Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

When the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace Went to War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Volkssturm Carbines, part 2 of 2

Continued from: The Genesis of the Volkssturm Carbines. Why? published March 27, 2014. 

When we last looked at the Volkssturm carbines, it was late summer or early fall of 1944, and a handful of the guns were about to be presented to Hitler as a sort of staff decision memo by Reichsminister for Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer. The weapons included several single-shot and repeating bolt guns, and a version of the famous, if very rare, VG 1-5.

Gustloff VG 1-5 - GunLab

Purportedly after doing this, Speer wrote and transmitted the following (emphasis added):

The Reichs Minister for Armaments and War Production

TAE-no. 99 10786/44 secret

Berlin, the 5th of November 1944

Pariser Platz 3


(to: [action copies])

speer_letter_p._1Chief of the Army Arms Office, General of Artillery Leeb

Main Directorate for Weapons, Director Engineer Weissenborn

Chief of the Armaments Staff, Senior Department Head Saur

Information Copies:

Chief of Army Equipment and Commander of the Home Army, Reichsführer-SS Himmler

Chief of the High Command of the Wehrmacht, Field Marshal Keitel

Chief of the General Staff of the Army, Colonel-General Guderian

Chief of Army Equipment and Commander of Replacements, SS-Senior Colonel and Waffen-SS General Jüttner

Chief of the Army Staff at the High Command of the Wehrmacht, General of Infantry Buhle

Leader of the Party Chancellery, Reichsleiter Bormann

High Command of the Wehrmacht, Wehrmacht Leadership Staff / Organizational Office, Lt. Col of the General Staff Fett

Main Directorate of Ammunition, Consul-General Stahl

The following proposed People’s-Rifles (Volksgewehre) have been presented to the Führer

a)     Single-shot guns for normal rifle cartridge. From the firms:

  1. Appell, from Berlin-Spandau;
  2. Bergmann K.G., from Velten;
  3. Gustloff-Werke, from Suhl; and,
  4. Walther, from Zella-Mehlis.

b)    Repeaters for normal rifle cartridge. There were two of these, from the firms:

  1. Deutsche Industrie-Werke, from Berlin (with the 10-shot magazine of the K.43);
  2. Röchling (Coenders), from Wetzlar (with 5-shot loading strips).

c)     Repeaters with short cartridge 44. From the firm Deutsche Industrie-Werke, Berlin (two different versions with 30-shot magazines);

d)    Self-loader with short cartridge 44. From the firm Gustloff-Werke, Suhl (with 30-shot magazine).

speer_letter_p._2Reference: a) The Führer has rejected all Single-shots on fundamental grounds. Of them, the one from the Walther firm pleased him most.

Reference: b) and c) as a Repeater, the model of the Deutsche Industrie-Werke was recommended by Colonel-General Guderian and General Buhle, in that its manufacture is very simple and it is made up of very easily made assemblies (no forged parts, no tubular material, no deep-drawn sheet metal and large tolerances).  The Führer is in agreement with this recommendation, but he recommends shortening the barrel, if it can be done without significantly increasing recoil, and additionally improvement of the outward appearance of the weapon, such as rounding the receiver. Psychologically the Führer considers such a primitive weapon unfit for troop issue. The immediate start of manufacturing in a quantity of 400,000 to 450,000 pieces by using Air Force and Army barrels on hand, as well as available K43 magazines is directed, as long as the Army Ordnance Office (Heereswaffenamt) agrees and raises no objections. I would consider an output of 100,000 weapons in December, 1944, possible.

As an end goal, the Führer considers the People’s Rifle with the Short Cartridge 44 and a magazine of about 10 shots, which should not hinder the shooter in firing from the prone position; the long 30-shot magazine of the MP 44 is not to be used.

Reference d) the Gustloff-Werke’s self-loader is rejected by the shore by the Führer on the grounds of too-high cost, and too-high consumption of ammunition; further that the MP44 has about the same manufacturing and material requirements, and already is in mass production in very high quantities.

Heil Hitler, Speer.

Well, that’s a bit to think about. You’re welcome to check our translation; sorry about the so-so cell phone images of the documents.

The key takeaways

To us the big surprise in this document, which can scarcely be surprising to experts in the field because we found it in an old issue of the German magazine Waffen Revue, is the outright rejection of the VG 1–5, the Gustloff semi-automatic carbine for the short cartridge. Hitler’s reported strong opinions seem to be in line with those that might be held by a junior NCO of First World War vintage. His concern that the crudity of some of the proposed weapons would impinge on rifleman morale seems to be on target, as does his concern about a large box magazine and the prone position; his worry that they would blaze away and waste ammunition, less so. (For all that leaders and generals have fretted over ammunition wastage over the centuries, as each new development — breechloading cartridges, repeaters, semi-autos, select-fire — increased the grunt’s theoretical rate of fire, cases of grunts shooting their ammo stocks dry seem to be rather rare and restricted to situations in which said grunts were doomed and were being overrun, anyway. Joe Snuffy turns out to be a rational actor when his life is on the line).  It was interesting to learn that the short MP44 magazine found here and there (like the one famously photographed in an MP45 prototype) resulted not from the desire of engineers to have a short mag for testing, but from the dictator’s concern about his frontline grunts. 

Gustloff VG 1-5 repro - GunLab

It was also a surprise for us to see the production of the VG 1-5, which we’ve been watching go together over at GunLab (in-progress, above), compared with that of the MP 44, which has many more stamping steps. We can only presume that the MP44 had well-thought-out production schedules and tooling, and the simpler VG, which seems designed more with a view to cottage manufacture, didn’t.

Did Hitler Really Make These Decisions?

It’s hard to say. There’s no known document with Hitler’s signature (although after the July 20, 1944 attempt on his life, he seems to have signed fewer documents). Instead, there’s one from Albert Speer, saying, “the weapons were presented to the Führer”; “the Führer dismissed on fundamental grounds”, and so forth, but do we have anything but Speer’s word what we’re hearing is Hitler’s, and not Speer’s decision? And how much faith do we have in the integrity of Speer, the man who initiated the genre of self-serving Nazi bigwig memoirs? There are no answers to these questions; it does seem that in the higher levels of the Nazi hierarchy there was a fairly common practice of playing Führer’s-mouthpiece, with Himmler, Bormann and Göring among those who issued orders purporting to come from the mouth under the funny mustache itself.

A strong indication that this really was Hitler’s opinion is the reference to the aesthetics of the Deutsche Industrie-Werke repeater, and to the need for them to be improved if the soldier were to have confidence in his firearm. This sounds like a front-line combat veteran talking; and Hitler, whatever his faults, was such a veteran; Speer was not.

One indication that Speer may be on the level is that General Heinz Guderian, the great tank tactician, was quoted in the memo as well as an information addressee. Guderian had his own power base with Hitler, based not strictly on loyalty but on proven past performance. Would Speer have fibbed in a document Guderian might have brought up with Hitler himself? It seems unlikely. But the unlikely was an everyday occurrence in the 12 years of the Thousand-Year Empire.


C&Rsenal’s WWI Rifle Chart


This picture embiggens, but only to 10% of the actual document’s size. Go to C&Rsenal (links in the text of this post) to get the original.

The impresarios of C&Rsenal have done it again, with a chart that features a to-scale line drawing of every major rifle used in World War I (by the major and minor combatants), complete with a silhouette of a typical 5’7″ rifleman of the period to give scale.

It’s not 100% perfect. For example, you’ll see none of the substitute or obsolete weapons the Russians used, as their ability to produce Mosin-Nagants, and even buy them overseas, was outstripped by the war’s demands for riflemen. But it is a great resource for the historian — or visual checklist for the Great War collector!

The image itself, in all its fifty-million-pixel glory, is here: (Kind of makes you wonder why they didn’t put it up as an SVG, but maybe they’re having the same problem with SVG plugins to WordPress that we are).

The C&Rsenal story about it is here, and there are two relevant Reddit threads, an Ask Historians Anything about WWI small arms, and one in the guns subreddit that offers some specifics on the infantry rifles. The second subreddit includes a post by Othais that is, to all intents and purposes, a key with specifications to the graphic.

While the specialists may argue about the relative strength and weaknesses of the different actions and rounds used, at the remove of a century the most interesting thing is the similarity of the weapons. With a couple of exceptions, they were bolt-action weapons loading five rounds of small caliber, smokeless ammunition from some type of clip (stripper or en-bloc), they were 40 to 50 inches long and took a bayonet of 10 to 20 inches.

The rounds were a minimum caliber of 6.5 millimeters and a maximum of 8.0, and were from 50 to 63 millimeters long — with chamber pressures of 40,000 to 50,000 psi in their factory loads. (Today’s SAAMI pressures for a lot of these guns are lower, because of the US ammo industry’s excess of caution about vintage milsurp metallurgy. For example, SAAMI limits the 7.92×57 to 35k psi).

As you can see, for the rounds as well as the rifles, these details are more alike than they are different — they only vary across a narrow range.

Some of this is due to the convergent evolution of the state of the art. If you accept that the definitive WWI action is the 98 Mauser, most nations have something similar (the US and Japan, Mauser copies; Britain had attempted and failed to replace the SMLE with a Mauser copy, the P14; the Russians, a partly-indigenous design that offered similar performance). Nations that tried to leapfrog technology or strike out on their own tended to be punished for it — Canada’s straight-pull Ross, and the French RSC 1917 semi-auto (the first military autoloading rifle fielded on a large scale) had well-documented problems.

If you were to look at the state of the world’s small arms 40 years prior to August, 1914, you’d see completely different guns and technology, but a similar global small arms convergence. In 1874 the gun was a single-shot, breech-loading, black-powder rifle. Go back another 40 years, and the gun of 1834 was a percussion smoothbore musket — worldwide. In 1794, same thing, but flintlock. If you go the other way, 1954 sees a messy transition underway to semi-auto and select fire rifles, and 1994 to compact intermediate rifles firing smaller calibers between 5.4 and 5.8mm caliber in 39 to 45 mm case lengths. Different specs but the same concept of international convergence holds.

If a true breakthrough happens, and it appears to offer a combat advantage, it travels around the world at the speed of procurement. There is a tide in the events of men, to be sure, but that tide also lifts men’s creations, such as rifles.

Unit War Diaries of the Great War

This year brings the centenary of the War to End All Wars (well, it was a hearwarming concept, if imperfectly executed), and the Allied Powers are celebrating the centenary with events ranging from the silly to the significant to the solemn. We’d put into the “significant” bin the UK National Archives’ plans to release the digitzed (or “digitised,” for the cousins) War Diaries of the British units participating in the war online.

They began, for some reason, with cavalry units.

We have digitised around 1.5 million pages of war diaries so far, and will be releasing them throughout this year as part of First World War 100, our centenary programme. Digitising the most popular segment of one of most popular record series will allow researchers around the world to access the diaries, and has given us the opportunity to embark on a hugely exciting crowdsourcing project, Operation War Diary.

What’s available in the first batch

This first batch of unit war diaries reveals the real-time account of the first three cavalry (WO 95/1096 to WO 95/1156) and the first seven infantry divisions (WO 95/1227 to WO 95/1670) who were part of the first wave of British army troops deployed in France and Flanders. They cover the entire period of the units’ involvement in the war, from their arrival on the front to their departure at the end of the war.

via Unit war diaries | The National Archives.

The good news is a lot of information is there, and they have crowdsourced the analysis of these diaries to some extent (volunteers can participate at a link from the page linked above).

The bad news is that, if there is a more difficult to navigate site than the British National Archives’, we haven’t found it. And worse, over the year it has aperiodically changed from one kind of usability hellhole to another, so that if you do torture yourself into learning where they stash some detail or other, and then return for it two years later, it will be gone, cunningly concealed Christ-knows-where by some Archives bureaucrat for whom that exact obfuscation is sworn duty.

The Genesis of the Volkssturm Carbines. Why?

Nazis: beastly but fascinating. They caused the second most trouble and death of any revolutionaries in history (the Communists have pretty much retired that trophy for all time). They spread their evil ideology from the Pyrenees to the Caucusus. And, what’s probably the biggest source of their appeal, they had spiffy uniforms (with a tip of black hat to Hugo Boss) and terrific Teutonic technology.

Gustloff VG 1-5 - GunLab

But not all their technology was world-class. As the war ground on, the Third Reich’s foothold in Europe contracted under the relentless pressure of the USSR in the East and the US and UK in the West and South, not to mention a wide range of national resistance movements and a bothersome strategic bombing campaign. Hermann Göring had planned that Operation Barbarossa would deliver the machine tools and industrial raw materials of the vast Soviet factories into his hands; instead, the Russians’ rapid dismantling and displacement of industry — tools, fixtures, workers, and all — left him empty-handed. The new war-production overlord, architect Albert Speer, pressed every industry to do more with less. (This didn’t happen only in Germany and Occupied Europe; put a “War Finish” British revolver next to a prewar example, or for that matter, compare the beautiful, polished blue on a 1930s Tokarev pistol to a crude 1944 example).

By 1944, the Germans were running out of small arms, and they couldn’t build them as fast as they were being lost. So they began considering what were the barest minimum features a firearm needed to be militarily useful. They were losing men, as well; and desperate measures were soon in hand for personnel, as well as for armaments.

Many collectors have marveled over the crude arms issued at war’s end to the Deutsche Volkssturm, and wondered what had so depressed the abilities of the Germans, supposedly Europe’s leading technologists. But in 1945 hardened Russian, American and British forces were encountering ill-fed old men and boys armed with the military equivalent of crude zip guns. Many collectors today believe these guns to have been locally ordered and produced. But they hardly made a difference to the outcome of the war.

So, why the Volkssturm guns? Why such variety and crudity? And were they centrally planned?

The short answer is this: because they needed them, because no one source could supply enough, and yes.

The Germans were caught flatfooted by their 1943 defeats, and they were desperate to arm a replacement for the armies no longer available to defend the Reich. At the war’s outset, they did not expect or plan for continued losses and resets of small arms, and small arms planners were late to learn of the late 1944 surge plan to create a nationwide militia of 6,000,000 sort-of soldiers – who were minus the 6,000,000 arms they needed to actually be soldiers.

Japan planned from early in the war to fight with limited natural resources. That’s why, for example, Japanese rifles have chrome bores: not for the durability and corrosion-resistance benefits that have made them commonplace on modern military rifles, but because their researchers found it was a less costly substitute for expensive chrome-moly steels in increasing barrel strength. The Germans, on the other hand, did not expect to be resource-constrained. They fought the war, after all, to gain resources, including Lebensraum for the German people. Even when the war began to turn against the Axis, many German managers remained in deepest denial.

But by 1944, even Hitler had a hard time deluding himself about German expansion, and his appointed war production satrap, Albert Speer, was brutally realistic about German war production.

With entire German armies in the bag in Africa and Russia, and ongoing meatgrinders in Russia and Italy, the Germans were running short of manpower even before a second major front opened in June, 1944. The plans for the Deutsche Volkssturm, a mass-levied militia, went forward briskly. While many books seem to imply that the Volkssturm was merely a locally-raised militia beholden to regional Gauleiters, the Gauleiters were responding to a framework that was produced by Speer’s, among others’, central planning.

By November 30, 1944 the Staff Leader of the Deutsche Volkssturm (the German term is Stabsführer) envisioned a force of 6,000,000 men organized in over 10,000 battalions. The units were to be levied in four tranches and armed as shown:

There was a slight problem with this, the staff director admitted, after further breaking down the numbers by particular Gau, he found that the Gaus that needed the guns the most urgently – the ones that were already invaded by the Allies, or were about to be, which two unlucky groups he called the “threatened Gaus” — had, on paper, a potential of 1,450 Volkssturm-bataillonen, yet of the needed 871,300 small arms, they had on hand only 9,690 – about two rifles per company, then.

It makes the 1942 Russian forces in Enemy at the Gates look positively lavishly equipped: why, every other or every third man had a rifle! Whether the real situation in Stalingrad got as bad for the Red Army as Enemy at the Gates’s Hollywood version portrays, the situation for the Wehrmacht and especially for the Volkssturm by the late fall of 1944 was substantially worse.

By this point, facing a deliberate attack by an American mechanized battle group or a Soviet motorized infantry battalion was hard enough for fully-equipped, valiantly-led first-line German formations. For second-liners and militiamen, it was the equivalent of suicide-by-cop. But for them to even serve as speedbumps or to fill in inactive sectors of a defensive line the Volkssturm’s old men and boys needed something.

That was the genesis of the Volkssturm arms program: to produce rapidly enough weapons to put one in the hands of each of six million cannon-fodder Volkssturmmänner.

Six German firms responded, offering nine different models, of four general types:

  • Single-shot guns that used the normal German 7.92 x 57mm cartridge. There were four of these, from: Appell; Bergmann; Gustloff-Werke; and, Walther.
  • Repeaters that used the 7.92 x 57mm round. There were two of these: one from Deutsche Industrie-Werke, which used the 10-shot detachable magazine of the K.43, and one from Röchling, which used 5-round stripper clips to reload.
  • Repeaters that used the 7.92 x 33mm short cartridge. Deutsche Industrie-Werke offered two different versions.
  • One semi-auto rifle that used the 7.92mm short cartridge. This came from the Gustloff-Werke, who hedged their bet with the single-shot turnbolt gun mentioned above. This is the famous VG 1-5, whose picture (from GunLab, where reproductions are underway) graces the top of this story.

Every one had a rough-hewn stock and rudimentary, usually fixed, sights. These rifles were demonstrated to Adolf Hitler (or maybe they weren’t, actually) in the first week of November, 1944; and Hitler reportedly made his comments, issued his guidance, and selected the weapons to be produced.

To be continued.

Eeek! An Arsenal!

We’ve recently mentioned Miles Standish, in a story about early colonist unconventional warfare. But Standish is an interesting character on several levels. He took his duties as Cmdr. of the Plymouth militia seriously; enough so, that when he perished in 1656, the weapons he had set aside would today have got him named an arsenal. We know this because his inventory of personal property, tken in conjuncyion with hi will, survives to this day.

Standish was a man of some substance for the 17th Century; his estate all told comprised over £350, a serious fortune in the time of the English Interregnum.

But we’re interested in the arms in his death inventory:

It(em:) one fowling peece 3 musketts 4 Carbines 2 smale guns one old barrell

It(em:) one sword one Cutles 3 belts

So, then, he passed away owning no less then ten firearms, of which only one was of the hunting or sporting variety; plus a spare barrel; plus two swords. All in the value of £10, 8s, 0d.

Compare that to the 4-gun “arsenal” of George Zimmerman that so alarmed the media. Or the one-gun “arsenal”  by which CBS definitively answered the question, “How small can an ‘arsenal’ be for these meretricious media morons?”

Incidentally, one of the signatories to Standish’s death inventory was his old acquaintance John Alden, originally the cooper (barrel-maker) of the Mayflower, who chose to stay in the Plymouth colony and was elected its first governor. When a colony is that small, everybody knows everybody else.


Remember… Agent Zero M?

1965 ad for Agent Zero M spy toys

1964 ad for Agent Zero M spy toys

It was a 1964-or-so Mattel Toy Company spy toy line. There was a great flowering of spy stuff in the popular culture in the early sixties. It began, perhaps, with the James Bond books, and specifically, when President Kennedy revealed himself as a fan of Ian Fleming’s then-revolutionary adventures. The media, for whom Kennedy then was the same sort of limerent object that Obama is now, and the pop culture in turn, went nonlinear for “all things spy,” and we had spy shows on the screen and the tube for the next four or so years. These shows were of all kinds: dramas and comedies, aimed at adults and children, brilliant shows (The Man From UNCLE in drama and Get Smart! in comedy) and dreadful ones (most of the rest). Naturally, toys followed. The best toys were the guns, naturally. Can you identify the child actor in this “Agent Zero M” commercial from 1964? He went on to be a Hollywood name.

We were reminded of the Agent Zero M gun by a comment by 1Freeman1951, who attributed the design of various folding SMGs to attempts to make a real life Agent Zero M Radio Rifle.

Agent Zero M toys are popular among collectors; here’s an eBay listing. And here’s a rip from a JC Penney 1966 Christmas Catalog, from


Zero_M-Spy _CaseThe Radio Rifle was one of the flagships of the line, selling for $2.22 in 1966. It was also available as part of a complete kit in a cheesy cardboard “attache case,” with spy pens and other gadgets that morphed into pistols. These included a pocketknife that turned into a pistol and a camera that turned into a pistol with a passing resemblance to a Luger. (At the time, a Mattel competitor, Marx Toys, made a popular Luger cap gun that even had a “working” toggle.

There was also a movie camera that turned into a submachine gun, and the Sonic Blaster, a bazooka-like thing that fired a blast of air to knock over paper targets.  (We recall a friend having that one; it may have been discontinued by the 1966 catalog). Here’s another commercial with that same kid. Identify him yet?

All of these were, of course, inspired by various James Bond gadgets (including the then-exotic Armalite AR-7 survival rifle used in Dr. No) and, most especially, the UNCLE Special gun carried by Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin. The UNCLE Specials (of which there were two major kinds, 1934 Mausers and Walther P-38s) were strictly stage weapons, incapable of firing live ammunition, but several makers have tried to clone them since.

The kid? Kurt Russell. Snake Plissken his ownself, not to mention perhaps the best of the screen’s many Wyatt Earps, and Mr Goldie Hawn.


A tale of UW, circa 1622 or so

Capt. Myles Standish. Modern portrait by Mike Haywood after a 1626 original. Prints available from

Capt. Myles Standish. Modern portrait by Mike Haywood after a 1626 original. Prints available from

A new literature site, Liberty Island, contains some interesting war stories. One of them tells a story of the Plymouth Colony almost 400 years ago, in which the local knowledge, warrior culture, and fierce courage of the native Indians meets its match in the strength and guile of the English colonists.

“Tarry awhile with me, Captain?”

The governor’s assistant, Isaac Allerton, and the native Hobamock had just unlatched the door and stepped outside, leaving the two leaders to their own counsel.

The governor put a hand on his old friend’s shoulder and inclined his head towards the ladder leading to the gun deck of the fortified meetinghouse. As they climbed, the afternoon sun of a late March day shone through the observation and gun ports, in contrast to the dark room below. The light reflected off the little soldier’s shiny metal cuirass, causing the governor to blink and look away until his eyes adjusted. The captain removed his morion helmet and leaned back upon the brass five-pounder, stroking the barrel with his gauntleted hand as if it were his favorite hound.

“Doth Hobamock lie?” the governor asked.

“He doth not,” the captain answered.

via Liberty Island – David Churchill Barrow – Ense Petit Placidam.

The author claims descent from two real men who figure in the story as characters, Governor William Bradford and Captain Miles Standish.

It is a story of two folkways — the native and the English — that are irreversibly part of the American way of war. In our childhood, we summered in sight of an obelisk erected to the memory of Standish; later, our summer household was reformed elsewhere, and the old cottage is now someone’s year-round residence. But the story is reminiscent of the stirring tales of colonist and Indian we grew up with.

That, and Barrow treats the weapons of the time accurately. Here are a couple of examples:

“I did order the slow matches for your firelocks to be lit aforehand, so tell me verily, have ANY of you pitiable farmers managed to KEEP them lit in this sea spray!?”

“I have, sir,” Alden answered.

“Good lad. Would you be so kind as to touch off your piece, so that we may summon anyone who might be hereabouts?”


“Captain! To your left!” Alden warned. The captain quickly turned the barrel of his matchlock, which rested on a swivel he had hastily stuck in the ground, and aimed at a fox skin-covered arm drawing a bow from behind a tree. Psssssst…BOOM! BOOM! He and another man seeing the same target fired almost simultaneously. The warrior screamed in pain and bounded off, cradling his shattered arm.

That’s exactly what firing a matchlock is like, and exactly why it was replaced in turn by snaphaunce/flintlock, percussion, and cartridge weapons: each one reduced lock time and thereby increased accuracy.

That Barrow got this detail right tells us he’s either spent some time hands-on with the weapons of his great-great-to-the-n ancestors, or he’s done a lot of research to learn from people who have.

We don’t know exactly what arms the Pilgrims had when they landed in what is now Massachusetts. One of the most active current historians of the Mayflower and the early Plymouth colony, Caleb Johnson, notes about period inventories and lists:

The Pilgrims did not leave behind any lists of the items they brought with them on the Mayflower, but historians have used a provision list put together by Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) to take an educated guess.  However, in 2012, Caleb Johnson, Simon Neal, and Jeremy Bangs started transcribing and studying a rare manuscript (a page of which is here illustrated) in the possession of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, that was written by one of the investors in the Pilgrims’ joint-stock company.  This manuscript actually contains several lists of suggested provisions the colonists should bring with them.  It is the closest thing we can get to a list of what the Pilgrims would have actually brought.

What they found about arms, on this early-17th-century packing list, was:

Light armor (complete), fowling piece, snaphance, sword, belt, bandoleer, powder horn, 20 pounds of powder, 60 pounds of shot.


Sword purporting to be John Carver’s (detail) from the Pilgrim Hall museum.

Interesting to see the then-rather-new snaphaunce (as it’s usually spelled today) on the list. Known or believed surviving weapons from the colony are displayed at the Pilgrim Hall museum in downtown Plymouth today; three swords including Standish’s rapier, a dog-lock pistol (another flintlock forerunner), and a helmet.

In any event, Barrow has certainly done more research about these early weapons than we have. We’d really like to see his tale of Myles Standish and William Bradford and company expanded to novel length.

One airframe, through history

In 1959, the US Air Force was the world’s dominant air arm, with thousands of aircraft in service and thousands more built every year. One of those 1959 models was KC-135A 59-1472, a Boeing tanker/freighter jet on an airframe that was a forerunner of the Boeing 707, the first really successful jetliner. (True, the DeHavilland Comet came earlier, but it wasn’t all that successful until an explosive-decompression problem was solved, by which time it was far behind US types).

59-1472  was polished aluminum with minimal markings, including the tail number 91472 displayed on its vertical fin. It still looked like that about 12 years later, when it was photographed refueling F-4 and F-105 type aircraft in the Vietnam War.

Phantoms & Thuds

That dramatic picture came from a set of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base pictures, visible here.

If you embiggen the picture (which will reward you) you will see red stars on the intake splitter of the F-4; it is the plane of ace Mig killer (and later, BG) Steve Ritchie. We’ve met the man. Fortunately, we were outdoors: no known structure can contain his ego. But we digress.

The F-105D and -F aircraft were soon to be decommissioned after the war, and the Phantom is on its last legs, today, as a drone. The Iranians, who keep ancient F-4s in the air by cannibalization and sanctions-busting, are one of the few nations still operating manned F-4s (the Luftwaffe retired theirs last year).

The tankers were vital to the Vietnam War effort.

Seeing the picture made us intensively curious about 59-1472. We quickly found this picture, which showed she was still in the Air Force about another decade on, by this time wearing grey paint and the markings of the Strategic Air Command, at RAF Mildenhall. By the time this photo was taken in 1977, 59-1472 was voting age.

59-1472 1977

An obsessive fellow named Joe Baugher has maintained a database of US military serial numbers for decades. In his 1959 Serial Number List, Joe has a note that 59-1472 was one of the tankers converted to KC-135R, with improved avionics and much more powerful and efficient high-bypass turbofans. (The original engines were turbojets, which burn far more fuel, and have much skinnier nacelles). The “R” upgrade gave the tanker fleet a new vitality, and is the key to why these ancient, in airplane terms, machines can still be useful, when most of the fighters they once fueled are now beer cans and storm windows. This is what 59-1472 looks like as an -R model:

Screenshot 2014-03-18 19.12.13

So what happened to 59-1472? She’s still flying! Here’s a video that German spotter Peter Grütering took in Geilenkirchen, Germany on May 15, 2013, and it shows 91472, looking good as new and still flying with the Hawaii Air National Guard. (The first 10+ minutes of the video shows the taxi and takeoff of an E-3 AWACS, another 707/C-135 variant; only the last 3.5 minutes or so shows 91472).  We checked Peter Grütering’s website and didn’t find any stills of the bird; the one above came from his video.

If anything, tankers like 59-1472 are even more important today than they were when she was bought by the Air Force, 55 years ago. Then, the USA had a wide range of bases surrounding and containing our possible enemies — and giving our fighters and bombers places to launch from. Then, the USA had 27 or 28 aircraft carriers in commission (now there are 10, and only half are deployable at any one time, and they embark only fighter-bombers and helicopters, without most of the 1959 strike capability). Now, all we can do is expect pilots to fly 12, or 14, or 28 hour missions with frequent tanker visits.

Of course, if you think the biggest threat to world peace is the US Military, as the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and Ambassador to the United Nations all do, that’s a good thing.