The Lewis machine gun, also known as Lewis automatic machine gun, Lewis automatic rifle or simply just Lewis gun, is a First World War-era light machine gun of US design that was perfected and mass-produced in the United Kingdom, and widely used by British and British Empire troops during the war. With its distinctive barrel cooling shroud and top-mounted pan magazine, the Lewis served to the end of the Korean War. It was also widely used as an aircraft machine gun, almost always with the cooling shroud removed, during both world wars. In British service there were several variant patterns ranging from the basic pattern Mark I through to the Mark IV, with several other variants in between.
The Lewis gun was invented by U.S. Army colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911, based on initial work by Samuel Maclean. Despite its origins, the Lewis gun was not initially adopted by the US military, most likely because of political differences between Lewis and General William Crozier, the chief of the Ordnance Department. Lewis became frustrated with trying to persuade the U.S. Army to adopt his design, so ("slapped by rejections from ignorant hacks", as he said), retired from the army. He left the United States in 1913 and went to Belgium, where he established the Armes Automatique Lewis company in Liège to facilitate commercial production of the gun. Lewis had been working closely with British arms manufacturer the Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited (BSA) in an effort to overcome some of the production difficulties of the weapon. The Belgians bought a small number of Lewises in 1913, using the .303 British round and, in 1914, BSA purchased a license to manufacture the Lewis machine gun in England, which resulted in Col. Lewis receiving significant royalty payments and becoming very wealthy. Lewis and his factory moved to England before 1914, away from possible seizure in the event of a German invasion. The Belgian army acquired only a handful of his guns. They were not on general issue in the Belgian Army, and were used only in a few forays by motor vehicles, south of Antwerp, against the flank of the invading German Army.
The onset of the First World War increased demand for the Lewis gun, and BSA began production (under the designation Model 1914). The design was officially approved for service on 15 October 1915 under the designation "Gun, Lewis, .303-cal." No Lewis guns were produced in Belgium during the war; all manufacture was carried out by BSA in England and the Savage Arms Company in the US.
Service in the First World War
The first use of the Lewis in the war was by Belgium, in August and September 1914, when the small number available were fitted to a handful of touring and armoured cars and used in a few sorties against German patrols and troop columns. As a consequence, the Germans nicknamed the Lewis "the Belgian Rattlesnake", but contemporary German references have not been found. The Lewis was not in service with the regular Belgian Army.
Great Britain officially adopted the Lewis gun in .303 calibre for land and aircraft use in October 1915, with the weapon beginning to be generally issued to the British Army's infantry battalions on the Western Front in early 1916 as a replacement for the heavier and less mobile Vickers machine gun, the Vickers then being withdrawn from the infantry for use by specialist machine-gun companies. The US Navy and Marine Corps followed in early 1917, adopting the M1917 Lewis gun (produced by the Savage Arms Co.), in .30-06 caliber. The US Army never officially adopted the weapon for infantry use and even went so far as to take Lewis guns away from US Marines arriving in France and replace them with the cheap, shoddy, and extremely unsatisfactory Chauchat LMG — a practice believed to be related to General Crozier's dislike of Lewis and his gun.
References / notes
- Lewis gun. Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Accessed 19 April, 2017.
Glossary of words and phrases
The above term is listed in our glossary of words and phrases of the Armed Forces of Great Britain during the Great War. Included are trench slang, service terms, expressions in everyday use, nicknames, the titles and origins of British and Commonwealth Regiments, and warfare in general. These words and phrases are contemporary to the war, which is reflected in the language used. They have been transcribed from three primary sources (see Contents). Feel free to expand upon and improve this content.
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