In 1914, machines guns were anything but portable. Weapons like the Maxim, Vickers or Hotchkiss were cumbersome and bulky. And with a weight of about 50 lbs. (not counting ammunition), the weapons needed to be carried and serviced by a small crew. And forget advancing with one — they could only be fired from a tripod or fixed position.
But one French inventor by the name of Colonel Louis Chauchat envisioned a new lightweight machine gun. It would offer the rapid-fire of a conventional MG, but would be small and light enough to be fired by a single infantryman even on the move. His invention, the Fusil mitrailleur Mle 1915 CSRG, sprayed 8mm bullets from an under-slung semi-circular magazine at a rate of 240 rounds per minute. A retractable bi-pod enabled the gunner to shoot accurately from a prone position. But at 20 lbs., it was still light enough to be fired from the hip. The French generals loved the concept and ordered a quarter million of the guns, which became known simply as the Chauchat. Many counted on the it to turn the tide of the war against the Germans. There was only one small problem with this new wonder weapon — it didn’t work.
The Chauchat, which was hurried into mass-production in the first two years of the war, suffered from shoddy manufacturing. Worse, the gun’s open magazine, an innovation that allowed the operator to quickly survey how much ammunition remained, tended to draw dirt and moisture up inside causing fouling and frequent stoppages. Later variants that were built for the American .30-06 round performed even more abysmally. In fact, the Chauchat was so unreliable, to this day many firearms experts consider it to be the to be the worst machine gun ever made. Sadly, this isn’t the only weapon in history that should have remained on the drawing board. There have been many others. Consider these:
Tanks can’t fly. Period! Even a relatively ‘light’ 6-ton model has roughly the same aerodynamic qualities as a falling anvil. Yet that didn’t stop a number of armies from experimenting with flying armoured vehicles during the 1930s. In fact, the Soviets made numerous attempts to deploy tanks from the air. After a number of disastrous experiments in which troop transports were dropped from bombers, the Red Army decided to add lightweight glider wings to T-60 light tanks. The plan was to have the machines towed aloft by large transport aircraft or heavy bombers, which would then release them over the battlefield. The tanks would glide gently to the ground, jettison the wings and roll into action. Unfortunately, early tests found that no plane in the Soviet inventory could pull a tank, even a winged one, fast enough to get it off the ground. Understandably, the Russians dropped the idea. Japan and Great Britain also attempted similar schemes before and during the war, but neither could make it work.
Why Two Barrels Aren’t Always Better Than One
Athens, Georgia is home to one of the most curious weapons of the American Civil War – the double-barreled cannon. Conceived in 1862 by John Gilleland, a Confederate dentist and inventor, the gun was designed to fire two cannon balls simultaneously at 3-degree spread. The double shot, which were to be linked together with a length of chain, were supposed to splay apart pulling the chain taught, which would then slice through whole lines of enemy troops. Initial tests of the gun were disconcerting to say the least. Confederate gunnery experts discovered that one barrel always fired a fraction of a second before the other creating erratic and unpredictable flight paths for the chain-linked shot. During initial test firings, the balls plowed directly into the ground in front of the cannon. On a second attempt, the linked shot shot away on a random trajectory. On the third try, the balls went sideways into a nearby farmer’s field killing a grazing cow. The unlucky animal would be the only living thing the gun would ever harm. Future tests were cancelled. The cannon did serve as a signal gun towards the end of the war to announce the approach of Yankee troops. Later it was unceremonioulsy abandoned outside of the city. It was rediscovered years later and converted into a monument in Athens. It stands there to this day.
This One Really Stinks
A decidedly less-than-lethal weapon, “Who Me” was the code name given to a top-secret and very potent stink bomb developed in World War Two by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor to the CIA. The device, which was to be distributed to European resistance operatives, was made up of a foul-smelling sulfur-based solution that could be sprayed via a pocket-sized atomizer onto unsuspecting enemy officers. Once marked with the gag-inducing faecal aroma, the victim would be left humiliated and ostracized. The OSS considered their stink-bomb a terror weapon, one that might ultimately shatter the morale of the Nazis. Unfortunately, there were a few problems with it. Most serious of all, the spray didn’t eliminate enemy personnel, it just offended their nostrils. Additionally, the stink from the Who Me was so powerful any resistance agent who sprayed it would be instantly detected by the enemy. Worse, the pungent solution was just as likely to stain the assailant as it would the target. The Gestapo would simply need to follow their noses to apprehend an attacker. Not surprisingly, the Who Me spray was never deployed. In fact, the entire project was scuttled after only two weeks.
Also for resistance fighters, the FP-45 Liberator was a crude, single-shot .45 caliber pistol that was about the size of a packet of smokes. It was developed by a psychological warfare division in the U.S. Army as an ambush weapon for underground movements in Nazi occupied Europe. The pistol, which cost about $2.50 to manufacture and was made of fewer than two-dozen parts. It was packaged with 10 rounds, along with operating instructions (printed in the form of a comic strip) and a special tool to extract spent cartridges. The gun featured a short smoothbore barrel and had an effective range of about 10 feet. The user was expected to get in close enough to kill an unsuspecting target and then make of with the victim’s rifle, pistol or a submachine gun. It could take up to ten seconds for the user to remove a spent shell casing and reload the weapon for another shot. One million FP-45s were built by a headlight-manufacturing subsidiary of General Motors over an 11-week period. At the peak of production, the plant located in Illinois, was cranking out FP-45s at a rate of one every seven seconds.  Ironically, it took less time to build one Liberator than it did to fire and reload one. Considered too unreliable for combat use, few were ever dropped into Europe, but a number did go to insurgents in China and the Philippines. There is no record of any of them being used against any enemy soldiers. Despite this, when in the early 1960s, the U.S. wanted to equip anti-communist agents in Vietnam with cheap disposable firearms, it revived the concept with the $3 Deer Gun, a smaller even simpler version of the FP-45. They were equally unsuccessful. Today, FP-45 Liberators are a popular item among gun collectors. Originals are sold for up to $2,000 a piece in auctions.
(First published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Aug. 20, 2012.)
If you’d like to receive alerts about the latest articles and posts, click on the link in the upper right margin marked “FOLLOW THIS BLOG”. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.