Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

Loose Rounds on the M14

We have a soft spot in our heart for the M14 rifle, even though we experienced it in the service primarily as the M21 sniper system, a fiddly, unstable platform with, “no user serviceable parts inside.” (Seriously. The operator was not permitted to field-strip the gun — that was strictly for the armorers who built the thing. You could swab out the bore, but they’d rather you didn’t). Some of the fiddliness was caused by the Leatherwood ART II scope, an early bullet drop compensator telescopic sight. The Leatherwood was adopted, we always suspected, because Jim Leatherwood had been an SF guy, not because the scope was incredibly great. The replacement of the M21 with the M24 bolt gun, a gun that was developed primarily by SF marksmen (snipers and competitive shooters), was met by hosannas. Its Leupold mildot scope took the onus off the scope’s internals and put it on the shooter, and we liked that.


So when Shawn at Loose Rounds penned a post critical not as much of the M14 but of its somewhat unsupported legend of battlefield prowess, he was aiming right up our alley. He has technical support in that post from Daniel Watters, arguably the most knowledgable man on post-WWII US small arms developments not to have written a book. And his arguments are generally supported  by the M14-related books in our collection, some of which appear in footnotes or Sources.

The M14’s history is interesting. It had a long and arduous gestation, involving many false starts and dead ends, before finally settling on a weapon that was a little more than an M1 with a box magazine and improved gas system. This whole process took 12 years (from 1945 to 1957) and cost a surprising fortune, considering that what came out of it was essentially an M1 with a box mag, useless selective-fire switch, and improved gas system.

From the operator end, it looks just like an M1, except for that dopey and wasteful giggle switch,  but you can actually reload an M1 faster.


The M14’s prototype, the T44, came this close (Max Smart finger gesture) to losing out to the US-made FN-FAL version, the T48. The final test found the two weapons roughly equivalent.1 Previous tests greatly improved both arms, and made one lasting improvement in the FAL hat benefited FN and foreign operators: the incorporation of the “sand cuts” in the bolt carrier.2 One deciding factor was that the FN rifle did not have “positive bolt closure,” a way to force the bolt closed on, say, a swollen cartridge. (Never mind that that’s a crummy idea, it was Army policy. Some say, in order to accept the home-grown, Springfield-developed T44 instead of the foreign-designed FAL, but that’s certainly not written down anywhere important).

The M14 went on to have a surprisingly difficult time in manufacturing — surprising because it had been sold on extensive commonality with M1 Garand design, and sold as producible on M1
Garand tooling. All manufacturers (Springfield, Winchester, Harrington & Richardson, and TRW) struggled to make the guns. (Stevens calls M14 production, in a chapter heading, “A Tragedy in Four Acts.”3 In H&R’s case it was not surprising, as H&R had struggled with an M1 contract and only had an M14 contract because of political corruption in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, TRW, which is generally thought to have produced the best rifles of the four manufacturers.4

The M14 was supposed to replace the M1, but also the BAR, carbine, and SMG. Until you see them side by side, most people assume the 14 was smaller than the M1 (image: Rifle Shooter mag).

The M14 was supposed to replace the M1, but also the BAR, carbine, and SMG. Until you see them side by side, most people assume the M14 was smaller than the M1. This “M14″ is actually a civilian Springfield M1A.  (image: Rifle Shooter mag)..

In fact, only a few M1 parts are interchangeable with the M14, including most internal parts of the trigger housing group, and some of the stock hardware, A few other parts, like the extractor and rear sight aperture, interchange but aren’t quite “right.” (The M14 extractor works better in either rifle; the M1 and M14 sights are calibrated in yards and meters respectively).5

The M14 had a short life as a US service rifle, and a controversial one. (Congress, for one, couldn’t believe the amount of money that had been spent for a relatively marginal improvement over the M1). But it has had a long afterlife as stuff of legend. And this where Loose Rounds’ most recent effort in mythbusting comes in. Here is a taste:

Go on to any gun forum, and it won’t take you long to find people willing to tell you how great the M14 is. How accurate,like a laser, tough as tool steel with no need to baby it or clean it. powerful as a bolt of lightening, and how well loved it was by those early users who refused the M16 because they wanted a “real” weapon made of wood and steel…. .. But, is all that really true? Maybe it is a triumph of nostalgia over common sense and reality. One truth is, it was never really liked as much as people think they remember.

The M14 was having major problems even before ARPA’s Project AGILE and a Defense comptroller reported the AR15 superior to the M14;the famous Hitch Report stating the AR15 , the M1 and the AK47 superior.

(Loose Rounds then quotes those exact conclusions from those reports, which are also referenced in many of the Sources we list at the end of this document).

My own Father had this to say. Dad was in Vietnam from 67-68 in the 4th Infantry Division.

“I liked the M14 in basic, It was the first semi auto I had ever fired. It got old carrying all that weight fast running every where all day and night. I qualified expert with it. Once I was issued an M16 right before we over seas, I never looked back.”

For every person who has told me how great the thing is, I have found two who had nothing by misery and bad experiences from it. I myself among them.

The M14/M1a  will be around for as long as people will continue to buy them.  Certainly there is nothing wrong with owning them liking them and using them. By no means is it useless or ineffective.   But its legendary reputation is something that needs to be taken with a grain of salt and careful study of the system if you intend to have one for a use your like may depend on.

If you are curious  posts on shooting rack M14s and custom service rifle M14s with Lilja barrels fired at 1,000 yards can be found here on Looseorunds using the search bar.  There you can read of the M14/M1A compared against the M1 Garand and M1903.

When we sat down last night to start writing this, we were going to analyze their post in great depth, but we can only suggest you go Read The Whole Thing™. The M14 is very beloved, but then, many soldiers come to love their first military rifle quite out of proportion to its qualities. (Indeed, we feel that way about, and retain a limerent attachment to, the M16A1, while recognizing that progress has left the original Army M16 behind).

If nostalgia drives you, LRB has this rifle on a new T44E4 marked receiver in stock -- for nearly $3k.

If nostalgia drives you, LRB has this rifle on a new T44E4 marked receiver in stock — for nearly $3k. We want it but not $3k bad!

Indeed, there is a space on the gun room wall marked out for an M21, sooner or later. But that;s where it is likely to stay most of the time. (Shawn’s post at Loose Rounds has some details about the fiendish difficulty of keeping one of these in accurate shooting trim).


  1. Stevens, North American FALs, p.106; Iannimico, p. 62.
  2. Iannimico, p. 59.
  3. Stevens, US Rifle M14, pp. 197-224l
  4. Emerson, Volume 1, pp. 41-70
  5. Emerson, Volume 3, pp. 129-130.


Emersom, Lee. M1 History and Development, Fifth Edition. (Four Volumes). Self-published, 2010-2014.

Iannimico, Frank. The Last Steel Warrior: US Rifle M14. Henderson, NV: Moose Lake, 2005.

Rayle, Roy E. Random Shots: Episodes in the Life of a Weapon Developer. Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 1996.

Stevens, R. Blake, North American FALs. Toronto: Collector Grade Publications, 1979.

Stevens, R. Blake, US Rifle M14: From John Garand to the M21. Toronto: Collector Grade Publications, 1979.

He’s Feeling Gladius All Over

OK, now that we’ve shown our age with a pop-music pun that 90% of the audience will not get, we want to send you to the imgur link where  Sir Keyboard Commando, whoever he may be, converts this piece of steel stock:


…to this replica of a Roman gladius, the short sword of the legions.



SKC made the sword from 1075 steel alloy by, essentially, cutting away everything that didn’t look like a Roman sword.

The page shows a photo essay of the whole process:

  1. laying out the outline with machinist’s layout die and a scribing tool;
  2. cutting the shape with a bandsaw;
  3. grinding to section;
  4. draw-filing to a smooth, ripple-free surface;
  5. heat-treating in a homemade furnace;
  6. quenching;
  7. tempering in a kitchen oven.

And best of all, he can say, “I made it myself!”

How Did the FG-42 Selector Work?

We were asked that yesterday and we pontifically pronounced, “it fired from the open bolt in automatic mode, and from the close bolt in semi.”

This one's an SMG Guns semi clone. Pretty, though, innit?

This one’s an SMG Guns semi clone. Pretty, though, innit? Images do embiggen with a click.

Then we rested back on our laurels as Gun Expert and —

“Well, how did they make it do that?”

“*!” Hmm… How did they? “Let me get back to you on that.”

Fortunately, several references on the shelves explain it in terms our walnut sized brain could grasp. It turns out it was very simple, when you consider how complex some of the other design options made the FG. And it imposed some trade-offs, costing the rifle significant semi-auto accuracy as the price of that mechanical simplicity. Let’s walk you through it.

It worked exactly the same on the First and Second model of the FG, by the way; so we will use images of both in this post.

FG42-0034- grip FW

This image is from a crudely DEWATted Second Model FG that was examined by Forgotten Weapons. There’s a great set of images there, and the gun’s internals are mostly present and correct.

The selector switch is on the left side of what we’d call the grip frame. (The German manuals call this part the Lager which can mean holder or receiver, too, but we’ll stick with “grip frame”). The selector swings through 180º of travel; knob forward covers an “E” for Einzelfeuer (“single fire,” semi-auto), and knob rear clicks on to “D” for Dauerfeuer, (“continuous fire,” automatic). Note that the letter that shows is the antonym of the function you get. Don’t ask us; Hermann Göring was not available to take complaints.

FG-42 exploded view

Comparing the Bedienungsanleitung (manual) image of a First Model to the photo of the second model above that, we can see how the trigger works. The trigger pivots on a pin forward of, and slightly below, the selector switch. The axis of the selector switch is also the axle of the sear (in the diagram, Part B8 Abzughebel, literally “trigger lever”). The sear nose (Fangnase, “catch nose,” B8a) is the hardened end of the sear that engages a notch (if you learned engineering English in Britain, a “bent”) in the operating rod (Verschlußführungsstück, “bolt guiding piece,” Part D10).

There are, however, two notches in the op-rod. One is towards the front end, and mostly right of center. One is towards the tail end, and mostly left of center. You can make out the two notches in this Forgotten Weapons photo.

FG42-0003_FWRotating the selector moves the sear laterally either right to align with the front-end notch, or left to align with the tail-end notch. If it aligns with the tail-end notch, a disconnector (Unterbrecher, literally “interrupter”, B9), works by disengaging the trigger from the sear until the trigger is released (i.e., normal semi-auto trigger reset). Thus the selector engages the sear nose with either the nose-end notch, which holds the op rod and bolt assembly to the rear, or the tail-end notch, which holds the op rod and firing pin only to the rear, allowing the bolt to lock fully into battery.

Releasing the trigger releases the op-rod, then. If the weapon is on full automatic, the bolt and op-rod come forward, the bolt locks, the op-rod finishes its full travel, and the firing pin initiates the cartridge. The whole thing cycles again and continues to do so until the operator releases the trigger. When he does, the bolt is held in automatic battery — to the rear.

These schematics are from Allson & Toomey's Small Arms, pp. 226-227.

These schematics are from Allsop & Toomey’s Small Arms, pp. 226-227. The depiction of the selector in these drawings is how we came to understand that the selector (“change lever” in British English) covers the appropriate letter for type of fire selected.

If the weapon is on semi (selector knob swung 180º to the front), the trigger releases the op-rod, which brings the firing pin down on the primer. The bolt then cycles, but returns to semi-auto battery, closed bolt on a live cartridge, regardless of trigger position. The disconnector rides in the notch forward of the rear notch (here “bent”) only to disconnect when in Semi.


If you’re feeling envious of FG-42s, you can buy an excellent semi repro from SMG Guns, you can pay more than a new luxury car for a transferable, or you can take the following image, a pile of steel, wood and aluminum, and a set of files and try to do what SMG did:

FG-42 Type II exploded view

It may take a while. Best of luck to you!

Now, the FG42 wasn’t the last word in open/closed bolt hybrid firing mechanisms. As mentioned, having the whole op rod and firing pin move was inimical to accuracy. This not only increased the motion of the firearm on firing, but it increased lock time substantially, giving that motion more time to work on sending your projectiles wild. But that was a tradeoff that designers at Rheinmettal accepted for their simple and reliable open/closed bolt mechanism.

As we’ve seen, waste heat is a real killer of combat weapons in automatic fire, and by extension, a potential killer of the men who fire them. Firing from an open bolt reduces the incremental temperature increase per automatic round fired, by allowing more air to circulate and more of the potential radiative area to be exposed to ambient-temperature cooling air. This has the side effect of moving the critical temperature area or point further up the barrel from its usual position 5 to 8 inches in front of the chamber.

Firing from an open bolt also prevents cook-offs. Contrary to common misconception, cook-offs are usually not instantaneous but result from a round remaining chambered in a hot barrel for some seconds or minutes. For a cook-off to be instantaneous (and risk an out-of-battery ignition) the temperature has to be extremely elevated. For a routine cook-off, which can take some time to happen, the biggest danger is that no one is expecting the weapon to fire, and people may be in an unsafe position forward of its muzzle at that point.

The FG42 was a remarkably good weapon, like many WWII German weapons. Not good enough for them to win the war, fortunately; it was the very devil to produce (ask Steve at SMG!) and was produced in the sort of numbers that would be a rounding error, or the scrappage involved in training some new line workers, in American, British or Russian production. The US produced, for example, about 40 times as many BARs as Germany produced FG42s; Russian production of the pan-fed DP28 LMG was easily double that. (German production wasn’t as dismal as you might think. They produced more rifles and carbines of all types than the USA did. But they did have a tendency to engineer something very good, and then fail to build it in numbers that would make a difference).

Did this Rifle Sleep for a Century?

How often have we held a gun, and thought, or even said aloud: “If it could only speak! What stories might it tell?” But our stories about these guns usually begin in a gun shop or auction listing, not quite the tales of romance and intrigue we imagine. Conversely, the gun in this picture certainly has a dramatic story to tell — if only it could.

Nevada Park Winchester 73 20 on tree

That story is told in a press release from the National Park Services’s Great Basin National Park in Nevada (.pdf), And in photo captions on the Parks Facebook page. Here we elaborate on those captions photos a little, but the bottom line is that Nobody really knows the story of where this came from and how we got to its resting place next to the tree. Nobody knows what its owner’s story was, or why he never came back for the rifle. The gun looks like it was rested there deliberately, but whoever left it there didn’t expect it to next be touched by human hands in November, 2014.

Why didn’t he come back for his rifle? Did he get lost? Did the rough terrain, arid climate, or hostile natives and animals account for him? Nobody really knows. It’s a true Old West mystery.

It’s obviously a Winchester ’73, but that doesn’t narrow it down much. They were made from the original year until well within the 20th Century.

Nevada Park Winchester 73 28 as found

The Park Service:

With time, sun, wind, rain and snow aging the gun it blended almost perfectly with the tree it was leaning against.

We’ll have many more photos of the gun, and the text of the Park press release, after the jump. All of these official National Park Service pictures embiggen dramatically when clicked.


This video has a great look at the gun, and the Park Service pro tells the story of finding the gun in her own words! Thanks to the original poster, and to Sixgunner in the comments.

The Park Service is hoping the publicity will bring forward more clues into this 19th-Century mystery. Now, there’s a lot of speculation about a hunter, or an Indian. (The video contains an outlaw story, and that just might be it, too). But we wonder if the gun was lost in the mid 20th Century in the making of a movie? An early Winchester was, then, just an old gun. But the remote location suggests that’s probably not it — movies are made near roads, by preference.

It would make a pretty good book, to give 10 writers this information and let each tell the story of the rifle and its last owner. Anyway, let’s let that idea percolate, and click “more” to see some of the photos.

Continue reading

From the Academy to the Arsenal (long)

secret1The weapon was developed in the greatest of secrecy. It was born in a physics lab before the war, but during the war became a massive project: led by physicists; employing tens of thousands on detailed tasks whose application they did not know; secured by barriers, unsmiling military police, security clearances and teams of counterspies; and encompassing a wide range of industrial effort. It was shared under the most stringent security guidelines with Britain alone, and gave the nations of the Anglosphere combat power unimagined before the war.

Its developers, led by a man whom they all came to admire enormously, were a cross-section, not of society, but of the academy: more diverse ethnically than American society at large, scarily smart, and sometimes, endearingly (or irritatingly) eccentric.

To take it from the blackboards of physicists to the Arsenal of Democracy, new precision needed to be achieved in old technology, new technology entirely needed to be invented, and the frontiers of miniaturization pushed far beyond the 1941 state of the art. The weapon was useless if it could not be delivered to the close proximity of its intended target, so it had to be shrunk, shrunk, shrunk from the initial conceptual models, which would never have fit inside the delivery system.

It required new methods of testing and evaluation to be developed, to prove that it really would work when put to the test. Once it passed these tests, its effect on the enemy was devastating.

Exposing it became a major objective of Soviet spies and the traitors who had sold themselves to them, including some who would be caught and punished, like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and some who were too highly placed for suspicion to stick, like Lend-Lease head Harry Hopkins, who tried and failed to have samples sent to his real superiors where his true loyalties lay: the Soviet Union.

We’re referring not to the hoary old story of the Manhattan Project, but the equally old, but much less-known, tale of the proximity fuze, or as its WWII cover name called it, the Variable Time, VT, fuze. That cover name has stuck and prox fuzes are still often called VT, despite the fact that it was intended as a deliberate obfuscation of what the fuze really did: solve an “impossible” gunnery problem of the 20th Century.

MK53 proximity fuze

The Problem Was Hitting Moving Aircraft

Now, if you’ve ever cocked a cannon in Army or Marine artillery, you know a bit about the uses of VT; we’d like to ask all of you to be quiet, we’ll get to those shortly. But they’re not why VT was invented. The problem was anti-aircraft gunnery. In 1941 every military in the world was shooting at aircraft or preparing to do so, and they were missing. Just about all the time.

Airplanes don’t just sit still and let you whack them with your 88, you see. They move around. AA guns had compensating sights, and gun batteries had fire-direction computers, that could calculate where the airplane would be when the shell got to it — more or less.

(These computers were analog computers, with gears and knobs and whiz-wheels instead of circuits and programs, but they were faster and more reliable than the first many generations of digital technology that would replace them a few decades hence).

There was a little imprecision (not much) in the computer. There was a little more (again, not much) in the laying of the gun. Naval dual purpose and AA, and Army anti-aircraft guns, of the period were extremely accurate, but the problem still remained that for every shell delivered adequately to a vital structure of a Heinkel 111 or Aichi D3A, a much larger quantity, to steal a line from Maxwell Smart, “missed it by that much.”

A miss was as good as a mile, as the saying of the period went. In the initial effort to make a near miss somewhat more hazardous to enemy aircraft, various sorts of fuzes were conceived. The most common was a simple time fuze, and a lot of effort went into arranging the fire direction computer to support the optimum setting of an air defense battery’s time fuzes for effect on target. (Terrestrial artillery tried to use time fuzes to secure airbursts against troops in trenches, foxholes, or open-topped bunkers, too). An antiaircraft alternative was a barometric fuze, detonating at a preset altitude. This required fuze-setters to know the altitude of enemy aircraft (leading to the development of height finding radars, but also leading to the use of airplanes to shadow attackers and report their altitude to defenses). It also required them to know or have a way to dial in to the computer the ambient air pressure.

Winston Churchill describes this problem in Volume 2 of his History of the Second World War, (p.395), and notes: “[A]n aeroplane end on is a difficult target and a contact fuze will work only on impact.” Britain was working to develop such a fuze in the Battle of Britain, and while they were able to bring a mockup into the Cabinet Room to show Churchill, miniaturizing it was proving difficult, maybe impossible. So the British were stuck with the state of the art: impact, time and pressure fuzes.

These fuzes, the state of the art at war’s outbreak, would also be as far as the state of the art of Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany ever got. Many thousands of them had to be fired to ensure a hit on bombing aircraft. The watchword of the bomber theorists was, from the days of Douhet, “The bomber will always get through.” And it’s not easy to find an example of an aerial attack turned by time or baro fuzes alone, even in the sanguinary early days of RAF Bomber Command: the bombers took some hits, but most of them came through, unless they were hit by fighters, too.

How the VT Worked

The VT is essentially a small radar inside an artillery fuze. Initial concepts were wide open: photoelectric, acoustic, active radio (radar principle), or passive radio (detecting aircraft engine ignitions). In the end, after some experiments with photoelectric fuzes, active radio was chosen. Teh fuze radiated a radio wave, and if it received a reflection back, which it would if it were close to a target, pow! Here’s how E.D. MacAlister explained it to scientist Ralph B. Baldwin, who was just joining the project in 1941:

It’s really simple in theory but extremely difficult to convert into practice. The fuze is simply a specialized radio set. There’s a battery whose electrical energy is released by setback, the shock of firing from a gun. This battery furnishes three different electric voltages: one for the filaments of the vacuum tubes, one for the plates, and one for the grids. One of the tubes is an oscillator. In the nose of the fuze is a metallic cap, which together with the rest of the shell acts like a dipole. The oscillator tube thus has an antenna and emits a high-frequency radio wave in particular directions from the shell.

This continuous radiowave surrounds the moving shell, and when the shell pass is close to a target, the letter reflects a small amount of radio wave energy back to the fuse where it is detected by the same to been sent out the wave in the first place.

prox fuze exploded view

The plate voltage is “modulated” by the reflected wave, which is at slightly different frequency than the outgoing wave due to the relative motion of the shell and target. Thus, a beat note is set up and the plate voltage varies in frequency within the audio range of a few to a few thousand cycles per second. This audio frequency voltage variation is then passed through a three-tube amplifier.

When the period of the audio frequency wave and also its amplitude or intensity are exactly right, a thyratron tube, serving as a switch, is discharged. It completes a circuit that releases an electrical charge, which meanwhile has been stored in a condenser. The surge of electricity goes through a tiny wire in an electric squib, much like a dynamite cap.

The wire gets hot and the explosive in the squib goes off. This tiny explosion sets off about a cubic inch of a sensitive explosive called tetryl in the auxiliary detonator (auxdet to the Navy, booster to the army), which is at the bottom of the fuze.

This explosion sets off the explosive loading of the shell and it bursts the steel shell body into many hundreds of high velocity fragments. From the time the fuze says ago, the shell travels less than one foot before it bursts.

Now, if that sounds tough to follow, relax: even Baldwin found it “pretty heavy going.” But we include it here as (1) an illustration of the complexity of this pre-transistor electronic innovation, and (2), because we can’t imagine a simpler or clearer technical explanation of the fuze’s working than McAlister’s.

How the VT Was Developed

It started as an academic exercise, and began at Columbia University, but later found a permanent home at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Baltimore, which was established (in part, to accomplish this task) in 1942. While the Manhattan Project was full of brilliance, the guy at the top of the APL and therefore the APL’s proximity fuze effort was Norwegian-American scientist Dr. Merle A. Tuve, the APL’s founder.

First they had to decide how to do it. They worked in parallel on optical and radio fuzes at first. It soon became apparent that the radio-frequency fuze was a success, and optical fuze development was cut off. (Unlike radio fuzes, optical fuzes worked only in daylight conditions).

The developers had to demonstrate the individual parts of the system; then, miniaturize them; then ruggedize them. From starting work circa 1940, Tuve had a working system within a couple of years. Decades later, the members of the team remembered the day when one of the proximity fuzes, fired from a Navy 5″ gun out over the water, worked for the first time. At the time, nobody made a note of the date! But the occasion was never forgotten. That day, only one of several test shots worked, the others detonating early or plowing into the water without detonating at all. But that one shot proved that the system was feasible. It had passed from science into the realm of engineering somewhere along the way.

British tube type VT fuze

This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the transistor, and all semiconductors, were over 15 years in the future: the fuze would have to work with the then-known electronic parts: vacuum tubes, capacitors, diodes and resistors, all powered by batteries. All these parts had to be ruggedized to survive the harsh environment of a cannon shell, with 20,000-g acceleration, 25,000-RPM rotation, and wildly varying temperatures all part of the fuze’s eventful last few seconds of existence.

The hardest parts to ruggedize were the batteries, which you might not expect, and tubes, which stands to reason. Their flimsy wires and glass enclosures were not optimum for high acceleration forces. When the scientists had tubes with 90% reliability, they still couldn’t relax: since the system needed three tubes to work (oscillator, amplifier, and thyratron), 90% reliability of any individual tube meant  fuze that wouldn’t work even three-quarters of the time, and that even if every other component was 100% reliable. (The three tubes would have to be 96.6% reliable for the tubes to be overall 90% reliable, again assuming 100% function of everything else).

The lab aimed for an overall 80% reliability of fuzes in the field, which they came to learn meant they could accept only a very low failure rate of the tubes. Even an 80% reliable VT fuze was a godsend to the Navy.

Final and near-final fuzes were tested against mockups of Japanese and German aircraft, and against drones. In April 1942, an unmanned Piper Cub was hung from a balloon hundreds of feet over the water at Parris Island and shot at with live fuzes, but explosive charges replaced by a black-powder marking charge that would make a visible puff of smoke, but not fragment the shell. 20% of the shots would have been hits.

On 12 August 1942, a drone imitating a torpedo bomber “attacked” the new cruiser, USS Cleveland, in a live-fire test. A first drone failed before coming into range. The second bore in on the ship’s beam. Cleveland’s 5″/38 battery shredded the drone, taking it down with under ten rounds fired. A second drone was shot down just as quickly. The drones were the usual anti-aircraft targets, and they never got shot down. The drone officers had to report to the test officer that they were out of targets. The next day, they had located one more, which was set to emulate a level bomber, and attacked fruitlessly with time fuzes. The battery loaded the VT fuzes and destroyed the drone. End of test.

The crew of Cleveland was counting on one more liberty before joining the war, but they’d just seen the successful test of the Navy’s latest secret weapon. The Navy ordered the ship to drop off the APL scientists and technicians, but to keep sailing for the Pacific. The fuzes, already in pilot production, were suddenly a hot item in Naval supply channels.

The Fuze Goes to War

By October 1942, production was up to 500 fuzes a day and they were being flown from the factories to West Coast and Pacific depots. Production ultimately involved five companies performing final-assembly duties, with components coming in from over 100 factories belonging to some 87 businesses. Most of the component makers didn’t know what they were making parts for.

This fuze setter was part of the equipment in a 5" dual-purpose mount.

This fuze setter was part of the equipment in a 5″ dual-purpose mount. The fuze setting was directed from the fire director down to the secondary battery plotting room down to the mount. Wartime secondary armament instructions (.pdf) from the USS Massachusetts (battleship).. 

On 5 January 1943, off Guadalcanal, the first Japanese airplane ran afoul of VT fuzes fired by the aft 5″ battery of the light cruiser USS Helena. Only three salvos were required to down the Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomberThe carriers Enterprise and Saratoga were also equipped with the new technology at that point, and from that point on the Japanese began having a harder time sinking American ships.

(Aside: Helena, CL-50, was famous for her gunnery, which would lead to her sinking. Japanese destroyers used her muzzle flashes to target her in July, 1943 and slammed three torpedoes into her, causing the ship to break into three pieces and sink with a loss of over 180 lives. Most of the crew did survive, although some were not rescued for days. A Helena sailor’s remains were found as late as 2006 on one of the straits islands).

Along with the fuzes, the Navy hit up the APL for new gun directors that would be optimized for VT, not time, fuzes. These went to sea for the first time with the battleship USS Missouri, and were effective against kamikaze attackers.


The VT Fuze Joins the Army

The highest priorities for fuze development were Naval, and so the Mk 32 was the first made, soon followed by equivalents for Royal Navy applications. But the VT Fuze was developed for Army anti-aircraft applications almost as soon as the Navy had it in production; one of the Cleveland’s drones was killed with an early prototype of the Army 90mm AA fuze screwed via adapter into a Navy 5″ shell. The Army fuze came from miniaturization developments that led to the Mk 45, and the British soon got forces for their Army AA guns as well (just in time for the V-1 buzz bomb attacks). But the AA application was only one application for proximity fuzes.

The more fruitful application, and one that would be key in several late-1944 battles, was creating a guaranteed airburst at an optimum height over enemy troop positions. The munition was, in a word, murderous to troops that didn’t have substantial overhead cover. LTG George S. Patton gleefully reported on the devastation wrought on German troops caught in the open by VT-fuzed barrages during the Battle of the Bulge.

At first, the VT fuzes were such secrets that they were removed from artillery positions during visits of foreign VIPs or American or British reporters. By war’s end, the effect of the fuze had let the cat out of the bag.

How the VT Fuze Spread to Other Nations

The Germans had heard rumors of the fuze, but never got hold of a working copy; they thought they were dealing with a “fuze with an electric eye,” and they tasked their spies to find out. The spies (Frederick Duquesne, Herman Land, and Lilly Stein of the 33-member Duquesne spy ring) never found the detailed information for the still-under-development fuze before a double agent and an FBI sting led to them being rolled up in 1941. The picture shows Duquesne, right, a retread WWI saboteur, with double agent William Sebold, left, a naturalized American who had immediately gone to the FBI when a Dr. Renken of the Abwehr (real name, Nickolaus Ritter) approached him in 1939, and was taken by FBI agents through a two-way mirror (note the clever positioning of the calendar so as to be in frame). The Deutsche Wehrmacht never got the secrets of the American fuze. Captured documents showed that the Germans had been trying to develop such a fuze throughout the war, but had made less progress by 1945 than the APL made by 1942.

The US shared the VT fuze with Britain from the beginning of development. After the initial development for the 5″/38 dual-purpose naval gun, and concurrent with development for additional US AA weapons, 4 Royal Navy calibers were added to the development schedule. Later, after the development of land fuzes for the US Army, 6 more for the British Army were added. By war’s end,  VT fuzes had been adapted to 28 different shells. The British had developed their own conceptual fuze as early as 1940, but they’d gotten stuck on miniaturizing and hardening the electronics, and welcomed the US project.

The Japanese never understood why they launched so many kamikaze Special Attack aircraft to achieve such meager results. With a few well-known exceptions where attacks saturated US defenses, the entire Special Attack program was a waste of resources and of men’s lives, and prox fuzes are one reason why. Of course, Japan was beaten by the spring of ’44, but wouldn’t believe it until they’d suffered the most absolute naval defeat since ancient history: while the Navy’s had some 2,500 vessels, most of them were small craft; all capital ships were on the seafloor, and the largest ship left fully combat-worthy was a cruiser.

The Russians got wind of the fuze and tried to come by it legitimately, first, by requesting it from Lend-Lease. They were turned down. Then, they tried to put pressure on through Harry Hopkins, to bend the rules (Hopkins frequently did this for his Soviet masters) and that didn’t work, either, because the subordinate officers wanted it in writing. Meanwhile, they tasked espionage assets, and the couple that came through for them with the VT fuze design would go on to fame — Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Well, fame and Old Sparky at Sing Sing.

And there’s irony for you: far more Americans have been killed by Soviet copies and improvements of American VT fuzes than have been killed by Soviet copies and improvements of American nukes. But the spies who gave up both weren’t even charged for the little, seemingly inconsequential, war-winning little weapon. If they had been, they would never have received the death penalty. But if you truly understand the weapon, they deserved to fry for this as much as anything.


Baldwin, Ralph B. The Deadly Fuze: Secret Weapon of World War II. San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1980.

US Navy. Radio Proximity (VT) Fuzes. Naval Historical Center Website. Retrieved from:

A Second B-29 Nears Flight

If you’ve seen a B-29 fly in the last few decades, it’s been “FIFI,” the Commemorative Air Force’s flagship and the only surviving airworthy B-29 of some 4,000 built.

Until now. A single tatterdemalion B-29 was rescued from a China Lake impact area decades ago, and a restoration began in 2000. Now “Doc” (named after the Disney dwarf) is ready to fly. This video tells the story.

The B-29 had several effects on World War II, beyond its celebrated role as the delivery sysrem for the only two nuclear bombs ever used in warfare. The bloody battles of Saipan and the Marshall Islands were driven by the need to base the B-29s within range of Honshu. The fire-bombing of Tokyo — by B-29s — caused as much destruction, and more death, than the atomic bombings of smaller Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The B-29 also was remarkable for its technological firsts. It was the first pressurized bomber, allowing the crew to work in shirtsleeve comfort inside the plane’s pressure vessel. It was the first heavy bomber to use remote gun turrets (around the same time, they were used in the A-26 Invader attack plane or light bomber, and the P-61 Black Widow night fighter). Its remarkable defensive system allowed gunners looking out from plastic bubbles to aim their sights at enemy aircraft, and an electric analog gun computer would ensure that one or more turrets put rounds on target. While some American and British bombers had been retrofitted with radar that allowed navigation and bomb delivery, this was built into the B-29 from Day 1.

Other firsts included all-electric systems such as gear and flaps. (In all, there were over 100 electric motors in every B-29). A whole-plane fire-suppression system, also electric, was another first. As you might expect with a plane full of firsts, it had terrible teething problems but dogged engineering saw it through.

Hat tip, AvWeb, whose Mary Grady writes:

…the airplane will be ready for flight testing in the spring, and they are planning to fly the airplane this summer at EAA AirVenture, where it will join the B-29 Fifi. “It’s the first time in 60 years that two B-29s have been able to fly in formation together,” T.J. Norman, the restoration’s project manager, told the Wichita Eagle recently.

He added that the fleet is not likely to grow. The airplane, known as Doc, is the last known B-29 capable of being restored to flight. “There will never be another one of these done,” Norman said.

The plane is ready to go, except there’s no way to heat the oil in the engines to the minimum 50 degrees needed to start them. B-29 engines are notoriously finicky; the plan is to wait until spring and warm weather.

The B-29 is also important as the vanguard of what became Strategic Air Command. The legendary SAC commander, Curtis LeMay, cut his teeth as commander of the 20th Air Force, raining death and terror upon Japan.

For more information, see the AvWeb article linked above, or visit the Friends of Doc. They’d really like a donation, too; they need $2 million to put a permanent roof over this remarkable livng-history exhibit.

The Mauser K98k: a Commando’s View

These days, the venerable 98 Mauser has been elevated to a mythical position among the world’s firearms. It is, many writers say, the ne plus ultra of the military turnbolt repeater. To these fans, this position is demonstrated not only by its decades of service in every corner of the world, but also by its impact on every subsequent turnbolt, from the 03 Springfield and the Arisaka Type 38 (1905), to the Remington 700, Winchester Model 70, and Weatherby Mark V, all of which took something from the German original.

Mauser K98k from world-guns-ru

Yet there is an interesting fact about the Mauser’s history: while many nations were impressed by it and adopted it, the only major one to do so was the United States, who found its Krag-Jorgensen rifles and .30-40 Government rifle cartridge woefully outclassed by the Spaniards’ 1893 Mausers in the Spanish-American War. Superior rifles didn’t save the Spanish cause, but nobody who was on those battlefields had any doubt as to who had the best rifles.

The elevation of one of the volunteer regiments’ colonels, and an avid shooter and hunter, to the Presidency (that promotion itself the product of gunshots) might have had something to do with it. The British had a similar Mauser experience in the Boer War, and were close to the adoption of a rifle with numerous Mauser features (the Pattern 13 and ’14 Enfields) when war intervened and someone in the War Office thought it the wrong time to change. So they entered the Great War wedded to the SMLE Mk. I.

Lee enfield Mk1

After the war ended, though, the British were satisfied with their SMLE. The French also didn’t think the Germans had a better rifle (even though most arms historians are pretty sure they did). Like the Americans and Russians, they were thinking about semi-autos for the future (France would later adopt an odd but serviceable turnbolt, the M1936). None of those nations came out of World War One thinking the Germans had better rifles.

And they didn’t enter — or exit – World War II thinking that, either.

Here’s a opinion worth noting from Peter Young. Who’s that? Well, to lay the whole thing out, it’s Brigadier Peter Young, DSO, MC, MA, FSA, retired. Or it was, when the wartime officer turned historian wrote the Foreword for John Weeks’s World War II Small Arms. In it, Young records being less than impressed with German rifles and riflery, even when it had its very best chance to make an impression on him:

It is interesting to see that the Germans, whose military skill is so much admired, were also capable of making mistakes. The production of the Model 98 Karabiner is a case in point. Having been missed by numerous German riflemen between 1940 and 1945, I have often wondered why the Germans, so skillful with mortar and light machine gun, we’re such rotten shots with the rifle. Well, now I know:

“Unfortunately,” the author writes (without considering my feelings!), “It was a relatively awkward rifle to shoot, and the bolt action was most disappointing. The sight radius was short, which did not make for good shooting.”


In Nº.3 Commando, which I commanded in Italy and Normandy, we were always glad to acquire Lugers or “Schmeissers”, and sometimes used the MG 34. Nobody ever bothered to keep a German rifle. The firepower of the platoon is a decisive factor in infantry combat, and by giving their men a rifle that was so much less effective than the Garand, or even the old Lee Enfield, the Germans were making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves at section level.

Now, that should put the cat among the chickens. Neither Glock nor H&K fanboys can hope to equal the shining, white-hot ardor of German WWII armament fanboys. But this is the word of one who most assuredly Was There™.

Weeks, in the book, does note the German attempts to leapfrog the 19th Century rifle: the G43, which was never built in large numbers, the MP.44, which he’s remarkably (and we think, unfairly) dismissive of, and the daddy of all German techno-fantasies, the FG.42: Weeks loves it as much as any other writer, but recognizes that its production in Wehrmacht-sized quantities was never a possibility. Even the much simpler K.98k with its decades of production engineering could never be built in quantities enough to arm Germany’s mass levies.


To some extent, what Young is describing is simply “the-devil-you-know effect”; not many Germans picked up M1s, either (although photographs indicate that it did happen). His Commandos’ taste for Lugers and MP.38/40 submachine guns may be partly explained by the British practice of being fairly stingy with the issue of the British analogues of these arms, especially the pistols.

The problem with the K.98k is, quite simply, that at the outbreak of of WWII its basic action was 40 years old, and based upon a design that was about a decade older than that. The many German experiments with upping their combat firepower at section level shows that the German Wehrmacht did indeed recognize that the shortened version of their World War I Gewehr 98 was only a stopgap when they introduced it amidst their rearmament program of 1935.

The Wars To Study, To Study UW

Do you want to study unconventional warfare? You probably do, if you’re like many of the people who visit and comment here. It’s not only a compelling subject for people who once practiced UW, or in the future may be called upon to do so; it’s also a fascinating study in and of itself. It is full of human emotions and heart; of brilliance, buffoonery, skulduggery and treachery in a great mulligatawny that’s never alike in any two nations or regions, and any two historical periods. And it’s just what the doctor ordered if you love history and have become bored and jaded with the overexposure of history’s great decisions and inflection-point battles.

  • Ancient Chinese Warfare. Sun-Tzu refers to many UW principles, and a tantalizing few case studies, in his The Art of War. 
  • Caesar’s War in Gaul, 62 BC. It will only take minutes to find a copy of this ancient text online. When you do, read the tale of Ariovistus, which teaches the Iron Law of Irregulars: don’t fight regulars in a fixed-piece battle. Ariovistus of the Suebi (today’s Swabians) bedeviled the borderlands of the Roman Empire for a long time, until he began to believe his own press and stood facing Caesar’s legion in a set-piece battle in the Vosges. End of Ariovistus’s army, his kingdom, and almost his life: after his men broke and ran, most of them were run down. Ariovistus himself escaped across the river, legends say, dressed as a woman; but his power was over.

Battle of the Vosges

  • The Jewish War, 70 AD. All surviving accounts of this seem to come down to us from the Romanized Jew, Josephus, so they all share the same biases. Nonetheless, it’s a great tale of resistance in a Jewish province.
The site of Masada today, seen from NNW. The Roman siege ramp is visible on the West (r.) The "snake trail" is on the east (l.). National Geographic image.

The site of Masada today, seen from NNW. The Roman siege ramp is visible on the West (r.) The “snake trail” is on the east (l.). National Geographic image.

  • The Indian campaigns in New England, especially King Philip’s War (17th Century AD) for an early COIN campaign, and the irregular adjuncts to conventional forces used by both sides in the French and Indian War (American theater of war in Europe’s Seven Years’ War). It’s also worth hunting down many of the small, historically insignificant Indian uprisings and raids.
  • The British campaigns on the Northwest Frontier of India (modern Afghanistan) 18th-19th Centuries. Kipling is an especially good read in this regard.
  • The Peninsular Campaign of 1808-1814 gave the world the word “guerrilla” and some really great artworks by Goya that raise the question: art as propaganda, or propaganda as art?
"Gun" (Knife) Control as practiced by Napoleon: a priest about to be shot for possession of a jackknife.

“Gun” (Knife) Control as practiced by Napoleon: a priest about to be shot for possession of a jackknife.

  • The US campaigns against the Indians: the Seminole War, and the wars against the plains Indians (19th Century).
  • The US campaigns against the Philippines: especially the Moro Rebellion.
  • The following theaters of war in WWII:
    1. China-Burma-India. Chindits, Marauders, Det 101… lots to study here.
    2. Norway. Norway was practically a Disneyland of special operations in WWII with everything from very-high-stakes sabotage to a cunning and resilient resistance, despite extensive collaboration.
    3. Greece. In all its millennia of history, Greece seems to be at war more often than not, and the wars are always interesting.
    4. The Philippines (again!). Here the conventional Army initially undermined stay-behind resisters with the way its surrender order delegitimized resisters. But the Japanese COIN campaign illustrated the weakness of brutality as a policy.
    5. Yugoslavia. An in-depth lesson in factions under fire. All our WWII readings on Yugoslavia have taken on a new sheen since 1992 or so.

chetniks slay a partisan

  • The Mau-Mau Rebellion. (A lot of the brilliant innovations that people so admire in Rhodesian COIN were first tried here).
  • The uprisings in East Germany (1953), Hungary (’56), Czechoslovakia (’68) and Poland (’81) and their various outcomes. A lot to learn here about operating in a completely denied, totalitarian environment.  And object lessons in the key fact of UW: men everywhere yearn to be free. Sometimes, they will fight and die for it.
The Russians defeated the Hungarian uprising, but these destroyed JS-3 Stalin tanks indicate how much it cost. Picture from a rare set of color photos taken by Janos Kiss, and owned by Thomas Gleason of Est&Ost agency.

The Russians crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising, but these destroyed JS-3 Stalin tanks (and a T-54) outside the Kilian barracks in Budapest indicate how much it cost. They were apparently killed by Hungarian T-34/85s at knife-fight range. Picture from a rare, probably unique, set of color photos taken by Janos Kiss, and owned by Thomas Gleason of Est&Ost agency.

  • The Malayan Emergency. Did you know Britain fought a 13-year colonial war against a Communist insurgency? And won? The architects of America’s failed Vietnam policy did, so what was the difference?
  • The Rhodesian War. Or the Zimbabwean Chimurenga if that’s how you roll. Extremely innovative tactical and operational art, in service of an impossible task.

So what’s missing on here? We have left out the US Revolution, as it was only an insurgency in its earliest days, but it’s one that’s very rewarding of deep study. And we suspect there’s a lot in Chinese military history, which was well developed when Europeans were still practically savages, that would benefit a look-in, but we haven’t looked in.

The Dangerous Lives of Postal Inspectors

Postal Inspector

Current postal inspector’s badge.

The other day, a commenter to a thread that mentioned a US Postal Service .357 for sale, asked:

Why on Earth would a Postal Inspector be issued a firearm? Am I missing something obvious?

Postal Inspectors are sworn law officers, who make a lot of arrests, we replied, but we couldn’t remember when we’d heard of one having a shootout. Well, Google found us one.

Postal Man In Hot Gun Fight

Chicago Inspector Shoots One Money Order Bandit and Is Wounded Himself

Chicago, April 23. (AP) Evan Jackson, an ace among Chicago postal inspectors, and four men he sought for an $18,000 post office robbery fought with guns in a room at the Hawthorne Arms Hotel early today.

Jackson was shot three times, and may die. Clyde Markin, one of the robbery suspects, was slightly wounded and was captured. A woman companion of the four men, Marion Courtney, leaped from a first floor window and was found, painfully hurt, on the alley pavement below. The other three escaped.

Jackson would have carried a similar badge, and credentials like these (from 1937)

Jackson would have carried a similar badge, and credentials like these (another inspector’s, from 1937)

Jackson had lured the suspects to the hotel with the help of what we’d now call a CI, and lurked in an adjacent room with a stenographer taking notes on the suspects’ conversation, when the suspects began to suspect something and started to walk out on the CI, Morris Stein. Jackson burst into the room and ordered the crooks to give themselves up. They didn’t.

Instead, they drew guns and opened fire.

Jackson, with a reputation in the Postal Service for daring, tossed a pistol to Stein and told him to defend himself. He then opened fire, dropping Mackin before three bullets brought him down.

Later, at the hospital, Jackson dictated a statement to his secretary, to be used in the event of his death. The names of the men who escaped were given by Mackin as Harris Travis, Eddie Courtney, and William Doody.

Stein told police that $1100 worth of money orders stolen in the robbery of a postal sub-station April 4 had been cashed in the account of his wife at a department store. Jackson… enlisted Stein’s aid in trapping the robbers.

Yes, there were Postal Inspector hero movies -- this one with Alan Ladd, and a 1936 "Postal Inspector" with... Bela Lugosi!

Yes, there were Postal Inspector hero movies — this one with Alan Ladd from circa 1957, and a 1936 “Postal Inspector” with… Bela Lugosi!

And some things never change. For one, the best guide to future behavior…

Federal authorities said the three who got away are all former convicts.

You don’t say.

We wonder what became of Johnson — and if he appreciated what a keeper he had in that secretary, who’d follow him through a stakeout, a gunfight, and even to the hospital to take a deathbed statement. We do know he recovered from his wounds, or he’d be listed on the Postal Inspectors’ Memorial Page. There’s quite a long list for an organization focused on non-violent, mostly white-collar crime. (Among their more famous busts are televangelist Jim Bakker and class-action lawyers William Lerach and Melvyn Weiss).

You should go to the original source, not only for the bits we left out, but because the same page also has a story that begins, “A mysterious electrical device, capable of developing a “death ray” of 3,000,000 volts of dynamic energy, its whereabouts clothed in deepest secrecy, is housed somewhere in San Francisco, it was revealed today.”

But that’s WeaponsMan for you. Come for the Postal Inspector derring-do, and we’ll throw in a steampunk death ray!

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: The Art of Battle

the_art_of_battleEvery once in a while you stumble over something where, although the execution is ragged, the concept is so staggeringly brilliant that you’d tolerate even “slipshod,” and “ragged” is positively welcome. Such a concept is The Art of, which delivers informative animated presentations that let you visualize famous battles in motion. “It’s like a museum, except not boring,” they claim.

The animations are ugly. The colors were selected by a fugitive from the Fashion Police. For some battles, there’s not even an ugly animation, there’s just a plug-ugly PowerPoint presentation. But if it’s ugly and it works, is it really ugly?

Land battles are divided into historical bins: Ancient (to AD 500), Medieval (501-1500), Gunpowder Battles (1501-1850) and Modern (1851-present). The divisions feel somewhat arbitrary, but they are only one way of looking at the battles; you can look at them by war, by faction, by commander, even by tactic.

There’s a rough-and-ready tutorial on some basic tactics. What makes it worthwhile is that each concept of maneuver is paired with historical examples of the maneuver succeeding in battle, and failing. For example, a “counterattack from a strong defensive position” succeeded for Babur against the Afghans at Panipat in 1526, but failed for the Gaul Vercingetorix’s stronger army against Julius Caesar at Alesia in 52 BC.

The Art of Battle scores most dramatically when it covers battles that are less well-known. A classic example is the battle of Kohima-Imphal in Burma in 1944, in which a British field army under William Slim, accepting very high casualties, closed with, defeated in detail, dispersed, pursued, and all but annihilated a smaller (but still formidable) Japanese field army under Renya Mutaguchi. Slim’s forces suffered 11% casualties, enough to make the unit combat-ineffective by most measures, but Mutaguchi’s force suffered over 50% casualties, most of them during the rout phase. (That will not surprise historians. A defeated army suffers its greatest casualties after it breaks and runs).

This site is no substitute for a terrain walk on the battlefield with an able historian (or an insightful serving or retired soldier). It’s no substitute for a stint at military academy. But nobody is saying it is. What it is, is, a great set of military history tutorials that has something for the beginner as well as for the experienced student of armed social action. If you watch your way through these potted battle scenarios, you’ll be better informed about military history than 97% of your fellow citizens.