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British Industrial History

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BSA: Guns

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1915. BSA Rifle. Model 303
1915. BSA Rifle. Model 303
1915. BSA Rifle. Model 303
January 1919.
Dec 1921.
February 1925.
June 1929.
November 1952.
November 1952.
October 1954.

Note: this is a sub-section of BSA

of Small Heath, Birmingham. Telephone: Central 6440 (9 lines). T.A.: "Armoury, Birmingham". (1929)

of Birmingham, 11. Telephone: Birmingham, Victoria 2381 (20 lines). Cables: As above. (1947)

of Armoury Road, Birmingham

1861 Company formed[1]. The object of forming the company was to begin making small arms by machinery to meet the growing competition from the mechanised government factory at Enfield. A 25 acre site was bought at Small Heath, (then just outside the Birmingham boundary), and two years later the factory was in operation.

1864 First Government military arms contract.

By 1866 the company could record a profit of £7,000 and in a few short years it became the largest private arms manufacturer in Europe. One order from the Prussian government,then at war with Austria, was not for rifles but for cartridge cases - 40 million of them. Rather than turn it down the directors acquired a munitions factory and changed the title to the Birmingham Small Arms and Metal Company Limited.

1870s Towards the end of the decade, the Small Heath factory was completely closed for twelve months and the future looked impossibly dark. A small contract enabled the works to be opened again.

1880 Edward Carl Fredrich Otto had designed a strange type of bicycle with two large wheels on either side of the rider. He demonstrated it by riding on the boardroom table under the noses of the astonished directors - and so impressed them that they put the device into production immediately.

This first venture into the transport field was followed by more conventional bicycles and tricycles, but a sudden increase in the demand for rifles at the end of the 80s caused the directors to drop cycle work.

During the Boer Wars (1880 to 1881 and 1899 to 1902) the company supplied many thousands of rifles to the British forces.

1897 The company reverted to its original title. The early prosperity was short-lived. As wars ceased, the demand for weapons fell, and the private arms trade was the first to suffer.

1900 Birmingham Small Arms Co and the Royal Small Arms Factory (Enfield) shared the large orders for the Lee-Enfield Rifle; the Royal Small Arms Factory (Birmingham) would probably be called on to help although it had principally be involved in repair work in the past few years[2].

1906 Took over the Royal Small Arms Factory (Birmingham) at Sparkbrook

1910 The company makes the Lee-Enfield Rifle (consisting of 97 component parts) and cycle parts. They have 16 steam hammers, 24 steam drop hammers, 13 Ryder forging machines, 5 Oliver hammers and 60 smiths' hearths.

1914 Manufacturers of military rifles for HM Government, sporting and match rifles, the BSA air rifle, the WO miniature rifle, BSA cycles, motor cycles and cycle fittings, BSA motor cars, BSA small tools, gauges etc., shot gun barrels. Employees 5,250. [3]

WWI Made the Lewis gun.

WWI In the First World War the BSA factories were turned over almost entirely to munitions work. Huge quantities of service rifles, machine guns, military motorcycles, and the world's first folding bicycles were supplied to the troops.

1919 The BSA company restructured into three divisions. BSA Guns Ltd became a private company.

1929 Listed Exhibitor - British Industries Fair. Manufacturers of BSA 12-bore and .410-bore Shot Guns, BSA Rifles, including High Velocity Sporting; .303 and .22 Target and Sporting, Repeating and Air Rifles. BSA Scientific Cleaners, etc. (Stand No. B.4) [4]

1930s Right through the 30s, BSA rifle production had been confined to comparatively small quantities of sporting weapons. The company's considerable amount of arms plant had been maintained out of a sense of duty. It would take a book to describe fully the activities of the BSA organisation during the last war.

Apart from the company's own factories in Birmingham, Coventry, Redditch, Sheffield and Durham, many dispersal units and shadow factories were used for the purpose of arms production. The Small Heath administration alone (BSA Cycles and BSA Guns) controlled 67 factories, employing 28,000 people and containing 25,000 machine tools. This organisation produced more than half the small arms supplied to Britain's forces during the war.

WWII BSA's war production included nearly half a million of the Browning machine guns with which RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes won the Battle of Britain; one and a quarter million service rifles (Lee Enfield .303); 400,000 Sten guns; machine guns (568,100 .303 Browning and 60,000 BESA 7.92), cannon, anti-tank rifles, and gun carriages, ten million shell fuses,over three and a half million magazines, and 750,000 anti-aircraft rockets.

Several Group factories were heavily bombed and at Small Heath more than 50 employees lost their lives. At this works alone, more machine tools were destroyed or damaged by enemy action than were lost in the whole of the Coventry blitz.

1947 Listed Exhibitor - British Industries Fair. Manufacturers of Guns and Rifles for Sporting and Target Purposes, (Olympia, 1st First, Stand No. F.1814) [5]

As an emblem of their craft they adopted the sign of three crossed rifles, which has since become world-known as the Piled Arms trademark.

1961 Employs 1,350 persons producing rifle, shot-gun and air-rifles.

Although the company no longer makes military weapons, BSA Guns Ltd maintains a steady flow of air rifles, hunting rifles and sporting guns to most parts of the world, exporting its manufactured products.

Small Heath Factory

At Small Heath, during the last twelve months or so, there has been springing up, silently but swiftly, a large manufactory which, so far as we can see, is destined to be the forerunner of a vast revolution in the conduct of our leading manufacture - the Gun Trade. Established on the American plan adopted at Enfeld and London, the new factory will be perfectly self-contained. In other words, wood and metal will be carted in at one end; will then pass through no end of machines, of all sorts and sizes, and finally come out at the other end in the shape of a number of guns ready for use, and the whole of this work will be accomplished without extraneous aid. Even the tools are to be manufactured on the premises, so that, in the first place, there is in this new factory the germ of a system which has for its object the complete abolition of the old plan of giving out work to be done by the workmen at their own private workshops. In the next place, nearly the whole of the several processes of the manufacture will be accomplished by machinery. The stocks will be sawn, and shaped by machinery, and almost finished by machinery. The barrels will be welded and drilled, and turned and bored, by machinery. Every minute part of the lock will be fashioned by machinery, and the brass furniture will be turned out perfect by similar means. Very little special knowledge, therefore, will be required in the workmen. An intelligent mechanic, who was never in a rough-stocking shop in his life, can be taught to feed the machine, so to speak,i n a few hours; and under his management the stocks will come out as perfect in form as they would had he been a gun stock maker all his life. The machines, in fact, do all the work, the workmen only have to supply them with materials to operate upon. And as skilled labour is thereby, to a great extent, dispensed with, and the manufactory is completely self-contained, strikes, it is thought, if not rendered altogether powerless, will certainly become a kind of weapon chiefly dangerous to those who use them. Another innovation, too, upon our old method of gun making, lies in the adoption at the new factory of the interchangeable system. Every part of the gun, as well the pins and screws as the stock and barrel, will be made so true to gauge, that, given a hundred stocks and a hundred barrels, any one will fit another; or, given a hundred locks reduced to parts, those parts may all be interchanged in the process of re-forming, and yet each lock be perfect. In other words, a lock made to-day will fit a gun made twelve months hence, or a hammer made twelve months hence will fit a nipple made to-day. The uses of this system of interchangeability of parts have, we are told, been exemplified in a remarkable manner during the progress of the American war. Ruined arms on the battle field have been gathered together and new guns formed of their parts, a stockless barrel and a barrel-less stock making a second perfect rifle, And it is said that but for the adoption of this economical method it would have been impossible to obtain small arms enough to supply the troops. The first nation, therefore, to bring the new system to a practical test was that which introduced it. Strongly imbued with the spirit of that old proverb of ours, which avers that more may be done by stratagem than strength, your American avoids hard labour as much as in him lies, and racks his brain for expedients to supersede it by machinery. In the pursuit of this laudable object he lighted, amongst other matters equally ingenious, upon a plan of making guns by machinery. And that plan is now, we believe, the sole one in operation in the States. The only other country into which it has been introduced in its entirety is England; and the third manufactory erected for the purpose of putting it in practice here is that at Small Heath, of which we are now speaking. The other two are the Enfield Manufactory and the works of the London Armoury Company. Portions of the system have been introduced, we believe, both in Russia and in Spain, but in neither do they work satisfactorily, for the simple reason that the manufactare is one which, like file-making by machinery, must, to be of any use, be adopted in its entirety, The new manufactory at Small Heath, therefore is, with the exception of those in America, one of the only three of the kind in the whole world.
Having said thus much by way of preface we now come to the establishment itself. It was originated some eighteen months or two years since by the leading Birmingham manufacturers of Government small arms, and a company was formed for carrying out their plans. A plot of land at Small Heath, twenty-six acres in extent, bounded by the Great Western Railway, the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, and Golden Hillock Lane, was purchased; and plans being prepared by Mr.T. W. Goodman, architect, the building of the proposed manufactory was entrusted to Mr, Jones, of Belmont Row. It is not yet complete in all its parts, nor will it be for probably some time to come, for the erection of the smithing department has been deferred for a while, the rough barrels being for the present bought in instead of being manufactured on the premises. As it is, however, the building covers nearly two acres of land. Its form is quadrangular, the front, facing Golden Hillock Lane, comprises a central gabled block of building, three stories high, with a clock in the apex, and arched entrance; a two-story wing on each side the central block, and a second gabled block three stories high at the terminal angle of each wing. Altogether the frontage extends some 250 feet, 60 feet being given to each of the wings, 50 to the central, and 40 each to the terminal blocks. The style, we suppose, is a kind of Italian Gothic; the material red brick, with stone dressings and coloured bands. Running back from the left hand terminal block is another range of building, two stories high and 160 feet in length, its angle being formed by another three-story block like those in front. From this block there branches out another two story range, forming the third side of a quadrangle. The fourth side is not yet erected. The two-story portions of the building are some 40 feet in height, and the gabled blocks 60. So far the exterior of the building, about which there is an air of strength, combined with elegance, is in keeping with the purpose to which it is devoted, and the wealth of the trade under whose aegis it has grown up. Passing through the arched entrance into the interior of the quadrangle, we come first upon the engine stack - a structure reflecting equal credit upon architect and builder. The shaft, 150 feet in height, and perpendicular as a plummet, Is worked into the base in the same manner as an engaged brooch spire is worked in ; and the base, which is square, is doubly buttressed at the angles. The diameter of the flue is five feet and a half, and the diameter of the shaft 10 feet at the bottom and 7 feet at the top. As indicative of its strength, we were informed that during the gale last Thursday, while other stacks were swaying to and fro like reeds, the new stack of which we are speaking, though more exposed than many, scarcely trembled even under the pressure of the fiercest of the gusts. ..... [text omitted here for brevity]

'..... Entering by the door on the left of the arched entrance, we come first upon the offices of the chief engineer, the draughtsmen, and the clerks, and passing by them we find ourselves in the rough stocking room – an apartment measuring 60 feet by 40. Here we find the steam-driven circular saw cutting the stocks out of the rough, and a series of machines through which they are passed to shape theme. To enter into a detailed description of the operations of each machine would be to carry us far beyond our purpose and space. Suffice it to say, that the broad principle of one and all is this: Below a revolving cutting tool there is smooth wheel; in the front of the smooth wheel is a pattern stock of iron, and in front of the cutting tool is the rough sawn wooden stock; the two stocks are affixed to one part of the machine, the two wheels to the other, and both parts may be brought nearer to or farther from each other. Now, as the smooth wheel passes over the irregularities of the pattern stock, it imparts its own forward or backward motion to the cutting wheel, which, operating upon the wooden stock, cuts it according to pattern. One machine cuts one part of the stock, another another, and another another, until the roughing is complete, and the stock is ready for the finishers in the room above, of which more presently. Out of the rough stocking room we pass into the brass furniture room - an apartment 40 feet square, occupying the basement of the left-hand terminal block. Here again we find an almost endless variety of machines of the most complicated and interesting character, each a study in itself, and all intended to perform some part in the fashioning of brass gun furniture. Out of this room we turn into the basement of the side wing, an apartment 160ft. in length by 40ft. wide, the ceiling supported by massive iron columns placed at intervals of twenty feet from each other. This room is devoted to the general machining department, and, as may be gathered from its purpose, is lined with machines of all sorts and kinds used in making gun barrels and locks. To this room the newly-forged barrel is brought, and there it goes through the processes of drilling, turning, boring, and rifling. Here the breech is milled and completed for the finishers upstairs; and here the thousand and one processes of lock and band and sight making are performed. Out of this noisy and bustling, but still orderly apartment, we pass into the company's inspecting room (40 feet square), where every completed part of a gun, even the smallest, is subjected to inspection before the assembling of all the parts for the final fitting together takes place. Thence we pass on in succesion to the model and tool making department (60 feet by 40), where all the models and tools used in the manufactory are made and repaired; to the metal stores (40 feet square), and to the smithing department, where the locks in all their parts, and the bands and sights are forged at some twenty grim, roaring stitheys. Out of this department we pass into the hardening, annealing, and blueing shop, where there are some fifteen other furnaces of different kinds - some for annealing, some for hardening, and some for blueing. And now we have passed through all the basement shops on the left-hand side of the building. Ascending a flight of steps by the model and tool making shop we come upon the second floor, and make our way back to the central block of building over the rooms on the basement through which we have just passed. The first room in which we find ourselves is the carpenters shop - an apartment 100 feet long by 40 wide. After the fitting up of the building, however, it stands to reason that the carpenters will not require so large a shop as this, and it is therefore intended to halve it lengthwise, allotting one half to the carpenters and appropriating the other to the following purpose. Next to this room and over the company's inspecting room is the Government inspecting room, and it is proposed that, when things are in full working order, half the present carpenters' shop shall be set apart for the Government packing room, so that the Government guns after inspection may pass clean out of the building without interfering with any other department, Out of the Government Inspecting Room in the corner block, the third story of which will be a kind of supplementary machining room, we pass into another immense apartment over the general machining room, and of the same size. Here there will be a large number of machines for the more minute work, and here also the filing and finishing of certain parts of the locks and barrels will be accomplished. And so we pass on through the assembling department to the stock finishing room, which is in the left front wing, over the rough stocking shop. And here will be put up some of the most interesting machines we have ever seen - as picturesque in appearance as they are useful in operation, their motions as minute and complicated as those of a watch, and their strength as great as that of an elephant. We feel curious to see all these machines at work. From this apartment we may pass on over the gateway by the board room and the show room to the right wing, of the building at present unoccupied, but intended for store-rooms, &c. Leaving the business departments in this wing, however, we may briefly state the offices, &c, are very conveniently and neatly arranged. On the second floor, as we have before stated, is the Board-room, which, while in keeping with the rest of the building, is decorated with a little quiet ornament ; and descending thence by a flight of stone steps, with neat Gothic balustrades, we come upon the offices of the General Manager, with their fire-proof rooms, and every other convenience attached. This brings us once more into the gateway, and there remains only one other part of the building to inspect.

'We have not yet visited the giant whose strong steam-supplied lungs and iron thews work every machine in the vast building. This gentleman partakes of the nature of a kind of Behemoth Siamese twins. He is neither more nor less than a pair of horizontal condensing engines, of a combined 60-horse power (but capable of indicating 200), with a 26-inch cylinder and a three-feet stroke. The main fly-wheel, 15 feet 7 inches in diameter, gives power to the shafting through the medium of two 13 inch double leather bands. No gearing therefore is used; and seeing that several processes in the manufacture are of so delicate a nature that the slightest irregularity of movement would create much additional work if not an effect more serious, the improvement in this respect is a matter of vast importance. The engines are fixed upon a bed of brickwork, 12 feet deep, and the bolts that hold them down are screwed through a solid plate of iron 9 feet down in the bricklwork. Steam is supplied both to drive the engine and manufactory by two tubular boilers measuring 27 feet by 7 feet.

'The engines, boilers, and mill gearing are supplied by Messrs. Hick and Sons, of Bolton; and the American machinery in use throughout the manufactory has been supplied by the Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, the same company who supplied similar machinery to the authorities at Enfield and the London Armoury. The remaining machines are supplied by Messrs. Greenwood and Batley, of Leeds, who have also had to do with Enfield and London. The tools and fixtures, in almost endless variety, however, have been provided by the Ames Company. The manager is Mr. B. M'Kay, formerly with Mr. Whitworth; and the chief engineer, Mr. C. M. M'Farland, a member of the Ames Company, builder of the Enfield machinery, and for some time chief engineer of the London Armoury Company's Works. It is calculated that, as at present constructed, the factory will turn out a thousand stand of arms weekly, and that when complete it will turn out two thousand. The Enfield factory is supposed to send out 2,000 weekly, and the London Armoury Company 900 weekly. The cost of the Small Heath building it is supposed will reach £20,000. ; of the cost of the machinery we can form no estimate at present.'[6]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. [1] BSA Website
  2. Leicester Chronicle 10 February 1900
  3. 1914 Whitakers Red Book
  4. 1929 British Industries Fair p12
  5. 1947 British Industries Fair p19
  6. Birmingham Daily Post, 8 December 1863