The last two articles in this series looked at the Vickers Machine Gun. Whilst this gun effectively dominated no-mans land, its weight made it a cumbersome weapon, especially in the attack. What was needed was a lighter machine gun, which would be handled by one or two men. Also, in the early part of the War when only two Vickers guns were issued to each battalion, there was an urgent need to augment that number.

The Lewis Gun provided the answer. Named after its American inventor, Col. Isaac Lewis, it was developed in 1911. Once adopted by the British in November 1914, it was procured in large numbers. The armament manufacturer BSA of Birmingham began production and, by late 1915, output exceeded 200 per week.

The Lewis Gun differed from the Vickers in two important respects. First, it was fed by a circular drum magazine, not a belt. This drum was mounted flat on top of the breech and held 47 rounds of .303" ammunition. The drum revolved as the gun fired, bringing each round down to be fed into the chamber. A 96 round magazine was developed for aircraft use.

waepon11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second difference was in the cooling system. The Vickers was water-cooled, necessitating about 7.5 pints of water to be contained in a jacket surrounding the barrel. The Lewis was air-cooled by an ingenious system. The barrel was encased in an aluminium cylinder, which had internal fins. When the gun was fired, the propellant gases emerging from the muzzle caused a draught of cool air to be drawn through the casing from the rear. Cooling was aided by the large surface area of fins at the back of the casing.

Some authorities describe the Lewis as an automatic rifle, and one can understand how this description came about as it had a rifle butt which the gunner held on his shoulder. Because the depth of the breech prevented the user's hand adopting a rifle-style hold, there was a pistol grip immediately behind the trigger. This was comfortable to use and aided swivelling the gun to different targets.

The Lewis weighed 28 lbs. And was steadied by a bipod mounting to the rear of the muzzle. The bipod could be folded back so that the gun could be rested on the barrel casing if cover were low.

Sights consisted of an aperture backsight and a blade foresight. This arrangement gave a good view of targets and was accurate. The sight leaf could be adjusted up to 1,900 yards, slightly less than the SMLE's 2,000 yards.

The Lewis gun was only capable of automatic fire. It could not fire single shots like its Second World War successor the Bren gun. At a cyclic rate of fire of around 550 rounds per minute it gave the fire-power that was needed. However, even firing in short bursts, magazines would have to be changed frequently. As a full magazine weighed 4.5 lbs. It is not difficult to appreciate some of the ammunition supply problems.

To give an indication of the growing importance of the Lewis gun, its original issue in 1915 was on a scale of four per battalion. By the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. this had been raised to eight guns per battalion with an additional four-gun section attached to battalion HQ. In 1918 most platoons had two Lewis guns. Their proliferation meant that infantry tactics altered considerably and in the closing stages of the War, platoons were trained to advance under covering fire from their light machine guns. This evolved into the principle of fire and movement, which was The basis if infantry tactics in World War Two.

We will next look at the .455" Service Revolver. Mainly a defensive weapon, its massive bullet was capable of knocking a man over - if you could hold the pistol steady enough!

Back to top