How Churchill Paved the Way for NATO’s Standard Ammunition
At the beginning of World War II, the United States was the only nation that equipped its soldiers with semi-automatic rifles as their standard issue service rifle — in this case, the M1 Garand. These semi-automatic rifles provided greater firepower as they did not require the rifleman to manually cycle the weapon’s action as with earlier bolt action rifles. By the end of the war, the small arms capabilities of the major powers had rapidly evolved. Fire superiority and combined arms tactics had come to dominate the battlefield. Both the Soviet Union and Germany developed their own semi-automatic rifles during the war. While this increased the average infantryman’s firepower dramatically, Germany also developed a new kind of infantry weapon: the assault rifle. This concept combined the high rate of fire and controllability of pistol-caliber submachine guns with the range and accuracy of a standard infantry rifle, creating a weapon which could be fired fully automatically like a submachine gun, but remained accurate to ranges up to 400 meters. This was well within the typical combat distances that fighting was found to take place at during World War II. This new type of rifle ushered in a revolution in infantry small arms, profoundly changing how future wars would be fought. The German MP43/StG44 assault rifle fired a new kind of smaller “intermediate” ammunition. In terms of stopping power, this was halfway between a full-power rifle round and a small-caliber pistol round. This compromise reduced recoil rendering assault rifles more controllable in full automatic mode.
Britain had initially considered the adoption of a semi-automatic rifle to replace the increasingly obsolete bolt action Lee-Enfield. However, learning from German and Soviet experiences on the eastern front, the British were determined to develop their own assault rifle, as revealed in a 1945 21st Army Group report entitled, Final Report of Small Arms Effectiveness for Western Campaign WW2 from D-Day to VE Day, that can be found today in the Royal Armouries Library. Influenced by the new German weapons, teams at the Armaments Design Establishment began work on their own intermediate ammunition and new assault rifle designs. By 1949 they had developed their own intermediate cartridge and an advanced new rifle to fire it.
On a cold and rainy Saturday evening in November 1951, Winston Churchill, Britain’s recently re-elected prime minister, followed a group of soldiers over to a table laid out with several unusual-looking rifles. Churchill had called representatives of Britain’s small arms development bureau, the Armament Design Establishment, to his ministerial country residence, Chequers in Buckinghamshire. The aim of this meeting was to examine and test-fire two new rifles that would eventually shape the future of the fledgling Western alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). One of the officers present, Brigadier J.A. Barlow, wrote a report documenting the meeting, a copy of which was sent to the Controller Supplies (Munitions) and can today be found in the United Kingdom’s National Archives.
In April 1951, the previous Labour government led by Clement Atlee announced the adoption of the EM-2, a revolutionary new rifle for the British Army. The EM-2 was a bullpup, a shorter and more compact design compared to traditional rifles, and it fired a new kind of intermediate ammunition. The EM-2 sparked an Anglo-American arms race that would only be concluded when Winston Churchill’s political pragmatism saw him put continued cooperation with the United States ahead of unilaterally adopting the new rifle.
The Anglo-American Arms Race
Britain’s move towards developing a new assault rifle began just after the end of World War II. Working groups were established to investigate the best projectiles and propellants to make new intermediate ammunition. In 1947 the Ideal Calibre Panel, a group of British small arms experts, selected a .280-inch projectile, the new cartridges had approximately half the recoil of the British military’s existing .303 round. This new round was used as the basis for the Infantry Personal Weapon program, which then led to the development of the EM-2. The smaller-caliber intermediate round also allowed for more rapid aimed fire. During a public demonstration at the School of Infantry at Warminster in 1951, the EM-2 fired 84 aimed shots per minute in semi-automatic mode, compared to the 43 rounds fired by the American M1 Garand and the 27 rounds fired by the Lee-Enfield.
Britain had hoped that the EM-2 and its ammunition would be adopted as the new NATO standard. The United States, however, had also secretly developed its own ammunition and several competing rifle designs, which set off a miniature arms race between the two allies. Between 1949 and 1954, the two countries developed their diverging small arms concepts in the hopes that one of them would become the NATO standard. Initial expectations of collaboration quickly evaporated leading to years of uncertainty and stalemate, while the other NATO powers were caught in limbo waiting for an agreement upon which ammunition and rifle would become standard.
The new American T65 ammunition was developed from the U.S. military’s earlier .30-06 round. While attempts were made to make the new cartridge smaller and lighter, conservative elements within the U.S. military were unwilling to sacrifice the stopping power or range of the older ammunition. As a result, the T65 had 40 percent more muzzle energy than the British .280 round and as such was not a true intermediate round like the German 7.92x33mm Kurz, the Soviet 7.62x39mm, or the British .280 cartridges. Its recoil proved to be too much to control in full automatic mode. Britain and America’s small arms experts fundamentally differed on what their respective ammunitions should be capable of in terms of range and accuracy. While the British developed their cartridge to perform optimally at shorter ranges the U.S. engineers increased their ammunition’s power for longer range capability. During trials in 1950, the British .280 cartridge was found to have a superior ballistic coefficient, which meant it retained velocity better than the T65 round. However, the T65 was found to have better range and long range accuracy, which shaped an American preference for its own round. The Springfield Armory developed a number of experimental rifles to fire the new round. One of the more advanced prototypes, the T25, was made available to the British for testing. This was the rifle which Winston Churchill would later test himself.
Not only was there international controversy surrounding the new rifles but there was also national debate between Britain’s rival political parties. The Labour Party firmly supported the adoption of the EM-2 while the Conservative Party questioned the need for a new rifle. While in opposition to Atlee’s Labour government, Churchill had openly questioned whether the new British rifle was the best choice. He publicly clashed with Atlee’s government in Parliament, questioning the logic of cutting “ourselves out of the opportunity of adopting a weapon which is being adopted by the United States and Canada.” When Churchill moved back into 10 Downing Street in October 1951, the future of the EM-2 program was put in jeopardy. Churchill’s Conservative government believed that standardization with Britain’s North American allies was essential for future security of Europe, and they were determined to pursue standardization at any cost. With opinion split along party lines, Churchill faced mounting calls from the Labour opposition for him to personally test the EM-2 and commit to its adoption. Churchill finally agreed to examine the weapon, and a demonstration was arranged for November of 1951.
Churchill Tests the Rival Rifles
The demonstration team consisted of Brigadier Barlow, the director of Small Arms development; Brigadier Gordon, responsible for infantry equipment and training; Edward Kent-Lemon, the rifle project’s leader; Stefan Janson, the EM-2’s chief designer, and representatives of the army’s Small Arms School Corps. Barlow recorded Churchill’s views on both of the new British and American rifles in a report published on December 3.
Late that afternoon, it began to rain and a cold wind blew across the rifle range. In light of the frailty of the 77-year-old Churchill, it was decided to “restrict the firing to the bare essentials in the hope that other points could be covered by conversation afterwards.” The demonstration began with a discussion of the differences in the two different types of ammunition the rifles used. Churchill was then invited to fire the EM-2. While standing, he fired 20 rounds at a target 100 yards away and scored nine hits. Gen. Henry Pownall, Churchill’s friend and personal advisor, fired from a bench and scored 20 hits. Quartermaster Sergeant Instructor Thwaites of the Small Arms School Corps fired 80 rounds to demonstrate the EM-2’s rapid fire accuracy. Sadly, the source material does not reveal how many hits he scored, however, the EM-2’s optical sight greatly improved the average soldier’s accuracy. He then fired the rifle from the hip in fully automatic mode and scored hits at 30 yards. The prime minister was then invited to fire from the hip and “did reasonably well.”
Churchill was then shown the leading American rifle, the T25, and its more powerful T65 ammunition. He fired 11 rounds, again from the standing position, before exclaiming in typical Churchillian fashion that he “did not wish to fire the damn thing any more” because he found the recoil of the T65 ammunition too unpleasant. Pouring rain and cold winds ended the demonstration, and the prime minister agreed to a meeting about the advantages of the EM-2 at Chequers. During the meeting, the EM-2’s advocates explained the benefits of the British ammunition over the American T65 round. Brigadier Gordon explained the operational importance of the average British soldier being armed with an advanced new rifle capable of high rates of accurate fire to offset the Soviet Union’s numerical advantage and use of combined arms, fire superiority, and maneuver tactics. In response, Churchill explained that “he was not arguing with the technical conclusions presented to him,” but that he was more concerned in an “Atlantic pool of weapons” that the Western allies could draw from in time of war. His primary concern was standardization and integration with the United States and Canada in order to ensure a common supply chain.
Churchill appreciated the lighter recoil, accuracy, and rate of fire of the EM-2, but he was willing to adopt what he and his experts considered an inferior design to ensure unity among the Western allies. At the end of the meeting, Churchill made it clear that he would attempt to persuade the Americans of the virtues of the .280 round, but if he could not, “he was not prepared to proceed on .280 unilaterally.”
Soon after the demonstration, Churchill discussed the matter during a meeting in Washington with President Truman in January 1952. The meeting, documented in Cabinet Office minutes now stored in the U.K. National Archives, covered a range of defense and foreign policy issues, including recognition of Communist China, the stationing of American strategic bombers in Britain, selection of a NATO naval commander for the North Atlantic, and the ongoing arms standardization debacle. Little progress was made during the meeting, and both countries agreed to continue relying on their current pool of rifles while development continued. The Washington meeting signaled the end of Britain’s serious attempts to convince the United States and NATO to standardize based upon the EM-2 and its .280 ammunition. This was a prime example of British pragmatism in the interests of maintaining American involvement in NATO.
It was clear to Churchill that the United States was set on the T65 round. The difference in small arms doctrine between the two countries was too great. As a result, Churchill accepted the American choice against the advice of his own experts in the spirit of achieving standardization amongst the Western powers. In late 1953, Britain adopted the T65 round and selected the Belgian FN FAL, which had been developed in parallel to the EM-2 and was Britain’s main alternative. The New York Times crowed, “Britain Will Adopt Belgian Rifle Favored by US for Use by NATO.”
Sadly, while Canada and many European countries — including Germany, the Netherlands and Austria — quickly adopted the FN FAL, the U.S. military instead selected the American-made M14. Within a decade, however, the U.S. came to appreciate that the M14, firing the T65 round, was overpowered and in 1964 adopted the M16 chambered in 5.56x45mm — a true intermediate cartridge.
The international political situation was a fundamentally important factor in the downfall of the EM-2. With the profound threat posed by the Communist Bloc, Western Europe needed American assistance and aid. Churchill, while appreciating the advantages of the EM-2, was pragmatic enough to sacrifice the rifle to ensure greater standardization with the United States. As a result, the EM-2 program was abandoned. In December 1953, the FN FAL was adopted by the British army, chambered in the American T65 ammunition that was standardized across NATO as 7.62x51mm, which alongside 5.56×45, NATO continues to use today.
Matthew Moss is a British historian specializing in small arms development and military history. He has written for a variety of publications in both the United States and United Kingdom. He also runs www.historicalfirearms.info, a blog that explores the history, development and use of firearms.