The Smith & Wesson Light Rifle Model 1940
By Michael Heidler
At the beginning of World War Two, Great Britain had difficulties to satisfy the needs for military equipment. Thus, it became necessary to purchase large amounts of weapons from other countries, mainly from the United States. One supplier was the well-known American company Smith & Wesson, which already produced large numbers of revolvers under contract for the British government.
In the spring of 1939, Smith & Wesson was contacted by the British government regarding the design of a light semiautomatic rifle for military use. In the following months chief engineer Edward Pomeroy and his team developed a straight blowback-operated (open bolt) weapon, chambered for the 9x19mm cartridge that was already in use with other submachine guns in the British army. The only remarkable feature was an extended ejection port cover that caught the empty cases under the receiver and that also housed a detachable box-magazine. The magazine was inserted from the front instead of the bottom. The weapon was very well made, making the manufacturing process time-consuming and expensive. Most internal parts and the receiver were milled. The 9 3/4-inch nickel-steel barrel was both fluted with 12 milled longitudinal flutes and tapered, instead of using a simple plain cylindrical barrel, which would have been sufficient for a 9mm semiautomatic rifle.
The project was completed in June 1939, when Smith & Wesson shipped drawings and some prototypes to Great Britain. Surprisingly, the weapon was deemed acceptable without being tested intensively. The British government promptly transferred one million U.S. dollars to Smith & Wesson for setting up a serial production for the new “S&W Light Rifle Model 1940.”
But soon after the rifles were more intensively tested at the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, the great disillusionment began. The problems were mainly caused by the military British 9mm ammunition that was loaded much hotter than the American rounds used during the development. The 5,000-rounds endurance test had to be interrupted after only 1,000 shots because the receiver showed a tendency to break. The rear of the receiver was threaded to screw on the rear cap, but the receiver wall was not thick enough for this purpose. Along the threads the wall was very thin and thanks to a very light recoil spring the bolt beat against the threaded cap with every shot so at some point the end of the receiver could split off due to fatigue. Also the middle part of the receiver could get distorted by heavy use under combat conditions.
Inevitably Smith & Wesson had to rework their design and they found a solution by putting a solid sleeve over the weaker middle part of the receiver. The twistable sleeve also worked as a safety to securely lock the cocking handle in its place. The new model was now called “Mark II” and the former weapons were retroactively designated “Mark I.” The rifles were shipped in wooden crates containing 10 weapons each and some accessories: Two 20-round magazines and one instruction manual for each rifle. Also one spanner wrench for removing the barrel was included to every crate.
From the 1,227 rifles manufactured by Smith & Wesson, a total of 1,010 (including about 200 Mk.II) were sold and shipped to Great Britain. But even with the improved Mark II model the British military wasn’t pleased with the new weapon. After some severe disappointments in handling and reliability the official order was cancelled and Smith & Wesson was forced to provide a partial refund of the prepayment.
In the euphoria of the first order Smith & Wesson produced many more receivers than had been ordered. Serial numbers in the range up to 2,200 have been reported. 217 receivers were completed, but never sold. They gathered dust in storage at the factory until their rediscovery in 1974. At the instigation of the company GT Distributors from Rossville (Georgia) the BATF classified the rifles as “Curio and Relics” in the spring of 1975. This made it possible for GT Distributors to purchase these rifles (137 Mark I and 80 Mark II) for selling them on the civil market.
In contrast, the rifles in Great Britain found an inglorious end. After the war five examples were handed over to museums and the rest were cut up and dumped in the English Channel.
When the U.S. Army Ordnance Department was looking for a new submachine gun to replace the heavy and expensive Thompson SMG, Smith & Wesson submitted one model 1940 rifle to Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1939 for trial measures. It was only a semiautomatic weapon and chambered for the non-standard 9mm cartridge, but Smith & Wesson wanted to find out how successful their weapon would be at passing the test. Depending on the result they would decide if further development work for converting the rifle into a full automatic weapon in caliber .45 ACP would make sense. On November 28, 1939 the rifle passed a test with 120 rounds without any problems, but after bathing in dust and mud the trigger was hard to pull. The Ordnance Department returned the rifle to Smith & Wesson together with a list of remarks and suggested improvements. But for unknown reasons the company did not pursue the project and never submitted a modified weapon for further trials.
The author would like to thank Gregory Hagge (U.S. Army Ordnance Training & Heritage Centre, Fort Lee, Virginia) and the Rock Island Auction Company for their support.
Technical Data (according to the official manual):
Magazine: 20 rounds
Weight of rifle without magazine: 8 Lbs., 4 oz. 3.74 Kg.
Weight of loaded magazine: 14 Oz. .396 Kg.
Weight of empty magazine: 6 Oz. .170 Kg.
Overall length of rifle: 32 3/8 Inches, 822.5 mm
Depth through magazine: 7 1/2 Inches 191 mm
Length of barrel: 9 3/4 Inches 248 mm
Number of lands and grooves: 6
Riffling, right twist, one turn in: 18 3/4 476 mm
Material (according to the official manual):
Frame: Drop forged manganese steel
Receiver: Drop forged manganese steel
Ejector tube housing: Drop forged manganese steel
Lockwork: Chrome nickel steel
Bolt: Nickel steel
Barrel: Chrome nickel steel
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