Last month I made the journey to Oxfordshire, where I had the pleasure of visiting the DCC (Defence Capability Centre) at Shrivenham. Home to the British Army’s Defence Academy, the DCC houses various historical weapons, arms and vehicles. In what was a fascinating day from start to finish I got to explore this impressive historical arsenal up close, even getting the luxury of firing a few WW2 German weapons on the range.
Despite the terrible morning traffic coupled with the various road works on route and the fact that as a result of this my sat nav decided to take me cross country, I just managed to arrive in the knick of time to join the group as they headed to the range. I had been invited to watch them test fire four original German WW2 weapons.
Much to my surprise and joy, they told me when we arrived at the range that I would be the one test firing these weapons. You can only imagine my reaction at getting the opportunity to not only handle but also fire four original German weapons from the Second World War…unbelievable!
First up was the infamous and much coveted Pistole P 08 Luger. Introduced into German army service in 1908, it had an 8 round magazine and fired a 9 mm round. The model we fired was from 1938. Our guide for the day, John, pointed out that each model was engraved with a number up to 1000 as well as a symbol. Obviously more than 1000 were produced in a single year so the symbol was used to denote the year in which it was produced.
With its sleek design and comfortable grip, the Luger was great fun to handle. I was given five rounds to fire on each weapon, not being used to firing a pistol and with P 08’s large foresight, I was initially aiming high so it took a couple of shots for me to compensate for this before I accurately hit the target.
We then moved onto the Wehrmacht’s primary infantry weapons during the Second World War, the German Mauser (KAR) Karabiner 98 bolt-action rifle was next up. Firing a 7.92 mm cartridge, the KAR 98 had a 5 round magazine. It was a sturdy and impressive bit of kit, and certainly packed quite a punch when the rifle kicked. The sights were far easier to use than the Luger’s and consequently I scored 5 hits out of 5 with a reasonably close grouping. I really enjoyed firing it.
One potential limitation which I found whilst handling the weapon was the bolt’s cocking action when reloading. The bolt comes all the way back to where you can see I am resting my chin in the photo above, so unless you want to whack yourself in the face, it forces you to have to drop the rifle from your shoulder to cock and reload the weapon. In a fire fight this could potentially cost valuable time and cause you to temporarily lose sight of your target for a few vital seconds.
However better was yet to come, I was then given the opportunity to fire a weapon that today costs around $250,000, the Fallschirmjagergewehr 42 (FG 42). It is another impressive bit of German engineering and with its bi-pod it was certainly easier to support and fire than the Mauser. Although I must admit that I did prefer the sights on the KAR 98 which I found fractionally easier to use. The only downside of this weapon that I could see was the noise and the fact that the gun also produced an incredible tell-tale flash which I can only imagine at night would quickly give-away your position.
The FG 42 was specially produced for Hitler’s elite paratroopers (Fallshirmjagers) to help provide them with greater fire power when they landed. Only around 7000 were ever produced during the war. Despite being capable of fully automatic fire (700+ rpm), we used it on the range in its semi-automatic single shot mode. Firing the standard 7.92 mm round, I was told that the internal design of the FG 42 was totally unique and the way the gas operated mechanism worked around the bullet left a individual marking on the ejected casing once fired.
The final weapon up on the range was Germany’s Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44) assault rifle. I was particularly excited to be firing this weapon, even more so because we were using original 7.92 mm ammunition dating from 1944 (stamped ‘St aux 15 44’). The StG 44 was equipped with a 30 round magazine and was designed to fire the Polte Kurz short cartridge. Personally christened ‘Sturmgewehr’ by Hitler, I was very impressed by this weapon.
One word of warning though to anyone standing nearby as can be seen in the video, the casings are ejected with some force and over some distance. They could be heard pinging off the range’s metal wall.
Finishing up on the range having thoroughly enjoyed getting my hands on these iconic weapons, I was given a tour around the light arms wing of the armoury. It was amazing to see all these weapons, there were pistols, flare guns, rifles, sub-machine guns, machine guns, mortars, flame-throwers and even an original canon from a German WW2 aircraft.
John kindly guided me through the different WW2 weapons that each nation used and produced during the conflict. We started with rifles, looking at the British Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mark I, the German Mauser KAR 98, the American M1 Garand and the Russian Mosin-Nagant Rifle.
We then moved onto pistols and I was very intrigued to see the Walther P 38 (bottom) which eventually replaced the P 08 Luger as the standard German army pistol. It was interesting to compare this with the American Colt Browning M1911 and also the British Webley MK 4 revolver.
There were also a few other special and lesser known weapons that I had not really heard of before that John kindly showed me, including the US Liberator M1942 pistol and the Welrod bolt-action 9 mm suppressed pistol (pictured below). Both weapons were designed to be used in close quarters and were an ideal assassin’s weapon utilised behind enemy lines by the British SOE, American OSS and resistance forces during WW2.
We also looked at a range of Allied and Axis machine guns, including the German MG 34 and US Brownings (both photographed below), as well as the British Bren and Vickers machine guns.
It was interesting as John went into a lot of details about the engineering process behind these weapons and explained that Germany was arguably over-engineering quite a few of its weapons, for example in the case of the MG 34 these took around 120 – 150 man hours to produce just 1 and he had counted 6 different inspection marks on it. He made a very good point that I had not really considered before, that many weapons potentially only had a short life span practice as they could very quickly be lost in battle after just 1 day’s use.
It was also fascinating to learn that with every bullet fired, the barrel’s temperature rises by 1 degree, so after 450 rounds it reaches the point of inertia (melting). So on the MG 42 for example although it had a terrifying theoretical rate of fire of up to 1200 rounds per minute, practically this was heavily restrained by things like over-heating and ammunition constraints. The crews would also carry 3 or more spare barrels as these would potentially very quickly need to be replaced.
I then moved on to the main hall of the DCC and like the Light Arms Wing, it contained a whole range of military hardware from different time periods including a selection of tanks and armoured vehicles. Although disappointingly there were not many from the period of the Second World War, I did however quickly manage to sniff out a real WW2 gem in the form of this Russian T-34 Tank.
Crewed by 5 men, the T-34/85 model entered into service in early 1944 and was an improved version on the T-34/76 both in terms of armour and firepower. The 76.2 mm gun was replaced with a longer barrelled 85 mm gun, whilst the armour was also improved for example the frontal hull armour was increased from 20 mm to 100 mm thick. Added to this it had an increased range, speed and also weight on its predecessor.
Despite the short fall in WW2 related armour, the DCC certainly made up for it in the form of WW2 ordnance. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to explore the old WW2 anti-aircraft battery at Goodrest Farm in Warwickshire. Originally the site was home to four QF 3.7-inch AA guns during the war, so it was fantastic to be able to finally see one of these in the flesh. Crewed by 7-8 men and capable of firing up to 20 rounds per minute, they truly are monstrous guns.
Following this, I stumbled upon the German Wehrmacht’s IG 18 75mm infantry howitzer. Fairly easy to transport either by being towed or man handled into position, the IG 18 is capable of firing between 5 – 10 rounds per minute. And depending upon the ammunition fired (either HE or Hollow Charge) had a range of 3.6 KM.
Right beside it, was one of Britain’s main field artillery pieces during the Second World War, the QF 25 pounder. Weighing around 1.8 tonnes and with a 6 man crew, the 25 pounder had a rate of fire of around 6 rounds per minute and a range of 12.25 KM. This specific model photographed below dates back to 1943.
Having had the pleasure of witnessing one of these being fired first hand at last year’s Chalke Valley History Festival show and the deafening noise and choking smoke that accompanied it, I can only imagine what it must be have been like for those that had to crew one of these weapons in combat.
There was also one of Britain’s medium artillery pieces on display, the BL 5.5-inch gun. According to the reg plate this model is a MK1 dating from 1942. Operated by 9 man detachment, the 5.5 inch gun weighed over 5 tonnes and had to be towed into position. It was initially capable of firing around 2 rounds per minute up to a distance of over 16 KM, this was until the 100 lb shell was replaced by the 82 lb shells in 1944, increasing its range to around 18 KM.
Although unfortunately not allowed to picture them, I did also came across a German Schu-Mine and an original British Petard or ‘Flying Dust-bin’ which would have been fired by a Churchill AVRE Tank.
All in all I had an absolutely fantastic experience that day visiting the DCC. It was amazing exploring, firing and getting up close and personal with all these different weapons from the Second World War. I just quickly want to thank all of the team at the DCC that made this possible!
I hope you all enjoyed reading this post!