The Story Of How The Lewis Light Machine Gun Arrived On The Western Front In The Great War.

The British arms industry has always been notable for its flair in taking foreign designs, modifying them to meet the British Forces own specific requirements and, in the process, producing a classic weapon with a long service life. A classic early example of this is the Maxim heavy machine gun that became the Vickers. There are many other examples of this phenomenon over the years. But, perhaps, the truest case of serendipity in the Great War was the Lewis air cooled, light machine-gun that, both on the land and in the air, changed the way the British fought the war on the Western Front and played a large part in its successful conclusion.

The Lewis gun was also known as the Lewis light machine rifle - a certain misnomer as it weighed 28 pounds (12 kg), including the magazine - and by the Germans in 1914 as the ' Belgian Rattlesnake', because of its Belgian manufacturing origins and its malignant efficiency in trench warfare.

The inventor of the Lewis gun
What were essentially the basic elements of the Lewis gun were invented by an American Samuel McClean in 1910 and sold in a job lot of patents to the Automatic Arms Company, USA. Finding the McLean automatic rifle design both impractical to produce and in use, the company asked a serving American army officer, Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis to re-engineer the whole gun. Col. Lewis retained the essential element of the invention - the gas piston fed from the barrel and the spiral spring that activated the rotating bolt mechanism - but added the top feeding circular magazine and a tubular finned air-cooling jacket. A flow of air created by the firing of the gun drew in cool air over the finned radiator. Contrary to some expectations the whole concept proved to be highly efficient and reliable.

Col. Isaacs then set about promoting and displaying his gun including a spectacular, first ever, demonstration of a machine gun being fired from an aircraft in flight.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army chiefs were unimpressed, despite the considerable publicity that the flying stunt evoked: their apathy to military aviation coming to the fore. The US Army Ordnance Board tested the gun but kept its results to itself and made no decision either way.

In disgust, and with every confidence in his gun, Lewis resigned his commission and left for Europe where he was told there were more receptive governments and arms manufacturers.

Col. Lewis arrived in Belgium in 1913, where he was asked to demonstrate the Lewis gun to the Belgian Army. The outcome was favourable reception, allied to a Government decision to produce a light machine gum of 0.303-in calibre that, unusually for European small arms, matched the British Army's standard calibre. A new company was formed called the Armes Automatiques Lewis located in the city of Liege. Meanwhile, the British, also in need of a light machine gun for its army and hearing of this development and the choice of the standard British calibre bullet, applied for a licence. The licence was for production in the United Kingdom at the British Small Arms Company (BSA) in Birmingham, England. By mid-1914, production in both factories was at full blast.

The Lewis gun on the Western Front
For the British, the Lewis gun was of an unusual concept in that it was air-cooled. Other British fully automatic weapons were at that time water cooled as it was not considered possible to keep the barrel cool enough in extended firing to give it a reasonable service life. The aluminium finned tubular cooling sleeve gave the Lewis Gun its characteristic long tubular shape. Another unusual feature was the circular pan shaped magazine that sat horizontally on top of the breech mechanism. It held either 47 or, later, mainly for use in aircraft 97, 0.303-inch calibre rifle bullets.

Its rate of fire compared favourably with the standard Western Front heavy machine guns - the German Maxim, the British Vickers and the French Hotchkiss - at 500 to 600 rounds a minute. Although to achieve that firing rate, it required a certain amount of skill and co-ordination in reloading the Lewis Gun magazine when compared with the continuous 250 round belts of the other heavy machine guns.

Such high fire rates required a Lewis gun team of at least two men, but on combat operations four or five men were often deployed in the Lewis gun team. The Number 1 fired the gun, the No. 2. changed the magazine, whilst the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 carried the spare magazines in special canvas transportation bags and offered protection to the firing team with their rifles and hand-grenades. But, eventually, such became the importance of the Lewis gun teams, that many BEF infantrymen were trained to undertake any of the roles.

All the Lewis gun team participated in the rather tedious task of recharging the empty magazines.

The Lewis gun had a wooden shoulder butt and it could be fired by a reasonably strong man whilst standing upright. More usually it was fired from the prone position using a bipod. Many anecdotes are told of the Lewis gun being fired from the hip whilst at the run.

Its effective range was about 600 yards (550 metres).

It was also found most efficacious to use the Lewis Gun in short aimed bursts, as this gave better killing rates and considerably extended the 'life' of the magazine above the maximum of five seconds of continuous fire.

Various applications
As the Lewis gun was the only light automatic machine gun at the outset of the war - apart from the much less favoured French 12kg 8mm Hotchkiss/Benet-Mercies (the metal strip magazine gave particular problems) - it was quickly exploited across a whole range of application by all the Allies. There is even mention in the archives that it was used in the German Zeppelin Staarken 'Giant' aircraft that undertook air raids over the United Kingdom from 17th September 1917.

  • Aircraft: The Mark II Lewis gun was the aerial gun of choice for the early fighters and reconnaissance planes where it was usually mounted on a multi-directional firing ring, and had an expanded 97 round magazine. It was the favoured weapon of most British aircraft gunners and observers.

The first German aircraft to fall victim to a British aircraft was shot down over Le Quesnoy, France, in August 1914 by a Belgian Lewis gun in British aircraft. However, when the Lewis gun was used as a forward mounted gun on the aircraft engine, or the upper wings, it presented problems for the pilot in changing the magazine whilst flying his plane - he had to stand up in his cockpit to do so. In this application the air cooled Vickers with its 250 round enclosed belt feed was usually preferred as it was when synchronised guns firing through the propeller came into service.

The constant airstream flow over an aircraft meant that cooling of the Lewis gun was not a problem, so the outer finned cooling jacket was superfluous. Its removal advantageously reduced the overall weight of the Lewis gun. Later experiments showed conclusively that the Lewis gun could be used without the finned cooling jacket at ambient temperature in all situations; even in the tropics, but this was not generally taken up in the Great War

Specially designed incendiary (Brock/Buckingham) and explosive (Pomery) bullets were highly effective when used in the Lewis gun against the German Zeppelin airship raiders and observation balloons from September 1916 onwards.

  • Ground to air defence: The Lewis gun was widely used in the trenches and in military installations against reconnaissance and bomber aircraft. A special post mounting was developed to facilitate its firing at aircraft from a standing position on the ground. Some war historians contend it was an Australian Lewis gun firing from the ground that claimed the life of Rittmiester Manfred Albrecht Richthofen, the top air-ace of the Great War, on the 21st April 1918. However, recent research indicates that in probability it was named Australian machine gunner firing a Vickers heavy machine gun. But, equally, it could have been an infantryman firing his Lee Enfield rifle, as all these guns used the British standard 0.303-inch round that killed von Richthofen.
  • Mobile: It was standard on British tanks and armoured cars and was even mounted on motorcycles.

Manufacturing and running costs
To the wartime account keepers and the administrators alike, the Lewis gun had distinct advantages over first the British Maxim (until the Maxim was replaced at the end of 1915) and then the Vickers heavy machine gun:

  • The Lewis gun was cheap at around ?15 compared with ?80 for the Vickers.
  • Six Lewis guns could be factory-assembled in the time it took to make a Vickers heavy machine gun.
  • The Lewis gun consisted of a total 62 easily manufactured parts whilst the basic Vickers had 28 detailed, mainly multi-part, components.
  • The Lewis Gun used much less ammunition than the Vickers did as, ideally, it was fired in short aimed bursts.

In July 1915, the Lewis gun was supplied to the troops on the Western Front. Firstly it was supplied to six BEF Divisions and, as more consignments were received, progressively to more units until by the time of the First Battle of the Somme all active service battalions had received a quota of four. These replaced the British Maxims and Vickers heavy machine guns that were withdrawn to the Brigade level from October 1915 onwards. The strength of the Lewis guns at the battalion level rose to 36 by July 1918 and these guns played and vital role in the more mobile war of the Last 100 Days Campaign.

The series of events that led to availability of the Lewis gun to the BEF was indeed serendipity. This light, relatively cheap and highly reliable light machine gun eventually became one of the foci around which the defeat of the German Army on the Western Front was formulated. Initially it was received with some suspicion by the 'accurate and rapid rifle-fire conquers all' school of military thought. But its ubiquity in use soon won around all ranks: indeed, anecdotal evidence indicates that many troops on the Front Line became distinctly ill at ease when Lewis gun support was not to close to hand.

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