Tag Archives: history

Heavy Machine Gun Platoon

While it’s not too terribly difficult to find detailed breakdowns of the regular rifle squad, it’s a lot harder to find tables for the other units. Today, we’ll take a look at the Wehrmacht’s Heavy Machine Gun Platoon, courtesy of Collector Grade’s German Universal Machineguns. A heavy MG platoon meant that its MGs all had tripods and support equipment to maximize the effectiveness of the MGs. This platoon was divided into two groups of two machine guns. The platoon had, of course, a Platoon commander, plus an additional man to take care of the horses used to transport equipment. Each of the two machine gun groups had a group leader, plus a rangefinder and a messenger.

Each machine gun group had two MG “Squads” (for want of a better term). Each squad was based around an MG34/42 and a lot of ammo. They consisted of an MG leader, the MG gunner, MG assistant gunner, and no fewer than three ammunition bearers.

The gunner carried the machine gun, with a 50 round belt in a drum attached to the machine gun, in case it had to be used before the squad got set up. The MG leader carried the MG Z sight, a 300-round ammo can, and a spare barrel. The assistant gunner carried the tripod. The three ammo bearers each carried two 300-round ammo cans, and two of them carried spare barrels.

In terms of secondary weapons, the MG Leader, Gunner, and Assistant Gunner all carried pistols. The ammo bearers each had a service rifle. The MG Group Leaders and MG Platoon Leader had a submachine gun or a pistol. Both rangefinders had pistols, and the messengers and horseman were issued service rifles.

In total, each squad carried 2,150 rounds of belted 8mm Mauser, for a total of 8,600 belted rounds per platoon.

As always, these are the “by the book” figures, and actual platoons may vary.

Book Review: US Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History

Norman Friedman has written some excellent Illustrated Design History books for several types of US Navy ships. Let’s look at one today.

Cruisers goes all the way back to early steam-powered warship designs, focusing on ships built for independent operation away from the fleet, or to screen the fleet from same. For my interests, I found it got really good once they were working on designs related to the Great War, and it stayed good until about the 1950s. At that point, missiles were “in”, and there weren’t many new cruiser designs because of the large number of existing ships to convert.

Friedman does a great job of covering various proposals, desired force structures, and treaties. Like the other Illustrated Design Histories, he traces design proposals, offering a large number of comparative characteristic tables as well as plenty of design sketches. There are also a good number of pictures which illustrate completed designs and how they were altered by war experience.

The chapters on the war experience are the best part of the book. Due to the large number of cruisers available during the Second World War, and the paucity of larger surface combatants, cruisers saw lots of combat. It’s really nice to read about design tradeoffs and expectations and then see how these worked out in actual surface actions.

The missile age eventually sees the end of the independent surface ship, at least in American design practice. As a result, there’s not much in the way of actual Cruiser designs covered; the Long Beach is featured, as are the Command Cruisers, but that’s pretty much the end of it. Being published in the mid 80s, not much is left to cover.

Note that while the ill-fated Typhon system is mentioned in depth, Aegis is covered only briefly here. It is covered in more detail, along with the Ticonderogas and Burkes in Friedman’s Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History. A review of that is forthcoming.

Now, as with any good review, let’s talk price and value. Unfortunately, this book is out of print. As such, pricing is inconsistent. In general, prices are high. A peek at Amazon as this goes to press (late November, 2018) shows a price of about $122 being the best available. Whether or not this is too much for you depends greatly on your interest. If you like Cruisers pre-1947 a lot, that’s a fair price for an out-of-print, detail-laden book. Otherwise, you may wish to watch and wait for a deal. I got my copy for just under $60, and it was in good condition. At that price, which is much closer to the print-run pricing, it’s unquestionably worth it for the student of naval history and design.

Chinook Howitzer

Back in 1972, the Advanced Concepts division of the Aircraft Weapons Division came up with a unique idea. They wanted more aerial firepower. They wanted to super size the gun in helicopter gunship. And so they worked up a proposal to put two 105mm howitzers onto a CH-47C Chinook helicopter. The two howitzers would be mounted won on each side of the fuselage, facing forward, and had an automatic loading system for the two guns. Continue reading

The SAIFV

There are two consistent complaints about the Bradley. One is that it doesn’t carry enough dismounts. The other is that it’s not well protected enough. The US Army has made several attempts to rectify both of these issues. Today, we’re going to look at an alternative design to fix the latter problem: the Special Armor IFV, which dates to around 1978. Continue reading

The 1920s Screening Force

Having finished Shelby Foote’s excellent three-volume Civil War set, I’ve switched over to some more recent naval history: A History of U.S. Cruisers, by Norman Friedman. One of the cool bits of naval history in it is a breakdown of expected US Navy fleet screening requirements, circa 1920. This posited a main body consisting of seventeen battleships and six battlecruisers. These were considered separate elements, and as such, each had its own screen. There were separate screens for dealing with submarines and dealing with torpedo-armed light assets (the so-called “attack” screen). Each force also had its own scouting assets. Let’s look at the breakdown of what they expected to need to screen the main body in a future war at sea.

TypeBattleship ScreenBattlecruiser Screen
Antisubmarine
Light Cruisers10
Destroyer Leaders21
Destroyers2412
Attack Screen
Light Cruisers11
Destroyer Leaders318
Destroyers540
Scouting Forces
Light Cruisers11
Destroyer Leaders32
Destroyers5436

Quite the force. The large number of destroyers is fascinating, as is the relatively small number of cruisers employed in the screen. Cruisers were called for elsewhere, of course. Also of note is that while the term ‘light cruisers’ appears in the plans, ‘heavy cruisers’ does not. Presumably light cruisers were cruisers that weren’t battle cruisers; questions of guns and tonnage would not be relevant until the various naval treaties of the 20s and 30s.

Witness Protection Shotgun

There are a number of shotguns released today designed to avoid classification as a “short barreled shotgun”. For our international readers, under the complicated and confusing US law, a “short barreled shotgun” has to be registered with the ATF, which means a $200 fee, fingerprints, photos, and a six month wait. But a short, “stockless” gun like the Tac-14, Shockwave or V3 Tac-13 is not legally an SBS, and so you can buy it and take it home with you immediately, with no extra fee.1

Now, lots of people will debate the utility of such a weapon. I think the utility might be best understood with a little history, not that every weapon needs to serve a practical purpose. Some guns are fun guns, and that’s awesome. But this weapon has good applications. For one, shotguns with slugs are good bear repellent, and a very compact, stockless shotgun can be strapped to or thrown in a backpack pretty easily.

What many may not know is that the US Marshals had a professional gunsmith make something an awful lot like the Tac-14 back in the 80s. They called it the Witness Protection Shotgun. Being law enforcement, the US Marshals could buy what the NFA would call “Short Barreled Shotguns” with 14″ barrels and stocks no problem. But that’s not what these were.

The Witness Protection Shotgun started life as a Remington 870. It had a 12.5″ barrel, which was as short as they could cut the 870’s barrel given how it attaches to the rest of the gun. It also had a cut, shaped, and refinished “bird’s head” grip of wood, shaped a lot like you’d see on the Tac-14. They also added a sling plate at the front, much like the Wilson Combat vertical sling plate. The idea here was to both attach a sling and provide a handstop to make sure that the support hand didn’t end up in front of the muzzle. Magazine capacity was four 2 3/4″ shells.

You may have figured out the intended role from the name. The idea was to have a tremendously powerful, concealable weapon for use in the witness protection program. With a very short barrel, no stock, and general lack of bulk that comes from a pump shotgun (as compared to say, a Colt Commando), the Witness Protection Shotgun was easy for a marshal to hide under his coat. These were popular with the US Marshals in the 80s, and then fell out of favor.

And with proper technique you won’t hit yourself in the face when shooting one either.


  1. Your mileage may vary. Some restrictions may apply if your state is run by communists. 

Whence Cometh PMAGs?

It occurred to me that there are plenty of folks who don’t understand how and why Magpul’s fantastic PMAGs became the standard magazine for AR-15 users both civilian and military. So let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

In terms of product, Magpul’s PMAGs1 hit a solid mix of reasonable price, reasonable quality, reasonable durability, and reasonable reliability of feeding (which is to say, function). They’re also pretty ubiquitous. Easy to find almost anywhere. While you can buy more durable magazines, they will cost you more. And mags that are cheaper by a large enough margin to care about don’t work as well.

Magpul wasn’t the first to come to market with a polymer magazine. Their first prototypes were made in 2006. They were among the first to come out with a polymer magazine that worked well, and they had built a customer base with some of their other quality products, like their magazine pulls (hence the company name).

Of course, the AR-15’s original magazines were made from thin aluminum. They were originally intended to be disposable after a single use, and this allowed the Armalite design team to make them very lightweight. However, the military did not go for that, and reissued magazines. Civilian shooters would also not treat aluminum magazines as disposable items either. However, the Armalite design team was not given a chance to redesign the magazines to make them more durable.

One of the things that will crop up with ‘USGI’ aluminum magazines is that the feed lips can deform, whether from being dropped or being smacked or whatever. And a property of metal is that when deformed with enough force, you’ll get “plastic deformation,” i.e. it will stay bent. If the feed lips get messed up, your mag isn’t going to work. These can be subtle problems. Your eye won’t know, but your rifle will. Like the princess and the pea.

Now, the military hates to throw things out, so mags that get bad from use and abuse (or stupid, stupid boots) are going to stick around. And civilians aren’t very likely to throw out bad mags either. They paid good money for those! That’s not to mention the affect of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which allowed the sale to non-law enforcement civilians of standard capacity magazines made before 1994. So those aluminum mags were going nowhere. And those old mags were now worth a premium, so whatever crappy mag that a guy could dig up could be resold at a significant profit. Even if the mag was beat to hell.

I still have a folder of data on my hard drive of proper feed lip dimensions and instructions for retuning feed lips to get them close to original spec so that they wouldn’t induce double feeds. Ugh. Bad memories.

After the sunset of the ban in 2004, the market exploded with manufacturers making standard capacity magazines. Of course, the nature of the aluminum USGI magazines meant that it was pretty hard for the layman to tell if the magazine was made by anyone who knew what they were doing. Substandard materials or construction methods could lead to more problems. Or more rapid onset of problems. Or not; you could just get lucky.

Enter Magpul’s PMAG. Magpul hit the market with a good design, good materials (finally–remember this wasn’t the first attempt at a polymer AR-15 magazine), and good quality control. If you bought a Magpul PMAG, it would work, unlike previous polymer magazine efforts. And you didn’t find PMAGs in a box with a bunch of other curbstomped mags at a gunshow. Even if you did, they looked distinctive. Plus, they were cheap enough to buy a lot of.

Once they got the polymer magazines working well, Magpul’s choice of material brought other benefits. Polymer doesn’t deform like aluminum does; ironically it doesn’t do “plastic deformation”. It’ll either spring back to its original shape (elastic deformation) or break. And when it breaks it’s obvious. Maybe there’s a chunk of feedlip missing. Maybe there’s a big crack down the back of the magazine. Maybe the weld split. And it’s probably going to vomit bullets all over the floor when you try to fill it.

There you have it. Why we love our PMAGs.


  1. All caps, because Magpul spells it that way. And when I say PMAG, I do mean “Magpul’s PMAG” not something else. Not the imitators. And I like Magpul a lot, so I’ll happily oblige them on their branding. 

Resurrected Weapons: Project Babylon

Back in the 1950s, when rocketry was extraordinarily difficult, and TV was full of videos of NASA rocket tests failing miserably, Gerald Bull had an alternative idea: Use a giant gun to put a payload in orbit. This led to Project HARP, which got a lot of great research done. By the 1960s, we had figured out (mostly) how to make rockets that work. It was still hard, but now we could generally expect launches to work. And so the plug was pulled on HARP, but Gerald Bull still dreamed of using a giant gun to put a satellite in orbit. Eventually, in the 1980s, he found someone with money willing to back his dream once more. That man was Saddam Hussein.

Project Babylon came in two phases. Stage one was “Baby Babylon”, a proof of concept model with a 350mm bore and a barrel length of 46 meters. This was initially used for horizontal testing, and was then erected on the side of a mountain. The full size “Big Babylon” would have been the biggest gun ever, with a one-meter bore and a barrel length of 156 meters. The original design was intended to be suspended from a steel framework by a system of cables.

Testing of the Baby Babylon cannon showed issues in dealing with seals between the barrel sections. While these were being fixed, Gerald Bull was assassinated outside of his Belgian apartment on March 22, 1990, which crippled the project. It would not be resumed after the First Gulf War.

Bull’s assassination was almost certainly not due to his work on Project Babylon. The superguns were massive, fixed targets. Easy to spot with aerial or satellite reconnaissance, easy to destroy. But Bull was also working on improving the range of Saddam’s Scud missiles. Those are much more effective than a giant gun. This was the project that most likely angered Saddam’s enemies enough to get an assassination. The most likely candidates are Israel or Iran, both of whom have intelligence agencies with lots of experience in liquidating potential problems.

Project Babylon itself is also extremely problematic. It’s a lousy weapon, as we’ve mentioned before. But I’m also extremely skeptical of their utility as a launch system. Even with a 156 meter barrel, the acceleration is going to be absolutely brutal. This is going to seriously restrict the payloads you can launch. A rocket is going to be far gentler on the payload, and much less likely to wreck a satellite. Plus, rockets can accept oversize shrouds to handle larger payloads, or be clustered to lift more weight. You’re pretty stuck with the weight capacity and payload diameter restriction here.

Verdict: Funding Request Denied by the Borgundy Ordnance Board