What Can Go Wrong When Firing Military Weapons Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

What Can Go Wrong When Firing Military Weapons

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Let's get it straight from the start - a military weapon is for killing things. Some use it for putting holes in pieces of canvas or plywood, but these can represent living things. The good thing about putting holes in pieces of canvas or plywood, whatever they are meant to represent, is that nothing is actually killed.

Rifles - Bolt-Action

Older bolt-action rifles have two outcomes when fired. In the first, a bullet is fired out of one end of the barrel, the end facing away from the firer (usually). This bullet is the object that puts holes in pieces of canvas or plywood. In the second, firing a gun can result in the possible dislocation of the firer's shoulder, which is where the butt is placed before firing. This is called recoil. Many people still enjoy firing guns despite this hazard.

Example - Rifle No 4 Mk 1*

  • Date - 1943 - 1962
  • Calibre - .303"
  • Weight - 8.5lbs
  • Magazine capacity - 10
  • Rate of fire - 15 rounds/min (manual)

Rifles - Self-loading

Self-loading rifles, on the other hand, are claimed not to have recoil. This is because bits inside hurtle up and down when they are fired and apparently cancel out recoil and replace it with another backward motion called 'whip'.

Many people cannot tell the difference between whip and recoil. Due to a design error or oversight, the British SLR (self-loading rifle L1A1) had a backsight which had a tendency to destroy spectacles if worn by the firer. This had the immediate effect of stopping the shooting. Behind the backsight of the German G3 rifle is a lump of plastic which is part of the butt - the part the cheek is laid on. When firing the more powerful British ammunition this lump of plastic could rear up and strike the cheek, bruising it.

The Rifle L85 (SA 80) - it has to be said - has a rather disconcerting habit of shedding parts when fired. These can range from ejection covers to foresights. Sometimes the magazine even drops off! This is not a good experience when using the L85 in action.

Another hazard with the SLR, and common to many self-loading and automatic rifles, is the ejection of the fired cartridge case. This can end up striking the firer to the right; while they are concentrating on hitting the target in front, the sudden appearance of flying brass often affects their shooting, too.

Example - Rifle L1A1

  • Date - 1958 - 1996
  • Calibre - 7.62mm NATO
  • Weight - 12lbs
  • Magazine capacity - 20
  • Rate of fire - 20 rounds/min (self-loading only)


The self-loading (automatic) pistol also has whip. In addition, if the free hand is placed over the one gripping the pistol to reduce the effects of whip, the operation of the slide (the bit that goes backwards very quickly) tends to take the skin off the knuckles (and the knuckle, too, if close enough). Even with this support, it is often difficult to hit a target at 15 metres, which makes the whole exercise rather pointless.

Some revolvers are chambered for magnum ammunition (very powerful) but do not have the shape required to hold the pistol easily. One example of this is a pistol based on the Colt Peacemaker, which has a nice, rounded pistol grip. When fired with .44 Magnum, this pistol develops a life of its own and turns in the hand on recoil. This is upsetting for the firer, for anyone within one metre, and for anyone else who can see what is happening.

Example - Pistol L9A1 (Browning Hi Power)

  • Date - 1958 - Present
  • Calibre - 9mm
  • Weight - 2lbs
  • Magazine capacity - 13
  • Rate of fire - 13 rounds in 20 secs (self-loading only)

Sub-machine Guns

Known to all soldiers as being as dangerous to the firer and comrades as to the enemy. Heads have to be screwed on to use the thing effectively without causing casualties to friendly forces. In the British Army all SMG practice was with the selector set at R (rounds or repetition) which means one round every time the trigger is pressed. The main problem in firing these things is that most fire from an open bolt. This means that there is a time lag between firing (releasing the working parts) and firing (bang). This is usually just enough time for the firer to wonder what is happening and move from the point of aim. This means the bullet misses. In addition, there is a lot of weight moving a considerable distance down a light weapon: result - movement from the point of aim - miss.

After all this there is always the possibility that the firer does not select R which leaves S = safe (trigger locked, red face), or A = Automatic (ratatatatatat, white face). This does not inspire confidence in those around the firer.

Example - Sub-machine Gun L2A3 (Sterling)

  • Date - 1955 - 1996
  • Calibre - 9mm
  • Weight - 5lbs
  • Magazine capacity - 28
  • Rate of fire
    - Cyclic 500 rounds/min
    - Practical 100 rounds/min1

Light Machine Guns

One of the few weapons not to have whip or recoil is the light machine gun. This is never really light in weight, nor does it have a torch attached. The effect of firing the gun is quite pleasant, given the volume of copper-coated lead released down range. It is just that it always has to be carried many miles before being fired, which rather takes the shine off the proceedings - and the lengthy (read: interminable) cleaning process that always follows firing and causes blackened hands for a week. This cleaning is supposed to be a group activity but the usual outcome is that the gunner is left cleaning the beast while everyone else dashes out for a mug of tea.

The Bren Gun (Light Machine Gun L4A4) could also deposit very hot cartridge cases down the open sleeve of the shooting hand as it held the pistol grip. Nothing would be noticed until the gun was lowered and the hot cases came in contact with the skin. Ever tried to tip hot cases out of a sleeve when lying prone on the ground? Not very easily done. Some of the old ones had a nasty habit of firing as soon as you cocked them and sent the best part of a 28 round magazine down range before stopping.

Example - Light Machine Gun L4A4 (BREN)

  • Date - 1943 (original MkIII) - 1960 (converted) - 1996
  • Calibre - 7.62mm NATO
  • Weight - 18lbs
  • Magazine capacity - 30
  • Rate of fire
    - Cyclic 400 - 500 rounds/min
    - Practical 150 rounds/min

There are three groups of people who fire military weapons. First are those whose job it is to fire them at other people (infantry, police), second are those who may at some time have to use them on other people (support troops, police) and finally those who just enjoy firing them (rifle clubs, police). Some are trained to a high standard of marksmanship and others don't give a damn whether they hit the target or not because they just like firing military weapons. In the UK, you can't own a self-loading rifle or any pistol and certainly no automatic weapons, so you're very limited in what you can shoot. Whether you are a wimp or a hero, if you have ever shot a military firearm, you will know something about these less well known hazards of firing weapons.

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1Practical rate means taking into account cooling, magazine changes, etc.

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