Every once in a while we like to call out an auction with some cool stuff in it. How is this for some cool stuff?
This was the collection — well, part of the collection — of the late Richard Wray. His collection includes some 200 weapons, 90 of them Class 3 weapons comprising a history of the development and deployment of the 20th Century machine gun. His other weapons include such rarities as a Mexican Mondragon semi-auto rifle, a weapon so rare we’ve only seen it in pictures. Jack Lewis of Cowan’s Auctions teases the auction, coming in April, with some great photographs and scanty description.
It’s remarkable what range and quality of weapons there are here, including a llot of large crew-served guns: Water-cooled Browning, a bunch of Maxims including distinctive Russian (1905 and 1920) and German (MG08 and 08/15) models and their British Vickers cousins, a Lewis gun with an unusual AA sight; and a Danish Madsen, once a huge worldwide commercial success, with bipod and rare tripod. Tripod mounted, magazine fed guns of any kind or nationality are rare.
And those are just the guns in your face in this photo. Right behind them is a rarity! An Austrian Schwarzlose, a blowback-operated, tripod-mounted machine gun of the Great War. But that’s as common as a 10/22 compared to some of the other vintage pieces, like this M1913 Parabellum machine gun. This air-cooled weapon was used by the air forces of the German Empire, primarily as a flexible gun by observers and gunners on two-seaters, large bombers, and Zeppelins (yes, we’re aware that technically the Zeps were operated by the Navy). This rare bird is complete with the much rarer optical sight, gun mount and belt spool, and is in stunning condition (click to embiggen the picture).
But we haven’t hit the real rarities yet. Sure, there are strange Japanese and Italian light and medium machine guns, which are rarer by far than the collection’s standard SMGs like a Sten and an MP 38 or 40. But they can’t compare to this baby: the Benet-Mercié Machine Rifle of 1909, complete with the rare Warner & Swasey “Telescopic Musket Sight” of 1908 (the sniper variation of which we discussed in this blog last month) and the even rarer tripod adapter. This Hotchkiss derivative replaced the superior M1904 Maxim whose introduction we also previously discussed, citing an article written by an officer involved, Parker K. Hitt (is it just us, or is Hitt a great name for an infantry ofifcer?).
At the time of the Mexican Punitive Expedition (1916) and the US entry into World War I (1917) this forgotten gadget was the standard US Army and Marine machine gun, and because nothing was too good for the troops, they got next to nothing: both services could inventory mere dozens as we declared war on a nation that had put a machine gun every few yards along its battle front for three plus years. (According to an article from the American Rifleman, 670 were made, by Springfield Armory and Colt. The auction gun in the photo is a Springfield piece).
They were used in the Philippines and Haiti as well as in Mexico. In Europe, our doughboys would be equipped, mostly, with weapons bummed from Britain and especially France. (It wasn’t that much of an imposition on our hosts: the French were running out of living Frenchmen to issue guns to, and by 1917 the bedraggled remnants of what had been Europe’s largest and strongest army were mutinous). The Benet-Mercié is fundamentally a Hotchkiss, which might have come from the pen of Rube Goldberg. The troops generally disliked it, although the Warner & Swasey prismatic telescopic “musket sight” got mixed reviews. The American Rifleman article explains how the gun turned off infantrymen:
The Chauchat notwithstanding, it is fortunate that our troops did not have to go into combat against the Germans with the “daylight gun.” A well-known small arms authority of the day, Edward C. Crossman, noted the following: “I remember one cold day how a government inspector and I lugged one of the government Benet-Mercie machine guns out of the great Colt factory where they were made and set it up in a testing yard. Although the gun was in the hands of a most skilled man, a man there on purpose to inspect machine guns—that gun broke six parts in the first 20 shots. It broke extractors and firing pins as fast as we could put them in—because the weather was cold, and the chilled parts were brittle. Imagine tumbling out in the chill dawn of a winter’s day with the Huns coming over No Man’s Land, and having your machine gun break apart the first rattle of shots!”
The “Daylight gun” nickname came from the difficulty of reassembling a dismantled Benet-Mercié. Even the feed strips could be put in a right way or a wrong way, and inserted the wrong way, they wouldn’t work. Later Hotchkiss models would resolve some of those problems. The Empire of Japan’s troops used Hotchkiss-based machine guns very effectively — by day or night. But they had the luxury of more years of development; the USA had new Browning designs waiting in the wings, and the Hotchkiss action and its brass feed strips were an evolutionary dead end.