Vickers “K” – For Aircraft and the SAS/Long Range Desert Group

The Vickers “K” Class gun – also known as the Vickers Gas Operated – was the gun the Vickers company thought would replace the heavy water-cooled Vickers and allow them to remain primary machine gun supplier to the British army. The design actually came from the French designer Berthier, who has expected it to be adopted by the French Army – when it wasn’t he sold his rights and patents to the Vickers company. Much to their surprise, in British light machine gun trials of the 1930s it was beaten by the Czech ZB-26! So the Vickers company pivoted, and decided to up the gun’s rate of fire and offer it to the air force as an observer’s gun to replace the Lewis. In this it was successful (and it would also be adopted as an infantry gun by the Indian Army).

The Vickers K is probably best known for its use by the SAS/LRDG raiders in North Africa. For them, the high rate of fire was ideal, and the guns were available from disabled aircraft (and not easily converted to an infantry configuration).


  1. Having fired a lot of rounds from aircraft in my younger days, those front sights are an amazingly elegant mechanical solution to a really complex dynamic problem (relative motions and speeds, range, trajectory shift, bank angle, gyroscopic precession, and on and on). The theory is all straight forward of course, but when it comes to “Oh crap, hit that thing at 2 o’çlock right now!!!!” while maneuvering, that all goes out the window. Really, really clever!

      • Yes, it is done by making sure his head is still attached where it was supposed to be positioned. But on the more serious side, yes, there were – scores of such methods. The most simple and still in use (check e.g. the helicopter and naval flexible M134 Minigun mounts) is by using limiter cams to physically bar the gun pintle from turning into prohibited zones inside the field of fire (cone) accessible by the gun muzzle. Firing a bullet of two into the rudder is really kleine Fische compared to shooting off one’s tail rotor! Or shipbourne air-defense radars.

        • “using limiter cams to physically bar the gun pintle from turning into prohibited zones inside the field of fire”

          But you have to actually use them! When I was in Mogadishu the UH-60 unit there had 4 aircraft hit by small arms fire. One was a single round straight through the tail boom that thankfully hit nothing important. One was a rifle round accidently fired by a passenger in the cabin. One was a round fired by a door gunner during a bank that hit the tip of a rotor blade, and the fourth was another door gunner who hit the aircraft’s external stores support. So 3 of 4 came from within the aircraft. The limiters restricted the guns to such an extremely narrow range that most crews removed them with a misplaced confidence.

  2. What’s the device on the top of the bolt, that looks almost like a second extractor?

    Does it flip up to help strip cartridges forward from the magazine?

  3. “(…)the gun the Vickers company thought would replace the heavy water-cooled Vickers and allow them to remain primary machine gun supplier to the British army.(…)British light machine gun trials of the 1930s it was beaten by the Czech ZB-26(…)”
    According to Vickers-Berthier Machine Gun entry in
    The first such guns produced were in the form of light machine rifles. They were put on the market commercially, engaging in competitive tests in many of the Balkan States and in the 1 hitch East Indies. The Latvian military authorities adopted the light machine rifle chambered for their infantry rifle cartridge. In the Dutch East Indies test, the Vickers-made Berthier bested the field but no contract was received because the Dutch Government thought it more economical to manufacture a modified royalty-free Lewis gun in its own government arsenal. Spain bought a number of the weapons for use in Morocco and many South American republics purchased them in limited quantities. They were also adopted officially by the Indian Army. Actually the sum total of sales was only enough to keep this part of the Vickers Co. operating at a bare profit.

  4. “(…)Vickers K is probably best known for its use by the SAS/LRDG raiders in North Africa. For them, the high rate of fire was ideal, and the guns were available from disabled aircraft(…)”
    Also, during WW2, muscle-trained aircraft machine guns were becoming obsolete, as were replaced by powered turrets. Vickers K was used in first manner, whilst machine guns used in second manner were generally belt-fed. Thus beyond disabled aircraft they could be sourced from aircrafts which were written-off as obsolete.

    • Correct. The main RAF aircraft armed with VGOs were multi-seat, open-cockpit biplanes such as the Westland Wapiti, and early monoplane two-or-three-seat bombers, like the Vickers Wellesley. Few of these were still in service after about 1941, although the Wellesley formed the backbone of RAF bombing units in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Iran).

      However, the only British biplane combat aircraft used right through the war, the Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber used by the Fleet Air Arm, still mounted an 0.303in Lewis gun in its rear “pit”.



    • There were plenty of belt-fed machine guns used in WW2 in manually trained positions, most notably the MG 13 and M2 Browning already before the war, and the MG 81, even in double mounts later during the war. Single .50 caliber class weapons were also often manually trained, including MG 131 in many mid and late war German aircraft, 12.7 mm UB in Soviet aircraft (Il-2 and Il-10 being the most numerous cases) and even .50 cal M2 Browning in some US Navy aircraft and the waist positions of B-17.

      As a rule one might say that it was not belt feed, but the number of guns per position which forced the use of power traverse. Typically four rifle caliber or at least two 12.7/13mm guns required a powered turret. On the other, the Germans and the Japanese installed even 20mm cannon in manually trained positions. This was possible because the 20mm aircaft autocannons used in such manner were fairly light.

      • I have to correct myself: MG 13 was not an aircraft gun. I meant MG 15, which was actually not belt but drum fed.

  5. One of the first things Arthur Harris did when he took command of Bomber Command was buy enough Vickers K’s to double the firepower of some of the pricey coffins the RAF was flying; the Hadley Page Hampden was the one I clearly remember reading about. He did this without any authority and he might have had to pay for them himself.

    These also served at sea; both with the RAF’s rescue boats and the Royal Navy’s MTB’s, always twin mounted in the pictures I remember.

  6. Ian, the SAS, Special Air Service, and Long Range Desert Groop had been two different organisations. The Long Range Desert Groop was mainly doing reconnissanc. There was watching for weeks the roads, not fitting with raiding. The SAS was doing the raiding thing.

  7. Hi – hope everyone is both safe and sane. Speaking of machine guns, may I call your attention to a book appearing on Project Gutenberg entitled Machine-Gun Tactics by Captain R. V. K. Applin D.S.O – 14th (King’s) Hussars – published in 1910. With information on most of the machine guns in use by the major armies. A lot of the informations deals with the use of machine guns by the cavalry.

  8. Hi Ian,
    Glad to see my old copy of “Sniping In The Great War”
    on the shelf over your right shoulder. Hope you found it useful.
    As an ex-door gunner on UH gunships in Vietnam, I found the sights interesting. We kept it simple…. a M60 with a 100-rd assault pack clipped to the side and standard 4&1 ammo, using the tracers to get on target. We removed the bipods and front sight to lessen the weight and wind resistance when hanging out the door while tethered with a 3-foot strap.

  9. In the pix of the SAS jeeps, you can also see some captured 8 mm Bredas mounted on pedestals (improvised?) to provide something a little heavier than .303.

    • “…to provide something a little heavier than .303…”(C)

      Rather, “to provide at least something.”
      This, after all, was “air service”.
      So they ate what they could take in the warehouses of the RAF.
      Namely, machine guns that have become unnecessary. Well, all those unnecessary trophies shared by the ground forces.
      Ammunition 7.92 could be used in BESA machine guns, therefore (against the background of a general supply shortage) everything went for tankers.
      And trophy “exotic”, like Italian trash, went for special, “irregular” and other friendly forces operating behind enemy lines.

      I wonder if BREN was really that much better or cheaper than this Vickers?
      It seems to me that there was no “substantial superiority”. And they “just” tried to reduce the number of models produced, to simplify training and support…

      • Calling the Breda Mod. 37 a piece of trash is a bit harsh. At the very least, it was based on the Hotchkiss design (gas-operation, open-bolt, long-stroke) and proved reliable if it was given good quality ammunition. One other thing about the Breda Mod 37 was that the idiosyncratic extraction method (putting the cartridge casing back into the feed strip after firing) prevented hot brass from flying around (would you like to get cartridge casings down your pants?).

        • The key to all this is “good quality ammunition in sufficient quantity.”
          Where are you going to get ammunition in the African desert? Are you going to trade the Bedouins for salt?
          And even if you have enough charging clips and they are in good working order (and this does not last long), each time before equipping them, they must be freed from the used brass.
          In that situation and for the SAS mission, these machine guns were downright shit.
          But, as said, there was nowhere else to take.

          And if you’re afraid of brass in your pants…
          well, don’t wear them. 😉

        • The trouble with re-placing the spent cases in the strip was that the gun team’s number 2 had to be very quick at getting them OUT again and reloading with live rounds. Another fault mentioned by John Masters.

          Having used both the l4 and the M60GPMG I’d suggest that putting up with hot brass – once the sepoys got trousers – was a lot easier than reloading a strip filled with expended and still-HOT cases. Think about it, eh?

          I was a Sergeant in the Australian Army during the Vietnam War and for a few years later. Acting CSM, too.

          I’m now the honorary CSM of the RMC Duntroon Guides.

      • Stiven:

        The Bren and VB were roughly equivalent, and either would have done a good job. The VB’s service with the Indian army is proof of this.

        The main difference was that the VB would have been made by Vickers, a private company, and the Bren was made by Royal Ordnance, a state owned company. Now who do you think was best placed to win a British government contract?

  10. The Indian Army felt rather put upon when during WWII they were re-equipped with Brens after their VBs wore out.

    Given that the same action including the same bolt, was used in the VGO.

    My background is as a Marksman in the Australian Army, and we – some of us – did spend time with the Indian Army!

    So says John Masters of Bhowani Junction fame.

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