Monday 20 May 2019

The Weapons of 1916

John Dorney

No one should doubt the symbolic importance of rifles to young Volunteers. In 1914 the Irish Republican Brotherhood organ, Irish Freedom, wrote, ‘A dozen rifles are more effective than a thousand resolutions in Parliament’.

The gun re-enters Irish life, 1914-1916

In the Ulster crisis of 1913-14, both rival Volunteer movements, Ulster and Irish armed themselves with an assortment of weapons from around Europe.

The UVF  imported as many as 37,000 rifles of various makes and around 3 million rounds of ammunition. Some 25,000 rifles were landed at Larne on April 25, in a spectacular defiance of the law and of Home Rule.

Howth gun-running 1914
Howth gun-running 1914

The Irish Volunteers for their part unloaded at Howth harbour from the yacht the Asgard, a cargo of 900 rifles and 30,000 rounds of ammunition that Bulmer Hobson, the IRB leader, had secretly purchased in Germany and another 600 at Kilcoole, County Wicklow later in the summer of 1914.

These arsenals were both much less impressive than they looked on paper. The unionists imported better rifles than the nationalists but they were of three different types, German Mausers (1888 model), Austrian Steyr Manlicher rifles and Italian Vetterli rifles. All of these took a different calibre bullet so supply of ammunition to fighters would have been very difficult in the event of their being fired in anger.

As for the Irish Volunteers, they suffered a split in 1914 (the National Volunteers followed Irish Party leader John Redmond into support for Britain in the First World War) and as result lost some of the ‘Howth Mausers’. In practice as the war went on the National Volunteers’ enthusiasm waned, the core IRB-influenced group of the Irish Volunteers regained some of these weapons. They had, however, other problems with armament.

Easter Rising small arms

The 1871 or ‘Howth’ Mauser was a very long, very heavy, very old, single shot weapon. It was relatively slow to reload, its ammunition (11mm) was scarce and could not be resupplied in Ireland.

It was also black powder, creating a ferocious explosion and a cloud of black smoke when fired, thus giving away the position of the firer. In the words of one Volunteer who ended up using it in the 1916 Rising, ‘it was a bad weapon for street fighting’; ‘Flame about three foot long came out through the barrel when it was fired and a shower of soot and smoke came back in one’s face. After three shots were fired from it, it would have to be thrown away to let it cool and the concussion of it was so severe that it drove me back along the floor several feet’.

On the other hand, the heavy lead bullet fired by the ‘Howth Mauser’, broke up on impact with human bodies, caused terrible exit wounds, and inspired significant fear among those on the receiving end.

They could also punch through sandbags and walls as British troops trying to set up a machine gun post as Digges Street near Jacob’s Factory found; according to Peadar Kearney ‘they were literally blown out of it. A dozen Howth Mausers could always do that’.

Mauser rifle - very long, very heavy, very old
Mauser rifle - very long, very heavy, very old

It seems that the majority of Volunteer and Citizen Army fighters were armed with the Howth Mauser. Although there were also a certain amount of Italian Vetterli Rifles in the hands of the Volunteeers and Citizen Army dating from early 1914, when they had been imported during the Ulster crisis, ammunition for them was scarce and it is not clear if they were used in the Rising.

A much better bet for the Volunteers, where they could get them, were the British Lee Enfield .303 rifles. Apart from being newer, significantly shorter and lighter than the 1871 Mauser, the Lee Enfield held a magazine of ten rounds and by manipulation of the bolt action, could be fired rapidly in trained hands (perhaps 20-30 shots per minute for veteran troops). It also used smokeless powder and so did not give away the firer’s position.

The Volunteers borrowed, bought and stole Lee Enfields wherever they could in the months leading up the Rising. So many service rifles began to go missing in the months leading up to the Rising – mostly sold off by British ‘Tommies’ at Dublin port – that troops embarking at Hollyhead for Dublin were instructed to leave their rifles behind in Wales and pick up new ones at barracks in Dublin.

The rebels also had a small number of Martini Henry carbines – a single shot lever action carbine – which up to 1905 were issued to the Royal Irish Constabulary and some of which were imported from sympathisers in the United States. In Bolands Mill one Volunteer reported that there were three different kinds of rifle, the Lee Enfield, two different types of Martini-Henry (with different cartridges) and the Howth Mauser as well as shotguns, all of which had to be kept supplied with different calibre ammunition, ‘ even in the hottest of corners’.

One surprisingly effective weapon in the hands of the Volunteers was what they referred to as the ‘Peter the Painter’ (after an anarchist terrorist who used one in turn-of-the-century London) or C96 Mauser automatic pistol.

This was a clip fed semi-automatic weapon that held ten 7.63 rounds. It could be equipped with a shoulder stock to make it more accurate and proved lethally effective in close quarters street fighting during Easter Week. At Mount Street Bridge Mick Malone , armed with a C96 and accompanied by a mere 12 Volunteers killed and wounded 240 Sherwood Foresters. Malone himself in one charge shot down ten British soldiers with his automatic pistol before taking up a Howth Mauser.

Other Volunteers carried revolvers, shotguns or even pikes, the latter being virtually useless in a 20th century fire fight.

Heavy weapons

Having occupied positions around Dublin on Easter Monday, many Volunteers actually saw little combat until they received the order to surrender. But those that were attacked in their fortified positions in general proved very difficult to dislodge despite their antiquated weapons.

By the end of the week, the only insurgent stronghold that had actually been forced to surrender was the rebel headquarters at the GPO.

The British forces massively outnumbered and outgunned the insurgents in 1916. By the end of the week they had assembled some 16,000 troops to take on the 1,600 odd rebels. Every infantryman was equipped with a Lee Enfield rifle, which in most cases was superior to what they faced.

More important though, were machine guns, of which the British had many and the Volunteers none. The Vickers heavy machine gun was belt fed and could fire continuously at a rate of 500 rounds per minute. The Lewis light machine gun was fed by a 47 round pan magazine and could be carried around easily by infantry troops, unlike the Vickers. Both, but especially the former, could ‘suppress’ a defensive position by spraying it with so many bullets that no one would be able to return fire.

Automatic weapons made a significant difference but the decisive weapon in 1916 was artillery. The British Army after the initial shock of the outbreak of the rebellion, deployed  four 18 pounder field guns in Dublin, taken from the garrison in Athlone along with a 12 pounder gun aboard the gun-boat Helga.

The gun-boat, Helga
The gun-boat, Helga

A number of insurgent positions were fired at with artillery, but it made the most difference at the rebel headquarters at the GPO and O’Connell Street, where artillery fire by the Friday had made the Post Office a flaming inferno and levelled much of Dublin’s main street. This was the main factor in the insurgent surrender. It also seems likely that the use of heavy weapons in a densely populated urban area caused many of the 250 odd civilian fatalities.

The disproportion in the weaponry available to both sides was a salutary lesson to the surviving Volunteers, notably Michael Collins, who resolved never to gain face the British military in open combat.   

John Dorney is a historian, author of 'Peace After the Final Battle the Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924 (2014)' and editor of The Irish Story website.

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