The most impractical armament that ever took to the air probably launched with the now-forgotten plane that was the British Royal Flying Corps’s first real scout, the S.E. 2 of the fall of 1914.
By 27 October, it had joined No. 3 Squadron in France as a fast scout. Initially, its only armament was a service revolver carried by the pilot. However, when it began escort duties, it was armed with two Lee-Enfield service rifles, their shoulder stocks cut off, fixed to the fuselage sides and aimed outwards at an angle to fire clear of the propeller. Firing such weapons (which were bolt action with a conventional trigger) with gloved hands in an icy slipstream must have proved very difficult and aiming could only have been a matter of luck, so it is of little surprise that no combat victories were achieved.
Only one S.E. 2 was made, but several designers at the state-owned Royal Aircraft Establishment worked to make a fast, armed scout, including Mervyn Gorman, Geoffrey de Havilland, and Henry Folland. The proposal was called the B.S. 1 (for “Bleriot Scout”; the Royal Aircraft Establishment/Factory initially labeled designs with tractor propulsion “Bleriot” after the Channel-crossing tractor designs of Louis Blériot, and its pusher-propelled aircraft “Farman” after the designs of Henry Farman. This is the source of the F.E. and B.E. terminology applied to many early British designs). By the time it was built, the one-off plane was re-coded S.E. 2.
After de Havilland survived a crash with serious injuries, it was rebuilt into the configuration shown in these pictures.
While nowadays a couple of splayed Lee-Enfields seems like an irrational aircraft armament design, remember, someone had to be first, and until the Fokker Eindecker III appeared in the skies of France in 1915, nobody had really solved the problem of firing a machine gun through a propeller arc. Indeed, prior to World War I there was some debate as to whether it even made sense to arm aircraft:
The aeroplane was only adopted by the military a few years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, principally for reconnaissance. At the time, aerial fighting was an unknown quantity, although it was clearly being considered as Flight magazine explained in its 14 February 1914 edition:
There are two schools of thought regarding fighting in the air. The one holds that if an aeroplane is to fight, it must carry a passenger, gun and ammunition. It will be so large and heavy that it will be slow, also it will lack any means of intercommunication necessary for combined action and it will be unable to come within range of a fast scout. The latter will come, get its information, and go, unmolested. It would appear that, for a time at all events, the fast scout will have the advantage. It depends largely on the number of fighting machines available. The other view is that fighting in the air must occur if results are to be obtained. Given that one side has sufficient fighting machines, it should be impossible for an unarmed scout to approach the point where it desires to glean information.
The RFC appears to have embraced both views and added to its growing fleet of general purpose aeroplanes a number of fast scouting machines. It was therefore hoped that these aircraft could evade enemy scouts as well as gather information vital to British operations. Also, it was anticipated that the armed aeroplanes would be able to protect unarmed machines as they went about their business.
The S.E. 2 was built for speed, and they actually downgraded its powerplant from 100 to 80 horsepower at one point, because of concerns it was too “hot” for ordinary pilots. The front-line life of the plane was rather short.
In March 1915, it was considered to be unfit for further active service and was returned to the Aircraft Park, and from there was sent back to England. Although as the first true scout, there was some talk of it being considered for preservation, but this did not happen and it was struck off RFC charge, its eventual fate being unrecorded.
And such was the ignominious end of the ur-father of all of the RFCs and RAF’s legendary fighter planes, the first “armed scout” to bear a British roundel in combat.
- Hare, p. 2-4
- Hare p. 6-7.
Hare, Paul R. Britain’s Forgotten Fighters of the First World War. Oxford, England: Fonthill Media, 2014.