Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lewis Machine Gun in World War I

By Reginald T. Townsend

Mounted on a British Airplane
And the Allies are indebted to American inventive genius for yet another deadly weapon. "The Hose of Death" and "The Belgian Rattlesnake" are the descriptive titles bestowed by the men in the trenches upon the Lewis machine gun, the inven­tion of Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, a re­tired United States Army officer.

"The weapon that is the envy of all Europe" is the way Lord Cecil describes the Lewis machine gun.

"Easily the best machine gun I have ever seen," adds General Leonard Wood, and Lieutenant William Robinson of His Britannic Majesty's air corps, demon­strated his opinion in a more striking manner last September by bringing a giant Zeppelin crashing down over London with well-directed fire from the gun.

But it is in the trenches and on the bat­tlefields of Europe by night and by day that the Lewis machine gun is undergoing the ordeal by fire, and emerging successful, to add new laurels to the genius of American inventors, although the Ordnance Department of the United States Army has steadily refused to adopt the Lewis gun even in the face of expert testimony and despite the fact that each week a thousand of these guns are supplied to the Allies.

The Lewis gun, although by no means perfect—the machine gun as a weapon of war has not yet cut its wisdom teeth—has many advantages. It is light—it weighs but 262 pounds and can be carried by one man alone easily, it can be quickly loaded in the dark, it is cooled by air and needs no water, it fires, with lightning-like rapidity, from 200 to 800 shots a minute, and the recoil is so slight that it can be fired from the shoulder like an ordinary rifle. Its light weight makes it peculiarly adapted to uses on airplanes, and it was the first machine gun fired from an airplane—at College Park, Md., in 1912, when it "marked the beginning of a new era in warfare," as the Army and Navy Register put it. The fol­lowing year a prominent banker of Ant­werp chanced to witness a demonstration of the gun fired from an airplane in Belgium and was so impressed with it that within forty-eight hours he had acquired the European rights to make it.


Lewis Machine Gun assembled
At present the British use the Lewis gun, to the exclusion of all other makes, on their aircraft, but without the outer aluminum casing, for when the gun is mounted on an airplane the wind pressure acts as such a cooling device that the casing, which ra­diates the heat engendered by the gases, is done away with, thereby lessening the weight of the gun still further. One hun­dred and twenty-five of these guns are mounted upon new airplanes each week and dispatched to the battle lines. The Lewis gun is the ideal weapon for a motor­cycle corps—and the motor-cycle is play­ing a larger part in modern warfare each year. With the machine gun and its oper­ator carried in a side-car the motor-cycle can make quick sorties, or it can be moved quickly from one place to another to rein­force weak spots in a line, while in covering a retreat the machine gun can hold off the enemy while its regiment returns to safety, and at the last moment the operator picks up his gun, climbs into the side-car, and whirls after his regiment to repeat the per­formance as often as is necessary. This is a field that contains many possibilities that have not yet been worked out.

Lewis Machine Gun taken apart
But even more advantageous than its light weight is the simplicity of the Lewis gun. Including every single stud and the smallest part, it has but sixty-two parts in all. These can hardly be wrongly assembled. For assembling or taking apart the gun, the working parts are much fewer. Three days' instruction at the most should suffice for the novice to understand thoroughly the working of all parts of the gun. For example, at a demonstration of the gun this summer on the State Rifle Range at Peekskill, N. Y., a trooper who had never seen a machine gun before—much less handled one—took apart and reassembled a Lewis gun in about three minutes, and the only tool that was necessary was the point of a regulation rifle cartridge.


The gun is air-cooled, having an alumi­num jacket with longitudinal fins radially disposed and contained in a steel casing which is extended beyond the barrel, so that each time the gun is fired a vacuum is created which sucks in air through the sector-shaped passage outside the barrel. The gun is gas operated, that is to say, by trapping a portion of the powder gases formed by the explosion a plunger is driven back which operates the automatic mech­anism for firing the gun and ejecting the shells. The cartridges are contained in circular rotating steel magazines holding forty-seven rounds each. It is but the work of a moment to change the magazines, simply removing the old one and clamping a new one into place on top of the gun. This ease in changing magazines was es­pecially commented upon by the board of Army officers that conducted severe tests of the Lewis gun at Plattsburg in June, 1916. The board in its report found the following advantages in the gun: (1) Its simplicity; (2) rapidity and ease with which a magazine may be attached or re­moved; (3) efficient cooling device; (4) ease in cocking the piece (and once cocked the very lightest pressure upon the trigger will let loose a rain of death); (5) ease in reduction of jams (the unjammable ma­chine gun has yet to make its appearance); and (6) satisfactory action in mud and sand and with deformed cartridges.


Colonel Issac Newton Lewis
And the story of "the man behind the gun," Colonel Lewis, is the story of a doggedness of purpose that in a long career against indecision and indifference would not be downed. Isaac Newton Lewis was born in western Pennsylvania in 1858 and entered the United States Military Academy on an appointment from Kansas in 1880. Upon graduation from West Point in 1884 he was commissioned in the artil­lery and for several years followed the nar­row routine of Army life, employing his leisure time upon inventions. Among the many successful inventions that he has devised are an automobile submarine tor­pedo, an automatic cannon sight, and a terrestrial telescope having an unusually large clear field of view. His non-military inventions are the first practical system of lighting railroad cars by means of a self-regulated dynamo carried on the car trucks; the differentially wound dynamo, now in general use; and a method of electric cur­rent supply for country houses, using wind­mills as motive power. While he was but a second lieutenant in the early 'nineties he realized that there was a shortage in range finders and set about to remedy the defect. But this was an expensive field of experiment on the modest pay of a second lieutenant with a family to support, and it was only by pledging his life insurance that he was able to obtain sufficient funds to achieve his purpose. And, as with all his military inventions, far from being en­couraged in his efforts, he received only criticism from the Ordnance Board, which rejected his range-finder, only to be forced to buy the finder when the war with Spain broke out and there was a dearth of them.

In 1900 Colonel Nelson A. Miles sent Captain Lewis—he was captain then—abroad to study the ordnance of the Eu­ropean nations, with the result that upon his return he designed a new rapid-fire field gun and mount for field artillery that be­came the standard and that so altered the tactics of battle that it was necessary to reorganize the Artillery Corps to meet the change his gun had caused.

In trenches in France
Called before a Congressional com­mittee—Colonel Lewis is absolutely frank and outspoken at all times—his statements as to conditions in the Ordnance Depart­ment aroused (and he knew at the time he made them that they would arouse) such antagonism that he was ordered to an isl­and post near San Francisco. No sooner had he arrived than he designed a new and successful system of harbor defense for San Francisco. But as soon as Washing­ton learned that he had "bobbed up" serenely in this quarter they "exiled" him to Puget Sound. However, owing to a change of administration, his "term," as he refers to it with a twinkle in his eye, was soon up and he was recalled.

Colonel Lewis had long pondered over the fact that there was no connecting link between the soldier firing his rifle from the shoulder and laboriously cocking the piece between each shot, allowing virtually but one shot at an enemy—for an enemy target is rarely in view but for the briefest moment possible—and the heavy machine gun which was too ponderous to move about with rapidity and ease.

With the idea of supplying the missing link between the rifle and the field piece, he set about devising a machine gun that should fire with extraordinary quickness and yet be light enough to be transported by one man. The result was the gun that now bears his name.

The Lewis Machine Gun

In trench at Saloniki
He at once offered the rights to the Ord­nance Department free of charge (as he had offered all his inventions gratis to his country) only to have it refused repeatedly and never given a thorough test, although such men as General Wood and General Funston championed the gun strongly. Finally he became discouraged and asked to be retired from the service so that he might go abroad and find a market for his new invention.

A market was soon found and a company incorporated in Belgium for its manufac­ture. But after a short time Colonel Lewis found that the Germans were bending every effort, and had succeeded to a con­siderable degree, in obtaining control of the manufacture of war supplies in Belgium, so he turned to England for a new field. Tests of the gun were held at Bisley in the presence of British Army officers with such satisfactory results that a factory was started eighteen months before the out­break of the war to manufacture Lewis guns in England. To-day there is an­other factory in France working over­time to produce the guns, and a firm in Utica, N. Y., manufactures approximately two hundred a week.

from the World's Work Magazine, 1916


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