By Jean Francois Legendre
The very first ammunition belts manufactured in Switzerland for the domestically produced MG11 in caliber 7.5x55mm Swiss, incorporate most features of the contemporary German Maxim belts. The Swiss belts have a total capacity of 250 rounds and are composed of two strips of hemp webbing fixed together by means of brass strips and eyelets, thereby generating the pockets to seat the cartridge cases. Every three pockets, extended strips are installed to prevent the cartridges from slipping out of their pockets while being transported in the ammunition box. The motion of the loaded belt inside the ammunition box is then limited to the front of the box by the extremity of the extended strips and to the rear by the base of the cartridge cases. According to the size of the Swiss cartridge, the total length of the extended strips is 60.5mm. On the specimens examined, the extended strips are assembled at their extremity with a solid brass rivet whereas the contemporary German belts are fitted with a solid steel rivet at the extremity of the long strips. Two sheet brass tags are attached to the fabric at each end of the belt by three eyelets and three more eyelets are used to fasten each pair of tags together. Specimens examined so far have their starter tags marked with the W+F logo denoting production by the State Arsenal Waffenfabrik Bern. Sometimes a number is also found on the tags but a positive identification of its meaning has not yet been found.
In 1934-35, MG11s were upgraded and modified to a few extents, among which was the belt feed system. As with most users in the world, the Swiss experienced the main drawbacks of fabric belts with tight or loose pockets and a great sensitivity to adverse meteorological conditions. Accordingly, a new continuous metallic belt was adopted for service. With a total capacity remaining at 250 rounds to fit the existing ammunition boxes, the new belt is composed of stamped closed cartridge pockets permanently assembled together with a hook-and-eye pattern. The starting end, used to insert the belt into the feed block, is composed of a leather band fitted at its extremity with a steel toe. The trailing end is assembled with an odd metal plate whose precise mechanical role remains obscure to the author.
It can be noted that other metallic belts of similar designs have been examined; in particular for the Romanian Schwarzlose in caliber 7.92x57mm or for Belgian Brownings in caliber 7.65x54mm or .30-06 caliber. For the Belgian belts, the design is somewhat different with the use of connecting pins instead of the recurved hook-and-eye. It is not definitively determined yet if these Belgian belts were designed before or after World War II, although such belts are sometimes found loaded with Belgian post World War II .30-06 ammunition.
So far, no conclusive evidence as to the country where the very first design originated and the author would be grateful for any information readers could provide to address this issue.
The belt loading machines.
The early Swiss belt loading machines intended for use with the fabric belts bear some features very similar to the contemporary British Vickers loaders. It consists of two elements: first, a cast casing body to which all operating parts and the crank handle are assembled; and second, a hopper from which the cartridges are fed by gravity. A forged steel plunger consisting of a flat blade twisted through an angle of 90 degrees is fitted to the forward end of the camshaft. The plunger, in its longitudinal movement, passes through a rectangular steel guide contained in the body, which, on account of the twist in the blade, causes rotation of the latter. Thus, the blade opens each cartridge pocket before the cartridge projectile is forced into the belt by the pusher fastened to the other end of the camshaft. The main body and the hopper are usually transported in a wood box. For early productions, the main body and hopper are made of brass whereas a steel main body characterizes later productions and a hopper made of lightweight zinc-alloy.
In the middle of the 1930s, with the adoption of the continuous metallic belt, the filling machines already in service were modified to accommodate the new belt. The modifications basically consisted of adding an extra feed guide intended to drive the empty belt into the proper loading position and of removing the plunger which was formerly used to open the loop of the fabric belts. These modified filling machines could be found with either brass or steel casings depending on the vintage of the original loader being upgraded. Markings found on the loaders are the W+F logo testifying to the production by the Waffenfabrik Bern and a serial number stamped on both the main casing and on the hopper.
The life of these machines continued well after World War II until present time. In 1951, the Swiss Army replaced its MG11 Maxims with the more modern MG51 based on the wartime German MG42. The corresponding push-through belts are of the half-open type similar to the German MG42 belts. The existing MG11 belt loading machines in stock were then heavily modified to accept these new belts. The pieces to drive the belt are completely different whereas the main casing and the cartridge hopper are only slightly altered. Production of new loaders fulfilling the MG51 standard also occurred and can be easily recognized by a different cast main body which does not incorporate the loaded belt exit slot since for the MG51 pattern, the direction of the belt movement is opposite to that of the MG11 pattern. Though these machines for the MG51 show a general appearance somewhat similar to those for MG11, they are mechanically different and not interchangeable.
Many Swiss MG51 belt-filling machines are now offered on the surplus market and some of them are of the upgraded MG11 type. Some of these machines represent a key testimony of almost a century of Swiss armament. For example, the earliest brass versions were originally made for the MG11 fabric belts, then modified in the middle of the 1930s for the MG11 steel belts and finally modified once again in the 1950s for the MG51 push-though belts. These different successive modifications have been generally carried out with a very Swiss rigor and only very few machines escaped the modifications. Accordingly, an unaltered original MG11 loader for fabric belts is an extremely scarce item whereas only very few MG11 loaders incorporating the modification for the 1930s steel belts can be located from time to time. Most of the formerly MG11 loaders found today have been profoundly altered to the MG51 pattern and do not really recall their original patterns.
The Swiss belt loading machines show an extremely high craftsman quality, which would be able to fulfill watchmaking requirements. The operation is the smoothest, and one of the most reliable, of any type of belt loader the author has ever used or examined to date.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V8N4 (January 2005)|