Cavalry Division. Yes, on horses.

first_cavalry_division_1921

And the Army introduced a new gun: Gun, Machine, .50, M2, Flexible, Heavy Barrel. While most of everything else from 1921 is as obsolete as the cavalry charge, the M2 is going to make its centenary with relatively few improvements.

Who knew it would outlast the horses?

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™!

Notes

  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.

cannons

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.

Sources

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: https://books.google.com/books?id=LkouAAAAYAAJ

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: https://books.google.com/books?id=_5gtAAAAYAAJ

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 Milweb.net has an extensive set of interesting classifieds.

Hat tip, Miguel at GunFreeZone.

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.

filitov_tricycle_armored_car_1916

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?

filatov.k

Notes

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

Sources

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 valka.cz)