Bren Machine Gun
|Country of Origin||United Kingdom|
|Barrel Length||635 mm|
|Rate of Fire||500 rounds/min|
|Muzzle Velocity||744 m/s|
Contributor: C. Peter ChenIn 1930, the British Army tested the Czechoslovakian light machine gun ZB vz. 27 (which was a direct successor of the ZB vz. 26) and gave the design satisfactory results; although it was ranked superior to entries such as the US-made BAR and the locally made Vickers-Berthier weapons, the peacetime stance and the stagnant 1930s economy led to little progress by ways of the adaptation of these new light machine guns. Nevertheless, subsequent designs of ZB vz. 30, ZB vz. 33, and ZB vz. 34 were rechambered for the British .303 inch ammunition, and trials continued until it was finally accepted shortly after the final trial in Aug 1934. To prepare for production in Britain, metric units on the drawings were converted to imperial units in Jan 1935. The first example was produced in Sep 1937 at the Royal Small Arms Factory in the London Borough of Enfield in southern England, and this production location gave the Czechoslovakian-British weapon its amalgamated name: By taking the first two letters of its place of design, the city of Brno, and the first two letters of its place of production, the borough of Enfield, the name Bren was born.
The Bren light machine guns were gas-operated automatic weapons. Among several distinctions, two stood out the most. First was their quick-change barrels, which allowed well-practiced operators to swap out overheated barrels between six and eight seconds. The second of the two was more cosmetic than functional: The rimmed British .303 inch ammunition led to the curved shape of the top-mounted 30-round magazines (which were usually only filled with 28 rounds in order to lower spring tension to improve the reliability of feeding). The top-mounting magazines, positioned to allow a machine gunners or their assistants to quickly reload ammunition even in proned positions, were also said to be a minor disadvantage by some crews, as their height made concealment difficult. While some had hoped the Bren guns to be a general purpose machine gun, ie. effective in both static positions and on the move, the use of magazines meant this weapon could not rival with their belt-fed contemporaries when fighting in the defense of a stationary position. In service, they were known for their relative accuracy despite being machine guns; interestingly, some Bren gunners preferred the use of worn barrels for their weapons in order to increase the size of their cones of fire.
Bren guns were immediately worked into standard infantry unit tactics of the British Army. Infantry maneuvers were designed to move around platoon Bren guns, and all riflemen were given simple Bren gun usage lessons in case their units' machine gunners became wounded or killed in combat. Furthermore, the infantrymen's 1937 Pattern Webbing not only gave them pockets especially made for Bren magazines, but led each of them to carry more spare ammunition for his unit's Bren guns than spare ammunition for his own rifle. Overall, popular pre-war opinion, which would remain unchanged after the start of the war, was that the Bren guns were reliable and effective; many considered them to be among the best light machine guns in service with the Western Allies.
Since Bren guns had been made the principle machine gun of the front line infantry, it was not surprising that the first British soldier to land in France during the 1944 Normandy invasion was a Bren gunner. At 0002 hours on 6 Jun 1944, Private William Gray of D Company of 2nd Battalion of the airborne infantry regiment Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry arrived by glider to ensure those who landed after him would have the benefit of cover fire from his Bren gun should there be such need immediately upon landing.
Although they were generally well-liked, the high cost of £40 each gun was an issue for the British Army leadership. This became a greater issue when it was discovered that only 2,300 of the 30,000 Bren guns issued to the British Expeditionary Force came back to Britain after the defeat of France. As the result, cost savings and increased rate of production became two main goals for subsequent variant designs. Bren Mk II design simplified production by replacing the drum rear sight with ladder rear sight, making the bipod legs non-adjustable, simplifying the gun butt, reducing the use of stainless steel, among other steps that reduced the cost by 20% to 25%; Mk II was approved in Sep 1940 and entered production in 1941. While the Bren Mk III design also aimed at reducing cost, it also had the concurrent goal of being lightened for jungle warfare; the final product weighed 19 pounds and 5 ounces (3 pounds lighter than the original Bren Mk I design); it was standardized in Jul 1944 and saw a production of 57,600. Also standardized in Jul 1944 was Bren Mk IV, which further as lightened to 19 pounds and 2 ounces; it would not enter production until Jul 1945 however, and only 250 would be built before the end of the war. While Enfield was only able to produce 400 Bren Mk I guns each month, with the various simplification efforts production numbers rose to 1,000 guns per week by 1943. Among the variant designs were two specialty prototypes that never entered production: The belt-fed Taden gun for stationary defense use, and the ultra-simplified Besal gun to be produced in case a German invasion of Britain actually took place (which would hinder British production efforts). Later designs of production Bren guns featured chrome-lined barrels that offered less resistance, therefore preventing overheating, and thus eliminating the need for quick-change barrels.
Bren guns were produced outside of Britain as well. In Canada, the John Inglis plant in Toronto began tooling its facilities for production in 1938; the first of 186,000 examples was completed in Mar 1940. Some of the Inglis-built Bren guns were chambered for the 7.92-millimeter Mauser ammunition; these were destined for export to Nationalist Chinese forces (who already operated some examples purchased from Czechoslovakia before its dismemberment) rather than for British and Commonwealth forces. In Australia, the Lithgow Small Arms Factory in New South Wales began building Bren guns in 1940; a total of 17,249 were built. In India, the factory at Ishapore began building Bren guns in 1942 (it had produced Vickers-Berthier machine guns prior to this time), and would continue producing them for decades long after the end of WW2. Many of the Bren guns produced at Ishapore went to Indian troops, who had lost a great number of automatic weapons during the disastrous campaigns against the Japanese in Malaya and Burma; 17th Indian Infantry Division, for example, found itself with only 56 Bren guns after fleeing out of Burma in 1942.
Beyond the British and Commonwealth forces, the Soviets also operated a number of Bren guns. Soviet Union received at least 7,000 of them as a part of Matilda tanks, Universal Carriers, etc. Soviet propaganda did not mention Bren guns, however, preferring to focus more so on domestically produced weapons in order to raise morale.
Interestingly, the Germans fielded near-identical weapons in combat (Czechoslovakian and British examples of this weapon fired different ammunition). After Germany annexed Czechoslovakia, captured ZB vz. 26 and ZB vz. 30 light machine guns were immediately pressed into service under the designation of MG 26(t) and MG 30(t), respectively. Before long, Czechoslovakian armament factories resumed producing ZB machine guns for the German war effort. Most of the captured and manufactured ZB machine guns made for the German Wehrmacht were issued to Waffen-SS units, but a limited number of them did find their ways to the German Army. 20,000 ZB light machine guns built in German-occupied Czechoslovakia were sold to Axis-friendly Spain. Examples captured from British troops during the conquest of France and later were designated MG 138(e).
As noted above, Bren light machine guns were mounted on Universal Carriers; this led to the the unofficial yet popular nickname of "Bren Gun Carriers" for Universal Carriers.
After the war, the Bren light machine gun design was modified to make use of the standard 7.62-millimeter cartridge of NATO forces. When the modification was completed in 1958, the model was redesignated L4 light machine gun; L4 light machine guns remained in British service until the 1990s. During the Korean War, they were seen on both sides of the war, with British and Commonwealth forces wielding Bren guns while the Chinese fought back with ZB guns. Some Chinese units also used them during the Vietnam War. British forces operated L4 light machine guns in the 1982 Falklands War and in the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. The last gun of this design to be fired by a British military service personnel was a Turkish-built ZB vz. 30 gun, captured from an enemy fighter in Afghanistan and turned back against its original operators in 2009. The Indian Army operated locally-built (at Ishapore) Bren guns under the designation of MG1B; they were retired from front line service in 2012. Many military forces and police organizations still use Bren guns and L4 guns today.
Neil Grant, The Bren Gun
|3 Sep 1937||The first British-built Bren gun fired in testing.|
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945