Monday, March 21, 2011

History and Development of the Assault Rifle - II

When World War I started, the French introduced a light machine gun called the Chauchat. While it was capable of selecting both single and automatic firing modes, this firearm used full sized cartridges, unlike an assault rifle. It was also a notoriously unreliable weapon, because it did not function well under muddy conditions and jammed frequently because the slots cut into the magazine would let in dirt and mud. The .30-06 version also frequently jammed after a few shots once the gun became hot. In fact, it has the dubious distinction of being dubbed "worst machine gun ever" by several firearms experts. Still, it was not only used by the French, but also other allies such as Belgium and the United States. Captured Chauchats were even used by the Germans because they didn't have any comparable automatic firearms.

Chauchat Machine Gun. Click on image to enlarge.

Due to the Chauchat's unreliability under battlefield conditions, US troops turned to the redoubtable John Browning for help and he delivered the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) design in 1918. This weapon was introduced rather late in the war, but was very effective when it was used during this short time. The first time it was used was September 13th 1918 and one of the people demonstrating its use against the enemy was John Browning's son, Val Allen Browning.

Browning Automatic Rifle. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The BAR was so successful that the French ordered 15,000 of them to replace their own Chauchats! The BAR remained in production until the 1950s.

Note that both the Chauchat and BAR use full-size rifle cartridges. There were also automatic weapons designed during World War I, that used pistol ammunition. The most famous of these was the Thompson submachine gun, the so called "Tommy gun" that we studied about previously, when we studied the Blish lock mechanism. Both the Tommy gun and the BAR were designed rather late in the war though and the Tommy gun never saw action in World War I, but saw plenty of action in the hands of mobsters.

During the peace time period of World War I, several people argued for a new intermediate cartridge that was smaller than existing rifle cartridges, but bigger than pistol cartridges, and a suitable weapon to fire this new cartridge. The Swiss designer Furrer made an intermediate 7.65x35 cartridge for a carbine in 1921 and one Hauptmann Piderit of the German Rifle Testing Commission also advocated a shorter cartridge and a rifle to fire it. Colonel Fedorov, who we studied in the previous post, was also arguing for a smaller cartridge. There were also experiments made in Denmark and the US.

It was however, Germany, where some of the major new development took place. The Germans had observed that a small group of soldiers could easily overcome a larger group, provided that they had superior firepower. It was also observed that most infantry combat happened at less than 400 meters or so. By the 1930s, at least 5 German companies (Geco, DWM, RWS, Rheinmetall and Polte Patronenfabrik) were experimenting with intermediate rifle cartridges. It was Polte that was officially awarded the contract to design a new intermediate cartridge by the German military and after some experiments, came out with the 7.92x33 mm. "kurz" (German for "short") cartridge in 1938.

Contracts to design a new rifle for this cartridge were sent to both Walther and Haenel GmbH. Haenel's chief designer was Hugo Schmeisser and his design won out over the Walther design and was designated as the Maschinenkarabiner 1942 (after 1942, the year it was adopted) or MKb 42 for short. It underwent some minor design modifications, as requested by the German military. The Haenel design originally used an open bolt mechanism, but after a few trials, it was requested to make a closed bolt design similar to the Walther entry.

As it turned out, Adolf Hitler was strongly opposed to the new intermediate cartridge and demanded that more submachine guns be built instead. However, the German armament office secretly kept working on this new firearm and to avoid raising suspicions, they christened the weapon as MP 43 (MP = Machine Pistol). Hitler later asked for it to be renamed the MP 44, after some official tests in April 1944, unaware that it was not a machine pistol at all. In July 1944, Hitler held a conference with his generals on the Eastern Front and asked them what they needed most. A general who had no idea that the German armament office had disobeyed Hitler's orders, replied, "We want more of those new rifles!" and a thoroughly confused Hitler asked, "What new rifles?" and the cat was out of the bag. Some people thought they would be executed for disobeying Hitler's direct orders, but once Hitler was given a chance to test-fire the new MP 44 for himself, he became very impressed and enthusiastically gave it the name Sturmgewehr, which is German for "Storm (Assault) Rifle" ("Storm" as in storming a castle or assaulting a castle). This is where the term "Assault Rifle" comes from. Because of this new official name, the MP 44 was rechristened the StG 44.

Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44), the first firearm to be called "Assault Rifle". Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The StG 44 was heavily used in the Eastern Front and found extremely useful by soldiers. It was also very reliable in the extreme cold conditions of the Russian winter. It had a longer range than the Russian submachine guns, but a comparable rate of fire, switchable firing mode from single shot to full automatic mode, pretty decent accuracy and decent controllability even in fully automatic mode.

The StG 44 is now generally accepted as the world's first successful mass produced assault rifle. It was an encounter with one of these that prompted a Russian tank mechanic to invent his own assault rifle, which would later become one of the most famous designs world wide. But that is the subject of another article.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

History and Development of the Assault Rifle - I

In the next series of posts, we will study the evolution of the modern assault rifle.

First let us go back a few centuries in time and study how infantry warfare worked in the 1600s, 1700s and part of the 1800s. Back in those days, most firearms were smoothbore muskets, such as the famous Brown Bess, which was in service with the British military for over 100 years. Since muskets had no rifling, accuracy was somewhat limited. Also, since these firearms were muzzle loaders using mostly flintlock firing mechanisms, they were slow to load and use. Therefore the standard military strategy of the day was to line up three lines of troops  about 50-100 meters away from the enemy. The first line would fire their weapons and immediately retreat to the rear. The second line would then step forward and in turn discharge the weapons and then retreat to the rear and the third line would repeat the same process. Meanwhile, this would hopefully give the first line enough time to reload their firearms so they could fire another volley. Each line was coordinated by an officer so that all the men in one line would fire at approximately the same time. This strategy also maximized the firepower of the unit. Since the firearms weren't very accurate, it was hoped that the massed fire would hit at least some of the enemy troops. In fact, Colonel George Hanger of the British Army famously said, "A soldier's musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many are), will strike a figure of a man at 80 yards; it may even at a hundred; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, providing his antagonist aims at him; and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you may as well fire at the moon and have the same hope of hitting him. I do maintain and will prove…that no man was ever killed at 200 yards, by a common musket, by the person who aimed at him."

In the 1800s, with the advent of rifled firearms, massed fire tactics and tight formations began to fade away. As accuracy was improved, it was no longer practical for soldiers to fire at each other from standing positions over a plain. It took a while for military planners to realize that massed fire tactics were obsolete though, as can be witnessed by the huge casualties in the American Civil War, where men still shot at each other in tight formations at distances less than 100 yards apart. The final death knell of the massed formation strategy came in World War I, where the machine gun, trenches and artillery rendered this method obsolete. Instead, troops took pot shots at each other from longer ranges and from trenches.

In 1890, an Italian officer named Amerigo Cei-Rigotti invented an rifle, which was capable of selective fire (single shots or burst mode). The rifle was designed to fire 6.5x52 mm. ammunition from a detachable magazine. Incremental modifications were made to the rifle until 1900 before it was dropped from consideration. While this was the first real "assault" rifle, it wasn't very popular because it was extremely unreliable and had a very high rate of misfiring and jamming. That is why it was never adopted by any military anywhere.

The next development was the Fedorov Avtomat from Russia, in 1916. This particular firearm was developed by Vladimir Fedorov. This firearm was relatively lighter weight than other firearms of its time, had a large detachable magazine, had capability to switch firing mode from single shot to automatic mode and used an intermediate powered cartridge (smaller than a rifle cartridge, but larger than a pistol cartridge). The cartridge used for this was originally a custom designed 6.5 mm. cartridge, but it was later switched to use a 6.5x50 mm. Japanese designed Arisaka cartridge because it was available in quantity already. While this cartridge appears big compared to modern cartridges, remember that ammunition was not as powerful in those days, so it could be considered as an intermediate power cartridge. The Fedorov Avtomat was not produced in great numbers, but it was popular with Russian troops until World War II.

Federov avtomat assault rifle. Click on image to enlarge. Image is in the public domain.

The Fedorov Avtomat was influential because it was the first practical assault rifle that was adopted by a military anywhere. Incidentally, its inventor, Colonel Fedorov, also invented the concept of the infantry weapon family, where carbine, assault rifle, light machine gun, medium machine gun etc. would all share some commonality of parts (e.g.) action, receiver, trigger assembly etc.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Utility Firearms: Line Throwing Gun

In maritime history, there have been several cases where a ship has foundered close to shore and no one could be rescued because a rescue rope could not be sent to the ship. Therefore, in the 1800s, work began in the development of tethered projectiles that could be used to pass a rope to a ship.

The same need is also encountered in civil engineering projects when one needs to pass a rope over a chasm.

Even though development had started in the early 1800s, the first practical development to solve this problem didn't happen until 1850, when Captain David A. Lyle, a West Point and MIT graduate, sat down to solve the problem. He designed a short barreled cannon using a custom designed shot and special waterproof braided linen line. The cannon was named the Lyle gun in his honor.

A Lyle gun in use. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The Lyle gun had a range of about 700 yards. It also had huge recoil and hence, it was mounted on a small cart. The Lyle gun stayed in use until 1952 and similar models were also made by several other companies.

While the Lyle gun was technically a cannon, there were other hand-held line throwing guns being made as well.
Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The above image shows a gun made by the English gunmaker, W.W. Greener, capable of throwing a line about 150 yards or so.

William Schermuly, a British inventor of Dutch origin, came up with the idea of using rocket propulsion to toss the line, instead of using gunpowder. While his early experiments of 1897 just consisted of a rocket in a tube with a line attached to it, he began to work on a better device that could be small, light, accurate, have a long shelf life, safe and simple enough for a child to operate. In 1927, he came up with the concept of a rocket fired from a hand-held pistol, the SRPA (Schermuly Rocket Pistol Apparatus):

Click on image to enlarge.

This device had very little recoil, was not affected by cross-winds, weatherproof and the path of the rocket was visible so that people could easily correct their aim if needed. On top of that, it was light and simple enough that Schermuly got his 8-year old grandson to demonstrate its use to members of the British parliament.

By the time William Schermuly died in 1929, it became compulsory for any vessels over 500 tons to carry line throwers. The company was carried on by his sons and produced many other rocket based products, such as grappling hooks, rescue apparatus and flares during World War II.

Line throwing guns are still in use and they're still being made by some companies, such as Naval Gun Company Inc., which makes the official CG85 Bridger Line Throwing Gun Kit for the US Coast Guard.

H&R Bridger Line throwing gun made by the Naval Gun Company Inc. Click on image to enlarge.

A US Navy sailor aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eiserhower prepares to shoot a line to USNS Tippecanoe. 
The line will be used to set up a bigger line and perform refueling and replenishment at sea.

Such apparatus are used by coast guard, navy, firefighters, construction companies, offshore drilling rigs, commercial fishing fleets, tugs, barges etc.

Utility Firearms: Drill Rifle

Many of us have watched military units performing rifle drills in parades. The USMC's Silent Drill platoon is one of the more well known units here in the US. How many of you know that the rifles they use are inert? That is the subject of today's post: the Drill Rifle.

A drill rifle is based on a normal rifle, but it has one key difference: it cannot actually be fired. So why make a firearm that cannot be fired? It can be used to train cadets on the use of a rifle, before they go out and fire the real thing. It can also be used safely for drill demonstrations. It cannot be used by a disgruntled cadet to take shots at a crowd or a chief guest (yes, this has happened in the past in some countries). In the UK, the Lee Enfield L59A1 Drill Rifle was specifically developed because there was some concern about the Army Cadet Corps and Combined Cadet Corps having their equipment stolen by the IRA.

Modifications from a standard rifle include clipping the firing pin short so that it can't impact a round in the chamber, welding the barrel shut, welding the striker hole in the bolt shut, welding the barrel to the receiver so that it can't be removed and fitted with another barrel, removing locking lugs, cutting part of the barrel internally, removing sights  etc.

The end result: a rifle that looks very close to the real thing, but is incapable of firing and needs a large number of modifications before it will ever come close to firing anything. The USMC Silent Drill platoon uses inert versions of the M1 Garand rifle and US Navy uses inert versions of the M1903A3 Springfield rifle for their drill purposes.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Utility Firearms: Meat Processing Industry

In the meat processing industry, there are certain tools that are used to enable a quick humane death of a food animal. There are two basic types of firearms used here: (a) captive bolt type and (b) free bullet type. We will study both types in this post.

The first captive bolt pistol was invented by one Dr. Hugo Heiss of Straubing, Bavaria, Germany in 1903. The captive bolt type of firearm serves to stun an animal into unconsciousness, so it may then be processed. The pistol is placed against the skull of the animal and the trigger is pulled. The captive bolt pistol, as its name indicates, does NOT actually fire a bullet. Instead, it uses the force of compressed air, or a blank cartridge, to push a bolt forward with great force, which drives it into the animal's skull, thereby stunning it. After the blow is struck, spring tension pushes the bolt back into the device, as the figure below illustrates:
There are two types of captive bolt pistol: (a) the penetrating type, where the bolt has a sharpened tip and actually penetrates the skull into the brain of the animal and (b) non-penetrating type, where the bolt has a blunt rounded tip and doesn't penetrate the skull, but uses the concussive force generated to stun the animal. The pictures below show examples of both types:

Captive bolt pistol with penetrating bolt. Click on image to enlarge

Captive bolt pistol with non-penetrating bolt. Click on image to enlarge

Captive bolt penetrating type pistols driven by compressed air are now banned in the United States after a case of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) was detected in 2004. This is because the compressed air (unlike using a blank cartridge) forces infected brain matter into the bloodstream of the slaughtered animal. Since cattle blood is reprocessed for protein supplements in animal feed and milk replacements for calves, it could potentially spread the disease to other animals. Penetrating type pistols using blank cartridges and non-penetrating types are considered safe.

Since the bolt (i.e. the projectile) does not entirely leave the pistol, captive bolt pistols are not regarded as "firearms" in many jurisdictions and hence do not need any special paperwork.

The other type of firearm used in the meat processing industry is the free bullet type. In this case, a real bullet is indeed fired out. They are essentially small-caliber pistols designed specifically for putting an animal down. One of the first practical ones was designed by the famous English firm W.W. Greener of Birmingham in 1865. Called the Greener Humane Cattle Killer, this device quickly became the standard of the British War Office in the Veterinary and Butchering departments, was adopted by the British Admiralty's Victualling yards and was adopted by many veterinarians and butchers.

It consists of a short rifled barrel with a bell shaped muzzle. The bell serves to muffle the sound of explosion as well as protect the operator from muzzle flash. It has an ordinary spring striker that is struck by a wooden mallet. The piece containing the striker is screwed off the barrel, a cartridge is then inserted into the chamber and the piece screwed back on. The instrument is placed on the animal's forehead and the back end is tapped with a mallet to discharge the weapon. This model uses specially designed low power .310 caliber "cattle killer" cartridges manufactured by Kynoch Ltd.

Even though they weren't considered "firearms", such devices had to undergo proof tests and since W.W. Greener's main factory was located in Birmingham then (the firm's headquarters are now in Chippenham), these devices were marked with Birmingham Proof House markings.

Despite the small caliber bullet, if placed in the correct spot, only a single shot is needed to put an animal down. Since this spot varies for different animals, Greener included a set of diagrams in the package, indicating the best spot to use for different farm animals.

W.W. Greener produced several versions of this, including a pocket version for veterinarians, which was very popular. The model finally became obsolete in the 1960s when its unique .310 caliber cartridges became almost impossible to obtain. Due to demand, the firm has recently started manufacturing a Mark II version that uses a .32 ACP cartridge. W.W. Greener also made other models manufactured in different calibers to put down horses, sheep, pigs etc. and even a special version designed for use on dogs alone.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Utility Firearms: Industrial Shotguns

In our last post, we saw the use of shotguns in geological engineering. In this post, we will look at some more unusual uses of shotguns, in the fields of industry.

In industries like steel and cement, when a lime kiln or a blast furnace is used, there is always a gradual build up of material impurities, such as limestone clinker and excess cement (in the case of a lime kiln) or slag deposits (in the case of a blast furnace). These impurities harden on the inside and form rings, which reduce the efficiency of the kiln or blast furnace. Hence, a worker must periodically go in there and loosen the materials so that they can be removed. The same problem occurs in silos, mines and quarries for pretty much the same reasons.

In the early days, people would shutdown the kiln or furnace and wait for it to cool down. Then they would get inside with large sledgehammers and try to break the deposits manually. Then someone had the bright idea of using a large gauge shotgun to blaze away at the deposits and break them. This meant that they wouldn't have to wait for the kiln to cool down. The image below is a description of the process as it appeared in an issue of Popular Science in February 1933.

Click on image to enlarge.

The guns used in this process are usually 8-gauge or larger. They are mounted on a stand so that the user doesn't have to bear the recoil forces. Winchester and Remington are two major manufacturers of kiln guns. Remington's system is called "Masterblaster" and is usually painted green, while Winchester calls their tools "Western" and "Ringblaster" and usually paint them red.

Remington Masterblaster system. Click on image to enlarge.

Note the control wheels and levers that allow the user to point the shotgun in the designated direction and shoot it. 

A kiln gun in use. Click on image to enlarge

Using such a system allows the manufacturer to speed up the cleaning process and reduce equipment downtime.

Since the shooting happens largely parallel to the kiln surface, there is less risk of blowing holes through the kiln. The video below shows the usage of kiln guns (in this case, Winchester products):

They can also be used for furnace tapping as the video below demonstrates:

As you can see, kiln guns are pretty handy tools to have in industrial environments.

Utility Firearms: Geology and Shotguns

Continuing our series on utility firearms (i.e.) firearms not designed to take human life. We will discuss the use of shotguns in the field of geology and geological engineering in this post.

There is a physical principle called "seismic refraction". Basically, when seismic waves travel through the ground, the waves move at different velocities depending upon the various different layers of soil or rock. Also, the waves get refracted (i.e. they change their angle of travel) when they cross between two different layers of soil or rock. So if one has a source of seismic energy on one side and a detection device (a seismograph or a geophone) a short distance away, one can detect the seismic waves and determine the approximate depth of various layers or the depth to the bedrock, for instance. This is very useful in civil engineering and geological engineering, because engineers need to know if the soil can actually support the structure they're planning to build. Exploration geophysicists also use this technique to detect positions of mineral ores, oil, groundwater, geothermal sources etc.

So where does the shotgun come into all of this? Note in the previous paragraph, we said that there needs to be a source of seismic energy and a detection device. The source of seismic energy is simply something that impacts the earth surface with sufficient force to create seismic waves. For instance, one can use a sledgehammer to strike a metal plate on the ground. The sledgehammer is connected to the geophone recording system via a wire. The moment the sledgehammer impacts the metal plate, the recording starts. Of course, there are problems in using a sledgehammer in that (a) the results are not reliably repeatable as it depends on how tired the person swinging the sledgehammer is (b) it only outputs small amounts of seismic energy and only works on short distances and (c) it generates low frequency waves that mostly travel along the surface and don't penetrate too deep.

Therefore, what many people use is a shotgun (around 8 gauge or larger) to produce the seismic energy. The shotgun is usually mounted on a stand or a cart, so that even a weak person can operate it, without having to feel any recoil. In some cases, the shotgun actually fires a solid slug into the ground and in other cases, they merely use a blank shotgun shell, in which case the pressure energy of the column of air in the barrel is transferred to the ground. Like the sledgehammer method, there is a mechanism to start the geophone recording the instant the slug hits the metal plate placed on the ground. The advantages of this over the sledgehammer method are:

  1. Easily transportable and usable by even physically weak people (since it is on a stand and doesn't need to be fired from the shoulder)
  2. Highly repeatable source of seismic energy (much more than using a sledgehammer)
  3. Outputs higher frequency waves, so they penetrate the ground more.
Such shotguns are often called "Betsy Guns". Here's a couple of examples of what they like:

Public domain image. Click on image to enlarge.

Image courtesy of Thomas M. Boyd @ Colorado school of Mines

Of course, this equipment is a bit more bulky and expensive than a simple sledgehammer and there's also the question of getting permission to use a shotgun in certain countries, but it is still a commonly used method in many places.

For deeper penetration of seismic waves, users generally use something more powerful, such as dynamite. But that's not a firearm and we won't discuss it here :).

Utility Firearms: Powder Actuated Tools

In our previous post, we started a series of posts on firearms being used for purposes other than to take human life. Our previous post dealt with the topic of flare guns (Very pistols). In this post, we will look into uses of firearms in construction (i.e.) a Direct Fastening Tool or Power Actuated Tool.

A powder actuated tool is actually a form of a nail gun, that is used to nail one object to another. Powder actuated tools are used in situations where one needs to nail something on to a hard substrate, such as steel or concrete. The technology relies on exploding a propellant (usually cordite) and using the resulting gas pressure to drive a nail (or, more correctly, a "fastener") instead of a bullet through the surfaces of the objects to be fastened together. The technology was first invented around World War I and used for submarine hunting and there is a US patent from 1921 (US patent # 1365869) describing one. During World War II, the Mine Safety Appliance Corporation (MSA Corp.) designed and built several powder actuated tools for the US Navy, that could be used to temporarily repair steel ship hulls in an emergency.

There are two types of powder actuated tools: high velocity type and low velocity type. In the high velocity type, the propellant directly acts on the fastener. In the low velocity type, the propellant acts on a piston, the other end of which acts on the fastener. A tool is considered low velocity type, if the fastener is driven slower than 492 feet per second. High velocity type tools are illegal to be made or sold in the United States, but there are some made decades ago, still in use by shipbuilding and steel industries, that were grandfathered in because they were made before the law took effect.

Since the fasteners are designed to go through very hard substances, they are usually made from high quality hardened steel. Fasteners need not be just nails, they could be specialized fasteners, such as ones that have a screw thread in the end, to attach a nut.

Powder actuated tools come in several types (e.g.) single shot or magazine type, manually fed (i.e. you load fasteners and cartridges manually) semi-automatic type (i.e. cartridges are automatically loaded from the magazine, but fasteners are manually loaded) or fully automatic type (i.e. both fasteners and cartridges are automatically loaded) etc.
Public domain image of some cartridges used by powder actuated tools.

The main manufacturers of these tools are five companies: Simpsons Strong Tie, Ramset Fastening Systems, Powers Fasteners and Remington from the US and Hilti of Luxembourg. The above images show a Hilti DX E72 and a Simpson PT-25S tool and two strips of cartridges to be used by such tools. The cartridges may be unloaded from the plastic strip and manually loaded one by one for manual type tools, or the entire strip may be loaded directly into the magazine for semi-automatic and automatic type tools. Cartridges are usually sold in boxes of different colors to indicate their relative power. The plastic strip that the cartridges come in is also the same color to indicate the power. The colors used are (in order from weakest to strongest) gray, brown, green, yellow, red and purple. The video below illustrates the use of a powder actuated tool, different fasteners and different cartridge types

In some countries, powder actuated tools are very strictly controlled, e.g. the owner has to register the tool as a firearm and the operator of the tool requires specialized training and has to possess a license to use it. In the US, no new high velocity type tools are allowed to be made or sold, but older high velocity type tools that were made before the laws came in effect are grandfathered in. Low velocity type tools may still be made and sold in the US. US labor law also requires that operators receive special OSHA training before they are allowed to use such tools.

Utility Firearms: Flare Gun or Very Pistol

In this next series of posts, we will look at some utility firearms that were usually not used to take human life. The first one we will look at is the Flare Gun, otherwise known as the Very Pistol.

The name "Very Pistol" is derived from the name of the inventor, Lieutenant Edward W. Very, of the United States Navy. He invented a large caliber single-shot pistol with a single action firing mechanism, that could fire special flares into the air. It was designed to be used by people to send signals and reveal their position, usually to indicate that they were in distress and needed assistance. Flare guns were heavily used in both world wars and are still in use today. The flare guns of World War II era had a 1-inch bore (25.4 mm) and modern ones are smaller (12 gauge (18.53 mm.) diameter) Modern versions are usually made of brightly colored plastic, so that they're easy to find in an emergency situation.

World War I era 1-inch caliber Webley & Scott Mark III flare pistol, British Army, dated 1918. Click on image to enlarge
Image licensed by user Andy Dingley @ under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Modern 12 gauge flare gun manufactured by Orion Electronics. Note the bright plastics on this model. Click on image to enlarge.
Image licensed by P. Ubriaco (c) 2004, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

The flares come in three colors, red, green and "white star", and have a burn time of anywhere between 5 to 10 seconds, depending on flare type. Distress flares are typically shot straight up in the air, for maximum visibility time of the flare and also to show where the person in trouble is. During World War I and II, flare guns were also used in situations where radio silence was important. By firing sequences of pre-arranged colored flares, aircraft and ground forces could identify each other's positions and send specific signals.

Flare guns aren't made as strongly as normal firearms, so it is extremely unwise to try shooting a normal 12-gauge shotgun cartridge out of a flare gun, as the flare gun is likely to explode in the user's hands.

While flare guns are not designed to be a weapon, there have been instances where they've been used in that role. In World War II, a German pilot, Oberleutnant Arnim Faber, accidentally landed in an airfield in Wales and was captured by the duty pilot, Sgt. Jeffries, who didn't have a normal firearm and hence grabbed the nearest thing available, which was a Very pistol. When the USS Borie was hunting for the German submarine,  U-405, they rammed into each other and hand-to-hand fighting ensued, where at least one of the crew of the U-405 was hit in the chest by a Very flare fired by the crew of the USS Borie.

The most famous use of a flare gun is immortalized in the song, Smoke on the Water, by the British hard rock band, Deep Purple. Many people, even those that never listen to hard-rock or heavy metal music, will instantly recognize the opening guitar riff of this song, even if they don't know the title of the song. The story behind the song is this: the members of Deep Purple were in Montreux, Switzerland, trying to record a new album at an entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux casino. Meanwhile, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were playing a concert inside the casino theater, as part of the Montreux jazz festival. During the concert, a member of the audience fired a flare gun inside the venue. The ceiling caught fire, but the audience initially thought it was part of the show. The resulting fire ended up burning the entire casino down. The members of Deep Purple were watching the blaze from across the lake and were inspired into writing a classic song that has since been covered by countless hard-rock and heavy metal bands. The lyrics of the song make references to the flare gun.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Shotguns: Different Gauges

Well, we did study shotgun bores/gauges in an earlier post. But it is hard to visualize the effects of the different gauges from just a description.

No fear, the lovely and talented Heather LaCroix is here, demonstrating the effects of 10 gauge vs. 12 gauge vs. 20 gauge vs. .410 caliber (67 gauge). Remember from our earlier discussion of how shotgun gauges work, the smaller the number, the bigger the diameter of the cartridge and the more powerful the gun.

Thanks to Heather LaCroix and Jeff3230 for the demonstration.

Shotguns: Coach Gun

In our first article on shotgun basics, we studied the origin of the term "riding shotgun". This had to do with a particular type of shotgun, which was called the coach gun. A typical coach gun was a double barreled shotgun with barrels between 12-18 inches in length or so. Barrels were invariably placed side-by-side and typically were mostly 12-bore. The sights were typically a bead sight welded on to the barrels, as aim wasn't as critical at close ranges. They were generally loaded with buck shot and very effective at close ranges. Virtually all coach guns had twin triggers and most had external hammers, though there are a few hammerless models made.

The term "coach gun" came into use because of Wells Fargo bank. In 1858, they opened a stage coach route between Tipton, Missouri and the fast growing city of San Francisco, California. Not only did they transport passengers on this route, they also transported mail for the US post office, as well as large sums of paper money and gold to their branches. The route was 2800 miles long and passed through some of the wildest parts of the United States. Naturally, this attracted the attention of bandits and highwaymen and so these stage coaches were pretty heavily guarded. The driver of the stage-coach was at a disadvantage, because he had to concentrate on driving the horses, hence they would put a person next to him with a coach gun, to defend the two of them as needed, and there were additional guards inside the stage coach as well. Since it is difficult to hit a moving target from a bouncing stage coach, which is also moving at speed, the guards preferred a coach gun to a rifle, since all one needed to do was point the gun in the general direction and pull the trigger.

The same idea was also later used in Australia, by banks seeking to transfer large sums of money across different Australian towns.

There was no specific coach gun maker, as many manufacturers were making them: Remington, Lefever, Ithaca, Sharps Arms Manufacturing, Colt, Parker etc. are some of the famous names that made them.

As you can see from the above video, they can pack a punch.

Coach guns are still being manufactured by some companies, but sale may be restricted in certain areas, due to rules about what the minimum length of a shotgun should be.