By V. Kenneth
A traveling specialist recently entered the Defense Services Museum in Rangoon, Burma. He noticed, much to his disbelief, that the soldier at the main gate was armed with an M1 carbine. Realizing that the last U.S. government contract M1 rolled off the Winchester production lines in September, 1945, he contemplated asking the guard “Shouldn’t you put that inside in one of the display cases?”
Much of Burma’s armed forces small arms inventory comes from the age of hard wood and cold steel. With their armed forces dating back to 1948, equipped and supplied by the British Government, it is quite a common sight to see Lee Enfield No. 4 rifles, Webley Mark IV service revolvers and other current-day collector’s items in use by the Burmese Army and Police today. Most of the British small arms were supplied by Britain in training the new army from the end of World War II until well after Independence when the last shipment arrived in 1954. They were not supplying the army with decommissioned, mothballed SMLEs or Martini Henrys, but then recently made Stens and Brens. A Mark 3 Bren seen in Rangoon has “1954” by the model number on the side plate. The Burmese Police Special Task Force still uses No. 4s today for medium range work.
Although these firearms were shipped from Britain, American small arms were also acquired, which goes back much further throughout the years. Due to Truman’s Containment Doctrine of supporting countries against the communist threat, the United States continued to sustain Burma with shipments of arms even after General Ne Win took over the country with a military coup. Through MAP (Military Assistance Programs) and FMS (Foreign Military Sales) programs these shipments continued until the late 1980s and ceased altogether in 1988 due to the harsh crackdown on the 8/8/88 protesters.
Of all the old world rifles in Burma, the No. 4 Lee Enfield has left the most enduring mark. It has been in constant service since the mid 20th century when it first entered the country. Originally, the army had SMLEs as can be seen in decaying photographs, but the army changed over to the No. 4 before replacing that altogether with the G3. Between that time and today, the rifle has been used as a training rifle at Burma’s Officer Training School in Maymyo and as a reserve rifle to be brought up and used when needed. In 1988, videos of police taking shots at protesters were viewed around the world and in the September Protests of 2007, where the Police were used as intimidators.
An interesting fact here was learned about Burmese care of rifles. When the furniture on rifles becomes decayed, the Burmese simply paint over it. In September 2007, a No. 4 was spotted painted bright orange and a number of SKSs have been observed to be a very dark brown with locally produced handmade stocks. Other agencies have taken to taping the stocks with scotch tape because of the weakness of the metal bands. Most No. 4s have their serial numbers etched off and a Defense Industries (DI) triangle stamped onto the receiver with a new number beside it. The No. 4s that did not have the DI triangle on them were all manufactured in the early part of the war by BSA or ROF Fazakerley. Australia sent some No. 5 Jungle Carbines during the postwar years but nothing has been seen or heard of them since except for a civilianized version in the Defense Services Museum.
The M16A1 came too late on the scene to be included here, but there is one that was really unique to all the rest. An AR marked “XM16 E1” with serial number “718xxx” was seen and recorded. Its condition was rather spectacular, considering that it was only an experimental variant, a very early one at that, and the poor circumstances and care it had gone through. US forces did use the XM16E1 marked rifles like this as transitionals, most notably in 1965 in the Battle of the Ia Drang immortalized in the book “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.”
One rifle that has only been occasionally sighted is a Pattern 14 Enfield with the serial number 30xxxx. This was observed along with six others stored nearby. The number was on the bolt handle, so this was not a P17 at all, but a British P14 in .303. So far, those previously mentioned and two Pattern 14s in the Defense Services Museum are the only Enfields known to exist in Burma today.
Carbines have been in constant use in Burma since the mid 20th century. Within American transactions, there are an estimated 28,792 M1s and M2s, which were provided through Military Assistance Programs between 1950 and 1974 as reported by the State Department A further 63,900 carbines were purchased through the same program by Thailand. Since the Burmese Forces receive some of their arsenal from captured Karen weapons, and much of that comes from the black market across the border, some of those carbines would have found their way into Burma either through the Thai government or the insurgents. The Burmese Police sometimes use both M1s and M2s for their duties at guard posts, and they can be seen when a special dignitary is coming though, but they are not common. To the author’s knowledge, Burma does not make any .30 carbine ammunition, nor has he seen any in service. Apart from the armed services, the other group that extensively uses carbines are some of the insurgent groups. A light, high capacity firearm fills the requirement for a rear echelon jungle environment.
The condition of the firearms in Burma is always so unique. As a perfect example, almost every carbine is different from the next. Some have wire serving as an improvised band to hold the handguard and stock together. They usually have their slings taken off and the receivers are very rusty. One did not have a rear sight; some have 30-round magazines while others possessed 15-round magazines. Most of the carbines handled were Inland marked with serial numbers ranging from 29xxx to 71xxxx. To reveal the sheer number of carbines in the country, there were some 15-round magazines available on the local market for 7,000 kyats ($7 U.S.) in varying degrees of deterioration. And this in a country in which possession of a rifle scope could secure someone jail time.
During World War II, Britain received 900,000 Smith & Wesson “Victory” model revolvers chambered in their .38/200 round from the United States. These are different from the original American .38 round by being loaded with a 200-grain bullet. Burma received quantities of these pistols through their British supply, and it is the second most carried handgun in the streets of Rangoon today after the Browning High Power in police hands. Observed serial numbers range from 30xxxx to 59xxxx and all are marked “K38 S & W CTG” on the left of the barrel and “US Property” on the left top strap of the frame. Much of the finish on these has worn off. Ammunition comes from India, where it is still produced as the .380 Mark II which is a .38/200 with an FMJ 180-grain bullet, 20-grains lighter. It is unconfirmed if Burma produces any of the .38/200 ammunition themselves. Officers usually carry the revolvers in Thai imitation holsters made of Nylon that read “US Army” on them.
Burma’s third most carried handgun, the Webley .38/200 Mark IV, was originally supplied by the British in the Army’s rearmament after World War Two. These are not as popular as the simplistic Victory Model due to their intricate break open cylinder, which on many models is incredibly hard to unlatch. Numbers observed ranged from A9xxx to A53xxx
The most issued handgun for police and army forces is the Browning GP35 in 9x19mm. It is the Army’s principal sidearm; police issue it in higher quantities than any other sidearm. Burma initially purchased a large number in “test runs.” When the government decided that the handgun was sufficient for service, it ordered a large number of these in national lots with “BURMA ARMY” stamped on the slides. These run from T1xxx to T7xxx, making the orders substantial. The “test runs” were ordered in the early 1960s as seen by their numbers, the lots in the mid 1960s. Brownings are usually in fair condition, with the usual amount of wear and tear that one would expect on 40-year-old service automatics. Some have customized wooden grips and most have matching numbers on the slide, frame and barrel. The few that don’t have matching numbers indicate that some parts have become unserviceable and at some point were swapped out for better pieces (a very common Burmese practice with all firearms in their possession).
Machine Guns and Submachine Guns
Sten Mark Vs came into Burma from Britain. They have been seen used only during the 2007 September protests, but were not fired. Burma certainly has the ammunition for them because 9x19mm ammunition is produced locally. Thompsons came in through American sales and are very sparse, as only one active-duty photo has been observed by the author and that was many years ago. Apart from several in the museum, the use of Sten Mark Vs is rather limited.
Bren guns were the army’s Light Machine Gun (LMG) during the formative years before switching over to the MG3. Today, Brens fill the role of reserve machine guns for the Police who keep many in reserve. Chambered in .303, one is in the Defense Services Museum in 7.62x51 NATO with an upside down G3 magazine that was experimented with. They were taken out during the protests and still reside at stations but are not in active use. Not even the insurgents’ hill tribes use them.
M2 machine guns have been in continuous use since the earliest American Assistance programs in the 1950s. A routine supply order in 1963 had 25,000 rounds of .50 caliber Ball and 10,000 rounds of tracer ammunition. M2s are used today in static ground positions and on truck-mounted “technicals.” They should be retiring from active use within the next 20 years, because of their constant use since World War II. Karen forces have been seen using them as well.
During the protests, the police brought out Greener Police Riot shotguns which are still in operational use (but were not utilized for firing). The original Greener design is over 130 years old, but the ones in Burma are Greener Mark III Patent Number 463628/35, a shotgun which was developed for a contract by the Egyptian Government won by W.W Greener in 1922. These “Police Guns” were manufactured up until 1967 and came into Burma through the British. The purpose of the Greener Police Gun was to have a prison shotgun that was chambered for an oddly shaped cartridge that could not be replicated or easily procured on the open market, so prisoners could not use it against their captors. However, the Greeners in Burma are chambered for the traditional 12 gauge shell. Feeding both paper and plastic shells, the Burmese produce paper 12 gauge shells with the newest production date seen being December of 1970. These, of course, have many discrepancies among them.
Other shotguns include some American shotguns that came over commercially; a Winchester 1200, British doubles and classic hunting shotguns. The British classics are in the Defense Services Museum, but the modern pump actions were seen in the September 2007 Protests.
As evidenced by the quote at the beginning of this article, the many firearms in Burma’s armory deserve to be in collector's vaults and museums, not on the front lines and in degenerating circumstances. Though it breaks the author’s heart to see all these important pieces in common service rather than in their respective display cases, it does provide an interesting look into how a Third World army operates and how dependent it is on the past to run its present.
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