Springfield Armory Museum - Collection Record

Home | Advanced Collection Search | Advanced Archival Search | Rate Your Search

Send us your own comments about this object.

Maker/Manufacturer:LEWIS, ISAAC
Date of Manufacture:C 1917
Eminent Figure:
Catalog Number:SPAR 4
Measurements:OL:101.6CM 40" BL: 66.6CM 26 1/4"

Object Description:

Manufactured by Savage Arms Corp., Utica, N.Y. - Standard Model 1917 Lewis aircraft machine gun equipped with Norman Wind Vane Sight. Spade grip with operating handle on left side of weapon. Complete with 97-round detachable drum magazine and booster but no mount.

Receiver - right side: LEWIS MACHINE GUN/MFD. BY SAVAGE ARMS CORP. UTICA N.Y. U.S.A./NO. 74468/U.S. CAL. .30. PATENTED/MAR. 24. 1903. AUG. 4. 1903. FEB. 28. 1905. APR. 3. 1906. JULY 31. 1906/...OCT. 3. 1911. OCT. 10. 1911. OCT. 22. 1912./AUG. 18. 1914. JUN 15. 1915. AUG. 22. 1916. SEP. 12. 1916./OTHERS PENDING.
Magazine: PAT. MAR. 21. 1903 - OCT. 22. 1912/.30 U.S.
SIGHT: 90MPH 2650 FT. SEC. 171 BASE

Weapon donated to the Springfield Armory NHS by Savage Firearms Co., Westfield, Ma. on 17 October 1978.

Weapon appraised by Gillie & Company, Cos Cob, Connecticut, on May 5, 1978 as follows: "Machine-Gun, Lewis, Mod. 1917, Cal. .30. $950. Serial number 74468, manufactured by Savage. This gun is set up for air-craft use with spade grip and the operating handle on the left side of the receiver. It has a Norman Wind Vane Sight, which is usual for this model. Bore is rough. Condition good."

Notes: "Most all Lewis guns modified for the flexible air service used the Norman Wind Vane sight. This device automatically compensated for the aircraft's speed by the force of the slipstream applied to it. The only problem aerial gunners reported with this type of sight was eddies of air currents which drifted around the gun firing directly aft.
Despite the scientific soundness of the special sights, most gunners did not regard them as the number one aid in hitting other aircraft. The gunners agreed their greatest marksmanship aid was the tracer bullet, usually loaded as every fifth round." - Truby

"For an inventor, he was aptly named: Isaac Newton Lewis, and in 1910 he was fifty-two, with thirty-five years of service in the U.S. Army. He was already a well-known inventor. Born on October 12, 1858, Lewis graduated from West Point in 1879. By 1894, he'd had a distinguished career as an ordnance man specializing in artillery. For four years - until 1898 - he was a member of the Coast Guard Artillery Fire Control Board in New York Harbor, then became regulator of the Board of Ordnance and Fortification in Washington, D.C. That duty led to the invention of a member of fire-control devices.
That same year, 1899, the Ordnance Bureau selected him to travel to Europe to make a study of ordnance there. His report, coming after the disastrous performance of American artillery in Cuba, caused a sensation in the Ordnance Bureau and led to the rearmament of American field artillery. By 1900, Lewis was known in America and Europe as an inventor of, among other things, a series of very important range finders and other coast artillery fire-controlled devices. From 1904 to 1911, he was instructor and director of Fort Monroe of the Coast Artillery School. In 1911, he was made lieutenant colonel, and a full colonel in 1913, the year he retired at fifty-five.
Three years prior, in 1910, the Automatic Arms Corporation, sensing that there was a market for a new lightweight machine gun, gave him a contract to develop such a weapon for them. Automatic Arms already had a machine gun that had been invented by Samuel Neal McClean, who had assigned the rights to it to Automatic Arms as the McClean-Lissak rifle. The weapon had never found a market.
After Lewis invented such revolutionary elements as his draft cooling system, his rate-of-fire regulator, and clock-type mainspring, and added them to the McClean-Lissak, the renamed Lewis gun became one of the most lethal machine guns ever invented, air-cooled, gas-operated, designed to fire the Springfield '06 rifle cartridge from a top-mounted pie-plate magazine that came in two sizes, one containing forty-seven cartridges, the otheWhen it was ready for its debut, Lewis, still thinking of his weapon as an aircraft machine gun, took it to his fellow officers in the Ordnance Bureau to test, stipulating, as he had many times before, that he would forgo all inventor's royalties from his government. And there he encountered the presence of General Crozier. These two men had known each other for decades. Indeed, their backgrounds, their interests, and their accomplishments were very similar - West Point, artillery commands, coast artillery boards, significant inventions, sensitive foreign assignments skillfully accomplished, merit promotions, and increasing rank and stature. Fame. By most standards, they should have been the closest of comrades. But, with their proponents and boosters inside the Ordnance Corps, they had a history of rival inventions, and as a result, the two men actively disliked each other. The autocratic demeanor of General Crozier was confronted by the 'determined manner' of Lewis, who was, historian George M. Chinn notes, 'no respecter of person, rank or position in like and he had already acquired the title of 'stormy petrel of the service.' Predictably they clashed in the first demonstration of the Lewis gun in 1910. Crozier dismissed the weapon out of hand, and by rejecting the design, he was rejecting the man. Lewis took his weapon back to the laboratory and reworked it. The situation quickly became explosive when, a year latter, in 1911, Lewis returned with his weapon now fully finished. Again, he submitted it for tests and again clashed with Crozier over the terms and conduct of the test, causing the collapse of the second audition.
Lewis was so upset he now set out to get the gun tested by ordnance people not controlled by Crozier. On June 28, 1911, he went to General Leonard Wood, who was then army chief of staff and also president of the Board of Ordnance and Fortification. Lewis offered the gun to Wood and, with it, all his royalties on the gun. There was one stipulation: Lewis wanted a test conducted by the army but independent of General Crozier or his Ordnance Bureau. The Automatic Arms Company, maker of the weapon, because of its own troubles with Crozier, backed Lewis in his irregular request. General Wood agreed to arrange for a test by a Cavalry Board and an Infantry Board at the School of Musketry in Monterey, California, and another before the Artillery Board at Fort Monroe, just south of Washington, D.C.
By April 1912, Automatic Arms had the four Lewis guns ready and asked for a test. But General Wood now asked for a letter from Automatic Arms outlining its reasons for not wanting to submit its weapons to General Crozier or to any boards controlled by General Crozier.
Automatic Arms complied, and in the letter of July 1, 1912, the company accused the Springfield Armory of giving to Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company 'a practical monopoly insofar as concerns the commercial manufacture and supply, in this country of such small arms as rifles, pistols and revolvers. This practice became so scandalously pervasive in later years inside the Pentagon that it was given the pejorative label: single sourcing. Automatic Arms charged that, at a time when the Ordnance Bureau was holding competitive tests between a Colt pistol and another from the Savage Arms Company in Utica, New York, Crozier's Ordnance officers had appeared in a patent infringement trial between Colt and Savage on the same two weapons, and had given testimony so clearly slanted toward Colt that Savage lost the case. Shortly after, Automatic Arms charged, Crozier placed a large order with Colt for its pistol.
Automatic Arms said that the Colt-Savage Arms situation was pertinent because Automatic Arms was confroThe Benet-Mercie weapon had been invented in France by Laurence Benet, former U.S. ordnance officer and son of the former U.S. chief of ordnance, Stephen Vincent Benet. With the highly favored Colt company sponsoring Benet's gun, Automatic Arms felt that under the circumstances, it could not get a favorable reception for the Lewis gun at the Springfield tests. The company contended that Ordnance had a clear conflict of interest in the matter and should withdraw itself.
This was a very serious accusation. In its dealings with the arms world, the Ordnance Bureau felt it was essential to preserve a reputation for impartiality. The bureau had not forgotten that charges of partiality toward the ill-fated Krag-Jorgensen rifle had greatly damaged the credibility of General Flager's Rifle Board. Obviously, General Crozier wasn't going to accept these charges or seem to acquiesce to them by letting another branch of the army test the Lewis. The precedent could destroy Crozier's autocratic autonomy.
No one who knew War Department politics was surprised, therefore, when the Board of Ordnance and Fortification refused to go along with its rambunctious chairman, General Wood, and instead insisted that the Lewis gun could not be tested anywhere but at Springfield.
To both Colonel Lewis and Automatic Arms, such a test was a waste of time and they withdrew from negotiations. But even Crozier couldn't stop the talk among army men about Lewis's new weapon. Colonel Lewis had many friends who could campaign for the Lewis gun, who had fired it, and could claim that it was a great weapon - perhaps the greatest machine gun of all time - and deserved its chance to be considered. In addition, by not making some accommodation to test the now controversial weapon, the War Department was letting serious accusations stand and a bad situation fester. Pressure mounted inside the army for the issue to be resolved.
On February 13, 1913, General Wood approached Automatic Arms again, asking them to visit him in the capital, where, four days later, he indicated to the corporate secretary of Automatic Arms that the government was very interested in the Lewis gun. He then arranged a meeting between the secretary and Colonel Birnie, acting chief of ordnance, in Birnie's office. To break the impasse with Crozier, Wood had proposed two tests - one at Springfield under Crozier and a duplicate test elsewhere, away from the influence of Crozier and his Ordnance Board. Colonel Birnie accepted. Automatic Arms accepted. But Crozier wouldn't. Instead, when he heard of the plan, the general moved to block it. On February 18, 1913, Colonel Birnie sent Automatic Arms a terse telegram. The proposed double test was postponed - indefinitely. Lewis had had enough. 'Discouraged and disgruntled,' he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, an followed the many other designers to Europe.
Unfortunately, the politicking inside the War Department hadn't ended. Colonel Lewis still had high standing there as an officer and as an inventor of considerable stature. Many of his proponents could point out that while the United States was determinedly looking for a new machine gun - even preparing to test soon the Maxim and Benet-Mercie - it was letting perhaps the finest of all leave the country. They urged, not unreasonably, that some way be found to give the Lewis gun an audition.
In 1913, Automatic Arms was summoned again to Washington. A new test for the Lewis gun was proposed, this one to be administered by a board drawn from the infantry and the cavalry. The armory was willing to test the Lewis first as an aerial machine gun and afterward as an antiaircraft gun. But the test site would still be the Springfield Lewis, in Europe, was emphatically set against the plan. The investors in Automatic Arms were also dead set against it.
The test was to take place in September 1913, against a new Vickers-Maxim machine gun and the 'service' gun, as the Benet-Mercie machine gun was called. Unfortunately, Lewis and Crozier clashed again when the board came to the aerial tests, scheduled for College Park, Connecticut. Colonel Lewis offered an airplane, a pilot, and, for an aerial gunner, his own son. He asked the board present a supply official .30-'06 service ammunition and the armory customarily issued for such tests.
Colonel Lewis later stated that General Crozier refused 'to furnish American ammunition to fire the gun.' He went on to say the 'rebuff was one of the things that decided him to abandon further efforts to interest the (U.S.) government and to take his gun to Europe.
The Lewis test guns ran into performance trouble in the next test inside the armory firing range. Certain metal parts of the test guns had been incorrectly tempered and soon began to break. This was not an uncommon occurrence with handmade test models of new weapons - the Krag-Jorgensen had failed repeatedly during its initial tests. Automatic Arms requested permission to withdraw the Lewis guns from the test in order to prepare properly tempered parts for a further test. Permission was granted.
The board's records show that during the test, the defective Lewis gun scored 206 jams, 35 broken parts, and 15 parts not broken but requiring replacement. The Benet-Mercie scored 59 jams, 7 broken parts, and no other parts that needed replacement. The Vickers-Maxim scored 23 jams, no broken parts, and no other parts that needed replacement.
Lewis expected to have the new parts in time for the upcoming field tests in 1914, and since these were the tests he had been trying to get for his weapon all along - among dispersed army units in various army camps, away from the control of General Crozier - Lewis immediately began his test preparations. The colonel felt that here, against the two-man Maxim and Benet-Mercie, all firing .30-caliber rifle cartridges, the lightweight and highly portable Lewis, capable of being fired like a rifle by one man, would soon display its superior characteristics.
General Crozier, however, announced that since the Lewis gun had failed the armory tests, it had not qualified for the field tests. General Crozier dismissed Colonel Lewis and his machine gun. In the field tests, the Vickers-Maxim outperformed the Springfield Benet-Mercie, and the board recommended that it be adopted.
General Crozier must have been satisfied with the results of this encounter with Lewis. He had fought off the incursions by Chief of Staff Leonard Wood into Ordnance's domain. He had fought off the challenge to his authority from Automatic Arms. He had prevented the Lewis gun from being tested outside Ordnance precincts and, instead, had compelled the Lewis gun to submit to his authority by allowing itself to be tested on his turf - the armory where, he could say, the Lewis gun had publicly and spectacularly failed; and finally, he had prevented the Lewis gun from participating in either the aircraft test or the infantry field tests.
If, as some were charging, he had wanted the Benet-Mercie to be the United States' official army machine gun all along, luck seemed to favor him there. For the war was starting in Europe, and he was able to report that there were no surplus supplies of the British Maxim gun available - he reported that he tried to buy 135. By default, the Benet-Mercie became the official weapon and was manufactured by Colt - Crozier's favorite arms company, according to Automatic Arms.
General Crozier had emerged from the fray with his domain intact, his authority firm, and himself the clear winner, and with what he felt was official proof that the Lewis gun was unfit for U.S. AHe had his first inkling of trouble a short time later - from England, while the Springfield Armory machine-gun tests were still going on. In that tumultuous year of 1914, when all of Europe was arming for war, Colonel Lewis was submitting his machine gun to a field test at Bisely, England, in the presence of Major General Sir Stanley Brenton von Donlop, master general of ordnance of the British army, Crozier's counterpart, and a number of the highest-ranking officers of the British Ordnance Department.
The weapon's performance caused a sensation. 'The British promptly accepted the gun and pronounced it the greatest machine gun yet invented.' The British army quickly placed the Lewis gun in service and furnished their troops with thousands of them.
These same British Ordnance officers had tested the Benet-Mercie machine gun, Crozier's choice, and had declined it. France, home of the Benet-Mercie, had also tested and rejected it.
With substantial orders for his weapon, Lewis went on to Liege, Belgium, and formed a new company, the Armes Automatiques Lewis. But there, he discovered, the Germans were as enthusiastic about the Lewis gun as the British and were making a determined effort to get it: Lewis discovered that his Belgian company had quietly been taken over by German officials. Before they got their hands on his drawings and models, Lewis switched to the Birmingham Small Arms Company in Birmingham, England. When the British demand kept rising, Lewis turned to the Savage Arms Company in Utica, New York. Savage was soon making four hundred Lewis guns a week.
To see how the Lewis lived up to its British billing, one has to look to the battlefields in France and the nature of the fighting that took place there. General Crozier soon had reason to watch its wartime role very closely....
With all the headlines from the trenches in Europe, the senators' real concern was the machine gun. They asked General Crozier if he believed that the Benet-Mercie was the best machine gun for the U.S. Army. If the general felt this was a calculated question, he might have been right, for stories still persisted that, through pettiness and jealousy, he had let a great weapon, the Lewis gun, get away from the American army and that he continued to block its introduction in spite of the praise it was receiving from the British all along the European battle line. There were now some thirty thousand Lewis guns in British service, nested in trenches of Belgium and France, and firing some fifteen million rounds every twenty-four hours at the German army. Since the war began, British Lewis guns had fired between five and seven billion rounds with notable reliability and telling effect. Later, the Germans were reported to believe that the Lewis guns was the best of the various machine guns....
To silence the critics, Crozier acted quickly. In April 1916, he announced he would test three machine guns: the Benet-Mercie from France, the Vickers-Maxim from England, and the Lewis gun. Politically, this move was fraught with difficulty for him because a good performance from the Lewis gun could reflect negatively on his previous evaluations.
When the Springfield Armory test results were posted, once again, as in the 1913 test, both the Benet-Mercie and the British Vickers finished in a dead heat with both weapons judged acceptable. As for the Lewis gun, Savage Arms, the domestic manufacturer, had submitted two Lewises - one chambered for the American .30-'06 cartridge and one for the British .303-caliber cartridge. The American Lewis, General Crozier reported, 'did not do well.' He asserted that the Lewis gun couldn't handle the stronger American charge, a curious acc.... General Crozier's announcement caused an uproar. Even the British were baffled by his test results. With extensive battlefield experience using the Lewis as their first-line weapon and the Vickers-Maxim as their second-line weapon, the British felt they were experts on these two weapons. As for the Benet-Mercie, they had tested it and rejected it. A British correspondent reported that Lewis guns were in used not only by the British army, but also the French, Russian, and Italian armies. He criticized the American government of 'action mainly of a personal or political character.' The Cleveland Press asserted that the British army had not found any other weapon 'of so much real use...as the Lewis machine gun. It has done wonders.' British army officers were reported to be astounded when they heard that American troops were not armed with the Lewis gun. The New York Times reported that Lord Hugh Cecil told the House of Commons that the Lewis gun was 'a weapon that is the envy of all Europe.' The Times added, 'For many months, the Germans have been making frantic efforts to duplicate the gun for use in their own armies.
General Wood flatly disbelieved Crozier's test results. He reported that the highest ranking officers in the U.S. Army, during a demonstration of the Lewis gun in New Mexico, had all enthusiastically endorsed it. These rankers included Major General Leonard Wood himself; Major General Frederick Funston, commanding officer at the Mexican border; Brigadier General John 'Black Jack' Pershing, soon to be commander of the AEF in France; and the commander of the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, Colonel George O. Squier, who asserted that the Lewis gun was also the greatest aerial machine gun in the world, performing spectacular service on thousands of British airplanes.
General Wood's adherents claimed that Crozier had carried a personal grudge against Colonel Lewis for some years, and had never given his gun a fair field test. 'The real test,' Wood told the New York Times, 'is being made daily on the battlefields of France and Belgium. What do our backyard tests amount to in the face of that evidence over there?'" - Hallahan

Newton, Michael. ARMED AND DANGEROUS: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO WEAPONS. Writer's Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. 1990.
Truby, J. David. THE LEWIS GUN. Paladin Press. Boulder, Co. 1976.

Rate Your Search

Searching provided by:
 Re:discovery Software Logo, and link to go to www.RedsicoverySoftware.com