HL Deb 13 May 1904 vol 134 cc1273-87

rose to call attention to defects apparent in the new service rifle; and to ask His Majesty's Government whether gauges and specifications have yet been sent out to private I firms for its manufacture, what is the explanation of the high price, £4 10s. per rifle, which it has been announced such firms are to receive; whether it has been decided to issue the weapon in its present form to all branches of the defence services, and how long a time will elapse before the re-armament of His Majesty's forces will be complete. He said: My Lords, I can assure His Majesty's Government that I do not raise this question in any captious or Party spirit. It is a subject that I have long taken an interest in, and I am only too anxious to do anything I can to secure the best weapon possible for the British Army. I should have liked to have raised this question rather sooner, but it is only within the last fortnight that I managed to get the loan of one of the new rifles, and I was desirous of handling it and firing a few shots out of it before raising the question in your Lordships' House. I think I ought also to say that I have a strong predisposition in favour of the bolt action and magazine applied to the many forms of Mauser rifle, which I believe to be preferable to the form which the British Army have adopted.

I have not come here to say that the new rifle is a bad weapon, or that it is a shame to put British soldiers in the field armed with it. I thoroughly admit that the new rifle is a good one, but I do not admit that it is the best; and I hold that we ought not to be content with having merely a good rifle, but ought to have absolutely the best rifle that it is possible to produce, and not only the best rifle at the moment, but the rifle that will afford the best basis on which to graft further improvements. I have seen it constantly stated in the newspapers that a great drawback of the new rifle is the amount of its recoil. I admit that there is a perceptible increase in the recoil, but it remains so small that for all practical purposes it need not be considered. I should not estimate it at more than a quarter of that in the Martini-Henri. There are other points in which improvement has undoubtedly been made in the present weapon as compared with the Lee-Enfield. In the first place, it is a good pound lighter which in itself is an important consideration; but I doubt whether, in so far as that lightening has been obtained by the shortening of the barrel by five inch, it is altogether an advantage. Then you have for the first time on a British weapon the old ladder-leaf back-sight abolished and a notched stem back-sight introduced. That is an enormous improvement. Again, it has at last been decided to adopt the method of loading with a charger, so that five cartridges are put into the magazine by a single movement, which is a great improvement. Further, it has been decided to issue the rifle with stocks of three different sizes. That, again, is a great improvement, because each man, according to his physical build, will be, to some extent at any rate, fitted with a weapon suitable to himself.

So far I have said nothing but good of the new rifle. Now I come to some criticisms, and I may take them under five heads: the barrel, the sights, the breech action, the magazine, and the stock. The barrel is, of course, the most important part of a rifle, and also the most delicate. It is claimed, I know, that the new rifle—I am not speaking of this particular new rifle, but of the Enfield barrel—will stand 8,000 shots fired out of it. I cannot believe that. My own experience is that you really cannot trust in the accuracy of a 303 barrel, even for deer-stalking purposes, for more than three years, and that not on account of the number of shots fired through it, but because of the extraordinarily destructive nature of the explosive used. The effect of the explosion of cordite is to send through the barrel a pillar of white-hot fire at a temperature exceeding that of the melting temperature of steel. It leaves deposits of a most harmful character, and the life of the barrel is very rapidly brought to a close by the erosive and corrosive effect of the explosive itself. I maintain that one of our first objects in selecting a rifle ought to be to decide on such a form as will render it easy to replace the barrel, and we should also secure that the action on which the barrel is built up will stand a greater strain, if that is required by the development of ammunition. The barrel in the new rifle has been shortened by five inches. That has been done partly to lighten the rifle and to make it more convenient for use by mounted men. The change brings with it some considerable disadvantages.

I know it is claimed in spite of the shortening of the rifle, the result of a certain small change in the grooving, and of one or two other small alterations, has been that you maintain the same muzzle velocity for about 2,000 foot seconds as in the present long rifle, but I am assured by a distinguished member of the Explosives Committee that if the same improvements had been applied to the longer barrel you would have produced a much greater muzzle velocity, probably about 2,400 foot seconds, involving a lower trajectory and a longer range, and so have secured a weapon which would shoot further and be easier for a soldier to shoot with. Therefore, I think that from the point of view of efficiency there is a good deal to be said against the shortening of the barrel for the purpose of any slight reduction in weight. Then I come to the question as to its convenience to mounted men. Undoubtedly, in the old days, when the mounted man's weapon was carried in a bucket on the saddle, it was important that it should be short, but I doubt very much whether with the present fashion of mounted men carrying their rifle as the lance is carried in a clive, with a strap fastened near the muzzle passing around the soldier's arm, the shortening of the rifle greatly adds to its convenience, while it certainly reduces the efficiency of the weapon. Admitting that there is an advantage to mounted men in having a shortened rifle, is it desirable to shorten the rifle for all troops? Why should an infantryman be forced to have a shortened weapon, which certainly will not carry so far, simply for the convenience of the mounted man, especially as the same cartridge would be used if the rifle barrel were made in two lengths? My Lords, a rifle will always out-range a carbine, and it is now proposed to arm all services with a carbine—a greatly improved one no doubt—but still a carbine.

I now come to the question of sights. I have said that the back-sight is a great improvement, and I should say it is as good as any to be found on any foreign rifle, and probably better; but the effect of the shortening of the barrel of the rifle has been to bring the back-sight and the fore-sight much closer together. Instead of being about twenty-four inches apart, they are on the new rifle only nineteen inches apart. Everybody who knows anything about long-range rifle-shooting knows that the longer the distance between the back-sight and the fore-sight the greater you reduce the probability of variation, and the easier you make it to shoot. Provided you get a back-sight sufficiently far from the eye to secure clearness, then the longer the distance between the back-sight and the fore-sight the easier it is to shoot; and what I think we want to arm the British soldier with is not only the best rifle, but the easiest rifle to shoot with. I do think that is a strong objection to the shortened rifle. A single word now on a comparatively small detail with regard to the foresight. The fore-sight on the new rifle is protected by a sort of crescent-shaped projection, intended, of course, to protect it from damage—a useful thing for mounted men, but not in anything like the same degree necessary for infantry; and if did strike mo in using the rifle that in a bad light this projection would throw such a shadow on the fore-sight itself as would interfere with the clearness of the sight.

I pass next to the bolt action. Here I do really think that we have a cause for grievance against the authorities. I believe that practically every competent gunmaker will tell you that of all the breech actions applied to bolt rifles throughout the world the British one is the weakest. It is true that in the British rifle the strain on the bolt action is less than in most of the other rifles. The strain of explosion on the bolt of the British rifle is, I think, about 16.5 tons, whereas the average strain in the rifles of foreign nations runs to something over nineteen tons, and in one rifle, the Mannlichor, used by Roumania it is as high as twenty-six tons. I am quite sure that any competent gunmaker would tell you that you could not with safety greatly increase the strain that is at present thrown on the British bolt. That is the foundation of one of my chief complaints against this rifle. As you were re-arming the British Forces opportunity should have been taken of strengthening the bolt, so that, in view of any future development of the barrel and the ammunition, you would have a stronger action behind the barrel. The bolt of the British rifle, to begin with, is in two pieces, the bolthead being attached to the bolt by a screw about half an inch in length, and some small portion of the force of the explosion must each time come on the thread of the screw. Necessarily a bolt that is in two pieces is not as strong as a bolt made in one piece, and the thread of the screw becomes worn, not only by the force of the explosion, but also by the strain thrown on it by the extraction of exploded cartridges, the whole of which falls on the thread of the screw. This form of bolt was adopted in British rifles because the authorities thought it was not a good thing for the extractor to pass round a portion of the rim of the cartridge before the process of extraction took place, but this object can equally be effected by placing the extractor on a collar working round the bolt. The result of our plan is that it is made impossible to lock the bolt at the point where the greatest strain takes place—namely, at the base of the barrel.

In the case of the foreign bolts such as the Mauser or Mannlicher two strong lugs are found at the head of the bolt which look firmly into the action at the very base of the barrel where the main force of the explosion takes place, and there is also at the back of the bolt a further lug to fall back upon. In our rifles the whole of the force of the explosion is taken on the bolt rib and bolt lug towards the base of the bolt, against the rear wall of the recess in tin body, at the very point where the action is weakest, because in front it has necessarily to be cut away in order to allow the cartridges to be fed up through it from the magazine below. I think it will be seen that the fact of the bolt locking behind the very weakest part of the whole action does not tend to the strength of the action, but, on the contrary, forms a very marked weakness in it. I should like to give your Lordships my own experience with regard to the solidity of the Mauser action. I have used Mauser rifles now for twelve years. About three years ago I thought I would like to have rather a more powerful weapon, so I determined to fit on to my .303 action a .360 barrel. I put the .360 barrel on to the action that had before served for the .303 barrel, and by using a straight cartridge I was able to get the .360 cartridge in the .303 magazine. With the .360 barrel I used forty grains of cordite and a bullet weighing .300 grains, as against, in the .303 barrel, a charge.

of thirty grains of cordite and a bullet weighing 215 grains. Noble Lords will readily recognise the difference in the strain on the action caused by the use of a barrel with a bigger bore, a heavier bullet, and a larger charge of cordite in comparison with that for which the action was originally intended. That rifle I have used for the last three years; it does not show the least signs of shaking and has been thoroughly satisfactory. Again, I say that if you apply to any competent gun-maker, he would demur to putting a .360 barrel with that charge on to your British bolt action.

Now I come to the magazine. The magazine of the British rifle is of the old type. It has only changed in this respect, that now it is loaded from a charger, five cartridges being inserted at one motion. You still have this bulky and rather flimsy box under the rifle, just in front of the trigger guard, so that a man shouldering his rifle cannot shoulder it straight. A dent in this box renders the magazine useless, because directly you get any indentation the platform on which the cartridges rest, and from which they are fed into the barrel, refuses to work. On foot and still more on horseback this magazine is liable to be damaged, and is undoubtedly a source of trouble. In the Mauser rifle the magazine is carried completely inside the forehand of the rifle. There is no projection below the rifle in front of the trigger guard. It may be said that the Mauser magazine will only hold five cartridges, while the British magazine holds ten. There might be something in that objection when the magazine was considered only to be a reserve shut off by the cut off, and the rifle was to be used as a single loader till the "supreme moment" arrived. But now that you load from a charger and are to fire always from the magazine, it would be better to adopt the five-shot magazine. You cannot put ten cartridges into one charger, and the result is that it takes three motions in order to fill your ten-shot magazine. My contention is that now that you have adopted the new system of loading from a charger you would do perfectly well with the smaller magazine, and could be able to keep up as rapid a fire from it as from the larger one. Moreover, the advantage of having the magazine enclosed in the stock of the rifle and of not having this protruding box under the rifle is very great. These are two points I wish to press very strongly on the authorities—the desirability of an entire reconsideration of the bolt action and of the magazine. I understand that it has been decided to retain the stock in two pieces. All foreign countries have the woodwork of their rifle in one piece. It is cheaper, and, I believe, stronger. The screw which holds the two pieces of the stock together is apt to work loose through the, shock of firing, and no one who has not the experience of it would believe what an effect such a loosening of the screw has on the shooting of the rifle. I believe that there again the foreign system would prove the best.

I have ventured to criticise, but it will perhaps be said to me, What have you got to propose? Well, my contention is this, that it would be a wise thing now for the War Office to hold their hands with regard to the issuing of this rifle. As I understand, they have completed arrangements for its manufacture at the Government factories, but they have not yet entered into complete arrangements with private firms. I quite conceive that a strong argument may be made in favour of giving this shortened rifle to mounted troops, and my suggestion is that His Majesty's Government in the meantime should confine themselves to issuing the new pattern of rifle to the mounted troops. With regard to the other forces, I would suggest that the War Office should apply to the existing rifles the new back-sight and should modify the breach action, by removing the dust cover and adapting it for the use of the charger, which could be effected at little trouble and cost. With these changes you would get two of the greatest improvements in the new rifle incorporated, as I believe, cheaply in the existing rifle. Then I say, go thoroughly and fully into these questions, with the advice of all the best trade experts you can get. I think you will find that professional opinion is pretty unanimous that a great improvement could be effected both in the bolt action and in the magazine. I am sure that the British Army would in no way suffer in the meantime because, even if war were to break out, they would have the new back-sight and the new arrangement for charger loading applied to the magazine.

A single word as to the price of the rifle. I was astonished when I read the other day in the reports of the proceedings in another place that the new rifle was to cost in Government factories £3 10s., and that private firms who were to manufacture it were to get £4 10s. per rifle. That is an enormous price. To give £4 10s. for one of these rifles seems to me most extravagant. The old Martini-Henri rifle cost about £2 2s.; the cost of the French rifle is about £2 or less; and the cost of the Mannlicher and the Mauser is somewhere about £3. I had the curiosity the other day to ask at what price Messrs. Mauser would provide a rifle of their latest pattern adapted to British cartridges. The firm replied that they would be very glad to supply such rifles to the amount of an order of 50,000 at £2 16s. each, or in smaller quantities at £2 18s. If a firm in Germany can supply rifles, about the excellence of which there is no question, at this price, surely it is extravagant for the War Office to give private firms in England £4 10s. per rifle, especially when you consider that this is no new weapon, but a mere modifcation of the existing one. Lastly, I would refer to the great multiplication of parts in the new rifle. It has about 120 parts, which, I think, is an unnecessarily large number. In the Mauser rifle the parts run to about eighty. This, too, is a matter worthy of consideration. I now beg to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, before my noble friend the Under-Secretary of State for War answers the interesting enquiry which has been addressed to him by the noble Lord opposite, I wish to put two further questions. No one has more expert knowledge of rifle-shooting than the noble Lord, and it will be readily admitted that no one is more entitled to give his opinion than ho is, for it was through his interposition years ago that the Martini-Henri Mark 2 rifle was adopted by the Government. Last year I was informed on good authority that the conversion of the existing rifle would cost £3 10s. That seems to me a very large sum, especially when we are now informed that the new rifle is to be supplied at £4 10s. I should like to know whether the existing rifles cannot be converted at less cost than £3 103., and whether the existing cartridges can be adapted to the clip system. There is this advantage, I am told, in connection with the new rifle, that it is the only one in the world that can fire eleven shots— that is, one in the barrel and ten (two clips of five) in the magazine. I am bound to say, having handled the rifle, that it is not a beautiful weapon. It is very thick, and looks as if it had a very severe attack of gout, I should be glad if the noble Earl could answer the two questions I have put, and state whether it is intended to convert any of the present rifles.


My Lords, I am glad to be able to inform the noble Earl who has just sat down that the estimate for conversion which he has mentioned is somewhat high. We can convert the rifles in the Ordnance Factories for £2 5s., and I have some hope that later on there may be a reduction upon that price. As to the question whether existing cartridges can be used my reply is in the affirmative. One of the great advantages we claim for this rifle is that we shall use exactly the same cartridges for all branches of the services. I now come to the points raised by Lord Tweedmouth. Nobody can object to criticism from my noble friend on a subject in which his skill and knowledge are well known. I would remind him that the final decision with regard to this rifle was not come to hurriedly. We have been concerned in considering improvements upon the long rifle for many years; in fact, the labours of the Small Arms Committee, whose recommendations have now been adopted, have been going on since 1888. A thousand of the new rifles have already been made and distributed for use in various parts of the world. Some were given to the Navy, some were sent to South Africa, and some to Somaliland, and we have received exhaustive reports upon them. Not to trouble the House with many quotations, I will mention two. One officer commanding a regiment in Somaliland, where, owing to the sand and dust, the test to which the rifles were subjected was a very severe one, reports— The rifles have been used regularly by the men on escort duty marching through sand at least for ten hours at a stretch. They have stood this test very well. The men like the rifle and shoot well with it. Another commanding officer, also in Somaliland, writes— Only two rifles have been tested as regards firing, and these at small ranges proved satisfactory. The noble Lord suggested that in securing lightness we had sacrificed accuracy.


I beg the noble Earl's pardon. I admit that you have got the same energy as in the old rifle, only if you had retained the length of the old rifle you would have got increased energy. I do not dispute the accuracy of the rifle, but I say you have made it more difficult to shoot with it by bringing the two sights closer together.


I claim that the new rifle will shoot straighter. It is, I admit, a very close, thing, but we find that the shooting with the new rifle is a shade more accurate. Perhaps I may be allowed to quote the figures of merit to your Lordships. Taking the mean of twelve rifles, at 500 yards the long rifle beat the short rifle by .05 of a foot; at 600 yards the short beat the long by .09 of a foot; at 1,000 yards the long beat the short by .17 of a foot; at 1,500 the short beat the long by .68 of a foot, and at 1,700 by .09 of a foot. On the whole, therefore, your Lordships will find that, as judged by the tests to which we have been able to submit this rifle for accuracy, we have got a better rifle as the result of the shortening. My noble friend said he did not believe a rifle would be very much good after 8,000 shots had been fired out of it. Well, our friends at Hythe claim that they fired 10,000 shots out of a rifle at 600 yards, and that it was very little the worse. My noble friend mentioned the fact that the new rifle will be handier for the cavalry, but we claim that it will be a very great advantage to have the same rifle for all parts of the service, cavalry, infantry, artillery, sailors, and Marines. When a man breaks his rifle or loses it in the field, it will manifestly be an advantage to have one stock of rifles from which to replenish it. My military colleagues at the War Office believe that one rifle for the whole of the service will be valuable in any war in which we might, be engaged. The next point raised by my noble friend was with regard to sights. He admits that we have got a better sight, but does not like the sights-being closer together. I confess I am not able to enter into a discussion of theory advanced by my noble friend, I can only rely on the exhaustive tests to which the rifle has been subjected by the Small Arms Committee and at Hythe, and the experience of the use of the new rifle in five campaigns. The result has been that they have shot better although the sights are closer.


You have a very much better back-sight, which more than makes up for the difference caused by having the sights closer together.


The new rifle will kill more men, at any rate, and that is its chief value. As regards the noble Lord's criticism of the bolt action, I can only remind your Lordships that practically the same bolt action has been used in five campaigns, and we have had absolutely no complaints about it. It is strong enough to permit of a further velocity of 200 feet or 300 feet. As to the magazine, which my noble friend described as flimsy, I admit that if you hit it hard with your fist you might be able to crumple it up, but we have used that magazine in five campaigns and have not had a single one sent back for repairs. I think that is a testimony that the magazine is a good one. Again, it is easier to clean, and it is an important thing on active service to be able to clean the magazine quickly, and so preserve its life. My noble friend suggested that we should hold our hand. I am afraid I cannot hold out any very strong hope that we shall do that, but what the noble Lord has said will be most earnestly considered by my colleagues at the War Office. We believe we have got a rifle which is a considerable improvement on the old one, and considerably better as regards figure of merit than the rifles of four foreign nations with which we have carried out extensive experiments at the same time. We are perfectly alive to the importance of the matter, and I can assure my noble friend that if any improvements can be made, even at the last moment, they will be adopted. My noble friend asks whether gauges and specifications have yet been sent out to private films for the manufacture of the new service rifle. The answer is in the affirmative. He next asks what is the explanation of the high price which it has been announced such firms are to receive. My noble friend considers £4 10s. excessive. I would point out that the price of a rifle is always far higher when you begin to make it, than after you have been making it for some years, and the reason is perfectly obvious. You have got to make the price pay for the tools, and in the course of manufacture you are very often able to make improvements which cheapen the price. The long rifle when it was originally made cost in the Ordnance Factories £4 15s., and in the trade £5 10s. But the price of exactly the same rifle in 1903 was £2 11s. 6d. in the Ordnance Factories and £3 10s. in the trade. We are starting this rifle at £4 10s., which is a considerable improvement on the price at which we started the old rifle, and I confidently hope that, as time goes on, and the machinery charges are paid off, we shall be able to considerably improve on that price. The noble Lord asks whether it has been decided to issue the weapon in its present form to all branches of the defence services. The answer is in the affirmative. As to the other question which the noble Lord has put to me, namely, how long a time will elapse before the re-armament of His Majesty's forces will be complete, that I am afraid depends upon the Estimates submitted in another place in future years. I cannot give any pledge as to how much money the other House will be willing to provide for this purpose. We have arranged to distribute 95,000 of these rifles this year, between India, and the Colonies, and we hope in addition to have another 122,000 completed this year, making a total of nearly 220,000 to be ready for use before the 1st April, 1905.


My Lords, I rise to offer a few observations on this subject. There has been a good deal of criticism upon this new rifle, but I do not think we ought to attach too much importance to it, because whenever a new rifle is issued to the troops we invariably have a certain amount of adverse criticism, and the rifle is nearly always unfavourably compared with the one which it supersedes. I remember only too well that when the Lee-Metford rifle was brought in, there was nothing bad enough that could be said of it, and it was very unfavourably compared with the Martini-Henry. We know that this new service rifle has gone satisfactorily through five campaigns. It is not a new rifle, but a modification of the old rifle, and it is the outcome of the South African War. At the beginning of that war the cavalry were armed with carbines, and it was found that the Boer rifle so far outranged the carbine that the cavalry, when fighting on foot, were placed at very great disadvantage. The result was that the cavalry had to be re-armed throughout with the long rifle—not a very desirable thing when one is on service. Towards the end of the war it was decided that a shorter rifle would be a good thing, and I must say that, so far as the cavalry are concerned, it is most important that they should have this rifle. Future wars will not always be carried on under similar conditions to the South African War, where the enemy had no cavalry and there was little ground suitable for cavalry tactics. With the long rifle it would be impossible during a war for the men to use their swords or lances. The new rifle is of the greatest importance to the cavalry, and I think that the shortening and consequently the lightening of this arm is of very great importance also to the infantry. Your Lordships will recognise that at the end of a long march a man who has carried a rifle weighing one pound four ounces lighter will be much less fatigued than his comrade who has carried a heavier rifle. In future wars we shall use more mounted infantry than hitherto, and the old rifle was very clumsy for them to handle. The desire of the Small Arms Committee was to secure a shorter and lighter weapon if that could be done without interfering with efficiency, and I think the Committee have succeeded in that. I have seen reports from Somaliland extremely favourable to this rifle. The noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, said the rifle was not a pretty one. It is, perhaps, a little clumsy to look at, but we cannot always go in for beauty, and after all, it is a serviceable, workmanlike, and good weapon. As to the cavalry, I think the best way of carrying the rifle is in the bucket, in the same way as the old carbine was carried. The answer to the noble Lord's criticism with regard to the bolt is that it has stood the test of several campaigns with satisfaction, and that we do not wish to put any further pressure upon it for if we did the kick would be so great that a man would not be able to shoot with it.