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World War One Soldiers’ Loadouts

A reader sent me a link to a pretty cool image gallery showing the basic clothing and equipment of five different major combatant powers from mid-WWI. I have re-uploaded the individual photos in case the original links go dead (click to enlarge each photo).

The kit of a French Private Soldier in the Battle of Verdun, 1916

The kit of a French Private Soldier in the Battle of Verdun, 1916 (collection provided by Paul Bristow, Croix de Guerre Living History Group, photographed by Thom Atkinson)


German Private's gear, 1916

Equipment of a German Private in the Battle of the Somme, 1916 (collection provided by Paul Bristow, Croix de Guerre Living History Group, photographed by Thom Atkinson)


US Doughboy's gear, 1917

US Infantryman (Doughboy), arrival in France, 1917 (Equipment provided by: Lee Martin, historical adviser, collector and living historian, photographed by Thom Atkinson)


British Sergeant's equipment, 1916

Equipment of a British Sergeant in the Battle of the Somme, 1916 (supplied by Nigel Bristow, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. photographed by Thom Atkinson)


Russian woman's gear

Equipment from the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death ( collection supplied by Bruce Chopping, Ian Skinner and Laura Whitehouse of the 1914-21 Society, photographed by Thom Atkinson)

Burton 1917 Light Machine Rifle

America’s first assault rifle? Well, it does meet all the requirements – select-fire, intermediate cartridge, and shoulder-fired. It was never actually fielded, though.

The Burton Light Machine Rifle was developed during World War One, with the firing model completed in 1917. It was intended as an aircraft observer’s weapon for attacking balloons – a role which required incendiary ammunition.With this in mind, Winchester’s Frank Burton adapted the .351 WSL cartridge from his 1905 and 1907 self-loading rifles into the .345 WSL, with a spitzer bullet. He designed an open-bolt, select-fire shoulder rifle to fire it, which became known as the Light Machine Rifle.

Burton’s rifle was to be usable both in an aircraft where it could be fixed to a Scarff mount for a wide field of fire or used by an individual on the ground, fired from the shoulder. It weighed in at just about 10 pounds (4.5kg) and had a pistol grip and straight-line design to bring the recoil impulse directly into the shooter’s shoulder and minimize rise during automatic fire. The barrel was finned for better cooling, and infantry barrels were equipped with bayonet lugs.

The most distinctive elements of the design, of course, are the dual top-mounted magazines. Each one holds 20 rounds, and each has a pair of locking catches. One position locks the magazine into a feeding position, and the other holds it up above the cycling of the bolt. The idea here was to keep a second loaded magazine easily accessible for an aerial observer – so they could reload without having to find another magazine somewhere in the aircraft. Contrary to some speculation, there is no automatic transition between magazines. When one is empty, the shooter must pull it back to the second locking position (or out of the gun entirely) and then push the second magazine down into feeding position.

Despite Burton’s work – which was well ahead of its time – the LMR had been rendered obsolete for its primary role by the time it was ready. Synchronized, forward-mounted Vickers machine guns firing 11mm incendiary ammunition were being mounted on aircraft, and were more effective on balloons and airplanes than Burton’s weapon would have been. Only this single example was ever made, and it was not presented for infantry consideration as far as I can tell. It was lost for many years before being discovered in a Winchester building, and eventually ending up in the Cody Firearms Museum with the rest of the Winchester factory collection.

Vintage Saturday: Folding Transport

French bicycle soldier with an 1892 Berthier carbine

French bicycle soldier with an 1892 Berthier carbine

Not just any bicycle, but a folding Gladiator bicycle!

French bicycle soldier with an 1892 Berthier carbine

He can also use it as a rifle rest!


French bicycle soldier with an 1892 Berthier carbine

Or camouflage and cover…?

You can see the entire 13-photo set here. Thanks to Denny for pointing these pictures out!

Beretta Model 1931 & 1937 Prototype Semiauto Rifles

In the 1930s, the Italian military (like all major military forces at the time) was investigating options for a semiautomatic service rifle. Beretta’s Tulio Marengoni developed one such rifle, and submitted it in two forms.

The first version of the rifle was produced in 1931, chambered for the then-standard 6.5x52mm Carcano cartridge. It was a short-recoil action with a rotating bolt, and fed from standard 6-round Carcano en bloc clips.

The second version was produced in 1937, after the Italian military had adopted the 7.35mm cartridge. The 1937 version was made slightly shorter and had a simple fixed rear sight (both changes similar to what would be made for the M38 Carcano rifles). The 1937 Beretta also used a new magazine system, fed by stripper clip. The capacity it not clearly known; Riccio states 9 rounds with a specialized clip. This would make some logistical sense, as a standard 18-round box of Carcano ammo would evenly fill two 9-round clips. However, it seems plausible that it might also have been a 10-round magazine with two 5-round clips, in line with what was typical elsewhere in the world. Finally, the 1937 rifle included a locking mechanism that could be used to prevent the barrel from recoiling, and thus turn the rifle into a manually-operated one instead of a self-loader. It is interesting that such a device was requested on the later model rifle, but not the early one. Perhaps it was based on accuracy concerns, or being able to fix the barrel in place for bayonet use?

The internal mechanism was quite novel. The very large firing pin spring actually served both to prevent slamfiring when the bolt closed and also provided the force to rotate the bolt into battery. This is typically done with a linear return spring pushing the bolt lugs against some typic of cam that forces them to rotate, but Marengoni’s design instead winds that firing pin spring rotationally and allows it to put direct rotational pressure on the bolt. Unlocking is, however, done by a rounded cam surface that the bolt handle stem contacts as the whole barrel and bolt assemble moves backwards. This camming surface forces the bolt handle up, unlocking the lugs.

Disassembly is a very simple process: unscrew the rear receiver cam and pull everything out. The cap is locked in place by the bolt release catch on the 1931, and by the ejector assembly on the 1937.

Ultimately the Armaguerra model 1939 was the winner of the extended Italian military trials, but World War II interrupted any plans to put it into mass production.

Beretta Model 1931

Notable characteristics:

  • Full-length wooden stock
  • 24.8 inch (630mm) barrel
  • 9 pound (4.1kg) weight
  • Straight wrist
  • 6.5x52mm
  • Feeds from 6-round standard Carcano clip
  • Short recoil action
  • Front end of barrel fluted

Beretta Model 1937

Notable characteristics:

  • Metal front handguard
  • 21 inch (533mm) barrel
  • 8.9 pound (4.0kg) weight
  • Semi-pistol grip wrist
  • 7.35x51mm
  • Feeds from 9-round fixed internal magazine (stripped clip fed)
  • Short recoil action
  • Smooth barrel profile

Italian Scout Bicycle

So, this is a bit off our normal subject matter, but it appealed to the mechanical nerd in me, and I figured at least a few of my readers would have the same reaction. If not, well, we’ve got a pair of very neat guns coming up tomorrow.

Anyway, I was browsing through the museum of the Carabinieri (a branch of the Italian military somewhere between infantry and military police) in Rome, and noticed a bicycle in one corner. Well, actually it was the Carcano that I noticed first, and then the bicycle that is was strapped to.

Italian military bicycle

It’s a bike with a gun rack!

Lots of countries used bicycle troops to various degrees, and it’s interesting to see some of that gear firsthand. The rifle carrier is basically just a heavy canvas case strapped to the horizontal frame of the bike; nothing very complicated there. But, I figured I’d take a handful of photos in case someone out there has one of these and wants to restore it. This example isn’t exactly mint, but it could be useful to someone. Those photos are at the bottom of the post.

When I started looking more closely, I realized that this bicycle actually has front and back suspension systems. And they’re not quite like those on modern bikes, either – neat!

On the front wheel, there are a pair of cylinders (hydraulic or pneumatic, I don’t know which – possibly also mechanical springs) to damped impacts. Instead of being integrated into the front wheel fork, though, they are offset from it in order to add some leverage to the system. The wheel hub is connected to a level which pivots on the front fork and is connected to the dampening cylinders. Thus when the wheel goes up, the lever forces the cylinder to extend. Assuming it is fitted with a heavy coil spring inside (or a partial vacuum), this would cushion the rest of the bicycle from the shock hitting the front wheel.

Front suspension on the Italian military bicycle

Note the lever arms connecting the fork, wheel, and suspension cylinders


Front suspension on the Italian military bicycle

Another view of the front suspension

On the rear wheel, the cylinder is integrated into the frame, at the point where the rear fork attaches to the seat support.

Rear suspension on the Italian military bicycle

Rear suspension cylinder, on a mount allowing it to pivot slightly

The interesting bit of the rear suspension not copied today (as far as I know) is the element allowing the rear wheel assembly to flex. That cylinder alone is not enough; there must be a second point that can move in order for it to be of any use. That second point is located just behind the pedals:

Rear suspension on the Italian military bicycle

This flat metal plate acts as a small leaf spring

Instead of a fixed connection between frame and rear wheel, the two are attached via a flat piece of steel, presumably of a calculated thickness and heat treat. That piece acts as a leaf spring, allowing the rear wheel assembly to move up and down slightly in conjunction with the dampening cylinder beneath the seat. As long as the connecting piece is properly made, it would act as an effective (if stiff) shock absorber without ever flexing outside of its elastic zone (that is to say, without suddenly snapping in half at the worst possible moment).

The bicycle looks quite primitive at a casual glance, but actually has some sophisticated engineering built into its design. I do enjoy finding things like this…

As I mentioned above, here are the rest of my photos, should anyone find them useful:

GunSpotting in Rome

About a month ago I spent some time in Italy, and noticed a few things that I thought would be interesting. The biggest thing that stood out to me (on the matter of firearms, I should say) was that while civilian gun ownership is far lower than it is here in the US, one actually sees armed military on a regular basis in a way that seems strange and alien to an American. We expect to see police officers with sidearms, but not rifle-armed military patrols on the street – which is a regular part of your day in a city like Rome or Milan. Scattered throughout the city (mostly in areas with lots or tourist traffic) you will see pairs of soldiers in full kit, typically with a Land Rover; “Operation Safe Streets” (Operazione Strade Secure) painted on its doors.

These guys are in camo fatigues, with armor vests, a couple spare mags, a pistol in a low flap holster, and a rifle. The rifle may be a Beretta ARX-160 or an older AR70/90. By the way, they don’t want you to take photos, so I had to be a bit sneaky to get these…

Italian soldier in Rome with an ARX-160

Italian Alpini in Rome with an ARX-160 carbine and Aimpoint

Italian soldiers with Beretta 70/90 rifles

Italian soldiers in Milan with Beretta 70/90 rifles

The other long arm that you can expect to see around the cities of Italy is the Beretta Model 12S submachine gun, typically in the hands of the Carabinieri at important buildings (I wasn’t able to get a photo of one of those; sorry). The basic breakdown is that the local city police carry pistols (looked like Beretta 92s and Beretta PX4s), the Carabinieri (more or less national police) carry those plus Models 12s, and the Esercito Italiano (Army) carry handguns and rifles. There are also the Finance Police (customs and such), but I only saw their cars and not any actual patrols.

While in Rome, I spent a full day walking the city visiting as many gun-related shops as I could find, and what I found was a division of shops into two basic types: gun stores and police/military supply stores. The gun shops were quite good, with a pretty wide variety of guns including sporting shotguns, hunting rifles, black rifles, modern handguns, revolvers, and older surplus-type rifles. The military supply shops basically sold patches and 5-11 Tactical clothing, plus things like modern MOLLE backpacks and tactical gloves. No vintage or surplus gear – in fact I was unable to find anything like that at all.

The specific shops I visited were:

  • Articoli Civili E Militari Bellettati (Via Giovanni Amendola, 91/93)– This was the best of the military supply shops that I found. They had a good selection of police type gear (boots, gloves, batons, etc) as well as tons of patches. Nothing vintage or antique, and no firearms. The staff spoke minimal English. I was able to make my one militaria purchase here; an Alpini hat. I wanted to get something that would be a good addition to upcoming Carcano videos, and that was the best option. It’s a modern one, but the style hasn’t really changed in a very long time.
  • Militalia Store Roma (Via Leone IV, 117)- The closest things they had to interesting was some modern (and expensive) camo fatigues. Otherwise just commercial tactical boots, gloves, and – of course – lots of patches.
  • Fomisa (I can’t find their web site, if they have one – the address is Via XX Settembre 117) – Nothing here but a bunch of patches. Stopped in, took a quick glance around, and left.

Okay, now for the better stuff – the actual gun shops…

  • First up, Beretta. At least, if you scour Google Maps for gun shops in Rome, it will give you a result for Beretta. I tracked it down, only to find that it’s a local administrative office and not any sort of retail operation. So don’t bother with that one.
  • Armeria Frinchillucci (Via Barberini, 31)- This was the biggest shop I found, with two large rooms and a better selection than plenty of US gun shops. In addition to handguns and long guns, they also had a wide array of slings, holsters, ammo, magazines, etc. The staff was friendly and helpful, and spoke reasonably good English. A couple specific items I noticed included a Fed Ord M1A for 1200 Euro, and a couple Browning High Powers (rebarreled to .30 Luger) for about 300.
  • Armeria Zaccherini (Via Fabio Massimo, 59)- This shop was substantially smaller, but literally piled high with all sorts of stuff. The long gun racks included a surprising number of surplus type rifles, including a Garand, a couple Mausers, a Carcano, and an Arisaka. It would be a pretty decent small shop by American standards. The staff spoke a bit of English; enough to communicate. They were a bit standoffish (which I completely understand as a foreign visitor to a gun shop) until the 12-year-old boy shopping there at the time with his father recognized me and proceeded to tell the clerks all sorts of things about my work, with lots of videos on his phone as supporitng evidence. Thanks, Vittorio! :)
  • Picciati Armi Antiche (no web site here; address is Via di Priscilla, 39) – This shop was recommended to me as a place to see antiques, as opposed to modern-production guns – and I was told the owner is a lady who is extremely knowledgable. Unfortunately, when I arrived they were closed for the day to do inventory and my complete lack of Italian language skills precluded me from persuading my way in. Looking at the inventory through the windows, it appears to be all pre-cartridge guns.

Q&A #5: Rollin White and Other (Better) Designers

Questions in part I of today’s Q&A:

1:04 – What was Rollin White’s revolver like?
7:09 – Why did pan magazines disappear?
10:14 – Why no pointed pistol bullets?
13:24 – Funky rounds like Trounds or Gyrojet rockets
17:47 – Current US MHS trials
19:55 – Underappreciated designers

Questions in the part II of today’s Q&A:

0:07 – Import markings
2:53 – Military field modifications
7:35 – Replacement of .30-06 with 7.62x51mm
8:22 – Cancelled development programs
11:18 – Future Forgotten Weapons (and Mausers)
13:58 – My father’s interest in Japanese arms
14:54 – Why no ammo for Japanese arms?
18:32 – Gloves for handling valuable guns
22:31 – Austro-Hungarian WWI machine gun (my full video on the Schwarzlose M1907/12)

Transitional Swiss Sniper K31 Rifles (Video)

During World War II, the Swiss military experimented with two models of K31 carbine with integral optics (the K31/42 and K31/43). These were found to be not sufficient for military service, and after more experimentation and development, the ZfK-55 rifle was adopted in 1955. What we are looking at today are a pair of transitional guns from the developmental period between the two.

These two rifles came out of the SIG museum, and show a number of features with both the K31/43 and the ZfK-55. For instance, they use a prismatic scope like the K31/43, with the same type of range adjustment. However, the front end of the scope is fixed in place, where on the 43 model it could fold down for protected storage. Additionally, the scopes on these rifles are detachable, like the ZfK-55.

Unfortunately, I have no information as to the exact dates of these two transitional models, nor details on their trial and evaluation.

Vintage Saturday: Fixed Bayonets

French soldiers attacking in the Argonne in 1915

French Poilu attacking uphill in the Argonne in 1915

Travel Plans & Patreon

When I set up my Patreon funding page a while back, I needed to define a couple specific goals – you know, what do I plan to do with this money anyway? Well, what I really wanted to be able to do was start traveling to museums and private collections beyond those that I happen to be near to already. Ideally, ones all over the world. While I can bring you some amazing guns from places like Rock Island and James Julia, a great many prototypes are in museums and long-term private collections and will not be sold any time soon. In order to get my hands on them, I would need to travel to those places.

With that in mind, I set funding goals for travel in the US and travel internationally. I recently hit the US travel goal level – thanks to so many of you folks! Of course, travel isn’t something I can just do on a moment’s notice when that funding goal is reached; it takes some planning and coordination. I just wanted to take a moment to share some of what I am going to be doing now that I have the financial ability.

IMG_1915As you read this, I have just returned from a 4-day trip up to Wyoming to spend time in the Cody Firearms Museum, which houses what used to be the Winchester factory collection – a ton of fantastic prototype and development firearms. In particular, I was able to do a video (including disassembly) on the only existing example of the Burton/Winchester Light Machine Rifle – a 1917 prototype design that perfectly fits the modern definition of an assault rifle. That video will be published in a couple weeks, and the others I filmed in Cody will also be coming in the next month or two. In scheduling video publication, I am always trying to balance a desire to post more often with a desire to maintain a sustainable volume so I don’t run out of material.

I have several other US trips in the works, but I don’t want to specify exactly where so that I don’t get folks’ expectations set and then have plans fall through for any number of reasons. Many places (like the Cody museum) have far more interesting guns than I could possibly cover in a single trip, so I am always working to build relationships to allow plenty of follow-up visits. My goal from the very beginning has been to build an encyclopedia of all guns, and while that was intentionally impossibly far-reaching at the beginning, it has begun to look perhaps only extremely optimistic now. :)

If your Patreon support continues to grow, I hope to be able to start planning some international trips as well. The NFC (Pattern Room) in Leeds is an obvious destination, but there are a great many other places that have great collections of guns rarely or never seen in the US. I did take a trip to Italy earlier this month which had been in the works for a long time – it was a non-work vacation, but thanks to Patreon I was able to extend it slightly and include a visit to Beretta’s reference collection in Brescia. I got a look at several unique prototype semiauto rifles there, and you will see those videos beginning next week.

So, that is the status update for now. Thank you to everyone who contributes to that Patreon page and makes this possible!