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The Lewis gun is a British-produced, American-designed light machine gun that was developed by Isaac Newton Lewis. Adopted by the British Army in 1915, the Lewis gun earned repute for its performance during World War I. It saw international success due to its high regard and continued to see use into World War II.

History[edit | edit source]

Developed in 1911 by U.S. Army Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, it was a reworking of a design by Samuel McClean - the initial design proved to be too heavy with various gadgets, that it provided no combat value.

Isaac Lewis took the initial design, stripped all surrounding gadgets, and redesigned it in a quite straightforward manner. The end result is well-known to everyone.

Prior to World War I, a Lewis gun was test-mounted on an American aircraft in an attempt to demonstrate the potential viability of aerial combat. However, the US Army at the time rejected the idea, asserting that aircraft would only ever be useful in scouting roles.

Later, around 1913, the Lewis was trialled by the US Army for the role of infantry machine gun. It was again rejected, due to political differences between Isaac Lewis and General William Crozier. Frustrated with failed attempts to get the gun adopted, Lewis had retired from the US Army. He traveled to Europe shortly after, where in Belgium, he formed Armes Automatiques Lewis, which began the production of the Lewis gun in 1914. At the same time, Isaac Lewis had struck a deal with the Birmingham Small Arms Co., granting them license for Lewis gun production. Lewis received significant royalty payments from the production of the weapon, making him very rich.

Lewis guns were adapted in service in the UK and Belgium, and widely used in World War I. The Germans, who suffered numerous casualties from this gun during air combat, nicknamed it the "Belgian Rattlesnake". Loaded with incendiary bullets, Lewis guns mounted on fast aeroplanes had proven to be lethal against hydrogen-filled German zeppelins. As a consequence, the Germans instantly adapted every captured Lewis gun that they had in service.

Reliable, cheap and simple, Lewis guns had served valiantly through the World War I, and were exported in various countries, including, ironically, the US. Among others, Tsarist Russia had procured a large number of Lewis guns, which served with the Red Army until the introduction of the Degtyaryov machine gun.

In a letter from T E Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) to his friend and biographer, the poet Robert Graves, Lawrence noted that he carried an "air-Lewis gun" in the saddle bucket on his camel during the war.

During World War II, Lewis guns saw action again, mainly from 1941–1942. Employed by the UK, they were used to supplement the lack of Bren light machine guns, and utilized stocks to the fullest possible extent.

Interestingly enough, the Mexican Mendoza RM-2 and German FG 42 seem to borrow heavily from the Lewis' design. In turn, the M60 machine gun borrows the action from FG-42 - and this is only one of a few examples of the Lewis' technical solutions living on through later generations of firearms.

Description[edit | edit source]

Technically, Lewis guns are gas-operated, air-cooled weapons. The "stovepipe" barrel shroud is often mistaken for a water cooling jacket, but that is not so: rather, it is a forced-air cooling jacket that use some of the powder gases to pull air through it. Later use of air-cooled aircraft Lewis guns as infantry weapons in World War 2 found the heating issues had been exaggerated and the heavy shroud was probably completely unnecessary.

Pan magazines were of two capacities - one for 47 rounds and the other for 97 rounds. Large, 97-round drums were intended for the aircraft-installed guns, as they were quite sensitive to rough handling. Smaller-capacity 47-round drums were sturdier, but they were still quite sensitive to fouling, as their design had them open at the bottom.

Lewis guns had some interesting technical solutions - the pan was driven by a gas-operated cam, rather than a manually-wound spring. Another interesting feature was the return spring, which was similar to a clockwork spring, wound and unwound by another cam.

Lewis guns are considered to be among the best guns of World War I. Ideas incorporated in the weapon were used in numerous other firearms. Arguably, the Lewis gun is the ancestor of the whole class of light machine guns.

Gallery[edit | edit source]

Trivia[edit | edit source]

  • In the Star Wars films, a modified Lewis gun is used by stormtroopers under the name T-21.
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