Category Archives: Weapons that Made their Mark

Did The US Adopt the FG42 After All.. as the M4?

“Hognose,” you are thinking, “has lost his ever-lovin’ mind.” Unless you were long in the service, in which case you will substitute a stronger term for “ever-lovin’.” Because, after all, the low-production FG42, which had a great influence on US postwar weapons development, is miles from today’s modular M4, which developed from a completely different concept, the SCHV (Small Caliber High Velocity round) and the selective-fire assault rifle.

FG42-Right

m4a1_sopmod_rails_system_left_clear

Let’s go back to one of the earliest versions of the US reaction to captured FG42s, written by T/5 (a wartime grade for technical specialists, called “technical corporal” and paid a hair better than a “mere” corporal) John E. Holmes of the Foreign Material Branch at Aberdeen Proving Ground on 8 June 44. According to Dugelby & Stevens, this was “the first American appreciation of the FG42 to appear in print… therefore a most noteworthy document.” After describing the general arrangement, production characteristics, handling and originality vs. derivation of various FG42 features (the example(s) Holmes had was/were the “E” type or first model FG with the stamped metal butt and pistol grip), he suggests that its advantages might be well considered in future US martial-arms design:

Advantages of Design

The combination of advantageous features included in the design of this weapon has made it a very interesting piece which should be studied with future weapons in view.

The following features are suggested:

a. The method of reducing required by using buffer spring sliding shoulder stock system.

b. Reduction of muzzle climb due to the action and stock design.

c. The method of loading empty or partially empty magazines with standard rifle clips, cutting down the number of necessary magazines which must be carried.

d. High line of sight prevents distortion of target due to heat waves.

e. Folding sights prevent damage as the weapon is carried by paratroopers, or when not in use.

f. Reversible bayonet.

g. Telescopic bayonet.1

Do you see what we mean? The only ones of these that are not present in the modern infantryman’s M4 are the spring-loaded shoulder stock (not necessary on the light-recoiling 5.56mm cartridge, perhaps), and the “reversible” spike bayonet. In point of fact, the US already tried that with rod bayonets on the Springfield rifles of 1880-1888 and 1903, which were extremely unpopular with troops (and ultimately, overthrown by President Theodore Roosevelt as “as poor an invention as I ever saw,” leading to the familiar M1905 knife bayonet of the World Wars).

So no, we never adopted the FG42. But over the years, we did adopt most of its impressive features. So did almost every major military in the world. And that is why the FG42,  despite having been produced in a quantity of only 8,494, maximum2, is, legitimately, considered one of the most influential weapons in history.

Notes

  1. Dugelby, Thomas B, and Stevens, R. Blake. Death From Above: The German FG42 Paratroop Rifle. New Expanded Edition. Coburg, Ontario: Collector Grade Publications, 2007. pp. 119-120.
  2. Ibid., p. 121.

MGs in the Russo-Japanese War

And, given the established subject of this blog, you know that our reference is to machine guns, not to the products of Morris Garages.

The Russo-Japanese war was the first war to introduce all the nightmares of 20th-century warfare: barbed wire entanglements, recoil-carriage artillery, and of course Mr. Maxim’s new invention, the machine gun. Apart from the MG, all of these had seen some use before. But the Russo-Japanese war fully foreshadowed the Great War to come.

Japanese MG position

Japan shares with Russia the dubious distinction of having fought the first major war of the 20th century, and the first in which machine-guns on both sides played a prominent part in significant numbers. Maxim Nordenfelt and later VSM1 supplied both protagonists – the Japanese bought four 8mm Maxims in 1893, and later nine ” New Pattern” Model 1901s; the Russian Navy bought almost 300 guns of various types between 1897 and 1904, while the Russian Army obtained perhaps as many as 1000 guns from Loewe/DWM between 1899 and 1904. Later, the Japanese switched their allegiance to the Hotchkiss, and the Mle’00 was the gun which armed most front-line units of the Japanese Army by the time of the outbreak of war with Russia.

Initially, both sides deployed their machine-guns like miniature artillery, laying down indirect fire from rear positions, over the heads of their own infantry; observers (and, just as during the American Civil War, there were many) reported that the Maxims, in particular (they were chambered for a heavier around than the Japanese Hotchkisses) were actually more effective in this role than the artillery they mimicked.

Shades of things to come; the same tactics were to be used on the Western Front during the First World War, but not at first.

More important than the role of supporting attacking infantry, though, was the machine-gun in static defence. In an engagement dear Lin Chin Pu, in January, 1905, a German observer reported:

The Japanese attacked a Russian redoubt defended by two Maxim guns. A Japanese company about 200 strong was thrown forward in skirmishing order [that is, in rough liner breast, with some space between each man]. The Russians held their fire until the range was only 300 yards and then the two machine-guns were brought into action. In less than two minutes they fired about a thousand rounds, and the Japanese firing line was literally swept away.

The propaganda of the war was one thing, the reality different (as always).

The propaganda of the war was one thing, the reality different (as always).

At the battle of Mukden, which began on 21 February 1905, when the Japanese attacked Russian positions over a wide front, and proceeded to encircle them, the Russians employed their Maxims in batteries of eight, with one gun undergoing overhaul for each battery in action – the defenders were expending machine gun ammunition at the height of the battle at a rate of over 200,000 rounds per day. The Japanese encirclement was completed (notwithstanding the fact that the Russians had withdrawn by then) on 10 March by which time the defenders had lost an estimated 90,000 men killed, to the attackers’ 50,000; as many as half the casualties have been attributed to machine-gun fire.

As the war in Manchuria played itself out, it became exceedingly clear to participants and observers alike that the machine-gun had come of age with a vengeance. The British observer, Sir Ian Hamilton, writing in his Staff Officer’s Scrapbook of The Russo-Japanese War, described an incident which took place the following October, after six Japanese Hotchkiss guns have been allowed to occupy high ground overlooking the Russian lines:

In less than one minute hundreds [of Russians, who were complacently eating their lunch] were killed, and the rest were flying eastwards in wild disorder. Next moment the machine-guns were switched onto the Russian firing line who, with their backs to the river and their attention concentrated on Penchiho, were fighting in trenches about half-way up the slope of the mountain. These, before they could realize what had happened, found themselves being pelted with bullets from the rear. No troops could stand such treatment for long, and in less than no time the two Brigades which had formed the extreme left were in full retreat. Altogether the six machine guns had accounted for… 1,300 Russians.

Despite Hamilton’s warnings, the British Army establishment still took little heed of the danger posed by the machine-gun; not so the German, even if the conclusions of one of its observers in Manchuria proved to be faulty:

Machine-guns are extraordinarily successful. In defence of entrenchments especially they had a most telling effect on the assailants at the moment of the assault.

But they were also of service to the attack, being extremely useful in sweeping the crest of the defenders’ parapets. As a few men can advance under cover with these weapons during an engagement, it is possible to bring them up without much loss to a decisive point.

The fire of six machine guns is equal to that of a battalion (of riflemen) and this is of enormous importance at the decisive moment and place.

Whichever of the two opponents has at his disposal the larger number of machine-guns has thereby at his command such a superiority of fire that he’s able to give an effective support to his infantry. He can occupy a considerable front with smaller groups – and economy of manpower. Infantry is thus more free to maneuver and becomes more mobile. (Emphasis Ford’s).

Both sides used their machine-guns to enfilade dead ground, and thus deny it to the enemy, with considerable success, but the Japanese went one better when they pioneered the use of indirect overhead fire to support infantry assaults. On 13 March 1905 Japanese infantry crossed a river and assaulted enemy defensive positions on the other side with comparative impunity thanks to a covering barrage from machine-guns sited 1,800m (2,000 yards) in the rear, which kept firing until the assault troops were within 40 m of the Russian trench line.2

We note that modern armies train little for that kind of MG support, but the World War I and inter-war armies trained these tasks obsessively.

Both Japan and Russia came out of the war committed to machine guns.

Notes

  1. Vickers, Son & Maxim, the successor to Maxim Nordenfelt and the forerunner of the Vickers defense industrial combine.
  2. This entire long excerpt comes from pp. 81-84 of Ford, Roger. The Grim Reaper: Machine-Guns and Machine-Gunners in Action. New York: Sarpedon, 1996.

Lessons Learned from an ND

Everybody screws up. Almost everybody gets away with it. Here’s what happened to a guy who developed complacent gun-handling habits, and “got away with it” only thanks to blind luck in the bullet’s placement, that left him with neither fatal (if he’d hit the femoral artery) or crippling (femur and/or patella [kneecap]) wounds. We don’t have his name, so we’ll call him ND Guy.

Checking out of hospital after surgery and overnight stay, ND Guy knows he's lucky.

Checking out of hospital after surgery and overnight stay, ND Guy knows he’s lucky.

It was decent of him to share his experiences and photos (on Reddit’s /r/guns and Imgur), and the Internet being what it is, he’s been beaten up for it. We think he now (1) knows what he did wrong, and (2) is very unlikely to do it again, having been given a second chance.

I was attempting to disassemble my Glock 30 like I’ve done a thousand times before so I could install a new trigger spring. I had ejected the magazine and caught it before it fully left the gun, racked the slide to eject the round in the chamber, pulled up the the slide release pins and pulled the trigger to dry fire to remove the slide. Unfortunately for me I didn’t dry fire. I had accidentally moved the magazine back up and the lifting arm grabbed another round and chambered it. I know, I should have fully ejected the magazine before I continued but this is something I’ve done hundreds of times before without incident. But it only takes once right?
My doctor told me I was half an inch away from the lower end of my femur and my patella being entirely destroyed. This meaning I would have had a greater than 50/50 chance of my leg needing to be amputated above the knee. As it turns out though, my doctor working at a level one trauma center, told me that he’d never seen a bullet wound to the thigh/knee with as little damage as this.
All in all though, the main point of this is don’t be stupid or complacent like I was. Follow proper firearm safety protocol always, even if it seems stupid or pointless. Don’t get lazy and forgetful, because when you do accidents happen.

via Always make sure your chamber is empty NSFW : Firearms.

We have pictures of his wounds on the scene, and post-op showing two zippers in his leg, overleaf (for those of you who can’t stand the sight of blood).

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Part-Original Colt Armalite Model 601 on GunBroker

A very rare M16 variant, fully transferable, is up for auction on GunBroker. It’s the retro AR guy’s Holy Grail — an original Colt Model 601. It has a low serial number (605), meaning it was one of the first production ARs, making it a gun of notable historical significance. It’s being offered by a reputable seller (Frank Goepfert/Midwest Tactical).

That’s the good news. The bad news? It’s going to be very expensive. They’ve set a buy-it-now of $35K, and the no-reserve auction is already bid up to over $19,000 as we draft this (we suspect it will be higher yet; ordinary M16A1s bid up to this level all the time). And the ugly news? While the gun is described as original in the auction writeup, which we excerpt below, it’s not. Not even close. After the blurb, we’ll tell you what’s missing, and what’s “off” about this rifle.

Colt Armalite model 601. These were the gun that started it all. They are considered the first production M16. These primarily went to military buyers but a few were sold to LE, some of which made it into civilian hands. The 601 is the only M16 on the C and R list! The “01” would be one of my personal top picks for an NFA investment due to the limited number available, the Colt name and the fact that they are a C and R gun. The gun you are bidding on is in nice condition. We have it here on hand. The bore is good, all parts are original and the gun works perfect. The caliber for this firearm is .223. According to the ATF paperwork, Colt Ind. is the maker for this firearm. This will transfer direct to your c3 dealer tax free from our inventory on a Form 3 without delay after payment is made. This is the fastest type of transfer so approval and shipment to your ffl should not take long.

via M16 Colt Armalite Model 601 C and R : Machine Guns at GunBroker.com.

Note how the mag-well bosses in the lower receiver match the upper receiver exactly.  That is a 601 characteristic; by the 603 model (with the forward assist, the one that went to the Army for general issue in Vietnam) these did not align perfectly any more.

While this rifle clearly contains some rare and hard-to-find 601 parts, like the dimpled pins, straight ribbed magazine release and bolt release, and slightly-differently-cut 601 upper and lower receivers, it’s also got a lot of later-AR pollution on it.

The characteristic green-then-black- oversprayed brown mottled fiberglass 601 furniture appears to have been replaced with more durable, but dirt-common, M16A1 furniture.

The early-601 barrel has been replaced by a not-quite-as-rare and distinctly different 1967-vintage chrome-chamber-only M16A1 barrel, a so-called MP-C barrel, and the early barrel, FSB and flash suppressor are not included with this firearm.

This is the C that marks chrome chamber, quite rare in its own right but not correct for a 601:

The bolt carrier group has been replaced by a common M16 or AR BCG.

It’s also been refinished a later, darker shade of anodizing.

Whoever buys this will have to spend thousands (and probably take years, waiting for parts to come on the market, or for repros to be manufactured) to really own a 601 — and even then it will be a restored firearm, not an original. For example, the last set of 601 handguards we saw in really nice shape was five or six years ago, and the guy wanted $1,500 for them.

So how to appraise this semi-601? Its mixmaster status means that it’ll never have the appeal to auction with Rock Island, James D. Julia, or even Poulin unless that long and costly resto is done, and even then, some of the deepest-pocketed collectors will shy away from it (unless it’s described inaccurately or dishonestly… but now the Intertubes know that this firearm, SN 000605, was a mixmaster as of April 2015, and the Internet never forgets).

The bottom line? It is what it always is.

Caveat emptor.

Canadian Machine Gun Resto Project

Two machine guns in battered condition on a Canadian war memorial are being examined and will be cosmetically restored to their original condition — and efforts are underway to determine their true provenance and history.

Both are German MG08 guns. The one in this picture, on the south side of a roadside cenotaph in Harold, Ontario, was captured in 1918 at Arras; the hole in its water jacket may have been caused by Canadian fire. The cenotaph itself is rare: most Canadian cenotaphs list only the war dead, but this lists the returned surviving veterans as well as the fallen.

MG08, captured at Arras, 1918.

A pair of 100-year-old German guns, taken as souvenirs at the end of World War I, will be temporarily removed from the cenotaph on Highway 14 to be refurbished thanks to the efforts of the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion and the Stirling-Rawdon Historical Society.

Silenced in 1918, the guns will never fire again says society member John Lowry, but they will be cleaned up and returned to their original colours, perhaps even solving a few mysteries along the way. Lowry explains that significant research has been done on the weapons, a pair of Maschinengewehr 08 machine guns captured by 2nd Division CEF troops at the end of the war, but there are many unanswered questions as well.

via Machine gun restoration project under way.

John Lowry and Phil Martin of the Historical Society will try to match the gun’s original color scheme — if they can determine what it is — and answer the question of what made the hole in the Arras gun. They’re also trying to find photographic evidence tying the gun’s partner to a particular location or battle.

John Lowry (l.) and Phil Martin (r.)

Lowry thinks the hole in the water jacket may have been the act of a Canadian sniper:

[T]he Arras weapon appears to have been disabled by a sniper’s shot and the restoration may lead to a conclusive answer, he adds, “if we find a .303 bullet in there.” Lowry says that the guns, capable of firing 500 rounds per minute, were water-cooled using a chamber that surrounded the barrel and marksmen would deliberately aim for it hoping to quickly overheat the weapon rendering it useless.

According to the article, trophies like this were once commonplace across Canada, but the herd — once numbering some 15,000 captured arms, originally intended to populate a grand war museum, but on the project’s cancellation scrapped or spread across the very large country — has been thinned, less by time than by WWII scrap drives.

[T]he remaining local pieces, which also include a trench mortar in Madoc and a field artillery piece in Trenton, are only a small fraction of the enemy weapons that ultimately arrived in Canada after World War I. …. A significant number, Lowry says, were scrapped during World War II, including a pair of machine guns received by the village of Stirling. The fate of a similar pair that arrived in Marmora is unknown, but they too may have been scrapped.

The Stirling Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion has raised the cost of the MG restoration. And no, they won’t be restored to firing condition — it is Canada up there, which is kind of like Massachusetts with more polite people and much better drivers.

Form 4: REJECTED.

Got that letter from the examiner. (Actually, our FFL got it some days before we did). BORK. So what’s the problem?

This is a file (factory) photo of the gun in question.

This is a file (factory) photo of the gun in question. Ours is used and was a good buy… although we’re coming up on a year without putting our mitts on it, yet.

Turns out a paperwork glitch on our end. The CLEO signature was fine, but no one put the CLEO title in the title block.

So back it goes to ATF.

The purchase (an M1 Thompson SBR by Kahr) was done in July, 2014, but we didn’t get our form to the ATF until November (that’s not ATF’s fault, but ours). So it took, from the time they’ve had the form, a hair over five months for this technical rejection. We’ll put the Chief’s title on it (they did send details on what was wrong with the Form 4 and how to fix it) and send it back, and then it goes back to the same examiner rather than wait another five months in the queue. Which is nice.

We may have the Thompson at the range one year after buying it.

Well, largely our fault for missing such an obvious detail.

How long is it taking for ATF to process these forms?

We’re going to give you an answer you’ll hate: it depends. There may be some elements of go-slow in the Administration’s approach to ATF doing its duties — certainly many of the senior personnel in ATF are anti-gun and politically partisan — but it really seems to be explained well enough by ATF’s finite number of examiners getting slammed by an explosion in quantity of NFA submissions. Here are the last two years, thanks to NFA Tracker.com (it does embiggen):

NFA Stamp Wait TimesOne of the interesting results here is the general downward trend in wait time, both for trust submissions and for paper submissions. A few outlying trust e-File submissions have gotten same-day service, and Form 4 trust submission review times have suddenly trended up in 2015. (ATF does report they’ve had some problems with badly formed trusts that were set up without a specialized attorney).

The trendlines get even more interesting if you go back to the full dataset on NFA Tracker, which takes us back to 2006, before the advent of the World’s Greatest Gun Salesman.

longterm_wait_times

Again, it embiggens if you click it. As you can see here, prior to 2009 transfers seemed to be a 30-60-90-day thing, although the data is pretty thin at that point. In January 2011, approval times started to increase rapidly until by the fall of that year, and for the next 12 months, approval times clustered close together, centered on a median of about 180 days or six months.

Then, after the 2012 elections, the delays skyrocketed again. peaking at nearly a year in the summer of 2013, and then descending.

It’s also significant, we think, that all kinds of forms and filing methods seem to have been treated similarly until around September 2013, when some (principally, e-Filed forms) began to show much more rapid adjudication than paper forms of similar type.

This data pattern looks to us more like an agency struggling to serve more customers than it has ever had to handle before, than the fruits of any kind of conspiracy.

We could simplify life for the NFA Branch and its examiners by changing the law so that SBRs, SBSes, and suppressors are handled as Title I firearms. Handling these within the strictures of the NFA does not prevent or solve crimes, after all; these weapons are little used in criminal activity, and the ones that are so used, are almost always stolen. Therefore removing these low-crimefighting-value firearms registrations from the pool would reduce the workload on the examiners and let them focus on efforts more useful to actual crimefighting.

FN Teases New Civilian Versions of Military Weapons

This press release was so tempting that we had to double check — was it really dated April 10, not April 1? Turns out, it is (well, some versions are dated April 9).

(McLean, VA – April 9, 2015) FNH USA is excited to announce that three new products, including a brand-new product line, will be making their first appearance on the FNH USA Booth #2324 at the 2015 NRA Annual Meetings in Nashville, TN. Expected to be released in the Fall of 2015 are the mil-spec FN M249S™, a semi-automatic version of the U.S. Military’s M249 SAW light machine gun and two new additions to the company’s modern sporting rifle line, the FN 15™ M4 and M16 Military Collector Series.

Are they serious?

fn_m249s

Serious as a heart attack.

Holy schnikeys, a semi-auto Minimi from none other than FN? True, we’d rather have the full-auto one (personal aside to William Hughes: may your soul’s torment in Hades never cease), but given the laws we’ve got, we’ll take it. The bad news is that, while they’re teasing the product now for a fall 2015 launch, they didn’t put a lot of prep into the website — it’s still all full of holes.

Machine Gunners Depend on Riflemen

And FN is also introducing two new “Military Collectors” versions of the M16 Rifle and M4 Carbine. These include DOD-like code labels on the magazine wells, unlike FN’s sporting AR-series guns which feature a very large FN logo on the mag well. As the press release puts it:

web_mil_coll_v2

The FN 15™ Military Collector’s Series M4 and M16 bring to market military replica rifles made to FN’s exacting specifications. The semi-automatic rifles are chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO and feature M4 -profile 16 and 20-inch 1:7” RH, button broached and chrome-lined barrels, respectively. Each UID-labeled lower receiver is equipped with an ambidextrous selector switch, just like its select-fire big brother.

The web page for the Military Collectors carbines is better fleshed out than the M249S page.

Both of these product lines will find a niche market, and they’ll also help FN manage production when faced with the herky-jerky and unreliable nature of military orders. So it’s a win for FN, for the .mil (by helping to absorb overhead that would otherwise fall on the DOD budget), and of course, for those who want to own and shoot these firearms.

We want, we think, one of each. You?

Sometimes the Worst Gun Wins, and other Lessons from History

In Smith’s The History of Military Small Arms, the author claims to see a  parallel between the introduction of the Dreyse Needle Gun and the history of military small arms in general. To wit:

Dreyse Needle Gun with fabric cartridge and projectile showing primer location at projo base. From The Firearm Blog.

Dreyse Needle Gun with fabric cartridge and projectile showing primer location at projo base. From The Firearm Blog.

When the Dreyse was introduced into the Prussian service it was a “military secret” of the first order. Like most “military secrets” it was a secret only to those naive branches of the military who never seem to be aware of what has been done in their line—those artless individuals with which every country is regularly afflicted, and who strangely enough seem to be nearly always in a position to make policy while submerging the real experts who are present in any army.1

The Dreyse shouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody, as the technology had been patented by a Swiss circa 1830, when the Prussian generals who would command Dreyse-wielding riflemen were subalterns. And while the Dreyse Needle Gun had an edge on the French Chassepot, it wasn’t that big an edge, really.

The Chassepot. Funny: the Scandinavian museum that has this one thinks it's a Dreyse.

The Chassepot. Funny: the Scandinavian museum that has this one thinks it’s a Dreyse.

The edge was that the Dreyse was able to use a metallic cartridge, even though these images show a fabric one (even though the illustration shows it with a fabric cartridge). But in the Americas, Union cavalry was armed almost exclusively with breechloaders, and in significant part with breech-loading repeaters, generally firing fixed rim- or center-fire ammunition, by war’s end. Having the Dreyse gave the Prussians a momentary advantage over the muzzleloader-toting Austrians, who soon thereafter followed such leaders as Britain (with the Snyder) and the US (with the Allin conversion) and rebuilt its muzzle-loaders into breech-loaders.

Here's another view of the Chassepot, action closed. The stylistic resemblance to the much later Mosin-Nagant repeater is eerie; did it inspire that design?

Here’s another view of a Chassepot, action closed. The stylistic resemblance to the much later Mosin-Nagant repeater is eerie; did it inspire that design?

Out in the real world, small arms development is seldom secret, and when it is, it is seldom kept secret for long. Engineering and science have long been observed to proceed, worldwide, at the same pace, and weapons of war face something akin to the evolutionary pressures faced by animals under natural selection (minus, perhaps, sexual selection, although the natural competitiveness of armies leads to a pursuit of bragging rights and pride internationally that has some parallels, but with much less power).

1898 .30-40 Krag carbine

1898 .30-40 Krag carbine

It is an interesting fact that, when two armies meet in the field, both sides are almost always convinced that their equipment is superior. When it turns out not to be for one side, an even more interesting fact is that weapons superiority is not always, or even often, decisive. No grunt came away from Cuba or Puerto Rico still believing that the .30-40 Krag, selected by the USA over the Mauser because the Krag had a simpler and easier-to-inspect magazine cut off “to save ammunition in combat,” was the superior rifle. Ordnance’s error in prioritizing that, or perhaps in accepting the priorities given to it by the generals, was clear, and the guns were scarcely still before Springfield was directed, although perhaps not in the words of a later Smith & Wesson executive, to “copy the m’f’er!”

Yet, as deficient as the US mix of Krags and trapdoors was vis-a-vis the 7mm x 57 Spanish 1893 Mauser, a technically superior rifle was not enough to make up for the many other technical and tactical deficiencies the Spaniards faced in trying to hang on to their colonies. Weapons are complex enough to present many features and capabilities, and survival-oriented officers and soldiers quickly learn to exploit their system’s strengths and overcome its weaknesses. The Germans learned to fight against the superior mobility of American and Russian tanks; the Allies learned to fight against the German’s better armor and armament. Meanwhile, a “secret” weapon is only secret until it’s used; after that, the enemy knows its effects, and his own engineers and ordnance men can figure out what the weapon was — as every nation’s scientists and engineers are at, to a first approximation, the same level of knowledge. (The classic example of the limited life of a  secret weapon is the way the Soviet Union went from ignorance of the potential for a nuclear weapon to leapfrogging US/UK development of fusion weapons in 4 years).

Napoleon’s maxim about the relative weight of the material and the moral in war is as good an explanation as any for the phenomenon: sometimes the guy with the worse gun wins.

Notes

  1. B. Smith (2013-07-13 00:00:00-05:00). The History of Military Small Arms (Kindle Locations 910-914). Kindle Edition.

 

A Blast from the Past — Literally

FOOM!There is been few blasts like the one that blew up USS Maine in Havana harbor, on 15 February 1898, the forward magazine of the ship blew up at 9:40 PM. A crew of 355 was nearly annihilated; there were only 16 uninjured survivors, and 75 or 80 wounded ones. Because the mishap happened at night, and officers’ country was in the aft end of the ship, the officers survived at a higher rate.

1024px-Telegram_from_James_A._Forsythe_to_Secretary_of_the_Navy_-_NARA_-_300264The captain of Maine, Charles Sigsbee, sent an urgent cry for help via Capt. James Forsythe, commanding officer of the Key West naval station.

The investigation that ensued ruled that the ship was subject to an attack by a naval mine. It was only the first of many investigations, and there remains to this day no conclusion, although the balance of expert opinion seems to suggest a mishap aboard ship is more likely than Spanish hostile action. The destruction of Maine became a casus belli in the hysteria-induced Spanish-American War of 1898. Indeed, it was probably the most influential cause, or pretext, for the US to have initiated that war.

The Maine was an odd ship, but she was created in the 1880s and 1890s at an odd time in naval affairs. “Armored Cruisers” seemed to be what Navies needed, ships that could combine sail and steam — she was initially designed with three masts — and that would attack headlong. Accordingly, Maine had a ram built into her bow, and her two gun barbettes (mounted in left-front and right-rear sponsons) were arranged so that she could deliver her full “broadside” — four 10-inch guns — only straight ahead or straight behind.

Maine also had advanced armor for her day — Harvey Steel, an early form of face-hardened armor. But it took so long for America to build, launch and commission this pre-Dreadnought battleship (ships characterized by guns in sponsons and coal-fired steam piston engines) that she was, although nearly new at her sinking, soon to be obsoleted by that British revolution in naval arms.

Our interest, of course, is easily led from the 10″ main battery on down through the 1.5″ anti-torpedo-boat armaments to, inevitably, the personal weapons.

Julia Maine Recovered Lee Navy

Like every Naval vessel, Maine had some small arms lockers, and in February, 1898, they held the unusual M1895 Winchester-Lee 6mm (.236 Navy) rifle. The rifles, at least some of them, were salvaged and were sold by Francis Bannerman of Bannerman’s Island fame. Ian at Forgotten Weapons has an excellent video showcasing one of these rare rifles, now featured in a Julia auction. James Julia expects a five figure knock-down on this. Julia explains his documentation of provenance:

Also accompanied by a copy of pages 34 and 35 of a reprint of The Bannerman Catalog of July 1907. Page 35 lists the serial numbers of 54 6mm Lee Straight Pull Rifles salvaged from the USS Maine, including this exact rifle.

Julia Maine recovered Navy

It also lists the SNs of six 45 cal Springfield rifles recovered at the same time. These rifles were sold to Bannermens [sic] through the Navy Yard at New York in Jan. 1900. These 54 Lee rifles and 6 Springfield rifles are the only officially documented small arms recovered from the USS Maine although there have been one or two others that have surfaced in the last few years that were undoubtedly authentic. Regardless there are probably no more than about 60 or so of these relics in existence.

How many guns came by their pitting this honestly? No doubt someone will take great pride in adding this piece of history to his collection.

Hey, it’s just a Ka-Bar, right? An $11k Ka-Bar?

Hey, it’s just a Ka-Bar (on this day of edged weapons, which we’ve now added as a category). Just a Ka-Bar. Even if this one is a Camillus, these Marine knives are best known by the name of their original maker. They’re good, simple, sturdy, dependable and cheap field knives, much used in SF and other Army units as well as in their birthplace, the Corps. So what makes this one worth, says the auctioneer, $11k? (That’s the opening bid, for an auction opening in a few hours). It doesn’t look real special, does it?

Gagnon USMC Knife L

 

Well, what about the markings? Perhaps there’s something special there.

Gagnon USMC Knife details L

Nope. And the condition is OK, but not too special. Call it average. Well, then, if the knife is unremarkable, and its condition is just middling, it’s got to be something about the guy whose knife it is or was. 

The guy that wrote this, home from boot camp:

[I]t certainly gives you a funny feeling to know that in my hands I hold two means of killing a person…stabbing him…or shooting him…Those are the things we’re fighting for…when I was a kid I never realized that I one day would actually kill a man, as a matter of fact none of us really like the idea of killing, but if that’s the only language the Axis understand then that’s what it will have to be.

That introspective Marine was this rakish, Hollywood-handsome fellow:

Rene GagnonBut he’s famous not for motion pictures, but for a still. This still:

Mt Suribachi flag raising USMC

Joe Rosenthal’s famous flag-raising picture is a powerful symbol of the Marine Corps to this day. And Rene Gagnon of Manchester, NH, was one of the six men in that picture, raising the flag. (He’s the guy opposite the guy whose helmet is bisected by the libe of the flagpole. Gagnon’s mostly hidden, apart from his hands and one leg, but he was definitely there). He’s one of the three that survived. (His story is told, along with those of the other five, living and dead, in the bestseller Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley — a descendant of another survivor).

When Rene Gagnon passed away he left the knife to his son. The Manchester, NH Union Leader‘s Amanda Beland interviewed Rene Jr., and reports:

The Marines-issued knife belonged to Gagnon until he died at age 54 in 1979. Since then, it has officially belonged to his son, Rene Gagnon Jr.
But for Gagnon Jr., of Concord, the knife was a part of his life long before his father’s death.

“I used it growing up — in Boy Scouts, cutting things up around the house, playing cowboys and Indians, lots of ways,” he said.
Gagnon Jr. said he always expressed his fondness for the knife — which is how it came into his possession. “When I was younger, the whole time I really liked that knife and I made that clear.”

Gagnon Jr. said he decided to sell the knife now partly for financial reasons, partly because he was unsure of where it was going to end up.
“I have three daughters and a son, and it was never like ‘I like this,’ so there’s the thought of where do I leave it,” he said.

“A lot of my father’s memorabilia is in Wolfeboro (at the Wright Museum of World War II History). If there’s someone there who cares for it, then it’s not going to get lost or something.”
Gagnon Jr. said he’s aware that his father has a public persona that’s been perpetuated by interviews, books and movies. But to him, Rene Gagnon represents something much simpler.

“To the whole world, he was a hero, but to me, he was my father, just my father,” said Gagnon Jr. “I had the knife, yeah, and now someone who cares about that type of thing can have it, but I had and have my father.”

The auction house thinks the knife may bring as much as $20k. In that rarefied air, individual bidders may be competing with museums, although most military museums are much happier trading a paper tax-writeoff for “free” stuff, than laying out actual cash for exhibits.