Category Archives: Weapons that Made their Mark

When the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace Went to War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week – Torpedo of Rijeka

Robert Whitehead was a pacifist and teetotaler, who invented a weapon that's in its second century of use and development.

Robert Whitehead was a pacifist and teetotaler, who invented the naval torpedo and sold it all around the world: a weapon now well into its second century of use and development.

Here at Weaponsman, we’ve discussed naval torpedoes before. We’ve done it in the light of early American torpedoes that have been recovered from the bottom of the sea, or otherwise rediscovered, and displayed in museums or otherwise studied. But the very first torpedo, at least the first successful one, came from the forgotten Navy of the Habsburg Empire, by way of an English inventor and entrepreneur.

Fortunately, there is a place where this early history is not only not forgotten, but preserved and memorialized, and it is present on the web at Torpedo of Rijeka, our Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week this week. It’s a website founded by enthusiasts of the first naval torpedo, and the first naval torpedo factory — in their Adriatic hometown.

When Farragut said, “Damn the torpedoes,” in the Civil War, the “torpedoes” that he referred to were what we think of today as naval mines. They were tethered to the bottom or shore, and meant to inhibit naval traffic. While mine warfare is still a very important part of naval offense and defense today, the word torpedo has come to mean an underwater projectile or missile,  self-propelled with propellers or jets, and aimed at a particular target. Torpedoes can be fired along a pre-determined course or guided in some way. This guidance today can be on-board or remote, in the latter case usually wire-guided much like an antitank missile.

The inventor of the torpedo as we know it was Robert Whitehead, a Lancashire engineer who had long worked on the Continent. He was working in Trieste, then an Austro-Hungarian seaport, when he was essentially head-hunted by another firm, and moved down the coast to Fonderia Metalli de Fiume, in a port city which has had many names and flown many flags over the centuries since Roman historians noted that a tribe of rude Celts lived on the hills and a “more civilized” tribe of mariners lived in the seaport. The Romans called it Tarsatica.  By 1856, when Whitehead and his family arrived, the city was known as Fiume in Italian (which many of the inhabitants spoke, regardless of their loyalty to the Dual Monarchy), Fiume in Hungarian (technically, it was part of the Hungary half of the Empire), Sankt Veit am Pflaum in German (the lingua franca of central Europe in those days) and Rijeka to the local Croats, who had to learn one of the other languages — or better yet, all of them — to advance in society and commerce. As an empire, Austria-Hungary was a very different concept from the nations of today; one’s ethnicity was not implicated in his political allegiance to the extent it is in the post-Fourteen Points world.

Fiume was also the location of the Austro-Hungarian Naval Academy, which like any major power’s academy not only trained future naval officers but sponsored research. This included pioneering research in photography, communications, physics, and, more to our point, remote-controlled weapons. Whitehead’s company, now yclept Stabilimento Tecnico Fiumano (Technical Establishment of Fiume), at first made high-tech machinery of the era, such as steam engines for naval ships. They were tied in tightly to the Naval Academy and the local academic community; for example, technicians at what would become the Whitehead torpedo plant provided the first experimental proof of Mach’s concept of the influence of the speed of sound on aerodynamics.

A different kind of "Coast Guard," this primitive weapon inspired the naval torpedo we know today.

A different kind of “Coast Guard,” this primitive weapon inspired the naval torpedo we know today.

By happy coincidence an officer (Commander — Fregattenkapitän – Giovanni Luppis) was struggling with a remote-controlled surface boat IED he’d invented, which he called the Coast Guard. His surface torpedo — for that is what it was — had a spring-and-clockwork mechanism and steering bridles for control from the shore, and a contact fuze for detonating if someone was lucky enough to guide it onto an enemy ship. Here was a problematic gadget, but the germ of a very good idea, and Whitehead and a talented team including his son John and his right-hand man, Anibale Plöch. Unlike many Victorian Age inventors, Whitehead seldom sought patents, preferring to maintain his technical advantages as trade secrets.

And technical advantages he had.

Whitehead's (and the world's) first torpedo, 1866.

Whitehead’s (and the world’s) first torpedo, 1866.


To make his torpedo work, Whitehead and his team had to solve several problems: propulsion, stability&control, and effect. The last of these was the easiest: a cylindrical bronze torpedo could carry sufficient explosive to sink any modern dreadnought, and, moreover, deliver it below the water line where the ship was most vulnerable. The Empire was well-stocked with talented artillerists and engineers, and neither fuzes nor explosives required research, simply development. That part was basic engineering, not science.

The true developments were propulsive and control based. Whitehead used steam for the first torpedo, and then changed to a compressed-air-powered piston engine, for more power and quicker preparation to fire. The compressed-air engines were made in a variety of designs and layouts.

Of course, the engine is only half of a naval powerplant — the other half is the propeller.  These three recovered torpedo tails tell the story of improved propellers (they also show the growing awareness of fluid dynamics. The first torpedo was sharply spiked fore and aft — by the end of the 19th century, a blunter shape with a round nose was proven to generate less hydrodynamic drag).

1868 torpedo shows pointed end and single-screw with a duct ring.

1868 torpedo shows pointed end and single-screw with a duct ring.

1884 torpedo is a little thicker and has introduced dual counterrotating props to neutralize torque.

1884 torpedo is a little thicker and has introduced dual counterrotating props to neutralize torque. The ring was found to inhibit propeller efficiency.

1898 torpedo has a more organic shape and well-uptimized counterrotating screws.

1898 torpedo has a more organic shape and well-optimized counterrotating screws.

Devices pioneered here for control were a mechanical depth control and a variety of steering gyroscopes. John Whitehead tried to develop a torpedo gyroscope but his model was a dead end. Instead, they purchased a design from former Whitehead engineer Lodovico Obry. Much of this history is recounted on the Torpedo of Rijeka website.

The Obry gyroscope

The Obry gyroscope

In the years leading up to the Great War, Whitehead’s company, Torpedofabrik Whitehead AG, was controlled by a British syndicate of the arms and engineering giants Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth, who’d acquired it on his death in 1905 and continued torpedo development.

After the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire at war’s end, the factory was acquired by an influential Italian family, and its name was changed to an Italian one, but cutting-edge torpedo development for all nations resumed. The testing station on the docks had a new level built with a catapult to simulate aerial torpedo launches.

The torpedo launch test station offered a ship-launch level, and air-launch level with catapult, and an observation level.

The torpedo launch test station offered a ship-launch level, and air-launch level with catapult, and an observation level.

The plant resumed torpedo production again after being bombed by the Allies in World War II, but ceased that production in the 1960s. The physical plant and its distinctive torpedo test tower (alas, not the original from 1866 but the upgrade from the 20th Century) still exist. The enthusiasts of the Torpedo of Rijeka website hope to establish a permanent museum to their city’s most enduring export. Rijeka today is a sun-blessed city on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, and a reasonable European vacation destination.

Whitehead had a most remarkable life. His daughter Alice married the skipper of the Austrian boat that tested and validated his prototype torpedoes; his granddaughter Agnes inherited his vast fortune, and she in turn married an Austro-Hungarian minor nobleman and naval officer that she met at a sub commissioning. The officer would later command that sub and another on his way to becoming the Empire’s top-scoring submarine ace, in which career he naturally used Whitehead torpedoes to sink English and Italian vessels (including an Italian submarine, Nereida, in possibly the first sub-on-sub torpedo battle in history).

You might have heard of the guy, who later emigrated to the United States with their kids after Agnes passed away. His name was Georg, Baron von Trapp.

When the AR was a Novelty…

This Colt AR-15 Model 601 might have been the very one tested by American Rifleman. It's Serial Number 000115. (The stocks once wore green paint over the brown fiberglass).

This Colt AR-15 Model 601 might have been the very one tested by American Rifleman. It’s Serial Number 000115. (The stocks once wore green paint over the brown fiberglass). And yes, the picture embiggens.

The political news website The Daily Caller has an interesting reprint of the American Rifleman’s initial, 1962, review of the AR-15 rifle. Nowadays, ARs are extremely common, and most of the people who shoot them, for business or for pleasure, weren’t reading American Rifleman in 1962. In fact, most of them weren’t alive 52 years ago. So if you’re one of those Johnny-come-latelies, or if you’ve not and misplaced your copy in the last half-century, here’s a snippet of the DC’s reprint for you. (Note: for reasons explained below the excerpt, the Daily Caller links have been replaced with links to the American Rifleman version).

It was interesting, to us, that, “Many features of the AR-15 are of European origin and not generally familiar to American shooters.…” Fact is, we’ve lost sight of just how revolutionary the AR was when it first hit. Thumbing through the actual magazines, comparing them to today’s versions, brings the point home even more starkly. All the guns and activities in all the articles and ads scream: “Elmer Fudd was here!” So the bemused tone of the following time capsule from 1962 is not out of place.

The AR-15 rifle was developed by the Armalite Division of Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corp., with the great personal interest of its then President, the late Richard S. Boutelle. It is mainly a scaled-down copy of the Fairchild Armalite AR-10 rifle, which had been offered for some years in 7.62 mm NATO and other military calibers. A composite steel-aluminum barrel and a complicated flash suppressor originally used in the AR-10 proved unsuccessful. The AR-15 has an all-steel barrel and a short form of the Army-developed bar-type flash suppressor instead.

Many features of the AR-15 are of European origin and not generally familiar to American shooters, but they were already long tried and have worked out well in this case.

The AR-15 can be hinged open somewhat like a double-barrel shotgun, permitting easy bolt removal and bore inspection. This feature goes back to the Czech ZH or ZB 29 rifle. It will be recognized as a feature of the Fabrique Nationale rifle which has been adopted as standard by Belgium, Great Britain, Canada and Australia. As the T48, the FN was very thoroughly tested by the United States in competition with the Springfield-designed T44, the latter ultimately winning adoption as our M14.

The rear sight of the AR-15 is built into a fixed carrying handle, like that of the British EM 2 rifle which was considered at about the time the 7.62 mm NATO caliber was standardized, and which was even adopted for a short time by Great Britain. The ejection port is covered with a hinged lid, which keeps dirt out of the action and flies open automatically at the first shot as in the German Sturmgewehr 44.

The stock is straight, with separate hand grip. This conformation has been used in many full-automatic shoulder weapons. It brings the recoil force almost in line with the shoulder and thus helps to control the tendency to rise in full-automatic fire. It also adapts well to breech mechanisms which, like the AR-15, have a long receiver and the action spring in the buttstock.

For operation of the breech mechanism, gas is led back from a point about two-thirds up the barrel through a tube above the barrel and within the fore-end. This is much like the Swedish M42 Ljungman rifle, and the later French MAS 1944 and 1949 rifles. A gas-tube system also was used in the Swiss SK-46 rifle. The operating gas is introduced between the two parts of the bolt, forcing the head to unlock and then forcing both parts to the rear.

The gas-tube system obviously eliminates an operating rod or slide and on that account has sometimes been stated to be a material design simplification. However, eliminating the operating slide requires that the bolt be made in two parts, instead of the usual one-piece bolt, so the number of parts remains the same as before. The moving parts must be given a certain mass to carry through the cycle after the initial gas impulse, and elimination of the operating slide requires a correspondingly heavier bolt. Thus both the number of parts and their weight remain substantially the same as in other designs.

Likewise, the extensive use of aluminum has not resulted in an unusually light rifle. The AR-15 weighs nearly 1/2-lb. more than the steel Winchester rifle.

The receiver, including the carrying handle, the trigger guard and the grip, is made of aluminum alloy. The magazine also is made of aluminum alloy, as in a number of other present-day rifles. Aluminum is easily fabricated and can be anodized to a superior non-reflective and durable finish. Necessary strength is provided by a steel barrel extension into which the bolt head locks.

Stocked With Plastic

Fore-end and buttstock are of a light green plastic. This has a pleasing feel and appears to be quite successful. The fore-end stands clear of the barrel and is lined to resist barrel heat. The rear sight is a simple two-leg peep, adjustable laterally. The front sight is adjustable vertically. These adjustments are readily made with a point of a cartridge as the only tool. They are intended for zeroing only. Obviously such sights are not meant for target shooting, but they are reliable in service. Firing trial by The Rifleman staff in 1959 showed the AR-15 to be very easy and pleasant to shoot in semiautomatic fire. The inherently light recoil of the small cartridge is further reduced in effect by the straight stock. Functioning was notably positive, regular and reliable.

It’s really a good and thorough review, so Read The Whole Thing™ (link goes to the American Rifleman site).

The Colt Model 601 AR-15 that the Rifleman tested was, they noted, functionally identical to the Fairchild Armalite gun they’d tested earlier. They visited the Colt factory to see how the company was making ARs (on conventional machine tools, without much specialty equipment, although if they had to increase production they planned to retool). And the article closes with a stirring charge to the Army to stick with the (then-new, after all) M14 until the revolutionary project SALVO, “a future infantry weapon far more effective than any conventional shoulder rifle,” was ready. (That would have been a hell of a long wait).

We’re grateful to the Daily Caller for bringing this story to our attention, but we’re not too thrilled with how they delivered it. First, it’s broken into three pages (which lets them mislead their advertisers about their hit count. Lame). Next, they love pop-up ads. We will never boycott a pop-up advertiser, because we always slam the pop-up closed before their pitch can load, and we don’t think we’re the Lone Rangers on that. The vast majority of the money spent on this offensive, intrusive advertising is wasted. (If somebody does let the page load, this slimeball door-to-door-salesman approach probably actually damages the advertiser’s reputation). But most seriously, they deliver the text of the article without the illustrations.

It turns out that that’s because they lifted the article whole from the American Rifleman website, where it was recently featured on a blog page, again, without the images. We never go to the American Rifleman website; we get the magazine, but the site is incredibly crappy and disorganized, with blaring autoplay videos and all the excesses of bad 1990s web design, except maybe the [blink] tag. It was only blind luck that led us to American Rifleman’s  blog post, and we discovered that, unlike the Daily Caller knockoff, it’s all on one page, at least; and unlike most of the pages at American Rifleman (and all of the pages at Daily Caller) it’s free of hard-sell pop-up and autoplay cruft. So we went back in this post and changed the links all to the American Rifleman version except for this Hat tip to the Daily Caller. Fair play to give them that.

FBI Returns Stolen Gun

Dillinger-GunOne way guerrillas arm themselves, we’ve seen, is by relieving the authorities of their arms. This procedure is not only used by guerrillas, but also by criminals. To be sure, as we’ve seen in our series on Greek Guerrillas throughout modern history, the cutline between insurgent and outlaw is not exactly crisp and clear (think of the Mexican cartels as an even more modern example). Historically, of course, armies and police have been the gun depots not only of insurgents but also of outlaws. The gun you’re looking at here is one of these, which has criss-crossed the country in the hands of the lawless and the lawmen. The lawmen have a pretty good grip on it… now.

The case hinges on John Dillinger, a name which should need no introduction, despite Hollywood’s persistent efforts to make a hero out of this uncommon criminal. On October 13, 1933, John Dillinger and his gang hit the Auburn, Indiana police department for an assortment of short and long guns, including an M1921 Colt Thompson with a 50-round “L” drum magazine. If we’re doing the math, that was 80 years ago. (We mention that because some news media reports have said 45, 67, 50 and 77 years).

Dillinger was, all his life, a disagreeable person; he had joined the Navy at one point, but quickly deserted. Imprisoned for armed robbery in 1924, he only got paroled out in the spring of 1933, and by that fall, he arranged to break ten of his con friends out of jail. The plan went off without a hitch, but in the meantime, Dillinger had been locked up for new crimes. His gang went to the sheriff’s office where he was held and broke him out at gunpoint — murdering Sheriff Jesse Sarber in the process. Then they  knocked over the Auburn PD and several others, and many banks, and fled to Florida. In January, 1934, they returned to Indiana and bank robberies, but they went on the run after Dillinger murdered a police officer named O’Malley on January 15th. Dillinger would later say that O’Malley had it coming, for shooting at him, which is an interesting point of view.

More interesting was that the press and much of the public took Dillinger’s side; his nemeses, of course, were the banks, and in 1934 no one had much good to say about banks.

The Dillinger gang were caught by the Tucson PD  just days after leaving Indiana. While the stories about the Auburn submachine gun say that there was a gunfight, there wasn’t; the gang wss taken without a shot. They were staying at a hotel, where there was a completely unrelated fire. Gang members slipped a fireman some money to recover “heavy luggage.” Their bad luck, the jake was a fan of true-crime pulp magazines and recognized them. Police rounded them up in their new lodgings. Quite a few guns were seized, also, according to the Arizona Star:

In total, police seized three Thompson submachine guns, two Winchester rifles mounted as machine guns, five bulletproof vests and more than $25,000 in jewelry and cash, part of it taken in an East Chicago robbery.

Dillinger 1907 02

The “two Winchester rifles mounted as MGs” were presumably .351 or .401 semi-autos with Thompson-style grips and extended magazines, as made by San Antonio gunsmith Hyman Lebman. We reported on a replica of one of these Lebman guns last September; that’s the gun shown here. The Thompsons probably came from the Dillinger gang’s go-to tactic of robbing police stations. (Bold enough, but you can see there’s not much future in it).

Dillinger was extradited to Indiana to stand trial for O’Malley’s murder. (He would escape from prison… ostensibly with a gun carved of wood, or soap, but actually by application of bribes). As he and the gang had killed several Indiana cops, he was destined for Old Sparky if he hadn’t escaped. Five months later, he’d be dead, shot down by the Division of Investigation, the forerunner of the FBI. There’s no escaping from that. Three of his gang were extradited to Ohio to answer for Sarber. (Two of them, Harry Pierpont and Charles Makley, would try to escape with soap-carved guns. Makley died of wounds and Pierpont survived to be stuffed in the chair in October, 1934. The third man, Russell Clark, received a life sentence and was paroled when terminally ill in 1968; he was the last survivor of the gang). 

Back at the Tucson capture, on January 25, 1934, the Thompson was entered into evidence, and there it stayed for 32 more years, long after Dillinger was dead and his gang members were likewise, or in Clark’s case, incarcerated for good. When the Tucson PD found the nearly forgotten Tommy Gun in 1966, they transferred it to the FBI, which takes a proprietary interest in all things Dillinger — the man who did more than anyone but J. Edgar himself to build the legend of the Bureau. The FBI put it in their collection,  and displayed it publicly until 2002, when it was moved to a private museum-like historical display exclusively for Bureau senior executives.


When it saw public light again in the DeKalb County Courthouse on Thursday, the history of this police and crime gun is written all over it. The gun still bears a Tucson evidence sticker from its 1934-66 sojourn in the Southwest. It shows signs of wear and finish loss, probably due in part to the chemicals that raised fingerprints from the weapon in 1934.

A few years ago, an Auburn policeman, Sergeant Edward McDonald, began playing, “Whatever happened to….” with the Dillinger Thompson. He tracked it to its former location on display and began asking questions.

McDonald found the traces of the gun, and started the ball rolling for its return to Auburn, which happened Thursday, at the county courthouse. The department plans to put it on display — but with some security, this time.

Unfortunately, Sgt. McDonald didn’t live to see the Thompson come home. He passed away last year, while the FBI was still making arrangements to transfer the firearm.

News reports:

This Dillinger capsule bio at PBS gave us the facts on the Tucson shootout.


Meet the BAR – in depth with the IMT

The Institute of Military Technology (the museum that spun off from Reed Knight’s amazing collection) has produced this video on the BAR, which includes some period training film and slide footage, Reed Knight himself going over the mechanism, and… best of all! Live fire.


We may be limited in what we can write this week (especially first half…) and we owe you TW3s for the last two weeks. And last week’s Saturday Matinee. Arrgggh, that’s all we can say to that right now. And that we’ll let you know when the backdated stuff goes up. In the meantime, enjoy the BAR.

The MP5 is not dead yet

We in the combat-American minority community tend to think of the MP5 as something passé: H&K blew the chance to sell millions of the things to the US military when they resolutely refused to re-engineer it for .45. Instead — during the Because you suck, and we hate you period explained here — making a 10mm version for black-clad Federal ninjutsu teams exclusively. That was one of the more boneheaded moves in the history of firearms marketing: FBI and ATF have about 5000 Special Agents each; the Army could have bought many times that number of .45 versions. The FBI, at least, still uses the 10mm MP5 lightly. The ATF’s best day with the gun was fatally backshooting one of their own agents with it through a wall at Waco.

H&K's most common MP5 variant, the MP5A3.

H&K’s historically common MP5 variant in SOF world, the MP5A3.

Meanwhile, SOF discovered the limitations of the MP5, with which they’d been deeply in love. The weapon did not have the simplicity and durability of a STEN gun or M3 grease gun. But the principal problem was the limitation of the MP five to a pistol cartridge. It didn’t matter what pistol cartridge were talking about: it was a short range proposition, great for door kicking, but when the occasional longer shot came up the MP5, like any submachinegun, couldn’t deliver the goods. The parabolic trajectory of the 9 mm around, let alone something like the .45 that we wanted but they never built, meant that you were out of business at 200 yards. The high quality and accuracy of the MP5 with its locked breech was the only reason you were still in business at 200 yards.

This all came to ahead in Grenada in 1983. It was a win for the USA, but it was an ugly win. Navy A6 aircraft bombed an 82nd Airborne Division position. The Rangers transported hundreds of tons of ammunition to the island, including every single 90 mm round in the inventory, which the Air Force then would not let them re-embark on the aircraft: so it wound up being blown in place. reporters, steeped in the anti-military ethos of the 1960s, were running all over the island looking for American atrocities that didn’t happen. So they latched onto the fact that some paratroopers “liberated” the Cuban Ambassador’s Mercedes for local transportation, and demanded those guys be prosecuted for a “war crime.” And the SEALs, and their MP5s, had a bunch of problems.

The SEALs’ problems are recounted generally online by the SEAL/UDT museum. One SEAL element and their rubber boats never assembled with their teammates, and those four SEALs remain missing to this day. But while the operation was still on, our friends in ARSOF HQ at Fort Bragg were already hearing complaints from frogmen whose MP5s had been outranged in the fight. Apart from the four men of ST6 lost at sea, none of the engaged SEALs died (a number were wounded, and decorated for valor). They were around, they were vocal, and everyone in the community heard the bark of these SEALs.

By the invasion of Panama in 1989, while there were still MP5s in the arms rooms, the hot ticket for all-round use was a short rifle that Colt called the M16 Carbine. The first ones were M16A1s with the sliding stock and short gas system of the old XM177 series, and a 14.5″ barrel. (The longer barrel, same as the rifle from the gas port forward, gave the short gun a similar pressure curve to the rifle, and increased reliability and durability over the Vietnam era CAR-15, at the cost of not looking quite as cool). The Navy, in fact, wound up leading the charge to replace both long rifles and short SMGs with an intermediate-sized, more capable carbine.

When the Oberndorf metalsmiths came out with a new submachine gun, the largely polymer UMP, the reaction in American special operations circles was a shrug: that ship had sailed. This time, they even made it in .45, but it was too late. 20 years earlier, they could have sold 300,000 .45 MP5s to the US Army. We’d be surprised if they sold 300 UMPs to the SOF world.

So we always assumed that the MP5 had gone out of production along with the rest of the roller-locked generation of H&K weapons. Imagine our surprise when we learnt it not only hasn’t, but has recently been upgraded.

MP5MLI- HK official

The gun was of course subject to many improvements in its life cycle. (Digging in some old boxes that hadn’t been cracked since the 1980s, we found evidence of that: straight and curved MP5 magazines in an old Rhodesian-style pouch). But HK is calling the new version the “Mid Life  Improvement,” which may not be entirely honest (isn’t it more of a “last gasp?”) but works as a portmanteau for holding all the current improvements:

  • Pickatinny rail on the receiver. The rail is proprietary, quick-detachable, and is claimed to return to zero. This is officially called the QRTR: Quick Release Top Rail.
  • More rails, left right and underneath the modular slimline forearm. These rails are detachable with a tool.
  • The stock is now a three-position one. The old stocks were either in or out and so not ideal for use with body armor. A small change (and one some units had made with a file!) but a welcome one.
  • Polymer parts in a new brownish color, including the trigger housing, the butt, and even the cocking handle knob.
  • A new finish which is claimed to provide better durability, and infrared-observation protection, compared to previous finishes. It has a distinctive color, RAL 8000 (RAL is a European color-matching firm like Pantone in the USA). The Germans call in a brown/green (braungrün) and in some photos, it does look like sort of a brown/green — almost like a World War II Olive drab, maybe a little more brown than that. But in HK’s official images, like the one leading this article, it’s much lighter, like a mustard brown. Better yet — the tank modelers say RAL 8000 is the color used by the Deutsche Afrika Corps in 1942. The guys who have test driven the gun call it “babyshit brown.” (Hey, we report, you decide). Anodizing, powder coating, and ceracote-type finishes being what they are, MP5 MLIs and G28 DMR rifles (also being shipped in RAL 8000) often are color-mismatched from part to part.

HK MP5 MLIThe HK system, of course, was always designed to be modular in the first place. Because of its compactness and caliber the MP5 offered less interchange with the full-size rifles and MGs than they had with each other, but people forget how radical the idea of knocking out two pins and going from a sliding, compact stock to a full-size stock with a good cheek weld was, back in the 1970s. You could honestly say that these guns were modular before modular was cool. 

It’s a pity that HK can’t export the HK 94 to the USA, but as a German company they’re in a hell of a jam between restrictive American import laws, and restrictive German export laws, and the two sets of laws are restrictive in different ways.

Hat tip: Bag Full of Guns, which probably got it from somewhere else, but that photo site is where we found it.

Here is the grandpappy of your M240

Larry Vickers runs through the history of the Browning Automatic Rifle. Three minutes.

In our time in the Army, we were brought up by Vietnam era or earlier vets who swore by this thing. Because they still existed in strategic caches and other storage, they were still part of the SF weapons man’s qualification until the end of the strategic cache program in the 1990s.

As Vickers relates, the BAR underwent no major changes throughout its official wife, which lasted from 1918 to 1958. The bipod and carrying handle were added, and an option for semi automatic fire was deleted, because at the slow rate of fire, it was easy to fire single shots by trigger manipulation. Those changes were complete by the mid-1920s, and the BAR was the base of fire of the infantry squad throughout World War II and the Korean War.

Even after the nominal replacement of the BAR by the M60 GPMG, National Guard, ARVN (both until circa 1970), and other foreign armies continued to use the ancient weapon. The Army’s replacement for the BAR in the squad automatic rifle role was for many years simply a standard infantry rifle, M14 or M16, fired in the automatic mode. This was unsatisfactory, especially to old-timers who remembered the BAR, and went to the development of the SAW. The Marines have since reverted to a rifle as the squad automatic weapon, the M27 IAR.

BAR men swore by their weapons, and SLA Marshall, whose research was very influential despite the later discovery that much of it was faked, did make the claim that fire in an infantry squad usually began at the BAR gunner and spread from him to the other squad members.

The BAR was the first US weapon to be frequently shipped with a plastic stock, beginning in 1944. The plastic BAR stock is designed to be the same weight as the original stock of black walnut, but is significantly stronger. (Plastics and composites would not be exploited for weight reduction until the later M14 rifle program).

The BAR was not without its limitations. While it was very reliable, it was complicated. We SF students had 78 parts to account for, disassembling the BAR against a time standard — something that was possible, but challenging. It was also very heavy for an infantry automatic weapon.

The BAR  managed to live on, in a way. While BARs were built, in peacetime, by Colt in the USA, the same design was made for the European market by Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre in Herstal, Belgium. Many BAR aficionados consider the FN Model D, which was available in several calibers and had a pistol grip, to be the ultimate BAR.

Its reliable mechanism was inverted by FN designers (M. Saive and M. Vervier) and used as the basis for the belt fed MAG general-purpose machine gun. That of course has replaced the dreadful M 60 in United States service, and been subject to many other developments since then.

Hat tip: Bob Owens at


Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: C&Rsenal

You get the sense that the original intent of C&Rsenal was to provide information about the sort of obsolete military (mostly) arms that are available to Americans who hold a “Curio & Relics” collectors’ license. But over the years it has evolved in different directions and with different results, results that make it quite interesting.

us-rifle-m14-POV-candrsenalOne thing the site has is excellent photography. The M14 POV picture to the right is actually a reject or unfinished image, by C&Rsenal’s standards.  It’s an interesting picture that shows you the standard (as opposed to NM) sights, and a rare M14 that has the selector switch on the right-hand side.

Fun fact about the M14 in automatic mode: it’s useless, you can’t hit jack with it, and the designers knew this from the very beginning. They knew that the quadruple objectives of reducing the weight of the M1, converting to a new cartridge of equivalent power (and recoil), increasing magazine capacity, and enabling selective fire, were mutually exclusive, but they couldn’t get Army leadership to pick or prioritize them honestly. (In the end they met most of the objectives, more or less, by providing an impractical full-auto switch, that was then never installed in most M14s).

Along with the POV pictures, C&Rsenal produces “anatomy” photos: essentially an exploded-view photograph of the weapon in question. They not only do this on marquee names in the gun world, like the 1911, Nambu, and Walther P-38, but also on much less common handguns like the French M1935a, and long arms like the PPSh submachine gun. And yes, they are well worth embiggening (and they’ll sell you prints of the popular ones, t-shirts, and that sort of thing).


They’ll also walk you from the image of the whole thing to the image of the fortyeleven parts with a step-by-step disassembly guide — here’s the one for the Czech Vz 27 pistol, widely used by German police and military forces in World War II.

All in all, there’s quite a bit to see over there at C&Rsenal – far more than we can cover in a short W4, and it’s of uniformly high quality. If you haven’t been there yet, go… and we won’t be seeing you back here for a while. There’s a lot to take in.

Early AR15 SP1s on Gunbroker

Someone’s been liquidating a collection of early Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1s for the last several months. The auctions are one-day auctions, so these particular numbers may have expired, but they’ll be relisted indefinitely if not sold. (If you’re more than a day or so behind, this link shows all that seller’s auctions, then “narrow your search” to AR or SP-1).

These guns differ in considerable detail from contemporary M16s, but they have their own collector following. They include:

  • Number 628:

AR-15 628 2

This is one of the earliest SP1s in circulation, and a rare one in this condition. It is a three-digit-serial number, after all, of a weapon that has been produced in the millions.

AR-15 628

The seller’s write-up is:

VERY, VERY, VERY EARLY 1964 production original, NEAR MINT AR-15 SP-1, in the original M-16(602) configuration. “Prancing Pony” Colt logo”, “Edgewater” two piece buffer, early plastic furniture, three prong flash hider, rubber butt pad, early saftey with hole, very early push pin w/ hole, non-chromed barrel w/1:12 twist, original solid split pin FP keeper, original bolt and carrier w/large head firing pin and the RARE original CHROME BOLT. EXCELLENT bore and chamber. VERY TIGHT fit. No magazine or box.

This is the most expensive of the early AR-15s he is offering, at a bracing $4,595 (buy-it-now). Despite that, it’s our opinion that this one is the one that offers the greatest potential for appreciation. This potential is limited, perhaps, by its already high price, but this is a rare high-condition survivor that is already fifty years old, and that has some rare features like early style “dimpled” pins. While retro builders strive to create guns like this (and they, too, will draw collector interest in the years to come), they’re not Colts and they’re not original time capsules like this.


  • Number 3387:

AR-15 3387-2

Condition-wise, this early SP1 is a standout. It does have a little trace of wear hear and there — handling, not firing, wear, it looks like. You can see just a little mark on the side of the magazine well from the rectangular pad on the ejection port cover.

AR-15 3387

Survival of these guns is fairly rare. For them to survive in near-mint condition, when many of their cohort were Bubba’d-up or parted out, is remarkable.  Remember, 1965 was almost fifty years ago, and for 20-30 of those years, these Colts were the only game in town for shooters, and shooters wanted to upgrade them. The seller knows this and has priced this example accordingly: Buy-it-now, $3,795. His description:

Collectors this is a 1965 production original MINT AR-15 SP-1 in the original M-16(602) configuration – “Prancing Pony” Colt logo”, “Edgewater” two piece buffer, early plastic furniture, three prong flash hider, rubber butt pad, early saftey with hole, non-chromed barrel w/1:12 twist, original solid split pin FP keeper, original bolt and carrier w/large head firing pin and the RARE original CHROME BOLT. EXCELLENT bore and chamber. VERY TIGHT fit.

  • Number 4329:

AR-15 4329Excellent, in box, early production SP1. This one has a few dings, some wear on the flash hider and a little bit of mottling on the pistol grip and stock. Buy it now, $2895. Seller’s write-up:

Collectors this is a 1965 production original NEAR MINT AR-15 SP-1 in the original M-16 ( 602) configuration – “Prancing Pony” Colt logo”, “Edgewater” two piece buffer, Bakelite plastic furniture, three prong flash hider, rubber butt pad, non-chromed bore w/1:12 twist barrel.

  • Number 7126:

AR-15 7126This gun’s a little later than the others. It’s in primo condition (view the pictures at the original auction) and is started at $2,550 with a Buy-it-now of $2,650. Seller’s description:

Collectors this is a 1966 production original NEAR MINT AR-15 SP-1 in the original M-16(602) configuration – “Prancing Pony” Colt logo”, “Edgewater” two piece buffer, early plastic furniture, three prong flash hider, rubber butt pad, non-chromed bore w/1:12 twist barrel.

Now, technically, these early SP1s differ from military ARs in several ways. The most obvious is the pivot screw in place of the pivot pin, but other SP1 modifications (not found in all vintages of SP1) include unshrouded firing pins, and larger trigger and hammer pins. After parts changed in the running military production, leftover parts that were no longer usable for the military contract (examples include Edgewater buffers and three-prong flash hiders) continued to be used up on SP1s for years.

Each one is a time capsule into Colt production. Prediction, especially of values, is generally a mug’s game, but original guns from this period seem likely to appreciate.

The hero, the drunk, the rifle, the museum

There are many like it:


But this one was his, and for years it was lost and forgotten, but one day it will be on display.

USMC Sgt Rafael PeraltaIt’s an ordinary Colt Model 945, M16A4 rifle, but this one belonged to a hero. Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta died clutching that rifle. From a Virginia newspaper:

Months after the first battle of Fallujah, U.S. troops and Iraqi forces descended on the city about 45 miles west of Baghdad to regain control, making door-to-door searches to clear the area of insurgents.

Peralta, a Mexican immigrant who enlisted the same day he received his Green Card in 2000, led a door-to-door search on Nov. 15, 2004, and came under fire upon entering the squad’s seventh house of the day.

Peralta, 25, was shot and fell to the ground. After an exchange of fire, insurgents fled the house, throwing a grenade behind them that landed near Peralta’s head.

“Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away,” his award citation reads.

After the battle, William Berry III, an armorer with Battalion Landing Team 1, 3rd Marines, got the unpleasant duty of cleaning Peralta’s rifle, thick with the dead man’s blood and penetrated with grenade shrapnel. There was a reason that then-Maj. A.J. Kostic, the battalion XO, wanted the rifle cleaned “very thoroughly”: Peralta had been nominated for the Medal of Honor. Berry remembered:

[Kostic] told me that this was in preparation for the M16A4 to be placed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps. My battalion had just finished a deployment with the 31st MEU, and had participated in the second Battle of Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury).

I know now that Sgt. Peralta’s Medal of Honor investigation is now over and he did receive posthumously the Navy Cross, for falling on a grenade, saving Marines’ lives in Fallujah.

After cleaning the rifle (which still had blood dried blood on it), I tagged it with a yellow 1018 tag, and then placed it into a wall locker in the armory at Camp Hansen, Okinawa.

We soon returned to Hawaii and carried on with Marine life. The Lava Dogs of 1/3 lost 53 Marines in Iraq on that deployment and I believe the M-16 A4 was to memorialize both Sgt. Peralta, and 1st Battalion, for actions in Falluja.

I visited the museum on Memorial Day in 2008 and probably very much enjoyed the whole museum, I did not find the right one display that I spent so much time cleaning. Also there was not much to mention the Fallujah campaign.

The M16A4 is essentially the A2 with the rails and modularity of the M4.

The M16A4 is essentially the A2 with the rails and modularity of the M4. It’s primarily a USMC rifle.

Thing is: Berry, who’s had some problems with adjustment and alcohol, wrote that letter from a Virginia Beach jail in 2010, where he was locked up for DUI — only the latest in a long, sad string of them. His letter was CC’d to his Congressman and the Marines’ Public Affairs office in Washington. Who lit the fire under whom is not recorded, but soon wires were burning, with serious, senior Marines repeating Berry’s question, “Where is Peralta’s rifle?”

It turns out, it was still exactly where Berry had put it, right where Maj. Kostic had told him to put it, in a locker in the Camp Hanson armory. Within four months from Berry’s jailhouse letter, the rifle was on its way to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, which is undergoing a significant expansion, one that will add 80,000 square feet and room to display the latest Marine legends alongside the old. When Berry makes his Memorial Day visit in 2018, on his annual pilgrimage to the Museum and Arlington, he will see the rifle he cleaned so carefully. This is the very rifle that he, and Kostic, and who knows how many other Marines preserved as a mute witness to the valor and the last moments of that great American, Rafael Peralta (who was actually a Mexican with a green card, but he’s American by blood forever now).

A good Ranger Hooah for all the Marines whose efforts put that rifle in the hands of the Museum curators. (It is, by the way, one hell of a museum).

As we do like our primary sources around here, here is William Berry’s letter from jail — complete with his poem about Peralta’s Rifle: Berrys Letter about Peralta.pdf

For another tale of a Marine, a rifle, and that same 2004 fight in Fallujah, go to DOD Live. This one has a happier ending — the Marine survives his wounds and recovers the rifle that was shot out of his hands.