By Rick Cartledge
A good friend telephoned about two weeks ago, He stated that he would be traveling through western Georgia in about two weeks. He further stated that if we would meet him, that he would be bringing a surprise and, he gave only the hint that his mystery item came from the Special Naval Landing Forces of Imperial Japan. I knew that often these forces mistakenly are called ‘Imperial Japanese Marines’. For the next two weeks, our group speculated as to what the item might be.
We had agreed to meet at a small private gun range in southwest Georgia, a gun range that we had used before. On the appointed day Mike Thacker, Forbes Mathews, Doug Hollberg and I awaited his arrival at the gun range. He rolled up in his new Chevy Suburban and backed around to unload. He pulled two large cases out of the back of the Suburban and proceeded to open them. We stood in amazement as he set up the unusual tripod legs. He then installed the large upper. We still had not a clue. As he hauled out his Lewis Gun, my friend cleared the air. “Gentlemen, I give you one of the rarest of the rare — The Japanese S.N.L.F. Lewis Tripod.’ Before us stood a platform that we had only viewed in photographs. On this day we not only would view it, we were going to put the tripod through its paces.
Imperial Japan negotiated for the rights to build the Lewis Gun in 1931. The British Empire granted rights in early 1932. The Japanese began producing the Type 92 (1932) Lewis Gun in both aircraft and ground form at the Toyokawa and Yokosuka Naval Armories. The Special Naval Landing Forces requested a unique dual purpose tripod for both shipboard and ground use. Imperial Japan proceeded to produce these specialized tripods for the S.N.L.F. They designated them also as ‘Type 92’. The design for the tripod did not originate in the Land of the Rising Sun. The concept came from 16 years earlier and half a world away. The basic tripod design came from on and above Flanders Fields during World War I.
The Lewis Gun took the honor of being the first aircraft mounted automatic gun on July 7, 1912. On that date a Lewis mounted pusher plane did some strafing at the aerodrome outside College Park, Maryland. Air armament got off and running. When German forces invaded France in 1914, the French stopped them barely 20 miles from Paris. The French employed their then new 1914 Hotchkiss gun to help halt the German advance. The 1914 served as both a ground and air gun. The air gun sat mounted in the rear seat of a biplane. For air use Hotchkiss rotated the ground gun 90 degrees to the gunner’s right. They then fitted the gun with a 50 round drum that fed from the top.
The British shortly proved even more inventive than the French. They mounted a stripped version of the Lewis Gun in the second seat. The British also added the 97 round drum for more sustained fire. A skeletonised aircraft Lewis Gun mount soon became both the air mount and a post-mounted ground mount for the venerable Lewis Gun. Though some controversy still exists, our readers should note the following. On April 21, 1918 Baron Manfried von Richtoven fell from the sky mortally wounded. A post mounted Lewis Gun from 24th Machine Gun Battalion, Royal Horse Artillery, Australian Imperial Forces, reportedly brought The Red Baron down. Later, in 1918, a fabricated tripod base for the upper post mount came into service. These British mounts formed the basis for the Japanese S.N.L.F. tripod.
The Mount Itself
My friend picked up his tripod in Arkansas. It had come to mid America from Australia many years ago. It was and is quite rare. He pointed out that the S.N.L.F. possessed a unique military mind set. They obtained specialized weapons designed for specific tasks. The Special Naval Landing Forces then employed their specialized weaponry in their own particular way.
This S.N.L.F. tripod stood as a part of Imperial Japan’s sea and land arsenal. The owner knows no history on this particular tripod. A bullet groove in one of the legs suggests some ground use. Its excellent condition suggests no shipboard anchoring. He studied the ground use of the Type 92 tripod and came to the following conclusion. Japanese forces employed the Type 92 on both Saipan and Tinian, and in the Northern Marianas. The tripod simply stands in too nice a condition for long deployment.
Then my friend found a battle that fit the tripod — the rain soaked shores of Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea. The S.N.L.F. stormed ashore with superior manpower backed by Japanese light tanks. They overran half the airfield before the tide of battle turned. The outnumbered Australian troops rallied. The Australians beat the S.N.L.F. back into the sea in a ten-day firefight. The heavy rain bogged down the Japanese tanks. The Aussies captured a large amount of Japanese ordinance including Type 92 Lewis tripods. Though he admits to no proof, he presented interesting circumstantial evidence.
As for those Lewis tripods that he knows of, my friend gave this account. He stated that Aberdeen and the Infantry Museum at Ft. Benning display examples of the S.N.L.F. tripod. Not counting his, he knows of five tripods in private hands. Though rare, we suspect that more exist. As of this writing, Mr. Robert Naess featured a Japanese Lewis and Type 92 tripod on his web site. One of the other four tripods contains a small silver plate attached to the pivoting head. This plate contains writing in the old military kanji that, thus far, has not been translated.
The Japanese military contracted for few of these tripods. Even fewer of the Type 92 tripods survived World War II. In the early days of World War II, both Allied and Axis ships bristled with Lewis Guns. After 1941 though, Lewis slipped into obsolescence, the 1914 style gun remained in service until the end of World War II. As with some other mounts, the S.N.L.F. tripod cost more than a Lewis Gun to make. It also contains more high grade steel. One may speculate that a number of these tripods went back into foundries of the Japanese war machine. In the furnaces’ flames they became other war material. The war tide shifted at Midway in June, 1942.
First and foremost, massive does not describe this mount. A Lewis Gun manual, printed in 1917, roughly states that a stout man can fire a Lewis Gun from the shoulder. Unless the reader plays defensive tackle in the National Football League, this writer does not recommend trying it. The loaded Lewis Gun tips the scales just south of 50 pounds. The Japanese S.N.L.F. mount weighs just north of 60 pounds. One finds ‘massive’ to be an understatement. Unless you examine this rig in person, it is difficult to imagine the mass and the weight of this .30 caliber gun rig.
The mount, as seen in the photographs accompanying this article, stands about four feet high. Leg spread adjustments can drop the leveled barrel to a height of about a foot and a half. The Lewis Gun mounts one way for ground only use, another way for ground and anti-aircraft use, and a third way for strictly anti-aircraft use. The ground only use works for a soldier in any position from prone to kneeling. Reverse mounting the Lewis in anti-aircraft/ground position works for a soldier in the kneeling position. For the even taller anti-aircraft use, the wide end of the tripod head locks in the full down position. The Lewis Gun then hangs from the narrow end. This provides a comfortable stand up position for the gunner.
Other physical observations are as follows. This tripod remains in excellent condition. The tripod moves up and down, swivels, and locks as smoothly as glass. The flanges give a slight added lift to the tripod when set in its low ground mount configuration. One also instantly notices the inward pointing flanged feet on the S.N.L.F. tripod. A small hole pierces each one of the flanges. These openings serve as ship board anchors. This tripod shows no appreciable wear in the holes. From physical evidence, we believe that this tripod served on land. The bullet crease in one of the legs attests to some use in combat. Our test firing of it does not qualify as the tripod’s first rodeo. For additional information on both this tripod and the Lewis Gun, this writer recommends ‘The Belgian Rattlesnake’ by Mr. William M. Easterly, published by Collector Grade Publications, and available through Long Mountain Outfitters.
Brass On The Ground
Here in Georgia, the Emma Gees are shooters. We had viewed the tripod long enough. The time had come to lift the Lewis Gun top side and put some brass on the ground. Before dropping the hammer, several of us questioned the BSA Lewis on the Japanese tripod. Our friend stated, ‘This is not as incorrect as you might think. The Japanese captured a number of Lewis Guns from the British Colonial Troops in Southeast Asia. Before that, they had captured a large number of Lewis Guns from the Chinese Army when the Japanese drew their swords against Manchuria.’
Though several uncommon calibers exist, the Lewis Gun generally operates in 7.7 Jap, 303, or 30-06 depending on the maker and set up. The Japanese 7.7 and British .303 both function in the same Lewis. They differ only in powder charge and bullet weight. Dr. Ed Libby strongly advises against shooting any World War II Japanese ammunition. He recommends Norma 7.7.
In shooting a vintage Lewis Gun off the S.N.L.F. tripod, we followed Dr. Libby’s sage advice. Off this tripod we shot a BSA Lewis in 303. The ammunition came from SOG in Ohio and Summit Ammunition in Alabama. We used a winder obtained from Mr. Kent Lomont to facilitate loading the Lewis drums. Drums wound, we positioned them on top one by one. Each drum put 47 rounds of brass on the ground.
One easily grasps the thinking behind the S.N.L.F. tripod when shooting off it. Its combat worthiness aside, one gives high praise for accuracy to the Japanese designers. The immediate impression is how smoothly the gun fires off the Japanese tripod. One feels almost no recoil from the Lewis Gun. Shooters of older automatic guns know that the Lewis Gun ranks as one of the best .30 caliber guns to reach a distant target. This precision made and extremely stable tripod rig enhances the Lewis Gun’s ability.
The easy movement of the forty plus pound Lewis Gun atop the tripod amazed all of us. One must remember that this gun and tripod weighs in near the weight of the 1904 Maxim gun. With the elevation set, one may move the Lewis Gun through 360 degrees of trajectory with one finger. The weight provides a rock steady firing platform. On the down side, one can see from the setup that portability would present a problem. That being said, the following proved true. For old time shooting on a range, few automatics will equal or surpass the Lewis Gun on the S.N.L.F. tripod.
In this article we have tried to do justice to the size of this rig. When viewing the photographs, the reader always should bear the following in mind. The tripod allows a Lewis Gun to move as quickly as a gun one quarter its weight. The tripod rivals that of the 38/46 Chinese Dishka in size. Though both work well, the craftsmanship of the Japanese tripod rivals that of the 38 Russian Dishka. As our knowledgeable readers know, the 38 Dishka wheel mount serves as a ground and an anti-aircraft mount. The S.N.L.F. Lewis mount does the same. Though the combat worthiness of the S.N.L.F. tripod remains debatable, one cannot deny that its wonderful construction remains of the highest order.
We all enjoyed firing off this rare piece of history. The BSA Lewis Gun functioned flawlessly as did the S.N.L.F. tripod. We shot some of our friend’s ammunition and a lot of ours. Though he reloaded, our friend did not feel like hauling the empty brass across five states. He donated the spent brass to one of our number who reloads.
As he rolled out for Florida, our friend thanked us for our hospitality. We thanked him for this rare view of Imperial Japan in the 1930s. We had shot the Lewis off the Japanese S.N.L.F. Type 92 Tripod. The examination and firing yielded an interesting view of advanced Lewis technology. Today that technology seems almost forgotten.
Special thanks to Dolf Goldsmith, Dr. Ed Libby, Robert Naess, and Doug Hollberg for their fine assistance.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N2 (November 2002)|
and was posted online on December 20, 2013