An M4A1 Sherman of 1st Armored Division on the road to Lucca, 10th March 1945.
British Riflemen and Light Infantry ford the River Alma
The British Light Division crossed the Alma on the 20th September 1854 and attacked Russian positions defending the road to Sevastopol. The Light Division crossed the river and attacked uphill towards a defensive redoubt. A strong Russian force advanced to counter attack but accurate rifle fire from the men of the Rifle Brigade who led the division forced them back through their defensive redoubts.
The Battle of Alma was a scrappy affair with British infantry bunching up and attacking more en masse rather than in ordered lines. The British abandoned the redoubt believing advancing Russian forces to be a French relief column. The French army faired little better and the fractured allied command had little idea of the exact positions of their own units. When the Russian reserve of 10,000 men was later broken by the advancing Highland Brigade, who advanced while firing giving the Russians no opportunity to envelope them, the French were unable to support the British forces who wished to pursue the retreating enemy. The men of the Light Division had been recently issued with the new Enfield Pattern Model 1853 replacing their older Brunswick Rifles. With these new rifles capable of ranges out to 800 yards the British infantry were able to fend off Russian bayonet charges.
During the late 1930s the Soviet Army began seeking a new self-loading rifle to replace its bolt-action Mosin-Nagant M1891/30. The first rifle trials ended in 1935 withSergei Simonov’s AVS-36 being adopted. But problems with Simonov’s complex design led to further trials with Simonov’s rifle and one designed by one of Russia’s leading firearms designers Fedor Vasilievich Tokarev. Tokarev had previously developed the TT-33 semi-automatic pistol which was widely adopted by the Soviet Army.
By 1938, a Tokarev’s new design the SVT-38 had been selected and plans were made for the new self-loading rifle to become the Soviet Army’s new standard service rifle.
Both the earlier AVS-36 and the SVT both used short stroke gas pistons and tilting blocks however, the SVT had been designed with weight in mind and was a full pound lighter, weighing 8.5 lbs to the AVS-36’s 9.5 lbs.
The SVT-38 first saw combat during the Winter War in 1939 where troops complained that the 48 inch long rifle was too long and its complex action was difficult to clean and maintain in the field. While it proved effective with better trained troops who could maintain the rifle the reported shortcomings spurred the development of the SVT-40 - a refined version of the SVT-38 introduced in 1940.
The SVT-40 or 'Samozaryadnaya Vintovka Tokareva, Obrazets 1940 goda' (translating as Tokarev Self-loading Rifle, Model of 1940)had a number of small alterations. The rifle’s cleaning rod, which was originally stored in a groove on the right-hand side of the stock was relocated to a more secure position running beneath the SVT-40’s barrel.The improved rifle also had a simplification of the forestock with a new sheet metal handguard with drilled cooling apertures rather than the earlier half wood half metal hand guard. Similarly the number of slots and position of barrel band were altered with four slots rather than five and a single barrel band used instead of two.
It was intended that the SVT would replace the Mosin-Nagant with the ratio of of semi-automatic rifles projected to steadily increase. However, the German invasion of Russia in mid 1941 necessitated the rapid production of new rifles and production focused on the simpler and easier to produce Mosin-Nagant M91/30.
The both the SVT-38 and the SVT-40 chambered the Russian Army’s 7.62×54mmR service cartridge and fed from a 10-round detachable box magazine. The rifle’s locking block cammed down into the receiver allowing the bolt to unlock. There was also a fully-automatic variant called the AVT-40, this saw a slightly more robust stock used and the addition of a third selector position but was otherwise identical to the semi-automatic version of the rifle. Very few AVT-40s were made as the power of the 7.62mm round and the relatively light rifle made them difficult to control during fully automatic fire. While a sniper variant (see photographs above) was produced it was found unsatisfactory in the role with long range accuracy suffering and it was removed from this role in 1943.
The SVT proved popular with German troops lucky enough to capture one. Captured examples were given the German designation ‘Selbstladegewehr 258 & 259(r)' (translating as automatic rifle) and the influence of Soviet semi-automatic rifle design can certainly be see in German efforts. Almost two million SVT’s were made during the Second World War, however, the rifle was quickly replaced first by the SKS and later the AK-47 with the remaining rifles placed in store.
Military Small Arms, I.V. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)
Battle for Arnhem, 89th FSS & the STEN
British paratroopers & Group Captain John Killick (far right) from the 89th Field Security Section with German prisoners outside the Dutch town of Arnhem (Arnhem). By Dutch photographer Sem Presser
Three of the men of the 89th FSS are seen here carrying the new STEN MkV, two men have the new bayonet fitted, during the battle for Arnhem Bridge.
Operation Market Garden was one of the first operations the new STEN saw action. Paratroopers were issued with a new bandolier which could carry up to 7 of the STEN’s 32-round stick magazines. While the MkV was little more than a cosmetic upgrade of the earlier MkII it was a weapon well suited to the airborne role. However at Arnhem the British Paratroops were left unsupported for too long and were forced to take on the brunt of the German counter attack on the bridge and town. Lightly armed paratroopers with only small arms and PIAT anti-tank weapons stood little chance against heavy German Infantry supported by armour, even so they held out for 9 days.
The role of the Field Security Section was to gather intelligence in the field, to interrogate and search prisoner, to search captured enemy positions and to search out and arrest suspected collaborators on the ground. The FSS sections were deployed with every British force, from North Africa to Asia to France, Holland and Belgium in 1944. The 89th FSS jumped with the British 1st Airborne Division when they attacked the bridge at Arnhem during Operation Market Garden, Once landed Captain Killick and his team were to capture Dutch collaborators but were unable to due to unexpected enemy resistance as such they joined the fighting with the rest of the division defending the perimeter around the bridge. Many of the FSS team were killed or captured when the perimeter collapsed and British forces in Arnhem surrendered on the 26th September.
The Guns of Aimo Lahti
Between 1922 and 1940, Aimo Johannes Lahti designed some of Finland’s best small arms including pistols, submachine guns, machine guns and anti-tank guns. Up until the end of the First World War Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire and as such relied on Russian small arms with the Mosin-Nagant being Finland’s standard issue rifle even after independence. In 1919, the newly independent Finland began a programme of indigenous small arms development which eventually saw many of Aimo Lahti’s firearms adopted.
The photographs above show some of Lahti’s best designs including the Lahti L-35 pistol, the Lahti L-39 20 mm anti-tank rifle, the Suomi KP/-31 submachine gun and the Lahti-Saloranta M/26 light machine gun.
Lathi dropped out of school at a young age but became fascinated by firearms in his teens. After working various jobs, serving a year of national service with the Finnish Army which fostered his interest in firearms and after a spell working on the Finnish railways Lahti returned to the army in the 1920s as an armourer. In 1932 the he was appointed head light weapons engineer by the Finnish Ministry of Defence. He eventually became a master armourer and director of the Finnish National Arsenal. In the mid 1920s he began work on his first designs. After examining a Bergmann MP18 Lahti began work on a submachine gun - the Suomi M22 and later M26 which formed the basis for his later Suomi KP/-31 (see images #5 & #6).
The Suomi KP/-31 (meaning ‘“Submachine-gun Finland’), used a straight blowback system and was chambered in 9mm, feeding from a box magazines or from 40 or 71-round drums. The KP/-31 was adopted by the Finnish army in 1931 but under 5,000 had been produced by the time the Winter War Began in 1939. The Suomi proved to be robust, reliable and accurate due to its long 12.5 inch barrel. It was produced under license in Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland and the 71-round drum inspired the now iconic drum of the Soviet PPSh 41.
Aimo Lahti c.1940 (source)
The second Lahti design adopted for service was the Lahti-Saloranta M/26 light machine gun which he designed with Arvo Saloranta in 1926. The M/26 was arguably one of the interwar period’s better light machine guns although it suffered from being complex and somewhat heavy. It used a recoil operated system and could fire accurately in single shot or fully automatic modes. It fed from a curved 20-round box magazine or a 75-round drum loaded below the receiver. Like the Suomi relatively few were produced by the Finns and during the Winter War vast numbers of Soviet light machine guns were captured and put into service, with the DP-28 often being favoured. (See images #7, #8 & #9)
In 1929, Lahti began the development of a semi-automatic pistol to replace the German Luger which had proven unreliable in sub-zero temperatures with the weapon’s exposed toggle lock freezing solid. While the L-35 shares a passing physical resemblance to the pistol it replaced it shares no mechanical similarities (see image #1). The Lahti used a rectangular bolt which was enclosed within the receiver and was locked at the breech when in battery. The L-35 is notable for having an accelerator, a feature usually only seen in machine guns. This was to ensure that the weapon was reliable in sub-zero conditions ensuring that the inertia of the recoiling barrel speeds up the bolts rearwards travel. While a run of the pistols were made without the accelerator during the Winter War these were found to be less reliable than the pistols with the accelerator. The pistol was chambered in 9mm and fed from an 8-round single stack magazine. Interestingly, the pistol could not be field stripped as the receiver fully enclosed the action which very effectively prevented dirt from entering.
Exploded diagram of the Swedish Lahti M/40 (source)
As with Lahti’s other weapons the number made by Finland was relatively small with under 15,000 pistols made in a number of production runs between 1935 and 1951. A Swedish copy was licensed as the Lahti Husqvarna Model 40 with over 80,000 Swedish Lahti’s being made with the pistol remaining in use until the 1980s.
Lahti also developed larger calibre weapons including the L-39 20mm anti-tank rifle and a number of anti-aircraft guns including a dual mount 20mm cannon adopted in 1940. The L-39 was a direct development from Lahti’s earlier anti-aircraft cannons using the same 20mm Anti-Aircraft round. The L-39 fed from a top mounted 10-round magazine and used a gas operated self-loading action. By the beginning of the Winter War only a handful of the anti-tank rifles had been produced and they saw limited use. When the Continuation War began in 1941, the 20mm round fired by the Lahti proved ineffective against the more modern Soviet armour and was relegated to a anti-materiel role used to engage Soviet defensive positions.
By the 1940s the concept of anti-tank rifles, even 20mm ones such as the L-39, was increasingly obsolete in the face of armour development. The L-39 is easily recognised by its two skis attached to its bipod which allowed it to be pulled in snow - at 94 lbs unloaded this would have been a colossal weight to carry. (See images #2, #3 & #4)
Lahti’s weapons were robust and reliable and were instrumental in the arming of Finland following the end of the First World War. With designs ranging from pistols to anti-aircraft cannons Lahti proved to be a gifted firearms designer. Following the end of World War Two he retired, dying in 1970 at the age of 74.
'Aimo Lahti - The Most Important Weapons Designer', S. Kärävä (2002), [source]
The Handgun Story, J. Walter, (2008)
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Firearms, I.V. Hogg, (1978)
Military Small Arms of the 20th Century, I.V. Hogg & J. Weeks, (1985)
The U.S. Harpers Ferry Model 1805 flintlock pistol,
Manufactured at the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the Model 1805 was the first American flintlock pistol to be manufactured at a national arsenal. The Model 1805 was a smoothbore flintlock pistol, although a small number of rifled models are known to exist. It was a simple pistol that was conventional for its time, with a 10 inch barrel, a curved rounded handle, and chambered for .54 caliber roundball.
The Model 1805 was reserved and issued to officers only. They were issued in a pair set, or brace, with both pistols bearing the same serial number. Between 1805 and 1808, 4,096 Model 1805 pistols were manufactured. Since they were issued in pairs with matching serial numbers, the highest serial number possible would be 2,048. Today only a few hundred are known to still exist.
The Gun That Killed Mussolini: MAS-38 Submachine Gun
The French MAS-38 was allegedly the weapon used by Italian partisans to kill the deposed dictator Benito Mussolini during the last months of the Second World War. The MAS was developed in 1937-38 as a submachine gun for the French Army, however it only went into production in 1939, just months before the beginning of World War Two. Chambered in the small 7.65mm round, the MAS-38 was underpowered compared to the German 9mm MP40 and the US .45 ACP round used in the Thompson M1.
In late April 1945, Mussolini and his entourage were captured by Italian partisans while travelling in a convoy near Dongo, Lombardy close to the northern Italian border. The group had hoped to reach the safety of neutral Switzerland, however, once they were captured the partisan leaders held a council and decided to summarily execute the deposed dictator. Early the next morning Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were taken from their cell and driven to Giulino di Mezzegra where they were placed against a wall and shot. It is possible that the weapon used to kill Mussolini and Petacci, was one manufactured while France was under German occupation that had found its way to Axis Italy and had been captured by Italian partisans.
Following the execution the bodies were taken to Milan and were beaten shot, stabbed and mutilated by the public before being unceremoniously hung by their feet at the Piazzale Loreto Esso petrol station (see image #3). After several hours on display they were removed and buried.
The shape of the MAS-38 is immediately striking because of the unusual angle at which the barrel meets the receiver this was to allow the bolt to recoil into the stock spring tube and to allow a natural aiming stance because of the position of the stock and built up receiver. This unusual shape didn’t affect accuracy and compared to other sub machine guns the MAS was very accurate.
The weapon itself has a number of interesting design features such as a hinged dust cover flap sat just in front of the magazine well which can be closed when the MAS is unloaded. The weapon’s safety was engaged by pushing the trigger forward, this would lock the bolt into either the rear or forward position. Additionally the MAS also has a set of collapsible sights for ranges of 100 and 200 metres. This was to keep the receiver as smooth as possible to stop snagging on soldiers clothing (see photograph below). Interestingly the sights are offset to the left of the receiver as is the front sight and not positioned centrally.
MAS-38’s offset rear sight (source)
The weapon saw service during the Battle of France in 1940 and during the German occupation of France by the Resistance. Manufacture was continued during the German occupation and it was issued to both the Wehrmacht as the MP722(f) and to the forces of Vichy France. After the war the MAS-38 was replaced by the MAS-49 however, many MAS-38’s found their way to Vietnam and captured examples were used by the Viet Minh, who often prized well made French weapons, during the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War.
German soldier firing a French MAS-36 rifle, World War II.
After the Fall of France in 1940, German forces captured many French MAS-36 rifles with ammunition. In an age when nothing goes to waste, these rifles were renamed the Gewehr 242(f) and pressed into service for the Germany Army. Most were issued to the Volksturm, units of home-guard militia recruited from old men and children.
The Colt Model 1851 Navy,
Designed between 1847 and 1850 by Samuel Colt, the Colt Model 1851 would become the revolver that made Colt a household name. While the Colt Paterson was the first Colt revolver, but it was short lived without many produced. The Colt Walker was Colt’s first popular design, but it had many flaws that detracted from its functioning. The Colt Dragoon was an attempt to correct those flaws, yet the Dragoon was a hefty pistol that was usually carried in a saddle holster. The Colt Model 1851 was a vast refinement over all other previous designs. It’s simplification allowed it to be mass produced at large numbers. It was easy to use, compact, easy to hold, and easy to aim, and at only 2.6 lbs, it was light enough to be carried on a belt holster.
Like all cap and ball revolvers, the Colt Model 1851 was a muzzleloader, with each chamber of the cylinder being loaded with powder and a .36 caliber ball. Each chamber was ignited by a percussion cap. Later, during the Civil War, loose powder and bullet was replaced with combustible paper cartridges. After the Civil War, with the introduction of metallic cartridges, many were converted to use modern ammunition. The use of the name “Navy” denoted its caliber being .36, while cap and ball “Army” revolvers are .44, it had nothing to do with any military branch. They were all single action, which meant the user had to cock the hammer before firing. What made the Model 1851 so important was it had all the features that people wanted in a revolver, even up to today. It was portable, easy to use, simple, reliable, accurate, and affordable. Thus, it became the most popular revolver produced up to the introduction of the Model 1860. During the Civil War, it was the 2nd most common pistol issued to both sides, and production continued up to 1873. Some of the most popular people of the 19th century owned one, including Doc Holiday, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Ned Kelly, Nathan B. Forest, the Texas Rangers, and the Quantrill Raiders. One of the most popular users of the Model 1851 was the celebrated gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok, who carried an ivory handled pair until his death in 1877. Interestingly, he never had them converted, preferring them cap and ball years after the introduction of metallic cartridges. The Model 1851 was also sold around the world, including Britain, Canada, Austria, Russia, Australia, and Turkey.
For Samuel Colt, the Model 1851 would elevate him from a well to do gunmaker into a wealthy industrialist. 272,000 were produced at Colt’s factories in Connecticut, while another 30,000 were produced at the Colt factory in London.