Gun Lubricant History: Emergence of Modern, Self-Loading Weapons, and Higher Lubrication Demands
John Browning - legendary weapon designer, and a man who understood the importance of lubrication. His guns used sperm oil.
In 1911, the final round of the Army's automatic pistol selection trials was coming to an end, with Colt and Savage battling it out as the last survivors of an evaluation and selection process dating back to 1899. This March 1911 test was the final stage - each gun would be put through a 6000 round torture test. Every 100 rounds they were allowed to sit for five minutes to cool, and every 1000 rounds the guns were allowed to be cleaned and lubricated.
While its competitor was plagued with malfunctions, the John Browning-designed Colt 1911 performed flawlessly - not a single malfunction or broken part in 6000 rounds. It was a stunning achievement.
Then in May of 1917, during army trials for a new machine gun, John Browning fired off 20,000 rounds of continuous fire out of his water-cooled design for 45 minutes straight without a single malfunction. Then upon being challenged by an observer, he turned around and almost immediately did it again, with only one minor part malfunction, for a total course of 40,000 rounds in just a couple of hours.
For contemporary shooters, both 1911 fans as well as their critics, many are stunned that Browning's 1911 went 1000 rounds flawlessly without cleaning or re-lubricating - six straight times - especially 'way back then'. Many shooters have one or two modern handguns, including custom-built 1911s, they believe may not be capable of this today. And many contemporary warfighters may note the difficulty in getting 20,000 rounds downrange out of their modern belt-fed weapons without a single malfunction at all, let alone 40,000 in just a couple of hours, regardless of how many spare barrels are available.
Roughly 100 years later, why are these such stunning feats? What has happened, and why aren't we commonly getting this performance today...often out of identical guns?
The fact that Brownings's designs called for Sperm Oil matters immensely. Many modern lubricants marketed to shooters are, quite simply, just dramatically inferior to Sperm Whale oil, especially during actual use on a firearm - which is a critical point we'll revisit. And compared to modern, properly engineered lubricants, Sperm Whale oil is simply primitive and minimally capable.
However, lubrication is also nearly a lost art, in many ways mirroring the decline of common mechanic and handyman skills, as cars and household items become more complicated, more technical to work on, or are outright disposable. But such skills lost to many of us were common knowledge to a farm kid in 1906, who might use them daily - and roughly a quarter of Americans who fought in WWI and WWII grew up on farms.
When our doughboys went off to fight the Kaiser, both the men who designed their guns and the soldiers themselves already knew the critical importance of lubricant, and knew what to do with the relatively complex and large oilers and maintenance kits issued to machinegunners. The Browning, Vickers, and Maxim guns went into combat with oilers ranging from a 6-8 oz flasks and half-pint box oilers, to the 1910 Russian Maxim being issued with a pair of oilers carrying over a quart of oil or solvent each. There are reasons they needed this much oil - this included the nature of oil (it flows and requires replenishment), competent and attentive maintenance skills and habits, and high volumes of fire.
German MG08 oiler from First World War. Holds about 8 ounces, and with its articulating oiling arm, was a premium tool.
“The Vickers gun accompanied the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] to France in 1914, and in the years that followed, proved itself to be the most reliable weapon on the battlefield, some of its feats of endurance entering military mythology. Perhaps the most incredible was the action by the 100th Company of the Machine Gun Corps at High Wood on 24 August 1916. This company had ten Vickers guns, and it was ordered to give sustained covering fire for 12 hours onto a selected area 2,000 yards away in order to prevent German troops forming up there for a counter-attack while a British attack was in progress. Two whole companies of infantrymen were allocated as carriers of ammunition, rations and water for the machine-gunners. Two men worked a belt-filling machine non-stop for 12 hours keeping up a supply of 250-round belts. One hundred new barrels were used up, and every drop of water in the neighbourhood, including the men’s drinking water and contents of the latrine buckets, went up in steam to keep the guns cool. And in that 12-hour period the ten guns fired a million rounds between them. One team fired 120,000 from one gun to win a five-franc prize offered to the highest-scoring gun. And at the end of that 12 hours, every gun was working perfectly and not one gun had broken down during the whole period.” (emphasis added)
The event is self-evidently stunning. Each gun fired an average of 100,000 rounds in just 12 hours, without a single malfunction - with every gun in perfect working order afterward. For those with contemporary military experience, it may be worth asking how long it took for currently issued lubricants to burn off of their M-16 or M-4's bolt carrier group, or how many rounds could be put downrange with an M-249 without malfunction, and compare it to these historical feats.
There are a few key take-aways on this event: 1) Heat is a major friction contaminant, 2) Logistics and maintenance competence matters immensely, and 3) Although unsaid in this passage directly, both the quality and quantity of lubricant is absolutely critical - large, high-quality oilers were issued for a reason. Had the logistics and maintenance competencies and appropriate material been absent the 100th Company at High Wood, there is no possibility those guns would have been in action for 12 hours of constant fire, let alone in perfect working order at the end.
To understand what well-maintained machine guns were capable of 100 years ago, historian Ian V. Hogg provides this account of the Vickers, which specified Sperm Oil as its lubricant:
Vickers oiler - large for a reason. The Vickers was so reliable it was in UK service until 1968.
"When you dig into what John Browning did, and what WWI machineguns were capable of, you start thinking we've been going backwards for awhile."