Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

A Blast from the Past — Literally

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Maine Recovered Lee Navy

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

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

Julia Maine recovered Navy

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

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

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

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

Gagnon USMC Knife L

 

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

Gagnon USMC Knife details L

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

The guy that wrote this, home from boot camp:

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

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

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

Mt Suribachi flag raising USMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Transferable History

We’ve featured an MP.18-II before, which is a later iteration of this exact same gun, with a magazine well reconfigured for straight magazines. (It led in turn to the MP.28, the Lanchester, and the Sten, by fairly direct process of derivation). But this gun, the MP.18-I, is the granddaddy of them all, and it could be yours.

MP.18-I 03It is certainly the first widely produced submachine gun, defined as a shoulder-fired infantry weapon firing a pistol cartridge with an automatic or select-fire mechanism. A blowback mechanism, it showed the way for many designs that would follow through three generations of submachine guns, until the rise of compact versions of intermediate-cartridge assault weapons would replace most of them.

Some would say it has a face only a mother could love:

MP.18-I 28

 

And it’s just as awkward looking from behind. MP.18-I 24

The drum magazine is so odd looking because it was already in production for the Lange P.08, the “Artillery” Luger. Rather than try to design a thirtyish-round magazine, the engineers at Theodor Bergmann in the weapons-manufacturing center Suhl, Germany, did what many later gun designers would do and borrowed a proven one.

MP.18-I Snail Drum 03

 

The gadget with the lever is the magazine loader, a must-have for these unique mags. Note the sleeve that fits on them for SMG use.

MP.18-I 06

Like all first-generation submachine guns the MP.18-I is made using the rifle processes of the early 20th Century. It is primarily made of steel parts machined from billet or forgings, richly blued; and the stock is solid walnut. If four years of relentless naval blockade had damaged the German Empire’s war production capabilities, this gun doesn’t show it.

The auction has a very reasonable opening bid, for what it is, but there is also a reserve. No, we don’t know what the reserve is.

As the catchy song goes, what does the ad say?

This is a really nice example of the early 9 mm German submachine gun used in WWI. MP18-1 was the first true Submachine Gun. This is not all matching, but is an excellent example with an excellent bore.

These are very rare and hard to find because most MP18’s were modified to accept the straight magazine instead of the drum magazine.

There was a show on the tube, the one with that perv guy, where they bubba’d up a later MP. 18-II to resemble this, so you might want to ensure that this is not the Bubba gun version.

It has a 1920 stamp on the receiver so it was used by the Weimar Police.

This comes with 2 drums with adapters and 1 drum loading tool. These drums are the same drums used with the Artillery Luger. This is C&R fully transferable and is currently on a form 3.

via German WWI MP18,I with 2 Drums & Loader : Machine Guns at GunBroker.com.

If you’re familiar with later German SMGs, the bolt and striker of the MP.18 look pretty familiar:

MP.18-I 25

The simplicity of this firearm was so elegantly perfect for its purpose that it spawned hundreds of work-alikes, few of which improved on its basic function (after replacing the overly complex magazine).

This may look like a lot of pictures, but there are way more at the auction link — something like 30 of them all told. You know you want to click over there anyway.

Sure, it’s more than our pickup cost, new, and it’s almost 100 years old. But on the other hand, our pickup will be worth approximately $0 in ten years, and an original MP.18-I is unlikely to lose much value. (If you buy it into a business you can even try depreciating it and see if the tax guys let you).

In case two drums aren’t enough for you, the same seller has a third, too. Without loader, but with dust cover. They’re all First Model snail drums. Annoy a totalitarian, buy a 32-round magazine.

third drum

One nice thing about this seller’s auctions is that they run for a good, long time. The MP.18 has eight days to go. (Serious bidders may not show up until close to the end. Don’t read too much into lack of bids on an auction when it still has weeks to run).

Another nice thing about these auctions? They give all of us the chance to see many rare collector pieces. We can’t own them all, but we can get eyes on them when they change hands. How cool is that?

Bureaucracy vs Mobilization

The Golan Heights saw the largest tank battles since WWII in the East.

The Golan Heights saw the largest tank battles since WWII in the East.

When Ori Orr returned to Israel after several years away, including a US staff college, just before the 1973 War, he faced cultural shock. The Israeli Army of 1967 — indeed, the whole society of 1967 — was robustly egalitarian, strikingly so by European or even American standards. A private might use his battalion or division commander’s first name; officers drove themselves and tended their own uniforms. This Army had won great victories on all fronts in 1948, 1956 and 1967, forced Egypt to knuckle under in the 1970 War of Attrition, and fully expected that if the Arabs moved in the direction of a new war, they’d get a new beating.

The Army of 1973 was complacent thanks to its long string of victories, especially the decisive win of 1967. And it had succumbed to the slow creep of bureaucracy and stratification. Senior officers had staff cars, drivers, batmen. In 1967, even cabinet ministers didn’t get such perks.  Orr didn’t think it was a change for the better. It offended his egalitarian sensibilities (he would later be a Member of the Knesset and a government minister for the small-s socialist Labor Party). In fact, he had returned to an Army that had thrown over its battle-born radical beginnings to become leadenly bureaucratic. In a very short time, the IDF would have to lose its peacetime bureaucracy.

Or die.

Emblem of the 679 Tank Brigade.

Emblem of the 679 Tank Brigade.

On the first day of the war, freshly appointed reserve tank brigade commander Orr found that he had subordinates of both the 1967 and 1973 stripes. (Note that the following is a horrible translation from Hebrew to English; the translator was ignorant of military vocabulary like “mobilization” and “armorer,” and frequently uses what Mark Twain might have called “a second approximation of the word.”)

Mickey, the adjutant officer, decided to register the men only after they were assigned a vehicle, before leaving, because he understood that there was no other way to ascertain that the men were registered in their units. This sped up the absorption process.

Mickey, for whom Orr was suitably thankful, was a 1967 officer — damn the rules, get it done. So we may digress for a moment into what they were trying to get done.

Israeli Centurion 1973An IDF reserve unit of the period was a hollow shell with a permanent, full-time cadre of four or five officers, and a handful of specialist warrant officers or NCOs. They maintained the equipment in a mobilization-ready state, in theory, and in the event of a mobilization, they planned on having two weeks’ notice to absorb reservists, shake down the unit, clear any vehicle squawks or supply shortfalls, and get ready to fight. Unlike an American Reserve or Guard unit, or a British Territorial Army unit, there weren’t regular, frequent drills, just infrequent and irregular micro-mobilizations for training. The Arab attack caught the Israelis flatfooted on a holiday, and Orr’s situation was compounded by many small ills. His unit hadn’t done training recently. It had obsolete Centurions with at-end-of-life gasoline engines and balky manual transmissions; they’d already been shifted from being parked in their tactical elements to being parked in the order they were going to the depot for a diesel and automatic shift mobility upgrade.

New to the unit, he didn’t know anybody (but thanks to the small size of the IDF Tank Corps, he’d soon find old friends). And his time in command was, when the Syrians hit a relatively miles away, measured in days (his first order had been to put the tanks back in tactical order). He approved Mickey’s quick-thinking rule-breaking. But he also had the Spirit of1973 in some of his cadre.

Tankers' individual weapons were probably, mostly, 9mm Uzi SMGs in 1973. We've been unable to find images of an IDF arms room circa '73.

Tankers’ individual weapons were probably 9mm Uzi SMGs in 1973. We’ve been unable to find images of an IDF arms room circa ’73.

While absorbing the soldiers , I hear the loud voice of an argument coming from the weaponry area. I left the dark area. The active-duty gunsmith recognized me first, and it took a little longer for the reserve soldiers until they spotted my rank. The gunsmith turned to me almost shouting, “They want to take out weapons without signing for it.” I looked at him in amazement. The world around us was trembling but I had still not managed to inculcate into the very last of the soldiers that we were at war. “Open the door and quickly give each soldier his weapon!” I ordered. At first, he looked at me in disbelief. I guess that I was the only one from whom he would have agreed to accept such a command to change the order of his universe.

One is reminded of legend of the ammunition boxes of Isandlwana. Orr didn’t make the historical reference, but he was less than thrilled with this encounter with one of the 1973 type of bureaucratic Israeli soldier.

I informed the maintenance officer of the instructions that I had given. I didn’t hide my anger at the fact that he had not managed to internalize the message to his men that we were at war, already from the afternoon. NOTE 1

Orr had his first tanks in action against the Syrians 15 hours from receiving the warning order, well short of the 24 hours thought to be the minimum, and far from the two weeks that Israeli strategists had expected their reservists to have. To accomplish that, he sent the tanks with limited ammunition — they had AT ammo but no HE, and in fact only had 2/3 of their basic load. When the commander of this element, Nitzan Yotzer, asked for more time to load his tanks, Orr told him:

Nitzan, the Syrians don’t know how much ammunition you are missing. True, we were educated that in battle, you go out when everyone is full, but there is no time. The Syrians need to see tanks shooting at them and blocking off the routes. We need to make an effort to reach you later with the ammunition. Note 2

Yotzer’s element, a few tanks and a few reconnaissance men in jeeps,  went out and ran into Syrians “east of Tel Tzabah, at the Katzbiya Junction.” The  Syrians weren’t expecting resistance so early, and Yotzer’s Centurions at least temporarily the Syrian advance at 0200 on 7 Oct 73 — just 12 hours after the attack at 1400 on the 6th, and 15 hours after the initial alert came to Orr.

They would not be out of the woods at all. The Israelis discovered, in those first hot minutes, a disturbing thing they hadn’t expected of their Arab enemies: the Syrians were not intimidated, and they had come to fight.

They wouldn’t find the next surprise just yet, because the Syrian forces here were a unit with older T-55 tanks, evenly matched to Yotzer’s old Centurions: but the Syrians’ armored elite in T-62s, unlike the Israelis, could see in the dark.

Notes

  1. Orr, Ori. Yom Kippur War: These are My Brothers. Contento De Semrik: Kindle Edition, 2013. Kindle Locations 1449-1465.
  2. Orr, Ori. Yom Kippur War: These are My Brothers. Contento De Semrik: Kindle Edition, 2013. Kindle Locations 1518-1524.

Seen For Sale: Granatenwerfer 16

So on this weeks W4, there’s an interesting ad for an interesting weapon: a Granatenwerfer 16. The Granatenwerfer 16 is an update of an earlier device (Granatenwerfer 15).  The example in the next photo is not the Sturm sales offer; this one was captured by the Australian 13th Battalion at Morcourt on 8 August 1918, during the sanguinary 1918 Somme offensive, it rests in the Australian War Memorial, and, it’s worth noting, the Sturm example is more complete and in better shape.

australian war memorial granatenwerfer

The bare gun like that leaves one puzzled at how it works, but when you see a grenade slipped over the “barrel,” which is really a “spigot,” it starts to clear up. These devices work on the unusual “spigot mortar” principle. This is most familiar to students of small arms, perhaps, from the late-WWII British PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) which used the spigot mortar principle to launch a Monroe Effect shaped charge. (If you only have reference to movies, it’s the AT weapon the paras use to defend their bridgehead in Arnhem in A Bridge Too Far).

PIAT

While the US and German forces went to rockets (and the Germans, also, to a projected grenade from inside a tube) some bright British spark remembered the spigot mortar principle from World War I (it was also used on by the WWII Brits on Naval weapons, like the Hedgehog antisubmarine weapon, and on some bizarre creations for the Home Guard).

The Blacker Bombard was one of those bizarre Home Guard weapons of World War II.

The Blacker Bombard was one of those bizarre Home Guard weapons of World War II. It never faced the Wehrmacht, fortunately for the men who crewed it.

Today, we have come to assume that the Stokes type muzzle loaded mortar is the infantry standard, and it seems always to have been. Nowadays, it is used by all the nations of the world. But in World War I, there was no assumption or guarantee that this would be the ideal, simple, cheap infantry support weapon. What soldiers did figure out very quickly is that, with enemy forces sheltered in trenches, pillboxes and other field fortifications, a small weapon that could deliver high-angle fire would be idea. This caused the development of a wide range of weapons, all around the world, from Japan’s light grenade projector that would be known to her Second World War enemies as the “knee mortar”; to a wide panoply of small pack artillery pieces, little jewels in small calibers; to the trench mortar itself… Stokes and Brandt deserve their own posts at Weaponsman.com some time soon.

But the Imperial German Army covered the dead zone between bayonet and hand-grenade range on the low end, and the danger-close limits of artillery on the high, with a special spigot mortar, which they called with the Teutonic love of compound words a Granatenwerfer — “Grenade Thrower.”

Granatenwerfer 2

This name has caused some internet sources to conclude that this threw ordinary German stick grenades, and one post that made us laugh suggested that its ammunition was the Stielhandgranate 24, as in 1924. But in fact, it shot its own ammunition. Ian at Forgotten Weapons has a post with some photographs of another example, and the German manual (a .pdf that requires you to read not only German, but the old Fraktur alphabet). There’s a post at Gunboards (you need to be a member to blow up the pictures) but at a glance this looks like the same example of this weapon that Ian had photos of.  It’s a pretty beaten-up example compared to the Sturm for-sale item.

There’s lots more information and photos at Kaiserscross.com and some history at BulgarianArtillery.it.

Here’s the text of the Sturm ad:

granatenwerfer7

For sale is a W W 1 German Granatenwerfer in mint condition. It is in it’s original factory box with all tools, spare parts, original manual, etc.

Granatenwerfer 3

 

Data plate in lid completely intact.

2 dewat projectiles included. Rebuilt / restored baseplate in perfect working condition with all data plates intact.

2 original ammo crates in excellent condition, all hardware present, working and intact. 1 crate has original paper munition label inside in perfect condition.

Granatenwerfer 4

The other crate is lined with Berlin newspaper circa 1922.

Granatenwerfer 6

Not on BATFE destructive device list, no special license or transfer fee required. Buyer responsible for pickup, too heavy to ship. Serious inquiries only, will not part out. This is a museum grade grouping that is impossible to upgrade. Payment with certified funds.

It’s one of the most complete and best ones we’ve ever seen, but like you’d expect from a museum-quality live weapon, it has a museum-worthy 6-figure price. But if you’re planning on reenacting Capporetto next year, you just might need it.

The Granatenwerfer 16 worked like this: an ordinary 7.92mm x 57mm Mauser cartridge with its bullet removed was inserted in the fragmentation grenade — way up inside the tube, there’s a sort of chamber for it. In effect, it is a blank cartridge with no crimp. The tube slips over the spigot, the face of which is a de facto breech, with a firing pin at center. The firing pin is released by a trigger. The cartridge fires, and launches the grenade… then it falls off the spigot, leaving room for the next loaded grenade.

We want it.

Is it Time to Scope Out Scopes?

its dead jimIron sights are obsolete. Britain saw this one, and acted on it, before the United States did. (So did Germany, even earlier; but then they backed off). The plain truth is that iron sights are obsolete, outdated, dead; they’re not just resting or pining for the fjords. They’ve shuffled off their mortal coil and joined the Choir Invisible.

They’re dead, Jim.

As a shooter, you should still understand and be able to use the many kinds of iron sights that have been used on rifles, pistols, and machine guns over the last few centuries. The shooting fundamentals work the same (with the self-evident exception of sight picture and sight alignment) regardless of what kind of sight you’re using, but the iron sight imposes physical, temporal and human factors obstacles that optical sights do not.

The most important of these factors is that an optical sight, whether it’s a traditional telescope, a red-dot, or a holographic sight, puts the aiming point and the target in the same focal plane. How important is this? It’s vital. It reduces the time spent to align the shot (more than compensating for the initial delay imposed by a magnified sight with a limited field of view, it lightens the shooters neurocognitive load, and it reduces hit dispersion downrange.

It’s the nature of a human eye that, unlike a camera, its an extremely complicated piece of hardware that is normally used in pairs to collect a dynamic and changing amount of light that is resolved, not upon the focal plane of a retina, but by the software of a brain resolving, merging and interpolating light data.

Unlike a camera, where the focal plane is just that, a plane, a retina is curved. Unlike a camera, where one pixel receptor of a charge-coupled device (or traditionally, one chemical grain of film coating) resolves the same shades or colors and responds the same to a given amount of light towards the periphery as its companion does at the center, our retinal cells are not all the same. The different kinds, which respond differently to light and color, are distributed unevenly. Unlike a camera, the human visual mechanism with its two eyes, brain, and “software”-driven focus is, at once, a wide-angle lens (with pretty lousy off-axis resolution, but good for movement) and a telephoto (which can perceive great detail, but only straight on).

And unlike a camera, human depth of field is not variable, although the location of focus is. What this means is that you can’t simultaneously focus on the front sight, the rear sight, and the target. Well the most important of those three items is the target, with iron sights you’re likely to miss it if you don’t focus on the front sight. Shooters must be trained (and must practice) to focus on the front sight like that.

So the eye is an awesome piece of engineering (or engineered hardware/software integrated system, really). But it has its limits. In optic land, your aiming point (whether it’s a dot or a crosshair) is superimposed on your target, in a single focal plane. Again, you must train for this, but it takes less training, and it leads to a more rapidly acquired sight.

The aiming point can be a crosshair, another reticle, or an illuminated dot. Each has its pros and cons. For rapid training it’s very difficult to beat the red dot. For distance shooting, numerous compensated reticles are available. Some sights try to provide both: any sight with a complicated reticle rewards study, understanding, and practice.

ballistic_cqreticle_dia

The military forces of the world have been slow in seeing this and issuing optics on a general, wide-scale basis. In fact, it’s taken most of a century for them to catch on worldwide. Before they were able to do so, of course, optics needed to improve: first they needed to be weather-sealed and fog-resistant (first achieved just before WWII), then needed coated optics for improved light transmission, and finally they needed to be ruggedized, or grunt-proofed, if you will. This last is not a small task, as the grunts of any army you could name take a perverse pride in their ability to destroy flimsy gear, and their definition of “flimsy” is eye-opening, if you are not a grunt.

Now, the armies of the world understood the benefits of optics for various artillery, aviation, and even machine-gun uses. (The US issued a dreadful Warner & Swasey telescopic sight for the Benet-Mercié Machine Rifle of 1909; the Imperial Japanese Army had scopes for the Type 92 (1932) medium and Type 96 (1936) light machine guns.

Germany started to do it in World War II, but they lost the war before they could universalize their general-purpose infantry optic, the ZF41. (ZF41, seen here on an FG42, was more common on G.43 and MP/STG.44 type weapons).

FG42-2

After the war, the Federal Republic was slow to adopt optics again, but by the 1960s was issuing a Hensoldt scope to designated marksmen. The current G.36 has its issues, but is optics-ready and issued with a range of optical sights.

Britain, bruised by international opinion, introduced a low-magnification, lighted-reticle optic in 1973, first in Northern Ireland for designated marksmen, then throuhgout the British Army. It never achieved universal issue, but its successor, the SUSAT for the problematical SA.80 rifle, did.

This SUIT (Trilux) sight appears identical to the  UK model, but is marked in Hebrew. Gee, wonder who used it?

This SUIT (Trilux) sight appears identical to the UK model, but is marked in Hebrew. Gee, wonder who used it?

 

Meanwhile, in 1977 the Austrian Army adopted the revolutionary Stg.77, known to the world as the AUG (Armee Universal-Gewehr), its trade name. The AUG was a bullpup design with a 1.5 power optic in an M16-like carrying handle, with rude backup sights on top of the scope housing. (Later AUGs used standard, rail-mounted modular optics).

Steyr AUG A1

In the 1980s, Canada issued the domestic Elcan C79 as standard on their new rifle, the Diemaco (later Colt Canada) C7, and the C9 general purpose machine gun. The US Army, whose motto in small arms sometimes seems to be “First? Us? Never!” adopted this sight as the M145 Machine Gun Optic (MGO). US SOF drove the adoption of optics in the 1990s, formalizing what had been a lot of single-unit experiments with the circa 2000 SOPMOD initiative. SOPMOD I saw the first version of the Aimpoint M68 and the Trijicon ACOG adopted. (General purpose forces adopted these optics, or improvements on them, very quickly thereafter).

Russian and Chinese forces are seen more and more frequently with optics and with modular sighting equipment.

If you’re still aiming with a peep or open rear sight and a bead or post up front, good for you. It’s great for marksmanship basics. But small arms history is leaving you behind. It’s time to scope out some scopes.

Misunderstood Merrill

Merrills Marauders ChandlerIn 1962, a film starring Jeff Chandler brought a new hero into the American pantheon: Brgadier General (later MG) Frank D. Merrill, leader of the eponymous Merrill’s Marauders. Theater-goers watched Chandler and a cast of TV actors defeat the Japs heroically in the low-budget movie, and then Chandler’s character, beloved by his men, collapses of a heart attack. The movie was a huge success, in part because it was Chandler’s last — the 42-year-old wasn’t faking pain on the set, he was acting with an injured back, and then he had the sour luck to die during what should have been routine back surgery after the film wrapped.

As often is the case with movies, the connection with reality is a bit thin. Merill’s Marauders did do some amazing things, as a long-range penetration unit modeled on Orde Wingate’s Chindits; but Merrill’s own connection with the unit was tenuous and intermittent, despite his being the nominal commander.

The guy who trained the volunteers? It wasn’t Merrill.

The guy who led the unit in combat, through its bleakest days? That wasn’t him either.

Merrill wasn’t a Stolen Valor case, exactly; he wasn’t absent for dishonorable reasons, but because he was, in the first place, appointed late as commander, and then, he had persistent heart trouble that took him off the line.

Stilwell, Hunter (the real commander) and Merrill (the sickly, rear-area figurehead)

Stilwell, Hunter (the real commander of the 5307th) and Merrill (the sickly, rear-area figurehead). US Army photo.

But Merrill could have done the honorable thing, and said a few good words about the man who actually did all the stuff that Jeff Chandler portrayed Merrill as doing, Lt. Col. Charles N. Hunter. Instead, he seldom missed a chance to run down the man, despite (or because of?) Merrill’s legend being based on Hunter’s deeds.

As it is, Merrill has a Jeff Chandler movie and a famous unit named after him; he’s part of the history every Ranger memorizes; one of the three Camps that Ranger students have all attended since 1950 is Camp Frank D. Merrill. Merrill is famous beyond his deeds, and scarcely anybody has ever heard the name of Charles N. Hunter, who was never a general, and who lived and died in complete obscurity. There isn’t even a good photo of Hunter in the field, just one at the end of operations, with Stilwell and Merrill, as usual, hogging the camera.

Insignia of the 5307th was unofficial, but would later form the regimental crest of the Rangers.

Insignia of the 5307th was unofficial, but would later form the regimental crest of the Rangers.

The actual Marauders were never so named officially. The idea was for a provisional unit for a misison in Burma. In Army terms, “provisional” units are formed for a given period of time or a given task, and always intended to be disbanded on mission completion. For example, when the Army Reserve lost its combat units, some members of the former Army Reserve SF units were clustered together in a “D Company, Provisional” to each National Guard SF battalion. At the end of one year, there was sort of a tournament in which the three companies with the highest readiness figures survived and the fourth was disbanded (its members could join any other Guard SF unit if they were so inclined, and a few did, leading to men who traveled 1000 miles for weekend drills). The provisional need in Burma in 1942 was not an administrative need to absorb a political reduction in force, but instead, a need to form an infantry unit for a long-range penetration modeled on Wingate’s Chindits, and originally intended to be under Wingate’s command, along with parallel British units.

Several commands were asked for jungle-trained volunteers — some came from the combat zone of the South Pacific, but most came from the Caribbean Defense Command (including the Panama Canal Zone) and the Zone of the Interior (i.e., the Continental USA). The volunteers were formed into serials of the 1688th Casual Detachment and began to train and to travel to India. (The destination, the mission, and the unit’s Army codename — “Galahad” — was known only to select officers. The men were kept in the dark). The request was for battle-trained and, in the South Pacific and South-West Pacific, “battle-tested”, volunteers for a “hazardous and dangerous” mission.

the marauders ogburn“How the hell can it be hazardous, and not dangerous?” Lieutenant Charlton Ogburn, Jr., a Harvard grad who had been a newspaperman, thought. Bored with garrison life, he signed up. So did a number of other adventure-seekers. But not all the volunteers fit that mold. Some commanders, notably Douglas MacArthur, were not having their own units stripped of the bold and adventurous, not to mention the combat-experienced. MacArthur told the Army they’d get who he sent, and he sent some pretty questionable guys. He wasn’t the only commander (and certainly, top sergeant) who saw the call for volunteers as a way to dispose of discipline cases and problem children. Ogburn, who became a signals officer in the unit, thought he was with a blend of “idealists and murderers.” But the initial commander, Hunter, was able to forge these disparate materials into an effective unit. The employment scheme for the unit was a single, long-range penetration, that would last for three months, then be followed by R&R.

Unique among the unit’s men were 14 nisei (second-generation American) interpreters, selected at the language school at Camp Savage, Minnesota. Some were volunteers, but others were not: they were picked because of the strength of their Japanese language skills, which not all nisei had in equal measure (they were second-generation Americans and grew up speaking English, after all). They were not told they were headed for “hazardous and dangerous” duty, but being bright fellows they figured it out. The Japanese-American terps had been heaped with indignities by an ungrateful nation — even their bank deposits had been seized, because they were “enemy aliens,” and they had initially been forbidden to enlist under the “4C, enemy” draft status — but they’d prove their loyalty over and over.

When the unit arrived in India, Hunter enforced what a later generation of soldiers would call “big boy rules”: he treated his volunteers as adult men, and expected high standards. He began to build a unit that would work hard, and play hard. Two visitors to camp were a representative of CBI theater deputy commander Joseph Stilwell, a desk officer named Col. Francis Brink, and the man for whose command the unit was raised, Orde Wingate, who inspired, bemused, and puzzled the Americans. The eccentric Wingate was, if nothing else, never visibly in doubt, whether he was right or obviously wrong.

Wingate also warned the Americans about their own general, Stilwell. Wingate had a reputation for being callous with the lives of his men, but Stilwell’s indifference to the resupply and, really, to the survival of their own forces had shocked the English innovator. “If you fall under Stilwell’s command, he’ll never pull you out at three months,” Wingate warned.

But Stilwell was already scheming to pull the 1688th Detachment out from under the compact, messianic Briton. Stilwell’s representative, Brink, forced a reorganization on the unit, breaking up the nascent squads, platoons and companies in support of his theories of organizational balance. This also had the effect of breaking up buddy teams that had volunteered together.  (Like all of Stilwell’s staff officers, Brink was selected for his willingness to toady to Stilwell, and lack of any experience or knowledge that might show up the insecure and vain general). Brink did organize good training, modeled on that of the Chindits, and the unit, still the 1688th, trained with the Chindits themselves.

Toady, and toad: Merrill and Stilwell.

Toady, and toad: Merrill and Stilwell.

The actual commander of the theater, Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten, was everything Stilwell loathed: competent, self-assured, English, a leader by birthright. Their relations were tense and difficult, but Stilwell spent his time importuning Mountbatten for command of the 1688th, backstabbing Wingate, whom he condemned for abandoning his wounded to the Japanese on the first Chindit long-range penetration. Mountbatten finally yielded to Stilwell and gave him full control of the 1688th. Stilwell renamed it the 5307th Composite Regiment and put another of his toadies, Merrill, in command, promoting Merrill to Brigadier General. Some bright spark noted that colonels command regiments, prompting a hasty set of orders renaming the Regiment a “Unit,” a generic term that could be commanded by anybody.

Stilwell, insecure and cowardly, couldn’t even nerve himself up to tell Wingate he’d lost the command of the 1688th and would have to do his next Chindit operation with British and Chinese elements alone. He sent Brink and Hunter to do it. “You tell Stilwell he can take his Americans and stick ‘em up his ass!” the pint-sized Englishman exploded. They didn’t bother passing that detail of the message on, for obvious reasons.

Merrill commanded the unit during its movement to contact in January and February 1944 and at the time of its first contact with Japanese patrols on 25 Feb 44. Then he had his first heart attack on 28 Mar 44, and was flown back to the rear, where, after a recovery, he returned to duty as a Stilwell horse-holder. He appeared once, on the airfield at Myitkyina, his nose firmly pressed to Stilwell’s rear area as usual, to steal the victory Hunter had won with an exhausted unit

Along with the Marauders, unsung Chinese units also were part of the offensive -- and also were allowed to collapse from starvation and sickness.

Along with the Marauders, unsung Chinese units also were part of the offensive — and also were allowed to collapse from starvation and sickness.

In May 1944, six of the Marauders’ three months were up, and they were almost all sick. Stilwell had strangled the unit of supplies, expecting them to die gloriously to advance his legend and not wanting to waste resources on them. “Pleas for at least a cupful of rice per man in the food drops summarily rejected,” platoon leader Phil Weld wrote in his journal. (Combat casualties were a small fraction of the losses the unit took; they died of dysentery,  in the end, only two men in the entire regimental-sized unit were not sick). The medicine then used as a dysentery preventative, halazone, was later found to be useless for that purpose). Despite this they had seized Myitkyina Airfield. Stilwell was dissatisfied and ordered them to seize the city, too, and he and Merrill ordered their sick and starving men out of hospital and into the field, condemning them as cowards. Merrill was giving interviews to the press at South East Asia Command headquarters, and intended to fly in with his press retinue once the victory was secure, but was too ill with his heart disease to do it. Meanwhile, the reporters built Merrill up as a great jungle fighter, with Stilwell’s approval.

Ghostly, sick scarecrows.

Ghostly, sick scarecrows.

The 5307th, reduced to a band of ghostly, sick scarecrows in tattered shreds of uniform cloth, smeared with the product of amoebic dysentery, took Myitkina in the first week of August, 1944, nine months into a three-month mission. Stilwell was delighted: he was promoted to four stars. He promptly sacked LTC Charles N. Hunter by way of celebration, having learned that Hunter was furious with Stilwell’s abuse of the 5307th and its men.

In the end, the unit was disbanded and some of its convalescents were rolled into a new unit, the 475th Infantry. Hunter was ordered home, and Stilwell specifically ordered him home by ship to silence him (that mode of transport guaranteed Hunter would be a month or more at sea, inaccessible to reporters).

It didn’t work, as a Hunter letter got to the press and was instrumental in tainting Stilwell’s reputation. “A small man in a big job” was Ogburn’s opinion of him at the time.

Stilwell ordered an investigation, and was shocked — remember, this is a guy who surrounded himself with yes-men — when it told the truth about the unit and the command’s abuse thereof, and shocked again when it leaked to the press. (Stilwell, abusive even to the subordinates most loyal to him, considered the leak the greatest betrayal since Judas).

Merrill was sent on a press tour with Stilwell’s blessing. The press tour was essentially a large exercise in stolen valor, seeking to arrogate to Merrill the achievements of Hunter, while Merrill had been mostly hospitalized or resting comfortably in Assam. And of course, to praise Stilwell, Merrill’s sugar daddy.

Live Marauders, dead Japanese. Small thanks to Merrill.

Live Marauders, dead Japanese. Small thanks to Merrill.

Stilwell’s position would survive that, but it would crimp his prospects for further command assignments, and he soon would be fired (in October, 1944) — not because of his callous waste of American lives, but because Chiang Kai-Shek would not put up with his racism and hatred of the Chinese any longer, and would cheerfully allow an American to command Chinese troops — any American but Stilwell.

Through the 475th, the 5307th’s legacy and lineage led through a sinuous course to the 75th Infantry, today’s Rangers. (At times, parts of the lineage were borrowed, as it were, by SF while no Ranger units existed. We were glad to release them to our Ranger brothers). The 5307th earned a Presidential Unit Citation (upgraded from a Distinguished Unit Citation in 1966), and six members at least won the equivalent individual valor award, the Distinguished Service Cross.

In 1959, Charlton Ogburn Jr., a once-embittered former 2nd Lieutenant in the 5307th did what he swore he never would do, and wrote the history of his old unit. He even tried to say a few good worlds about Stilwell and Merrill, both of whom were hated by the men of the unit. He took pains to be fair to all, which meant pointing out the unsung excellence of forgotten Hunter. But the main result of his The Marauders, sadly, was the Jeff Chandler film, in which all characters portrayed are fictional, except for three who are fictionalized: Chandler’s phony Merrill, an unrecognizable Stilwell, and surgeon Lewis Kolodny.

Jeff Chandler, sweating as Merrill seldom did, on location.

Jeff Chandler (r.), sweating as Merrill seldom did, on location.

Or to put it another way, Ogburn’s well-meaning attempt to restore to Hunter the valor Merrill and Stilwell stole from him further advanced the bogus Merrill legend.

And that’s the rest of the story.

State of The Art(illery): 1884

This cannon wasn't made at Watervliet, though. It was captured from Johnny Burgoyne!

Watervliet Arsenal, where this cannon was once displayed, comes up in this story. But this cannon wasn’t made at Watervliet. It was captured from Johnny Burgoyne!

In the last quarter of the 19th century, it sank in to the American military that important advances in gun manufacture had been taking place in Europe, while the US is heavy gun development and stagnated since the Civil War. The War Between the States was the last war in which the United States had needed a lot of artillery, and not surprisingly, it had been the last time the Army and Navy had spent significant money on artillery technological development. Since 1865, most fighting had taken place against Indian tribes, and these light, mobile counterinsurgency battles didn’t implicate heavy weaponry. After all, Custer had famously left his cannon — and Gatlings — behind, making a judgment that gave priority to the mobility of his cavalry force. That it is now one of the more thoroughly second-guessed judgments of all military history is small consolation to Yellow Hair: as he would no doubt say if we could interview him, “It seemed like a good idea at the time!”

Of course, the heavy weapons that Custer had in 1873, and that his successors would have had a decade later, were little improved from those of the Civil War. The Artillery Branch’s focus had been on development of heavy artillery for siege and especially for coastal use, and if one attended the Artillery School at Fort Monroe, VA in this period, he’d learn, along with a heavy dose of theory, the following guns: 3-inch, 8-inch, and 21-pounder, along with the 4.5 inch siege gun and a couple of Seacoast Mortars.1

Meanwhile, the Germans and Austrians (actually, the Austrians’ Czech gunmakers) had invented the recoiling gun carriage and the armies of Europe were rearming with a new generation of highly accurate breechloaders, made of steel and not iron.

So our Army and Navy thought it best to take a systematic look at their needs for artillery, how the Europeans had met similar needs, and how the US might equal them. This required an act of Congress in 1883, and a report to the President (do you know who was President? Neither did we. Chester A. Arthur) in the next year. One copy of that report, which was approved by Arthur in February, 1884, was filed in the library of the Infantry and Cavalry School in October of that year, and is now available in .pdf from the school’s successor, the Combined Arms Reference Library.

Results: a little over 10 years later, these buildings, and guns like this, emerged from the report's recommendations.

Results: a little over 10 years later, these buildings, and guns like this, emerged from the report’s recommendations.

The board comprised six officers who traveled to government arsenals and private factories in England, France and Russia. They also corresponded at length with Friedrich Krupp, who in the end declined to host them at his plant in Essen. The original book contains the Krupp correspondence in its appendices, all of which unfortunately are missing from the truncated .pdf version available in Sources below.

The report noted the parlous state of US Artillery at the time. After listing the arsenals and contractors that produced the Union’s artillery in the Civil War, then nearly 20 years in the past, it noted how scant American postwar developments had been:

Since the termination of the war the Fort Pitt Foundry has ceased to exist. The South Boston Iron Works Company has manufactured a few experimental guns, and with the West Point Foundry has executed some small orders of the Government in the conversion of cast-iron smooth-bores into rifle guns by inserting and rifling a coiled wrought iron tube.

None of the companies mentioned above have ever made steel guns, and virtually the United States is destitute of a source from which such, an armament as the age demands can be supplied.

Before the introduction of rifled cannon and the use of steel as the material for their construction, the United States boasted of her Dahlgren and Rodman cast-iron guns, which were the models for imitation and the standards for comparison of all nations.

While the rest of the world has advanced with the progress of the age, the artillery of the United States has made no step forwards. Its present condition of inferiority is only the natural result of such want of action.2

The report describes with remarkable concision the economics, location, and process of manufacturing artillery in the nations that cooperated, and goes on to describe the guns themselves and their technology in great detail.

Whitworth’s Works

Other English firms reported that Sir Joseph Whitworth, the eminent inventor and engineer, was quite as secretive a Krupp himself, but Whitworth invited the officers to visit his factory — under the condition that they only do so after seeing all the others. That seemed like a small enough concession, and so they did just that, only to find that Whitworth really was doing something remarkable.

The other factories were well ahead of the Americans’ home industries: they were casting breech-loading gun tubes, and making hoops for them, of steel. But what Whitworth was doing blew the Americans’ minds:

In speaking of the Whitworth establishment at Manchester as unique, and of the process of manufacture at that place as a revelation, reference is specially made to the operation of forging. As to the assorting of ores, and the treatment of metal in the furnaces, there is no intention to draw distinctions; but as to the treatment of the metal after casting there can be no doubt of the superiority of the system adopted by Sir Joseph Whitworth over that of all other manufacturers in the world. The process here adopted has been kept singularly exempt from scrutiny. Even in the offices of the chiefs of artillery there can be found no information, within the knowledge of the Board, which is at all satisfactory upon the subject. Whatever knowledge there is seems to come from hearsay—-none from personal observation—and it is only from personal observation that the merits of the system can be fully appreciated.

The system of forging consists in compressing the liquid metal in the mould immediately after casting, and in substituting a hydraulic press for the hammer, in the subsequent forging of the metal.3

The exact details of the process follow, and then the conclusion:

The Board witnessed the operations of casting followed by that of liquid compression, the enlarging of hoops, the drawing out of cylinders, and the forging of a solid ingot. The unanimous opinion of the mem­bers is that the system of Sir Joseph Whitworth surpasses all other methods of forging, and that it gives better promise than any other of securing that uniformity so indispensable in good gun metal.

The latest exhibition of the wonderful character of the Whitworth steel has attracted great attention, and may be stated as indicating the present culmination of his success. From a Whitworth 9-inch gun, lately constructed for the Brazilian Government, there was fired a steel shell, which, after perforating an armor-plate of 18 inches of wrought iron, still retained considerable energy. The weight of the shell was 403 pounds, the charge of powder 197 pounds, and the velocity about 2,000 feet. The shell is but slightly distorted. The tests of the metal of which it was made show a tensile strength of 98 tons per square inch and a ductility of 9 per cent.4

They were very favorably impressed by the Russian factories, which seemed to borrow eclectically from Whitworth and Krupp alike, and relied on excellent Russian ores. They noted an accident that demonstrated the strength of Russian artillery design:

A recent accident gave a severe test to the system of construction adopted for Russian artillery. In experimenting with gun-cotton for use in shells, one of the latter, containing 40 pounds, exploded in the chamber of an 11-inch gun when the charge of gunpowder (128 pounds) was fired. The rear part of the breech was blown off at the weak point of the Krupp system. The trunnion-band was broken, throwing off a fragment; and the diameter of the chamber was enlarged 1 inch. The admirable quality of the metal, and the good adjustment of the strength of the several parts is evident from this statement.5

That would have been unpleasant for the gun crew, we suspect.

The Russian guns were also unique in being designed with a thin liner that allowed artillery to be rapidly and economically overhauled.

The operation of inserting one of these lining tubes in a field gun was witnessed at Aboukhoff. The difference of their diameters was very small. The fitting of the slightly conical surfaces by measurement be­fore insertion was done with precision.

When ready for insertion the lining tube was lubricated and intro­ duced by hand. It was forced by hand levers until the end was nearly flush with the breech; hydraulic power then applied by a hand-pump was gradually increased to a pressure of 180 atmospheres, although no motion was apparent after it had reached 100 atmospheres. The rear end of the lining tube forms the recess for the Broadwell ring.

The Russian officers claim that these tubes can be renewed in the field, and cited instances of two 9-inch mortars, weighing 5½ tons each, needed for use on the Danube during the late war. Being too heavy for the available means of transportation they were forwarded in three pieces— a tube, a breech-jacket and a muzzle-jacket. The two latter were screwed together, and the tube was inserted by a jack on the spot; both mortars did excellent service.6.

Consequences of the Report

The Report made several recommendations:

  1. That the Government build its own artillery, rather than purchase it or enter into a public-private partnership, or, as they put it, “The Government should establish on its own territory a plant for the fabrica­tion of cannon, and should contract with private parties to such amounts as would enable them to supply from the private industries of the country the forged and tem­pered material.” The officers thought that the provision of private profit increased Government costs. (They might have been artillerists, but they weren’t economists).
  2. That the Army and Navy have separate facilities. “This has al­ ways been the custom in France, producing good results; the reverse has been the practice in England, producing bad results.”
  3. That the Army construct its factory for artillery tubes at Watervliet, New York, where plentiful hydraulic power would enable manufacturing.7
  4. That the Navy build theirs in the Washington Navy Yard.
  5. And of course, the officers asked for money:

The facts that the United States is destitute of the means of fabri­cating the modern guns so urgently needed for national defense, and that at least three years will be required to complete the tools, construct the shops and establish the plant, would seem to demand an immedi­ate appropriation of the amount ($1,800,000) estimated for the estab­lishment of the proposed gun factories.8

So it was written; and, quite remarkably, so it was, more or less, done. The US still makes its artillery tubes at Watervliet Arsenal!

Notes

  1. Daugherty, p. 13.
  2. Foundry Board Report, p. 39.
  3. Foundry Board Report, pp. 14-15.
  4. Foundry Board Report, p. 16.
  5. Foundry Board Report, pp. 37-38.
  6. Foundry Board Report, p. 38.
  7. Watervliet once had a decent museum on base, but it closed in 2013 in a Provost Marshal’s blind security panic, and will never reopen; the exhibits are to be shipped to distant Army museums, stored and forgotten, or, in the case of heavy and bulky exhibits the Army Center for Military History doesn’t want to pay to ship or store, scrapped.
  8. Foundry Board Report, pp. 50-51.

 

Sources

Daugherty, Leo J. III. Pioneers of Amphibious Warfare, 1898-1945: Profiles of Fourteen American Military Strategists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

Simpson, et. al. Report of the Gun Foundry Board: Organized by The President in Accordance With the Act of Congress, Approved March 3, 1883. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884. Available at http://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p4013coll11/id/722 or here at WeaponsMan: Report of the Gun Foundry Board 1884.pdf (10.5 mb PDF).

ATGMs Go to War, Vietnam, 1972

In 1972, ATGMs had been in military inventories for 20 years, since France’s adoption of the SS-10 circa 1951. But they’d never fulfilled their original mission — destruction of enemy tanks in combat. Sure, some of the French missiles might have been popped off an insurgent sangars in Algeria, and Americans shot a couple of Entacs at bunkers in Vietnam. And a dozen missile models had blown hell out of obsolete tanks on a firing range. But nobody had shot one at a hostile tank containing a hostile crew.

1972 was the year that the wire-guided anti-tank missile got its cherry popped, in Vietnam conflict. Before the next year was out the missiles would prove almost decisive in tank-on-tank combat — and be employed on both sides. If the weapons world of New Year’s Eve, 1971, had its issues with anti-tank guided missiles — and the US had such gadflies as the Project on Military Procurement (whose funding and control was shadowy) and the Soviet-line Center for Defense Information trying to force cancellation of ATGM programs — the weapons world of New Year’s Day, 1974, had shaken off all doubts. Missiles were here to stay.

Those wars were the 1972 NVA conventional invasion of South Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War, both of which saw missiles used, in the first experimentally, and in the second in great quantities.  Here is an overview video of TOW missile attacks on North Vietnamese armor.

Click “more” for the details about Vietnam. The Yom Kippur War story will be told in the days ahead.

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Anti-Tank Missiles — America’s Early Years

We’ve discussed the original German developments on wire-guided missiles, and the way the US Army didn’t pick uo on them until it was imagining its ultimate tank-killer in the late 1950s. That missile program was rolled into one of Robert S. Macnamara’s grandiose schemes, the international MBT-70 tank, that was going to be the best tank in the world by such a margin that all NATO would adopt it. (Instead, it wound up being a bitter, painful and costly learning experience for the US and Germany).

A Note About Interational and Combination Programs

International programs always have great appeal to deskbound defense intellectuals like Macnamara. It’s an instantation of a set they can’t resist, making one general thing replace two or more specialized ones. Therefore it’s always easy to sell DOD suits on something like the M14 replacing the M1 rifle, M1 carbine, M3A1 SMG, M1918A2 automatic rifle, and M1919A6 squad machine gun, all in one fell swoop.  The problem is, of course, that the M14 was okay to replace the rifle and maybe the carbine, but couldn’t quite do what the grease gun and the BAR did, and was not even in the same game, capability-wise, as the light machine gun. This is not a criticism of the M14, it’s a criticism of the boneheaded idea that a general-purpose rifle can replace something developed for another general-purpose entirely. From the beginning the M14 was intended to replace the M3A1 as well as the M1 rifle, but it wound up being longer and bulkier than the M1, something many people don’t understand because of the M14’s clean, attractive, carbine-like lines.

While the graveyards of defense procurement are rich in “not just a toaster, but also a blender!” false starts, the problems of neither-fish-nor-fowl procurement are compounded by international programs. Now you have to deal with different requirements that are rooted in different doctrines and even concepts of war. The MBT-70 was the compromise hellchild of incompatible American and German concepts of what a tank was for. The Americans envisioned a tank so good it could fight and win despite being grossly outnumbered, and that fired missiles. The Germans, having tramped that road to its logical conclusion in WWII, wanted a tank they could afford to build in such quantity that they wouldn’t have to fight grossly outnumbered, and they saw the tank-gun-missile-launcher as the boondoggle it was. NATO politics forced both nations, whose armies had a tradition of mobile, offensive-oriented tank fighting, onto a war plan comprising static defense in place. So the best tank minds of two of the world’s top five tank-fighting nations poured themselves for years into a project whose demise was written in its congenital deformation.

As a rule of thumb, odds of failure of a given military procurement project increase by the exponent of the number of armed services involved.

Meanwhile, Back in La Belle France…

While the Americans and Germans tied themselves into knots trying to make a Ronco does-everything tank (and the Americans, to build a missile it could launch), something interesting happened in France. French engineers picked up where Dr Kramer left off with his wire-guided AT missile. Within a few years, they had a design for one that would work, and they showed it off to their allies, hoping for some help. So, about 1951, French officials showed American officers the experimental SS-10 missile. It was a small, barely man-portable or jeep-launched missile that could deliver a whopping hollow charge onto a tank with precision, given a well-trained operator.

SS-10 in US service in 1961. With its ends popped off and propped up with a built-in monopod, the box became a launcher.

SS-10 in US service in 1961. With its ends popped off and propped up with a built-in monopod, the box became a launcher.

Nord Aviation (the French manufacturer) missile ad, 1959.

Nord Aviation (the French manufacturer) missile ad, 1959. Click to embiggen.

The SS-10 incorporated Manual Command to Line of Sight or MCLOS guidance. A sodium flare in the missile’s tail let the missileer steer the weapon, which he flew onto target with a joystick. (This was generally how Kramer’s system had worked). The weapon came to American attention in 1951, according to a once-classified US history:

The French SS-10 missile evolved from the German RuhrstahZ, or X-4, a single-wing, wire-guided, roll-stabilized missile originally developed as an air-to-air missile late in World War 11. The Germans were ready to begin mass production of the Y-4 early in 1945, but their plans were interrupted by costly delays in acquir- ing suitable solid-fuel rocket engines and by the relentless bombing of research and manufacturing centers by Allied planes. Recognizing the potentialities of the X-4 as a surface-to-surface antitank weapon, the French continued-its development after the war ended.lO The resultant product was the SS-10, a ground- launched, cruciform-wing missile about 34 inches long with a 30-inch wing span. It had a gross weight of 34 pounds and carried an 8.9-pound shaped-charged warhead for an operational range of about 1,500 yards. Like the X-4, the SS-10 was an optically-guided, wire-controlled missile — features later incorporated i n the DART guided missile system.

The Ordnance Corps became interested in the SS-10 a s a potential antitank weapon late in 1951 and subsequently supported the development program with primary emphasis on procurement, test, and evaluation of the system. Early in 1952, 500 SS-10 missiles and 3 sets of ground equipment were procured from the French Government for use in evaluation tests by the Ordnance Corps at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the AFF Board No. 3 at Fort Benning, Georgia, and the U. S. Marine Corps at Quantico, Virginia. The evaluation program began in December 1952 and continued until October 1953, when it was discontinued because of unfavorable test results. Members of the AFF Board No. 3 recommended that the SS-10 missile, in its current state of development, be considered unsuitable for use by the U. S. Army, and that future French development of the missile be carefully observed with a view to reconsideration of the weapon if an improved model should be produced before a comparable American weapon became available.

Click “more” to continue with the Comparable American Weapon — a dead-end — and America’s return to French missiles for the 1960s, and developments to the early 70s.

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