Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Postblogging Technology, June 1951, with Bonus Political Thumbsucking: .280 British And Related Subjects


As the adrenaline leaks out of the Korean crisis, the technology question in June of 1951 is more clearly about boy toys than ever. The United States is in a full-bore Fokker panic over the MiG-15, and the first discussion of the JS-3 threat in the popular press suggests that the European theatre might actually be taking hold in the public consciousness in the way that Marshall Plan/Atlantic Pact enthusiasts have long hoped it would. It is, however, a strange crisis. It is going to be thirty  years yet before anyone entertains the thought that the United States plus West Germany plus the United Kingdom plus France plus Italy plus various "show willing" powers might be expected to win a conventional war in central Europe; and, of course, 

There is something unreal about the very idea of a conventional war between two nuclear-armed blocs. While we know from seventy years of political practice that the arms gap in central Europe is a pretext for a seemingly permanent argument over the size of the NATO partners' defence budgets, there is the curious fact that the United Kingdom is going to slowly decline from being a positive example of high defence spending to the much less credible  status of defence moocher over this period.

 I say curious because the nominal explanation for Europe's predilection for neglecting arms spending is its metrosexual leftism, but since when does that include Churchill's Conservatives? With four months to go to the British 1951 general election, it might be too early to make a partisan case, but it is certainly time to get the facts are in order; and in this case the facts also have some interesting things to say about the way we talk about technological praxis and racism. 

To get the racism into the story, I am going to start it at an unusual place: the French MAS-36.

It is a bit of a detour, so I should probably backtrack. The French introduced the first modern "smokeless powder" rifle in 1887 in the midst of a much-underappreciated domestic and international crisis of the Third Republic. Retroactively labelled the first "battle rifle," the Lebel set off an arms race that saw foreign powers adopt their own battle rifle designs in approximately the order United Kingdom; Russia; the United States; Germany; the United States again; the United States, third time's the charm. They then became obsolete in approximately this order and there were attempts to replace the first-generation battle rifles even before the outbreak of WWI. These went wrong in various ways, and France, along with the United States (seriously, Bureau of the Ordnance!) were the only countries to replace their first-generation battle rifles before the outbreak of WWII. 

The French did not intend for the MAS-36 to be their new service rifle. They were tinkering with a semi-automatic rifle that eventually emerged postwar as the MAS-49, and there was a hinky bit where the ammunition of the MAS-36 wasn't quite compatible with the French light machine gun of the day. Wikipedia says that the MAS-36 was "intended as an economical simple bolt action rifle to serve with rear echelon, colonial and reserve troops alongside" the automatic rifle when it beame available.  This makes it seem pretty unambitious, but in many ways the MAS-36 was a very nice piece of work. About as good as any other battle rifle of its day, it was significantly lighter than other battle rifles, at 3.76kg, and noticeably so compared with the semi-automatic battle rifles of the day. The MAS-49 would arrive in service as a 4.7kg weapon, while the American M-1 Garand could weigh over 5kg in some models, albeit going as low as 4.5 in others. That's more than the legendarily cumbersome black powder muskets of the Age of Reason! What the specification does not quite spell out is that "rear echelon, colonial and reserve troops" need a lighter weapon because they are a bit frail. Which is to be expected of an older reservist recalled to the colours, but is a goumier really going to be less capable of handling a heavy weapon than a draftee from Metropolitan France?

Germany had a slightly different experience. Their standard issue rifle was not crying out for replacement in the way that the French Lebel and the British and Russian rifles were, but they did not have anywhere near enough of them, and never really did. From the beginning of the war the Germans issued easier-to-manufacture submachine guns in large numbers, and carried their infantry around in trucks and other vehicles, something noticeably easier to do with submachine gun-armed troops than with the longer and heavier battle rifles in service with various German and allied forces. In 1944, after a run of experiments going back to the 1890s, the Germans bit the bullet, as it were, and introduced an "intermediate" rifle with a cartridge  halfway between the full-size German battle rifle  7.92mm calibre and a pistol round with a ball of the same size but half the powder in a smaller cartridge for lower velocity, recoil, range, and weight. The result was the Stg (Sturmgewehr) 44. 

The British, still faced with the need to replace the Lee-Enfield battle rifle, by now in service for more than a century, thought that the Sturmgewehr 44 was a bit crap, but that there as something to be made of the concept with a more sensible round that reduced the ball size while increasing the charge, retaining the short length, light weight, and controllability in automatic fire of the Stg44, but with a bit more range. Being mid-century British English speakers, no name so sexy as "assault rifle" could be permitted to escape into conversation, and the upshot was the much-mentioned in these parts EN-2 Self Loading Rifle, and also the Taden Gun in the same calibre. The Taden was a "general purpose machine gun," another German innovation, which concept has been a bit more controversial than the assault rifle over the years, but since the British were looking for a replacement for three-and-sort-of-three-more different machine guns in two different calibres, some rationalisation might well go a long way.  

All of this is not exactly well or often spelled out, as people seem very unwilling to talk about it, but as with the V-bombers, the postwar staff thought it had everything planned out. The Russians would not be able to start trouble for a nominal ten years after the end of WWII, so a 1948 staff paper by Field-Marshal Montgomery laid out a ten year plan for the full re-equipment of the British Army. The EN-2 and the Taden Gun were part of it, and, as we heard in The Economist this month, the Royal Ordnance is about to launch production of the EN-2 and its associated .280 ammunition, with the Taden to follow. It is not clear what, and when, anything was going to be done about vehicle-mounted weapons. 

Meanwhile, in the United States, the army had adopted a semi-automatic rifle in the late interwar, the M1 Garand. This went along with an obdurate American refusal to adopt the 8--11 man French infantry equippe organisation, in which infantry tactics were based on a small fireteam built around a light machine gun, with attached riflemen seen as "manouevre elements" supporting the LMG "base of fire." In the face of the French, Germans, British, and others adopting this innovation, the US Army chose to keep a 13 man infantry squad that focussed on rifle firepower, with a Browning Automatic Rifle attached --a nice source of firepower, but lacking the sustained fire rate needed for "suppressive fire." 

Since, as it turns out, everyone else was right while the contrarian Americans were wrong, this in practice led to the Americans sending large numbers of infantry riflemen into the field to stand around aimlessly while the BAR team did the work. It turns out that America won the war anyway, but the problem could easily be measured by looking at ammunition consumption (and discarded ammunition once troops started getting in trouble for not firing off their issue), and in 1947, American soldier, military thinker and charlatan, S. L. A. Marshall, wrote an alleged study of infantry combat in the Normandy theatre, Men Against Fire, in which he claimed that the root causes were psychological, and not a poor equipment loadout:

"[Marshall] claimed 75% of troops engaged in combat never fired at the enemy for the purpose of killing, even under direct threat.[4] Marshall argued conscripts were so conditioned by civilian norms against taking life that many could not bring themselves to kill, even at the risk of their own lives and the Army should therefore devote its training to increasing the percentage of soldiers willing to engage the enemy with direct fire."

Again, there are some interesting and twelfth-dimensional racial politics going on here. My understanding, which I have not been able to confirm online in the past few minutes, is that Marshall himself identified as an Indian brave on the basis of the usual family lore of distant Cherokee ancestry, but the more usual argument was that rural recruits made better soldiers, and this was very much a live issue for the Dunning School of American Civil War historians, who made a minor point of the allegedly superior fighting skills of predominantly rural Confederate troops, and then inverted claimed Confederate battlefield successes to argue back to the  social composition of Confederate other ranks, who must have been rural hunting-and-fishing types because look at all the battles that Robert E. Lee won. The racial content here is real, but suppressed: Southern Whites are manly warriors, and therefore suited to dominate Southern Blacks. 

As for Marshall and his house, the "reports" on the continuing utility of sharpshooting and the problem of getting US troops to fire their weapons that pop up in Newsweek appear to be a declassified summary of his Korean report, The key point is that if Marshall's "ratio of fire" report holds true, then the current American infantry weapon doctrine is more-or-less fine. This is a pretty important point to make, since the US Army is very upset that Commonwealth troops are insisting on using their own weapons in Korea. Having won the Canadians over to the idea that they should standardise on American weapons at some point in the future for logistical reasons, there is a very real question as to whether Americans should adopt the British .280 if it is so darn good. Since this is not, of course, going to happen, for reasons to be determined later.

Because, you see, after ten long years in service (almost), it is past time for the M1 Garand to be replaced. The Marines never took to it at all, and pretty much everyone who had a chance to  use it had preferred the "M1 Carbine," a weapon that has nothing to do with the Garand, but gives it useful cover.  As with the Stg44, an intermediate round allowed substantial weight reductions, which were justified on the grounds that support troops, paratroopers and guerillas needed a lighter weapon. (There was some suggestion that it lacked "stopping power," however.) 

This did not, however, mean that the M1 Garand would be replaced by a significantly lighter weapon. The M14 was a bit lighter, by virtue of using a reduced-weight cartridge with roughly  the same ballistics as the full-sized M1 rifle thanks to a new propellant being flogged by Olin Chemicals, the company with the privately held core and sometimes-suspicious relationship with Dupont. The new round duly won all American-held competitions for Best New Rifle Round, for nothing short of a "full-powered" round could stop "fanatical" enemies such as Muslims and Communists.

The big decision, and the one that we are still waiting on, came in 195, as the incoming Churchill government cancelled the .280 British family in favour of a rifle chambered for the M14's 7.62x51mm NATO. The argument was that NATO needed to standardise on a single calibre, and if it was not going to be .280 British, it had to be the M14's round, which became the "7.62 NATO," resulting in the FN FAL, standard-issue British and Canadian rifle for many years to come. It is sometimes designated as an assault rifle, but, like the M14, was predictably too big and heavy to fire in automatic mode, making it a "battle rifle," persisting a generation after the appearance of a Soviet development of the Stg44, the legendary AK47. Although the assault rifle that British troops most notably fought with their FNs was not Russian made at all.

Have I mentioned how the issue of Newsweek that covered Indian independence had a picture of radio-and-television celebrity, Jinx Falkenberg on the cover? Because it was something that I was reminded of when I was searching my hard drive for "Falklands" related pictures. 

You see, the Americans proceeded to design and produce a much lighter weapon in 5.56mm calibre to arm South Vietnamese troops, for they were too small and frail to carry M14s and were currently using M2 Carbines, clearly obsolete after almost twenty years of service. 

Once in service with the ARVN, the M16 was  discovered to be a much less cumbersome weapon that could be carried around on vehicles. You don't say! (Obviously it would have been better if if had been a bullpup design, but clearly no-one had thought of that.) Both American armies (the Navy having not yet enough SEALS yet for them to count as its second private army yet) took it up. With gun and ammunition duly made by Olin, America had a true assault rifle. All's well that ends well.

This recurrent argument that while regular (White) troops can handle a full-sized rifle (and need them to deal with "fanatics" and utilise their deadshot shooting skills), assorted swarthy foreigners can't, constantly leads to lighter weapons being issued to everyone, White or not. You would think that the observed fact that colonial recruits are weaker and smaller than metropolitan would be some kind of  indictment of chronic malnutrition in the European colonial empires. Thanks to the way that racism essentialises the frailty and effeminacy of the Colonial Other, it doesn't. Southeast Asians, Indians of the "non-martial races," and evidently even North Africans are simply too frail to make full use of modern military technology by their essential nature. 

History of technology does not come off well here, with arguments about the difficult compromises of system design being constantly derailed by  gestures in the direction of the Other. Nor is it a good historic look, for it highlights decision makers' ability to seize on technological and racialised excuses for their own economic failures. We face the possibility of a globally warmed future in which agricultural supply chains break down, and this sort of thing raises the spectre of a future in which the social evils of chronic malnutrition are, once again, excused by such evasions. 

Turning from the future to the postblogging moment, I think that I am close enough to the decisionto talk about the British eating the cost of cancelling the .280, ammunition and weapon family as a current fact. It isn't all downside. Somehow, the Churchill government will avoid paying a political price for it, and the British (and Canadians) will reap the advantages of using the same ammunition as the Americans for ten years or so, unlike the French, who reaped all the logistical disadvantages of the MAS49 such as . . . 

. . .Hey, now I know what the French lost in Algeria! Can haz Olin Foundation grant now?*


*All that sweet libertarian money would go to pay for my ever-so arduous ongoing research into what the fuck was up with the M-103/Conqueror/JS-3/T-10 heavy tank sweepstakes, which I am definitely not getting to, today, or the Nene/Klimov/J42 story, either. 


  1. Can't wait to hear your take on this:

    Climate change facilitated the early colonization of the Azores Archipelago during medieval times

    "The occupation of [the Azores] began between 700 and 850 CE, 700 years earlier than suggested by documentary sources".

  2. Wow! Cats, pigeons. Again, this is plausibly sealers. Train oil makes history. Dirty, greasy history that smells like fish, but history.

    Although apparently Pacific whalers used to fry up donuts in the rendering cauldrons.