Cold Steel: The Fairbairn Sykes Fighting Knife

The Second World War was a remarkable period of technological advancement. At its outbreak, some nations were still flying biplanes; by the end of the war, the first jets were being produced. The first true computer was invented as a tool for decrypting enemy cyphers. And yet, one of the most symbolic items from the period is the Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife, a dagger that is nearly Medieval in appearance.

The early stages of the war saw a series of disasters for Great Britain and her allies. In April, 1940, the British and French launched a failed campaign in Norway to resist the German invasion. In May, Germany conquered France and the Low Countries, and the British were forced to withdraw from the European continent via the port of Dunkirk. Hitler then threatened to cross the English Channel and invade Britain.

Despite the menace of invasion, newly-appointed Prime Minister Churchill felt it was dangerous to take a purely defensive stance. Churchill insisted that Britain retain an aggressive spirit and the ability to strike back, even if on a limited scale. He recalled his time as a journalist covering the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). The Boers had used fast-moving equestrian raiding parties to harass and demoralize the much-better equipped British; the Afrikaans name for such a raiding party was Kommando.

In June, 1940, Churchill called on the War Office to create their own Commandos. These would be sea-borne raiding units who would launch surprise attacks all along the enemy-held coastline. The new Commando organization was to recruit highly motivated men, give them intensive training, and instill in them a spirit of aggression and determination.

commando knife 2

A British Commando during training, 1942.  While this method of carrying the knife looked very dramatic for the camera, this was only done in very limited circumstances.  Photo courtesy the Imperial War Museum.

The Commandos became famous for their spectacular operations. They destroyed high-value targets, such as the fish oil factories in Norway; glycerin, which was extracted from fish oil, was needed by the Germans to produce high explosives. Perhaps the greatest of the Commando raids was the destruction of the massive drydocks at St. Nazaire, France. Additionally, the raiders gathered intelligence and tested enemy strength and defensive capabilities. By striking up and down the coastline of occupied Europe, the Commandos forced the Germans to allocate men and materiel to static defense that would otherwise have been available for offensive operations. Possibly most important of all, the raids captured the imagination of the British people, and helped to bolster their morale during what otherwise were very dark days.

Two men were instrumental in the early training of the Commandos: William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes. These two had been friends and colleagues for many years, and the Commandos could not have chosen anyone better to conduct their training.

Fairbairn had served in the Royal Marines; he left the service while stationed in Shanghai, where he joined the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP), which kept order in the Anglo-American International Settlement portion of the city. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Shanghai had a reputation as the most dangerous city in the world. Trade with the West brought wealth, but that in turn attracted corruption and organized crime. In addition, China was undergoing political turmoil; the struggles between the Nationalists and the Communists often spilled into Shanghai, resulting in street brawls and political assassinations. The officers and constables of the SMP were under constant threat of violence; in response, the department became one of the best-trained and most effective police forces in the world.

Fairbairn began as a constable, and rose through the ranks to Assistant Commissioner. He became a leading authority on hand-to-hand combat; he was one of the first Westerners to study Eastern martial arts, including judo, jiu-jitsu, and kung fu. He wrote books on close combat and self-defense; he created his own system called “Defendu”, which combined and simplified the best techniques from the Asian teachings. Fairbairn, naturally, was responsible for training the SMP constables in hand-to-hand fighting.

Sykes worked part-time for the SMP as a reservist. His primary occupation was as a sales agent for numerous well-known firearms manufacturers; he himself was an expert shot and often participated in shooting competitions. He was also rumored to have been an agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service, better known as M.I.6. Sykes founded the SMP’s Reserve Unit, which specialized in hostage rescue and forced entry against barricaded suspects. The Reserve Unit was the precursor to modern police S.W.A.T. units.

The two men believed that the knife was actually more effective in close combat than the firearm. They often discussed their ideas on knife-fighting techniques as well as the design elements needed for a good fighting knife. They worked with the SMP’s armory to create a handful of prototypes.

In 1940, Sykes and Fairbairn returned to England and offered their services to the British government in support of the war effort. They were both commissioned as Army Captains, and given the responsibility to train the newly-formed Commandos. They also trained the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), the organization responsible for sending agents into occupied Europe to perform sabotage and recruit resistance fighters. Once the United States entered the war, Fairbairn was sent to North America to train agents of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.).

In November, 1940, Sykes and Fairbairn met with John Wilkinson-Latham, the director of the famous Wilkinson Sword company, in order to discuss designs for a new Commando knife. The resulting design was influenced by the knives that Fairbairn and Sykes had experimented with in Shanghai, as well as earlier designs produced by Wilkinson. There were several elements that all had agreed upon: the blade needed to be at least 6 inches long to penetrate heavy clothing and still ensure damage to vital organs; the blade needed to be slender and double-edged; it needed to be well-balanced, preferably hilt-heavy; there must be a cross-guard; finally, the grip needed to be deeply-checkered to prevent slipping.

FS Knife

Line drawing of the original pattern of Fairbairn Sykes knife.  Note the etched ricasso and the S-curve of the cross-grip.  Drawing from All-In Fighting, by W.E. Fairbairn.

The first knives produced were magnificent weapons. The blades were 6 7/8 inches long; they were drop forged and hand-sharpened. The knife had a ricasso, that is, a flat, unsharpened section at the base of the blade; the ricasso was etched with the Wilkinson Sword logo on one side, and the legend “The F-S Fighting Knife” on the other. The grips were made of solid brass, turned on a lathe, and given a distinctive “palm swell” to the shape. The grips were then checkered by hand. The cross-guard was given a gentle S-curve, also shaped by hand. These beautifully-crafted weapons were almost entirely hand-made, and only entrusted to Wilkinson’s most experienced craftsmen.

Fairbairn preferred knives with a reflective finish; he felt that, in a face-to-face confrontation, simply flashing light off the blade would cause the opponent to lose heart and give up the fight. Accordingly, the early F-S knives had highly-polished blades, while the grips and cross-guards were nickel-plated.

Naturally, these hand-made knives were costly and time-consuming to produce. As more orders were placed for fighting knives, Wilkinson had to modify the design to increase production. The ricasso was eliminated, and the cross-guard lost its distinctive S-curve. Despite these modifications, Wilkinson could not keep up with demand, and other Sheffield knifemakers started to receive orders.

Despite Fairbairn’s theory about the psychological advantage to a shiny knife, his theory really only applied to a direct fight. Commando raids were conducted at night, and surprise was essential. While the Commandos were trained in knife fighting to instill aggressiveness, in actual operations the primary use of the knife was silently eliminating enemy sentries. Similarly, the S.O.E. only used their daggers for clandestine operations. The second pattern knives eliminated the nickel plating; the grips and cross-guards were instead blackened, and many blades were blackened as well.

Figs A - D Attacks

More drawings from All-In Fighting.  Figures A & B illustrate slashing at the enemy’s arm or wrist, generally an easier target than other parts of the body; a deep slash will cause sufficient blood loss to disorient the enemy.  Figures C & D illustrate the two best methods of eliminating a sentry:  deep thrusts to the carotid (Fig. C) and subclavian (Fig. D) arteries.  This was a gruesome business, and Commandos had to be thoroughly trained to overcome any squeamishness.

The design was modified for a third time, again to increase production. The blades were sharpened by machine, not hand; the entire knife was given a black finish. The biggest difference was with the grips. They were no longer made from brass, which was a vital war material, particularly for making ammunition casings; instead, the grips were die cast out of a zinc alloy. These new grips were cast with a ribbed design, eliminating the need for checkering.

As time went on, the F-S knife was issued to other elite units, including Airborne Forces and the Special Air Service. A number of the Commando units incorporated the dagger’s distinctive shape into their insignia.

The Fairbairn Sykes knife, often called a “Commando dagger”, became nearly as well-recognized by the civilian populace as the Spitfire fighter. It was a symbol of defiance, of fighting spirit, of taking the war to the enemy by any means necessary.

Despite the magnificence of the weapon, there were issues. Unlike the American Ka-Bar knife, the Fairbairn Sykes was only intended for fighting, and not to be used as a multiple-purpose tool. The slender, graceful blade was rather delicate, and a number of soldiers managed to break the tip off of theirs by opening tinned rations or otherwise abusing their knives.

FS Knife Cooper 2

FS Knife Cooper

The author’s Fairbairn Sykes knife, sheathed and unsheathed.  While this knife is of  postwar manufacture, it follows the third wartime pattern.  The cross-guard is marked “R. Cooper, Sheffield, England”.

There were other issues, as well, such as finding an effective method of carrying the knife. Each F-S knife came with a leather sheath. The sheaths did not provide a tight fit, so a retaining strap that closed with a snap or press-stud was added. This strap was soon replaced by an elastic band; unfortunately, the elastic wore out quickly, and many knives were lost.

The sheaths came with four tabs, which were intended to be sewn onto the leg of the battledress trousers. However, early Commandos soon cut the sheath back off the trousers the first time they had to do laundry, and some soldiers even removed the tabs from the sheaths entirely.

Paratroopers were issued with special trousers with an oversized thigh pocket for carrying weapons or equipment. These Trousers, Parachutists’, also included a long, narrow pocket behind the outside seam of the right leg; this special pocket was intended for the F-S knife. The knife was entirely encompassed by this pocket to prevent it falling out during a parachute jump. However, it was difficult to quickly draw the knife in a fight, and the F-S knife was too delicate to cut oneself out of a parachute harness if needed. Additionally, early paratroopers complained that the sheathed knife dug into the knee when climbing the rough terrain found in Tunisia.

There were two methods of carrying the knife that worked well. One was to obtain an extra bayonet frog to suspend the knife from the normal webbing equipment. The other version was to sew a pair of straps to the outside of the trouser leg to hold the knife in place. Since the early battledress trousers came with tightening tabs at the ankle, it appears these tabs were simply relocated to the thigh.

2 Para Officers Tunisia

Officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion in Tunisia, December 1942:  Capt. R. Stark, Lt. J. Brayley, and Maj. R. Ashford.  Ashford was killed only a few days after this photo was taken.

2 Para Officers Tunisia Closeup

Detail of Maj. Ashford.  Note the method of carrying the F-S knife on the left thigh.  The cloth tabs are most likely tightening tabs from the ankles that have been relocated to hold the knife.

The Fairbairn Sykes knife is still being made today. In 2005, Wilkinson Sword discontinued making them and sold their tooling to, rather ironically, a German company. Other Sheffield knifemakers still make them, and inexpensive copies are also made in India and Pakistan. Original wartime knives, however, are highly sought after by collectors, and are not cheap.

Personally, I have been fascinated by the Fairbairn Sykes knife since I was a teenager, even before I had any particular interest in World War II. I read articles in encyclopedias and knife collecting magazines because Ian Fleming described James Bond as using a “commando dagger”, and I wanted to learn what that meant. During and after college, my historical focus was on the Middle Ages, but I have always had an interest in both firearms and edged weapons used throughout history. One of the first birthday presents I received from my wife was a modern copy of the Fairbairn Sykes knife, made by R. Cooper of Sheffield. Like the originals, the sheath is quite loose, and the elastic retaining strap is weak; I have never carried my knife at a reenactment because I have been deeply concerned about possibly losing something of tremendous sentimental value.

Despite the knife’s light weight, the grip feels substantial in the hand. The balance and grace are exquisite. Fairbairn recommended handling the knife as often as possible and practicing making slashing attacks; these movements come quite easily because the weight is in the grip.

The Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife is a magnificent weapon. It should not be a surprise that it became such a strong representation of Britain’s defiance against the Nazi menace, and is still an iconic symbol of the war.

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“You Will Do Your Work on Water”: Hydration in the Field

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.

– Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din

The human body needs to be kept hydrated; a person can function longer without food than without water.  Therefore, no military equipment would be complete without giving the soldier a method of carrying water.

The standard British water bottles used in both World Wars were very similar; the Mark VI version issued with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment was replaced by the Mark VII, issued with the 1937 pattern equipment.  Both were made of enameled steel with a wool cover, with a stopper made of cork which was attached to the bottle with a short length of cord.  Each version held two Imperial pints of water, or 40 ounces.

Webbing Detail

The British Mark VII water bottle in its webbing carrier, attached to the 1937 pattern equipment.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

When the 1937 pattern equipment was adopted, the original intent was that the water bottle would be carried in the haversack, or “small pack” as it was commonly called.  However, a webbing carrier was also developed; it could attach to the ends of the braces and hang below the waistbelt.  Officially, use of the webbing carrier was not the preferred method.  In actual practice, however, more equipment was carried in the small pack than the designers had intended, and the troops were forced to use the carrier simply to make room.  Because of the inherent difficulties in resupplying Airborne troops, they typically carried two water bottles:  one suspended on the carrier and a second inside the small pack.

The original water bottle carrier was made of webbing straps.  A later version consisted of a webbing sleeve; while this version used more material, it was easier to manufacture and saved labor costs.  The earlier type was often called the “skeleton” carrier, and the later type the “envelope” carrier.  Some modern militaria vendors have tried to assert that the envelope version was only issued to Airborne troops, implying somehow that it was more rare or specialized, and therefore more desirable to collectors; that is completely untrue and easily disproven.

Three Carriers

Three water bottles with carriers.  The top right is the original version, sometimes called the “skeleton” carrier.  The other two are examples of the later “envelope” version.  Note the brass buckles for attaching to the brace-ends of the webbing equipment.

The envelope carrier has a web strap at the bottom to support the weight of the water bottle, but is open at the top.  The skeleton carrier has a retaining strap that is closed with a large snap or press-stud; some Indian-made versions closed with a buckle.  The intent was obviously that the water bottle would simply be lifted out, with the carrier remaining attached to the rest of the webbing.  However, I have found at living history events that this is easier said than done.  Over the years, I have used several different carriers, of both types, and all of them have been very tight.  Getting to the water bottle has often required significant effort, or assistance from a friend.  Between events, some of my friends have experimented with soaking the carrier in hot water and stretching; the most successful method involves placing wooden shims between the bottle and the wet carrier, then allowing it to dry.  I assumed that the carriers had all somehow shrunk while sitting in a warehouse for the last several decades; surely they could not have been so difficult to work with during wartime.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of my favorite authors is George MacDonald Fraser.  His book, Quartered Safe Out Here, is an extraordinary memoir of his service in Burma, fighting the Japanese as part of Slim’s 14th Army.  Fraser’s title was inspired by Kipling; I thought I would follow suit with this article.  There is a remarkable segment in Fraser’s book dealing with the water bottle and its carrier.  It is a somewhat lengthy and colorful narrative, full of slang and foul language; I will summarize rather than reprint it here.  A significant battle was going on, but Fraser’s section was on the flank and had not encountered the enemy.  It was a hot day, and one of the other soldiers found himself very thirsty and naturally wanted a drink.  He was the largest member of the section, and had a nickname that reflected his size.  He asked one of his section-mates to borrow his water bottle, as he could not easily get to his own.  His mate refused, but countered that he would help the first man with his own bottle.  What is significant in this exchange is the fact that the second soldier did not offer to pull the first man’s bottle out of its carrier; instead, he offered to unbuckle his comrade’s carrier from the rest of the webbing.  This exchange was astonishing when I first read it; my assumption that the carrier must have been easier to use in wartime was shattered.  The narrative continues with the troops finding a local well, using their slouch hats attached to rifle slings to bring up water, and adding purification tablets; all that effort was still apparently easier than accessing the water bottle.  It was at that point that the section took fire from the enemy, and Fraser ended up down the well.

This story of unbuckling the water bottle carrier from the brace-ends must not have been an isolated incident, and I have been trying to find other examples.  While I have not found any other narratives, I did find a rather remarkable photograph showing this method.  The picture shows troops from 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden, and was taken near Divisional Headquarters in Oosterbeek.  The photo shows two Airborne soldiers in a slit trench; one is in the act of drinking water, with the water bottle very clearly still in the skeleton carrier.

Water Bottle Market Garden IWM

Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  The man on the left drinking from his water bottle has clearly detached the webbing carrier from the rest of his equipment.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

In another part of his memoir, Fraser describes being issued with a canvas water bag for certain patrols.  This water bag was a clever item; it had to be soaked in water prior to use, which would cause the fabric’s fibers to swell and, somewhat counter-intuitively, make the bag water-tight.  This item was called a “chaugle”, derived from the Urdu, but the troops often called it a “chaggle”.  I have only seen references to its use in the Far East, despite its obvious superiority to the enameled water bottle.

Providing clean water to the troops was a logistics challenge even in the best of conditions.  In the deserts of North Africa, fresh water had to be trucked out to the troops on a constant basis; it had to be chlorinated to kill any bacteria and prevent algae from forming during transport.  Even in Northern Europe, where troops could fill their water bottles from the many rivers and streams, it had to be assumed the water was contaminated.  In Fraser’s narrative, he referenced the use of water purification tablets.  These were universally issued regardless of theater, for use when the men had to obtain their own water.  The “sterilizing outfit” was issued as a small tin; inside were two glass bottles.  One bottle contained the actual purification tablets; however, these tablets gave the water an unpleasant flavor that was supposed to be neutralized by the tablets in the second bottle.  I have one of the tins in my collection, but not the glass bottles.  One of each of the tablets was to be dissolved in the water to be treated; shaking the water bottle was supposed to speed up the mixing of the contents.  In Fraser’s story, the soldiers argued whether chewing the pills prior to drinking the well-water would do any good.

sterlizing outfit

The sterilizing outfit:  the two glass bottles go inside the tin.  The “thio” tablets were supposed to counteract the unpleasant taste caused by the sterilizing tablets.  From the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

I feel rather relieved that my personal struggles using the water bottle at living history events seems to be an accurate reflection on historical precedent.  I have occasionally seen fellow reenactors hide modern plastic water bottles inside their basic pouches, but I consider that cheating and bad form.

Sterilizing - Directions

Instructions printed inside the lid of the sterilizing outfit tin.  Author’s collection; I only have the tin without the contents.

A note on terminology:  to the British, the item that held water was called a “water bottle”, while the American term for such an item was “canteen”.  In British usage, a canteen was a shop, restaurant, and social club specifically for service members.  As an American who reenacts as British, I believe it is important to use the correct terminology.

Boil Them Out and Pull Them Through: Rifle Cleaning

I recently re-watched a favorite episode of “Dad’s Army”, the classic comedy about the Home Guard.  This particular episode had a sequence that stood out to me.  The men return from a long nighttime patrol; they are cold and tired, but excitedly report they had fired at an enemy airplane.  Their officer announces he already has the kettle on, and the men’s spirits are raised in expectation of a hot cup of tea.  Their hopes are then dashed when the officer says the first kettle is for cleaning the rifles; once that task is done, they may have their tea.  The men clean their rifles, as ordered; not only are they still cold and tired, they are sullen and resentful.

I always disagreed with that approach.  I felt that a quick cup of tea would give the men’s spirits and energy a lift; not only would they clean their rifles more cheerfully, they would likely do a more effective job of it.

But this article is not about man management.  What also struck me about this sequence was that it reminded me of the first time I heard the phrase, “boil them out and pull them through”.

Oiler & Pull-Through

The Number 4 rifle with the oiler, pull-through and a 4×2 piece of flannelette removed from the butt-trap.  The sling, bolt and magazine are to be removed prior to cleaning.  All photos in this article are by the author.

I have been a firearms enthusiast even longer than I have been a reenactor.  As much as I love British history, I am grateful to live in a nation that still allows private firearms ownership.  I learned to clean my rifles with a cleaning rod with various attachments, as well as patches, brushes, and solvents.  I was taught to keep my weapons dry and well-oiled to prevent rust.  The idea of deliberately pouring water through a rifle was completely shocking when I first heard of it.

Most military ammunition, at least until the 1950’s, was made with primers that create a corrosive residue when fired.  Rather, these chemical salts themselves are fairly inert, but form an acid when mixed with water.  The salts dissolve so easily that humid air can form enough of the caustic substance to damage a rifle barrel; perhaps that Home Guard officer was right.  However, large amounts of water, especially when hot, will completely dissolve the residue and wash it away.  Therefore, standard British military procedure after firing a rifle, whether in action or simply on the range, was to pour boiling water through it.  The official training manual recommended using 5 to 6 pints of water; it also stated that using cold water was better than not cleaning the rifle at all.  There was even a funnel designed specifically to help guide the boiling water into the bore.  The barrel was then thoroughly dried and oiled to prevent rust.

Most British troops were not issued cleaning rods.  Normal cleaning was done with a “pull-through”, a length of cord with a loop at one end and a metal weight on the other.  A piece of soft cloth, called “flannelette”, was put into the loop of the pull-through.  The flannelette was manufactured as a four-inch-wide strip that was issued in a long roll; the cloth was marked with a line every two inches indicating where it was to be cut.  The individual pieces were then often referred to as “four by two”, and each soldier was issued with several pieces.

4x2 Flannelette 1

Flannelette, with one four by two piece removed from the rest of the sheet.

Each rifle was issued with a pull-through and a small oil bottle; these items were stored inside the rifle’s butt-trap.  That way, the pull-through and oiler were always with the rifle, and cleaning could be done in the field nearly as easily as in barracks.  The oil bottle was originally made of brass; during World War II the oiler was made in “Bakelite”, an early form of plastic, to save precious brass for ammunition.

Oiler 2

Bakelite oil bottle.  Note the “spoon” built into the lid.

The pull-through was also issued with one or two small squares of wire gauze.  To the modern eye, the wire gauze pieces look like they have been cut from a window screen.  The wire was fine enough that a gauze square could be wrapped around the pull-through to provide extra scouring ability.  However, excessive use of the wire gauze could cause barrel wear.  In peacetime, the gauze was only to be used when the rifle was exceptionally dirty, and only when authorized by the Armourer; a soldier could be put on a charge for using the gauze without authorization.  However, according to the 1942 training manual, gauze was to be kept on the pull-through in wartime.

Wire Gauze 1

A piece of wire gauze before attaching to the pull-through.

The sling, bolt and magazine were to be removed from the rifle prior to cleaning.  After “boiling out” the barrel, it would be “pulled through” with a flannelette until dry.  To do this, the rifle was held with the muzzle down and the pull-through’s weight fed into the breech until the weight appeared at the muzzle.  Then the butt was placed on the floor, the cord wrapped around the hand, and the flannelette pulled through the bore; this process was repeated until the barrel was dry.  Then a different flannelette was used, this time to apply oil to the barrel.

Feeding Pull Through

Pulling-through:  the weight is dropped down the bore.

The magazine, bolt, and the rest of the rifle would be carefully wiped down with an oiled cloth, which was often stored in the webbing entrenching tool carrier.  If necessary, the magazine could be disassembled by removing the spring and platform, but this was only to be done when very dirty.

It is worth noting that the 1942 Small Arms Training Pamphlet for the Rifle starts with cleaning and maintenance before moving on to aiming and firing.  The Pamphlet also has notes on the use of cover, and use of the rifle in strengthening exercises, such as holding the rifle in the firing position using only one arm.

Pulling Through 1

The flannelette is then pulled through until the barrel is dry.  The process is repeated with an oiled flannelette.

Old surplus .303 used to be fairly common, but is sadly becoming increasingly scarce.  Most modern gunpowder solvents should also effectively clean corrosive primer residue; but sometimes the old ways are the best ways, and I still boil out my rifle after firing surplus ammo.

Several years ago, I was at a gun store hoping to find some surplus .303.  I heard other customers raving about a new cleaning product called a “Bore Snake”.  I had to laugh; this revolutionary new product was just a fancy pull-through.

The Bren Light Machine Gun: Legendary Reliability

One of the most important and iconic weapons of World War II was the British Bren light machine gun.  The Bren’s distinctive top-mounted curved magazine made it easy to recognize by friend and foe alike.  Troops throughout the British Empire praised the Bren for its reliability.

burma 1945 - 2

A Bren gun position in Burma, 1945.  All photos in this article are from the Imperial War Museum.

During World War I, machine guns were used as defensive weapons, and were outstanding in that role; combined with barbed wire, they made it extremely difficult for the opposing force to advance.  Both sides used very similar machine guns as well as similar tactics, and a stalemate ensued.  Machine guns were belt-fed, mounted on heavy tripods, and fitted with a water-filled jacket to keep the barrel cool; with sufficient water and ammunition, a machine gun could fire almost indefinitely.  Because of their weight and bulk, they were not easily moved and therefore kept in emplaced positions.

The light machine gun appeared towards the end of the war in an effort to break the stalemate by giving more firepower to the advancing infantry.  These new weapons were air-cooled, portable, and typically magazine-fed.  Arguably the best light machine gun of the time was the Lewis gun; however, it was mechanically complex, required more advanced training than a rifle, and was somewhat unreliable.  However, it was vastly superior to the French Chauchat, which had a dreadful reputation for jamming; the American Browning Automatic Rifle (or “B.A.R.”), while more reliable, came out too late in the war to see much service.

In the 1930’s, the British Army’s Small Arms Committee began the search for a new light machine gun to replace the Lewis gun.  They tested a number of weapons, including the Danish Madsen and the French FM 24/29, which had replaced the despised Chauchat.  The American B.A.R. performed well in the trials and was an early favorite.  However, it had a significant flaw:  it had a fixed barrel, while the others had a detachable barrel.  After extensive firing, the gun needed to cool; continued firing would cause permanent damage.  The other light machine guns could have a spare barrel fitted, and then continue firing as before.  As the trials continued, a new favorite emerged:  the Czech Zb 26, made by the Brno arms factory.   The Czechs made updates to the design based on feedback during the trials; what started as the Zb 26 eventually became the Zb 30 and then the Zb 33.  The Brno designers called the final iteration the ZGB, which was adopted by the British government.

Late in the trials, the ZGB was given an endurance test.  The plan was to fire 150,000 rounds and see how many stoppages would ensue.  After about 146,000 rounds, the test was cut short because the gun was still firing as flawlessly as when it started, and the testers felt firing the last allocated rounds would simply be a waste of time and ammunition.

The original Zb series fired 7.92mm ammunition, the same round developed for the Mauser rifle.  Late in the trials, the ZGB design was converted to fire British .303 ammunition, and the plans were converted from metric to Imperial measurements.  A licensing agreement was signed allowing for the weapon to be built in Great Britain at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.  The gun was given a new name:  “Bren”, taken from “Brno” and “Enfield”.

The gun was officially adopted in 1935 and the first Bren was completed in 1937.  When the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) was sent to France and Belgium in 1939, enough Brens were available to equip most units.  However, the gun was still new, and evidence suggests that not all units had been effectively trained in its use.  Additionally, when the B.E.F. was first sent to the continent, most of the men were still wearing their old service dress uniforms with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment, which gave no method of carrying Bren magazines.  Fortunately, most troops were re-equipped with the 1937 pattern webbing and battledress before the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in May of 1940; the new equipment had been designed around the Bren, with pouches large enough for the magazines.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, the Army conducted an inventory and found there were only about 2,300 Brens available.  While most soldiers returned from France with their rifles, many of the Brens had been abandoned or intentionally destroyed, along with heavier weapons, vehicles, and supply dumps.  If the weapon had not been so new, and the men more thoroughly trained in its use, it may not have been left behind in such numbers.

Near Tobruk 1941

Dug-in British troops near Tobruk, Libya, in 1941.  They were lucky to have a Bren; at this point, many troops were using the less-reliable Lewis gun.

As the war in North Africa intensified, there were insufficient Brens for the need, and stocks of old Lewis guns were brought out of storage.  Britain also ordered a number of B.A.R.’s from the United States; but by the time they arrived, Bren production had increased and most of the B.A.R.’s went to the Home Guard.  By late 1942, most units in the desert had been supplied with Brens.  Since the Bren was more reliable under desert conditions than most other machine guns, this gave the British an advantage.

Upon adoption, the Bren had been intended as a multiple-use weapon in order to replace both the Lewis light machine gun and the Vickers water-cooled gun.  A tripod was produced so that the Bren could be used in the sustained-fire role.  By adding an extra leg, the tripod could be reconfigured to use the Bren as an anti-aircraft (A.A.) weapon; if anything happened to the tripod extension, an S.M.L.E. rifle could be substituted.  A special A.A. sight could be clipped on the barrel, and an A.A. drum magazine was developed that could hold 100 rounds.

HomeGuard Bren 1941

England, 1941.  Volunteers of the Home Guard train on the Bren in the anti-aircraft configuration.  This Mark I still has the rear grip.

The Bren was also mounted on vehicles.  A brass-catching device, essentially a heavy canvas bag with steel mount, could be inserted into the ejection port.  Every vehicle with a Bren was supposed to be issued with the brass-catcher, but this did not always happen; crews of Dingo armored cars in particular were subject to having hot brass dumped on them.

Unfortunately, the Bren was not particularly successful as a multi-purpose gun.  Its slow rate of fire and magazine feed were not terribly effective for either the sustained fire role or as an anti-aircraft weapon.  The magazine feed was fine in open-topped vehicles, but very awkward in the cramped confines of a tank.  Eventually, the belt-fed Besa machine gun was adopted for use on tanks, and the old water-cooled Vickers gun was brought back into use for sustained fire in fixed positions.  The Bren was also replaced by dedicated anti-aircraft guns, including the 20mm Polsten and Oerlikon guns and the 40mm Bofors gun.

As an infantry weapon, however, the Bren was outstanding.  One Bren gun was issued to every eight-man section; its simple design made it easy to use.  While each section had a dedicated Bren gunner who was authorized to wear a specialist’s badge (either “LMG” or “BG”), all troops were trained on its use so they could take over in time of need.  The magazine feed meant that the ammunition was easily distributed throughout the section.  The Bren fired the same .303 round as the Lee-Enfield rifles; during lulls in the fighting, the riflemen would reload empty magazines from their bandoliers.

The Bren was extremely robust.  Its reliability was one of the main reasons it had been adopted, and the troops were very fond of it for that reason.  This reliability was helped by the sliding dust-covers over both the magazine well and the ejection port, designed to keep dirt and debris out of the mechanism.  Additionally, the gas system was adjustable; as cordite residue built up in the gun, a larger aperture in the gas regulator could be selected which would allow more gas to cycle through and work the action.

The Bren was also very accurate; in fact it was almost too accurate, and experienced gunners preferred using worn barrels to give a wider cone of suppressing fire.  The top-mounted magazine required that the sights be offset by about a half-inch; this was not enough to have an appreciable impact on accuracy, especially at longer ranges.    The Bren used an aperture rear sight and post front sight.  Mounted on the tripod, the Bren’s effective range was around 2000 yards; on just the integral bipod, it was effective to over 600 yards.

The standard magazine had been intended to hold 30 rounds; however, this tended to over-compress the spring and cause feeding issues, so standard practice was to load 28 rounds.  The magazine’s distinctive curved shape was required to accommodate rimmed .303 ammunition.  Care had to be taken when loading the magazines to avoid overlapping the rims; most stoppages were caused by poorly-filled magazines, not by any mechanical issues with the gun itself.  During trials, it was noted that the top-mounted magazine was faster and easier to change than guns with bottom-mounted magazines, particularly the B.A.R.  Additionally, the B.A.R.’s magazine only held 20 rounds, as a larger capacity would impede the use of low cover.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Bren was the ability to change its barrel quickly; no tools were needed for this process.  The magazine had to be removed and the magazine well’s dust cover closed.  Raising the barrel nut unlocked the barrel, which was then lifted away by the carry handle; the spare was then installed and the barrel nut pressed back down.  The barrel was changed after every 10 magazines during automatic fire, and a well-trained crew could do it in eight seconds.  The barrel’s muzzle spread out in a conical shape as a rudimentary flash hider; the cone allowed expanding gas to dissipate more quickly than a straight muzzle.

CleaningBren Normany1944

Normandy, 1944.  A Bren gunner has removed the barrel for cleaning.

The theoretical rate of fire was around 500 rounds per minute, but of course with magazine changes, the actual rate of fire was much lower, around 120 rounds per minute.  Bren gunners were trained to fire 4-5 round bursts in suppressing fire or in engaging an exposed enemy.  In the defense, gunners were taught to fire single rounds at suspected targets, not only to conserve ammunition, but also to try to disguise the nature of the gun and avoid becoming the enemy’s primary target.

The Germans used belt-fed air-cooled machine guns, namely the MG-34 and its successor, the MG-42.  These guns, particularly the MG-42, were noted for their high rate of fire.  They were extremely effective psychological weapons; troops confronted by these guns were terrified by the sound and easily suppressed.  But this rate of fire came at a cost.  The Germans went through a staggering amount of ammunition, all of which had to be carried by the infantrymen.  It generally took longer to reload a belt-fed gun than one that was magazine-fed.  The German guns also overheated much faster, and it was not as easy to change out their barrels; a thick felt pad was used to protect the soldiers’ hands while handling the hot barrel.  The Germans encountered times when the spare barrel needed to be changed before the original had sufficiently cooled.

The Bren could be operated by a single soldier, but was more effective when crewed by a gunner and an assistant (The Bren Number 1 and Bren Number 2).  The Number 1 carried the gun, three magazines (one in the gun, two in webbing pouches), and the spare parts wallet.  The Number 2 carried six magazines, two in his regular webbing equipment, and four in supplemental pouches.  He also carried the spare barrel in its dedicated webbing holdall.  Typically, both magazine changes and barrel changes were done by the Number 2.

All infantry tactics revolved around the Bren gun, as it was the section’s primary fire-producer.  Defensively, the Bren was put at the section’s flank in order to engage the attacking enemy with defilade fire.  While the rest of the section dug straight 2-man slit trenches, the Bren was placed at the apex of an angled trench, which gave better access for the Number 2 to change magazines and barrels.

In the attack, the section would break into two groups:  the Bren group consisted of the assistant section leader, the Bren Number 1 and Number 2; the section leader and the riflemen were the assault group.  The groups would then engage in fire-and-movement, one group providing covering fire while the other group advanced.  The goal was to get the Bren into a good position to engage the enemy and either destroy them or suppress them so the assault group could take the position.

The Bren was also an integral part of anti-tank tactics.  While the .303 round would not penetrate a tank’s armor, it could force the tank commander and any other crew to stay inside the turret, reducing their visibility and effectiveness.  Bren gunners were also taught to fire at a tank’s viewing ports and prisms; if this was not possible, they were to engage any supporting infantry.  All of these tactics made it easier for an anti-tank team to move up on the vehicle’s flank with a Boyes anti-tank rifle or a PIAT (projector, infantry, anti-tank).

The Bren had an attached bipod, which could be folded up when mounted on a vehicle or tripod, or to allow the gunner to get into deeper cover.  It also had a sling; the gun could be carried with the sling over the shoulder taking most of the weight, and the left hand steadying the gun.  This way, the gun could be fired from the hip while on the move.  The carry handle could be rotated into the “assault position”, although it was more common to hold the gun under the folded-up bipod when firing from the hip.

The first Bren gun, the Mark I, had a wooden rear grip, very much like the carry handle, but mounted under the buttstock.  Bren gunners were trained to grasp the pistol grip with the right hand and the rear grip with the left; no allowance was made for firing the gun left-handed.  While there was little recoil because of the mass of the gun, it still needed to be stabilized during firing.  However, it was soon found that the rear grip did not provide enough stability and troops were instead taught to grasp the wrist of the stock, that is, the narrowest part.  This method provided the stability needed.  The rear grip was then eliminated in future versions of the Bren, and even removed from existing guns.

The Mark I had a dovetail slot cut into the receiver, or body, to accept an optical sight, intended for use when firing from the tripod in fixed positions.  However, very few of the optical sights were issued; in fact, many of the sights were mounted on rifles and issued to snipers.  The Mark I* receiver eliminated the dovetail.

The Mark I had an elevating wheel for its backsight, adjustable bipod legs, and the charging handle could be folded flat against the receiver after the gun had been cocked.  The Mark II had a simpler leaf-type backsight, non-adjusting bipod legs, and a simpler, non-folding charging handle; it also had a simpler carry handle.  These modifications were intended to increase manufacturing production, and it was estimated that the Mk II was nearly 25% more efficient to build than the Mk I.  Towards the end of the war, the Mark III and Mark IV were approved for production; these Brens had shorter barrels than the earlier designs, and were intended for use by the Airborne forces, or in the jungle.  However, the Marks III and IV came out too late to see much wartime service.

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Troops on the march in Burma, 1945.  Note the Bren gunner with the weapon resting on his shoulder.

Originally, Bren gunners were trained to carry the gun by the carry handle.  However, “light machine gun” was a comparative term; it was only light compared to water-cooled machine guns.  The Bren Mark I weighed 23 pounds unloaded, well over double the Lee-Enfield rifle, and the Bren Mark II weighed slightly more.  Each full magazine weighed just short of three pounds.  When not in direct contact with the enemy, Bren gunners tended to march with the gun balanced on the shoulder, with a hand on the barrel to steady the gun.

The Bren was used throughout the British Empire.  Not only was it made at R.S.A.F. Enfield in England, it was also made by the John Inglis Company in Canada and the Lithgow arms factory in Australia.  The Indian Army began the war with the similar-appearing Vickers-Berthier; however, the gun was not sufficiently robust, and India adopted the Bren in 1942 and built them at the Ishapore factory.

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Royal Marines occupy a barn during the Falklands campaign, 1982.  The L4 L.M.G., in 7.62mm, faces the camera.

The Bren continued service after World War II; its reliability was again needed from the bitter cold of Korea to the jungles of Malaya.  When Britain adopted the NATO-standard 7.62mm cartridge in the late 1950’s, the Bren gun was converted to the new round and redesignated as the L4 L.M.G.  While new barrels and magazines were made, existing guns were rechambered to 7.62mm.  The new magazines were straight, not curved, and the muzzle cone was replaced with a “birdcage”-style flash hider.  If needed, the L4 was able to use the same magazine as the L1A1 self-loading rifle.  The L4 served nearly to the end of the 20th Century; its last use was in the 1991 Gulf War.

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The last use of the classic British L.M.G.  This young soldier mans his L4 in the Persian Gulf in 1990, during the build-up to the liberation of Kuwait.

The Sten Machine Carbine: The Gun that Almost Never Was

This article was originally written for “The Front”, the newsletter of the California Historical Group, and is reprinted here by permission of the editors.

One of the most mass-produced and widely-used firearms of the Second World War was the British Sten Machine Carbine. Ironically, it was almost never created, and only came about in direct response to enemy action.

Towards the end of the First World War, new weapons and tactics were developed in an attempt to break the stalemate of the Western Front’s trench warfare. One of the new concepts was a “trench sweeper”, a light, compact gun capable of automatic fire; pistol-caliber ammunition was used to reduce the weight and bulk of the weapon.  While several nations experimented with such guns, the first to be successful was Germany, with the Maschinenpistole (MP) 18, chambered for the same ammunition as the 9mm Luger.  This weapon was issued to specially-trained Sturmtruppen (“assault troops”) who were intended to infiltrate into enemy trenches and cause as much havoc as possible.

Interest in this new class of weapon continued in the 1920’s and 30’s. In the United States, General John Thompson designed his famous .45 caliber weapon in 1921, with improvements made in 1928.  Unfortunately, the “Tommy Gun” was soon associated with the gangland violence of the American Prohibition era.

Arnhem 1944 2 Para with Mk V

Battle of Arnhem, September 1944.  British Paratroopers with a German prisoner; three of the men carry the Sten Mark V.

Thompson was the first to coin the term “submachine gun” to describe not only his weapon, but the entire class of pistol-caliber automatic firearms; this term is commonly used today. Many countries developed their own submachine guns, such as the Finnish Suomi, although the Europeans tended to continue calling them machine pistols.  The Germans made improvements on the MP 18, which became the MP 28.  The British used the term “machine carbine” for the new weapons – but the military establishment had no interest in them whatsoever.

The British conducted trials on the Thompson, Suomi, and many others. Detailed test results were carefully written and submitted to the War Office for evaluation.  However, these reports were dismissed over concerns for the short effective range – completely ignoring the fact these were specifically intended as short-range weapons.  The War Office wrote that proper soldiers should be equipped with proper rifles, and reiterated the expectation that a British soldier should be able to hit a target at 600 yards, while machine carbines were only effective to around 100 yards.  The War Office concluded that the British Army was not interested in “gangster guns”.

In September 1939, Germany shocked the world, not only with its invasion of Poland, but also with the Blitzkrieg tactics used in doing so.  Many German troops carried the MP 38, the first submachine gun with a folding stock.

The United Kingdom responded by declaring war on Germany and sending the British Expeditionary Force to reinforce their allies in France and Belgium. Shortly after arrival, the BEF submitted an urgent request for machine carbines; the War Office acquiesced and ordered 300,000 Thompsons from the United States.

It was hoped that the US, still neutral at this point, would be able to quickly supply the Thompsons. However, it was a slow and complex gun to produce, and expensive as well.  Additionally, the German Navy refused to recognize American neutrality and targeted supply ships bound for the UK; many of the desired Thompsons ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic.

In May, 1940, Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, once again using their Blitzkrieg tactics.  One of the most spectacular components of the Blitzkrieg was the use of airborne troops, particularly in the assault on the massive fortifications at Eben Emael in Belgium.

The BEF was forced to evacuate back to England from the port of Dunkirk, and a number of French soldiers managed to escape with them. Over time, refugees from across occupied Europe made their way to Britain.  In addition to having to prepare for a possible enemy invasion, the British Government determined to arm and equip the foreign armies in exile.  They also decided to encourage and support any resistance organizations that developed on the enemy-controlled European continent.  Unfortunately, Britain’s heavy industry was already operating at maximum capacity.

The War Office finally realized the need for Britain to produce its own version of the machine carbine. Fortunately, some enemy weapons had been captured, and these were carefully studied by the staff at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.  The first British-made machine carbine was the Lanchester, which was just a copy of the German MP 28.  About 80,000 of these were built and issued to the Royal Navy for the defense of port facilities.

The Lanchester was an effective weapon, but like the Thompson, based on old technology and slow to manufacture. The designers at RSAF Enfield were determined to create a new weapon, one that was easier to produce.  They studied captured examples of the MP 38 and quickly found that much of the weapon was made from stamped sheet metal, with only certain components made from machined steel.  This was the inspiration they needed, and they designed the Sten Mark I.  “Sten” was a contraction for Shepherd and Turpin, the primary designers, and Enfield, the Royal Small Arms Factory.  The bolt and barrel were machined, but the bulk of the weapon was made from stampings and pressings, spot-welded in place.  It operated on a simple blowback principle, had a fixed firing pin, and like the Lanchester, the magazine was copied from the MP 28.

The first Sten, the Mark I, began production in January 1941 and was approved for issue to British troops in March. However, that same month, RSAF Enfield received a request from the newly-created Airborne Forces to modify the Sten for their use.  Prime Minister Churchill had called for the creation of the British Airborne, inspired by the enemy’s actions at Eben Emael.  The Sten’s design was revised to accommodate the Airborne, but also to make manufacture even simpler; this was the Sten Mark II.  As the Mark II was introduced so soon after the Mark I, few Mark I’s were issued to the troops.

Early Para with Mk II

British paratrooper, 1942.  Notice the Sten Mark II, with the stock removed, carried under the parachute harness.

The Mark II had a detachable barrel and stock, and the magazine housing could rotate 90 degrees which acted as a dust cover for the ejection port. Early paratroopers jumped with a disassembled Mark II strapped to their chest under the parachute harness.  In the early days of parachuting, rifles had to be dropped in containers; being able to jump with a gun on the person was invaluable.  These design aspects also made the Mark II easier to air drop into occupied Europe, and be concealed by the Resistance units.  As it was chambered in 9mm, it fired the same ammunition as the German MP 38 and the later MP 40, and the magazines were interchangeable, making it easy to use captured enemy supplies.

The Mark II was the most numerous of all the Sten variants, with over 2.5 million made. Most of the components were contracted out to hundreds of vendors, with final assembly performed at the Royal Ordinance Factories at Maltby and Fazakerley.  Traditional gunmakers, such as Birmingham Small Arms and Webley & Scott, made the barrels and bolts.  But the other components, made of simple tubes and stampings, were made across the UK in workshops and garages, as opposed to large factories, allowing light industry to provide valuable help to the war effort.

The Mark III, first issued in 1943, was the simplest of all the Stens. It had even fewer parts and took even less production time than the others, but it also suffered from quality issues.  It therefore never replaced the Mark II.  The Mark III had a fixed barrel and an even more rudimentary front sight than the Mark II.

Tommies and Prisoners Normandy

British troops in Normandy, July 1944, with German prisoners.  The two men at the right carry the Mark III version of the Sten carbine.  Photo courtesy the Imperial War Museum.

By 1944, the potential for Germany to invade Britain was well and truly over, and the Allies were preparing their own invasion of the European mainland. Production efficiency could be relaxed in favor of build quality, and the Mark V Sten was created.  This had a wooden stock, as well as a wooden pistol grip and fore grip, very much like the Thompson.  The foresight assembly was taken from the Number 4 rifle; it also used the same bayonet lugs as the Number 4, allowing the spike bayonet to be fitted.  The entire production run of Mark V’s was issued to the Airborne Forces.  Like the earlier Stens, the stock could be removed, making it easier to jump with the weapon.

The Mark IV and Mark VI never left the prototype phase. However, about 4.5 million Stens of all marks were made.  While most were built in the UK, the Mark II was also built in Canada and New Zealand.  The Sten was issued to British troops and men from across the Commonwealth, as well as the many resistance groups.  Despite popular myth, the British never provided the Sten’s design to the Resistance; however, some of the more enterprising of the partisans were able to reverse engineer the simple design and manufacture components, and sometimes even complete guns.

The Sten’s crude appearance led British troops to call it the “Plumber’s Nightmare”, the “Woolworth Gun” and the “Stench Gun”. However, despite its crudeness, it was effective and easy to learn – so long as care was taken.  It was also lighter and more compact than a rifle, making it ideal for specialist troops such as signalers.

Primary consideration in the Sten’s design was for ease of manufacture; use of the weapon was secondary, and there were issues. The selector switch only had two positions, one for single shots and one for automatic fire; there was not a safety setting or any other safety switch.  Instead, there was a notch for the charging handle intended to keep the bolt from going into battery.  Dropping the weapon or otherwise giving it a strong jolt often allowed the bolt to move enough for the charging handle to leave the safety slot, which often resulted in an accidental discharge or “slam fire”.  The magazine lips were prone to damage, which caused feeding problems; this was exacerbated by holding the side-mounted magazine while firing.  It was intended that the gun be held by the barrel shroud, but care had to be taken not to let the small finger slip into the ejection port and get injured by the movement of the bolt*.  Many Mark III’s had a small tab welded next to the ejection port to prevent this issue.

Partisan with Mk II Paris 1944

The liberation of Paris, August 1944.  A French partisan with a Sten Mk II.

If the Sten was handled carefully, it was an effective weapon at short ranges. British units would often exchange a number of rifles for Stens when close combat was likely, such as in towns or the hedgerow country of Normandy.  While the side-mounted magazine was simply copied from the MP 28, it allowed one to use the Sten in deeper cover than similar weapons with a bottom-mounted magazine.

In many respects, the Sten was the perfect gun for its time. The simplest version, the Mark III, could be manufactured in only six “man hours”, and fifteen could be produced for the cost of one Thompson.  Most of the components were made by small shops, allowing heavy industry to concentrate on other weapons and materiel.  The Sten’s light weight and simplicity made it ideal for supplying to the Partisans.  The fact that 4.5 million were made, and that they were used all over the world, is especially remarkable considering the British military establishment never wanted such a weapon in the first place.

*The author has a deactivated Sten Mark II for public displays. Once, at an air show, a Canadian veteran saw the author’s Sten and proudly showed off his still-mangled little finger.

Sten Display

Author’s deactivated Sten Mk II on display at an air show.   The grenades are also inert.

The Lee-Enfield Rifles in the 20th Century

The Lee-Enfield family of rifles first appeared at the end of the Victorian era, and served the British Forces well into the Cold War. This was a remarkable service length, and these were remarkable firearms.

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Lee-Enfield Rifles.  From top to bottom:  No. 1 Mk III* (Ishapore, India, 1945); No. 1 Mk III* (Lithgow, Australia, 1945); No. 4 Mk I* (Long Branch, Canada, 1943); No. 4 Mk II (Royal Ordnance Factory Fazakerley, England, 1949).  All photos in this article are by the author.

The first rifle to use James Paris Lee’s bolt design was termed the Lee-Metford; it replaced the single-shot Martini-Henry and was the first British service rifle to hold multiple rounds. It was also the first weapon chambered in .303 ammunition, which was first developed using black powder.  The Lee-Metford had an eight-shot magazine, and was soon replaced by the Lee-Enfield Mark I, with a 10-round magazine.  However, the change in name was to indicate a new method of rifling developed at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.  Thus, the Lee-Enfield was born.

With the adoption of smokeless powder (cordite in this case), it was found that a shorter barrel length would still produce the range and accuracy needed. The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (S.M.L.E.) was adopted in 1902.  The term “Short” referred to the overall length of the rifle compared to its predecessors; weapons of a similar length had previously been considered carbines and issued to cavalry.  Improvements were made on the design, including the addition of a charger bridge to aid in loading, resulting in the S.M.L.E. Mark III, adopted in 1907.  This was the rifle that the British Tommy took to Flanders in 1914.  Soldiers often pronounced S.M.L.E. as “Smelly”.

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.303 training ammunition.  Note the lack of primer.  The red-painted indentations make it easy to identify these as inert training rounds by both sight and feel.  These examples are Canadian-marked and dated from the 1920’s.

Prior to the Great War, infantry were expected to withstand cavalry charges with their bayonets. With the adoption of the shorter rifle, it was felt necessary to make up for the reduced reach by extending the length of the bayonet.  The S.M.L.E. Mark III was issued with the 1907 pattern bladed bayonet, sometimes called a “sword bayonet” because of its size.

The S.M.L.E. Mark III also included long-range volley sights and a magazine cut-off. The cut-off was a sliding cover over the magazine; the intent was that the soldier would load and fire individual rounds, saving the ammunition in the magazine for when rapid fire was needed.  In 1916, the cut-off and volley sights were determined superfluous, and these items were deleted from the Mark III* (the asterisk is typically pronounced as “star”).

The S.M.L.E. Mark III and Mark III* were outstanding rifles. The Lee bolt design was faster and smoother to operate than any of its rivals, giving the British soldier a faster rate of fire than his enemies (or his Allies).  The Enfield also had twice the magazine capacity of the other rifles of the period, and its shorter size made it easier to maneuver in the close confines of trench warfare.

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Loading the No. 1 Mk III* with training ammunition.  Note the use of the charger bridge to assist in loading.

British troops were trained in the “mad minute”, to fire and reload as quickly as possible in a 60-second period. The minimum requirement was 15 rounds, with all hitting the target at 300 yards.  Well-trained soldiers could fire 20 – 30 rounds, with the documented record being 36 aimed shots in a minute.  When German troops first encountered the British at the outbreak of the Great War, they believed they were up against machine guns, not infantrymen with rifles.

The S.M.L.E. was slightly less accurate than the enemy Mauser, but it was accurate enough for the battlefield. The British soldier was expected to hit a man-sized target at 600 yards.

After the horrors of the Great War, Britain was reluctant to invest in new weaponry. Several improvements and prototypes were developed in the 1920’s and 30’s, but were not adopted.  However, the naming system was revised in 1926, and the S.M.L.E. was renamed the Number 1 Rifle, with both Mark III and Mark III*’s in service (official abbreviations were No. 1 Mk III and No. 1 Mk III*).  Finally, in 1939, the Number 4 rifle was approved for production.

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No. 1 Mk III* (top) and No. 4 Mk I* (bottom).  The top rifle is the older design; ironically, in this pair it is of newer manufacture – India never produced the No. 4.

The No. 1 rifle had been largely hand-made. The No. 4 Mk I was designed to incorporate new manufacturing methods to make mass-production easier.  It also included a number of improvements.  The bolt was reduced in weight, making it even faster to operate than its predecessor.  The charger bridge was made as part of the receiver, rather than a separate piece, making it stronger.  The sights were also improved.  The No. 1 used a blade front sight and “V-notch” backsight, adjustable for range; it was good for precision shooting, but difficult for rapidly-moving targets.  The No. 4 was given a ring-type backsight which gave much faster target acquisition.  The backsight was of the “flip” type configuration, meaning it could be rotated from a short-range combat sight to a more precise long-range sight; the earlier versions were adjustable.  The new rifle was the same length as its predecessor, and their weights were similar.  Visually, the biggest difference was the short length of exposed barrel on the No. 4, as opposed to the No. 1’s nosecap mounted flush to the muzzle.

The Great War had seen the demise of traditional horse cavalry. Studies of the use of the bayonet between the wars indicated that the long “sword bayonet” was no longer needed.  In an effort to reduce the use of steel and to maximize manufacturing efficiency, the No. 4 Mk I was issued with a simple spike bayonet.  The troops often referred to the new bayonet as a “pig-sticker”.

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Bayonets.  The No. 1 Mk III* fitted with the 1907 pattern “sword bayonet” and the No. 4 Mk I* fitted with the “pig sticker” spike bayonet.

Although officially adopted in time for the outbreak of World War II, the No. 4 Mk I did not see immediate service. It took time for the new rifle to enter production, and the first examples did not reach the troops until 1942.  The British Expeditionary Force that reinforced France and Belgium in 1939 carried the same rifle as their fathers had before them.

Priority of issue for the No. 4 Mk I was for troops on Home Service, initially defending Britain against possible invasion, but then transitioning to the return to occupied Europe. When 21st Army Group arrived in Normandy, they were using the No. 4 rifle exclusively. In contrast, when 8th Army was in North Africa, they continued to soldier on with the old No. 1 rifle, and only received some No. 4’s as replacements late in the war as they fought in Italy.  Similarly, 14th Army in Burma largely fought with the No. 1, with the No. 4 arriving late in the war, but never replacing the older rifle.  Shorter versions of the blade bayonet were made in India for the No. 1 rifle, intended for use in the jungle.

During WWII, the No. 4 Mk I* was authorized with a revised bolt release. A number of minor modifications were also adopted during the course of the war, but not considered significant to renumber the rifle or create a new Mark.  These included simplified sights, barrel bands, and other components, all of which were intended to ease production.

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No. 4 Mk I* with the Mk III backsight configured for long-range firing

After the War, the No. 4 Mk II was adopted; this was essentially the same rifle, but with a different method of attaching the trigger. Additionally, a number of wartime rifles were retrofitted with the new trigger, and were labeled the Number 4 Mark I/II.  Many of these retrofits were also refurbished and provided the original Mark I backsight, the most precise of the different versions.  The wartime spike bayonet was replaced with a proper blade.

The Number 5 rifle was adopted very late in WWII; it was intended for use in the Far East and was often called the “jungle carbine”, although this name was never officially used. The No. 5 was essentially a shortened version of the No. 4, using the same bolt and sights, and fitted with a rubber recoil pad and an anti-flash cone at the muzzle.  Because it fired standard .303 ammunition, recoil was ferocious despite the rubber pad; it also suffered accuracy problems.  The No. 5 only saw limited production and very few saw front-line service.

The Lee-Enfield continued service after WWII, including the Korean conflict. Many overseas garrisons still had their old stocks of No. 1, Mk III’s, but most troops carried No. 4’s, either the Mk I or Mk II.  Both the No. 1 and the No. 4 had been manufactured by Commonwealth nations as well as Britain; in fact, India and Australia never did adopt the No. 4, preferring the older design.

A number of .22 caliber Lee-Enfield variants were adopted for training purposes.   There were also sniper adaptations of both the No. 1 and No. 4.  After the adoption of the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle in 1954 in 7.62 NATO, the L42A1 sniper rifle was adopted; this was a No. 4 modified to take 7.62 ammunition.  The L42A1 was used as recently as the Falklands conflict and was finally replaced in 1990.

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WWII production blank training .303

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Two of the above blanks, showing the 1943 dates on the headstamps.

As a living historian, I am often asked which Lee-Enfield is correct for WWII. As seen in the above history, it depends on the theater and stage of the war.  I am also frequently asked which rifle is “better”, and there is no easy answer.  Both are typically well-made, although the No. 1 will often have better fit and finish.  I have used the No. 1 Mk III* and the No. 4 Mk I and Mk II extensively.  I have fired live ammunition at the range, and blanks at reenactments.  The No. 4’s lighter bolt can allow for a slightly faster rate of fire; on the other hand, short blanks can sometimes misfeed, and the No. 1’s heavier bolt reduces this problem, as does using full-length blanks.  As I’m getting older, the sights on the No. 1 are getting harder for me to use; but I have no problem whatsoever with the sights on the No. 4.  These are also reliable firearms; I bought my first Lee-Enfield over 20 years ago, and have only had to perform one minor repair.

I love my Lee-Enfields, and my only regret is not shooting them as frequently as I would like.