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WWII

The Guns That Won – British And American Small Arms Of WW2

A tour of some of the most well-known and widely-used Allied guns of the Second World War

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In ‘Normandy ‘44’, James Holland debunks what he says is a persistent myth: that German soldiers in World War 2 had far better weaponry than their opponents.

Part of this myth stems from the tendency of American troops to fetishize the enemy’s 9mm Luger P08 pistol, he says.

Holland also explains that, while it was a perfectly adequate semi-automatic handgun, it did not outperform its Allied equivalents. In fact, if anything, the American Colt .45 was the superior weapon.

Of course, when seeing Allied spies like Clint Eastwood’s Lieutenant Schaffer in ‘Where Eagles Dare’ or Brad Pitt’s ‘Inglorious Bastards’ lay waste to Nazi enemies using their own weapons against them, it’s tempting to think, in this case, that the German MP40 submachine gun must have been a spectacularly good weapon.

But then, of course, the Hollywood treatment is seldom true to life.

What follows is an assessment of the main British and American small arms used during the war, and a comparison of their various strengths and weaknesses.

RIFLES

For the British, the standard infantryman’s main weapon – his rifle – was very similar and, in some cases, completely identical to what it had been in World War 1.

This was the SMLE, or Short Magazine Lee-Enfield – or, to be completely precise, the ‘Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield’. Its name derived from its relatively short barrel, since the weapon was designed to be a compromise between the carbines that had traditionally been issued to cavalry and the standard rifles that were given to their counterparts in the infantry. Thanks to the SMLE, both arms could have the same weapon as of 1902 onwards.

The Number 1, Mark III variant used in the First World War was introduced in 1907 and it compared favourably with other rifles. German Mausers and American Springfields, for instance, had a magazine capacity of only five rounds, whereas the SMLE could carry 10 in its magazine, and be loaded with an 11th round in the chamber. What’s more, the Lee-Enfield’s short bolt facilitated rapid fire since a soldier didn’t need to move his face away and then back again each time he worked the bolt and recycled the chamber.

This feature helped British Tommies achieve the ‘mad minute’, the standard of 15-aimed shots fired every minute of continuous fire, something made possible not only by the design of the SMLE but also the use of stripper clips. (For an illustration of the technique of speed loading and firing of the rifle, see the video embedded in this article). 

When World War 2 started, many No. 1 Mark III Lee-Enfields were thrown back into circulation, though this wasn’t enough to supply all troops and a No. 4 Mark I version was produced at the cost of £17 and 15 shillings, or £258 in today’s money, according to ‘Martin Pegler’ in ‘The Lee-Enfield Rifle’. (He says that the No. 1 Mark III versions had cost £3 15 shillings - £188 today – when they were made in World War 1).

Telling the No. 1 and No. 4 versions apart is easy when looking at the barrel, since the former had a relatively flat profile whilst the latter featured a barrel that stuck out noticeably beyond the edge of the wooden body of the rifle. Counter-intuitively, the No. 1 version was actually slightly longer at 44.57 inches, as opposed to 44.45 for the No. 4. Weight varied slightly too, with the No. 1 Mark III being 8.73 lb and the No. 4 Mark I being 9.06 lb.

A clip from ‘Saving Private Ryan’ that shows Tom Hanks using a Thompson submachine gun, Edward Burns using a BAR, Matt Damon with an M1 Garand and Barry Pepper, as Private Jackson, with a Springfield rifle, as well as a .30-calibre machine gun in action

The American First World War rifle, meanwhile, was the M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle. (M means ‘model’, while the number refers to the year it was introduced).

With a five-round magazine, it had a lower rate of fire than the Lee-Enfield, in part because it had to be reloaded more often.

On the other hand, in ‘The M1903 Springfield Rifle’, Leroy Thompson points out that it was generally acknowledged to have been the most accurate rifle of the First World War.

During the Second, it often found its way into the hands of snipers, and is used by Private Jackson in the clip from ‘Saving Private Ryan’ just above.

It was not, however, unlike the British experience, re-issued and remanufactured on the same scale in the Second World War as it had been in the First.

That’s because the Americans, by contrast, came into World War 2 with an entirely new service rifle. The M1 Garand was notable for being semi-automatic, meaning that it could be fired repeatedly, without the need to recycle and eject shell casings after each shot like a bolt action rifle. (When the British got hold of one in 1939, it was dubbed the YSL, ‘Yankee Self Loader’. Self-loading means that the rifle ejected a spent shell casing and pushed the next round into the chamber ready to fire after each shot, without the firer having to do so manually by cycling the bolt, like on the Lee-Enfield and most other rifles at the time).

This, along with its double-column stripper clip that could be loaded from either end, gave the Garand a high rate of fire, perhaps 30 rounds a minute of continuous shooting. In ‘The M1 Garand’, Leroy Thompson explains that Germans on the receiving end of Garand fire were surprised by how rapid it was, and that some, like those fired on by ‘mad-minute’-trained Tommies at Mons in 1914, mistook concentrated rifle shots for machine gun fire.

The semi-automatic feature also made it ideal for firing from the hip when closing with an enemy position during an attack, or when the enemy was closing with you. Thompson refers to Colonel John George’s book ‘Shots Fired in Anger’ which reports that the continuous fire of the Garand helped save American lives in the Pacific where US Marines faced close-quarter charges from massed Japanese soldiers. 

In this sense, the rifle’s apparent disadvantages, such as its fairly heavy weight of about 10 pounds and the inability to top it up with extra bullets halfway through a magazine, actually helped. The weight reduced its recoil, and thus facilitated its high rate of fire, and not being able to get individual rounds into the breech helped to keep it clean and thus functional. (Rifles that got too much dirt into them were liable to jam).

It fired the .30-06 (‘thirty-aught-six’) rifle round, which meant that the bullet was .30 of an inch in diameter across its base, and that it was adopted in the year 1906. (This compares with the British rifle round which was .303 of an inch – so both were close to 7.62 millimetres wide, which was the size of the standard post-war NATO bullet up until 1980 when the 5.56 millimetre round was adopted).

There was also the ‘Baby Garand’, otherwise known as the M1 Carbine

This was designed as a shorter, handier, more lightweight version of the Garand to be issued to troops who could benefit from a lighter weapon because they had a lot of equipment to carry. Machine gun or artillery crews, for instance, were the sort of people the designers had in mind.

In this sense, the nickname Baby Garand is perfectly correct, and the playful nature of the nickname goes together well with the fact that one of its manufacturers – Rock-Ola – was a jukebox company. This, Leroy Thompson explains in ‘The M1 Carbine’, led some soldiers to wonder if their guns might shoot and play music.

Though in technical terms, the nickname can be misleading. 

This is because the Carbine fired a different type of ammunition to the Garand - a round longer and thinner than the .45 ACP American pistol round (more below) but also shorter and less long-ranged than the M1 Garand’s .30-06 rifle round*.

(*Although the terms ’round’ and ‘bullet’ are often used interchangeably, technically they are different; bullet is really just the part of the round that is fired out of the gun, whereas round refers to both the shell casing that holds the propellant and the bullet before it is fired).

There were two noteworthy developments in the Carbine worth mentioning here: the first is that the M1A1 variant with a folding stock was issued to paratroopers and was also used by the SAS. The second is that the M2 Carbine came in at the end of the war and had a 30-round magazine and could fire on fully automatic (at a rate of 750 rounds per minute.)

The original M1 version though, like the Garand, was semi-automatic, though with its 15-round magazine, could achieve even higher rates of fire since it required less reloading. (This is why the rate of fire figure for the Carbine has been estimated at 45 per minute in the table below, slightly more than the Garand).

Another clip from Saving Private Ryan showing Edward Burns’ Private Reiben with his BAR, as well as Tom Sizemore’s Sergeant Horvath with an M1 Carbine

An even higher rate of fire was achieved by the BAR, or Browning Automatic Rifle. Theoretically, that is – though Gordon L Rottman and Stephen Bull point out in ‘Infantry Tactics of the Second World War’ that its full-automatic fire of 350 or 550 rounds per minute was seldom sustained so as to prevent the barrel overheating. In practice, then, the BAR might have an actual rate of fire of only 60 rounds per minute.

In some ways, one might think of the BAR as a forerunner of today’s assault rifles, though it was always intended to be a support weapon rather than a standard-issue rifle, and the German StG 44 is thus generally acknowledged to be the first true assault rifle.

Part of the reason it differed significantly from standard rifles like the Garand or its predecessor the Springfield is that, at around 20 pounds, the BAR was roughly twice as heavy.

In fact, this exact point is referenced early on in the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ where US Rangers have emerged on Omaha Beach under a hail of German machine gun fire. In the process, some have been dragged under the water by heavy equipment as they’ve dived over the sides of landing craft to avoid the German bullets. 

So when Sergeant Horvath comes together with Private Reiben, a squad BAR man, and asks, “Where’s your BAR?”, he gets this response:

“Bottom of the Channel sir, the b**ch tried to drown me.”

Size was also a factor for BAR men themselves. In ‘The Browning Automatic Rifle’, Robert R Hodges Jr explains that, ideally, the soldier or marine carrying the weapon would have been small, since it was advantageous to present the enemy with as small a profile as possible. BAR men were prime targets for enemy snipers along with officers, a testament to the power of the weapon. So perhaps the 6’1” Edward Burns was miscast as Private Reiben, unless the character was selected for his aggressiveness over his size, something Hodges says was considered even more important.

In the film, Reiben soon locates another BAR, though sometimes the weapon was missing in action for the duration of a film. Since US Marine squads reorganised so that each of their three four-man teams had a BAR, Hodges suggests the weapon should have received more screen time than it has in any movie about the late stages of the war set in the Pacific.

He also has this to say about the gangster film ‘Bonnie and Clyde’:

“It is well established that Clyde Barrow never used a Thompson submachine gun; it was his use of BARs that gave the Barrow Gang the edge over the police. If the gang had been armed with Thompsons at Platte City they may never have got past the police armored car or the officers protected by steel shields.”

What Hodges is referring to is the trade off between penetration and stopping power delivered by bullets. Rifle rounds, which were fired by the BAR, were longer than pistol bullets. They therefore travelled more quickly through the air (this is referred to as muzzle velocity) and punched deeper into obstacles. Clyde Barrow was therefore better off with his real-life BAR when trying to shoot through police cars and shields.

But he might have been better off with the fictional Tommy Gun carried by his big-screen counterpart Warren Beatty if he’d found himself on the receiving end of Japanese banzai charge. As Leroy Thompson relates in ‘The M1 Carbine’, some US Marines who survived these large-scale human-wave attacks reported that rifle rounds, which went straight through their enemies, didn’t always stop Japanese soldiers as effectively as Tommy gun rounds (more below.) 

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US Marines fight off Japanese soldiers with a Thompson submachine gun (top), BAR (right) and M1 Garand (bottom left) (image from ‘The Thompson Submachine Gun’ by Martin Pegler © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

MACHINE GUNS

During the Anglo-Zulu War of the late 19th Century, one Zulu is said to have remarked that his people couldn’t possibly have won against British soldiers who could simply ‘turn something round’ and kill vast multitudes.

He was referring to the handle turned by those manning Gatling guns, which, by the First World War, had evolved into the Maxim, then Maxim-Vickers and then Vickers machine gun. In Europe too, the machine gun would of course radically alter the nature of war, forcing men into trenches and knocking them down in vast numbers when they emerged.

Water cooled and heavy, the Vickers immobility didn’t stop it having an impact over vast distances because map-predicted fire, a kind of indirect shooting, could be used to blanket a given area and deny it to the enemy.

In ‘The World’s Greatest Small Arms’, Chris McNab explains that this was done with cones of fire in which machine-gun bullets fired in an arc would drop off at the end of their range. The area within the cone would start nearer the gun, where falling bullets would strike advancing enemy soldiers in the head, and end at the far end of the arc where they would strike their feet.

During the Second World War, the Germans replaced their heavy machine guns with the far more portable MG 34 and MG 42. The British, meanwhile, kept the Vickers because it was thought that its indirect fire was still effective for supporting attacks – the newer Bren gun (see below) could instead give frontline troops direct automatic fire support.

That, at least, is how Martin Pegler explains things in ‘The Vickers-Maxim Machine Gun’.

He quotes historian P K Kemp from his book ‘The History of the Middlesex Regiment 1919-1952’, who said that:

“It was the intention that they should cover every inch of the ground over which a divisional attack was to pass, bullets, shells or bombs covering the area like pepper coming out of a pot.”

When these principles were applied, Pegler says they were remarkably effective, being used in conjunction with mortars and 20mm cannons to support, for instance, the Allied attack on Caen during the Battle of Normandy.

Wartime footage showing a demonstration of Vickers gun firing

The Americans had a similar World-War-1 holdover in the form of the M1919A4 Browning machine gun.

As Gordon L Rottman explains in ‘Browning .30 Caliber Machine Guns’, the M1919 wasn’t a First World War weapon, per se, though it traced its origins to the M1917, which was.

The M1919 was lighter than its predecessor because it war air rather than water cooled, though this meant it was also more prone to overheating. When machine guns fired for too long, beyond the capability of their water or air-cooled designs to cope, their barrels were liable to overheat and they might stop firing altogether.

This is why there was sometimes a difference between a gun’s textbook rate of fire and its actual rate of fire. For the M1919A4, that was up to 550 rounds per minute, or 9.17 rounds per second. 

In practice, gunners usually fired in shorter bursts to prevent overheating. (For their part, Vickers guns were good at firing continuously, as can be seen on the video above, because they were water cooled).

It was also common practice for the British and Americans to use each others’ weapons, and the Browning machine gun was no exception – a longer barrelled, faster-firing version re-chambered for the British .303-inch round was used to arm British planes like the Hurricane and Spitfire.

Most machine guns fired rifle-sized bullets, which helps account for their long ranges, and in the case of the M1919A4, this was the .30-06 bullet used in M1903 Springfields and M1 Garands. 

jeep and Browning .30 calibre machine gun from Shutterstock
A Browning M1919 .30-calibre gun shown on a World-War-2-era jeep (image: Robert Sarnowski, Shutterstock, 1678946968)

But there was one weapon that used an even larger round: the American M2 .50-Calibre Browning machine gun.

As a comparison, the .30-06 round (which was actually a .308-inch round), was 7.8mm wide and 85mm long. The .50-calibre BMG (Browning Machine Gun) round was half an inch (or 12.7mm) in diameter at its base and 99mm, or just under 10 centimetres, long.

Rottman opens his book on this machine gun with the following:

“Witnessing the downrange effects of the .50-cal bullet is an eye-opening experience. Bullets punch right through 14in- and 16in-diameter trees, crack through cinderblocks, penetrate two sandbags and foxhole parapets in one go, and hole 1in-thick armor plate, and that was just the standard ball round.”

“Ball round” means the standard round fired by a gun (ball being derived from the historical period when bullets literally were balls), and not, say, an armour-piercing round, which would have even more penetrative power.

Like the M1919 and the Thompson submachine gun (see below), the .50-calibre Browning had its origins in World War 1. Commander of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) General John Pershing had called for the development of a high-calibre machine gun. He wanted something that could effectively hit aircraft, tanks and enemy artillery crews in the distance.

The Germans too showed what could be done. 

In response to the Allied tank threat that had emerged at the Somme in 1916, the Germans developed the Tank Abwehr Gewehr Mod. 18, or ‘Tank Defense Model 18’. This colossal, single-shot rifle weighed 35.27 pounds (as much as a machine gun, minus its tripod) and was 1.68 metres, or around 5’6”, long, roughly the height of an average British soldier at the time.

It fired a rifle cartridge that was 13.2 by 92mm and could shoot through one-inch-thick armour from 250 yards away. The Americans got hold of this .525-calibre cartridge in early 1918, and began developing their own .50-calibre version in the 1920s for what was to essentially be a scaled-up Browning .30-calibre machine gun.

As the years went by, the basic design was continuously tweaked, and, although the various branches of the US military had their complaints about the .50 cal initially, it eventually became, as the M2 from 1933 onwards, the versatile weapon they all needed. Aircraft needed it to shoot down other aircraft, which were getting better armoured and therefore beyond the capability of the .30-calibre guns to penetrate; coastal defence, the US Navy, artillery and tanks could all use it as an anti-aircraft gun, and the cavalry and infantry could use it for anti-tank purposes, either mounted on a vehicle, or on the ground atop a tripod.

The M2 was later adapted into the AN-M3 and used in jet aircraft such as the F-84 Thunderjet and the F-86 Sabre during the Korean War. In fact, Browning’s .50-calibre machine gun is still in service today.

50 Cal Machine gun image from Shutterstock
An M2 .50-calibre machine gun shown on a tripod (image: Fred Mastison, Shutterstock, 613427210)

On the other end of the scale, the Second World War also saw the use of light machine guns such as the British Bren gun

Unlike the American belt-fed Browning machine guns, the Bren had magazine-fed ammunition, in a box of 30 rounds - though 28 were often loaded to prevent jamming, according to Neil Grant in ‘The Bren Gun’.

This continued the tradition the British had developed in World War 1 of having a larger, tripod mounted and belt-fed machine gun behind the troops, and a magazine-fed one that could be carried easily into action with them. (These roles were performed by the Vickers and Lewis gun in the First World War). This enabled the British to avoid the logistical difficulties of designing an entirely new disintegrating belt (Vickers guns were fed with non-disintegrating ones that would have got caught up in gunners’ legs or battlefield obstacles if they’d been used with Bren guns.)

In this sense, the Bren gun was more akin to the American BAR, though its quick-change barrel and higher magazine capacity meant that it could sustain a high rate of fire for far longer. Grant says of this feature:

“A quick-change barrel was not unique to the Bren: the Belgian firm of FN had been producing a version of the BAR with a quick-change barrel, and quick-change barrels were a key feature of the German MG 34 and its successor, the MG 42. However, the Bren barrel design was better than either, since it could be done in only a few seconds by a well-trained crew, and the carrying handle attached to the barrel meant that the changeover could be accomplished without the felt pads required by the MG 34 design.”

In fact, Grant suggests that had the later American M-60 (used in Vietnam) incorporated the idea of the Bren’s carrying handle, instead of being largely based on the German MG34/42, it might have ended up with a barrel that was easier to switch out.

Not that Brens were always fired on fully automatic, mind you. Neil quotes one marine, James Kelly of 41 (Royal Marine) Commando who made good use of the gun’s semi-automatic mode:

“You could see clumps of them moving about and I kept firing. Then it died down and I switched the gun to single rounds, which was the drill to do. You fired bursts when you had a good target to shoot at but the Bren was always used to confuse the enemy – that was what we were taught – so that the enemy wouldn’t know if it was a machine gun firing at them or a rifle.”

As with the MG34 and 42 used by German infantry, the Bren also allowed for the entire reorganisation of British platoons. 

During the First World War, the introduction of the Lewis gun made platoons more self-sufficient, and they were broken down into four mutually-supporting sections: a rifle section, a hand-grenade-throwing section, a rifle-grenade-firing section and a Lewis-gun section. By World War 2, British sections were entirely self-sufficient (divided into rifle and Bren gun teams), with each platoon consisting of three of these independently deployable units.

In World War 2, sections normally consisted of between seven and 15 men, and platoons of around 40 men – for more on unit sizes and battlefield tactics, click here.

HANDGUNS

Not every hostile encounter took place at a distance, and when the enemy got up close, sometimes pistols were the best option.

For this, the Americans had the Colt M1911, updated after World War 1 to the M1911A1, though both types were used in World War 2.

The 1911 was noteworthy for its high-calibre, heavy rounds, of which it carried seven in a magazine in its handle.

This became an important factor as soon as the pistol first saw action, in 1913 during the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines. (The Americans had acquired the Philippines when they took over Spain’s colonies after winning the Spanish-American War).

While any bullet can do serious damage, in a military situation where large numbers of enemy soldiers are charging at and desperately trying to kill you, it would seem that a more powerful round did make a difference. 

At least, that was the experience of American troops in the Philippines, and then in the trenches of World War 1, who, Leroy Thompson relates in ‘The Colt 1911 Pistol’, complained that guns with lower calibres left shot enemies continuing to come at them. (This might have had something to do with the fact that Moros’ energy and fighting abilities were enhanced by drugs, as Robert Maze points out in ‘The Webley Service Revolver’).

Thompson says of the 1911:

“A lot of the appeal of the Colt 1911 can be summed up in two words: stopping power. The 1911 fires a 230-grain bullet which delivers a lot of punch … To put … the fully jacketed 230-grain .45 APC (Automatic Colt Pistol) … load in perspective, through much of its military history, enemy handguns were in 9x19mm Parabellum and fired a 115-grain bullet – half the weight of the .45.”

It was the norm for British officers to purchase their own handguns in the days leading up to and including the First World War, and many chose to arm themselves with Colt 1911s. (Though ones rechambered for the .455 British heavy-calibre pistol round).

Colt 1911 from Gerald R Ford Presidential Museum 750px-Pistol_used_by__Squeaky__Fromme
A Colt 1911 (image: Gerald R Ford Presidential Museum)

Many also purchased what would go on to be the standard-issue handgun for the British in the First World War, the Webley Mark VI revolver, which also used a .455 round.

While not as well known or recognised as the Colt 1911, the Webley does make an appearance in the film Zulu, though inaccurately in the form of the Mark VI, which wasn’t introduced until 1915. (In reality, John Chard, one of the British officers at Rorke’s Drift, used an earlier form of the Webley, the RIC model).

Come World War 2, many First-World-War-era Webleys were thrown back into circulation, even as a new revolver, the Enfield .380 No. 2 Mark I, had become the new standard-issue British pistol.

Colt M1911s were also used again, favoured, along with the Browning 9mm automatic pistol – known as the L9A1 in later years – by commandos and special forces.

The old Webley, meanwhile, saw action in the Middle East and in the China-Burma-India theatres, Maze says. He describes the use of a World War 1 Mark VI model by a Royal Australian Artillery Major, L W Bowley, who used it against a Japanese sniper:

“Bowley rejoined his regiment at Arakan in June [1942] and was promoted to major the same month. He was placed in command of a Light Anti-Aircraft battery. During this period, Bowley was shot by a Japanese sniper who was positioned in a tree. The round passed through Bowley’s ribs and missed all of his vital organs. Incensed, Bowley found and killed the Japanese soldier. The Japanese soldier had been using an old single shot rifle, and was unable to reload his weapon before Bowley reached him.”

Webley Mark VI from shutterstock
A Mark VI Webley (image: Jeffrey B. Banke, Shutterstock, 174704807)

SUBMACHINE GUNS

As well as pistols, some troops were armed with hand-held (sub) machine guns, which could also provide a lot of powerful fire at close range.

Submachine guns fire pistol ammunition, and in the case of the Thompson, or ‘Tommy gun’, that meant the same .45 ACP round as the M1911.

Developed after World War 1 and conceived as a kind of ‘trench broom’ that could spray automatic fire at close quarters, the Thompson would see widescale use in World War 2. In ‘The Thompson Submachine Gun’, Martin Pegler says of the weapon:

“It saw combat in every possible type of terrain – desert, mountain, jungle and forest, field and street – and it proved utterly competent in them all. The men who carried the Thompson swore by it and occasionally at it, as it was by no means perfect, but those who were issued with the gun seldom gave it up willingly. The firepower generated by its heavy .45-calibre bullets was second to none, and in close-combat situations a burst from a Thompson would usually resolve the situation immediately and very satisfactorily.”

Pegler relates an eyewitness experience from a man who was hit by a .45 ACP bullet and likened it to being rammed in the shoulder by a telegraph pole hauled by a dozen men.

This might be why, as noted earlier, that some soldiers said the Thompson had better stopping power against Japanese massed wave attacks than the BAR. The lower velocity of the Thompson and Colt 1911 rounds caused them to put all their energy into a target rather than passing through them. 

While you would expect a military situation to involve the intelligent application of force, it is a mark of the particular mass brutality of the Second World War, replete as it was in the Pacific with the use of flame throwers and Kamikaze attacks, that this kind of callous trade off between BARs and Thompsons had to be worked out. 

And, indeed, Pegler relates this quote from a US Marine whose unit married up the two weapons particularly well:

“We worked with the Thompson on point and second squad man with the BAR. When the Tommy-man opened up, the BAR gunner would look for the tracer rounds and then cover with the BAR, while we used rifles. It was a good system as long as the two guys at the front understood each other and the whole squad worked together.”

It could also be advantageous in the close confines of the jungle, for Pegler says that it “cleared jungle vegetation like a scythe … “.

Most people will no doubt recognise the early versions of the Tommy Gun from films about 1930s gangsters, its signature round ammunition drum on display as they blast away at cops and each other.

Though the military found the round drums cumbersome and preferred later variants – the M1928, M1 and M1A1 – with straight, 20 or 30-round box magazines. (40-round magazines were too long, and caused problems for soldiers firing whilst lying on the ground).

It’s this latter type of Thompson that’s used by Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, and British Commandos liked them too. Pegler quotes who used a Thompson during the March 4, 1941, raid on the German docks on the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway. He said:

 “A burst would lift a man off his feet. No-one hit by those bullets ever put up any further resistance.”

Of course, the disadvantage of Thompsons relative to other submachine guns like the M3 ‘Grease Gun’ or the Sten was the cost. Thompsons were carefully manufactured and Pegler says that the British government might pay £56 for one, whereas the cost of making a Sten was roughly £1. (Later Stens might cost more – see the table below).

World war 2 era historical image of Thompson and M3 Grease Gun submachine guns from shutterstock
A Thompson and an M3 submachine gun shown side by side (image: Simon J Beer, Shutterstock, 718273990)

Leroy Thompson, in ‘The M3 “Grease Gun”’, puts the cost at producing this later submachine gun at roughly one fifth the cost of a Thompson - $15 as compared to $70. He says that the cost and production time were also half that of the most-efficiently-produced version of the Thompson, the M1A1.

These were given to troops who needed a compact weapon with good stopping power (it too used the .45 ACP round) and didn’t have to shoot at long ranges: paratroopers, tank crews, truck drivers and some officers ended up with them. With their stocks collapsed, they were as short as 22.8 inches.

Officially, they could shoot up to about 100 yards (91 metres), though Thompson points out that, due to their bullets dropping close to the end of their range, they might have been completely accurate only up to 50 yards. (He also compares it to the M1 Carbine, saying that its range of 300 yards might not have accounted for bullets dropping near the end, and that it too was more likely completely accurate only out to 200 yards).

It’s also noteworthy that, for such a short-ranged, and literally short gun, it was rather disproportionately heavy at almost 10 pounds, the same weight as a full-sized rifle.

While the Americans served in World War 2 with two main submachine guns, the British entered the war without any. This is part of why they ended up with Thompsons, but also why they developed their own – the mass-produced, and very cheap Sten gun.

Danish resistance fighters pick up Sten guns being made in a bicycle shop
A bicycle shop in occupied Denmark converted into a secret Sten gun factory by Danish resistance, one of whom has a Suomi (image from ‘The Sten Gun’ by Leroy Thompson © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Ending up with the Sten wasn’t a foregone conclusion though. The SAC (Small Arms Committee) had considered adopting the Finnish Suomi, which apparently had an excellent reputation. But when the USSR attacked Finland later in 1939, the Finns needed their Suomis for themselves.

In their first stab at making their own submachine gun, Leroy Thompson tells us in ‘The Sten Gun’, they came up with the Lanchester, which was based on (and looks a lot like) the German MP28/II, itself derived from the First World War MP18.

The Lanchester would end up with the RAF and the Royal Navy, but it was unsuited for widespread distribution within the Army. The reason? It was far too difficult to manufacture. Thompson says that, on average, only about 3,400 were produced a month. This compares with the almost 50,000 Mark II Stens that would come out of the BSA plant at Tyseley in one week during 1943.

Not that troops necessarily welcomed the mass-produced Sten. According to Thompson, many derisively referred to it as, the ‘Plumber’s Abortion’, the ‘Plumber’s Nightmare’ and the ‘Stench Gun’.

And in fairness to the troops, it was notoriously unreliable, at least in its early marks. It was liable to jam, and sometimes to go off easily if dropped.

But as Stephen Bull and Gordon L Rottman explain in ‘Infantry Tactics of the Second World War’, many of these early problems had been worked out by 1944, in time for D-Day. The Mark V was the version then in production, a version that would find its way into the hands of British paratroopers, such as those who fought at Arnhem.

And the ease with which the Sten could be made more generally, Thompson points out, enabled not just the British, but resistance groups in occupied territories to make their own. In fact, making it was easy enough that bicycle shops could be converted into little Sten gun factories. The fact that it also fired 9mm pistol ammunition, the same kind used in German submachine and handguns, meant captured or stolen German rounds could be used to supply Sten guns.

Thus, this clever choice of ammo and its simplicity of design, though problematic early on, eventually helped contribute to its mass dissemination amongst Allied troops and resistance fighters, surely one of many contributors to Allied victory in the war. 

STATS

Weapon name/type

Max effective range (in metres)

Weight

(in pounds)

Magazine/

ammo

capacity

Bullet

type

Rifles

Note: the M1 Carbine was a kind of substitute for the M1 Garand but isn’t really a rifle.

No. 4 Mk 1 Lee-Enfield

600

9.06 lb

10 or 11

.303

M1903 Springfield

1,000

8.7 lb

5

.30-06

M1 Garand

500

10 lb

8

.30-06

M1 Carbine

300

5.5 lb

15

.30

BAR

450

20 lb

20 or 40

.30-06

Machine guns

Note: weight for machine guns does not include tripods or any other mounts.

Vickers

2,000

33 – 51 lb

250-round belt

.303

M1919A4 .30 calibre

1,400

31 lb

250-round belt

.30-06

M2HB .50 calibre

2,000 plus

84 lb

110-round belt

.50 BMG

Bren gun Mk II

500

23.19 lb

30

.303

Handguns

 

 

 

 

M1911A1

70

2.44 lb

7

.45 ACP

Mk VI Webley

45

2.4 lb

6

.455

Submachine guns

 

 

 

 

M1A1 Thompson

100

10.44 lb

20 or 30

.45 ACP

M3 ‘Grease Gun’

91

8.9 lb

30

.45 ACP

Sten gun

100

8.75 lb

32

9 mm

Anti-tank tactics from the Bren Gun book from Osprey
A Bren gun fires from a bipod – the other British soldiers have a mortar and Lee-Enfield rifles (image from ‘The Bren Gun’ by Neil Grant © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Weapon name/type

Velocity

(in feet per second)

Rate of

Fire (rounds per minute)

Length

(in inches)

Cost per gun

Rifles

 

No. 4 Mk 1 Lee-Enfield

2,750 fps

15 rpm

44.45

£17 15s

M1903 Springfield

2,805 fps

15 rpm

43.2

$20

M1 Garand

2,800 fps

30 rpm

43

$26.60 in 1943

M1 Carbine

1,900 fps

45 rpm

35.6

$39.95

BAR

2,682 fps

350 or 550 rpm

43.5

$112 - $123.20

Machine guns

 

Vickers

2,525 fps

500 rpm

44

£74 in 1918

M1919A4 .30 calibre

2,805 fps

400 – 550 rpm

41

$265

M2HB .50 calibre

2,810 fps

400 – 550 rpm

65.13

$270

Bren gun Mk II

2,400 fps

500 rpm

45.5

£40 (for a Mk I)

Handguns

 

 

 

 

M1911A1

830 fps

30 rpm

8.5

$14.25

Mk VI Webley

650 fps

20 rpm

11.25

n/a

Submachine guns

 

 

 

 

M1A1 Thompson

920 fps

500 – 600 rpm

32

$70 / £56

M3 ‘Grease Gun’

920 fps

350 or 450 rpm

22.8

$15

Sten gun

1,300 fps

550 rpm

29.9

$19.81 (about £5) Mk V

NOTES

The above table was compiled using data from the books referenced throughout this article. Most ranges given, though not all, come from Chris McNab’s ‘The World’s Greatest Small Arms’, though it’s worth remembering that these are estimates. Range figures for historical weapons can vary because the weapon type, barrel and rifling, the kind of propellent used for the round and the type of round/bullet (i.e. standard ‘ball’, armour piercing, tracer etc) all play a role, so calculating and comparing ranges isn’t an exact science. 

Also, range can refer to the maximum distance a bullet can travel or to a closer ‘effective range’ at which bullets can be expected to consistently hit and/or hamper an enemy. For example, in ‘The Browning Automatic Rifle’, Hodges explains that the BAR’s maximum range of two miles made it a poor choice of weapon for interwar law enforcement, since they wouldn’t have wanted a stray bullet going that far as it might have accidentally hit a civilian. He also says that sights on the BAR could be set for up to 1,500 yards, but that its effective kill range was actually closer to 500 yards, or roughly 450 metres.

For the Vickers machine gun, McNab gives an effective range of 4,100 metres, which is closer to what Pegler says is its maximum range (4,500 yards.) Wikipedia gives an effective range of 2,000 metres, and Pegler reports the gun being used effectively at about that distance (2,000 yards) during the First World War. He also points out that the gun was commonly used in an indirect fire role, acting as a kind of light artillery, a role that would eventually be taken over by mortars. (Pegler’s book features an illustration of the Vickers being set up for distant map-predicted fire, referred to above, during the Korean War. The Vickers served through that conflict too and was not retired until the 1960s).

Likewise, McNab gives an effective range of 2,000 metres for the M1919A4, and also says that it could fire beyond ranges of 1,500 metres, which is similar to Wikipedia’s figure of “maximum effective range” of 1,400 metres. It seems reasonable to assume that McNab’s comparatively lower ranges (i.e. when compared with the Vickers) are given with the weapon’s origins in mind. It’s First World War predecessor, the M1917, was not originally conceived as an indirect-fire weapon filling the kind of ‘light artillery’ or mortar role the Vickers often performed. Instead, it was meant as a kind of heavy BAR, that is a direct infantry support weapon, deployed closer and sometimes in amongst soldiers on the battlefield (at the company level.)

This is presumably why the absolute “maximum range” Wikipedia gives for the Vickers (4,115 metres) is so close to the figure McNab has for its maximum “effective range”, 4,100 metres. (He says that this was the extent of its indirect fire range). Meanwhile, Rottman explains that the M1919’s (absolute) maximum range was between 3,450 yards and 5,500 yards, considerably greater than the 1,400 and 2,000 metre ranges given by Wikipedia and McNab. So once again, one presumes this difference reflects the way in which the guns were used.

Interestingly, Rottman relates that the wide variance in maximum ranges for the M1919 of between 3,450 and 5,500 yards has its own backstory – namely, that rounds of different weight were being tested for the gun (heavier bullets went further.) In the end, a lighter round and shorter range were decided upon, in part because the same round had to be used in rifles and less recoil was advantageous in this case (because it aided accuracy), and also because of safety considerations. Military shooting ranges didn’t have sufficiently long safety fans – zones designated for shooting within safely – to accommodate the longer-ranged bullets whilst continuing to provide grounds for manoeuvre practice. This was of particular concern to National Guard units, which had ranges closer to urban areas, and thus civilians.

Similarly, the range given for the .50 calibre M2HB machine gun of 2,000 metres is termed “effective range” again by McNab. Wikipedia gives an effective range of 1,800 metres and a maximum range of 7,400 metres. Rottman gives a slightly lower maximum range:

“The maximum possible range of a .50-cal bullet is approximately 7,200yds, but the maximum effective range is about 1,970yds. Realistically, point targets can be effectively engaged at 1,100yds under ideal conditions.”

He also explains that the gun was used in an indirect fire role in the Korean War, where it shot area targets at ranges of more than 4,000 yards.

Wartime footage focusing on the Bren gun

One final factor that impacted the range of a machine gun was its mount. Guns fired on bipods, for instance, which was how the Bren was often used by infantry, were more accurate but less long-ranged than those fired from tripods (which is usually how the heavier guns such as the Vickers were deployed on the battlefield.) The reason for this is that a bipod is close to the end of the barrel and so helps keep the gun more on target as the barrel vibrates when fired, reducing its cone of fire (the zone over which its bullets spread) but also its range. Tripods don’t hone fire in quite the same way, opening up range but then also widening the cone of fire, thereby reducing accuracy. The range given for the Bren of 500 metres in the table above is its shorter bipod range. For its part, Wikipedia gives an effective range of 550 metres and a maximum firing range of 1,690 metres. 

As a side note, in Rottman’s book on the .30-calibre Browning machine gun, there is an illustration showing the tripod mounted M1919A4 alongside the M1919A6, which had a bipod and was an (unsuccessful) attempt to deliver a light-machine-gun variant on the A4 late in the war.

As well as range, there is also some variance in figures for muzzle velocity – the speed at which bullets travelled through the air. Chris McNab, for instance, lists the .30-06 round as travelling at 853 metres a second, or 2,800/2,798 feet per second when fired from the M1 Garand/M1903 Springfield. Leroy Thompson’s figures reverse this difference, giving velocities of 2,800 and 2,805 feet per second for the Garand and Springfield respectively. And this is for the standard ‘ball’ round. Different types of ammunition might have different velocities.

Rate of fire was also somewhat variable. The rate of fire for the BAR is given as 350 and 550 rounds per minute. Encyclopaedia Britannica reports that the BAR could be fired in semi and fully-automatic as well as in bursts. This is partially, though not entirely, correct: The M1918 First World War version fired in semi-automatic and its full-automatic rate of fire was 550 rounds per minute. Hodges explains that the World War 2 variant, the M1918A2, instead had just two full-automatic options of 350 rounds per minute and 550 rounds per minute. There was no burst option, though in practice bursts were fired (i.e. by tapping the trigger) because the weapon wasn’t well suited to being fired continuously.

Rate of fire might have also changed with different versions of the same weapon. Martin Pegler reports that the Thompson, for instance, had a rate of fire of 800 rounds per minute for the original 1921 version, 600 to 725 rounds per minute for the M1928A1 variant, and that the later M1 and M1A1 versions fired at rates of 500 to 600 rounds per minute. Neil Grant likewise says that the standard 500 rounds per minute for the Bren gun could vary depending on the version and gas setting, and that experiments to test the suitability of the gun for anti-aircraft fire got the rate up to 700 rounds per minute.

Costs given for each gun are very broad estimates since production costs varied over the course of the Second World War, making exact comparisons, especially with exchange rates between pounds and dollars, difficult. Some costs in the books consulted were only given for the First World War period, and in the case of the Webley, officers at this time frequently purchased they own pistols, which is why no comparative cost is given for this weapon.

For more on any of these weapons, read Chris McNab’s ‘The World’s Greatest Small Arms’, or dig into a volume about each weapon from Osprey Publishing: ‘The Thompson Submachine Gun’, ‘The Lee-Enfield Rifle’ and ‘The Vickers-Maxim Machine Gun’ by Martin Pegler, ‘The Colt 1911 Pistol’, ‘The M1 Carbine’, ‘The M1 Garand’, ‘The M3 “Grease Gun”’, ‘The Sten Gun’ and the ‘M1903 Springfield’ by Leroy Thompson, ‘The Browning Automatic Rifle’ by Robert R Hodges Jr, ‘The Bren Gun’ by Neil Grant, ‘The Webley Service Revolver’ by Robert Maze and ‘The Browning .30-Caliber Machine Guns’ and ‘The Browning .50-Caliber Machine Guns’ both by Gordon L Rottman. These can all be found on the Osprey Publishing website. Search 'Browse by series' on the left-hand side and search in the 'Weapons' section.

And for a related article that looks at World War 2 infantry tactics, click here.