Checking the barrel of a Bren Gun
A visual check of the straightness of the barrel of a Bren Gun is carried out during the production process.
Bren Light Machine Guns: A British import/export (VIDEOS)
One of the iconic light machine gun designs of the past century has to be the British Bren gun with their distinctive top-mounted magazine and WWII starring role. Yet ironically, if you look into the history of these guns, they may owe more to a town in central Europe named Brno and Toronto Canada than they do to England.
Czechoslovakian soldiers with a ZB vz. 26.
China was the main ZB-26 user during WWII.
In 1921, the Czech firm of Zbrojovka Brno, (ZB) began experimenting with a compact light machine gun that fired a full sized round from a 20-round top-mounted box magazine. Gas operated, air cooled, selectively fired, this gun became fully fleshed out by 1926 and was adopted by the Czech army as the ZB v26. By 1938 when Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, over 120,000 of these handy guns were sold to two dozen countries around the world.
Design of the Bren
Bren light machine gun diagram.
In 1934, a number of .303-caliber (the Czech guns were usually in 8mm Mauser) ZB machine guns were tested by the British Army to replace their WWI era Lewis guns. These prototypes used a redesigned bolt and magazine well to accept a curved 30-round magazine, besides a conversion from metric to SAE for production in England. After a 50,000-round, testing process against a number of other entries it was accepted as the BREN gun. The name Bren was derived from Brno, the Czech city where the ZB26 was originally designed, and Enfield, site of the British Royal Small Arms Factory where the gun was accepted.
The gas operation of the Bren gun was simple, reliable and easily understood by a trained soldier. It used a long-stroke gas piston in its action and fired from an open bolt like other options of the time but unlike many early machine guns like the Hotchkiss, it could be field stripped practically into basic components.
Cutaway Bren light machine gun.
Overall weight of the Mk1 was 22-pounds unloaded and 45-inches long overall. It was primarily a ‘one-man weapon’, which meant of course that they were usually issued to two or three man teams in actual combat, with the assistants carrying spare barrels and boxes of magazines. Capable theoretically of 500-rounds per minute when fully cyclic, the 30-round magazine could be emptied in just four seconds. A hundred round pan magazine, similar in style to those seen on the older Lewis machine gun, was also made but was mainly for use by guns in fixed positions.
Bren instruction diagram. Note the tripod.
A trained gunner could swap the 25-inch air-cooled barrel out for a fresh after sustained firing of ten magazines (300-rounds) in 6-8 seconds. Each barrel was equipped with its own wooden handle to help with this change. It was normally carried into battle in its short bipod configuration, which would fold forward under the barrel.
With the butt firmly in the shoulder and the front of the gun supported by the bipod, the gunner, lying prone, could put down a good rate of fire as long as his assistant could change out the top-mounted magazines expediently. For defense of installations, a tripod (as tall as a man) could be fitted for use against low-flying (under 2000-feet) aircraft.
Use and Popularity
By 1938, the Bren became the standard light machine gun of the British and their commonwealth allies. Other than the Browning 1919, it was probably the most common Allied general-purpose machine gun of the war. It was used to good effect by troops from Africa to the Far East to Western Europe. One Australian trooper, Bruce Kingsbury, was credited with almost single handedly saving his battalion from being overrun by a Japanese attack when he “came forward with this Bren and he just mowed them down.”
Bren with Brits and a 100 round speed mag drum.
Bren gun carriers used by Australian light horse troops in Northern Africa on January 7, 1941.
The Bren gun was popular around the world and besides extensive service in every theater in World War 2, it has popped up in the supporting actor roles in almost every conflict since. It and its Czech ZB forbearer have served more than 40 flags across the globe, some to this day.
The 416,658 British/Canadian/Australian versions were all in .303 Enfield (7.696x57Rmm) and remain by far the both the most numerous and popular. Over 60% of the Brens made for the British Commonwealth forces were produced in Toronto by the John Inglis factory, who is better known for their Browning pistols made during the same time period.
Irish reserves with Brens.
Bren gun in Pakistan, 2008.
Some 43,000 in 8mm Mauser (7.92mm) were also made in Canada for the Nationalist Army of China during World War 2—US allies would encounter these in the Korea and Vietnam conflicts. After 1956 the British Army chambered the Bren in 7.62x51mm NATO and, as the L4A4, continued to use them through the Falklands and 1991 Gulf War until the design, more than 50-years old, was finally retired. This final version, the L1A1, could take the same 20 round mags as the British FAL in a pinch as well as its own 30-round magazines.
Bren gun girl, Veronica Foster, found similar recognition in Canada as “Rosie the Riveter” during WWII.
Bren gun in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
In fact, Canada’s identification with the Bren runs even deeper than a mere production history. During WWII, the Canadian version of “Rosie the Riveter”, was “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl,” an Inglis employee who became symbolic of the war effort (and an example of some of the first machine gun porn). The Bren has appeared in dozens of films and video games including a very entertaining cameo in 1998’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels where an otherwise vacant character named Gloria unleashes over 40-seconds of full auto fire from one. It’s about ten times what the 30-round magazine allowed, but it’s still a great scene.
A rare Bren gun on the civilian market (C&R eligible too).
Transferable and original pre-1986 registered full-auto Bren guns are the rarest of creatures in the United States. Even though literally over a half million of the guns were made, very few were ever imported into the country before the Hughes Amendment cut off future sales. When they do pop up, they are usually .303 caliber British-made weapons and tip the scales at about $40k plus your tax stamps etc. Canadian built Inglis guns go even higher due to their rarity. On the bright side, even though they are NFA, they are still C&R eligible.
There are a number of semi-auto-only Bren guns in circulation, made from surplus British, Australian, Indian, and Canadian Inglis parts kits with new US-made components. Historic Arms in Franklin, Georgia and SMG Guns in Decatur, Texas have made hundreds of these (dubbed MK2SA) as has a few other smaller operators. They run $2-4K and their quality widely varies so be sure to try before you buy if possible.
War surplus juggernaut IMA has long sold everything for the Bren, up to and including parts kits, and will likely continue to do so in this country for years. Building your own semi-auto Bren from one of the available torched up kits is a very popular project and if you believe the various forums online where fellow Bren collectors assemble, more than 2,000 have done so. Typical home builds require 40-100 hours of work (depending on how torched your kit is) and run just over $2,000 though be warned. Money pits abound.
Dummy Bren gun made from a parts kit.
Non-firing dummy guns built on solid aluminum receivers run closer to a quarter of this price for those who would rather own and not shoot these historical pieces.
Whatever your flavor, the Bren is one of the most interesting and we guess most British of machine guns (even if it’s about as British as Martina Navratilova).
It’s Me, Bren Gun! – The Bren Machinegun: Rugged and Simple
Fans of Guy Richie know the line by heart, and the Bren Gun scene from the 1998 cult hit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a favorite of many with its slow, stop motion sequence.
The Bren came to be in the thirties as the British army sought to replace their Lewis light machinegun. The Lewis was a fine weapon, but it was a bit heavy for a “light” machinegun, and the gunner was not able to change the barrel in the field. Gunners would sometimes fire the Lewis until it stopped altogether.
The Bren is an improved copy of the Czechoslovakian ZBG 33. It is an air cooled, gas operated, magazine fed, select-fire, light machinegun with a sustained rate of fire of 500 rpm and an effective range of 600 yards. Originally chambered in the standard British .303 cartridge in use since 1889, the Bren is hard hitting at 2,400 feet per second. The relatively low rate of fire was effective in keeping the barrel from overheating and allowed for more accurate fire (as opposed to “spray and pray”).
The Bren was named after the two cities involved in the design and manufacture of the gun, Brno in Czechoslovakia and Enfield, England. Bren production initially started in 1940 at the John Inglis Factory in Toronto, Canada with an order for 5,000 Brens for England, and 7,000 for Canada. Production began later at British Royal Ordnance factories Enfield, England.
The original Mark I model was an expensive rifle to produce because it required more than 200 machining operations. The later models would be simplified to step up production time and lower costs. The Bren was originally chambered for the standard .303 British round used by the Brits in their Enfield rifle, but would later be rechambered in the standard NATO 7.62 X 51 round in the 1950s and use the magazine from the L1, which was Britain’s copy of the FN FAL.
The Bren design was distinct with its conical flash suppressor, top mounted magazine, and bottom ejection. The top mounted magazine design allowed the gunner to get close to the ground. But whether left handed, right handed, left or right eye dominant, it required all gunners to fire from the right shoulder, since the sights were offset left of the centerline.
The Bren was a rugged rifle with an adjustable gas system. The rotating aperture had four different sizes to use depending on the outside temperature. The system also allowed gunners to pump up the volume, so the Bren could keep firing even when dirty – a good option to have when you’re under fire and don’t have time to break out the cleaning kit.
The Bren gunner was always issued a spare barrel, and gunners would sometimes fire till the barrel glowed red. The barrel change was fast and simple, and with the carrying handle attached to the barrel, the barrel could be changed out in seconds.
Used by dozens of countries throughout the world, the Bren has seen action from its inception to WWII, Korea, Northern Ireland, and in 1982 when they were deployed with British forces to the Falklands. The Bren is still in use throughout the world, which attests to its design, ruggedness, and simple operation.
Design details [ edit | edit source ]
The Bren Ten models borrow some traits from the famous CZ-75 pistol design, however the "ten" was designed from scratch for the 10mm round and is not an offshoot of the CZ line of firearms. The Bren Ten was offered in several variants in full sized and compact pistol frame sizes, made out of stainless steel. The slides were made out of carbon steel and had a blued or hard chromed finish. A .45 ACP conversion kit and an ambidextrous competition thumb safety were available for all Bren Ten variants. A .22 Long Rifle conversion kit was offered for the full size variants. All full sized models contain a dual screw driver set that fits all screws used in the pistol as an emergency tool for performing field repairs.
The Bren Ten is a short recoil operated, locked breech semi-automatic pistol that uses a Browning Hi-Power style linkless system. The pistol has the capability of being fired single- or double action and feature an ambidextrous frame-mounted combat "switch" style manual safety that locks the sear so the trigger cannot be moved rearward as well as an internal firing pin block safety which stops the firing pin from traveling forward. The manual safety allows the pistol to be carried with the hammer back, ready for use just by switching the safety off, a configuration known as condition one. The Bren Ten has adjustable iron sights with three dots for increased visibility. The Bren Ten standard grips are made by Hogue from black textured nylon.
Magazines [ edit | edit source ]
The capacity of the detachable box magazines of the Bren Ten pistols varies from chambering to chambering and the exact Bren Ten variant. Technically the length of the magazine well in the handgrip dictates the shortest possible magazine length and accompanying minimum ammunition capacity. The manufacturer offered the following default factory magazine capacities:
|Model / Chambering||10mm Auto||.45 ACP||.22 Long Rifle|
|Full size and compact models magazine capacity (in rounds)||12||10||13|
|Pocket model magazine capacity (in rounds)||8||-||-|
The magazines of all full size Bren Tens handle both 10mm Auto cartridges and .45 ACP cartridges.
John Inglis and Bren Production
If I say “John Inglis”, the first two things that probably come to mind for a gunnie are High Powers and Bren guns. Inglis was a Canadian company that made a huge proportion of the Bren guns used during WWII, as well as other munitions. At its peak, Inglis employed 17,800 workers…and yet in 1937 the company was bankrupt and in receivership, employing all of three maintenance caretakers. The story of how the firm went from broke to wildly successful is a story of deft maneuvering by a small group of businessmen – such deft maneuvering that it led to official investigation for corruption in 1938.
Veronica Foster – “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl” – was an assembly line worker at Inglis who was made the subject of a PR campaign during the war.
We have a copy of the formal Report of the Royal Commission on the Bren Gun Contract available for download for anyone who is interested in reading all the details (it’s both pretty dry reading and a complete bureaucratic soap opera). The short version is that an enterprising Major J. E. Hahn (formerly of the Canadian Expeditionary Force) became aware of plans for the Canadian military to adopt the Bren, which it had no domestic capacity in place to manufacture. He put together a group of financial backers along with local politician looking for employment in his district. The collapsed John Inglis company (which had been making steamship turbines among other things until the Depression) was available for purchase, offering Hahn and his backers the illusion of actually being a sound business enterprise.
Hahn was able to adroitly work the War Departments on both sides of the Atlantic to get himself a contract to supply the Canadian army with all its Bren guns and also serve as a backup supplier to the British army. His political connections in Canada made him sound official to the British, and by combining the two orders together he was able to offer the Canadian government a better quantity discount than they could potentially get anywhere else. If the Canadian government somehow wound up under the (mistaken) impression that the British War Department would only be willing to work with the John Inglis Company, and thus it wasn’t worth sending the contract out for competitive bid, well, he didn’t know anything about that.
The Royal Commission that investigated the events didn’t actually find any evidence of corruption or illegal dealings. As far as I can tell, Hahn was both lucky, very skilled, and in the right place at the right time. His investment in Inglis (bought from its creditors for twenty cents on the dollar) became a gold mine, as Inglis grew into a huge industrial concern, and transitioned into household appliances after the war. And to be fair, there were never any major complaints (that I’m aware of, anyway) about the quality of Inglis guns.
Worker welding a Bren magazine at Inglis (much of the work was done by women, as the men who would normally hold these jobs were serving in the military)
You can see many more photos of the Inglis plant both during the war and after at this outstanding archive. The full PDF of the Royal Commission inquiry is here:
Report on Royal Commission on the Bren Machine Gun Contract (English, 1939)
Most of the work being accomplished on the VG1-5 is hand work and parts fitting. With the cnc router completed we need to make some fixtures to finish the stocks and hand guards. The wood shop is in some serious disarray due to work going on in there, but it will be finished shortly.
All the rifles have been engraved, welded and straighten.
The upper receivers have been completed with the available parts.
Most of the rifles have had all the parts fitted. Still have 15 or so left to do. We are making barrels and any parts that are missing.
Stocks and hand guards are next on the list.
Enfield L4 (BREN)
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 08/01/2017 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site.
The L4A1 is nothing more than a modified World War 2-era Bren Gun, .303 Series chambered to fire the NATO-standard 7.62x51mm cartridge. The success of the original Bren series in the worldwide conflict solidified the Bren as the frontline light support machine gun for the British Army. The issue lay in the .303 cartridge, which was quickly being realized that its time had come and gone. With the NATO adapted 7.62x51mm cartridge the norm amongst the West, it was decided to update the Bren system. With an Ideal Cartridge Panel established in 1945 to find such a replacement, the Bren saw itself being groomed to take on the all-new .280 rimless round design. However, it was quickly deemed that the better route to go would be to take on the US 7.62 T65E3 cartridge case instead and the Bren Gun, 7.62mm Series was born.
Finding a lot in common with its wartime counterpart, the 7.62mm Series would fulfill the same roles as the Bren before it. One noticeable difference between the two would be in the curvature of the 30-round detachable box magazine, which appeared straighter in the new design to accommodate the spacing of the new cartridges when in the new magazine. The pedigree of the wartime Bren proved sound and translated well into the L4A1.
With several early models varying in little ways, the L4A4 became the definitive one in the series, becoming the standard. A chromium-lined spare barrel was issued with the weapon system and the carrying handle was carried over from original Bren designs. The weapon system could be mounted on a tripod for the sustained fire role and the ammunition fed in through the top, as in the Bren .303. The straightened magazine was really the distinguishing feature between the two as both units appeared very similar to one another. The L4A4 was split between some rarer Mk II .303 Brens and the more common Mk III models, many of which were in large supply after the war.
To this day, many still swear by the reliability and fire power available through the Bren system, even as the L86 LSW (detailed elsewhere on this site) of 5.56mm blend takes to the stage with the British Army. The Indian Army produced its own Bren through Ishapur based on .303 Mk 3 conversion models, all accepting the 7.62x51mm round and designated as the "IA".
Live Fire: Bren Mk1 (Modified)
Introduce in British service in 1938, the Bren remained in use into the 1990s. Based upon the Czechoslovakian series of ZB light machine guns, its name comes from an amalgamation of its origins: BR for Brno, the factory in Czechoslovakia, and EN for RSAF Enfield where it had been adapted for British service and was to be produced.
The Bren is chambered in .303, is gas operated and fires from an open bolt. It feeds from a top-mounted 30 round box magazine, as such the sights are offset to the left meaning the Bren can only be fired from the right shoulder – which as a lefty, I quickly realised.
Bren Mk1(Modified) (Matthew Moss)
This example does not have the scope mounting dovetail machined into the left side of its receiver, or the folding grip and the hinged shoulder rest indicating that it is a Mk1 (Modified) ‘Pattern A’ gun, which was introduced after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the British Expeditionary Force lost most of the 30,000 Brens that had been taken to France. Only around 2,000 remained in inventory in the summer of 1940, so increasing production was essential, this model and the even more simplified MkII were introduced. While at the same time the BESAL light machine gun was developed as an emergency alternative by BSA – check out our earlier video on the BESAL here.
The BSA-developed BESAL light machine gun (Matthew Moss)
As a Mk1, the gun has the original profile buttstock, with the fitting for a rear folding grip and tripod attachment point as well as a buttcap. It also has the drum rear sight rather than the later ladder sight of the Mk2 & 3. It also had a folding cocking handle and this Mk1(M) gun also has the earlier pattern height adjustable, rather than fixed, bipod legs. This gun is marked ‘MK1, with an E within a D, 1942’ indicating it was made at RSAF Enfield.
Bren Mk1(Modified) with magazine off and dust cover closed, note the drum sight but lack of receiver cut for optic (Matthew Moss)
The Bren’s relatively slow rate of fire (of around 500 rounds per minute) makes it controllable and very easy to fire single shots while in full auto. The Bren does, however, have a selector on the left side of the gun, just above the trigger guard, which can be set to safe, semi or fully automatic. The Bren has a rocking recoil impulse as its heavy bolt moves back and forth, easily manageable if held tightly into the shoulder with the off-hand holding onto the wrist of the stock. The top-mounted magazine when fully loaded does have a tendency to want to fall to the side but once you’re used to this it’s not really an issue. The legend surrounding the accuracy of the Bren is certainly somewhat valid, at the time it was recognised as an accurate weapon and I found it accurate from my short time behind the trigger. I found the Mk1’s rear sight aperture and drum adjustment easy to use.
Spent cases eject out of the bottom of the receiver, the weapon had a sliding dust cover for when the magazine was removed and the charging handle is non reciprocating and folds forward.
Bren Mk1(Modified) with magazine off, dust cover closed and barrel removed (Matthew Moss)
The Bren has a quick change barrel system. To remove the barrel the release catch in front of the magazine was rotated upwards to unlock and then the barrel was rotated 90 degrees clockwise by bringing the carrying handle up to the 12 o’clock position and then sliding it forward.
We’ll have a more in-depth look at the Bren and its Czech predecessors in the future. My thanks to my friend Chuck over at Gunlab for letting me put some rounds through his Bren, I got a real kick out of it!
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It’s time we ditched the myth of German small-arms supremacy
It is amazing how much entrenched myths about the Second World War persist, despite the number of major new books on the subject. It seems that no matter how much good work is done on the human experience of war or the truly global nature of the conflict, some aspects remain unchallenged. James Holland writes.
This article was first published in December 2011
This competition is now closed
Published: June 13, 2012 at 6:26 am
Take kit, for example. In terms of the British experience, it is widely believed that our uniforms, our small arms – even our tanks – were widely inferior to those of the Germans.
The much-maligned battle-dress is seen as rather Blimpish and stiff, when in fact, its short-cut blouse was quite radical at the time of its design in 1937 and saved our government a large amount of money by using considerably less wool than the earlier tunic. It was functional, had no frills, was durable, and was later adapted into a denim version.
The German equivalent, the feldbluse, in contrast, would have made a Savile Row tailor blush it was so intricate, and used almost twice as much wool. German troops may have looked the part, but their uniforms were a gross waste of money. What’s more, unlike Britain, Germany had few sheep and no overseas empire to draw on for such resources.
If German uniforms were over-engineered, then this was as nothing compared to their small arms. The ‘default to myth’ stance is that our Sten was pitiful when compared to the Schmeisser (MP 38/40) and that German light machine-guns, the MG34 and especially the MG42, were in a league of their own compared with any others of that period.
Says who? And on what are they being judged? Both machine-guns had a very rapid rate of fire – 900 and 1,500 rounds per minute respectively – whereas the British Bren was around 500rpm. Yet, stated rate of fire and practical rate of fire are very different things.
German gruppen – sections of ten men – carried with them no less than six spare barrels, because firing at that rate, barrels very quickly overheated and when they did so, began to melt and lost accuracy – horribly so.
Infantry manuals warned against firing more than 250 rounds without a barrel change. At 1,500rpm, that meant changing the barrel every ten seconds. Ten seconds! What’s more neither the MG34 or 42 had a wooden quick-release handle attached to the barrel, which ensured the German MG crews had to carry giant padded mitts with which to change the burning hot barrel on their weapon.
With the long belts of ammunition needed, plus the spare barrels, most of the German gruppe ended up servicing the one machine-gun. And all this for a practical rate of fire of around 120 rounds per minute. There is a reason why current light machine-guns do not fire at this incredible rate today.
The Bren, in contrast, had a barrel that was thicker and less prone to over-heating. It also had a wooden quick-release handle. It was magazine- rather than belt-fed, which forced its users to stop firing after 30 rounds, and which gave the weapon an enforced chance to cool. Its practical rate of fire was 120 rounds per minute – exactly the same as the MG42.
The Bren was also a less-engineered piece of kit, and therefore cheaper and easier to mass-produce, taking around 55 man-hours. The MG34 took a staggering 150 man-hours to make, while the MG42 still took 75. In a long war, cheap mass-production is generally better than over-engineered, expensive equipment, especially if, like Nazi Germany, natural resources are scarce.
So why has the myth of German small-arms supremacy persisted? Largely because the evidence comes from first-hand testimonies of Allied troops who came into contact with the terrifying sound of their rapid rate of fire, but who were equally unaware of their many shortcomings. After all, numbers of man-hours and intricacy of engineering are hardly the concern of the Tommy or GI suddenly coming under fire. It does not mean their view is correct, however.
In these pages [Christmas 2011 issue], Gary Sheffield noted that there has been a “quiet revolution” going on in academic circles with regard the Second World War. Let’s hope it continues.
How Can You Find the History of a Gun With Its Serial Number?
The safest way to search for the history of a gun is to collect the serial number from the owner's manual or body of the gun and then ask a local official, such as a gun shop or law enforcement department, for its history. Additionally, websites such as hotgunz.com have public databases of stolen registered weapons. Please note that these websites are not official databases, so a weapon may not be on the database and still be illicit.
The only problem with running a search for a gun's serial number is actually finding it on the weapon. The serial number is listed in the owner's manual for the gun, but since an owner's manual can be lost, it is also printed somewhere on the body of the gun. Should the serial number not be found on the weapon, the person should contact the manufacturer of the weapon and ask about where the serial number is printed, as it may be more discreetly hidden on the inside of the gun.
Should the number not be visible in the appropriate location, the firearm should be reported immediately. Tampering with the serial number of a registered gun is illegal.
Very old guns may not have serial numbers associated with them at all, so be sure that vintage guns had actually been produced with a serial number before reporting.