Weapons used in World War I

Lee Enfield Rifle

The Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, rifle was the main firearm used by the British forces during the first half of the 20th century. It was the British Army's standard rifle from its official adoption in 1895 until 1957. The Lee-Enfield used the .303 British cartridge. A fearsome bayonet could be attached.

Bayonet charge WW1

Lee Enfield MkIII rifle

303 ammunition

The Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, rifle was the main firearm used by the British forces during the first half of the 20th century. It was the British Army's standard rifle from its official adoption in 1895 until 1957. The Lee-Enfield used the .303 British cartridge.

The Lee-Enfield featured a ten-round box magazine which was loaded manually from the top. The fast-operating Lee bolt-action and large magazine capacity enabled a trained rifleman to fire 20 to 30 aimed rounds a minute, making the Lee-Enfield the fastest military bolt-action rifle of the day.


The standard issue bayonet for the Lee-Enfield rifle was about half a metre long (blade was 43cms,  handle extra)


Lewis Gun

Lewis Gun Lewis Gun actual
Lewis Gun with barrel cooling Modern photograph of Lewis Gun
Soldier firing Lewis Gun Lewis Gunner
Soldier firing Lewis Gun with tripod Firing from trench
Lewis Gun in trench  
Manovering Lewis Gun  

The Lewis Gun is a light machine gun of American design that was first used in combat in World War I, and continued in service with a number of armed forces all the way through to the 1950s. It is distinctive because of a wide tubular cooling shroud around the barrel and top mounted drum magazine.

The Lewis Gun was invented by a US Army officer, Colonel I N Lewis. The US Army did not use it at first, and Col Lewis set up a company in Belgium to produce it, and adapted it to fire British 303 amunition. The British Birmingham Small Arms Company bought a licence and produced large numbers in England. Their design was officially approved for service on 15th October 1915.

The Lewis Gun was gas operated. Some of the expanding gases were tapped off from the barrel, driving a piston to the rear against a spring. This drove a mechanism that fired one round, ejected it, and fired the next as long as the operator held his finger on the trigger (and as long as the gun did not jam). The gun's rate of fire was approximately 500–600 rounds per minute, with short bursts the usual way of firing it.  With its adjustable sights and bipod support the Lewis Gun proved effective to some 600 metres.The gun weighed 28 lb (12.7 kg), only about half as much as a typical medium machine gun of the era, such as the Vickers machine gun, and was chosen in part because, being more portable than a heavy machine gun (such as the Vickers), it could be carried and used by a single soldier.

The gun was designed with an aluminium barrel-casing to use the muzzle blast to draw air into the gun and cool down the internal mechanism. The Lewis Gun utilised two different drum magazines, one holding 47 and the other 97 rounds.

Nicknamed 'the Belgian rattlesnake' by German forces who came up against the weapon in 1914.  By 1916 approximately 50,000 had been produced.  In 1915 each British battalion on the Western Front had just four Lewis Guns, by 1917 each infantry section had its own Lewis gunner and backup, with battalions by then deploying 46 Lewis Guns. The Lewis was carried and fired by one man, but he needed another to carry and load the magazines.

Vickers Machine Gun

Vickers Machine Gun Vickers gun in action
Vickers Machine gun with all its bits, showing cooling British machine gun in action
Vickers machine gun crew Machine gun firing, British
British Vickers Gun British Vickers Gun
Vickers gun Machine gun crew with gas masks
Machine Gun Crew wearing gas masks Machine Gun Crew wearing gas masks
Machine gun pointing up  
Machine gunners looking for aircraft  

In 1914, all infantry battalions were equipped with a machine gun section of two guns, which was increased to four in February 1915. The sections were equipped with Maxim guns, served by a subaltern and 12 men. The Maxim had a maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds, so was the equivalent of around 40 well-trained riflemen. The experience of fighting in the early clashes and in the First Battle of Ypres had proved that the machine guns required special tactics and organisation. A Machine Gun Training Centre was established at Grantham in England, and oanother in France.

It was decided in October 1915 to form a single specialist Machine Gun Company per infantry brigade, by withdrawing the guns and gun teams from the battalions. They would be replaced at battalion level by the light Lewis machine guns and thus the firepower of each brigade would be substantially increased. Shortly after the formation of the MGC, the Maxim guns were replaced by the Vickers machine gun which was fired from a tripod and is cooled by water held in a jacket around the barrel. The gun weighed 28.5 pounds, the water another 10 and the tripod weighed 20 pounds. Bullets were assembled into a canvas belt, which held 250 rounds and would last 30 seconds at the maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute. Two men were required to carry the equipment and two the ammunition. A Vickers machine gun team also had two spare men.

A single well-placed and protected machine gun cut great swathes in attacking infantry. And multiple machine guns, with interlocking fields of fire, were very, very destructive defensive weapon. The German army relied greatly on machine guns for defence. The British in addition used machine guns offensively to fired an indirect barrage over the heads of their advancing infantry, and behind the German trenches ( to stop enemy attempts to reinforce or re-supply their front). By June 1917, machine gunners were also employing creeping barrages, with fire falling ahead of the artillery barrage to catch enemy troops moving to the rear. Machine guns for these tasks were generally placed about 1000 yards behind the advancing infantry and were moved up as soon as the enemy positions were captured.

To prevent the barrel from melting in sustained action, the barrel was surrounded by a water jacket. The water inside the jacket kept the barrel cool, but would quickly boil and need to be replaced. The men sometimes would use the hot water to make tea after firing the weapon. The high rate of fire that could be generated by the machine gun allowed gunners to mow down enemy solders in a hail of lead. One German machine gunner described his work as "easy." All he had to do was move the weapon loaded and swing it back and forth. Because the machine gun was capable of wounding and killing massive numbers of men, they became a weapon to be feared. The men who operated these weapons were responsible for hundreds of casualties while defending their trenches. This made the gunners hated men by enemy soldiers. Often machine gunners would fire up to the last second then try to surrender. Usually they were killed on the spot in retaliation.

Being a machine gunner was a dangerous occupation. A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the MGC, of which 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing

German Maxim Gun

German machine gun crew German maxim gun
German maxim gun in action Maxim gun

Invented by Hiram S. Maxim in the U.S. in 1884, the Maxim Gun was the world's first automatic machine gun. The German 08 model of the Maxim system machine gun, was the basic German machine gun of the World War I. The MG/08 was very complicated weapon, but with a well trained and careful crew, a four to six man team, it was very reliable, with an excellent accuracy and a high rate of fire. This MG is said to have killed more people than any other single military weapon. The gas produced by the explosion of the powder in each cartridge itself generated a recoil which served to continuously operate the gun's mechanism.

The Maxim Gun was water-cooled (via a jacket around the barrel which held approximately one gallon of water) and fed from fabric belts; the German version of the gun, the Maschinengewehr, used 250-round belts.  The whole gun was mounted on a sledge which, although heavy - 1914 machine guns weighed from 40-60kg - did enable the gun to be carried in the manner of a stretcher.  The design allowed for a theoretical rate of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute (half that number in practice). Its practical range was some 2,200 yards up to an extreme range of 4,000 yards.

The German MG08/15 or ‘light Maxim’ was the light version of the standard MG08 Maxim machine gun. It came from the decision to lighten the standard 08 design to make it more portable. It was first used in battle in small numbers at the battle of the Somme in June 1916 and proved far more light and mobile than the MG08. By early 1917 the light Maxim was replacing MG08s in most front-line trenches, these being held in the second line trenches to provide heavy long-range sustained fire.

When the war began in August 1914, approximately 12,000 MG08s were available to battlefield units; production, at numerous factories, was however markedly ramped up during wartime. In 1914 some 200 MG08s were produced each month; by 1916—once the weapon had established itself as the pre-eminent defensive battlefield weapon—the number had increased to 3,000; and a year later to 14,400 per month.

Mills Bombs

Throwing a Mills bomb Mark 23 Mills bomb

William Mills - a golf club designer from Sunderland - patented, developed and manufactured the 'Mills bomb' at the Mills Munition Factory in Birmingham, in 1915. The British Army adopted it as its standard hand grenade in 1915, and designated as the No. 5. The term "Mills Bomb" was first coined early in WWI, as grenadiers were referred to as "bombers". The term was confusing and soon "grenade" was officially applied. During WW1 Britain was producing up to half a million hand grenades each week (with an average of 250,000). Over 75 million Mills grenades manufactured between April 1915 and late 1918.

The Mills bomb underwent various modifications. The No. 23 was a variant of the No. 5 with a rodded base plug which allowed it to be fired from a rifle. This concept evolved further with the No. 36, a variant with a detachable base plate to allow use with a rifle discharger cup.

Weighing 1.25 lb, the Mills bomb's exterior was segments. Although the segmented body helped to create fragments when the grenade exploded, according to Mills' notes the casing was grooved to make it easier to grip and not as an aid to fragmentation. A competent thrower could manage 30 metres with reasonable accuracy, but the grenade could throw lethal fragments further than this. It could be fitted with a flat base and fired with a blank cartridge from a rifle with a 'cup' attachment, giving it a range of around 150 m.

British soldiers were instructed to lob the Mills bomb using a throwing action similar to bowling in cricket.  Classes were taught instructing soldiers how best to do this. The thrower first removed the safety pin while holding down the strike lever beneath it.  The bomb originally it had a 7 second fuse which required that the bomber held the bomb for 3 seconds after ignition otherwise the enemy could throw it back before it exploded. In the newer models once the Mills Bomb was in the air, the lever flew up and released the striker, which ignited a four-second time fuse, allowing the thrower to take cover before it exploded.

Transported in boxes of twelve with detonators carried separately. The detonators were supposed to be attached to the actual grenade before the boxes of grenades reached the front line. British soldiers found that they could not carry multiple Mills bombs on their person on account of their close fitting uniforms.  The British carried green canvas buckets filled with Mills bombs (up to 24 at a time) for use in an attack.


German Bombs

German stick grenade 1915

As war began the Germans had 70,000 hand grenades stock-piled, plus with a further 106,000 rifle grenades. The German army developed numerous models over the course of the war. These included the Stielhandgranate (stick bomb), the Diskushandgranate (disc grenade), Eierhandgranate (hand grenade) and Kugelhandgranate (ball grenade, which included the grenade referred to by the British as the 'pineapple grenade').

The Stielhandgranate - stick grenade - proved highly popular among German soldiers.  Some exploded on impact but most were set to detonate after either a 5.5 or 7 second delay.  German soldiers often carried such grenades in satchels thrown around their necks. This grenade could be hung from fences to prevent them from being climbed; any disturbance to the dangling grenade would cause it to fall and ignite the fuse. By 1916 German stick grenade production alone was eight million per month. At least 20 different stick grenade designs and variations were fielded by Germany from 1914 to 1917.

The Eierhandgranate - egg grenade - was also popular given its great throwing range, up to 50 yards.  The German army also made use of gas grenades, containing a poisonous liquid that discharged on impact.

Mark 1 Tank

Mark 1 British tank

Appeared in small numbers in Battle of Ancre, but did not play any decisive part.


10th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers