The Past is Another Country: School of Musketry, MG Pioneers

school_of_musketry2The photo, taken over 100 years ago, was at the School of Musketry, in one of America’s oldest still-serving military installations, the Presidio of Monterey, California. The building these 1911 worthies pose before may in fact be one of the converted stables that were still used as instructional venues for many years. In the 1980s, they held the Slavic languages departments of the Defense Language Insititute.

At the time of the photo, the weapons issued to riflemen had just gotten out from under the label “musket,” even though the now-archaic term “musketry” remained in declining use for marksmanship for another decade or so in the English-speaking world. But by 1911, the muskets were gone, stored away, sold off, given to Grand Army of the Republic (Union vets’ version of the VFW/Legion) posts, whatever.

Marines Training on SpringfieldsRegulars had the world-class Springfield 1903, replacing both infantry rifles (muskets) and cavalry carbines, and inventors and engineers the world over were applying the latest developments in metallurgy and smokeless powders to the then-young concept of weapons that would reload and fire themselves. Many of these inventors were American, but they went overseas in search of customers as American military budgets lagged. But the young officers and sergeants of the School of Musketry followed the developments carefully.

Colt 1905 Auto PistolOfficers in the front row of the photo hold swords that, in 1911, were still not entirely ceremonial in nature, especially for cavalrymen (elsewhere in the Army, an ambitious young lieutenant from a military family was redesigning the cavalry saber with a straight blade for using on point in the charge, in the latest European practice. You may have heard of him: 2nd. Lieut. George S. Patton, Jr).  After all, an officer went to war 100 years ago with a whistle and the six shots his revolver held — the School had just finalized the radical new Colt Automatic Pistol, which offered another shot and a rapid reload, and safeties and lanyards optimized for mounted combat.

Some of the men who worked on that project must be in this picture.

These men don’t look quite like the soldiers of today. They’re smaller and leaner — even if we average in the 15% of today’s soldiers who are women, an idea these 1911 troopers would have found otherworldly. They’re almost all white (there is one man who may be a black enlisted man, possibly an orderly of some kind, or who may just be a white man in shadow).

Definitive information was rather hard come by in those days. In contrast to the 20th Century wall of manuals and regulations, or the modern dimensionless information resources on Army Knowledge Online, the school had a small library. How small? In 1916, after a move to Ft. Sill, OK, these were the books that might have been professional reading for the weapons man of a century ago.

  1. Fencing
  2. Mainly About Shooting
  3. Sharpshooting for Sport and War
  4. Irish Riflemen in America
  5. Report of Rifle Shooting in the U. S. under the Auspices of the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice for the year 1908
  6. The Pistol and Revolver
  7. Suggestions for Military Riflemen
  8. The U. S. Revolver Association

These are not sections, mind you, but individual books. All of them. That was it — all the information the School of Musketry had on, well, musketry and related subjects, which the library categorized under “sport”. Don’t take our word for it. You can download the entire library catalogue here: School of Musketry Library, 1916. (pdf) On a dusty western post like Ft. Sill, or a pleasant seaside one like the Presidio of Monterey, books were rare and precious commodities.

And to get one of these books, of course, the interested soldier or officer had to physically go to the library. When it was open. And borrow the book. If someone else didn’t have it out already. There was no way to know if the book was in at the moment, short of going there and laying our own two eyes on its place in the stacks.

On the plus side, there was little risk of information overload.

Screen shot 2013-02-01 at 10.15.06 PMOne School officer from the Monterey days was 2nd Lieut. Parker K. Hitt. Hitt was a pioneer  of machine guns in the US Army. After he retired as a Colonel after a long and distinguished career, he penned an interesting reminiscence of his time in the School of Musketry for a professional journal, Military Review. It ran in July, 1960, a wonderful thread that ties together Col. Hitt’s youth 100 years ago, the dawn of the machine gun, and readers of this blog who were not yet born when Col. Hitt told his story, two and a half Army officer careers ago (a freshly commissioned 2LT who read this article in 1960 could have retired, certainly a Vietnam veteran, out of the Hollow Army of 1980. His son could have retired before 9/11). Take it away, Col. Hitt:

The School of Musketry was started at Monterey following one of the most significant military developments in the history of the United States Army. This was the issue of two Maxim machineguns to each infantry and cavalry regiment in 1906.

I was a lieutenant in the 22nd Infantry, with battle experience in the Philippines wit h the British one-pounder (pom-pom), the Gatling and the Colt machinegun. In the fall of 1906 I was placed in command of the provisional machinegun platoon which was authorized for the regiment.

MG squad B/2 Inf. circa 1917. Photo via SADJ.

MG squad B/2 Inf. circa 1917. Same guns, accessories and uniforms as Hitt’s men would have had in 1906. Photo via SADJ.

Machine gun doctrine was rather thin: “a single copy of a book by the Vickers-Maxim Company on the assembly and operation of the gun.” Questions on the history and technology of machine guns were referred to Captain John H. Parker, whose nickname, “Gatling Gun Parker,” came from his employment of that weapon at Santiago. (Parker and Hitt would settle a dispute over the superiority of the Maxim or the Gatling appropriately — on the range, with the Benet-Mercié machine rifle, an American Hotchkiss variant, also playing).

These initial guns were type-classified the U.S. Maxim Machine Gun, Caliber .30, Model of 1904. There’s an excellent and technically detailed retrospective on the weapon by Robert Segal online at Small Arms Defense Journal.  (He doesn’t note the genesis of the steam condensing hose, which is mentioned in Parker Hitt’s article). They look an awful lot like an early Vickers Maxim, and with good reason, as the first 90 were made by Vickers and serials 91-287 were made under license by Colt. They were chambered for the then-standard cartridge, .30-03.

Taking a Maxim to the field was not a light endeavor, the MG platoon requiring

10 pack mules, and pack equipment designed for horses. Each squad had one gun weighing about 58 pounds, and a tripod weighing about 52 pounds with tool, water, and ammunition load totaling about 800 pounds.

He remembered the guns fondly, but chafed at the parsimonious Ordnance Department ammo allocation: 500 rounds, per gun, per year. He managed to exceed that allocation a little… in Fiscal Year 1907/08, by over 20,000 rounds per gun.

For all this, Hitt records, the MG was a sideline at the School of Musketry:

The rifle was king in those days and a man went to the School of Musketry to have his chance to get in the Pacific Department rifle competition. I fired in the 1907 competition where we had the 40-round skirmish run and got a bronze medal with a score of 744.

The machinegun was a curiosity to the classes at the school. We let each member of the class fire a few rounds, showed them how to reduce jams, and had inspections of the platoon in field equipment, but otherwise I can remember no classwork.

Hitt also claims to have made the Army’s first reactive targets, that dropped when shot.

I think I was responsible for the first successful field targets used by the Army which would fall when struck by a bullet and yet stand in a wind. I made several models at Monterey, including a rotary one which turned over automatically when struck, exposing a fresh target. The drop targets were afterward taken up by the Ordnance Department, which manufactured them for a time.

During Hitt’s tenure, the School also tested the coming Army sidearm, as we mentioned above:

The first models of the Colt pistol were tested there and I found a way to make the pistol go off by juggling the safeties alone without touching the trigger. Colonel Marion P. Maus, president of the test board, was incredulous and on trying it for himself the gun went off and the bullet chipped a neat nick in the toe of his boot.

Presumably he is referring to the Colt Model 1905 Cal. .45 semiautomatic pistol. His time at the School in Monterey lasted until 1910, when his unit got orders to Alaska and he assumed command of a rifle company in Nome.

On returning from two years in the North, he was asked to take command of the machine guns again, to find that they’d never been unpacked in Alaska and his well-drilled crews had been dissipated. He had to start again from zero. Hitt would later serve in the Fort Sill iteration of the school in 1916/17 or so.

After teasing you with these excerpts from Parker Hitt’s excellent article, we would be remiss if we did not let you download the whole thing: A Brief History of the School of Musketry (.pdf)