View Full Version : The Lewis Gun: "Belgian Rattlesnake"

04-03-04, 09:16 AM
The Lewis Gun

Called the "Belgian Rattlesnake" by its enemies, this early machine gun earned a formidable reputation in the trenches of World War I.


Although several automatic rifles or light machine guns had been fielded in the period leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, only one was to prove itself entirely satisfactory in the shell-blasted mud of World. War I. This was the gun -- an American invention at first rudely spurned by its home country, but enthusiastically embraced by the Belgians and the British. Turned out by the tens of thousands before the war's end, it was far superior to its enemy counterpart, the German "light" Maxim machine gun.

The McLean Gun

In 1910, an American named Samuel McLean sold his mechanical patent rights to the Automatic Arms Company of Buffalo, NY. Among his many inventions was a machine gun so overburdened with gadgets that it was unsuitable for any purpose other than mechanical curiosity.

Automatic Arms persuaded U.S. Army Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, a gifted engineer, to re-work the McLean system. Colonel Lewis wisely retained McLean's basic operating system, consisting of a gas piston that acted on a camming slot in the bolt to rotate it into locking and unlocking. Next, he added a clock-type return, spring, pan magazine and finned air-cooling jacket.

Colonel Lewis was not only a good engineer, but also no slouch as a salesman, showman and visionary. His next step was to arrange an event that would excite imaginations all around the world.

On June 7th, 1912, with a prototype Lewis gun resting on the foot bar of his Wright Type B "aeroplane," Captain Charles DeForest Chandler, commander of the U.S. Army airfield at College Park. Md., became the first man in history to fire a machine gun in flight. A posed photograph taken the next day was picked up and printed by newspapers and magazines worldwide as yet another amazing milestone in the new age of invention.

Unfortunately for the American soldier, the Army curtly dismissed the whole episode, asserting that aircraft were only suitable for scouting and observation and would never do as platforms for aerial gunnery! It would be just 26 months before that blind arrogance would be violently swept aside.

"Ignorant Hacks"

The Army Ordnance Board tests of the Lewis Gun that immediately followed Captain Chandler's history-making flight were no more positive. Perhaps due to the severity of the tests or even to actual faults in the prototype guns, the Lewis gun was neither accepted nor rejected.

According to David Truby in his excellent book The Lewis Gun, the colonel denounced his fellow officers of the Ordnance establishment as "ignorant hacks." Then, rather than continue an exercise in futility against hidebound prejudice, Colonel Lewis turned in his retirement papers and steamed for Belgium in January, 1913.

In Europe Lewis participated in a series of demonstrations held for the Belgian army and various other military representatives. This soon resulted in Belgium's decision to adopt the gun in caliber .303 British, to be manufactured at Liege by a newly formed company to be known as Armes Automatiques Lewis. Soon afterward, the respected English firm of Birmingham Small Arms Co. was granted a license arid the Lewis was in full production at both factories by June 1914.

Model 1914

The Model 1914 Lewis gun weighed less than 28 lbs. with a compact pan load of 47 cartridges. An adjustable clock-type recoil spring could regulate the rate of fire from 500 to 600 rounds per minute. Its rifle-like configuration, adjustable sights and bipod allowed the average soldier to effectively engage enemy targets out to 600 meters.

With no flimsy ammo strip, awkward side-mounted feedbox or trailing ammo belt, the Lewis could be grabbed up and fired from the hip during trench-to-trench assaults, delivering suppressive fire on the defenders. The Lewis was the right weapon at the right time and by 1916 more than 50,000 had been turned out by Belgium, Britain and the American Savage Arms Co.

Trial By Fire

Performance of the new Lewis gun quickly overshadowed that of the Benet-Mercie machine rifle, the only other light automatic in widespread Allied use. Being the first truly successful one of its kind in a period of rapid invention naturally meant that the Lewis would be linked with a number of innovations in the science of warfare.

The British Royal Navy was the first to provide its ships with anti-aircraft protection: deck-mounted Lewis guns against German bombers and torpedo boats. The British Army fitted them to armored cars, tanks and motorcycles and a special monopod adapter was issued to allow quick mounting on posts or stumps for anti-aircraft defense. Indeed, wherever the tactical situation called for a fast handling, fast firing gun, the Lewis was right up front.

The Lewis was also revered in the air. Since cooling was no problem in the slipstream of an airplane or airship, the gun could be stripped of its distinctive barrel jacket and fins. The buttstock was replaced with a spade type handgrip and magazine capacity was more than doubled. With no flapping belt, wind-catching feed spool, or troublesome feed strip to get in the way, the resulting 19 lb. gun was an obvious winner.

At the end of August 1914, a German observation plane became the first aircraft in history to be shot down. This was accomplished by a Lewis gun mounted on a British scout plane over Le Quesnoy, France. Later, Lewis guns loaded with incendiary bullets and mounted on the famous Sopwith Camel biplanes, helped bring down hydrogen-filled German Zeppelin dirigibles that had been terrorizing English cities.


The Germans weren't slow to note the implications of the light, portable machine gun. They bitterly dubbed the Lewis the "Belgian Rattlesnake" because of their enemy's habit of ambushing raiding parties with a sudden, furious hail of copper-jacketed venom. The highly practical Germans were quick to exploit every Lewis they could capture and included its care and feeding as an integral part of instruction of all new machine gunners.


American soldiers had first used .303 British caliber Lewis guns on the Mexican border in 1916. Then, bowing to public pressure built upon more than two years of combat success in Europe, Colonel Lewis' own army finally adopted the .30-'06 caliber Lewis Machine Gun Model 1917, manufactured by Savage Arms Co. of Utica, New York.

The Declining Years

Although the best of its kind until John Browning's soon-to-be-legendary "BAR" became available to American troops in 1917 and 1918, the Lewis was expensive to manufacture, heavy, somewhat awkward, and unnecessarily complicated. While production ceased at the end of World War I, enormous numbers of existing Lewis guns continued to serve.

They were still first-line weapons with many U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Army units in the early years of World War II. The British Army adopted the superlative Bren in the mid-1930s, but many Lewis guns remained in secondary roles and with reserve troops until 1945.


Ironically, many British and American Lewis guns were in ground, sea, and air combat during World War II with Japanese models built under license after 1920.

Interestingly, the Germans in World War II revived the Lewis gun's unique bolt and gas piston/camming device as the heart of Rheinmetall's FG 42 paratroop machine rifle.

This adaptation traveled back to America in time for the Vietnam War in the form of the M60 machine gun -- which has only recently been rendered obsolete by the M240.

Anyone who has fired more than a round or two from a full-powered military bolt action rifle knows that recoil is a significant factor, but this is of little concern with the Lewis gun, weighing more than three times that of the British SMLE infantry rifle and aided by a ground-grabbing bipod.

A Distinctive Profile

With its stovepipe-like shape, the Lewis gun's prominent barrel shroud is particularly noteworthy. Colonel Lewis put a tapered extension at the muzzle end so that blast overpressure will cause a vacuum and draw cooling air from the receiver end through the shroud as the gun is being fired.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Lewis is its top-mounted 47-round pan magazine. With no springs to break or become weak with use, and no bothersome belt to drag along, the Lewis magazine offers significant advantages over competing designs.

Located handily on top of the receiver, it doesn't scrape the ground nor does it put the weapon off balance by poking out one side or another. Its low profile doesn't interfere with the sights and it doesn't stick up like a lethal position-marker above the gunner's head.

In short, the Lewis magazine might seem to be nearly ideal except for the fact that it is completely open underneath, providing an entryway for grit and moisture.


04-03-04, 09:18 AM
About the author

Robert Bruce, a former infantryman, tank crewman, and military intelligence analyst, is the author of Machine Guns Of World War I, published in 1997 by Windrow & Greene/The Crowood Press. An internationally published photojournalist, archivist, and lecturer, Bruce has been shooting and evaluating the world's infantry weapons for nearly three decades. The author would like to thank Mike Knapp. Steve Altemus and the Great War Association of Alexandria, Va., for their help with the photography for this article.

Lewis Machine Gun
Manufacturer: Birmingham Small Arms Company,England
Caliber: .303 British
Operating System: Gas, open bolt, full-auto only
Cooling: Air, aluminum radiator-finned barrel
Magazine: Rotating pan, 47- and 97-round capacity
Length: 50.5"
Barrel: 26.04", 4 grooves, left twist
Loaded Weight: 32.75 lbs.
Sights: Blade front and aperture rear, adjustable for elevation in 100 yard increments from 400 to 2,100 yards
Rate of fire: 500 to 600 rpm
Muzzle velocity: 2,450 fps


Marines training with Lewis machine gun at Quantico during World War I.