Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

Bubba Retros a Rifle

This thread in Imgur (and there’s a matching discussion on Reddit) shows the whole process of Bubba attempting to alter a modern AR receiver to more closely resemble a Vietnam War early Colt Model 603, often erroneously referred to as an XM16E11. He didn’t go all the way with it, opting not to reprofile the buffer tower and pivot pin areas, both of which were extensively reinforced in later AR lowers.  He did wind up with a decent-looking 50-footer:

Bubba AR

As you might expect, a Dremel2 was involved.

Bubba AR Dremel 02

What could possibly go wrong? Hey, it’ll buff out.  And it’s nothing a couple of rattle-cans of Rustoleum grey primer won’t cover.

Well, almost cover:

Bubba AR spraypaint

Lesson learned, by this Bubba:

Bubba AR Filing

Use a file next time!

His further lessons learned:

Sub /r/RetroAR.

Build retro rifles.


Be happy.

One of his reasons for doing this was that an NDS lower (which comes with all the profiling correct) was too much money. But on the positive side, he’s done non-irreversible damage to a cheap, generic AR lower, and he’s learned a lot. And if he’s like most Retro AR enthusiasts, every time he looks at that rifle it’s going to bug him until he gets around to improving it some more.

So maybe it’s possible for Bubba to educate himself clean out of Bubbahood. He’s learned, at least, that it’s easier to feel what you’re doing with a file than a Dremel, and that an ordinary Joe can take a piece of aluminum and bend it to his will.


  1. The label XM16E1 was used prior to the M16A1 type classification being approved, and was not related in any way to the change from a partial fence to a full fence lower receiver, which actually happened almost two years earlier, so you do see the XM16E1 roll mark on full-fence lowers.
  2. DREMEL: Device Removes Excessive Metal Electrically, Lummox.

Reenacting Waterloo

In case you’re wondering why 19th-Century (and 18th-Century) cavalry  feared a British square, here’s a look at a reenactor version:

The battles are scripted, but only to an extent. It is impossible to plan how a cavalry charge will turn out while the melees often descend into something akin to a rugby scrum. In previous re-enactments, it is said, over-zealous French units have taken it upon themselves to try and win.

via Portable loos and Belgian officiousness: When ‘war’ breaks out at the Battle of Waterloo, 2015 – Telegraph.

We’ve always thought of reenactors as something specifically American and Civil War oriented. It turns out there are a lot of European reenactors doing Napoleonic battles, which have just had their bicentennial.

The “French” may include people from all across the EU (and beyond) who enjoy portraying French soldiers of the 1st Empire, and the “British” include everybody who wants to be part of Wellington’s victory — including a designated “Wellington,” just as the French have their own “Napoleon,” and specific role players as other generals in the complicated coalition battle.

Cambridge Map of Waterloo


Even playing at soldiering can be pretty hard, and there’s often deaths — especially among the, er, more seasoned reenactors — and hospitalizations. This year’s Waterloo was no exception, being the figurative Waterloo for one Canadian reenactor — sadly, not from Waterloo, Ontario.

The entire report in the Telegraph is insightful, curious and perceptive, and seems to take these reenactors at face value, rather than take a superficial scan of the event and deliver the supercilious mockery that credentialed Acela Corridor journalists would. So hie yourself hence and Read The Whole Thing™.

Gee, if only Napoleon had had the insight of the brilliant men in suits in the Pentagon, he could simply have mobilized a regiment of female Chasseurs and driven Wellington from the field. (There actually are women reenactors, but they play camp followers and/or courtesans).

A Forgotten German SOF Unit

Ever heard of Bataillon Ebbinghaus? They really were a thing — briefly.

Before World War II, special operations were more the bailiwick of ad hoc, temporary elements, what the British precisely called “mobs for jobs,” than they were assignments to permanent special operations forces. A war would break out, some Robert Rogers would raise a regiment or even a company of special-purpose forces.


Purportedly von Hippel with men of Bn Ebbinghaus, Silesia 1939. Note civilian clothes, deniable weapons (ZB-26, MP.18-I), Nazi armbands.

In the gear-up to what would become World War II, the German forces took this approach in raising a unit of Polish-speaking irregulars. Writes Mike Bennighof, PhD, on a wargame page:

Theodore [sic] von Hippel, a veteran of the German campaign in East Africa during the First World War, lobbied long and hard for special deep penetration units that would sabotage bridges and other communications nodes ahead of a German advance. The army allowed Hippel to form a special battalion known as the “Ebbinghaus” unit. Hippel recruited Polish-speaking Germans from either side of the border, Poles resident in Germany and Freikorps veterans. And according to some of his detractors, a fair number of petty criminals. They went into action during the German invasion of Poland in September 19391.

Von Hippel at his desk. The German Aaron Bank?

Von Hippel at his desk. The German Aaron Bank?

Throughout the war, German forces would use units like this, often successfully on the Eastern front. They had less success in the West, where they created a lot of confusion during the Battle of the Bulge but wound up defeated in detail. (Most of the English-speaking, American-uniformed infiltrators were captured, given a summary court-martial, and shot).

Bennighof suggests that the original Batallon Ebbinghaus from the Polish Campaign was not an unalloyed success:

Though there are some unsourced claims that the Ebbinghaus Battalion “performed magnificently” (without giving any details of this magnificence), Polish records give a much different story. The battalion assaulted the Polish factory complex at Slask in Silesia, and were intercepted by local police and army reservists. After an intense firefight, half of the saboteurs were killed2.

One online source suggests that Ebbinghaus was successful in “seizing the bridges over the Vistula” as well as the Silesian factory attack3, but there’s no way to trace it back to a primary source.

Having had their prejudices about special operations confirmed, the army high command dissolved the Ebbinghaus unit. But the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, saw an opportunity. He transferred Hippel to military intelligence and ordered him to form a new unit, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (800th Special Purpose Training and Construction Company). Hippel formed the unit around the Ebbinghaus survivors at a barracks in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate, and his company became known as the Brandenburg company.

Recruiting and training focused on language ability and cultural knowledge, to allow saboteurs to pose as enemy soldiers and civilians. Overwhelmingly, preparations focused on the Soviet Union despite Germany’s supposed alignment with the Communist state, reflecting Canaris’ virulent anti-Communism. Canaris eased Hippel aside as the unit began to show real promise4.

So by 25 Oct 39, Ebbinghaus was no more, and the unit was Brandenburg until, after the murder of its sponsor Canaris, it was converted to a conventional unit and expended in combat.  Here’s another excerpt mentioning it:

The German high command allowed Hippel to form a battalion to do what he had proposed–sabotage the enemy’s ability to respond to German attacks by capturing roadways and bridges ahead of the main force and securing strategic targets before they were demolished. Known as the Ebbinghaus battalion, the battalion did a superb job in the Polish campaign, despite their excellent performance they were disband soon after. However this excellent performance didn’t fail to go unnoticed, and Admiral Canaris(who at the time was incharge of the Abwehr)gave Hippel the opportunity to form a unit like the Ebbinghaus group for the Abwehr.

On October 15, 1939, the Lehr und Bau Kompagnie z.b.V. 800 (Special Duty Training and Construction Company No. 800), which consisted primarily of the former Ebbinghaus volunteers, was officially founded in Brandenburg [an der Havel near Berlin], where it would take on the shorter name of Brandenburg Company5.

One wonders what sources lie behind the tales, and what was the (probably prosaic) origin of the original name. The only official source we have found is a photo of von Hippel with caption and a few brief paragraphs (.pdf) in the Bundesarchiv, who say the photo came from his personnel file in the archive — a file that ends with his 1943 capture in Tunisia.

One site gives Bataillon Ebbinghaus credit for “prevent[ing] the destruction of Vistula Bridges and sabotage of factories in Silesia” during the Polish campaign6.

But the naming enigma remains. Who, or what, or where was Ebbinghaus that gave this early unit its name? And where, in something as thoroughly explored as the history of Nazi special operations forces, is the history of this brief mob-for-a-job?


  1. Higgins, p. 9.
  2. Bennighof.
  3. Uncredited.
  4. Bennighof.
  5. Lew.
  6. Uncredited.



Bennighof, Mike. Retrieved from:

Bundesarchiv. Hauptmann Theodor von Hippel. Retrieved from: and:

Higgins, David R. Behind Soviet Lines: Hitler’s Brandenburgers Capture the Maikop Oilfields, 1942. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2014.

Lew, Christopher. The Brandenburg Commandos – July ’96 World War II Feature. Retrieved from:

Uncredited. The Brandenburg Commandos: Germany’s Warrior-Spies, n.d.. Retrieved from:

Various. Theodor von Hippel. Axis History Forum. Retrieved from:


The post has been edited. Thanks to a comment by our one banned commenter, an error in the date of the Higgins book has been corrected. He’s still banned though — sorry ’bout that. -Ed.


Friendly Fire Pearl Harbor

An F4F Wildcat doesn’t really look like an A6M2 Zeke. The first has a “fastback” turtledeck behind the cockpit, mid-wing and high tail, squared-off tips of wing and tail, and a barrel fuselage; the second, a “bubble” canopy artfully constructed of flat plexiglass, a low-mounted wing and tail, gracefully rounded surface tips, and a tapered fuselage.

That is, unless you’re an antiaircraft gunner. And there, the troubles of VF-6 from USS Enterprise began, on the evening of 7 Dec 41.

While the Navy had suffered the most casualties of any service that day, and the smoke still rose from the instant gravesite of nearly 2,000 souls that was USS Arizona, Naval Aviation had made it through the day without losing a single  fighter pilot. (A lot of planes had been destroyed where they sat; the pilots, like most of their Army Air Corps opposite numbers, hadn’t gotten into the air to oppose the raid. But the pilots lived).

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

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

That luck was about to change, even as the Japanese raiders, hundreds of miles away, steamed for home at high speed. A flight of six from Fighting Six on Enterprise, which was returning to Hawaiian waters from a sortie to Wake Island, had flown off and were expected at Ford Island Naval Air Station. Ray Panko of the Pacific Air Museum at Ford Island writes:

With LT(jg) Francis F. “Fritz” Hebel in the lead, the flight approached a blacked-out Oahu, the only light coming from fires of the morning attack. Wingman ENS Herbert H. Menges flew alongside Hebel. Following were ENS Gayle L. Hermann and ENS David R. Flynn and a final pair consisting of ENS James G. Daniels III and LT(jg) Eric Allen, Jr.

On Ford Island, Enterprise CAG LCDR Howard L. “Brigham” Young had flown in on an SBD scout bomber earlier in the day, into the middle of the attack. He was able to land on Ford Island’s runway and sprint to the control tower. There, he tried to contact Enterprise, but the tower’s weak radio signal could not reach the carrier. Young climbed back into his SBD’s back seat to use the aircraft’s radio, communicating with Enterprise to apprise Admiral Halsey of the situation. That evening, Enterprise notified Ford Island six aircraft from VF-6 would be landing. Young and other personnel sent out the word to hold fire, and then Young waited in the control tower for the Wildcats.

Around 2100 hours, the flight finally arrived. They had flown nearly to the east end of Oahu’s southern shore before determining where they were. They turned around and approached Ford Island from the south, passing over Hickam Field. Hebel radioed that they would make a circuit around the island, landing from the north. Young in the control tower told them to come straight in, but Hebel either could not hear Young or decided to ignore him. Hebel repeated he was making a pass, and Young, once again, tried to get him to fly straight in.

Lieutenant Commander Young, having been on the ground through much of the raid and all of the aftermath so far, must have been totally in tune with the jumpy, angry spirit of the defenders.

As the flight passed by Ford Island, a few scattered shots were fired and then the floodgates opened. Although the word had gone out that the Wildcats were coming, every gun on the island seemed to open up. The museum’s own Dick Girocco, who was in Hangar 56, said the “sky was lit up like daytime” and the sound was deafening.

This is reminiscent of the fate of the paratroop transports that passed over the invasion fleet at Sicily, except that the transports were even easier to hit than a formation of fighters. These and other friendly fire incidents are why all Allied aircraft were painted with gaudy stripes for D-Day — and why the troop carriers flew around the Cotentin Peninsula and inland, in order to drop their paratroops without ever overflying the Normandy invasion fleet. The lesson was taken on board by Allied planners, but only after it had been written in blood.

Everyone in the flight realized they were in trouble. Flight leader Hebel was able to break away from the carnage and make for Wheeler Field, but when he arrived, he was greeted with another barrage. His aircraft crashed; Hebel died of head injuries the next morning.

Hebel’s wingman Menges crashed into the Palms Hotel near the Pearl City Tavern. No one in the hotel was injured, but Menges died instantly in the crash. He became the first Navy fighter pilot to die in the war.

Hermann was hit 18 times as he tried to escape. His flight came to an abrupt end when a 5-inch naval shell hit his engine. The shell failed to explode, but it knocked the engine out of the plane. The Wildcat fluttered down tail-first to crash on the Ford Island golf course….

Flying next to Hermann was Flynn, who was able to break away from Ford Island’s crossfire. He headed toward Barbers Point, but had to bail out, landing in a cane field. Army security personnel tried to shoot him, imagining he was a Japanese paratrooper. Flynn’s cursing convinced them otherwise.

Allen was hit immediately. He bailed out, but was hit by a .50-caliber shell on the way down, his parachute only partially opened. Allen swam through oily water to minesweeper Vireo (AM-52), but died of severe wounds the next day.

The last pilot, Ensign James G. Daniels III, survived by turning off his lights, diving to the deck, and essentially sneaking up on Ford Island. To hear about his narrow escape and subsequent career in the Navy, do go Read The Whole Thing™.

Hermann, by a miracle, survived despite being trapped in his falling-leaf Wildcat all the way to the ground. Even though only one pilot (Menges) was killed outright, five of the six were shot down, and Hermann, Flynn and Daniels were the only members of the six-man flight to be alive 24 hours later.

After surviving all that, Hermann was killed in a flying accident a few days later.

Daniels went on to an extremely distinguished career and reached high command in the Navy.

A Classic Curse

GilgameshIf you have ever been cursed by certain kinds of people, you may have had to stop to marvel at their ingenuity. These groups known for cursing include the bog Irish, very senior NCOs and petty officers, and Middle Easterners of all kinds.

Well, almost all kinds. Do Jews utter vile and imaginative curses and imprecations? Our impression is that they do not; instead, a wronged Jew may be a man of great faith in God, but he rather sensibly gets even in the here and now and doesn’t bother the Deity with his mundane requirements in re revenge. Meanwhile, the others who have shared his particular arid corner of the planet seem content to call down the wrath of God, Allah or Aton the Sun Disk as their faith specifies. And they often do it with more than their share of color.

We’ve been listening to the Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale from the cradle of civilization, and were struck by a curse that Enkidu, friend of the protagonist, King Gilgamesh, lay upon the woman who seduced him and despoiled his innocence:

He then cursed Shamhat, the priestess of Ishtar1.

“Shamhat! I assign you an eternal fate. Curse you with the ultimate curse; may it seize you instantly as it leaves my mouth.

Never may you have a home and family. Never caress a child of your own! May your man prefer younger, prettier girls2. May he beats you as a housewife beats a rug. May you never acquire bright alabaster, or shining silver, the delight of men. May your roof keep leaking, and no carpenter fix it. May wild dogs camp in your bedroom. May owls nest in your attic. May drunkards vomit all over you. May a tavern wall be your place of business3. May you be dressed in torn robes, and filthy underwear. May angry wives sue you. May thorns  and briars make your feet bloody. May young men jeer, and the rabble mock you as you walk the streets!

Shamhat, may all this be your reward for seducing me in the wilderness, when I was strong, and innocent, and free.”

Now that’s a curse.

Now we know where the Arabs and Persians get it from. How did it work out, though?

Bright Shamhas, the Protector, heard his prayer. Then from Heaven, the voice of the god called out, “Enkidu, why are you cursing the priestess Shamhat? Wasn’t it she who gave you fine bread, fit for a god? And fine beer, fit for a king?  Who clothed you in a glorious robe, and gave you splendid Gilgamesh as your intimate friend?

He will lay you down on a bed of honor. He will put you on a royal bier, on his left he will place your statue in the seat of repose; the princes of the earth will kiss its feet. The people of Uruk will mourn you, and when you are gone he will roam the wilderness with matted hair, in a lion’s skin.”

When Enkidu heard this, his raging heart grew calm. He thought of Shamhat, and said, “Shamhat, I assign you a different fate. My mouth that cursed you will bless you now. May you be adored by nobles and princes.

Two miles away from you, may your lover tremble with excitement;

One mile away, may he bite his lip in anticipation;

May the warrior long to be naked beside you, may Ishtar give you generous lovers whose treasure chests brim with jewels and gold; may the mother of seven be abandoned for your sake.”

So all the effort put into that curse, and Enkidu just took it back. (Spoiler: then, he croaks).

It’s interesting to see in the very ancient tale of Gilgamesh some of the pathologies that still roil the middle east, long after the last icon to Uruk’s forgotten gods has been cloven (or if lucky, hauled off two centuries past to the British Museum) and the last temple pulled down.


  1. The Epic previously explains that one duty of the priestesses of Ishtar was to have sex with as many men as possible. Enkidu has a week-long romp with Shamhat immediately prior to this bit of the story. But by losing his virginity, Enkidu lost some supernatural powers, including the ability to converse with wild animals. (Hey, we didn’t write this story and expect you to believe it, take it up with some long-dead priest of Uruk).
  2. A well-targeted curse against any woman of a certain age, as that’s what men generally do.
  3. He is implying here that Shamhat, priestess of Ishtar, is no better than a common bar whore.

Quick Kill — Useful Skill

The Quick Kill instinctive shooting method that was once taught in the US Army remains a  useful combat skill. It has been supplanted in the training world by improved sights and a focus on extremely rapid use of sights, but we believe it still has a place in the training and combat world.

It’s faster to show than to explain this skill. Unfortunately, there are few quick kill videos digitized at this point, and none fell readily to hand.

Quick Kill traces its roots to the “trick shooters” of the 20th Century, men like Ed McGivern who had so mastered firearms that they could pretty much hit anything with anything — fast. In the 1930s through the 1950s there were many articles on what was then called “point shooting” or “hip shooting,” driven in part by the stylized cowboy acts of the era. A technical/training book called Instinct Shooting by Mike Jennings appeared in 1959 and sold mostly out of ads in the back of gun culture magazines. Frank Connor, an author of many shooting and hunting articles, espoused similar techniques, as did “Lucky” McDaniel who brought the skill to the Army.

The Army initially called this Quick Fire, but in the second generation of the unofficial training document had progressed to calling it Quick Kill. This was not something that was just taught to Special Forces: it was part of infantry training for several years, as the peacetime training base of a large and slow-moving army reluctantly assumed a war footing during Vietnam.

There were three phases to Quick Kill, which was, during its brief life, normally the second phase of Basic Rifle Marksmanship training, after the trainees were taught to clear, disassemble, maintain, reassemble, and function-check the service rifle, but before they were taught such marksmanship fundamentals as sight picture, trigger control, and steady-hold factors. Those three phases were:

  1. Firing with an air rifle with no sights. This was a block of three hours of instruction. Initially these were just Daisy BB guns stripped of sights. Later, the Army’s own Training and Audiovisual Support Centers (one on every post, they made and supplied training aids) made one by glass-bedding a Daisy in an M14 stock.
    Quick Kill TASC

    US Army photo from the David Albert collection.

    Later still, a special Daisy that was mocked up to resemble an M16, but with the sights blanked off, was made. Any of these modified Daisys are extremely rare today. This one was sold by Rock Island Auctions in 2011:Rock Island Daisy Quick Kill rifleThere are at least a couple of variations of this air gun, which is not surprising, as they were locally made in individual TASCs. There were probably rudimentary plans, possibly just a single undimensioned sketch. One thing they have in common is lack of any actual sights.

    Quick Kill M16BB

    Photo from the David Albert collection.

  2. Firing with a service rifle with blanked-out sights. For the M14, a “training rib” was created that did this and provided a shotgun-like “sight picture” (although the rifle was held well below the sight line in this training).
  3. Firing with the service rifle, but not using the sights. Three distances were used: 15, 30 and 50 meters.

Yes, in the late 60s and early 70s, your basic grunt learned to hit stuff with his rifle, then he learned to use the sights. Heresy, today. But a look at old AARs shows that our guys generally won the meeting engagements with their conventionally-trained PAVN opponents, so it might just be heresy that works.

The whole program consumed one or two training days for a basic training company. After that, the troops would move on to aimed fire. Initial controlled studies showed that trainees who experienced Quick Kill performed better at marksmanship, even at longer ranges, than those who had not. Instinctively, that seems a paradoxical result. The scientists speculated that increased self-confidence may have been at work.

A later survey showed that, yes, Quick Kill-trained soldiers had greater confidence in themselves and their weapons than soldiers who had not had that training. In the absence of any other logical theory as to why Quick Kill training improves hit probability at 300 meters, the confidence factor has to be the tentative conclusion.

In 1969, the Army and George Washington University researchers conducted another study on Quick Kill training (one of many sponsored by the Army’s Human Resources Research Organization, HumRRO), to see if money and time could be saved. Some groups continued to have three hours of air rifle training before moving on to a real rifle; some had only an hour and a half (this was not deliberately part of the experimental design, but the schedule happened to short some trainees; the social scientists welcomed this “found data” and incorporated it in the study). For the study’s sake, some training companies had the phase in which an attached rib is used to encourage instinctive firing deleted, and others retained it. The test showed conclusively that the Army was getting training value out of the air rifle and rib training: the groups that had the full training shot better than the ones that got the bowdlerized version. On the other hand, the test showed that they could make some changes to target ranges and reduce the number of rounds fired in the live-fire block of instruction, without compromising marksmanship quality. The key was reducing them together: if you reduced the round count while taking out one of three target distances (they went with 20 and 50m), there was no effect on training quality; if you reduced the round count, but stayed with 15, 30 and 50m, performance declined.

Remarkably, all trainees in this experiment at Benning were still being trained, even at this late date, with the obsolete M14 rifle. (Of course, National Guard units were still armed with WWII era weapons like the M1 rifle and M1919A6 light machine gun).

Quick Kill suffered the fate of many other Army innovations of the 1950s and 1960s — it became tainted by association with the lost war in Vietnam, and the Army banished it from its collective memory.

From time to time, someone tries to “rehabilitate” Quick Kill, as we suppose we’re doing with this post. The thing is, it works. You can train to hit targets at combat ranges without sights, and we firmly believe you should. (Think you’re hot stuff? Put some tape over your sights and run a Dot Torture or three. Spend a whole training session on it — and tell us if you don’t get better at it). Of course, the Army’s safe, simple, cheap starting mode — an airgun — is a great way to begin practicing Quick Kill.

Some more formal ranges, especially indoor ranges, won’t let you try this. They have their reasons. Your first few rounds will go unexpectedly high or low, but you will be surprised how quickly you can get on “minute of man” from a low position (pistol held centered at about chin height, long gun tucked below the armpit) or even from the hip. As with any practical shooting practice, start low and close in (if backstop permits; don’t do this if you’re shooting up on an indoor range or with an unknown range fan). When you’re hitting at smell-his-halitosis distances, then move the target back.

This skill does not replace aimed fire, but it supplements it in a potentially lifesaving way.

The facts are: you can learn to shoot accurately at short to medium distances without sights, with a lot of ammo, and a lot of practice. (But less than you might think it would take). Those mid-20th-Century guys, whether they were actual warriors or matinee idols, who blazed away with Colt .45s or Thompsons from the hip, are not as entirely incompetent as today’s training wallahs seem to think they are. In fact, today’s trainers are as stylized in their own way as the Western movie gunfighters of the 1950s were in theirs.

Here are some sources of more information.

Jim Keating describes some of the history on a nearly unreadable (gray text on black background, circa 1990) website, and will sell you manuals or training. He learned QK as a ROTC cadet in the 1960s.

Here is the 1971 version of the instruction “Training Text” (a document with less weight than a fully-doctrinal field manual). We apologize for the poor scan, it’s what DTIC had. The document describes a systematic and deliberate system of drilling rapid-fire point shooting just like the service drills any other soldier skill.

TT 23-71-1-Principles-of-Quick-Kill.pdf

Here’s one of the 1969 studies. There are more to be found on NTIS and DTIC.

Olmstead-Jacobs HumRRO 14-69 Quick Kill.pdf

This website has more detail, developed by David Lambert. Some of the photographs used above appear to be from Mr Lambert’s collection and we have revised this post to give him credit:



The Magic Rucksack

In Special Forces from 1960 to the mid-1980s, there was a capability called, among other things, “the Magic Rucksack.” (This weapon, and its mission, were prolific producers of slang and nicknames, most of which were as compartmented as the mission itself; it’s unlikely anyone knows them all). It was the Special Atomic Demolition Munition, SADM, a small nuclear fission weapon with a W54 selectable-yield warhead, detonated by timers. It was the smallest of a series of ADMs that specialist Army engineer units trained with.

This is the Medium ADM, "field-stripped." Components of the SADM were similar, but smaller.

This is the Medium ADM, “field-stripped.” Components of the SADM were similar, but smaller.

It fit a very, very narrow target niche. While the engineers’ wartime mission was to use their ADMs to channelize advancing forces into artillery and air “kill boxes” (any Ivans they actually nuked were not the main objective, but what a fisherman might call “bycatch”), to justify an SF SADM emplacement the target had to meet certain criteria. If you think about it, you can probably come close to what they actually were.

  1. Payoff. It had to justify being targeted with a <1-1kt nuke;
  2. Deep. Deeper behind enemy lines than artillery could reach; and,
  3. Not a good target for an air raid.
  4. Target placement achievable by SF ODA.

There were two ways to carry it, in its own container, which felt like it was designed by some pointy-headed nuclear physicist who’d never carried anything on his back in his life, or wrapped in a sleeping bag or poncho liner inside an ALICE or mountain rucksack (depending on period).  There was also a transit case for administrative transit; there’s no scale in this picture, but it was too bulky for field use by far.

Transit Case.

Transit Case.

This video is sometimes presented as SEALs or Marines, but it was a joint Army/Navy exercise. The men preparing the SADM for aerial delivery are wearing 1950s-60s Army uniforms and were probably engineer officers and NCOs from Sandia Labs.

SADMAs you might imagine, security around the weapon was heavy with even its existence being classified. Teams selected for SADM duty were given additional security clearances and briefings, and underwent considerable classroom training, including usage and employment information as well as hands on assembly/disassembly of mock-ups and simulators. There was never a full-mission-profile test with an actual warhead. Indeed, most SADM team members never saw an actual SADM, only simulators.

The M46 simulator matched the weight, bulk, awkwardness and shape of the actual weapon, and contained timers that worked about like the ones in the real weapon, except for the world-shattering Kaboom! at the end.

kaboomEven the simulator was a classified device. A classified manual described the usage, effects, tactical employment, and technical features of the weapon, and provided real timer drills; a companion, unclassified manual provided practice with the math and timers of a slightly different, notional ADM.

The security was breached by CBS News in the 1980s, and they aired a short film clip of a 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group SADM team in training in 1986. By that time, though, the writing was on the wall for the Magic Rucksack.

The SADM was probably a more fitting component of the battlefield mix in 1960 than it was by 1985. Precision-guided munitions such as cruise missiles were capable of hitting a lot of targets more exactly, and with less risk of interception, than a team of men crunching through the woods.

Moreover, by the mid-1980s, environmental problems had forced the shutdown of several  US nuclear-weapons facilities, some temporarily, some permanently. With scarcity arriving the same time that tactical and strategic nuclear modernization called for new warheads, the recycling of the fissionable material from the SADM’s W54 warheads was inevitable.

There are constant rumors that the SADMs were stored. That might actually be the case with some components of them, but it’s more likely the components were destroyed. (The same fate befell the engineers’ three sizes of ADMs). The fissionable material, the heart of any nuclear weapon, was needed elsewhere, and that more than anything wrote finis to the 25-plus-year saga of the Special Atomic Demolition Munition.

71 Years Ago Today

The ramps dropped on landing craft on two American, two British, and one Canadian landing zones as the promise of European liberation became the reality.


Men of E Co. 16th Infantry (US 1st Infantry division) hit Omaha Beach in the Fox Green sector. Note the plastic bags that protected their rifles. (Image embiggens… a lot). US Navy Photo.

The men of the landing forces met very different results. Bombing and naval gunfire preparation of the beaches weren’t very effective, and some forces, notably the Americans’ left wing at Omaha and the Canadians at Juno, got hit hard. Especially on Omaha Beach, there was a bitter fight for the shoreline, the obstacles, the German positions and the dunes and draws; units were erased, decapitated, disorganized; and when they finally got off the beach it was the doing of individual officers, NCOs and even privates who organized ad hoc assaults around and through the German defenses. Other places, including on the American center-right Utah Beach, the units got ashore in good order and with relatively light casualties.


Meanwhile, American and British airborne forces had been intended to be dropped to secure the flanks of the invasion, but they too had strikingly different circumstances. The British units mostly landed together, and the American ones were widely scattered and intermixed. This had a surprising effect on the outcome of the battle. While the British paras and glider forces quickly seized their objectives, including the brilliant seizure of Merville Battery by paras, and especially the seizure of the Benouville and Ranville bridges by Horsa-glider-borne men of the Oxford & Buckinghamshire Regiment. (Fun fact: the actor who played glider-force leader Major John Howard, Richard Todd, in The Longest Day, was one of the parachute reinforcements who jumped to relieve Howard’s glider force on 6 June. After his wartime service her reverted to his prewar profession, acting).

But while the on-target excellence of the British forces led them to meet their objectives, the wide scattering of the Yank paratroops, while it fouled their timeline, had a fortuitous impact on the operation as a whole. Small packets of self-organizing aggressive paratroopers confused and bedeviled the Germans. The Germans, who were skilled and experienced at warfare, were puzzled at what the paratroopers were doing; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that the troop carriers delivering the Americans screwed up more than the ones delivering the other flank’s British paras. The combat effect of the scattered forces was as surprising to the Allies as it was to the Germans.

But the paratroopers paid. Roughly 2,500 of the day’s 9,000+ casualties were from the airborne forces. Another 2,500 came from the American landing at Omaha Beach. The others were distributed among the Canadians, British, the Utah Beach Americans, multinational naval forces offshore, and air forces supporting the landings.

How did they ever pull this off? Well, they had all this Anglo-American talent:


…and they didn’t have PowerPoint, today’s military’s key force demultiplier.



It’s been pointed out to us that the New York Times chose to celebrate D-Day with an anonymously-sourced (mostly) hit piece on the Navy’s CT element. We thought we’d mention it because we have already heard that one of the named sources considers himself to have been misled by the reporter to whom he spoke, who apparently shopped the interview to the Times after securing it. Stay classy, Manhattan.

Update II (er, Back-date?)

Here is Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message to the troops. This was given to most of the participants in a paper copy, but this is Ike reading it, in his own voice. Thanks to YouTube for the tweet.

MGs in the Russo-Japanese War

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

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

Japanese MG position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Joy of Catalogs

The catalog for the Rock Island Auctions regional auction came yesterday, and it made us think about catalogs.

catalogsOver the years, they have changed; in boyhood, there were always some kind of gun catalogs or wishbooks around. Heck, Ruger used to advertise on the back pages of comic books. Even then, there were several kinds of catalogs:

  1. The glossy, whole-line catalogs put out by manufacturers, from the prosaic (Harrington and Richardson, Marlin) to the sublime (Weatherby, Interarms);
  2. The multi-line catalogs from large dealers and wholesalers, that, if you were a kid fascinated by guns, you might get an outdated version from a friendly salesman;
  3. The sort of “catalogs” maintained by third parties that tried to catalog all available guns, which also had articles, like Gun Digest;
  4. Magazine-like “catalogs” published by magazine publishers that tried to have a photo, the basic facts, and the list price of a some thematically-organized subset of guns, like .22s. These, too, were often sweetened (or, perhaps, fattened) by articles. We remember one that showed the whole process of making .22 long rifle ammunition at the CCI plant. Even in childhood, manufacturing was fascinating. 

The problems with each of those kinds of catalogs were many. We wanted to keep them forever; more practical parents figured they had an expiration date. They also tended to encourage a deep-seated addiction that we still have today: we wanted one of each. And, the catalogs cost manufacturers a lot of money; their stockholders were not going to see any return this quarter from a 12-year-old who was pedaling home from The Gun Room with their expensive four-color glossy advertisements in the basket of his three-speed.

It was during high school that we wrote and sent off for a catalog that everyone of a certain age remembers, or at least remembers the ads for: J. Curtis Earl’s machine gun catalog. In those days, you had to write for things; nobody made long distance phone calls that he or she could avoid (they were expensive!).

The Sale Your Catalog Makes Might Not Be This Year

Memo to marketing VPs everywhere: sometimes you just have to pay it forward. And you have to have faith your company’s survival. We would totally have bought an H&R Officers’ Model trapdoor carbine, if the replica of the Indian Wars classic (and the company that made it, which went bankrupt->auction->Cerberus->Remington Outdoor and lost 95% of its product line and all its character in the process) was still around. Because of the two-page spread about it in the catalog, circa 1972. Most of the oddball .22s we wanted are long off the market, but the Ruger 10/22 we asked for for Christmas is still going strong with millions built. (We didn’t get it, by the way. The Gun Room sold Dad a Winchester 190 instead: less money. We come by being frugal New Englanders the old fashioned way, we’re born to it. The 190 was fine, for a kid).

But we’re pretty sure that Walthers and Berettas that have graced our collection have come to be there, at least in part, thank to catalog photos and copy.

FN, which has been making guns (and presumably catalogs of them) since the century before last, gets it. A few months ago they held an event at one of our local ranges, and while we missed the event they left behind plenty of cool FN rental hardware to try, and a lush supply of glossy catalogs. Naturally one followed us home in the basket of whatever we were driving. And we looked at it at great length.

In our opinion, catalogs are better than most gun mags or gun videos. (Well, especially, most gun videos). The catalog tells you two things: what the manufacturer thinks are the selling points of his guns, their natural advantages. These are the things he emphasizes in his catalog copt. And, the second thing? What he thinks are his disadvantages. Those are the things he doesn’t mention — their absence may only be obvious when you compare catalogs and see what competitors are not boasting about. Glock will never tell you (do they even print a catalog?) that you must pull the trigger to dismantle their pistols, but every striker-fired pistol that doesn’t copy that Glock feature makes sure to mention that you don’t need to pull the trigger to strip the gun. (For someone who came up in the 1911 era, the idea that you would is strange, and smells of bad design).

Catalogs Today

Today, some manufacturers or importers have turned their catalogs into profit centers by having them published by magazines and sold for $10 or so on the newsstand. We’ve got Beretta and CZ-USA catalogs like that; the 12-year-old version couldn’t have afforded them.

As the FN glossy shows, there are still catalogs aplenty. And then there’s the internet. One of the best catalogs online is Maxim Popenker’s, although its focus is primarily military arms.

And then there’s those Rock Island catalogs. We weren’t going to bid on anything, but you know, if we’re going to do that video we’ve been thinking about on Czech pistols, we really ought to have Models 24, 27 and 38 on hand.