Smith & Wesson Light Rifle (Video)

The Smith & Wesson 1940 Light Rifle is one of the spectacular failures of arms design, on several levels. It was too expensive, too heavy, too fragile (ironically, given the weight), too difficult to manipulate, and just all-in-all bad. To put the bad-ness in perspective, the British cancelled their order of these guns and rejected those already delivered – right in the aftermath of Dunkirk, when they were in serious need of arms. To completely reject a gun that was being actively produced and delivered under those circumstances says a lot! I had the opportunity to take a closer look at a second model M1940 S&W Light Rifle at Rock Island Auctions, and took this video:

In the Vault page on the M1940 Light Rifle, you can find a longer description of the gun’s shortcomings, as well as a copy of the manual S&W wrote for it. In addition, I have a scan of a 1969 article on them from Gun Facts magazine, in which Jan Stevenson does an excellent job of explaining the weapon’s history and eccentricities.

40 Comments

  1. Can anyone say Epic Fail? This design sucks in every respect. It’s too complicated, too fragile in the important places, too jam-prone in any military conditions, and it would probably lose a fight to a Nambu Type 100 sub machine-gun, which Japan should have considered producing en-mass. Heck, I think this light rifle would lose to the terrible hopper-fed and oil-thirsty Type 11 light machine-gun. Anyone interested in pitting the world’s worst weapons against each other?

  2. Well you could make a ambidextrous bullpup out of it fairly easily, as someone pointed out the other day.

  3. It’s like a sort of prototype they never got around to finishing, and just went with “well it’s a gun, better than a stick here” our lot were on the defensive then so probably thought they could wait for something more practical, as the invasion plans called for the use of Pikes anyway.

    Winter trigger…

    Perhaps they were thinking it would be more resilient to jamming as it’s ejection port more sealed up, or you could fire it over your hat and collect the brass more easily to reload as inferred.

    • I can understand that mentality, but a Sten would be better than this S&W. At least the Sten is cheaper to build and can be cleared more quickly during a jam. In this case, the problem with the Smith and Wesson isn’t dirt getting into the action through the ejection port. The problem is that if dirt came through the ammunition feed or if a spent cartridge did not go down the ejection chute, you would be screwed since you would have to disassemble the gun to clear the jam.

      • The problem I envision is that the first time someone takes a potshot at you while you’re carrying this thing, you’ll hit the ground and jam a nice big plug of dirt or mud into the ejection tube.

      • They could have done away with the tube part, and simply put a port on the underside of the receiver behind the magazine. Then have a Andrews machine carbine “presumed” type of cocking method to allow you to pull the breech nearer to the ejection port to get at it. Although why bother, I suppose it would depend if by firing from an open bolt the ejection port was still covered by the bolt apart from when ejecting via it acting as a sort of automatic dust cover. Or you wanted it as a bullpup, in which case downward ejection behind the magazine facilitates this.

        • That entire “tower” seems to be a misplaced method of enabling a magazine heel release to be fitted, which is a simple type of release however if utilized within another piece such as a pistol grip something else you would use anyway. I mean, it acts as a foregrip but…

  4. You guys hit on all of its faults……..too numerous to mention now. I’ve owned a couple of them over the last 35+ years (1st & 2nd variations)….and one thing that S&W always did, and that was a perfect fit & finish to their arms. The quality matches any of their Pre-WWII commercial revolvers. I can tell you this….it does not function with anything other than “ball” ammunition. Lighter bullet don’t make the action function properly….and yes, jams are inevitable. Oh…has anyone seen what was attached to the 1941’s that S&W sold. It was an aluminum 3″x5″ plaque that was attached to the butt (most people took them off). It said “EXTREMELY/HAZARDOUS/DO NOT/LOAD OR FIRE”. I’m sure one of their “legal beagals” told them to do that. I still have the plaque and 3 magzines…..and need to find a home for them.

  5. “It was too expensive, too heavy, too fragile (ironically, given the weight), too difficult to manipulate, and just all-in-all bad.”
    Yes, when you consider it as a wartime military weapon, but when you consider is against other inter-war SMG following drawback can be ignored:
    1.too expensive – the cost is so highly mainly due to machined parts, but other inter-war SMG also were machined (see: Steyr MP34 and Reising SMG)
    2.too heavy – also can be applied to other inter-war SMG (see: Suomi SMG and ZK-383 are even heavier than S&W).

    The other question is: did the drawbacks were caused by the design failures or a production failures (the S&W never produce full-auto firearm before Light Rifle so the jamming issue can be caused by bad tolerances – either too big or too tight, if tolerances are too tight firearm can be easily jammed by dirt).

    • I think the design and production may have been the issue contributing to the flaws. The Smith and Wesson light rifle was designed as a rifle, not as an automatic weapon. As a rifle, it is accurate. That is what the designer wanted. But the assembly is too weak by design, and for some stupid reason nobody bothered to ask what would happen if somebody were to load more powerful ammunition (like the British military grade 9 mm Parabellum) into the M1940. Let’s compare the others on the list.

      The Reising was plagued by its complicated operating system and a lack of interchangeable parts (parts were reportedly filed to fit on individual guns, not a good way to do mass production). The Steyr-Solothurn MP34 was expensive but it was reliable (less prone to jamming or breaking), controllable, and accurate. The S&W light rifle is accurate, but prone to jamming and breaking due to design flaws.

      As for weight issues, the Suomi was built to withstand a lot of abuse (winter issues, if you recall, and lots of fire-fights with Soviets). The ZK-383 was intended to be a light support weapon fired in prone position, not a “run around and spray everything in sight” weapon. As a squad automatic weapon, the ZK-383 fulfills its requirements quite well, having a detachable barrel and greater effective range than most sub-machine-guns (in this case, the ZK has an effective range of 250 meters compared to the 100 meter range of an MP-40, and one of the two weapons is likely hiding in tall grass). In comparison, the S&W light rifle cannot withstand prolonged use, despite its functional weight.

      Am I missing anything?

      • “That is what the designer wanted.”
        I forgot that “Every firearm inherit attributes from their designer(s)”.
        When considering this the lack of jam-proof of Reising SMG can be easily explained. Eugene Reising was competitive target shooter so he designed his SMG to be accurate not reliable in any condition – the target shooters don’t crawl through muddy No Man’s Land with their guns. Nowadays is associated with maligned Reising SMG, but he is also designed better firearms (see Reising .22 auto pistol)

        I tried to find any info about Edward S. Pomeroy but I received only info that he was designer of S&W Light Rifle, but I also find US Patent 2216022A for this firearm:
        http://www.google.com/patents/US2216022
        The Pomeroy patented:
        “Objects of the invention are to provide means for attaching, to a firearm receiver, a barrel or a sight or a fore-grip or a cartridge holder, or any two or more of these parts, which is simple and inexpensive to manufacture, which may be assembled and disassembled quickly and easily, which is reliable and durable in use and which is generally superior to prior art constructions.”
        but the patent claims that shown firearm has fire-selector i.e. it was initially designed to both semi-auto and full-auto

  6. Very excellent presentation and fascinating. Thanks Ian!

    I always liked the look of these… First discovered by me as a high-schooler in Smith and Smith Small arms of the World. I’ve seen two in person in Houston, TX. I’ll look forward to reading the article supplied.

    There is an “old yarn” I hope our GB-knowledgeable folks can help disabuse me of: The “story goes” that the British armed forces captured so much Italian-made 9mm ammunition that the project of the Sten Mk.I was greatly hastened along and/or made to use this captured ammo. Seems pretty fanciful to me… But who knows?

    This “epic fail” from S&W could be usefully compared to the Beretta M1918/30 and some other semi-auto pistol-caliber carbines I’d think.

    • The 9mm ammunition story is mostly true. Here’s the story;

      The Italian army used 9 x 19mm in several weapons, notably the Beretta M1938 submachine gun, plus (in the lighter-loaded 9 x 19mm Glisenti version) several types of Beretta, Glisenti, and Brixia pistols left over from WW1.

      When the Italian forces in North Africa under Garibaldi surrendered to British forces, among the stores captured were several million rounds of 9 x 19mm, intended for the M38 SMGs. This was a fairly hot load (124 gr. @ 1370 out of the M38’s 12.5″ barrel), and absolutely nothing in the British inventory used any 9mm, other than some Webley pistols in 9 x 20 SR Browning (Long), plus some Colt pocket autos in 9 x 17 SR (.380 ACP).

      The Lanchester SMG was under development (for the Royal Navy and Marines) at the Sterling Engineering Company at the time. It was basically a copy of the German MP-28, and accordingly was chambered for 9 x 19mm. It was still in toolroom status at the time. The British Army had no particular interest in it; they still regarded SMGs as “gangster weapons” for the most part, and felt that what little need they had for them could be supplied with American-made .45 Thompsons.

      Norway and Dunkirk changed their minds a bit.

      The Sten was under development at Enfield in the fall and winter of ’40, and initially had been designed around the 0.380in revolver (.38 S&W) round, believe it or not. Don’t laugh; when the designers from FN arrived at Inglis in Canada with the drawings and specs for the FN M1935 GP, the Purchasing Commission first demanded it be redesigned for 0.380in! Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed quickly.

      When the bounty of 9 x 19mm from Italy via Suez became available, the Enfield design team under Sheppard and Turpin suggested that the Sten might work better as a 9 x 19mm, like the Navy’s Lanchester. And since the ammo was already there, really costing the Army nothing but shipping & storage…

      The fact that the Sten and the Inglis-made P35 both used standard 9mm ammunition caused the Germans considerable headaches, not least due to the widespread use of the Sten by resistance groups all over occupied Europe. Ammunition resupply for them was never much of an issue from SOE’s point of view in London.

      BTW, Inglis made Bren guns for the Nationalist Chinese forces in 7.9 x 57 Mauser. That being the standard Chinese service rifle caliber going back to the turn of the century. It would have been interesting if the 0.303in Brens dropped to the FFI, etc., had come with spare barrels, bolts, etc., in 7.9.

      Sources; Infantry Weapons by John Weeks (Ballantine, 1974)

      The Complete Machine-Gun, 1885 To The Present by Ian Hogg (Phoebus/Exeter, 1979)

      Military Small Arms of the 20th Century by Hogg & Weeks (Hippocrene, 1977)

      cheers

      eon

      • Britain actually manufactured 7.92mm x 57 as the BESA MG design was not suited to conversion to a rimmed round.

      • I think it was during the Malay insurgency, that the local hookers (presumably of Chinese origin, rather than Moslem Malays) were asking for ammunition as payment.

        The story goes that some batches of ammunition guaranteed to trash a gun and probably to trash the firer too, were cooked up, and the squaddies were sent out to spend it on having a good time…

        Following Mao’s advice of using the enemy as your quartermaster, can have its hazards.

  7. A few things to think about: as a police rifle, it was sort of before it’s time–wasn’t Ruger selling 9mm and 40 cal “patrol” rifles a few years ago that took pistol magazines? That was when police dept’s were still carrying shotguns in their cars, before the stampede to AR’s. 9mm in a rifle for police makes sense–but only after a lot of police dept’s went to 9mm. In the 1930’s were any American police dept’s using 9mm? 45 or even 38 super would have been more readily accepted.

    Where one could sort of see the thing being of use would be in a prison guard role. Faster than a 94 Winchester, more rounds than contemporary semi-auto carbines (which were all machined steel as well). No mud on the cat walks and towers in a prison, and the good accuracy it had would have been useful. If not for the cost that market might have been plausible.

    Maybe they thought that by making it in 9mm they’d sell it to foreign militaries, but S&W would have better gotten into that game by arranging with FN to make High Powers, or design something close to that.

      • According to the Gun Facts article Ian linked to, the old timers at S&W thought that “the company had the US police market in mind.” There was no mention in the article of the design ever being anything but 9mm. It was apparently a half-baked idea for a police carbine that the Brits decided to give a try when they talked to S&W about 38 revolvers. To find a company with a 9mm gun already in development, and with the machinery to make them, must have been too good to be true to the Brits.

    • The much-maligned Reising .45 SMG was also made in a semi-auto only, 16″ barrelled version, intended as a weapon for police, armored car companies, ad prison guards. Around here, they showed up in the second-hand racks at local gun stores well into the Eighties.

      I don’t know whether the SMG came first, the semi-auto was first, or if they both were marketed at the same time. I suspect the latter, as the Reising was adopted by the USMC before Pearl Harbor mainly because it was available and there weren’t enough Thompsons to go around at the time.

      One of my professors (ex-Recon) who was on Guadalcanal said that the Reising was quite reliable as long as you kept it clean. Which was just a bit difficult on “the Canal”. When the Army showed up, they brought lots of everything, including Thompsons, and he was very happy to acquire one to replace the Reising he’d initially gone ashore with.

      cheers

      eon

      • Good point about Reising’s being intended for the police market. Was it, and S&W’s effort, an attempt to offer something to police forces concerned about being out gunned by Bonnie and Clyde types, while not looking too threatening to civilians? I.e., be more of a carbine than a sub machine gun?

        Post war Reising’s ended up with law enforcement agencies–in Keith’s Six Guns books there are a few photos of the Border Patrol practicing with them. And I’ve read accounts of them being in police vaults to this day. But I take it they were more for raids and stake outs. Post war US police went with shot guns to keep in the patrol car, breifly flirted with pistol cartridge carbines (beside’s Ruger’s attempt, years ago didn’t Colt make a 9mm AR aimed at law enforcement?) then went to AR’s when it turned out that the over penetration danger was over blown.

        But still, S&W’s choice of 9mm for the domestic market is a puzzle. Unless they had plans on entering the 9mm semi-auto market in the 1940’s before WWII got in the way. Then cash heavy ex-servicemen kept S&W busy with revolvers until the 1950’s when S&W did start producing 9mm semi autos, and there were some early adopters before the late 1980’s stampede.

        • I’ve sometimes wondered if the S&W Light Rifle design might have originally been developed around the .35 S&W auto cartridge;

          http://www.shootingtimes.com/files/2010/09/st_sw-.35_d.jpg

          In the photo, it’s the middle one, with the .32 ACP to its left and the .380 ACP to its right. While nominally a .32 caliber, dimensionally it was closer to the 9 x 17mm “Short”.

          When the British Purchasing Commission wanted a “machine carbine”, they may have simply revised a pre-existing design to a more “European” caliber.

          BTW, the fact that the LR was semi-auto only may stem from that nomenclature. The British armed forces referred to submachine guns as “machine carbines” until the 1950s, and even when they adopted the nomenclature everyone else had used since 1918 they wrote it “sub-machine gun”. To American designers, the term “machine carbine” would have meant something entirely different; a self-loading weapon that wasn’t necessarily either pistol caliber or selective-fire. And of course, to a German designer, the equivalent term (Maschinenkarabiner) meant a totally different class of weapon; the selective-fire “assault rifle” firing an intermediate-power riflecartridge from a fully-locked breech.

          Another possibility was that the Light Rifle was originally intended for the .38 ACP or .38 Super round. Both were popular with U.S. law enforcement in the Twenties and Thirties, in fact the “Super” was developed as a high-velocity load for the 1911A1 that could pierce auto coachwork, something even the .38/44 Remington and .38 Winchester Superspeed had some problems with.

          In .38 Super, the Light Rifle might have filled a perceived, if not necessarily real, need in U.S. law enforcement.

          Frankly, a Winchester M1907 in .351 WSL would have been a better choice overall. And perhaps not coincidentally, Winchester sold a lot of ’07s over the years, mainly to police departments, armored car companies, banks, and prisons.

          cheers

          eon

          • I bet you’re right. According to this article http://www.shootingtimes.com/2011/01/03/handgun_reviews_smith_wessons_35_automatic_010310/ the .35 S&W pistol could fire .32 ACP’s and the two cartridge’s were very similar (the .35 was 80gr at 825 FPS), which would not likely have broken the rifle after 1,000 rounds or 10,000 rounds. Put a hot 9mm in a gun designed for .32 ACP, and yeah there might be a problem. After introducing it in 1913, S&W dropped the .35 pistol for WWI war production, then it started again after WWI up into the 1920’s. So the rifle design started up ~ 15 years after the .35 S&W had stopped production, no doubt the designers knew it well. What was basically a .32 ACP in a 9 lb rifle: the ultimate arm for the recoil sensitive.

            When you mentioned the .35 S&W I remembered a photo in Sixguns by Keith of a S&W .35 automatic (it is on page 34). It was one of Elmer Keith’s many randomly placed and unexplained photos, and it always struck me as being a goofy looking gun, without much of a grip angle and a middle finger “grip” safety. Had never looked into it before, looks like it would make a good Forgotten Weapon for Ian. The article above said that it was extremely well made, but had bad ergonomics and they were surprised that anyone purchased one given the Browning designed Colt’s that were available.

          • Jacob;

            I had another thought. What if the reason S&W thought their LR design could handle 9 x 19mm was that they were working, not with the full-power loads, but either U.S. commercial 9mm “Luger” or even Italian (captured) 9mm Glisenti?

            U.S. 9mm was loaded with 125 grain bullets to 1150 and about 340 FPE at the muzzle. This is significantly weaker than the standard European loadings of the day, about 1350-1400 and over 500 FPE with proportionately greater pressures.

            The 1910-vintage Glisenti load, intended for the Glisenti and Brixia delayed-blowbck pistols and the Beretta M1921/23 series straight-blowbacks, is even weaker, with a 124-grain FMJ at 285-290 M/S (935-950 FPS) and around 240-250 FPE; .38 Special standard-velocity ballistics and pressures.

            The LRs might have stood up reasonably well to such loads, if that was what they were tested with. And come apart in very short order when fired with the much more emphatic and pressure-intensive standard 9mm service ammunition once they got to England.

            Just a guess, take it for what it’s worth.

            cheers

            eon

        • Jacob – as far as the “puzzle” of the Smith 9mm goes… a 1960s S&W M39 is quite simply the most elegant and ergonomic semiautomatic pistol ever made. Not the most rugged, not the best combat-ready… it was the semi-auto equivalent of a K-frame revolver, and either you grew up with the Target Masterpiece and Combat Magnum or you didn’t. Somebody at Smith looked at a Walther P-38 in 1946 and said “What is would a K-38 look like in a 9mm semiauto?”

      • Hmmm, that tube ejection lark might seem a more logical design if you imagine firing it through a firing port in say an armoured car with a bag collecting the brass below save it from pinging around perhaps.

    • “A few things to think about: as a police rifle, it was sort of before it’s time–wasn’t Ruger selling 9mm and 40 cal “patrol” rifles a few years ago that took pistol magazines?”

      Marlin also made their “Camp Carbine” which came in 9x19mm and .45acp. If I remember correctly, they used S&W pistol magazines.

  8. Externally it vaguely resembles a United Defense M42 I think, that had two magazines rather than the tube thing though… What about like now, say if you shot someone empty cases leave evidence. Well maybe the tube thing was to allow you to shoot some Germans without leaving any evidence, possibly.

    • The dead Germans full of holes should be plenty evidence. The German occupation forces weren’t exactly known for their meticulous forensics work.

      • Oh yeah, dead Germans d’oh…

        Still you could dress them up as scarecrows or something, on your way to win the war single handedly and be back in time for tea and medals.

  9. The British angle put it all in to focus… I kept waiting for dead parrots and the Spanish Inquisition. (Of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!) I haven’t laughed that hard since the last time I watched a Texas Congressional debate! That’s not a dead parrot, that’s a winter trigger! The ultimate two-gun practical… one of these and a Smith .35 pocket automatic!

  10. That is what results when you ask a revolver maker to design and make a self-loading carbine for you. Probably the only thing it has going for it is the inclusion of a plastic buttstock. Aside from that…(slowly slinking away)

  11. You made a few mistakes in the video. The gun shown is the earlier Mark I variant and not the later Mark II. Also the “winter trigger” is actually the safety. The safety is one of the changes made between the two marks, the lever on the Mark I being replaced by a slot in the receiver on the Mark II, as the British wanted a safety that would lock the bolt back.

  12. Almost certainly designed for police/security customers circa late 1930’s. Note the more than passing resemblance to the then most popular 37mm tear gas gun for police, the Lake Erie Chemical Company M37. Lake Erie Company was even later acquired by S&W.

  13. According to Ian Skennerton’s lists of British contracts for small arms in WWII,a contract was signed on 27 June 1940 for 2,200 guns at $85 each, which would make it a good deal cheaper than the Thompson, which sold at $200+ to foreign customers, although by the end of 1940 the British had got the price down to about $140 it seems.
    I have been looking at a War Office file about the procurement of Thompsons. Delivery was fairly slow, Auto-Ordnance had trouble getting large-scale production off the ground, and by September, when invasion seemed imminent, only about 10,000 had actually arrived in Britain. So the British were looking at other sources of SMGs and it seems that early in 1940 negotiations with Beretta were well advanced. The Beretta 38A was no doubt an excellent gun and would have served the Britsh as well as the Thompson, but it seems rather naive to think that Mussolini’s Italy could ever be a reliable supplier.

  14. Re the price: the British had advanced S&W $1,000,000 to speed up design and production, so it seems possible that this money was deducted from the contract price, which would otherwise have been $135 or so.

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