The Ingenious Devices of Colonel Lewis

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Strange Guns (formerly Rare, Antique & Beautiful Firearms) has a short overview of some of Colonel Lewis’s lesser known designs. For example, many people know that it was Hitler’s naming of the MP. 44 “Sturmgewehr” that brought the term “assault rifle” into the popular consciousness, but did you know that one of the first uses of this term was by Colonel Lewis in describing his competitor to the Browning Automatic Rifle?

Lewis’s 1916 design for what he called his “assault phase rifle” weighed 13 pounds, compared to the BAR’s 16 pounds, was magazine-fed, with select-fire capability. When he demonstrated his prototype weapon, he announced, “My rifle is as accurate as any weapon our services now use. But, when switched to fully automatic firing the new Lewis gun will give one man the firepower of many men.”

Strange Guns includes a description of the Lewis “Shock Rifle” (“shock” referring not to the way the gun was to be used, but the way it worked) in their article:

At heart the design utilizes a modified type of gas-trap system, one where a portion of  the gas released by the muzzle blast enters and fills (or otherwise produces force within) a large casing almost entirely encapsulating the barrel (rather than simply a small cavity). This gas, or hopefully as is described in the patent, a “shock-wave” is sent bouncing backward after crashing against the end of the barrel casing shroud, exerting pressure upon a tubular piston (in the above rifle patent drawing, part 13, with the pistol, 55) “in the form of an annular disc which is slidably mounted upon the barrel” and filling the gap between the barrel and outer “casing” or shroud wall. This barrel-mounted tube piston is connected to a traditional solid piston rod housed above the barrel, which acts upon the bolt in a more or less standard fashion.

US Patent 1430661 explains the benefit of this system in these terms: “An important distinction must be drawn at the outset between the present automatic… firearm operated by shocks or pressure impulses, and firearms operated by the direct pressure of the heated gases of discharge upon parts connected with the actuating mechanism of the firearm. In the improved firearm the hot gases of discharge do not necessarily come into direct contact with the actuating mechanism… and preferably are transmitted to said mechanism… through the medium of an intervening column of air. Thus said mechanism, or said parts, do not become highly heated by the gases and do not become fouled by deposits therefrom, enabling the firearm to be operated for more extended periods without cleaning, and preventing jamming or inefficient operation due to said fouling deposits.” In addition, the patents explain, recoil is reduced and the overall mechanism forces air over the barrel and internal mechanism while firing, helping to further cool the weapon.

The Lewis machine gun was one of the first light automatic weapons ever produced, preceded in production only by the Danish Madsen LMG. Even though the Lewis machine gun would leave a lot to be desired in the way of portable automatic fire (the French in particular felt the weapon didn’t meet their requirements – leading eventually to the CSRG 1915 Chauchat), it still paved the way for later portable automatic weapons, and directly led to both the German FG-42 paratroop machine rifle and the American M60 general purpose machine gun.

Lewis, though, wasn’t content to stay within the confines of his machine gun design, and he worked on several other weapons, one of which was a .45 ACP automatic pistol featuring the characteristic Lewis double-lobe receiver design!



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • DiverEngrSL17K

    Very good article, Nathaniel — thank you.

    Lewis’ 1916 “Shock Rifle” seems to have been yet one more in many attempts to adequately fulfill the then-popular concept of “Walking Fire” — or a variation of it — first espoused by established French military theoreticians of the time. It is no secret that American battlefield doctrine, at least in this respect, was heavily influenced by French battlefield tactics during World War One.

    • “Walking Fire” was actually an American and British thing. The French were at the time practicing an early version of fire-and-maneuver, which I don’t need to say ended up being wildly more successful.

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    Thank you for your reply. However, as far as I can tell, several reliable sources, including Ian Hogg, agree that the original concept of “Walking Fire”, otherwise known as “Marching Fire” as we know it in modern terms, was a French invention defined as suppressive fire used in the course of a combined arms or infantry assault ending in a close-range charge en masse to overwhelm the enemy. In “Walking Fire”, the advance is made in unison on a wide front, not in the fire-and-maneuver ( fire-and-movement / leap-frogging ) mode you mentioned, which was a more advanced and efficient natural evolution of “Walking Fire”.

    While “Walking Fire” was based to some extent on the much earlier, and somewhat unsuccessful, Prussian tactics involving suppressive fire on the move to keep the enemy’s heads down until that final charge could be effected, it was clearly dependent on a good supply of ammunition and a rapid-fire capability, so there was a marked lack of success with this tactic until the introduction of the Dreyse needle gun. The advent of quick-firing automatic guns, including the introduction of portable LMG’s such as the BAR and the much-villified CSRG during World War One, made the tactic more viable ( at least in theory ) on the modern battlefield.

    • French invention I could believe, but their practice was different, so far as I know.

      • Patton was a big fan of the concept, preaching it as late as WW2.

        “Marching Fire: The proper way to advance, particularly for troops armed
        with that magnificent weapon, the M-1 rifle, is to utilize marching
        fire and keep moving. This fire can be delivered from the shoulder, but
        it is just as effective if delivered with the butt of the rifle halfway
        between the belt and the armpit. One round should be fired every two
        to three paces. The whistle of the bullets, the scream of the ricochet,
        and the dust, twigs, and branches which are knocked from the ground and
        the trees have such an effect on the enemy that his small-arms fire
        becomes negligible.”

    • Zebra Dun

      I understand for the Chauchat it was shoot on the left foot hitting the ground and clear the jam on the right foot.

  • Alex Nicolin

    “Thus said mechanism, or said parts, do not become highly heated by the gases and do not become fouled by deposits therefrom, enabling the firearm to be operated for more extended periods without cleaning, and preventing jamming or inefficient operation due to said fouling deposits.” In addition, the patents explain, recoil is reduced and the overall mechanism forces air over the barrel and internal mechanism while firing, helping to further cool the weapon.”

    That’s very optimistic to say the least. The system described in the patent is in fact similar to that used in the experimental Bang rifle of 1909, which was later tried and rejected for this reason by the US army. It was later tried by the Germans in the Gewehr 41, and was found do be prone to heavy fouling. In fact tapping gasses at low pressure and temperature is a very bad idea, since that’s where condensation and solidification of certain gudron-like substances in the gasses occurs. The whole gas system get gunked up and inoperable after a few hundred shots.

  • ^user was banned for this comment

    😉

  • Max does have some information about it in the intro to his Assault Rifles page, actually.

  • .30-06.

  • Zebra Dun

    I learnt something I didn’t know today…thanks TFB!

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    To All :

    Please read my longer reply to Nathaniel as posted below ( “a day ago” as of 111914, beginning with “Thank you for your reply” ) during the initial discussions about “Walking Fire” and its origins. It appears to have been published out of sequence insofar as the timeline is concerned, and the last thing we need is an unnecessary misunderstanding based on “missed” postings.

    Thank you for your understanding and patience in this matter.