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Coping with the world of “Military Surplus” weapons is always hard. This is the reason why the gathering of information and trying to understand what we have in our hands in order to avoid a purchase that could prove to be a bad decision.
In this case we can consider an interesting SMLE MKIII model, manufactured by BSA in 1911, probably converted in 410 caliber between 1968 and 1988 (you will understand later the reasoning behind this statement).
Models converted at Ishapore for public order, using weapons of several manufacturers since 1925.
In “Con la pelle appesa a un chiodo”, an interesting collection of witnesses from the unlucky and heroic war of Italian Navy, during the last World War, Vero Roberti (journalist and war correspondent), reports, even though incidentally, its use (for sure as war booty) by Italian Army at Ras Alì in September 1941. He reports that “... The most important, even decisive, weapon during the War at Sea is a British rifle, deprived of rifling, so as to shoot pellets at the so- called “pyramid rats”. Their meat is delicious, especially if roasted on a spit...”
Further more detailed reading on the subject “410 Musket” can be found here. (CLICK HERE)
The weapon we see here, nevertheless, has certain features, like the presence of the cut-off and magazine, both fully working, that, on the one hand, can arouse the interest of enthusiasts, and, on the other hand, should be considered anomalies and possibly ring an alarm bell (especially after having read the file).
Among the visible anomalies, for sure the most obvious is the presence of a magazine (not included in the Indian models), other features, like the non-blocked rear-sight and the absence of marking pointing out the caliber, help lead to research that could establish its origins.
In order to find the solution for this small mystery, we need to take a few steps back in time and may be necessary to take into due consideration British Regulations (Firearms Act).
The first attempts to regulate the possession of weapons in 1870 and 1903 had the sole aim of collecting incomes, in few words licenses for the possession of weapons could be purchased paying a tax at the local Post Office.
At the end of the First World war, many of the trained soldiers who were lucky enough to get back to their homes, brought back with them war booties that had not been checked. Beside the weapons legally held by former soldiers and those commonly used by civilians as sporting or hunting guns, a lot of non-checked weapons started to pass from hand to hand. Times were not so happy, due to the Great Depression and the Russian Revolution that were having effects in Great Britain and were affecting the circulation and use of illegal weapons.
In 1920 the first “turn of the screw”: production, repairing, sale and purchase of weapons were regulated. A Firearms Register was created, were serial numbers and weapon types clearly filed, so as to grant public order. As the “Firearms Act” became effective, those citizens who did not want to get a license or could not ask for one were asked to give back their weapons. Thousands of weapons, including family heirloom or war booties where British Army was involved, were so given back to authorities. These weapons were selected: the ones with a historical, artistic or engineering value were kept, the rest was scrapped. (link to the original PDF document)
In 1937 automatic weapons (among other things) were forbidden. This was officially due to the fact that this would have prevented the use of weapons for criminal or subversive purposes, acknowledging, at the same time, the right of citizens to possess weapons for legal purposes like hunting or sport. (link to the original PDF document)
In 1968 regulations became stricter and stricter. The “Firearms Act ‘68” provided for the obligation of license for shotguns with barrels shorter than 24’’. Such licenses were no more issued by Post Offices but by Police Stations. For the possession of rifles with a caliber over 22lr a new license was required and it was not so easy to get it (link to the original PDF document)
In 1988 British public opinion was shocked by a sensational news item, known as “Hungerford Massacre”, where Michael Ryan shot and killed sixteen people, including his mother (and his dog, although not included in the count of casualties), he then wounded other fourteen people before shooting himself.
He used two semiautomatic weapons, a M1 carbine, a Type56 rifle and a Beretta 92FS pistol, all legally owned.
Following this bloodshed the “Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988” was issued. (link to the original PDF document).
In 1996 a new massacre in Dunblane (Scotland), in a primary school. Thomas Watt Hamilton killed sixteen students, aged 4-6, and their teacher in the school gym, before committing suicide. Hamilton had legally owned the two rifles and the four guns used in the massacre for almost twenty years. Following this sad event, with the support of the shocked public opinion, the “Firearms Act 1997” was issued, forbidding the possession of any short firearms. (link to the original PDF document)
Today, in the UK, only Police Special Corps are allowed to use short guns, large caliber long rifles (caliber over 22lr) may be used by hunters with a special license or by sport shooters, in this case weapons must be kept in sporting clubs. The above said massacres brought public opinion to demonize weapons and their users. As a matter of fact, the subject “weapons” in Great Britain has been a sort of taboo for a long time, the subject was usually discussed in sport clubs only or whispered by enthusiasts. Only recently, thanks to social media, notes and opinions could be freely compared by enthusiasts, collectors and sector operators. All the restrictive regulations listed above brought to the development of the weapons we can find here. We could turn up our nose at such weapons, but they should be considered “expedients” or tricks, as well weapons that have been “rebarreled”, in order allow the sale and use in our Country, where some calibers were (and still are) forbidden by law. These weapons, whose barrels have been bored so as to become smooth-bore shotguns, have been down-graded and are, in fact, considered just like a hunting double-barrelled gun, whose possession is granted by a simple SGC license (Shot-Gun Certificate).
Thanks to the “British Association for Shooting and Conservation” we know for a fact that at least two types of SMLE converted into “410 shot-guns” exist, manufactured to get round the “Firearms Act”.
The first type of conversion, made after 1968 “Firearms Act”, was equipped with a 10 shots magazine, even if this magazine had just an aesthetic function. The weapon was indeed single- shot, due to the impossibility of feeding the ammunition through the magazine, a problem that is
common to both “410 musket” with metal case and the "410 shot-gun" or caliber 36, cylindrical ammunition with cardboard or plastic case.
The second type of conversion, made after 1988 in order to get round new restrictions, even though it kept the magazine, had a sheet-steel welded inside the receiver that formed a platform for the ammunition, thus becoming a single-shot weapon. The “Firearms Act” issued in 1988 provided that, among other things, smooth-bore shotguns should be limited to two shots, or, more precisely, two shots in the magazine and one in the barrel (this restriction is valid for pump or lever guns with inner magazine).
These tricks allowed the possession and of use military-looking weapons with a simple SGC (Shot Gun Certificate), a license that grant the possession of smooth-bore shotguns and that can be requested at any Police Station. In order for an application to be accepted, the applicant must guarantee to the competent authority the custody of the weapons with satisfactory security (armored or locked locker) the applicant must not constitute a danger to public safety (meaning no precedents for drunkenness, use of drugs or mental imbalance). The applicant must present a co-signatory, a “witness”, already in possession of an SGC license, who must guarantee its reliability for getting the license approved and issued after the payment of a fee.
Beside the modified SMLE N°1, the N°4 are also known. The N°5 have never been converted (at least in the UK) as it would be a useless trick to get round the law, since a smooth-bore shotgun shorter than 24 inches would, in any case, be classified as a “category 1” weapon (as well as rifles), to be possessed only with a proper license. Using these weapons for hunting could be feasible but, for sure, handier (lighter ) guns are available for this purpose, like the Australian versions we are going to consider later on.
How can an original “410 Musket”, modified in India for “public order” purposes, be told from a “410 Expedient”?
“410 Muskets” have got distinctive features:
- MODEL: .410 Muskets were manufactured using only SMLE N°1 MKIII/III*
- CALIBER: .410 Muskets could host only metal ammunitions coming from .303 British (see above mentioned file), while the .410 Shot-guns have cylindrical cartridge chambers and can fit the modern and common caliber 36 plastic or cardboard ammunition
- PROCUTION: .410 Muskets were manufactured only in India, mainly using weapons of Indian production (Ishapore), but models derived from British and Australian production are also known, sometimes modified without erasing the brands of the original manufacturers or without being marked with the Indian brands pointing out the conversion, barring the necessary reference to the caliber number.
- DISTINCTIVE MARKS: .410 Muskets clearly show the caliber number on the butt socket and often show re-arsenalization marks on the butt shovel. On the “expedients” only original marks can be found, without any hint to the caliber number. The “expedients” manufactured after 1988 clearly show a mark made up by two crossed sceptres bearing the letters “M” (on the left of the sceptres) and “R” (on the right of the sceptres), and the marking date in the lower part, a full date or the last two digits. This mark points out the single shot limitation (Magazine Restricted) through the welding of the steel-sheet inside the receiver.
- FEEDING: .410 Muskets are single-shot, without magazine, instead of it there is a wooden wedge blocked by two plugs in the fore-end. The “expedients” have got magazines, sometimes perfectly working, sometimes deprived of spring and magazine follower, replaced by a wooden wedge. Guns cannot be fed, neither in the first version where the magazine could be intact, nor in the second version where a fixed steel-sheet, with the function of a fixed cut-off, is welded.
- TARGET PARTS: .410 Muskets have a rear sight slider locked by a steel rivet fixing the useful shooting distance with broken ammunition. The "expedients" keep the movable cursor to adjust distances as in origin.
- ISHY-SCREW: .410 MusketS should have the inevitable reinforcement screw passing through the fore-end, typical of Indian SMLEs, INCLUDED during the re-arsenalization phase. However, specimens were also seen without the screw. These may have been converted in the first re- arsenalization phase and the need to insert the two passing screws fixing the wooden block that replaces the tank has spared them the "Ishy-screw".
- CARTRIDGE CHAMBER: .410 Muskets have got a conical cartridge chamber to house the ammunition with metal case while the "Expedients", in order to meet the needs of the market, have got a cylindrical cartridge chamber for caliber 36 ammunitions with a synthetic case that is easily available and not subjected to restrictions in the United Kingdom.
Let us see, now, some samples of these weapons.
A SMLE N°1 MKIII* manufactured by SSA (Peddled Scheme) in 1918.
From the outside it keeps all the characteristics of the weapon in .303 but the magazine has been limited by cutting the tapered sides that normally hold the ammunition in the upper part, spring and elevator have been removed, and it has been filled with a wooden anchor fixed in the lower part. Inside the action, a steel sheet, acting as a support for the ammunition as a fixed cut-off, has been welded to allow single-shot feeding.
Here we can see the mark stating the limitation (“MR” shotguns with a restricted magazine capability) in accordance with “Firearms Act” issued in 1998, a limitation made in 2003.
As previously explained, in order to please enthusiasts and collectors, not only the N ° 1 MKIII but also the N° 4 were converted. In this case there is no risk of confusing them with the .410 Muskets manufactured in India, as they were not used for conversions. This specimen was made converting a N ° 4MKI manufactured in 1943.
In this case the magazine is intact, but the steel sheet welded inside the receiver is to be found, limiting the single shot weapon.
Here the mark stating the limitation can be found as well (“MR” shotguns with a restricted magazine capability), in accordance with “Firearms Act” issued in 1988, limitation made in 2002.
Conversions in .410 made in Australia between 1949 and 1961 are also noticeable. Manufactured not to get round the law but to keep Lithgow factory active in post-war hard times. 6,800 weapons in .410 for exclusive hunting use were manufactured / converted (among many other variants).
These were marketed by Slazzenger, which manufactured new easily recognizable butts. The "charge bridge" was removed from these single-shot weapons and a groove was etched on the breech, which was sighted with a front sight on barrel to allow aiming. The barrels were manufactured by Lithgow, with a cartridge chamber for the "modern" plastic .410 (cal.36), to quote the words of the museum curator: "... the .410 shotgun takes all .410 shotgun cartridges up to 3 inch ... ". The receivers used for these conversions were of various origins, coming from unsold stocks, even of British production.
A view of the upper part where changes are visible, the loading bridge was removed and the new caliber and model, i.e. ".410 Shotgun", was marked.
In this variant, a wooden wedge had not been included to close the hollow usually meant to house the magazine but a completely closed trigger guard was made from scratch.
A dutiful thanks to:
Mr. Matt Brooks for the pictures of the samples.
Mr. Bill Harriman president of the "British Association for Shooting and Conservation" for the precious hints.
Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum for information.
Copyright© 2019 - Andrea Grazioli for CoEx
Translation A.A. , final check Kevin Fisher
BASC - https://basc.org.uk
Marple Rifle and Pistol Club - http://www.marplerifleandpistolclub.org.uk/general/gunlaw.htm The Official Home of UK Legislation - http://www.legislation.gov.uk
Lithgow Museum - http://www.lithgowsafmuseum.org.au/
U.S. Congress Library - https://www.loc.gov/law/help/firearms-control/greatbritain.php