MODERN MILITARY MASTERPIECES: THE BRITISH .280/30
Created on 14th May 2009
LAURIE HOLLAND looks at the development of the .280/30 and the problems faced in the process
UNLIKE THE Germans and Americans, the British Empire didn't field a single semi-automatic rifle during WW2. This policy failure had increasingly onerous consequences for its soldiers as the war progressed. An infantry platoon's firepower came primarily from light machine guns such as the Bren Gun and the world's first GPMG, the German belt-fed MG34, succeeded by the impressive MG42.
This often downgraded the riflemen's role to supporting the machine gun teams. Studies showed that men armed with conventional rifles rarely engaged, never mind hit, ‘targets' at 300yd. The Sten sub-machine gun was issued in large numbers, its poor accuracy and the 9mm cartridge's short effective range proving a constraint except in urban warfare. Britain's military planners desperately wanted a self-loading rifle firing a full-power rimless cartridge until they discovered the German StG44 and 7.92X33mm cartridge. An ‘assault rifle' would see every infantryman field a multi-purpose automatic weapon giving a massive increase in firepower - just what was wanted, but with better accuracy and range than the German weapon.
The British Armament Design Establishment (ADE) set up the Ideal Calibre Panel in 1946 to undertake technical studies into ‘intermediate' power cartridges. These started by identifying the required effective ranges and terminal energies working back from there, concluding the ‘ideal' cartridge would be .270" (0.275-.277" diameter bullets) or 0.276" (7mm or 0.284" diameter) calibre with bullet weights of 100-130gn. The aim was to produce the minimum firing impulse while meeting performance objectives through the use of efficient bullets that retained velocity and energy despite modest weights and MVs.
The first results appeared in January 1947, a .270 and .276 with 46 and 43mm length cases respectively. They employed a marginally smaller case-head and body diameter than the 7.92 Mauser/.30-06. The .270 used a 100gn bullet at 2,900fps, the .276 a 130gn at 2,450fps, later 140gn at 2,415fps. Their bullet weights and MVs generated less than half the recoil of the existing 0.303" and .30-06. The ADE adopted a modified version of the .276, the .280/30, so called because the case-head diameter was increased to 0.473" as in the .30-06. Other features such as the extractor groove dimensions were also identical to ease production and obtain US Army approval - a tricky issue! The .280/30 was also known as the .280 British, 7X43mm, and in production form, the 7mm Ball Mk1z.
EM and FN
Four rifle design teams were set up at RSAF Enfield, their projects designated EM (Experimental Model) one to four. Only EM-1 and EM-2 made it to the prototype stage, appearing in 1949. There was a private sector contender, the BSA 28-P, but the prototype was wrecked in firing trials through a serious design fault. Both Enfield designs were ‘bullpups', gas-operated, selective-fire, operated from a closed bolt, and had a one-power optical sight. They used different bolts and locking systems, and while the EM-1 had stamped components, the EM-2 was more traditionally made with machined forgings. Despite this, the EM-1 was heavy at 10¼lb, 2½lb more than the EM-2. The EM-1 had a cyclic rate of 600rpm on full-auto, the EM-2 a modest 120 to keep it controllable. The ADE demanded 12 rifles of each design by the end of 1949, achieved by the EM-2 team with in-house production at Enfield, but the private companies contracted to produce the EM-1's stamped components failed to deliver, and the design was scrapped.
There was another European player in the development of the NATO assault rifle and cartridge - FN. Chief design engineer Dieudonné Saive escaped from Belgium in 1940, taking the drawings for a semi-automatic military rifle with him to Britain where he continued work at Enfield. Working 7.92mm models were produced before Saive returned to Liège, where he developed it into the SAFN-49, a successful self-loading rifle for full-power cartridges.
The wartime links forged between the British and FN engineers continued afterwards, helped by similar philosophies about smaller cartridges in a new generation of light assault rifles. FN scaled its action down and redesigned it into the ground-breaking selective-fire FAL which initially chambered the 7.92X33mm, redesigned for the .280/30 when that appeared. It also worked on ammunition development helping the British find the optimum bullet for the .280/30 in the form of the Mauser S12 140gn BT design which provided excellent ballistics.
The British army and government were committed to the EM-2 and .280/30, and there is no doubt this was an effective combination, accurate and very controllable in full-auto firing. Users appreciated the optical sight which was ahead of its time. The cartridge gave better ballistics than the 0.303", inferior to the .30-06 to 1,000yd, but superior beyond that. Energy at 2,000yd exceeded 100ft/lb (60ft/lb inflicts serious injury on an unprotected person). There are questions about how well this complex rifle would have performed in harsh service environments, but the outstanding design of its generation, the FN FAL, used the .280/30 with FN committed to the cartridge.
But there was a problem or two. Senior US Army officers were adamant that the American hence NATO infantry cartridge had to be .30 and provide .30-06 performance; Colonel Renée Studler, Head of the US Small Arms Bureau of Ordnance and a power in the land didn't like the EM-2 and was implacably opposed to its cartridge. NATO's founder states, USA, Britain, and Canada, had signed an agreement that the alliance would use common smallarms and ammunition developed in co-operation, designs chosen through competitive trials. Britain had been open about developments, while it seemed the Americans were doing no work. Then the British discovered by the back door that Col Studler was running a secret Springfield Armory light rifle project called the T25, and Frankford Arsenal was developing an equally secret .30 calibre cartridge, code-name T65 under his direction. In meetings and rifle/ammunition trials held between 1947 and 1952, it became obvious the Americans would only adopt their designs, Col Studler on record as stating that developing anything other than the T25/T65 was "a waste of time". (Remember, the agreement was that NATO would field a single design of each type of weapon as well as a common cartridge.) American objections to the .280/30 were: underpowered; too high a trajectory - when sighted at 700yd, the MRT was 6ft at 300yd and 9ft at 400yd, creating a ‘zone of safety' that would have the bullet pass above an upright enemy soldier; assumed inadequate performance in Arctic winter temperatures; the claimed impossibility of producing tracer, incendiary, and AP versions of 7mm bullets. There was a fifth reason - not invented in the USA!
The remaining story of the British 7mm cartridges until the T65E3 was adopted in 1952 as the 7.62 NATO was larger (49 and 51mm cases) and higher velocity (eventually 140gn/2,800fps) versions developed in conjunction with the Canadians and Belgians in vain attempts to convince the Americans to have a change of heart. Britain finally went its own way in frustration, the Army Council and Defence Ministry unilaterally adopting the EM-2 as the "Rifle, Automatic, Calibre .280, No.9 Mk1" in April 1951 with the support of Prime Minister Clement Attlee. A .280/30 belt-fed GPMG, the ‘Taden gun' was also en route to adoption. The Americans were appalled and how NATO's smallarms development would have turned out had this stuck is anyone's guess! However, Labour lost the 1952 election and the new Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a one-to-one meeting with President Harry S. Truman in which Churchill backed down to protect the ‘special relationship'. The EM-2 couldn't handle the T65-E3 cartridge that emerged that year, the various design and production teams were disbanded and the EM-2 project engineer left the UK, eventually becoming Winchester's R&D Director. It was the beginning of the end of Britain's long history as a leading military arms design and manufacturing country, subsequently adopting the FN FAL as the L1A1 rifle and FN MAG machine gun as the L7A1, both in 7.62mm calibre.
Picture above: An inert example of a 1951 Kynoch .280/30 with 140gn bullet is flanked by the cartridge that inspired it, the wartime German 7.92X33mm on the left and its nemesis, the American-designed 7.62X51mm NATO on the right. With a long streamlined 7mm bullet at 2,415fps, 2,595fps in its final loading, this would have made a superb military, target and sporting cartridge
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