Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week:

We think we know our way around guns and gun history, but in fact we know, mostly, the success stories — the winners that went forward into widespread use, more than the many other ways that were tried and found wanting. This Civil War veteran revolver is one of those also-rans; can you identify it?


It’s a French Lefaucheux pinfire revolver, in 12mm pinfire (about .47), introduced in 1854 and so edging Rollin White’s .22 short Smith & Wesson by a bit. Pinfire had some pros and cons. The rounds contained a primer or cap internally, including an anvil and a priming mixture, and the cartridge held a pin poised above that cap. The firearm’s hammer drove the pin into the anvil, setting off the primer and the (black) powder. Contrary to common belief, some pinfire rounds, at least, were field-reloadable. Both the Union and the Confederacy bought Lefaucheux pistols, and they were also very common as private-purchase arms for European officers before the centerfire system’s dominance was fully established.

They persisted for a very long time; Gustloff-Hirtenberg in Austria made pinfire ammunition as late as 1944 (stopping just before, or as soon as, the Red Army rolled over the plant), suggesting that the 90-year-old revolvers were still in second- or third-line service somewhere in Mitteleuropa. If the Soviets did their usual thing and carted the machinery off as reparations without checking it, they were probably pretty sore when they opened the crates and found out what they’d shipped. Needless to say, they never restarted production.

An education in pinfire and other alternative early ignition systems can be had at this weeks Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week, which is called the Cartridge Freedom Act (or by its URL, but it’s basically the blog and webpage of advanced early cartridge collector and historian Aaron Newcomer. Aaron freely shares his knowledge, his expertise, and his articles for cartridge collector magazines, demonstrating a deep knowledge and fresh enthusiasm for these time capsules from the dawn of the fixed-ammunition era.

In the early days of cartridges, today’s center- and rimfire rounds were far from the only ideas tried; they’re just the only ideas that still survive today. Indeed, it wasn’t at the time completely obvious that they would be the winners, and early centerfire cartridges tended to have some differences from those today (we keep meaning to do a post on early balloon head cartridges, whose manufacture had a lot in common with rimfire cartridges of the day).

Here’s another dead branch on the evolutionary tree, cupfire cartridges. These were like a rimfire cartridge, except the “rim” was in the front of these front-loaded revolver cartridges, and the hammer struck the cup in the rear, which contained the priming mixture, against the side of the chamber. This was a dodge to get around the Rollin White patent on through-bored cylinders loaded from the rear. The cartridges are a .28, three .30s, and a .42 — even the dimensional nomenclature of these oddball rounds was different. They were popular enough to be loaded by several ammunition producers, despite being utterly forgotten — except by Aaron and other collectors, perhaps — today.

cupfire7 An advantage of cupfire was shared with center- and rim-fire: it didn’t matter how the cartridge was oriented. For a pinfire round, naturally, it mattered greatly, but there was usually a notch to make sure the pin went in the “right” way. Some time on the site will make you smarter about this kind of thing.

We were drawn to the blog when we read this thread on Reddit, and were originally going to simply blog the subject of the thread, the rare .58 Schubarth round, so rare in fact that a note card from a previous owner, Berkeley R. Lewis, Colonel, Ordnance, misstates that it is a Gallagher and Gladding round. It’s amazing that Newcomer gets this right when Lewis had it wrong. (The Schubarth patent was different from that of Gallagher & Gladding).

lewis noteThe rifle was a complicated conversion of the Springfield. Looking at this drawing, it’s easy to see how the far simpler centerfire Allin conversion (which also didn’t have any right way or wrong way to load the rounds) won out.


The rounds were reloadable with Minié balls and, we believe, ordinary percussion caps. Here’s a picture of the egg-shaped, 2-inch-long loaded cartridge:


Aaron’s post on the .58 Schubarth has more pictures, including those of other rare specimens (including a fired case) of this near-unicorn rarity, from the collections of his friends and fellow collectors, and patent pictures. He’s also been answering questions in the Reddit thread.

We were meaning just to blog the .58 Schubarth, but then Nathaniel F at The Firearms Blog did, and since a lot of you read that site too, we took our post in a different direction.

Bonus thing to find on his page: there’s some really interesting stuff on excavated Civil War pinfire casings.

While the Civil War has a reputation as a muzzle-loading war, cartridge arms were coming into vogue, and by war’s end Union cavalry were predominantly equipped with breechloaders, mostly rim- and center-fire single shots, but also some repeaters.


The Battle of Jericho

Most people know at least a couple of things about the Battle of Jericho. The Biblically learned may even have studied the relevant verses (Joshua 5:13-6:27), and most everybody in the USA can probably recognize the old Negro spiritual, here delivered very musically, but with less authentic African vibe, by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

The key line, indeed the only line, is what most people know of the battle: “Joshua f’it the Battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.”

As it turns out, there really was a Battle of Jericho, and the anonymous old slave who created that moving song was closer to right about what happened than you might think, and the battle is of great interest itself and because of its consequences. In fact, it is the oldest siege in recorded history, taking place in the Late Bronze Age about 1406-1405 BC and thereby predating that of Troy by about 150 years.  For many centuries, Western scientists, historians and archaeologists debated whether the description of the battle, or the very existence of such as battle as described, in the sacred texts of Jews and Christians was factual, allegorical, or apocryphal. There are no known written sources on the Battle of Jericho other than the biblical text.

Now, Jericho isn’t the earliest siege there ever was. Otherwise, why would the city have had walls? People walled their cities defensively for a very long time. (Indeed, there’s ruins of a mysterious stone tower here that dates to perhaps 8,000 BC, but there are no clues to what it was for or who built it). But the people of Jericho had something to defend: their families, of course, their valuables, and the spring that watered their bleak desert land.

Jericho at ground level today -- an oasis fed by a spring.

Jericho (Tel-es Sultan) at ground level today — an oasis fed by a spring.

First let us set the stage. At the point in the Bible where the Battle of Jericho takes place, the ancient Hebrews have escaped the captivity of Egypt and have been wandering for 40 years in the deserts of Sinai and modern southern Israel, a process described in the text as producing spiritual improvement. They found themselves across the Jordan River from a walled city, inhabited by Canaanites, a lost race whose poor fortune it was to have their homeland promised to the Jews by God. The Canaanites’ city, Jericho, was protected by the fast-flowing river, but the river miraculously ceased to flow, and Joshua’s men crossed the dry bed. After interviewing and coordinating with a spy inside the walls (Rahab, according to tradition a hooker, although that may be a mistranslation; she may have been more of a publican) the Hebrews’ army conducted several demonstrations on the fields around the city, perhaps to lull the Canaanites into inaction, and then, Joshua blew his trumpet “and the walls came tumbling down.”

Rahab and her family were spared; everyone else, man, woman and child, and even domestic animals, was put to the sword. Bronze Age wars had no judge advocates.

For centuries the story was believed to be just that, a story. After all, before they were committed to writing, the Hebrews’ ancient texts were thought to have been passed down orally, dependent on human memorization  (and subject to human modification). Nut late in the 20th Century, evidence emerged that made a plausible understanding of the fall of Jericho possible, and that produced a remarkable degree of congruity with the Biblical version. John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times in 1990:

”When we compare the archeological evidence at Jericho with the biblical narrative describing the Israelite destruction of Jericho, we find a quite remarkable agreement,” Dr. Bryant G. Wood, an archeologist at the University of Toronto, wrote in the March-April [1990] issue of Biblical Archeology Review.

Such an interpretation, if it survives critical appraisal, would be important to archeologists and biblical scholars alike. Jericho, Dr. Wood said, had become a ”parade example” of the difficulties encountered in correlating archeology with the Bible, particularly the account of the military conquest of ancient Canaan in which Joshua is said to have led the Israelites after their 40 years of wandering in the Sinai desert. Many scholars had dismissed the biblical account as so much folklore and religious rhetoric.

Excavations at the modern-day site of Jericho, now known as Tel es-Sultan, a remarkable 800 feet below sea level, have established that there were two sets of walls (inner and outer), that the inner walls were quite strongly fortified, and that the walls fell down and a layer of ash covered the site at about 1410 BC.

Jericho, below today's ground level, excavated walls.

Jericho, below today’s ground level, excavated walls.

In Paul K. Davis’s popular history of sieges, he writes:

Twentieth-century excavations have shown that the level of Jericho at the end of the fifteenth century had a retaining wall 12 to 15 feet high topped by a mud-brick wall an additional 20 to 26 feet in height and 6 feet thick. Outside the retaining wall was a second wall of mud bricks. Rahab lived between the walls in what has been regarded as the poorer quarters of the city, which numbered perhaps 1,200 within the 6 acres enclosed by the interior walls. An earlier level of excavation shows the city had been destroyed by Egyptians perhaps 150 years earlier, and it is probable the walls of Joshua’s time were built using the earlier walls as a foundation. The spring gave the city a ready water supply and food was plentiful. Supplies were not a problem, but the condition of the walls might have been.

According to the King James Version of the Bible, the “walls fell flat.” In his 1990 work on Jericho, Bryant Wood remarked that the better translation from the Hebrew would be “fell beneath itself,” in other words, collapsed.

While the Bible ascribes the fall to divine intervention, Jericho lay in a rift valley and there is evidence of both earlier and later quakes. Of course, a timely quake would be seen by Bronze Age warriors of any faith as a mark of divine intervention, whether by the single God of the Jews or the many gods, or perhaps a warrior god, or the pagan societies.

Such an occurrence would have given an easy slope up the earthen embankment between the inner and outer city walls, allowing the Hebrews to proceed “up into the city, every man straight before him” (Joshua 6:20). No description is given of resistance, only of results. “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6:21).

Perhaps the Canaanites were pacifists, and didn’t resist. Bad luck, if so. One final detail from Davis:

Excavations carried out by an Italian team in 1996 found that a section of the north wall did not fall as did the rest of the city walls; perhaps that was where Rahab lived.

Rahab had earned her exemption, says the Bible, by spying for the Hebrews and for concealing their secret agents when Canaanite counterintelligence was trying to hunt them down.

And back to the Times. Remember that layer of ash we mentioned?:

A three-foot layer of ash, containing many pottery fragments and mud bricks from a wall, was found at the site, well preserved because it was sealed by sediments that accumulated over the years the destroyed city lay unoccupied. The charred fragments have been dated at 1410 B.C., plus or minus 40 years. Finally, several Egyptian scarabs, or amulets, found in tombs at Jericho had inscriptions placing them in the same period.

The battle continues. Bryant Wood is firmly in the Biblical story based on truth camp, and other archaeologists and journalists (including whoever has done the editing on Wikipedia, whose entry on Jericho is worthless) tend to be in the Bible is a myth camp.

Of course, there is enough room in the sparse archaeological record for both believers and skeptics to find the confirmation they’re looking for, but historically, this is the oldest siege we know anything about. One recalls that for centuries the siege of Troy, too, was thought to be mythological.

How do we get from a Bronze Age battle to a song of slaves’ hope? The answer lies in the other parts of the Biblical story, perhaps. The story of the book of Joshua is the story of another group of slaves earning the support of God, and emerging into their own new country. “Free at Last!”


It seemed like a good idea to add an African American’s arrangement of the old spiritual. It is striking to us how similar Moses Hogan’s arrangement is to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s. We guess there’s only so much you can do with Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. It’s hard to beat the Tabernacle Choir but Moses and his choir put their hearts into it.

We’re not sure how we found this, but it may have been divine intervention, because Google led us through the wilderness to the website of the choir of our own high school, in a town and state with which we no longer have any connection whatsoever. But it was also the birthplace of Eli Whitney of interchangeable parts fame, so it has that going for it.


  1. The current PC term is “African-American,” naturally, but the term of dignity used at the time this remarkable song came to the sight of the general American public was “Negro.” Using that term helps locate this song in 19th Century history, where it became part of blacks’ quest for freedom and an anthem of the Abolition movement.


Davis, Paul K. Besieged: An Encyclopedia of Great Sieges From Ancient Times to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2001.

Wilford, John Noble. Believers Score in Battle Over the Battle of Jericho. The New York Times, 22 Feb 1990. Retrieved from:

“Branded — Marked with the No-Go Brand.”

What do you do when you’re branded?1 Well, when you’re a 7 1/2″ Colt 1873 Single-Action Army Revolver and Army inspectors reject you, the word is not “branded,” technically, but “condemned.” And you get pulled from the ranks of all your brothers going to Artillery troopers, and sent back to Colt. And 139 years later, you’re a puzzle and a delight to collectors — a mass-produced firearm with a one-off story to tell.

condemned SAA

No word on whether there is a ceremony with ominous drum rolls2. As a pistol you are fortunate in not having buttons, stripes, badges or accouterments to be lopped off at sword’s point.

Colt’s records show that this pistol wasn’t returned to the Army after rework (it’s possible that to the War Department, this serial number really was “branded”) but instead shipped out in a batch of 50 commercial guns to a New York dealer.

One unique feature of this weathered old draft dodger:condemned SAA notches

It also has an interesting 5 notches cut on the left side of the barrel, and also on the butt of the right grip.


Make of that what you will.

condemned SAA with letterA Colt letter documents the gun’s history, and Jackson Armory, a perennial source of wicked interesting firearms, has it on offer to the “very advanced collector” on GunBroker. With a starting bid of $7,000, it’s a bit (okay, thousands) too advanced for our tastes. But you have to love the way GunBroker makes it possible to click your way to an education on firearms.

Hat tip, a LEO buddy who is a prolific source of really good blogging ideas.


  1. If you’re an American of a certain age, you’ll get the TV show reference.
  2. This drumming-out ceremony from the opening credits of the TV show Branded with Chuck Connors was a real thing, and was still done as late as the late 50s or early 60s, when guys we know saw it done to a miscreant at 10th Special Forces Group at Bad Tölz.

The Case of the Purloined Panther, and the Boosted Bronzes

Everybody in the small Baltic Sea village of Heikendorf near Kiel knew the old man was a collector. A retired financier, his name is not being reported, or it’s being reported with just a last initial, as German custom reports those under criminal charges, as “Hans-Dieter F.”  Everyone, it seems, but the German authorities. The locals knew about his Panther tank too — as recently as 1978, he’d used its go-anywhere capability to help neighbors out in a particularly bad winter, remembered as Schneekatastrophe 1978 by the Burgermeister. But the German authorities take a hard line on this type of collecting, and they sent the Bundeswehr to collect the Panther, and the man’s other treasures.

It's been a while since a German recovery vehicle crew recovered a Panther.

It’s been a while since a German recovery vehicle crew recovered a Panther.

They turned the turret around so that the long 75mm gun would be safely in the footprint of the low-boy.

They turned the turret around so that the long 75mm gun would be safely in the footprint of the low-boy.


The other treasures included a torpedo, a V-1 buzz bomb…


V1 pilotless aircraft

…and a complete 8.8CM Flak (Flugzeugabwerkanone, anti-aircraft cannon) gun (the legendary “88”,)

flak gun recovery

Ironically, it was a search for Nazi art that brought the authorities to the unnamed man’s Heikendorf door. Searchers seeking both looted art from Jewish owners (which brought them to the collection of the late Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich’s Schwabing district), and Nazi art thought to have been torn down at war’s end, have had success this year with works long thought lost. Before his passing in May, Gurlitt (whose father, art dealer to Adolf Hitler, is thought to have bought the works, often from from distressed sellers) reportedly instructed his representatives to assist in returning looted works to the descendants of their original owners. Many of Gurlitt’s works were thought lost; Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Monet and Renoir did not appeal to Hitler, who considered modern art “degenerate,” and some of the works in the Gurlitt collection long have been considered missing and probably destroyed by art experts. German analysts continue to catalog and review the 1,280 works seized from Gurlitt’s apartment and 60 more from his Salzburg, Austria country seat.


From Gurlitt’s paintings, the investigators followed threads to plastic art, that is, sculpture. The missing sculptures were not the ones looted by the Nazis, but the ones made by Nazis (here’s an overview of top Nazi sculptors and their works). The Bronze Horses of the Nazi sculptor Josef Thorak from the grounds of the Reichstag turned up in a shed in the Palatinate.

Two recovered bronze sculptures made for Adolf Hitler's imposing Reich Chancellery that have been missing for years are stored in a police compound in the western German town of Bad Bergzabern May 22, 2015. Police said in a statement they raided 10 addresses in five states across Germany on Wednesday and were investigating eight suspects aged between 64 and 79 for holding the art works or selling them on. Josef Thorak and Arno Breker custom-made the art works for Hitler's Chancellery, which was designed by his architect Albert Speer and from which he planned to rule a Greater German Reich. After World War Two, the works were moved to a military barracks north of Berlin before disappearing in 1989. REUTERS/Staff

Larger-than-life bronze horses by Thorak in a police warehouse, Bad Bergzabern, Germany. The sculptures had been captured by the Soviet Army and were last seen in East Germany in 1989. The main damage seems to be holes that may have been used to attach lifting eyes, suggesting that the horses were removed before the Chancellery was destroyed by bombing and artillery.

Berlin, Neue Reichskanzlei (Reich Chancellery); built 1938 by Albert Speer). - Partial view of the North-Eastern facade with horse sculpture by Josef Thorak. - Photo, 1939.

Berlin, New Reich Chancellery. Built 1938 by Albert Speer, destroyed 1945. Partial view of the North-Eastern facade with horse sculpture by Josef Thorak. -Photo, 1939.

This led to at least one of Arno Breker’s signature sculptures, “The Armed Forces” (once half of a pair of “The Armed Forces” and “The Party”, about 40 tons of bronze apiece) guarded the doors of the Reichskanzlei) turned up badly damaged, reportedly having spent 50+ years in an East German scrapyard.

(Another Breker statue, the relief “The Watchmen,” was offered to collectors by the same people trying to sell some of the other Nazi art). Detectives pursuing the Breker statues discovered the North German collector —  they have been coy about where “The Armed Forces” turned up, but it was in the Kiel area — but what he was hiding in his home turned out not to be a dramatic bronze from the Nazi era.

In the end, the Panther went quietly into captivity.

In the end, the Panther went quietly into captivity. It appears to have a mix of early and late Ausf. G features — not unusual. 

Local authorities said he lived quietly, even by the standards of the quiet town.  The State’s Attorney has seized all the hardware on suspicion of violating Germany’s ultra-strict Kriegswaffenkontrollgezetz, which translates to Law for the Control of Weapons of War. Senior State’s Attorney for Kiel, Birgit Hess, is preparing possible charges.

How do you put an evidence tag on a 50-ton tank? The German answer seems to be packing tape.

How do you put an evidence tag on a 50-ton tank? The German answer seems to be packing tape.

The accused’s lawyer says it’s all a misunderstanding: “It’s demilitarized,” in accordance with the law, attorney Peter Gramsch says. So is all the other hardware.

If the attorney is right, the authorities might indeed have to return the collection to Klaus-Dieter.  These items are worth a very large sum of money, and that goes for both the weapons and the artwork. Most of them seem to have been acquired from scrapyards in legitimate purchases, but the State’s temptation to simply keep these valuables for its own museums is going to be hard to overcome.

You Know You Want One. Which One?

One of the coolest guns ever let loose on an unsuspecting world was the “Schmeisser” (as the Allies called it, although Hugo Schmeisser had nothing to do with it; it did use his magazine patent) MP.38 and MP.40 submachine guns.

MP40 goepfert

Arguably the first of the second-generation submachine guns, the MPs incorporated all of the canonical 2G traits: notably folding stocks and industrial pressing and screw-machine parts for rapid manufacture. (The canonical 2G is probably the Sten, whose stock was removable, not folding, but which set records still unbeaten for economy and crudity of manufacture for a major power’s service weapon. The US 2G SMG, the M3 “Grease Gun,” was a model of fit and finish, at least as far as mass-produced pistol-caliber bullet hoses went).

The MP has a number of reasons it’s technically interesting, but its lasting appeal these days stems from three things:

  1. Someone collects anything having to do with the Third Reich, and this was a signature personal weapon of that grim regime; there is no weapon more commonly associated with the Blitzkrieg that you can hang on your wall. (Maybe a Stuka or Panzer III, if you had a really big wall?)
  2. After the war, it was (and to some extent still is) Hollywood’s go-to Bad Guy Gun. Everyone from Smersh, to KAOS, to Blofeld’s Nehru-jacketed (or were they jump-suited?) minions seems to have an MP40. They even show up in space operas and 1930s gangster films — almost always in the hands of the bad guys.

    MP40 with movie villains and Nazis (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

    MP40 with movie villains who were also Nazis (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

  3. It looks cool in that certain way of many German weapons. It has a certain Bauhaus-meets-Bridgeport, Industrial Age look to it. It is one of the most identifiable silhouettes in the firearms world, even now.

MP40 drawing

As a bonus, they fire common, readily available ammunition.

At the time, the MP. 38 was a revelation, if not a revolution. It was a stamped weapon (the receiver appears to have been pressed on a mandrel) that didn’t feel flimsy or cheesy.

What brought this to our attention is the sheer number of MPs are available on GunBroker right now. There’s usually one or two, but this week there are seven of them, most of them original, transferable, C&R guns. (Two are tube guns offered at what we think is too high of a reserve). Almost all of them are offered by Frank Goepfert (you may remember the “Colt 601″ receiver that was a mixmaster that we commented on a couple of months back. The high bidder had thought it was an authentic and complete 601, and Frank allowed him to roll the auction back — correct move in our opinion.

MP40 on Gunbroker

If we were bidding today — and we’re not — it would be this one, rather than one of Frank’s, we’d bid on. Some of his are in much nicer finish condition, but this one just seems like the best match of authenticity, vibe, accessories, and, potentially, deal. Look for it to sell in the mid teens.

Selection, Assessment & Training: the IJN Way

500px-Naval_Ensign_of_Japan.svgAt the dawn of World War II, Americans had extremely solid feelings of racial and national superiority. Indeed, throughout the war national propaganda featured propaganda themes that careful analysis would have shown were mutually contradictory: the Japanese were cunning, stealthy, and powerful; yet they were dimwitted, nearsighted, bucktoothed buffoons. These feelings were put to a test when are forces encountered the Imperial Japanese Navy. No one who had faced the Navy’s night gunnery or its world-class carrier pilots in those dark days of the war’s first five or six months came away thinking he’d faced a dimwitted, nearsighted, bucktoothed buffoon — if he came away with body and soul still integrated at all.

US intelligence bulletins that described Japanese ships and aircraft as inferior copies of Western types, and Japanese training methods as antiquated, cruel and stupid, producing automata who had no skills apart from blindly following orders, were exposed as a combination of wishful thinking and racial prejudice (ironically, two factors that colored Japanese intelligence as well).

"Jap Infantry Weapons." Period poster. Click to embiggen.

“Jap Infantry Weapons.” Period poster. Click to embiggen.

By 1945 we had beaten the hated Japs, but we still didn’t really understand them. One of the great miracles of human achievement is the story of how Japan could go in the matter of barely more than a century from a primitive feudal, agrarian society to a modern industrial nation that was able to equip a modern Army and Navy with effective weapons of almost entirely domestic design, and produce the men to operate these weapons. It requires considerable study; while the weapons of the IJN like its super-battleships, super-submarines and aircraft have been studied at length, less study has been given to its personnel practices. They are a synthesis of Japanese culture and worldwide best-practices of the late 19th Century, and they produced both  one of the world’s greatest naval air arms, and the flexible, imaginative infantry that bedeviled the British in Malaya, the Americans in the Philippines, and all the Allies that would fight them in New Guinea and on the island-hopping campaign.

There is a resource that will give you insight to Japanese personnel practices, if you use it, and that is a series of living history interviews by Dan King, a former diplomat who, rare among Americans, speaks and understands spoken Japanese well. King has published several books we can highly recommend, including:

  • A Tomb Called Iwo Jima: Firsthand Accounts from Japanese Survivors. Paperback. Kindle.
  • The Last Zero Fighter: Firsthand Accounts from Japanese Naval Pilots. PaperbackKindle.

Japanese combat leadership was experienced, NCO/PO leadership. Unlike officer-heavy armies of the US, Russia, or the Third World, the Japanese had very few, and very elite, officers. By “elite,” we mean that they were selected for being in the top tail of the ability distribution (cognitively and physically), and they were trained in an extremely demanding academy. But the percentage of officers was always low, and first- and second-line leaders were invariably NCOs, promoted into leadership positions (and trained for those positions) based on ability and proven performance. Mutual respect between the academy officers and the up-from-the-ranks NCOs was the vital glue that produced the remarkable combat cohesion of Japanese units.

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

An Aviator in the IJN, usually of enlisted rank and even younger than his Allied counterpart, was one of three technical specialties: pilot, navigator/observer (who in multi-crew aircraft, much like in the Luftwaffe, was more likely to be the aircraft commander than the senior pilot was), and radio operator/gunner. This technical division was much like other air arms. But Japan was unique in the degree to which it made its pilots from a raw material of unformed, almost uneducated but able youth — children, by today’s measures.

King reduces it to an aphorism:

While Western powers trained officers to be pilots, Japan primarily turned teenage boys into pilots.

From the same source (The Last Zero Fighter), here’s an overview of the many paths to flight in Imperial Japanese (Naval) service.

As there are several trails leading to the summit of Mt. Fuji, there were several paths a young man could take to the cockpit.

  1. Graduate from the naval academy, serve aboard a ship for a year, and then apply for flight school.
  2. Graduate from a university (or be enrolled in school) and join the reserves as an officer and attend pilot training. Afterwards he would return to his job, or continue with his studies.
  3. Obtain his civilian pilot license and join the reserves as an officer.
  4. Join the navy as an enlisted sailor, serve aboard a ship for a year, and then sit for an exam for admittance into Sōren preparatory flight course.
  5. As a teenager, take the entrance exam for the Navy’s Yokaren preparatory flight course. If the applicant was accepted, he was in the navy.

Each of these paths had associated hazing, harassment, and outright abuse that make their Western counterparts’ “plebe years” or “square corners” seem like kid stuff. Surviving Japanese combat pilots recount running a gantlet that transcended the metaphorical to include real physical beatings, including with swagger sticks or small versions of a baseball bat, labeled on them with the Japanese characters saying, “Bat to Instill Military Spirit.”

Each path also accelerated during the war. For instance the Yokaren course was a wartime improvisation, and Academy graduates who wanted to fly came to be spared the preliminary year aboard ship. The Soren and Yokaren courses were combined as the war ground on. (Remember, in Japan, the war started in the 1930s with the Mukden Incident; 8 December 41 (the date of the Pearl Harbor and Philippines attacks in Japan) didn’t mean a new war to Japan, just a new theater.

Each training pathway had associated cognitive and physical exams associated with it, and scores were set quite high. Despite this stringent administrative selection, each training pathway also had more (Yokaren/Soren) or less (Hiko Gakusei, the course for regular officer pilots) attrition. Those attrited were assigned according to the needs of the Navy, sometimes as non-pilot flight crew, sometimes to shipboard or land-based aviation maintenance functions, and sometimes to non-aviation sea duty ratings and assignments.

Naval officers got these cool daggers -- and the burden of command. The pilots and crewmen they commanded, including most of Japan's top aces, were kids and youths. They got the job done (this dagger sold at Cowan's auction house some years ago. Beware the many fakes).

Naval officers got these cool daggers — and the burden of command. The pilots and crewmen they commanded, including most of Japan’s top aces, were kids and youths. They got the job done (this particular dagger sold at Cowan’s auction house some years ago. Beware the many fakes).

The Yokaren course was the most “foreign” to us today, although it has some parallels to the Army’s initial entry option for Warrant Officer Flight School. The intake were secondary school students — already a small minority of Japanese youth of the 30s and 40s — who had passed the grueling exams, and they were from 15 to 20 years of age. (The Soren students were a little older, thanks to their prior Navy service). King again:

Yokaren started in June 1930 to satisfy the increasing need for pilots and observers. The Navy recruited boys of high caliber from among eighth grade graduates or above. The first Yokaren course was set up at the Oppama Airfield attached to the Yokosuka Naval Air Group. The Navy promised to give the boys their remaining middle school and higher formal education before starting their actual flight training. In addition, once they completed the course, they would be naval aviators eligible for faster promotions and higher pay than in the surface fleet. Applicants were required to be top-notch students of excellent physical condition. The Navy would not accept an applicant if he was the sole male heir. The original training period was two years and eleven months which included a 30 day experience aboard a warship.

That was all before the student started flight training! The Soren school also included a wide variety of initial academic and physical training. Soren grad Saburo Sakai remembered being taught to catch flies with his open hand, as a means of training student reflexes; others remember tumbling exercises in a sort of man-carrying gyroscopic wheel, designed to raise alertness under exotic combat flight profiles and g-loads.

The classes of the Yokaren were numbered from the first to the last… the nineteenth.

As the Japanese like to say, “It takes three years to grow a pilot.” The Navy expended a great deal of time and resources on the education and training of her teenage pilots. The aviator was akin to a bonsai tree, requiring much time and a great deal of patience to shape.

Along with the classroom education in traditional, military, and aviation subjects, future pilots were also inculcated with Japanese nationalism, fighting spirit, and socialized to the Empire’s warrior culture.

At the end of the Yokaren / Soren course, the students were classified and sent to pilot or navigator training. Still more modifications to training were required by the pressures of the war, but the Soren and Yokaren programs allowed Japan to fight its naval air battles with young pilots recruited directly from middle school, or from the ranks of loyal and proven seamen, and fight effectively with a ratio of about nine such enlisted or PO pilots for every commissioned officer — including reserve and wartime officers.

There are many more gems of knowledge about the times, administration, and the culture of the IJN in Dan King’s books. We recommend them unreservedly.

Britain, Avulcular: The Last V-Bomber Flies its Last Flights

It”s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Britain, England really, was a world leader in aeronautics. Once, they were manufacturing not one, but three state-of-the-art nuclear bombers, the Vickers Valiant, the Handley-Page Victor, and the last flying example, the Avro Vulcan. The Valiant was a stop-gap, in case the Victor or Vulcan, which included much risky technology like the Vulcan’s delta wing and the Victor’s scimitar planform, failed. The Victor flew for decades as a tanker, and the Vulcan was the last dedicated long-range pure bomber — nuclear and conventional — of the RAF.

If you have not seen a Vulcan fly, you still can — this summer — before the last flying example is grounded for good.

The UK tech website The Register can’t address this without Gawker-style ignorant snark:

[The Falklands War Black Buck ultra-long-distance raids were]  the close of the Vulcan’s story with the RAF. And yet there was much affection for the old V-bombers, despite the fact that they had only provided a credible deterrent for a few years and had otherwise been undistinguished. This affection was nurtured by the RAF, which continued to have a taxpayer-funded Vulcan display unit until 1992 – ten years after the Vulcan retired as a fighting aircraft, almost a quarter-century after Polaris had rendered the V-force obsolete, and 32 years after the V-force had ceased to be credible in its primary mission.

Yeah, the bombers can’t get through missile defense. Pilots are obsolete. Robotic weapons are the future. Well, they were certainly the future when Sir Duncan Sandys wrote the White Paper that sounded the death knell of the British aerospace industry in 1957, and almost sixty years later, we’ve had Linebacker II and the ’67, ’70, ’73, ’82 and ’86 Middle East wars, two Arab WMD facilities erased from the map by the IDF AF despite the latest Russian/Soviet air defense gear, Desert Storm, and OIF, and today’s Sir Duncan wannabees are teling us that robotic weapons are the future.

Dude, where’s my jetpack?

After the RAF retired its Vulcan display flight, a nonprofit formed to maintain the plane in taxiable condition. (Yes, the British aero scene is so pitiful that people get excited to see vintage aircraft moving on the ground. But then, the US would never allow a nonprofit to adopt any postwar bomber, and our much larger nuclear alert force has no flying survivors, so who are we to bag on the Brits?)

Even after this the Vulcan To The Sky Trust came into being, and the old RAF display plane XH558 returned to the skies once more in 2007.

Now, however, the grand old warhorse of the skies is finally retiring for good. A group of companies that provided support and skills to keep XH558 going made the decision that they could no longer afford the costs associated with keeping the Vulcan in the air, especially as most of the parts no longer existed and airframe hours were becoming a major concern.

XH558 is not off to the scrap yard however, but to her new home at the Vulcan Aviation Academy where the next generation of engineers can learn their craft.

Until then, you can see, hear and feel XH558 in action on its UK farewell tour.

via Goodbye Vulcan: Blighty’s nuclear bomber retires for the last time • The Register.

Do read all three pages, as the Vulcan’s early history is very interesting.

We Honor Few Soldiers on the 4th of July

And this is the original Declaration, showing the ravages of time. But this is the document with the original signatures, not the copies most have come to know. (NARA).

And this is the original Declaration, showing the ravages of time. But this is the document with the original signatures, not the copies most have come to know. And yeah, it embiggens. (NARA).

The American Revolution was not without its military heroes, from brave, doomed Nathan Hale to bookworm turned artillerist Henry Knox, from John Stark of “Live Free or Die” fame to Israel Putnam, “Ol’ Put,” whose wartime effect comes up with completely different numbers if you’re counting battlefield success or the acclaim of his own troops. Each is interesting, and there are many more like them, men who helped us win our independence from the mother country by force of arms.

And then there are the heroes of the Continental Congress, the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Venn intersection of the two sets turns out to be very small. Only one of the signatories of the Declaration, Delaware’s Caesar Rodney, listed his occupation as “military” (.pdf)  at the time of the Declaration — and he listed that secondarily to his main gig as a plantation owner.

The somewhat battered American tradition of separation of brass and state was a birth condition. Militarily, the greatest of the founders was certainly Washington, who had experienced service in the French & Indian War. But he did not sign the Declaration of Independence, even though he was well known to the men meeting in Philadelphia, especially the powerhouse Virginia delegation (Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lee). Like Jefferson and John Adams, many of the signers were lawyers, which goes to show that America was born in original sin. Merchants and planters were well represented, and there were two physicians (New Hampshire’s Josiah Bartlett and Matthew Thornton were both doctors).

Connecticut sent two lawyers, not Putnam; New York sent two merchants, not Benedict Arnold. Massachusetts sent four merchants and two lawyers, one of whom was also a scientist — Robert Treat Paine, one of three whose names are on the document, the others being Franklin (secondary to printer) and Jefferson (secondary to planter).

While many of the Signers subsequently served in the militia (they were, after all, prominent men and community leaders), and a few in the Continental Army, none seems to have been killed or wounded (one did get whacked in a duel with another Continental officer). None seems to have distinguished himself on the Field of Mars, except for Henry Lee. But, in another sense, all of them had won distinction enough by scribing their names on the foundational document of our Republic.

We have plenty of holidays to honor military heroes, of the Revolution and of the subsequent wars. Let today be a day to honor those visionaries who envisioned a more perfect union. Even the lawyers!


This post has been corrected to note that Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee did indeed distinguish himself in battle after the Declaration. He led what today might be considered an SOF cavalry unit.

The Rise and Fall of the Halftrack

As a kid in the sixties, you couldn’t get away from ’em. Turn on Combat with Vic Morrow, and there’d be one in every few episodes, hauling American infantry up to the point where they’d start walking. A couple years later, The Rat Patrol stuck German Balkankreuz symbols on them and made ’em the bad guys. Around that time, they made the TV news, too, carrying long columns of hard Israeli troops to victory over Egyptians, Jordanians and Syrians with more modern weapons. Our cousin’s friend Charlie even owned one and drove it on parades — and to winch State Troopers out of snowbanks in blizzards. The White M3 half-track troop carrier, and its variations, were everywhere. It, and its foreign competitors, had considerable mindshare and were intensively developed from about 1930 through 1945, but none were made after war’s end. By the time the Israelis stormed Jerusalem, the armies that developed the halftracks and used them in WWII were all out of them — they’d surplused them, and when there were no surplus takers, towed them onto gunnery ranges, where the bones of a few remain.

Why did half-tracks go from invention, to ubiquity, to obsolescence in 15 years? Why did they hang on another 20 in places like Israel? These are interesting questions, and the answers begin in World War I.

World War I Prime Movers’ Limitations

While everyone thinks of World War II as the first mechanized war, the forces of all nations saw the potential of internal-combustion motive power early, and they all built thousands and thousands of prime movers. (Germany, Britain and the US were experimenting with artillery tractors even in the 19th Century). None of these was quite like the ones that would be used in the next war. There were several ways to put power to the ground, and by 1918 several competitive ways were in use. These included:

  1. Full-tracked vehicles like the US Holt (later Caterpillar) tractor;
  2. Steel-tired wheeled vehicles
  3. rubber-tired wheeled vehicles. In 1918 this often meant solid rubber tires.

Each of these vehicles came with its own set of pros and cons. Grossly simplified:

  1. Full-tracked vehicles had superior off-road and broken-field mobility, important in the morass of the Western Front. But they were slow, had high fuel consumption per unit of work, were prone to breakdown and demanding of high maintenance (even more than other 1918 machines), and the metal tracks interacted harshly with prepared (especially macadam) roads. The complexity of the steering arrangements was a key factor in shortening tracked prime-mover life.
  2. Steel tires had fair mobility (expecially given all-wheel-drive, a new development) but had some of the same problems with roads.
  3. Rubber-tired vehicles had the worst traction of the bunch, especially given the early 20th Century’s skinny (and often solid) tires.

Every army that employed powered prime movers, which certainly included the British, German, French and US, knew two things by Armistice Day: motorized prime movers sure beat horses or laying railroad track, and they wanted a vehicle that combined the cross-country mobility of the Holt tractor with the lower maintenance of conventional tracks.

The half-track idea was simple and logical: use the tracks for power, and wheels for steering. In fact, before Holt worked out differential steering, the earliest Holt tractors had a single wheelbarrow-like “tiller wheel” out in front. Semi-tracked steam tractors had existed even earlier, but the internal combustion engine made it possible to make one light and efficient enough for military purposes.

A French engineer named Leon Kégresse took the idea and ran with it. He was working for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and so the first halftracks were Russian vehicles; he developed a kit that could be fit to touring cars, adding a suspension with small road wheels and return rollers, and a large driving wheel and idler wheel, driving a continuous rubber track with or without metal grousers. The contraption was steered by front wheels, or, given Russian winters, skis. After the Revolution, Lenin used such a vehicle, but Kégresse left Russia. The Putilov factory, which built Austins under license, made an armored vehicle based on an Austin truck chassis with Kégresse running gear and home-grown armored skin. These saw combat in the Civil War and in the Soviet-Polish war.

Putilov Kégresse knocked out and captured by the Polish forces. It is named "Ukrainets" ("Ukrainian") and bears the slogan "All Power to the Soviets!" It looks like the Poles read the label and delivered plenty of power to the thinly-armored machine.

Putilov Kégresse knocked out and captured by the Polish forces. It is named “Ukrainets” (“Ukrainian”) and bears the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” It looks like the Poles read the label and delivered plenty of power to the thinly-armored machine.

Information and the image of the Polish-zapped Putilov is from this Polish link and this one (which have a ton of data on these rare combat vehicles)  via Axis History Forum.

Interwar Development of Halftracks

The three biggest halftrack developers were France, the USA, and Germany, and each took a slightly different approach. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, backed away from its early enthusiasm for halftracks.

France developed and showed off several generations of Citroën halftrack, based on Kégresse’s improvements to his own design. Like all things Citroën, it was somewhat weird and woolly in its industrial design — it worked, but it wasn’t like anything the other powers put together. The vehicles were used in some celebrated explorations, like in Africa and in this ill-fated one in Canada, now represented by a beautifully restored halftrack:

France was one of the earliest adopters of the halftrack, with a Citroën model being standardized in 1923 and other Citroën and Panhard models following.

The M23 Citroën with its Kégresse drivetrain.

The M23 Citroën with its Kégresse drivetrain. FMI see the chars-français web site (French language).


The interwar French Army lagged its peers in mechanized-force development, and they never standardized an armored troop-carrier version of the Citroën. The armored versions, like this one, were more like half-tracked armored cars; they were discontinued a few years before the war. La Belle France had the Maginot Line, so why worry?

The USA licensed Kégresse’s patents and designs and from about 1930 worked through many iterations before arriving at the familiar White halftrack. It was a lightly armored box with pretty standard American truck running gear, except for the Kégresse-derived tracks and suspension.

Original caption: Treads for Army halftracks, fresh from the curing press of a large Ohio tire plant [BF Goodrich, Akron OH]. Grooves are buffed on the ends of the track section." Office of War Information official photo by Alfred Palmer.

Original caption: Treads for Army halftracks, fresh from the curing press of a large Ohio tire plant [BF Goodrich, Akron OH]. Grooves are buffed on the ends of the track section.” Office of War Information official photo by Alfred Palmer.

Almost 50,000 of these vehicles were made in many variants, and they were delivered to many US allies, including France and the USSR during the war, and many smaller nations postwar. The most common versions were troop carriers — with a single small door in back and no overhead cover, the M2 and M3 halftracks — and self-propelled light anti-aircraft vehicles, especially the quad .50 version, the M16 halftrack.

The Germans were initially determined to pursue versatility.

They made vehicles which could convert from wheeled to half-tracked; Krupp, Dürkopp and Horch all made experimental vehicles. These included machines that could operate on road or standard-gauge railways, and also machines that could run on wheels but then lower tracks like an airplane’s landing gear, and then raise them to revert to wheel drive. The Reichswehr term for it was “R/K Schlepper” for Rader/Ketten Schlepper,” in English, Wheel/Track Transporter.


This is the Maffei K/R Schlepper design. Note the similarity of the trackes to the Kégresse design. From Spielberger, p. 56.

Maffei made one about the size of a US WWII 3/4 ton truck or weapons carrier, that achieved series production. Except, this was series production at Reichswehr production totals: 24 vehicles. Here are pictures of the Maffei MSZ 201 in street (wheeled) and off-road (half-tracked) modes. The tracks stowed above the rear wheel wells.


MSZ 201 set up for road travel. Spielberger, p. 58.


…And for cross-country travel as a half-track. Spielberger, Ibid.

By 1933 the Germans were done fooling around with these modified Kégresse designs, and had developed an interleaving suspension that would be used on all their combat and support halftracks, as well as on some of their best tanks.

1933 interleaved design prototype.

1933 interleaved design prototype.

In the end, the Reichswehr and later the Wehrmacht developed a wide range of vehicles based on this principle, from ultra-light halftrack motorcycles to massive tractors, and a parallel line of armored combat halftracks. While the US standardized on one chassis, the Germans built several different size-optimized chassis.

The Soviet Union, undergoing a cataclysmic process of forced industrialization with an emphasis on heavy and military industry, also developed prime movers, but they went for full-tracked or fully-wheeled vehicles. They experimented with halftracks — after all, it was originally a Russian thing — but they didn’t find them as reliable as their robust tractors based on tank running gear. During the war, they’d receive and use thousands of Whites via Lend-Lease, but they never saw any of the Lend-Lease weapons as anything but a wartime stopgap.

The End of the Halftrack

The US and Russia developed high-speed, reliable artillery tractors from a basis of tank automotive components. These full-track vehicles had superior off-road mobility to halftracks. With proven components in the parts bin, designers no longer feared differential steering and halftracks would be all over as military vehicles.

Surplus ones fought on. Indeed, the Israelis still have some on hand. But when the Jewish state developed its own infantry fighting vehicle, they went with a full-tracked configuration.

The half-track may not be entirely dead, but it seems to be pining for the fjords. The concept of tracked propulsion and forward steering faded from military inventories, but it did get a new lease on life — in the snow, thanks to Canadian manufacturer Bombardier. But that’s another story.

The Best is the Enemy of the Good, and the Bren X

The Bren X or Bren 10 was a Jeff Cooper brainstorm at the peak of the old Colonel’s celebrity (and his powers). It was based on what Cooper considered the best designed and executed service pistol of the era, but updated for a new round he considered perfect (instead of the stock 9mm, which he disdained). The gun was made with care in a US factory, of the materials Cooper insisted on (Steel and Stainless Steel, none of those lightweight alloys).

It received fawning reviews in every corner of the gun press, except where the reviews crossed the line from “fawning” into “slobbering.” And commercially? It failed. Royally. Resoundingly. Resonatingly. It failed like the Edsel, New Coke, and John Carter. Actually, it failed worse than those: Ford, Coca-Cola, and Disney are still with us, but the Bren Ten killed Dornaus & Dixon, the company that cut the metal to make real Cooper’s conceptual design.

But unlike the Edsel, New Coke and John Carter, the Bren Ten didn’t suck. Now that it’s no longer the cutting-edgiest thing out there, but a period piece, here’s Larry A. Vickers giving the rundown on the gun’s development, versions, and strengths — and weaknesses.

And yeah, there are still Bren 10s around (or Bren Xs to spell it as D&D did) with no magazine! (Mec-Gar or a forerunner made the mags… but somebody botched the Italian export paperwork and for all we know they’re still in a bonded warehouse somewhere in Lombardy).

But the gun didn’t die because it was bad. If anything, too many sincere guys worked too hard to make it the Absolute Best at Everything that they forgot that logistics count even for the individual gun buyer. He has to find ammo, holsters, and yeah, spare magazines. Or his firearm is not a defensive tool but an awkward and oily paperweight.

A lot of things have changed since 1983. (For one thing, more effective defensive ammo has rendered the “puny” 9mm respectable again). As Larry points out, modern polymer, striker-fired guns have diminished the wonder of an SA/DA gun that can be carried cocked-and-locked (Condition One for you old Cooperites). We still like our CZ — the model for the Bren Ten — but we’re no longer riding the crest of the Cool Guy wave. (We’re old, and stout… hey… like Larry). It’s a fact that the hot gun of today becomes the museum piece of tomorrow and the forgotten weapon of the year after that.

But if you’re going to call yourself educated, you owe it to yourself to learn about all those has-been hot guns, as well as today’s hot numbers. Maybe the Bren Ten is only playing on the gun equivalent of oldies stations, but it still has a catchy hook.