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Feeding the Tiger
By Jean-Francois Legendre

The Vickers company was a very active machine gun exporter during decades since the beginning of the 20th century. Besides domestic sales to the British War Office, numerous customers (governments or agencies) have acquired Vickers machine guns on a commercial basis. This article is intended to present a few variants of fabric belts for rifle-caliber water-cooled ground machine guns that were offered for export by the Vickers company from 1908 until 1939.

Weapons and accompanying ammunition belts were offered in a wide range of calibers to meet the specific need of various customers all around the world. In most instances, specific belts are required so that the corresponding cartridges fit perfectly. Although the British War Office switched after the First World War from the original fabric belts of the “stripped” pattern (i.e. fitted with metal strip spacers to create the cartridge pockets) to the “disposable” stripless belts (cartridge pockets obtained by stitching or weaving), the Vickers company remained faithful to the original and well-proven stripped pattern for their commercial exports. Therefore, their commercial belts are fitted with brass spacers and two brass starter tags situated at both ends. These starter tags are usually marked with the caliber, the capacity of the belt, the manufacturer’s initials and sometimes a year of production. Generally, no specific indication as to the country of destination is readily available. Accordingly, it often remains guess work to determine the specific contract to which might correspond the surviving specimens of belts examined. A useful clue relies on the manufacturer’s initials which help to determine the approximate period of production. Until 1927, the Vickers company initials remained “VSM” which stands for “Vickers Sons and Maxim Ltd.”. From 1928 on, with the amalgamation of both Vickers and Armstrongs companies, the new name became “Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd.” with the corresponding initials “VA LTD”.

On the basis of the data from the “Vickers Ltd Register of Guns” presented in Dolf Goldsmith’s extensive reference study about Vickers machine guns “The Grand Old Lady of No Man’s Land”, in which every commercial export contract is referenced up to 1939, it is possible to propose identifications for most of the belts that have been examined by the author.

The subsequent presentation of the surviving specimens observed is organized following the chronological order of the contracts.

The Spanish contract in caliber 7x57 Mauser.

From 1921 until 1933, a total of 73 class “C” water-cooled ground machine guns had been delivered to the Spanish Government. These weapons were chambered for the Spanish cartridge 7x57mm Mauser. Two different specimens have been examined, both devoid of any date, which is a clue for an interwar production. The first specimen bears the manufacturer’s initials “VSM” which indicates a delivery prior to 1927. This belt belongs to either the delivery of 18 guns in 1921 or to the delivery of 13 guns in 1926.

The second specimen, marked “VA LTD”, corresponds to a delivery after 1928, according to the new name “Vickers Armstrongs Ltd” created after the merging of both Vickers and Armstrongs companies. This belt belongs to the deliveries of a total of 42 guns between 1929 and 1933.

The Bolivian contract in caliber 7.65x53mm Mauser.

A first batch of 250 class “C” water-cooled Vickers machine guns fitted on modified Mark “L” tripods was delivered to the Bolivian Army in 1927. A further batch of 100 machine guns of the same type was delivered in 1934. These weapons were chambered for the 7.65x53mm Mauser cartridges. Here again, two belt specimens have survived as a testimony of both contracts. The first belt is marked with the initials “VSM” and therefore corresponds to the 1927 contract; it might probably be the very last occasion when belts were marked with these initials. The second belt is marked with the initials “VA LTD” and corresponds to the 1934 delivery.

The Siamese contractin caliber 8x52R.

The Siamese Government was an important customer for the Vickers Armstrongs company. For the time period from 1929 until 1936, a total of 732 class “C” water-cooled ground machine guns were delivered. These weapons were chambered for the 8x52R Siamese cartridge. The belt examined bears the logical “VA LTD” manufacturer’s initials as well as the caliber designation limited to “8m/m”.

Latvian contract in caliber .303 British.

The small country of Latvia was another important customer of Vickers machine guns. No less than 733 class “C” water-cooled ground type machine guns were delivered to the Latvian government between 1923 and 1939. These weapons were chambered for the .303 British cartridge. Belts with the “VSM” initials and the .303 caliber indication have been reported to the author and could correspond to the deliveries of the total of 158 guns in 1923 and 1925. The other belt examined bears the “VA LTD” initials and corresponds to the remaining 575 guns delivered between 1930 and 1939.

The contract in caliber 7.92x57mm Mauser.

It appears more difficult to determine the contracts which might correspond to the 7.92x57mm Mauser caliber. The belt examined bears the “VA LTD” initials and therefore contracts after 1928 with that caliber must be investigated. Several candidates are possible but no real conclusive clue could have been found as to one particular country. A possible customer is Lithuania that acquired a total of 40 class “C/T” tank guns in 1933 and 1937. Poland also purchased 10 class “C” water-cooled guns for test purposes in the early 1930s. The Turks and the Dutch used merely upgraded WW1-vintage British Vickers, converted from .303 into 7.92x57 and 7.9x57R respectively. It is doubtful that only belts could have been specifically ordered from Vickers. The question then remains open for this 7.92mm belt. The unusual shape of the folded-over spacers as well as the lack of long spacers might be a clue for identification; but has not yet been deciphered by the author.

This quick overview of the Vickers export activities, presented from the point of view of the ammunition belts, illustrates the variety of the customers acquainted with the Vickers company all over the world. No doubt that Vickers’ skillful salesmen and agents were very efficient, among which the pioneer Sir Basil Zaharoff remains, even now, a renowned example.

Acknowledgments

This study is respectfully dedicated to the memory of the late Herb Woodend, who shared his knowledge and opened his exceptional collection to the author. The author is also very grateful to Dolf Goldsmith who, thanks to his extraordinary book on Vickers machine guns, provided all the valuable information about the Vickers export contracts that were required to complete this study.

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