Lessons of the First World

The Great War, among many other lessons, emphasised the need to provide various kinds of anti-aircraft fire. These ranged from high-velocity large-calibre cannon for engaging high-flying bombers, to light machine guns on mountings which permitted high-angle fire in order to provide a last-ditch defence against low-flying strafing fighters. To these problems was added a new threat: the tank.

It was soon realised that the design of weapons to deal with aircraft and tanks had certain similarities. Above all, they both needed a high muzzle velocity, although for different reasons. The four-dimensional problem of engaging aircraft


(estimating altitude and speed as well as range and direction) was greatly simplified by the shortest possible time of flight of the projectiles. In dealing with tanks, a high impact velocity was needed to ensure penetration of the armour, with the added benefit of providing a flatter trajectory to minimise aiming errors. In both cases, a projectile weighing significantly more than that of the standard infantry cartridge was desirable to achieve the necessary destructive effect. These priorities combined to produce both the heavy machine gun (HMG) and the anti-tank rifle (ATR).

First in the field were the Germans, with a weapon which set a trend which continues to this day: the 13mm MG TuF, for Tank unci Flieger, the intended targets. (There is an alternative view that this designation referred to the TuF being fitted to tanks and aircraft and there is one report of a Fokker D.VII being experimentally equipped with this gun. However, the only published photograph shows one on a wheeled carriage, and the water-cooled barrel does not indicate aircraft use.) This was a Maxim-type gun, essentially a scaled-up version of the infantry's 7.92mm MG08. While there had been various pre-war experiments with large-calibre machine guns such as the .50" Colt-Kynoch (or North), the TuF was the original heavy machine gun in the modern idiom, and although it was developed too late to see service in the war (about fifty were built) all current HMGs owe something to this gun. Also under development at the end of the First World War was the Browning HMG, a gun which survives in service with many nations to this day.

A separate line of development came from the need to produce a hard-hitting, but still compact and lightweight, weapon for aircraft. Once again it was German firms who led the way with the development of the first 20mm cannon, the Becker. It was mainly used, as intended, as a defensive weapon in aircraft, but some of the small number of Beckers which saw service in 1918 were issued to the army for anti-aircraft and possibly anti-tank purposes, although their low muzzle velocity must have made them of dubious value. They were also considered for arming the A7V tank, but rejected as unreliable.

The inter-war and wartime heavy machine guns

After the Great War, various nations examined the MG TuF with interest and started to develop their own ideas about this type of weapon. The first tanks were proof only against rifle-calibre ammunition (and barely so at that). While armour was later improved, it was in most cases to counter steel-cored armour-piercing ammunition, still in the standard rifle calibres. Most early armoured fighting vehicles were therefore vulnerable to the new breed of HMGs in 12.7mm (0.5") calibre, which typically fired projectiles weighing three to four times as much as rifle-calibre weapons at a similar muzzle velocity.

Despite this, few of the HMGs were introduced with a specifically anti-tank role. The reason is not too difficult to discover. While shooting at aircraft requires a high-angle mounting and weapons with a high rate of fire and large magazine capacity, these are unnecessary to deal with tanks. They are much easier targets, and tank crews will often be disabled (or at least discouraged) by only one penetrating shot as it bounces round inside the vehicle.

While some HMGs and light automatic cannon had a secondary anti-tank role, they were therefore generally designed for anti-aircraft use. Inter-war emphasis on anti-tank developments followed two main routes: conventional small artillery pieces, usually in 37-47mm calibre, and AT rifles for the use of infantry. Some of the latter not only used the same ammunition as HMGs or automatic cannon, but also used the same mechanisms together with

Kynoch Ammunition

Swiss 12.7mm MG 64 (.50" Browning M2HB) on AFV

mounting (Courtesy: Verlag Stocker-Schmid, Diet ikon-Zurich)


their capacity for automatic fire. These are strictly

The British also produced H MGs of various outside the scope of this narrative but are described types, although only one saw British service. This in Appendix 1.

was the Vickers .5", designed round a smaller

One of the first of the post-war HMGs was the cartridge than that of the Browning and according-

classic .50" Browning. The final design of the car- ly lighter and more compact. Initial experiments tridge was influenced by the 13 X 92SR TuF round, during the First World War with a .600/.500 round, although it was different in appearance, being originally based rather bizarrely on the rimmed longer, fully rimless and with a slightly smaller cal- .600 elephant gun cartridge, led to a version with a ibre, as indicated by its metric designation of belted case used in the experimental Godsal AT

12.7 X 99. It is a simple and reliable weapon firing rifle, and ultimately to the rimless 12.7 X 81 which an effective cartridge which, coupled with its wide was adopted for service. The cartridge was signifi-

distribution to American allies, accounts for its cantly less powerful than the .50" Browning but still longevity. Initial M 1921 versions were water- had three times the hitting power of the .303" round cooled, but the air-cooled M2HB version (intro- used in other Vickers machine guns.

duced in 1933) rapidly became more popular in

Although the .5" Vickers was rejected by the army service. These were usually tripod-mounted RAF, it was used as a close-range AA gun by the

(or pintle- or ring-mounted on vehicles) but the Royal Navy. The army only appear to have used it power-operated quadruple M45 mounting was also as the armament of some small AFVs, among them fielded on the M51 four-wheeled carriage, the M55 the original A11 Matilda 1 infantry tank, the Mk two-wheeled trailer designed for air transportation and on the M16 half-track.

Besa Machine Gun

VI light tank and some armoured cars. It was replaced in this role by the 15mm Besa.

Vickers also produced a semi-rimmed version of the 12.7 X 81 for export purposes. This was adopted by several countries including Italy and Japan for air service weapons, so will be dealt with in the

Soviet 12.7mm DShk-38 on wheeled carriage with gun shield (Courtesy: MoD Pattern Room)

Soviet 12.7mm DShK-38 on tripod mounting

( Courtesy: MoD Pattern Room)

Dshk Quad Machine Gun



120 Velocity

Czech 15mm ZBvz/60 on grown! mounting appropriate chapter. Much more impressive was the defence against air attack. Post-war, its widespread

.5" Class D High Velocity, using a powerful distribution around the world to allies and sympa-

12.7 X 120SR cartridge, which appears only to have thisers of the Soviet regime have made it the only been acquired by Japan and possibly China, to rival to the .50" Browning as the worlds most whom ammunition was supplied by Kynoch. All popular HMG.

of these Vickers guns had the characteristic large-diameter water-cooling jacket, except for the experimental air service versions.

After experimenting with a 12.7 X 108R rimmed cartridge, the Soviets settled on a rimless 12.7 X 108 round for their standard wartime HMG, the DShK-38. Although the cartridge is slightly larger than the Brownings, the performance

Other nations also produced HMGs. In the late 1930s the Czech armament industry developed the ZB vz/60 {Zbrojovka Brno vzor 60, the name of the factory in Brno and the model number), which used a powerful 15 X 104 cartridge. The big ZB was used

AA weaoon bv Czechoslovakia and a s a n weapon oy

Yugoslavia and taken over in quantity by Germany, who shortened the case to 101mm in order to is very similar. The DShK is a direct equivalent for accept the longer projectiles from the MG151 air-the Browning M2HB, the main difference being its craft gun ammunition. It was also adopted by the gas-operated mechanism, based on that of the

UK, as the 15mm Besa, to replace the .5" Vickers,

Degtyarev rifle calibre machine gun. It has only but was never popular as its size made it difficult to ever been air-cooled, with a distinctive finned barrel handle in the cramped and unpowered turrets of to assist cooling. The gun is a little lighter and more the light tanks and armoured cars which used it.

compact than the Browning, but that advantage Some thought was given to converting it to use was wasted by the heavy wheeled carriage, usually 20mm Hispano ammunition (the diameter of the seen with an armoured shield. It was belt-fed, but with fifty-round belts which could not be linked together.

cartridge case was the same), but this did not succeed.

The French conducted a wide range of experi-As well as its use as an infantry weapon, the ments between the wars in order to develop an DShK (in its post-war DShK-38/46 version) was HMG. Unlike other nations, a variety of different until recently commonly fitted to the turret tops of calibres was tried, leading to such cartridges as the tanks in order to give the commander some local 9 X 66, 10x71 and 13.5 X 97. The only outcome


Italian 2mm Machine Gun

Italian 13.2 mm Breda Model

in terms of service was the 13.2 X 99 Hotchkiss of 1930, which was identical to the 12.7 X 99 Browning except for the slightly larger calibre (versions with slightly shorter case necks to accommodate different projectiles were also produced). As one might expect, bullet weight was slightly higher at around 52g, muzzle velocity a little lower at 790 m/s.

The Hotchkiss HMG was, however, a completely different design from the Browning, being gas-operated. Like the DShK-38 it utilised a finned, air-cooled barrel, but most unusually for an HMG it normally fired from a thirty-round box magazine mounted above the gun. The Hotchkiss was available on various mountings including a wheeled carriage and a complex AA mounting for one or two guns. Apart from France, it was used by Japan, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece.

The Italians also used the 13.2mm Hotchkiss cartridge but in a gun of their own design, the Breda Model 31. This was intended for mounting in AFVs, which makes even more surprising the fact that it was designed for a twenty-round vertical box magazine, which might have been expected to foul the roof of a turret. It does not appear to have been very popular. Another 13.2mm AFV weapon was the Finnish Lahti L-35, about which little information appears to have survived, other than it saw service in the Winter War.

Japan adopted and adapted a wide variety of HMGs, mostly for aircraft purposes, with only the navy using HMGs (the 13.2mm Hotchkiss) in the AA role. Germany made use of various captured HMGs for A A purposes and towards the end of the war mounted the MG 151 aircraft gun in a triple mounting on a half-track carrier. However, there were no HMGs designed specifically for the army, the Germans reckoning quite correctly that the 20mm cannon was a much better weapon for AA use and as a light AFV weapon.

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