By Charles Brown
When discussing Browning machine guns, the name Russell Manufacturing Company doesn’t come up too often. However, the Russell Company played an important part in the success of the Browning designs and the United States’ war effort in WWI and WWII.
The Russell Manufacturing Company, established in 1834 by Samuel Russell in Middletown CT, had an association with the U.S. Army extending back to at least the Spanish-American War when they manufactured cartridge belts for Krag rifles and carbines. This association continued after the adoption of the Model of 1903 Rifle when Russell began the production of the M1910 Cartridge belt, dismounted and other web gear.
John Moses Browning had some very definite ideas about what constituted the ideal feed mechanism for his machine guns, which he laid out in his patent application for a belt loading machine filed on November 15, 1899. In Browning’s view, “It is desirable that such feed belts should be light in weight, flexible, capable of holding the cartridges close together and inexpensive. The possession of these qualities renders it necessary to avoid the use of beaded edges and of metallic strips between the pockets.”..Since Colt’s, the makers of Browning’s machine guns, were not in the business of fabric manufacture they turned to the Russell Manufacturing Company of Middletown CT about 25 miles south of their Hartford works.
Russell Manufacturing Company is likely best known for its RUSCO brand of automotive products including brake linings and clutch facings.
The original Browning belts were two pieces of cotton tape “stitched” together that, apparently, broke down during use allowing the cartridges to run together jamming the gun. Frank Frissell, one of Russell’s employees, developed an improved method of belt weaving in April 1915 and assigned his patent, No. 1,168,876 granted on January 18, 1916, to Russell Manufacturing.
During WWI Russell also produced all manner of web gear, canvas and fabric goods for the war effort. Machine gun belts produced by Frissell’s process were much superior to the original belts and Russell supplied all of the belts complete with the “PAT. JAN. 18 ‘16” marking stamped on the fabric to the U.S. Army through WWI and up to November 17, 1936 when another Russell employee James A. Hendley improved on Frissell’s design and was granted patent No. 2,061,072, which was also assigned to Russell. Hendley’s improvements gave the fabric belts better flexibility and improved cartridge holding ability.
As WWII approached the Army became concerned about the possibility of having only one supplier of machine gun belts that was patent protected. In the fall of 1941, the Ordnance Department developed an alternate method of weaving that didn’t infringe on the Russell patents allowing other manufacturers to produce fabric machine gun belts. On November 12, 1942, Russell Manufacturing licensed the Hendley patent to the U.S. Government for the duration of the war and waived all royalty payments.
Ordnance Department specifications for Browning belts required marking with the manufacturer, year of production and applicable patent markings along with round count markings every 25 rounds. The edge of the belt where the cartridge was inserted was marked with black thread interwoven into the belt. Manufacturers were also allowed to mark belts with internal inspection stamps. After July 1944, Ordnance began treating all types of canvas goods to resist mould and mildew and post war, after January 1946, Ordnance began to require marking the treated articles “MRT” for Mildew Resistant Treatment Belts were produced in several colors, the natural cotton being the most common, and several shades of green and belts dyed blue have been observed.
The Russell Company, having much experience in the belt making process, and the necessary equipment and facilities already up and running at the outbreak of WWII was, not surprisingly, the largest producer of fabric machine gun belts. The generally quoted figure for 250 round Caliber .30 belts produced during WWII by at least 7 makers including Russell from the “U.S. Army in WWII Technical Services, Ordnance Procurement and Supply” is 28,000,000. Russell is credited producing about 14 million of these. After WWII, the Middletown (CT) Press published a story about Russell’s war time operations and quoted a production figure of 260,000 miles of .30 and .50 machine gun belt material. That’s enough to go around the earth over 10 times or to reach the moon with a bit left over.
Russell was not a one pony show. Their WWII war time production also included web gear, safety belts, aircraft safety harness, parachute harnesses, clutch facings and brake linings, flexible conveyor belts used in mining and other industrial applications and flexible glass woven electrical insulation used in cabling for naval vessels.
In late 1942, steel shortages resulted in Russell beginning manufacture of 110 round Caliber .50 fabric machine gun belts. Russell developed a machine to plasticize the belt ends to allow the belts to be connected together in the manner of metal links using only a cartridge. Russell furnished this equipment, designed and built in their shops, to other .50 caliber fabric belt makers to aid the war effort. Russell displayed the Army-Navy “E” production award pennant with three white stars indicating three additional awards. Only about 4% of companies engaged in the war effort received even one award.
In the 1950’s Russell Manufacturing Company was acquired by H. K. Porter Company, which filed for bankruptcy after lawsuits based on asbestos contamination and personal injury damage claims. H.K. Porter is still in business producing, among other things, tools and materials used in the power line and telecommunication construction industry.
In 2011 the author started some research on fabric belts which led to two amazing sources. The first was Cathy Ahern at the Russell Library in Middletown CT, which led to Clare Sheridan at The American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA. The American Textile History Museum’s Osborne Library Collection held a series of photographs illustrating Russell’s belt production which are used in this article. The photos have captions typed on the back explaining the significance of the picture. They are an amazing view into the past that one does no usually have the privilege of seeing.
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