O.E.D.: Small-arms, 1710 = Fire-arms capable of being carried in the hand, as contrasted with ordnance.


Birmingham, England, has for centuries been an armaments making centre, first specialising in swords and armour for the British gentry.

In 1689, a guild of Birmingham metal smiths jointly took on a British Government contract to produce 200 Snaphaunce (flintlock) muskets a month. This guild-based form of contracting continued to expand in a cyclic manner as war scares came and went. The arrangement lasted for over a 100 years until, at the time of Wellington's victory at Waterloo, in 1815, the city was producing half-a-million small-arms a year with a work force of 7,000 workers.

In the1850's, the British Government's own small arms factory located at Enfield, London, was modernised with the installation of the new mass production machinery. This posed a serious threat to the Birmingham producers.

The outcome of this looming threat was the calling in June 1861 of a meeting of the Birmingham producers. As a result the Birmingham Small Arms Company (B.S.A.) was formed with the purpose of making small-arms in bulk by machine.

Small-arms production by machine

The establishment of the Birmingham Small Arms factory was not a smooth-going process and, paradoxically, the first major order came from Turkey; and it was for 50,000 Lee Enfield model rifles.

Other orders came in of sufficient volume to keep the factory going, and various ventures were tried. These included the production tens of thousands Martini-Henry carbines as government contractors, as well as the manufacture of various hunting guns, target rifles and, in 1904, air rifles. Even a bicycle production section was established in 1880.

B.S.A. and the Great War

rifleAt the outbreak of war in August 1914, the B.S.A. was in a period of the doldrums with the production of only 650 small-arms a week to meet a single British Government contract. Immediately, B.S.A. was asked to boost production radically to help meet the small-arms requirements of a vastly expanding British Army.

Changing to a 24-hour day of three eight-hour shifts, BSA boosted its production radically to attain an output of 10,000 Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Mark III, 0.303 inch calibre rifles a week. Additionally, as the men left for the Western Front and other theatres of war, increasing numbers of female workers were recruited to replace them, as well as to fill many of the newly created jobs. The whole production process was revolutionised to meet the ever-increasing demand for guns.

Although increasing numbers of heavy machines guns were produced by the Maxim and Vickers Companies, and several arms manufacturers around the world were developing what came to be known as Automatic Rifles, there was no British light machine gun in production in 1914. But an unusual development put the manufacture of a fully developed light machine gun into B.S.A.'s remit with dramatic results.

In 1910, a serving American officer and amateur inventor, Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, had perfected a light machine gun originally designed by another American, Samuel Maclean. The American Army showed no interest in its production, so Colonel Newton took retirement and moved to Belgium where the Belgians undertook its manufacture. Surprisingly, its calibre was that of the standard British rifle round, the 0.303 inch (7.7mm).

When Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, many of Lewis' skilled workers fled to Britain where they we given employment by B.S.A. The 'Lewis' machine gun was put into production. From November1914, it was progressively introduced into the British Army as a two-man operated, shoulder-fired, light machine-gun firing 550 rounds per minute. The firing mechanism was gas operated, air-cooled and had a 47 round pan-like revolving magazine that was easy to change. Importantly, it could be manufactured rapidly, requiring only one-sixth of the manufacturing time and cost of a Vickers Mk. I. machine gun.Although the Lewis weighed 11kg (22lbs) - without its 47 round magazine (4.5kg) - it was still considerably lighter and more manoeuvrable than the water-cooled Vickers Mk.I (33 kg) and Maxim MG1908 (32kg) machine guns. Accordingly, it was also immediately adopted by the Royal Flying Corps to be fitted as an auxiliary gun for its reconnaissance and fighter aircraft, where the alternative 97 round pan magazine proved to be particularly useful. Unfortunately, the Lewis did not prove suitable for installation as a machine gun firing forward through the propeller via an interrupter gear. However, various flexible fuselage and wing mountings were developed that facilitated it use as a most effective additional source of aerial firepower. There were even reports of the Germans used stocks of captured B.S.A. Lewis guns to arm their heavy Zeppelin Staaken bombers on their raids over Great Britain.On the battle-ground, whilst still rather on the heavy side, the B.S.A. Lewis was also found by the infantry to be a most useful portable gun and the fact that it was air-cooled, and so did not need a continual supply of water for cooling, was a considerable bonus.By the time of the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916, B.S.A. had produced sufficient Lewis guns to provide most British battalions with four guns, whilst the rest only received two.

As the war progressed and B.S.A. production of Lewis guns peaked, there were sufficient to go round to provide two Lewis guns per infantry platoon; equivalent to eight per 200 man company.

However, it should be noted that the welcome that the B.S.A. Lewis guns received from the Front-line troops was by no means uniformly enthusiastic, as they feared their much harder hitting heavy Vickers would be replaced. But when the role of the Lewis gun was properly evolved, the troops found it to be indispensable in some close-quarter fighting conditions. Nonetheless, the British infantryman never did lose his preference for the Vickers and the B.S.A. Lewis always remained to them only a very welcome and useful, but additional, tool.

The B.S.A. Lewis gun was also used in the British Mark IV. Tank.

When the Armistice came, the British Expeditionary Force in France alone had been supplied with over 30,000 B.S.A. Lewis guns.

Many war historians believe that the B.S.A. Lewis was a key factor in boosting the firepower available to the British and Allied infantryman in the latter part of the war. It made possible the revised platoon-based tactics that proved to be so successful in 1918, so the B.S.A. role in supplying them was a vital one. Of course, there was criticism regarding its unwieldliness and its huge appetite for ammunition, but this was ameliorated by the practice of firing it in short bursts rather than in sustained fire. Overall, most comment was generally favourable within in the limitations of its proper deployment.

Labour troubles

Contrary to popular belief, the armaments and munitions factories of the Great War were far from free from industrial strife. Much of it was due to the personalities and attitudes of the small, but radical, cabal leading the major steel unions, and the rather vacillating and concession-granting response of the politicians. Lloyd George, as both Munitions Minister and Prime Minister in turn, was the prime culprit in these lax dealings with the worker's leaders. A lese-majesty not enjoyed by their worker representative counterparts on the Continent. On the engineers side it was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (A.S.E.) that was the most draconian and persistent in its demands. Despite the anti-strike provisions of State of War and the 1915 Munitions of War Acts, the A.S.E. leaders regarded 'the privileges of skilled labour as almost Gospel'. Its most irresponsible action was to call 20,000 of its members out on strike in April 1918, when Ludendorff's Kaiserschlacht Offensive was within 50 miles of Paris.

Accordingly, B.S.A. was not immune to these troubles and pressures, and from time-to-time production rates faltered, although many of its female workers were not unionised. What the troops in the Front-Line thought about these virtual acts of treachery can only be conjectured, but the politicians caved in on almost every confrontation with the Unions, including the miners.

Additional production.

As the need arose in the Great War, separate production lines were established at B.S.A. that built folding bicycles for the infantry and multi-purpose motorcycles of various configurations. Appropriately, one version of the latter had a sidecar mounted with a Lewis gun.

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