The Bren Light Machinegun
The Bren (from Brno, the Czechoslovak city of design, and Enfield, the location of the British Royal Small Arms Factory), commonally called the Bren Gun, was a series of light machine guns adopted across the British Empire in the 1930s and used in various roles until 2000. While it is best known for its role as the British and Commonwealth forces' primary infantry light machine gun (LMG) in World War II, it was also used extensively by both Russian and German forces in that conflict and saw service with many countries throughout the later half of the 20th century, taking part in the Indo-Chipanese War, Burmese Rebellion, Malayan Emergency, Mindanao Insurrection, Borneo Confrontation, and the Falklands War amongst others.
The Bren was a modified version of a Czechoslovak-designed ZB vz.26 light machine gun that took part in series of competitive trials by the British Army in the mid 1930s. As adapted to meet British requirements the Bren featured a distinctive curved box magazine to take the rimmed .303 (7.7x56R) cartridge, adjustable bipod, conical flash hider, drum rear sight and quick change barrel. In 1943 the Bren was re-chambered at the behest of German authorities in Britain back to the 7.92mm German service round used in the vz.26. In the same year Canada also re-chambered the Bren to suit the Russian 7.62x54R cartridge, they had been making Brens in 7.92mm for China since 1941!
After 1947 the Bren continued to serve in 303 and 7.62x54R, with many countries re0chambering them yet again in the late 50’s and 60’s to the newer 7x43 cartridge, examples have been found with marking indicating they have seen all four calibres in their service lives.
Both Britain and Australia further redesigned the Bren in the 1960’s, scaling the weapon down slightly around the 7x43mm cartridge to save weight; the British version was known in service as the L4, and the A4 ‘Liden’ in Australia. Australia going to so far as to merge the Bren with it’s Czechoslovak developed successor, the ZB vz.56 to produce the Austen. Britain too followed this path with the TADEN but adopted the Belgian FN MAG-60 GMPG, a more substantial belt fed weapon.
Although fitted with a bipod, the Bren could also be mounted on a tripod or vehicle-mounted. The Bren was generally replaced as the primary section LMG by most forces in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, to be relegated to second line duties, being further excluded in the British Army by the L7 LSW when it was introduced in 1985, leaving the Bren to soldier on with TA service units and the Cadet Force.
In general, the Bren was considered a reliable and effective light machine gun.
For Bren's chambered in .303, 7.26x54R or 7,92mm, the 30-round magazine was usually only filled with 28 or 29 rounds to reduce pressure on the magazine spring, a practice common to other weapons of its era. In loading a high level of vigilance was called for to ensure the rims of the .303 or 7,62x54R cartridges did not overlap the wrong way. Each round needed to be loaded with the rim ahead of the previous one or a stoppage would ensue. A 100-round drum magazine available for the Bren when used in the anti-aircraft or sustained fire roles, but was rarely seen after 1941.
Officially the Bren was generally operated by a crew of two; the No.1, a gunner to fire and carry the weapon, and the No.2 a loader to reload the gun, replace the barrel when it overheated, manage the supply of ammunition and carry the accessories. In action this arrangement was subject to variation with circumstances, and a Bren might be operated by one man or three, with a spotter/commander, usually a junior NCO, assisting the No.1 in finding and engaging targets.
The effective range of the Bren has changed with tactical evolution. Physically the weapon when fired off its bipod is as effective, or more so, than a service rifle chambered for the same round. An example in good condition with a fresh barrel is normally as accurate as a general issue service rifle with iron sights. One persistent criticism of the Bren has been that it is inherently too accurate for a machine gun, its beaten zone (the area into which its fire falls) being smaller than ideal, a problem easily cured in the field by fitting a partially worn barrel. Most Army’s consider 600m to be the Bren’s useful reach off a bipod, but this is as much a matter of doctrine as a practical guide, a trained gunner can usually provide harassing fire out to 1,000m.
The Bren was of average weight for a weapon of its class and era, although it is seen as a heavyweight by modern standards, and if the tactical situation permits is often broken down and shared around a section to ease the load. Writing about his experiences in the infantry during the Burma campaign, the author George MacDonald Napier reported gunners applying additional camouflage to their magazines so as reduce the prominence of that part, which when firing vibrates and catches the eye.
In an effort to provide additional firepower at the section level, many Army’s have issued more than one Bren per section; usually when they have been equipped with bolt action rifles like the SMLE’s and faced opponents with semi and automatic rifles or in close quarters. This practice has met with mixed success, as the additional ammunition, if carried to the usual scale per weapon, imposes a great weight penalty on the troops involved. This idea has worked best in situations where infrequent short sharp engagements have been the norm, such as jungle patrolling, allowing the extra firepower of the Bren to be useful, but without demanding sufficient ammunition for a sustained exchange of fire. On the march Bren gunners have often made use of a sling, such as that from the SMLE, although this is not a practice endorsed by official publications. Neither is firing the weapon off the shoulder in a standing position, or substituting the striker spring from a No.36 Grenade into the buffer to increase the rate of fire, but both techniques have been employed to good effect when circumstances called for them.
The normal allocation of ammunition for a Bren has been 25x 30 round magazines for a ten man rifle section, this amounted to two magazines per man, one on the gun and the last four split between the No.1 and No.2. In practice this proved rather cumbersome when a section was required to subdivide itself into a rifle group and a gun group to manoeuvre. Either the rifle group moved off with most of the LMG’s reserve ammunition, or they dumped it on the gun group who then had great difficulty in moving themselves. This problem is inherent with any section/squad level machinegun to some degree, but was at it worst when the Bren was used along side bolt action rifles, not only was 303/7.62/7.92mm ammunition heavier than the later 7mm, but the disparity in fire power between a Bren and 6-8 riflemen was tactically awkward. Some authorities suggest this lead to a general reluctance to split sections and preform minor level fire and movement in British/Commonwealth forces during WWII. However the same problem could be found in most other Armies of the period, notably the Germans in the first half of the war, and no similar criticism has been levelled at them.
By the Drill Book a Bren is fired from the prone position using probably the best bipod ever designed, with the No.2 (loader) laying beside the No.1 to the right (or left if required). The preferred method of fire is rapid single shots so as to disguise the presence of a Machinegun, with automatic fire in bursts of three to five rounds, a practiced gunner can fire single shots in the automatic mode if he hasn’t done anything silly with the buffer springs. Upon the expenditure of a magazine the No.1 calls “Mag!” engaging the safety catch and prepares to recharge the weapon with his right hand. Upon the call for a magazine, No.2, with the side of his left hand, depresses the magazine catch and sweeps the expended magazine forwards off the receiver, depositing it where convenient, to receive from his right hand the fresh magazine; which is offered up to the weapon firmly, making sure it is correctly seated and the magazine catch is firmly engaged. On withdrawing his left hand, the No.2 taps the No.1 on the helmet or shoulder calling “On!” The No.1 then recharges the weapon, returning the charging handle to its forward position, folding it and replaces his hand upon the pistol grip so as to resume firing.
A change of barrel proceeds as above, with the No.1 Calling “Barrel!” The No.2 proceeds to remove the magazine as per loading, but does not offer a new one, instead closing the dust cover over the magazine well. On the removal of the magazine No.1 charges the weapon twice to prove it clear, before engaging the safety catch and placing his right hand under the toe of the butt. With the butt supported by his right hand, the No.1 then reaches forwards with his left to manipulate the Barrel Latch, calling “Safe and Free!” While waiting for the No.1 to complete his actions, the No.2 obtains the spare barrel from the barrel bag, visually checking the bore is clear and unobstructed. Upon the No.1’s affirmation that the weapon is safe and the barrel is free, the No.2 removes the hot barrel, handling it by its attached handle and laying it safely to one side, before replacing it with the new barrel, calling “In!” once the barrel is seated cleanly in the receiver and the gas block has engaged with the operating rod tube. No.1 then latches the barrel with the call “Home!” returning his left hand to the butt grip if provided or the small of the stock, and his right hand to the charging handle. No’s 1 and 2 then proceed as with a normal magazine change. If wounded or unable to continue at his post, the No.1 taps the No.2 on the shoulder and calls, if possible, “Change!” rolling away to the off side so as the No.2 may replace him.
The Bren did not have the slickest barrel change of its day, that honour belongs to the MG-42 and its progeny. But clumsily as the drill might read, it hardly took more than three or four seconds on average, and the Bren scored over many of its peers by having an adjustable foresight, so spare barrels could be zeroed to the gun for consistent shooting. The original sights used a rather fancy click adjustable drum on for the rear, turning the big drum so prominent in many photographs moved a cam on its inner edge against the arm carrying the rear peep sight. This was very nice to use, but a little too expensive to make and was replaced in the early war period by a simple screw adjustable ladder affair that was just as effective but nowhere near as pretty.
Some people consider the top mounted magazine, and the off set sights this arrangement imposed, to be a problem, but few experienced operators would agree. The magazine did impose a blind spot at short range and as mentioned above, its movement could, under certain conditions, draw unwelcome attention. A bigger worry for most people is the Bren’s propensity to send hot brass up the gunners sleeve or down the front of his shirt if they happen to be unbuttoned.
In general the benefits outweighed these concerns, gravity assists feeding thus reliability, the gunner can take a prone position with almost no interference from the weapon, and putting the mag up in the open means someone else can change it. These last two points being vital for maintaining a serious rate of fire. A point reflected by the fact that few magazine fed machineguns have put the mag anywhere else, and no really successful ones ever have.
The Bren also saw service on many vehicles, most notably Universal Carriers to which it gave the unofficial but ubiquitous name "Bren Gun Carrier", as well as tanks, armoured cars and trucks. However, being magazine fed it was not all that suitable for use as a co-axial weapon in armoured vehicles, instead being most commonly fitted as on a pintle mount for AA use. Unfortunately with the shortage of 100-round drums for most of WWII it was not terribly useful for this either and while provided, the Bren was rarely seen in that role. The same lack of 100-round drums also reduced the Bren’s utility as a sustained fire weapon off its tripod too, the issue of tripods in infantry units dropping away to a handful per battalion for local AA defence in those forces that bothered to issue them at all.
Considered with some merit by many as the best light machine gun ever made, the Bren has always been popular with troops it has been issued too, even those to whom it was a step down in fire power have respected its reliability and general handiness. Those Army’s where it has been on regular issue have been very reluctant to get rid of it, usually exchanging it for something very similar and only then with reluctance by all concerned. The unfortunate feeding habits of rimmed ammunition certainly detracted for its general reliability, but in all other respects the Bren had every facility for effective use in harsh conditions. All openings bar the muzzle were provided with dust covers, the charging handle was non-reciprocating and sealed its slot, running clearances were adequate and the gas regulator had four positions which were easy to set for when the gun clagged up. Even the vents from the gas cylinder could be cleared quickly by just twisting the gun in its bipod.
The irony of it being used by both sides during WWII is amplified by the equally prolific distribution of the Bren’s Czech parent. The ZB vz. 26, was used even more widely by the Germans, including the Waffen SS and Partisanjagers. The Chinese not only bought zv.26’s by the thousand and built them, but received a good number of 7.92 Bren’s from Canada, and introduced the Japanese to the type’s virtues. The Type 99 started as a Japanese clone, and an indifferent one at that, but by the late 50’s the Type 99/1 had ‘evolved’ into what amounted to a direct copy of vz.26 in most elements except the provision of primary extraction. Given the Type 99 and 99/1’s appearance anywhere Chipan has laid a grubby finger, any ironic juxtaposition during 1939-47 is only the foundation for a 40 year joke extending from Asia to Africa.
With the adoption of 7x43mm by Britain and in what looked to be the last expression of Empire, most of the Commonwealth, the Bren changed very little. While there was no common standard for the 7mm conversion, but form largely followed function and the differences between them were minor. A new chrome lined barrel with slotted flash hider in place of the old stainless steel conical type, an aluminium or steel magazine adaptor, a new bolt, gas plug and naturally a recalibrated sight. This last is why few old drum sighted Mk.1’s have ever been converted. The new round, and magazines that were interchangeable with the service rifle, where that could be arranged, allowed the Bren to be used more flexibly within an infantry section, addressing to some extent the old worries about reserve ammunition by permitting the crew to carry more of their basic load and the free interchange of magazines within the unit; the new rifles taking care of the fire power imbalance.
In this form and particularly the lighter L7 and A4, the Bren found a second youth, even though overmatched by the firepower of the new belt fed GPMG’s. Its lighter weight and more compatible ammunition supply gave it an advantage for light infantry work and anywhere mobility was important, and it must be said even when replaced officially, Bren’s were apt to come out of the cupboard when war-clouds gathered. For those who were prepared to deal with the extra few pounds, the Bren was accurate enough to stand in for a rifle and provide a serious addition to a unit’s fire power, a point much appreciated by small units likely to get in a touch of bother. The Royal Marines for example, issued both an L9 (MAG-60) and an L7 (Bren) per section well into the 1990’s as seen famously in the photographs taken during the Falklands War on South Georgia.
From September 1937. The original Bren based on the Czechoslovak gun.
· Drum pattern rear aperture sight
· Buttstrap for use over the shoulder when firing
· Pistol grip under butt
· Telescoping bi-pod
· Folding cocking handle
Introduced 1941. A simpler version of the Mk 1. Produced by the Monotype Group in the UK through a number of component manufacturing factories and Inglis in Canada.
· Folding leaf rear sight
· Buttstrap & pistol grip deleted
· Fixed height bi-pod
· Fixed cocking handle
AP Mark 2* (Australia)
Lithgow or Electrolux made Australian Pattern Mk.2, retained adjustable bipod and folding cocking handle. .303 only, no evidence of any converted to 7.62 Russian.
Mark 3 (Canadian)
Made by Inglis for supply to Russian and Canadian forces defending the Kola Pocket and St. Petersburg. Chambered for 7.62x54R.
Mark 3 (British)
Monotype and Enfield Mk.2 in 7.92mm for Germany
Mark 4 (Canadian)
As for Mk3 but conversion from Mk2.
From 1958. Mk.2 and Mk.3 (both types) converted to 7x43mm, the L7 is easily identified by its straight magazine and slotted stainless steel flash hider.
Mk.2 and Mk.3 (both types) converted to 7x43mm, like the L7 it has a straight magazine and slotted flash hider, but the flash hider is dull steel matching the rest of the barrel, often without the barrel the handle to save weight.
Mk.2 or Mk.3 from any source, converted at the Ishapore Machinegun Factory, some have drilled South African pattern flash hiders. The IMF-1 was the converted Vickers-Berthier.
MG-3 (South African)
Mk.2 or 3 converted to 7x43mm in South Africa from locally produced kits, most readily identified by the perforated flash hiders in either stainless or carbon steel, most fitted with a sling swivel on the top of the butt.
· RSAF Enfield, UK: 400 per month.
o 1943: 1,000 per week.
· John Inglis and Company, Canada: A Contract was signed with the British and Canadian governments in March 1938 to supply 5,000 Bren machine guns to Great Britain and 7,000 Bren machine guns to Canada. Both countries shared the capital costs of bringing in this new production facility. Production started in 1940; and by 1943 John Inglis and Company was producing 80% of the free world output of Bren guns.
· Long Branch, Canada.
· Ishapore, India.
· Lithgow, Australia.
· British and Commonwealth forces.
· Irish Constabulary
· Chinese National Revolutionary Army of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War
· Brigade Mobil Police of Indonesian Police still have Bren in service. After the Independence War 19xx-19xx the TNI adopted the Bren as their machine gun.
· Hellenic Air Force (HAF).
· Both sides of the Nepalese Civil War.
· Democratic Army of Greece (DSE) during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).
· Indian Army
· Sri Lanka Army
· Canadian army