Vigneron: Belgium's Own Way to a Submachine Gun
By Michael Heidler
In the postwar years, Belgium’s army was equipped with weapons of the Allies. But in the early 1950s the desire to have their own weapon from national production was desired.
When thinking of Belgium and weapons, one thinks inevitably of the Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre (FN). Hardly any other Belgian company is as well known as this armory of Herstal near Liege, where famous weapons like the FAL assault rifle were developed. But when Belgium was looking for their own submachine gun after World War Two, another manufacturer from Herstal made the running: The Précision Liégeoise S.A.
Many participants in the competition for the Belgian Army were based on the submachine guns of World War Two. They did not show much innovation and most of them were eliminated in the first step of the competition. This left only four weapons, the MP RAN (Repousmetal S.A., Brussels), the MP M.I.53 (Imperia, Nessonvaux), a weapon from FN, and the MP VIGNERON (in short "VIGN") from Précision Liégeoise.
All of these weapons were designed for easy and inexpensive manufacture. The most advanced was the RAN, which had been fitted out with various accessories by designer Witold Porebski. There were different muzzle brakes, a bipod, folding bayonet, and even a rifle grenade launcher. FN, on the other hand, as an example took the Italian Beretta 1938a. The M.I.53 from Imperia was just a revised Sten Mk. II. with a retractable buttstock. Even the rotating magazine well was copied.
The Vigneron was not a technical masterpiece, but nevertheless it prevailed against the competitors. The designer and namesake, George Vigneron, a retired Belgian army officer, had not made an appearance as a weapons designer heretofore. After extensive testing by the Belgian Army, the weapon was officially introduced as “Vigneron M1” in 1952 and became the new standard submachine gun in the army, navy and air force.
The first serial production was launched at the Société Anonyme Précision Liégeoise in Herstal, where the prototypes for the troop trials had already been made. A little later the state arsenal in Rocourt near Liege came into play as a supplier for components. There are some that claim that complete weapons were made there, but it can’t as yet be verified that that is true. To speed up the equipment of the army another production site was consulted. The choice fell on the company AFEM (Ateliers de Fabrications Electriques et Metalliques) from Brussels. The few plastic parts, such as the grip piece, rolled of the line at the Compagnie de Manufacture Herstal (CMH).
The MP Vigneron is a caliber 9x19mm submachine gun firing from the open bolt. With a length of 70 cm even with buttstock retracted, the weapon is disproportionately long and unhandy, but it provides a sight line of 55 cm to the shooter. Remarkable on the otherwise less innovative construction is the safety mechanism: Using a small pivoting lever on the left side above the trigger, the shooter can switch between full auto fire, single shot or safe. The lever is marked with A – R – S. In addition, the weapon features a grip safety. It locks the bolt in both front or rear position and blocks the trigger. Only when it is pressed can the trigger be pulled and the bolt be moved.
In many other characteristics of the Vigneron the designer made recourse to proven foreign models. The barrel with its cooling ribs and the slotted muzzle brake is similar to the 1928 Thompson. To simplify the complicated manufacturing, the ribs were abandoned in the course of the serial production. The barrel is attached to the receiver by a cap nut like on the German MP40. However, in a rush, it is possible to insert the barrel incorrectly rotated 180 degrees. The weapon still functions but the front sight is facing downwards. There is a well known picture of an Irish IRA member holding a Vigneron with the upside-down barrel in his hands.
The bolt was a copy of the British Sten gun. It is kept simple and milled from one piece of metal. The cocking handle on the left side of the receiver is not constantly connected to the bolt so the handle does not move forth and back when shooting. The tubular receiver, including magazine, is made almost entirely of pressed sheet metal parts. The ejection port on the right side is protected by a spring-loaded dust cover that springs open when cocking the weapon.
The plastic grip-piece with trigger is hooked into the receiver behind the magazine well and fixed with a screw cap on the receiver’s rear end. This design is simple, but it has a disadvantage: When screwing off the cap for removing the bolt, the grip piece drops down. A pivoted connection of the grip piece would have been a more practical solution. For this reason it was explicitly pointed out in the Belgian Army to tighten the end cap firmly. At worst it could come loose and the grip piece falls off when shooting but the weapon would keep on shooting until the magazine was empty. Definitely not a good thing to happen. On some Vignerons in the Belgian Congo, a self-made leaf spring can be found on the receiver end to prevent rotation of the cap.
Two guide rails for the buttstock are located on the sides of the grip piece. The sturdy wire construction looks similar to the stock of the U.S. M3 Grease Gun. The stock can be locked in three possible positions (809, 846 and 887 mm), but even when retracted it stands out more than 9 cm. For this reason the buttstock was often removed in cramped conditions, such as for crews in vehicles. Both rods of the buttstock are designed in a way so that they can be used for cleaning the weapon. An eyelet on the right rod allows the use of cleaning wick, while the left rod has a threaded end for cleaning brushes.
The Vigneron is fed from stick magazines with a 32-round capacity. Here again a proven design was copied: The magazines are almost identical to those of the German MP40. Today, unfortunately, this leads to the fact that many of the phosphated Vigneron magazines are blued and sold as original Wehrmacht magazines on the collectors market. The upper part of the VIG-magazine must be ground off slightly, and then it will fit well to the MP40 magazine well. To fill up the magazine there was a push-down loading tool. The handle of the tool can be moved up and down with the thumb. In order to avoid jamming, the Belgian Army decreed that the magazines should only be loaded with 28 cartridges.
In 1954, the production of the Vigneron M1 reached serial number 21,300. Minor improvements led to the model M2: The front sight got a hood, a V-notch rear sight replaced the peep sight and the dust cover on the ejection port was given a stronger spring. Old M1 models have been upgraded over time and the “1” was partially overstamped by a thick “2”.
Vignerons of the Belgian army were originally marked with the abbreviation "ABL” for Armée Belge / Belgisch Léger on the left side of the magazine well. With most of the weapons still in existence this is thoroughly ground off. Behind this is the year of production, including the model number and serial number. On the right side of the magazine well the Belgian lion is placed. Weapons used by the Force Publique in the Congo were additionally marked with “FP” below the lion, while “CB” means that the weapon was used by the colonial administration (Congo Belge).
Despite intensive efforts, the Vigneron was never sold to other countries in larger numbers. The Belgian army was the only significant purchaser. Only Portugal's police acquired a few copies that were called “Port Vigneron." However, many illegal Vignerons appeared in the hands of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – there was probably a good connection to Belgium in those times.
The Vigneron achieved a very inglorious fame during its use on the African continent. The authoritarian colonial policy of Belgium in the 1950s strengthened the resistance against foreign rule in Belgian Congo. Included in the supply of arms to suppress the unrest, many Vignerons were sent there. Following their independence on 30 June 1960, and the withdrawal of Belgian troops, most of the weapons remained – mostly in state hands like the Force Publique, but partly also in dark channels.
The most prominent victim of this time is probably Patrice Émery Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo. On 17 January 1961, he was shot dead along with politicians Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo after days of torture by soldiers from Katangi. The firing squad was equipped with Vignerons and was under the command of a Belgian officer.
Exact production figures of the Vigneron are not known. The total number is said to have amounted to 150,000 pieces. Production ceased at the end of 1962, but the MP stayed in active service until the mid-80s – in addition to the Uzi, which was manufactured by FN under license.
Caliber: 9 x 19 mm
Action: Straight blowback, open bolt
Length (stock closed): 708 mm
Length (stock position 1): 809 mm
Length (stock position 2): 846 mm
Length (stock position 3): 887 mm
Length of barrel: 305 mm
Barrel: 6 grooves, right hand twist
Weight (w/o magazine): 3,000 gr.
Weight empty magazine: 280 gr.
Weight full magazine: 680 gr.
Weight of barrel: 545 gr.
Weight of bolt: 655 gr.
Weight of buttstock: 375 gr.
Length of sight line: 550 mm
Magazine: 32-rds, double stack, box magazine
Firing rate: 620 rounds/min
(A special thanks to Peter Van Meenen from Belgium)
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