‘One shot, one man’ – Military Innovation and the ‘lessons’ of the Second World War

By Dr. Matthew Ford

A British soldier aims his SA80 rifle on a shooting range at Basra, Iraq.

A British soldier aims his SA80 rifle on a shooting range in Iraq.

What can a shooting competition tell us about innovation? In this blog, I offer up a short description of the British Army’s post-war attitude towards the infantry and show that these apparently inconsequential discussions continue to frame the selection of NATO weapons and tactics.

The poor standard of rifle shooting in the Army to-day […] is a matter of great concern to me.

Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, July 1949

In July 1949, Britain’s most senior Army commanders met at the Hotel Metropole near Whitehall. The meeting had been called to discuss Field Marshal Slim’s recent visit to the Army Rifle Association annual shooting competition at Bisley. At Bisley Slim had witnessed a ‘deplorable state of shooting’ by the Army; a humiliation that was only further compounded by the fact that the Royal Air Force had fielded over 1400 personnel and won several of the most important marksmanship competitions. Something had to be done because, as with Field Marshal Roberts following the Boer War, Slim believed that ‘accurate small arms will certainly play an important part in modern battle […].’

According to General Sir Richard Gale, the former commander of 1st Airborne Corps and Director General of Military Training, the problem with the Army’s shooting skills stemmed from a false belief that automatic weapons would replace the rifle. As far as he was concerned, ‘Compared with the rifle in capable hands, automatic weapons are poor killers and heavy users of ammunition’. Consequently, soldiers needed to be trained to kill ‘one shot, one man’ because the rifle was ‘still the main and most economical weapon for killing infantry’.

Surprisingly, however, Gale’s post-war view was totally at odds with the conclusions that had been reached by the Director of Infantry, Major-General Wilson, in 1944. According to Wilson the overall tactical objective was to ensure that, ‘[…] all the available infantry weapons [were] brought to bear upon the enemy, not only in the initial stage of the advance, but also up to the last possible moment so that the infantry can literally be shot into close quarters.’

For Wilson, it was important to equip the infantry with a weapon that could be switched from single shot aimed fire to automatic fire for close engagements. Supported by the analytical efforts of Operational Researchers attached to British armies in North Africa, North West Europe, and the Far East, Wilson pushed for the adoption of more automatic weapons for the infantry because he believed marksmanship did not lead to battlefield success.

Between Gale and Wilson what is clear is that despite six years of fighting, British commanders had not reached a settled view of the infantry battle. During the war itself, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery had squared these arguments away through force of character and authority that came from rank and winning in battle. For Montgomery a conscript Army built out of a limited supply of quality manpower could not be needlessly wasted at the altar of advanced infantry tactics. Non-professional Armies might learn how to survive and thrive in small unit encounters, but the battle needed to be prepared properly through the use of artillery and airpower. This was best achieved at the operational level where different branches of the military could be coordinated to deliver multiple blows to an enemy in advance of a wider assault.

In these circumstances Wilson’s belief in the sorts of advanced infantry tactics being taught by Major Lionel Wigram at the various Battle Schools was irrelevant. Montgomery had no interest in putting what limited manpower the United Kingdom could provide into direct battle with the Wehrmacht or adopt weapons that might enable the infantry to win more directly the firefight. After the war, this left the door wide open to those commanders who continued to assert that the infantry battle might be won through marksmanship: ‘one shot, one man.’

When it came to selecting innovative tactics and weapons, then, enough officers continued to view automatic weapons as a logistical nuisance. Unhelpfully for those infantrymen who wanted to adopt a more sophisticated approach to the infantry engagement Winston Churchill also took the view that logistics was more important than firepower. Thus, Churchill argued that:

The rate of fire is not […] important or usually an advantage. The existing rifles can fire away more ammunition in ten minutes than the soldiers can carry. Indeed, the practical problem has been, and I believe still is, to husband the use of ammunition by the forward troops.

With the election of the Labour Government in 1945, Churchill could not influence the debate within the Army either way. By late 1951, however, a Conservative Government was elected and once again Churchill could push his view of battle, supersede the preferences of Slim and in the process privilege American tactical perspectives.

The result was that the Army adopted the 7.62mm Self-Loading Rifle – a weapon it did not want – and NATO got locked into a conventional technology that it soon tried to abandon but which continues to shape small unit engagements across the world. For Churchill, tactical preferences were worth sacrificing because:

standardisation, not only of rifles but other weapons, must be regarded as a cardinal principle and aim among the Atlantic powers.

It is, of course, a great irony that despite Churchill’s commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship, NATO struggled to deliver on the promise of standardisation, retaining four different types of small arms ammunition right the way into the 1980s.

Dr. Matthew Ford is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. For more on the culture of military innovation check out his next book, Weapon of Choice published by Hurst & Co this summer. Matthew is also the Editor-in-Chief of the British Journal for Military History, an open access peer-reviewed journal. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @warmatters


12 responses to “‘One shot, one man’ – Military Innovation and the ‘lessons’ of the Second World War

  1. I see somebody has been reading WO 216/324.
    I have a couple of minor quibbles (what would small-arms enthusiasts do without minor quibbles?)
    The SLR not being the rifle the Army wanted is questionable — perhaps it would be more accurate to say that 7.62×51 was not the cartridge the army wanted (or anyone wanted, as far as I can make out, other than the US Ordnance Corps). Dieudonné Saive designed versions of the FN FAL in 7×43 (.280 British) and 7.92×33, both cartridges well suited to a selective-fire rifle, and in that form I think it would not have been much inferior to the EM-2, the rifle we should have had (and did, if only briefly — it was accepted for service by Manny Shinwell as the No. 9 rifle).
    “Battle Drill” is not so much “advanced” infantry tactics, as what works and can be taught quickly in a “million-man army”. Both battle drill and a reliance of volume of fire rather than marksmanship might perhaps be thought of as suitable for such a conscript mass, whereas a small, professional, long-service army such as the British Army had traditionally been might think it would do better with drill-free tactics and individual marksmaship. In particular, massed firepower, while a great way to defeat German or Japanese infantry, is not a good way of winning hearts and minds in colonial policing or other “low-intensity” operations. In the immediate aftermath of WW2 the British Army had largely returned to its customary role as a colonial gendarmerie, but was still far from being made up entirely of professionals.
    Oh, and by the time Gale was speaking as DGMT, Wigram had been five years dead.
    As for the army refusing to accept automatic weapons — the automatic weapon that counts is the section MG. D(Inf) had decided, I believe before the end of the war, that the section MG to replace the Bren would be belt-fed, based on both combat experience and OR studies. Whether the rifleman’s individual weapon is capable of burst fire does not really matter all that much compared to the firepower produced by the section MG, never mind the sort of supporting fire one would expect in a tidy Monty battle.
    A question I would very much like to know the answer to is why, after the GPMG had proved itself in action for the umpteenth time in the Falklands, MoD persisted in the absurd decision to replace it in the section with two heavy-barrelled assault rifles, a class of weapon that has never, as far as I know, shown itself a success. The LSW was eventually chucked out in favour of a proper LMG, but I note that the US Marine Corps, usually sensible in such matters, are replacing their squad SAWs with IARs.
    In the words of the song, “when will we ever learn”?

    • Dear John,

      First thanks for taking the time to reply. I always like discussing these things and especially with those small arms enthusiasts who take the time to read the archives.

      First things are first. No it is quite clear that the SLR was forced on the Army. Slim, Churchill and Cherwell met on the 20th November 1951 at No.10. The meeting was rumbustious and led to the production of two versions of the minutes (PREM 11/854 and more in CHUR 2/34 at Churchill College Cambridge). There’s also a reference to the meeting in Slim the Standardbearer by Lewin. Slim went into bat for the EM2 not the FN because the Army had decided to select it and the previous Labour govt had agreed to their recommendation.

      Dieudonné Saive did indeed produce the FAL in .280 (which is in fact .276) but he did so at the direction of Brigadier Barlow (a proper gravel belly) Director of Artillery Small Arms at the Ministry of Supply and project leader of the EM2 programme. Barlow was looking to ensure that they had a working rifle so that they could undertake trials in America with a working weapon.

      I guess you will have read Timothy Harrison-Place in which case your comments about drill are based on your interpretation rather than his. Irrespective, Army Operational Researchers concluded in 1944 trials that the Sten Machine Carbine would increase hit probability compared to both the Bren and the No.4 and recommended that the Army switch over to it straight away (Shepherd Papers Box 2, Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and DIsarmament Studies, Waterloo, Canada).

      Any decision to re-equip the entire army with a completely new weapon was resisted by front line commands who saw no benefit from making any changes in their small arms inventory. It was also a manufacturing no-no given the amount of effort it was taking to produce enough equipment after the initial shocks caused by Dunkirk and arming a mass army.

      A belt fed MG meant dumping .303. This was virtually impossible and the the UK could not switch over to 7.92×57 because the manufacturing capacity was at stretch for the BESA.

      The General Staff did decide to adopt .30’06 but towards the end of the war the Ministry of Supply furnished enough of an argument to buy the time to continue development of their own weapons.

      7.62mm SAA is totally inappropriate for COIN. Soldiers invariably struggle at marksmanship. Putting rounds down range is a good way to create ricochet and hit targets unintentionally. In any case 7.62 is over-engineered from a lethality perspective and it likely to take out several people in one go.

      Slim was already concerned by marksmanship but he was also concerned by the Russians acquiring automatic weapons for their own mass army.

      I understand your views on the MG but the DInf, Major General Wilson, was convinced by the need to acquire an assault rifle….

      The SA80 family concept (originally in 4.85mm) emerged (with the very strong support of the Army) precisely out of the twin challenges produced by COIN. Logistical considerations meant husbanding ammunition and large calibre rounds produced excessive wounding that played out badly on the evening news.

      The evidence on belt fed versus magazine fed fire is not as clear cut as you might think. The FN minimi was resisted by ITDU throughout the 1970s and 1980s because it went from live to empty so quickly and couldn’t hit a barn door. Current soldiers love it because it makes a lot of noise and makes them feel like they are doing a lot. From a tactical point of view though it is a trade off between carrying (even more) ammunition and actually being in a position to achieve the professional infantry’s ideal and close to CQB.

      I suspect you are going to enjoy my book!


  2. Matt. Many thanks for bringing to the fore something I had not thought much (if at all) about since handing in my kit all those years ago.

    My two pence worth goes something like this:

    Firstly, I would wager that the sanitised conditions in a shooting competition have not been representative of the likely results in infantry combat for quite some time, perhaps 100 years or more.

    It is true that in the Great Retreat of 1914 massed ranks of well aimed, rapid fire, single-shot, Lee Enfields caused great distress at longish ranges, but we were essentially being pushed backwards from one defensive position to another. Not the way to win.

    In general war, moving forward at pace, on foot, and I’ll come back to that in a minute, even if you drop your pack and most of your non-survival kit, you quickly reach a physical state where controlled breathing, etc, etc, required for accurate, rapid aimed fire is difficult. Montgomery’s idea of attacks being ‘shot in’ to close range was sound from this point of view alone, so long as he had the logistic capability to follow it through.

    The next relevant development was the ‘battle taxi’, armoured infantry, delivered as close as possible to the objective, if not right onto it. If you are delivered there, or nearly there, the range is short and the weight of fire you can deliver does perhaps become paramount? Similarly, if you were on the receiving end of hordes of BMPs, they would not disgorge their infantry until well within the range where automatic personal weapons will be effective and necessary.

    The Cold War did not go hot and most of the conflicts since the Second World War seem to the layman to have been very different affairs, reliant much more heavily on high tech ‘supporting’ arms, be it precision strike, armed helicopters, RPAS or the like, than traditional infantry combat. Paradoxically, in some situations of the present day there is a growth in the use of highly trained snipers, the ultimate exponents of ‘one round one man’, against individuals of the non-regular forces encountered.

    I agree with John Salt above about the effectiveness of the Gimpy, carrying on effectively where the MG42 had led the way.

    Finally, isn’t it ironic that Gale held the views he did after spending the First World War largely in the Machine Gun Corps?



    • Hi Adam,

      Thanks for taking the time to reply. These technical discussions can be good fun, primarily because everyone has a view – something I encourage in my classes all the time!

      So to business…

      You are of course right to note that a shooting competition doesn’t represent the conditions of battle. I suppose my point was directed towards the claims sometimes made about military innovation that the causes of change are inter-service rivalry. Personally I don’t buy that argument. However, in this case the Bisley shoot came at just a moment in time where the Army was thinking about replacing the No.4. Marksmanship and its importance to the martial identity of the Army had been challenged by the RAF. The result was that it refocused attention within the War Office on SA and SAA decisions.

      Your point about carrying gear and advancing to contact is well made. It must be impossible to do it and hit a target. I am deeply impressed by Biathletes!

      I agree with you about Monty. His approach made strategic sense which is the only way you can reasonably read Monty’s decision to demote Wigram.

      Battle taxis… we like… yes there’s a good reason for them but even here the doctrine and their design don’t always map together neatly. The difference is found in the nomenclature between Mechanised Infantry Fighting Vehicle (Warrior) and Armoured Personnel Carriers. I realise the FV430 series has gone through loads of iterations as the UK evades spending any new cash on FRES (and probably AJAX). A good book on this is by Blair Haworth jnr ‘The Bradley and How it Got that Way… (Greenwood: London, 1999).

      I have much to say about your penultimate paragraph but will have to reserve my thoughts for an article (which I will be writing over the summer…!).

      Everyone likes GIMPY! But everyone agrees GIMPY is too heavy which is why we have Minimi and whatever they take into core next. Interestingly there has been much discussion of keeping LSW as a ‘sniper’ weapon.

      Good to chat to you (and John).



  3. Ha – quite liked the Bren and the Lee Enfield myself – it’s a generational thing! Good luck with the book. Adam

  4. Dammit, more expense. I’ve just pre-ordered “Weapon of Choice”. Thank you for choosing a publisher who does not demand the eye-watering prices of the likes of Springer. I’m surprised that small arms would be the area of choice to explore the nefarious ways of weapons procurment, though, because small-arms technology has advanced at such a glacial pace since the arrival of the spitzer bullet and nitrocellulose propellants.

    A few points in haste:
    No need to go all the way to Canada for the OR paper that found the Sten had a better hit probability than the rifle at 200 yards, a copy is held in the National Archive under piece number WO 291/476. Ny coincidence I’m using some of the data from it for a paper intended for this year’s ISMOR.
    I should perhaps have made it clear that D(Inf)’s decision to go for a belt-fed gun was with a view to a post-war replacement for the Bren. Obviously it would be bad craziness to try to change standard small-arms calibres with a war on. Recall that it had been planned to ditch .303 much earlier, rimmed cartridges being decidedly old-fashioned and the Army having suffered sufficiently under 7mm Mauser from the Boers for even the most conservative to appreciate the qualities of faster, flatter-shooting round. However the war looming on the horizon in 1913 meant that it was no time to be changing, so the Pattern 13 and its associated .276 rimless round never got further than troop trials.
    I’ve never heard of the IW/LSW combo being developed out of any particular interest in COIN; I thought we were just catching up, fairly belatedly, with most of the rest of the world in acquiring a proper assault rifle. As we were also planning to acquire out first IFV, the penalty of making do with an inferior section automatic like the LSW could be justified on grounds of ammuition commonality within the section and the fact that the MCV-80, later Warrior, could act as an armoured gun group with its chain gun (which probably no-one thought the designers would be mad enough to mount upside-down — see https://www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/Warrior).
    My opinion (as voiced by Gudmundsson and English at the end of “On Infantry”) is that ordinary “leg” infantry is a different kind of thing from armoured infantry, and so it would make sense to equip the two differently. As far as I can see there has been lamentablly muddled thinking on this topic for some decades now, with Richard Simpkin’s “Mechanized Infantry” (in which he was talking about what we would now call Armoured Infantry, and in WW2 called motor battalions) being one of the few voices of sanity.
    Belt-fed guns have the huge advantage that the same amount of ammunition can be carried in less weight as disintegrating link than as filled mags (for the guns I was familiar with, an L4A4 LMG with 600 rounds weighs 33.1 Kg, an L7A1 with 600 rounds is 28.6 Kg, or for the same weight you can have 150 rounds more). There is also the point that, with a good number two, you need never pause to change belts. The only argument in favour of mag feed is that you can use the same mags as the section, but the Minimi gets round this by permitting belts or mags. I’ve never fired one, but I don’t understand why people keep bagging the Minimi (and I think it’s David Benest who has some pretty pungent things to say on those who do). Even the otherwise invarianly sensible Dr Jim Storr has gone into print accusing the Minimi of levels of ballistic inaccuracy I would not believe of a Sten gun. And if soliders love it because “it makes a lot of noise and makes them feel like they are doing a lot”, then it shows that the soldiers have accurately assessed some of the important functions of a section automatic.
    I shan’t comment on Harrison Place for fear of being needlessly unkind — I always like to be sure that my unkindness is necessary — and my copy of his book is stuck in Wales waiting to be moved.
    These are the sorts of discussions that I think are best conducted over coffee or, better, beer — tell me, are you planning to attend any of the DSTL historical analysis conference, ISMOR, or the close combat symposium at Shrivenham this year?

  5. Hi John,

    Very pleased to see you’ve pre-ordered the book! Will make my publisher happy (& me too!!!).

    I use small arms to offer a point of contrast or a vista from which we might look back at the innovation cycle for more sophisticated weapons. Simple weapons make it easier to trace debates and then lay open the innovation cycle. Once we have that made more transparent the question is whether you can see parallels with complex gear which is typically opaque and based on systems of systems where actors’ interests and perspectives are implied but still active.

    Interestingly, even though SA are very simple, maybe only 120 components, every rifle that has been introduced into British service since 1880 has been surrounded in some sort of controversy.

    The Martini-Henry was controversial because if failed in the Sudan and led to the Lee-Metford which was controversial because of .303” (see my 2013 War in History article). The SMLE was controversial because officers who had learnt their trade in the Indian Army pioneered it. The shorter barrel was controversial because we needed long arms in the face of Boer marksmanship (see my forthcoming War in History article). No one liked the bayonet on the No.4…. and as you rightly observe everyone had something to say about rifle firepower. There was political controversy over the EM2 and the FN and again over the SA80 and SA80A2….

    If it is impossible to get the simplest of weapons right then what does this say about much more complex things?

    The book really looks at the perspectives of different constituencies/actors involved in the innovation cycle. I start with soldiers. Then turns to engineers followed by scientists, bureaucrats, alliance partners and finally industry. I argue that at each stage you move away from the battlefield you find another layer of contestation. This stretches right into the science of killing (or more precisely the scientific analysis of lethality).

    In non-social science terms I guess my book is focused on the politics of selection rather than the technical details. I’ve worked hard at ensuring the technical detail is accurate but am more interested in how the actors at the time constructed and interpreted the evidence in order to advance their technical and organisational ambitions. I link this to a desire to gain professional independence and point out how arguments have developed and power relations between the various constituencies (soldier, engineer, scientist etc) have changed over time. The rifle thus becomes a metaphor for the changing balance of power relations within the military industrial complex. That is to say whether engineers are up or whether industry is up….

    As for your specific comments:

    You are of course right about the AORG series in the TNA. I think I looked in the Shephard archives because Shephard himself was like the Godfather to OR post-WW2 and before David Rowlands came along. I found the collection to be useful because of his personal take on the material. As you’re a regular at ISMOR you know all this but this was all new to me when I started my research 13 years ago and before I started at Dstl…

    On the P13… I don’t think the Army is conservative per se. I just think that arguments and knowledge creation need to be understood within a framework of power relations.

    The key to the SA80 was that it was a family of weapons designed to reduce soldier burden and simplify training and logistics – especially re: L4 and L7. I can see you might have a particular perspective here. I just lay it out as I see it in the archive. 4.85mm was about minimum force. I show why the RSAF design strategy was not very clever and reveal/contrast it with the approaches adopted by the US, H&K and FN.

    I suspect you are in the firepower camp. I understand the argument. I am not totally convinced that the science supports it but irrespective of the rights and wrongs what is interesting is how the Army’s attitude towards firepower has changed. It used to be the case that professional meant one shot one man. Now it is all CQB. I don’t think the analysis on this has been effective and even if it has I am writing an article to lay out the socio-technical arguments associated with it.

    David B is a key protagonist in pushing the Army into belt fed. Lt Col Tony T is a key protagonist in resisting him. Tony T went on to do some analysis with SDE and this showed him what he had identified in the circa 2000 trials: the Minimi can’t hit a barn door…. This is where Dr Storr gets his lines from….

    My reading of the archive is that the British Army never even considered modelling for psychological factors at the shooter end until 1996.

    Beer, coffee any time you fancy. No way am I getting to the Close Combat Symposium. At £500 a go it would break the bank! If Dstl HA did something other than radicalisation then I might be tempted to go just to tease all my old work chums! If you want to discuss at another place/time then drop me a line at my work email: m.c.ford@sussex.ac.uk.



    • The first of the Platoon Combat Experiments in 2013 found that LMG/Minimi could hit a barn door but the way it was used meant that the firer had to be very close to the barn. The low hit rate at even very close range could not be explained by the weapon’s characteristics and was largely due to the Herrick doctrine of “put some effing rounds down”. If I recall correctly, the number of hits (as opposed to hits per round fired) for the LMG was superior to the LSW so in this case the winner of the volume vs precision competition comes down to the relative value placed on bullets and dead bad guys. I think this has been the nub of the problem since SLR and GPMG were adopted, and probably much earlier. The two camps are simply using different measures of effectiveness and can therefore never reach agreement.

      • Hi Dermot,

        Yes there’s I think there’s a lot in what you say. Volume v precision reflect the different value systems within the Army itself. This also speaks to the way that power is distributed between different camps and the way different groups of people shape the terms of the debate as you move away from the battlefield and towards the test site. The Platoon Experiments you refer to were also about defining what would be taken back into core following 10 years of operations. That adds the sort of bureaucratic consideration that typically get forgotten in these discussions. What’s fun is to remember how the criteria used to determine effectiveness can be swapped out so that different weapon systems get selected.


  6. Added as a thread on Small Wars Journal’s Forum, where choices of ammo and weapons regularly appear for discussion, usually from an American point of view.

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