By Michael Heidler
Sometimes it is the unremarkable things that make a historian's heart beat faster. Based on research in the captured weapons collection of the U.S. Marine Corps in Quantico, the author stumbled upon a rare practice weapon - and an exciting chapter of German colonial history.
Unheeded and incorrectly labelled, it was leaned into the back corner of a shelf. The supposed "booby trap" had been captured sometime in the Asian region by the Marines and brought back to the U.S. No obvious purpose was found, so the apparatus got dusty over the years.
But now extensive research brought light into darkness. The item is an "Abkomm-Lauf n/A” (small caliber training device for inserting into big bore cannons) of the German Imperial Navy, and probably one of the last of its kind.
Flashback, July 1914: Shortly after the outbreak of war the German light cruiser SMS Emden left the port of Tsingtau in the German protectorate Kiautschou (China). Its mission was the disruption of enemy merchant shipping. As early as 4 August, the Russian freighter Rjäsan was captured. This initial success of the Emden came in handy, because the Rjäsan had already gotten provisions for retrofitting as an auxiliary cruiser in time of war when she was built on the Schichau shipyard at Elbing in 1909 for the Russian fleet.
At Tsingtau, the Rjäsan was equipped with the guns of the decommissioned gunboat SMS Cormoran (eight pieces 10.5cm-Schnelladekanone L/35 / rapid-loading cannons). Just four days later, she departed under the command of Lieutenant Commander Adalbert Zuckschwerdt as auxiliary cruiser SMS Cormoran. The following time she cruised in the waters near the German colonies in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. A constant problem in this area was the supply of coal, which was usually only available in insufficient quantities. On 14 December, the ship put into Apra harbour on Guam. At that time the U.S. was still neutral, and it was hoped to get enough coal from the American administration of the island to continue the journey to another port. But this was not the case. On the island there was (allegedly) far too little coal in stock. The SMS Cormoran was trapped. Commander Zuckschwerdt had no alternative but to leave the ship interned. In the next two years, a friendly coexistence between natives and the crew arose. The crew partly lived in self-built huts in the harbour area.
But on 7 April, 1917, the peace suddenly ended: The U.S. entered the war. Immediately after the declaration of war, a detachment of U.S. Marines stationed on Guam was on its way to the SMS Cormoran. The plan was to take possession of the ship and prevent the escape of the Germans. But the Marines came too late. The explosive charges had already been placed. As the Americans approached, they noticed a frenzy of activity on board. One soldier took his rifle and fired in the direction of the front deck. This was the first American shot at a German soldier in World War One.
After ignition of the explosive charges, the SMS Cormoran sank within minutes. Seven of the crew died in the incident and were buried with full military honours on Guam island. The remaining 353 men came to the U.S. prison camp at Fort Douglas, Utah. The wreck of the SMS Cormoran resting in 34 meters (111 feet) depth has become a popular destination for divers. Directly adjacent rests a victim of the next war: The Tokai Maru, a Japanese freighter sunk during the Second World War.
Of all the items and weapons that the U.S. Marines collected ashore, there was also the training device. However, its real purpose was not realized and the device was later connected to a tag calling it a "booby trap" - and then it passed out of mind. Today, similar training devices are still in use to practice aiming and shooting the ship’s guns with cheaper small caliber ammunition. In addition, the bores of the valuable big barrels are saved. In those days the crew fired at a target mounted on a small boat that was towed by another ship. Early training devices were fixed to the outside of the guns, but the “Abkomm-Lauf n/A” (n/A means “neue Art / new model”) of the SMS Cormoran was inserted into the gun’s barrel, so that it could shoot in the direction of the bore axis.
As a basis for the training barrel an obsolete Mauser Jägerbüchse 71 (cavalry rifle 71) was cannibalized. Its barrel, system and bolt were used. The existing markings on the parts have not been sanded or altered so that the model name, the year of manufacture and serial number of the original weapons have remained intact. The sights were omitted because they were not needed any more. On the octagonal piece of the barrel a thread was cut and a ring welded on near the muzzle. Both served as holders for an over-pushed, robust steel tube, that should protect the barrel from damage during use. The tube is fixed in place by a screw. In the middle of the tube an air hole is drilled in for ventilation of the hollow space.
At its front end the steel tube is turned down and an external thread is cut in. It was used for screwing on the so-called "Lagerscheibe / bushing disk." This disk corresponded exactly to the inner diameter of the gun’s barrel and made sure that the training device’s barrel was adjusted exactly on the axis of the bore. By replacing the bushing disk the training device could be used in guns of various calibers. According to regulation D.E. Nr.389 of 1906 the hub of the bushing disk "used with guns from caliber 24 cm upwards [...] is extended to a sleeve and stiffened by ribs". In practice, this was probably made in smaller calibers too, because this specimen has, despite its caliber of only 10.5 cm, also stiffening ribs at the bushing disk.
The training device was fixed to the gun’s breech end with the help of a “Lagerstück / bushing piece”. This part of mild steel is applied to the octagonal piece of the barrel and then clamped to the breech end with two wing screws. Due to the octagonal shape, it can not twist.
To fire the training device inside the barrel, some modification work on the device’s system was necessary. The trigger guard was bent ring-shaped around the eye of the "Abzugsstück / Trigger piece." This can later be activated by lanyard or electrical firing devices. To protect the mechanism the bare system was put into a stable “Schloßkasten / Trigger box" made of brass. It includes the system and is fixed with two screws from the bottom, which engage the threaded sleeve of the rifle system. The two wing screws visible in the photos were used for attaching an electrical firing device. The trigger piece is held in place by a U-shaped bracket below the trigger box.
The installation of the training device is easy. The breech block is opened, then the device is pushed in. According to official regulations the crew had to be extremely vigilant in ensuring that no excessive pressure was exerted and that the bearing plate did not tilt in the gun’s barrel. A bent bushing disk led inevitably to variations when shooting on the target. After inserting the bushing piece in the two retaining hooks on the breech end the two wing screws had to be tightened.
During practice shooting, the device’s barrel had to be rinsed with soapy water from time to time to avoid heavy pollution. Rapid-fire was not allowed. After use, the barrel was thoroughly cleaned and the metal parts were lubricated with gun oil or petroleum.
The specimen shown here has had a long journey. But it is precisely these circumstances have ensured that it has survived until today. The training devices remaining in the Imperial Naval are expected to have been scrapped after the war, unless they were not sunk with the German fleet at Scapa Flow before. No other identical training device could be traced in museums and collections. Perhaps this one is the last of its kind.
(A special thanks to Al Houde by the U.S. Marine Corps Museum in Quantico (www.usmcmuseum.com) and the Navy Museum in Wilhelmshaven/Germany (www.marinemuseum.de).)
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