• Lewis Gun Love Affair (By Graeme "broadarrow303" Barber)

    The following article is published with the kind permission of member, Graeme "broadarrow303" Barber. On behalf of MILSURPS.COM members, we'd like to publicly thank him for his support of this forum, as well the broader Lee Enfield collector community in general.

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    Lewis Gun Love Affair
    by Graeme "broadarrow303" Barber

    ‘Love at first sight’ is a saying reserved for the fairer sex, but we collectors, often without the knowledge of our 'dearly beloved' wife or partner, share some of our affection towards treasured items in our collection.

    Lewis Model 1914 Light Machine Gun fitted with No 5 Magazine and Mk III Field Mount (Bi-pod) introduced September 1915 LOC 17483 - Author.

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    Believe it or not this Lewis gun ‘love affair’ goes back 57 years when as a young boy I visited (most weekends with my parents) my grandparents farm at Corredale near Oamaru in the South Island of New Zealand. Dad would help on the farm followed by wandering around the rolling hills shooting rabbits, with me eagerly tagging along from the age of 2 years. Any chance I could I would sneak in to the old dairy attached to the homestead to stare longingly at the picture of 'big' guns hanging on the wall. It was in fact a military training chart hanging from a nail by butchers string with a Lewis gun on one side and a Bren gun on the other. Over the years my grandfather (a WWI veteran from the Somme trenches) told me how as a Captain of the local Home Guard during WW II, he spent most Sundays training the Guardsmen in shooting SMLE rifles and machine guns on a range built on his farm. This eager young boy often re-enacted battles on the range with his brothers and cousins, asked lots of questions and got to see several other mementos of WWI and training items used with the Home Guard. My burgeoning interest in shooting and war stories must have been recognised by my Grandfather because when I was 10 years of age he gave me a No 23 grenade, a sectionalised No 36 grenade, his money and corps belts both adorned with WW1 badges and buttons and the much admired machine gun training charts. My life long interest in collecting British militaria was very much born.

    Lewis gun training chart adorned with my Grandfather’s name in pencil, D H Scott Corredale - Author.

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    This ‘love affair’ manifested itself further in 1980 when a NZ based firearms wholesaler imported into NZ 9 Lewis Guns (plus other guns) from the UK. Four of them eventually arrived at their warehouse in Christchurch, my hometown, ready to be collected by their new owners. By chance I was there in this warehouse on ‘pick up’ day collecting an Mk 1 Bren that I had purchased from this shipment. Apparently, I was over heard declaring to one of the purchasers, “I love these Lewis guns and wish I had purchased one”. The early experiences talking to my Grandfather had left a lasting impression and interest in both the Bren and Lewis guns.

    It was not until the early/mid 1990’s at a New Zealand Antique Arms Association auction that I was reminded of this 'throw away' comment. An older member wandered up and asked me if I was still interested in owning a Lewis gun to which I responded, “ I would love to own a Lewis gun”. He reminded me of what I had said on that fateful day in 1980 adding that many collectors wanting to buy his Lewis gun had approached him over the years. My recollection, up until this moment, of that comment had faded somewhat but did return-as you can imagine-rather quickly. You can also imagine my delight when he next said that he had always wanted to select the next custodian for his Lewis gun and that he would like it to be me. After picking myself up off the floor I recall a short conversation regarding the price and an instant agreement to buy it. How does a collector on one income with a very young family accept this sort of opportunity? With much difficulty, but I found a way to come up with money and within a few weeks the gun had been collected and was hanging in pride of place from the ceiling of my gun room. Telling my 94-year-old Grandfather on his deathbed that I had finally ‘scored’ a Lewis gun brought a weak smile to his face and soft squeeze of my hand. The Lewis gun ‘circle’ for his lifetime had been closed.

    From that moment on this Lewis gun ‘love affair’ took on new meaning as I searched, over subsequent years, for more information about their history, how they worked and the role they played in combat. I also scoured auction catalogues and gun shows for manuals, tools and accouterments associated with the Lewis gun.

    A range of Lewis gun spare parts, tools, accessories and manuals - Author.

    Left - A circa WWII modified ‘L’ marked pattern 37 web equipment Bren gun pouch with spare pawls, return springs, replacement parts, loading tools (metal and half metal/wood types), barrel spanners first and second type (modified from Oct 17th 1921-LOC 24676), clearing plugs MkI and MkII (from August 31st 1916-LOC 17938), gas regulator reamer, and bolt handle extension (an American product that fitted in to the bolt handle to assist with retracting a jammed bolt).
    Middle - Australian manufactured parts hold all with spare barrel.
    Right - Nine of the manuals listed in references.

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    Below - Bag, Spare Parts and Tools, MG., Mk III (November 15th 1918-LOC 18200). This 1918 dated 13x9 inch gusseted canvas and leather bag was issued for use with the Lewis and Hotchkiss. On the inside back of the bag are 3 pockets for (from left to right) oilcan, cleaning materials and tin box containing small parts. - Author.

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    Below - Magazine, MkI Skeleton (Filled with drill rounds) introduced March 3rd 1922 (LOC 24946) and a chart showing how magazines are constructed.

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    The Lewis gun has its origins with the McLean gun bought in 1910, when Dr. Mclean went bust, by the Automatic Arms Company, Buffalo, New York. AAC convinced Colonel Isaac Lewis, a talented engineer, to rework the McLean system. His gun incorporated the McLean gas piston that acted on a cam slot on the bolt to which he added a clock type return spring, pan magazine and a finned air-cooling jacket. These features made the gun unique and instantly recognisable. On June 7th 1912 Lewis mounted a prototype on the foot bar of Captain Charles DeForest Chandler’s Wright type B aeroplane. The photograph of this, the first time a machine gun had been fired from a plane, was plastered in newspapers and magazines worldwide.

    The American Army dismissed this event as a stunt claiming that aircraft were only suitable for scouting and observation and would never work as platforms for aerial gunnery-how wrong this assertion proved to be as evidenced by the warfare that followed.

    Following these tests and rejection by the Army Ordnance Board a disgruntled Lewis handed in his retirement papers and in January 1913 headed for Belgium. Lewis participated in a series of demonstrations held for the Belgian army and various other military representatives. This soon resulted in Belgium's decision to adopt the gun in caliber .303 British, to be manufactured at Liege by a newly formed company known as Armes Automatiques Lewis. Soon afterward, the respected English firm of Birmingham Small Arms Co. was granted a license and on November 27th over 150 invited British military and civilian authorities, the military and naval attachés of numerous foreign countries including New Zealand, ordnance and aircraft manufacturers and the press (of course) were transported by special train to a Lewis gun display of the 1913 model at the NRA Bisley ranges.

    On December 5th 1913 the New Zealand High Commissioner in London transmitted the NZ Prime Minister a report for his information from Mr Percy A Eley (NZ Archives Wellington R224340330).

    “High Commissioner,

    In accordance with your instructions I proceeded to Bisley on Thursday last to witness the demonstration of the Lewis Air Cooled Machine Gun by the Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd.

    The Gun is an American invention. The parent Country is Belgian, and, so far as I could gather, they have control of the output, except for North and South America, for which there is a separate company, and the B.S.A. Co. Ltd, have the sole manufacturing rights for Europe.

    The Gun is about the same length as an ordinary rifle, and is fitted with a patent air-cooling jacket, which is really most effective.

    It is fired in the same way as an ordinary rifle-by a trigger, either from the shoulder, lying prone behind cover, supported on a bush or sandbag, or from a tripod- the latter method is the best.

    I witnessed the tests, which consisted of independent and rapid shooting at 200 and 500 yards range in all the above positions, and the results were most satisfactory. One test was the firing of 500 rounds, which occupied about 11Ž2 Minutes, and about 60% were on the target. The Company claim to be able to fire 600 rounds per minute. Immediately the firing ceased I felt the rifle all over. The jacket of the cooling chamber, although hot, could be handled without discomfiture, & the lock and other parts of the rifle were just warm only. It was a good test and gave excellent results.

    The cartridges are placed in a circular magazine containing 47 rounds, and can be fired independently, or, the magazine, by retaining the pressure of the finger on the trigger, can be fired off in less than 5 seconds. The magazine can be charged in about 3 seconds, either by the gunner himself by just lowering the rifle from his shoulder, or it can be done by another man without the gunner lowering the rifle and thereby losing his aim.

    I saw an operator completely take the gun to pieces and put together again, and the whole operation only occupied 2 minutes. By this you will gather that the mechanism is very simple and by no means complicated.

    The weight of the rifle is about 26lbs. and can be carried and used in any of the foregoing positions with great ease-with the exception of firing from the shoulder, and in this position the weight is a little to much to expect to be held by the left arm for any length of time.

    The pack equipment for carrying the gun, tripod and 1,200 rounds, is very complete and there is nothing to injure the horse in any way, and a light or small horse can carry the whole lot complete, with undue pressure on any part of its back.

    I add that firing was also made from a Biplane at a height of 500 feet, at an angle of about 50 degrees. The target was a 30 feet square sheet and out of 20 rounds 11 were hits. Considering the unfavouarble conditions, on account of the gusty winds prevailing at the time, the performance was very creditable.

    I attach some photographs and particulars which will enable you to see the sort of gun it is, and if Major Richardson has an opportunity of examining the gun it will be worth his while, and I am sure he will be interested.
    Annexed to this letter at NZ Archives were photos taken at the BSA factory and a photo of the Lewis gun in pieces with a list of parts.

    Photos of the 1913 Lewis gun at BSA (NZ Archives Wellington R224340330)
    Left - prone,
    Middle - kneeling
    Right - anti-aircraft positions

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    Lewis gun in pieces and parts list - NZ Archives Wellington R224340330.
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    The 1914 model of the .303 Lewis was in full production at both factories by June 1914 and formally entered British service in October 1915 for land and aircraft use with Lewis subsequently receiving significant royalty payments from which he became very wealthy. The US Navy and Marine Corps adopted the gun in 1917, redesigning it as the M1917 Lewis Gun, produced by the Savage Arms Company in .30-06 calibre.

    Despite the positive feedback, the US never fully adopted the weapon for use by its Infantry. The US Government went as far as taking the Lewis gun from the US Marines and re-issuing them with the poor French Chauchat LMG.

    A British Infantry WWI Battalion had 16 Lewis guns (Pioneer battalions had eight and Cyclist battalions had six). One section in each platoon was trained in the use of the Lewis gun and lived, fought and worked with the other three sections. With an average strength of 36 Other Ranks in the platoon the Lewis gun section consisted of 1 NCO and 8 men.

    The Vickers and Lewis gun were both able to produce great volumes of fire. While the water cooled Vickers (providing the water in the jacket covered the barrel) could be fired for sustained periods the air cooled Lewis would over heat after about 700-800 rounds had been fired rapidly. It would likely stop needing about half and hour to cool down and a complete strip and clean before being able to be used again.

    Both guns occupied in action approximately a 2 foot front (5-6 square feet in total) with only 2 men needed to be with either gun. The Vickers weighing 39.5 lbs. with its Mk VI tripod weighing 48 lbs. along with its ammunition belt in tin, condenser can and additional water took some relocating. Where as the Lewis gun weighing in at 28 lbs. including its bipod was very mobile. A single man carrying the Lewis gun with bipod, ready and loaded with a magazine of 47 rounds could come into action instantaneously or if necessary fire bursts from the hip.

    Machine guns with their 600-700 rpm had terrible killing powers coupled with their rat-tat-tat they had a great moral effect on those both on the receiving and giving side. The time taken to load the guns was only a few seconds compared to the rifle. A machine gun in the hands of well-trained gunners had the same effect as 50 riflemen who would also be well spread out. Owing to the awful din of guns and the mayhem of warfare a good number of those riflemen could miss the target and or place too many bullets on one spot leaving others neglected.

    Lewis gun fire control was much easier as the human element was reduced by approximately one fiftieth. The Lewis offered a very small target and at 400 yards especially when concealed in scrub or uneven ground it was practically invisible hence very hard to pick up and knock out.

    The Lewis gun became a weapon of opportunity. The position of the Lewis was not advertised but kept dark as a sort of “trump card up the sleeve”. Change of location and direction was easy for one man as he could turn his Lewis gun in the required direction compared with 50 men moving as they would have to expose their position to swing round, which would be unwieldy besides offering a good target. The Complete Lewis Gunner manual describes the Lewis gun,
    “As being like a submarine. It does it work best by popping up where it is least expected, and delivering a smashing blow in a trice. Before the enemy has time to recover from its surprise it escapes, by reason of its mobility and invisibility, to some other spot, from which it can repeat the dose”.

    Premature firing could ruin a well-conceived plan. Firing was usually in 1-second bursts due to the close pattern of firing, and ceased if the target changed or disappeared. This way ammunition was saved for when it would have the most effect. The Lewis was used with great effect in attack, open or defensive fighting. Its uses included knocking out enemy machine guns, covering advancing infantry or raiding parties, taking advantage of disorganized or retreating enemy, dealing with low flying enemy planes and equally important covering any returning raiders or retiring troops.

    The nickname given it by German soldiers ‘Belgian Rattlesnake’ was well deserved. In fact they treasured captured Lewis guns, which were used to good effect to supplement their own Maxim 08 Machine Guns. They even trained their new machine gunners on how to care for, feed and use Lewis guns to best effect.

    Several captured Lewis guns and magazine carriers being carried by German machine gunners during the Battle of the Somme 1916 - (Imperial War Museum Q53482, cited in The Belgian Rattle Snake, 1998).

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    For the Lewis gun to perform to its optimum required three very important ingredients:

    1. The adequate supply of ammunition

    As soon as 4 limbered General Service wagons for transport of Lewis guns were available for each infantry battalion one was allotted to each company for its 4 guns. Each company wagon was loaded with the following

    For each gun this equated to 2,068 rounds in magazines and 2,250 rounds packed in chargers. In addition the Divisional Ammunition Column carried 2,000 rounds per gun.

    A set of Carriers, Magazine Lewis .303 inch Gun (nicknamed Lewis Buckets) that buckled together containing 4 magazines each weighing a total of 36 lbs. (16.4 kg). These were introduced on November 27th 1915 (LOC 17739) - Author.

    The set of 2 ‘Buckets’ in a 1917 dated Box Carrier. - Author.

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    A set of 4 Pouches, Magazine, Web and 2 Braces, Magazine Web that also carried a total of 8 magazines and were worn over existing equipment and held in place by the waist strap and uniform shoulder straps. These were a vast improvement on the ‘bucket’ as hands were left free and the magazines could be removed without having to take off the carrier. These were introduced on May 28th 1917 (LOC 18892). The magazine pictured in the open pouch is a No 6 - Author.

    2. Well trained and operating Lewis gun sections

    All members of the Lewis gun section, except the 2 actually on the gun, carried SMLE rifles, bayonets and were trained and proficient in using them. Each man was trained to take any position on the team, so was able to examine the gun in detail, to clean it with out damaging it, to fire it accurately at a given target, and to remedy any stoppages with out delay. More specifically the No.1 carried the gun into action loaded with 1 magazine and fired it. The No.2 acted as assistant, lying beside the No.1 while firing, carried spare parts and usually 4 additional magazines. Both these numbers carried revolvers (usually Webley MkVI). The No.3 carried 8 magazines in 2 magazine carriers nicknamed ‘ Lewis buckets’ then later 4 web-equipment pouches each containing 2 magazines that were carried over the shoulders. He acted as the link between the gun and the other section members who each carried between 4 and 8 magazines (depending on the requirements of the operation, the terrain and the distance travelled). At the same time these men carried rifles, ammunition and their ordinary equipment. Usually 2 men who acted as scouts or runners carried less magazines than the rest. They often moved ahead looking for suitable targets and or firing positions for the gun. The section were all trained in moving as a team, crawling with the gun, selecting the most suitable position to fire from, judging distances and deciding what was a suitable target for the rifle or Lewis gun. Each man in the team knew that his work was just as important to the success of the gun as the man firing it.

    Lewis gun section members dressed in Battle Order

    No 1 gunner wearing pattern 08 Web Equipment belt and ammunition pouches, a .455 Webley Mk VI in holster, box respirator (gasmask) worn in the alert position and a PH (Phemate Hexamine impregnated) gasmask- Author.

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    No 2 gunner wearing pattern 08 Web Equipment belt and ammunition pouches, a .455 Webley Mk VI Revolver in holster and a Spare Parts and Tools Bag. In the left photo the Gunner is wearing 2 magazine carriers (usually containing 2 only magazines). In the right photo the Gunner is wearing a set of 4 post May 1917 Magazine Pouches (usually containing 2 only magazines) -Author.
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    All other Gun Numbers wore standard Pattern 08 Web Equipment and carried SMLE rifle. The Number 3, Scouts and Runners usually carried up to 4 magazines where as the other Numbers carried up to 8 magazines each weighing 36lbs, which was added to the 60lb a rifleman already carried into battle. The photos show the 2 different patterns of magazine carriers. The second pattern was a vast improvement as the gunner’s hands were free to use the rifle and the magazines could be removed without taking off the pouches.
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    Following specialised training sections were then trained with the other sections of the platoon so that they could combine for offensive and defensive action and cover for each other as and when needed.

    3. The Lewis gun continuing to function.
    The Lewis gun was seen as being less reliable than the Vickers as it contained 62 parts including a large number of springs and small parts which were subjected to a great deal of strain and could break or get damaged during heavy firing. All but 2 parts could be stripped by the use of the nose of a bullet. While broken parts could be quickly replaced (provided they were available) the gun could not operate during this time. Dirt and mud would also easily enter the action so much care was needed when crawling forward into a position. The magazine was also more fragile than the Vickers belt as any slight dint could prevent the magazine from fitting the gun or the rounds from feeding from the magazine.

    A special Gun Lewis .303 Tool Adjusting Magazine, was used to straighten posts and magazine rims. It is unclear if the tool found its way in to the parts bag carried by the No 2 gunner or was just used by armorers.

    Left - Tool Adjusting Magazine for the Lewis Gun .303 showing rim fixing slot.
    Right - Tool fitted over a post.

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    The magazine carriers/web equipment provided some protection. We can only imagine how difficult it was keeping the Lewis gun operating while under fire, in mud, tangled in barbed wire and within the mayhem of trench warfare.[/size]

    Sectionalised Lewis gun plates showing the mechanism ready to fire, at firing and through the ejection phase (Lewis Gun Mechanism Made Easy 1940) -Author.
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    The NCO, who led the section into action, would ensure the gun had ready access to ammunition and would reorganise the rest of the team as a rifle section when a gun stopped for a prolonged period.

    Most Lewis gun manuals denote several pages on how to deal with stoppages categorised in 3 positions:

    1. Cocking handle forward,
    2. Cocking handle back less than the length of a cartridge, and
    3. Cocking handle back more than the length of a cartridge.

    For each position the IA (Immediate Action), probable cause, prevention of recurrence and how to set up for instructional purposes were outlined in great detail.

    Common causes of stoppages were a weak or broken return spring, damaged magazine, damaged feed or stop pawls, separated cartridge case and a damaged cartridge rim. Armourer notes identified that the efficient working of a Lewis gun largely depends on the bearing surfaces between the sides of the striker post and the cam shaped slot in the bolt being perfectly smooth.

    In order to minimise worn and or broken parts cleaning and oiling after 600 rounds and or daily - especially of the barrel, gas chamber, piston rod, cam slot, striker post and exterior of the bolt - was recommended. This was a lot to expect in battle conditions. Every time the top cover was removed increased the opportunity for the many small parts and springs to be lost. The manuals even described how to improvise a return spring by using a 9-10 inch piece of ‘indiarubber’ with loop of thread bound on to each end. One loop was attached to the bipod or radiator, in front of the foresight, and the other over the cocking handle. MacGyver must have been a student of wartime improvisation as this is the sort of thing he would do. By all accounts parts broke frequently especially when the Lewis gun was expected to do the work of a Vickers. As well as spare parts being in short supply many of the early guns had required much hand finishing making their parts non interchangeable which frustrated the front line troops who claimed it was “like murder sending brave men to their death with inferior weapons”.

    The enormity of the spare parts and tools (listed in the table below) carried into battle by the No 2 Lewis Gunner in a shoulder bag highlights how temperamental the Lewis gun was and why it ‘enjoyed’ a love hate relationship with those using it.

    Despite all this the Lewis gun was preferred to the Hotchkiss, which was the only other light automatic in widespread British use. Following the introduction of flexible metal strips the Hotchkiss did however replace the Lewis as the preferred WW1 tank MG.

    According to Marine Corps - USMC Community - Front Page the British Royal Navy was the first to provide its ships with anti-aircraft protection - deck-mounted Lewis guns against German bombers and torpedo boats. The British Army fitted them to armoured cars, tanks and motorcycles and a special monopod adapter was issued to allow quick mounting on posts or stumps for anti-aircraft defence. Indeed, wherever the tactical situation called for a fast handling, fast firing gun, the Lewis was right up front.

    The Lewis was also revered in the air. Since cooling was no problem in the slipstream of an airplane or airship, the gun could be stripped of its distinctive barrel jacket and fins. The butt-stock was replaced with a spade type handgrip and magazine capacity was more than doubled- 97 rounds. With no flapping belt, wind catching feed spool, or troublesome feed strip to get in the way, the resulting 19 lb. gun renamed the Air Lewis was an obvious winner.

    At the end of August 1914, a German observation plane became the first aircraft in history to be shot down by a Lewis gun mounted on a British scout plane over Le Quesnay, France. Later, Lewis guns loaded with incendiary bullets and mounted on the famous Sopwith Camel biplanes, helped bring down hydrogen-filled German Zeppelin that had been terrorizing English cities.

    While production ceased at the end of World War I, enormous numbers of existing Lewis guns continued to serve into World War II especially on coastal defence boats, with reserve troops and in home defence roles in most Allied countries including of course New Zealand.

    From a New Zealand perspective Lewis gun records appear in Military Forces files from 1927. Following a GHQ conference in April 1927 (NZ archives Wellington R21464470) the Army decided to issue 25 Lewis guns per Battalion (including 1 for anti aircraft purposes) to overcome training difficulties where Lewis gunners were spread widely around centres. The file also gives the machine gun numbers in the Dominion of New Zealand as follows:

    List of Changes 17997 and 21704 advised the modification of the butts to the Mk I* and then to the Mk II. On September 15th 1936 the Director of Ordnance issued an order to the Northern, Central and Southern Commands to furnish returns identifying the numbers of guns on charge with the 3 types of butts. The information was needed to enable the Quartermaster-General to make provision for the modification to the Mk II butt. The sketch below accompanied the order to show the difference between the Marks (NZ Archives Wellington R21466470). By November 9th 1936 the Director of Ordnance advised there were only 2 Lewis guns in NZ yet to be modified to the Mk II butt.

    Lewis butt modification sketch sent with the stock take order to the 3 Military Commands in 1936 (NZ Archives Wellington R21466470).

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    In preparation for mobilization, should war break out, a memorandum was sent on November 30th 1936 from the Trentham Military Camp to the Quartermaster General in Wellington requesting 130 Lewis guns and sufficient spares for the 1st Echelon and 116 for the 2nd Echelon. The interesting thing is that it was recognisedthat 189 were needed for the Territorial Forces leaving only 24 at Ordnancestores. The memorandum questions what will be done to bridge the gap in order to prepare the Echelons for mobilisation.

    Problems continued in the Commonwealth with the reliability of return springs and supply of spare parts. The office of the New Zealand Minister of Defence on May 3rd 1941 sent the Army Secretary a Memorandum requesting a report on the matter. The response signed by the Chief of the General Staff Major- General J E Duigan (NZ Archives Wellington R22437175) stated that the level of breakage in use was at usual levels and that several spares were carried with each gun. He also advised that there had long been an acute shortage of return springs throughout the Empire due to the cessation of Lewis gun spare part production in the UK in favour of Bren gun manufacture. However, damaged Lewis guns were being stripped in the UK to help with the supply of spares. The response further advised:

    “Manufacture of Lewis Gun spares and components has latterly been undertaken in Australia, and this is the only source of supply. An order has been placed, the fulfillment of which will rectify the position. The supply position in this direction, however, is acute, owing to the heavy demands of the Commonwealth Forces”.

    As the Lithgow Small Arms Factory was working to capacity on the Vickers, Bren and SMLE rifles the manufacture of the Lewis spares was contracted out. With problems continuing to frustrate, the New Zealand Forces on January 23rd 1942 sent a cablegram to the British War Department regarding the purchase of Hotchkiss machine guns. A requisition for 250 Hotchkiss complete with all accessories, spare parts and tools for 100 pounds each was confirmed on March 3rd 1942. Once the payment had been made to the British High Commissioner for New Zealand the guns were issued with no inspection required (NZ Archives Wellington R22437181).

    Post WWI rattle like devices (somewhat similar to gas rattles) were clamped around the air-cooling housing and used during training to simulate machine gun fire.

    Lewis gun rattle used during training to simulate machine gun fire (The Belgian Rattlesnake 1998).

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    Between the wars some School Cadets in NZ were issued with simulated Lewis guns fitted with a gun rattle.

    Wellington College OTC Cadets in camp 1920’s (courtesy Carl Woods cited in The Belgian Rattlesnake 1998).

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    A special training aid principally used to teach the ‘lead’ required when firing on moving targets was introduced in to service. The photographed broad arrow stamped spotlight projector box contains brackets for the Lewis gun, the SMLE, and the Bren gun along with a wiring loom with a button switch and trigger attachment.

    Spotlight Projector Box

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    Left - Close up of the projector and bracket.
    Right - The light, cables, push button and wire leading to trigger switch.

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    A sketch of a target – Author.

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    With the threat of invasion by the Japanese (named the Yellow Peril) Home Guard units were organised up and down NZ to defend its extensive shore line, many rivers and harbours in order to delay their advance to give time for the women and children of NZ to escape inland. Some of the many coastal and bridge machine gun posts remain in various states of repair near strategic headlands, beaches and bridges.

    A refurbished machine gun post in which a Lewis gun was positioned during WW II on Godley Head, Lyttleton Harbour near Christchurch- Author
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    Home Guard units were under provisioned often only issued a pair of boots and a tunic. They had limited access to military issue firearms and ammunition so they, using their Kiwi initiative, often self provisioned. Units made LP (Local Pattern) wooden rifle shapes, hand grenades and simulated machine guns to supplement what they were issued by the army. The LP simulated Lewis gun pictured was made in the Port Hills near Christchurch from hedgerow wood, a piece of tractor exhaust pipe, part of an American tin and an agricultural sprocket. Turning the handle activated the ‘rattle’ to simulate the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire.

    Local pattern Home Guard Lewis gun used during training to simulate machine gun fire (Author).

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    Many Australian troops trained on the Lewis gun also embarked with them especially into the Pacific Theatre. Recent conversations with veterans evoked cynical reactions to the reliability of these guns “having a working example would be a rarity”.

    As for their disposal after withdrawal from service every indication (yet to be fully substantiated) is that the New Zealand Lewis guns and probably the Hotchkiss guns as well were unceremoniously dumped at sea. A sad end indeed for the notorious and somewhat infamous Belgian Rattlesnake.


    Preparing to write this article has probably taken me most of my life thus far. As my ‘Love Affair’ for the wonderfully successful yet sometimes frustrating Lewis gun has grown it has been helped along the way by my deceased Grandfather D.H. Scott MBE JP, deceased parents Bert and Lyndall, Diane my wife and many collecting friends especially Ian Skennerton and Rod Woods who always assists with information and encouragement, collecting ‘buddy’ and ‘gun number’ model Malcolm Brady who sourced the parts bag in NZ, Phil Moore who on his many visits to NZ Archives in Wellington researching his own projects found time to search files pertaining to the Lewis gun and Murray Dempster.


    · Easterly, W.M., (1998). The Belgian Rattlesnake-The Lewis Automatic Machine Gun. Collector Grade Publications Incorporated, Ontario, Canada.
    · New Zealand Archives, Wellington, Selected files and photos.
    · Skennerton, I.D., (1989). 100 Years of Australian Machine Guns. Private publication. Margate, Australia.
    · Skennerton, I.D., (2012). Guns and Gear of Sparrow Force, Independent Digital Studio, Labrador, Australia.
    · Lewis Machine Gun (model 1915), Mechanism and Stoppages, Privately printed for Capt. H. Godsal from the Official notes with additional new methods and mechanism, Claxton Printing Works, Chelsea Barracks, May 1916.
    · Method of Instruction in the Lewis Gun, Issued by the General Staff, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, May, 1917.
    · The tactical Employment of Lewis Guns, Issued by the General Staff, Army Printing and Stationery Services, France, January 1918.
    · Small Arms Training Pamphlet, Volume 1, No 6, HMSO, UK, 1937.
    · Lewis Gun Mechanism Made Easy, by Major C.H.B. Pidham, Gale & Polden Limited, Aldershot, Great Britain, Revised Edition, 1940.
    · Lewis Gun Mechanism Made Easy, by Major C.H.B. Pidham, Gale & Polden Limited, Aldershot, Great Britain, 6th Edition, 1940.
    · .300 Lewis Machine Gun for the Home Guard, Bravon Ledger & Co, Bradford on Avon, UK, 1940
    · Small Arms Manual-Rifles, Machine Guns, Machine Carbines, Revolvers, Pistols, by Lt-Col J.A. Barlow, John Murray, London, 1942.
    · The Complete Lewis Gunner, by Instructor T.J., Gale & Polden Limited, Aldershot, Great Britain, 1944.
    · Lewis Gun Pocket Book and Illustrated Guide, Whitcombe and Tombes Limited, New Zealand.
    · The Lewis Gun Simplified-A Pocket Book and Illustrated Guide, Robertson & Mullens Ltd, Melbourne, 5th Edition.
    · The Lewis Gun: “Belgian Rattlesnake”, Marine Corps - USMC Community - Front Page
    · World War One, The Belgian Rattlesnake. smnmcshannon on HubPages

    Lewis Gun Love Affair

    (44 picture virtual tour)

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