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From Bolt Action Lee to LMG: The Charlton Automatic Rifle

Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another
video on I’m Ian McCollum, and I’m here today at the National Firearms Centre, part of the British Royal Armouries at Leeds, and we are taking a look at a New Zealand Charlton automatic rifle. One of the coolest looking, most steampunky guns of all of World War Two I suspect. Now, this was never actually intended to be a front line combat weapon. From the very beginning this was intended to be used by the New Zealand Home Guard. And it’s the brainchild of two guys in New Zealand, Philip Charlton, whose name has become attached to the gun, and his buddy Maurice Field. And as is typical in endeavors like this, partnerships like this, you had one guy who was the engineer, gun guy, nerd sort of person and that was Charlton in this case. And you have the other guy who is the wealthy
financier guy who can provide the resources, basically invest in the project to make it all
happen. And in this case that was Maurice Field. Now, originally what they wanted to do was
something to help the New Zealand military equip itself for World War Two, which it had just
gotten involved in as part of the British Commonwealth. Initially apparently, they figured maybe … they could
take Philip’s Winchester 1910 in .401 Winchester and convert it to full-auto, and
maybe that would be a cool military thing, but ultimately decided against it on the grounds
that .401 Winchester ammo was not exactly in ready supply and the Army probably wouldn’t be
interested in it. So instead they got a better idea, arguably, and that was to convert an old Lee-Enfield
or Lee-Metford type rifle into a semi-automatic, or perhaps even a full automatic machine gun. This seemed like something they could do, Charlton
seemed confident that he could make it happen and he did. In the spring of 1941 the two got to work
and they actually created a working prototype. And in June of ’41 they … took it to … their
local Member of Parliament and arranged to make a demonstration for the New Zealand
military which went really well, surprisingly. Given how this thing looks, the idea that the initial
prototype gun could demonstrate to the Army reliably and effectively is really quite a remarkable thing.
And it was so effective that the Army looked at it went, “That’s actually pretty cool.” And gave them 10,000
rounds of .303 ammunition with which to keep experimenting and kind of perfect
the design. So they went back, they spent another five months
tinkering, tweaking, improving the gun. They came back in November of ’41 to do another
trial for the military and that one also went really well. By the way, with apparently the
same basic gun, you know the same… … They’d been taking the same gun and
modifying it, they didn’t build a second one. So by the time they did this second
trial for the army, the rifle they were using had more than 10,000 rounds through it,
which is again really quite impressive. The second trial also went really well, and they
came away from that one with an actual contract to convert 1,500 rifles into
Charlton pattern semi-automatics. Now these weren’t brand new rifles. New Zealand had some good SMLEs,
you know, Number 1 Mark 3 rifles, state of the art (sort of, at the time) and they
weren’t willing to give those to a couple of yahoos to hack up in a shed and turn into machine guns.
Instead they gave them left over, basically obsolete home guard rifles. Long Lees and
Lee-Metfords from like 1889, through about 1903. So they had a bunch of those sitting in inventory
and that’s what they gave to Charlton and Field. So according to the contract they had six months to make these
1,500 conversions, and that was clearly not going to happen. There is a long and interesting story about exactly
what went on through the process of actually turning a one-off prototype into a production
line, you know, 1,500 conversions. I think it’s an interesting story. There’s too
much there to go into in-depth here on a video, I actually have that all written up as an article over
on So if you’re interested in the rest of that story and the trials and tribulations
of turning this into a production line enterprise, take a look at the description text below, there’s a
link there to the full story on Forgotten Weapons. If you’re not so interested in that …
well, if you are, just pause the video and go read it. What we’re going to do now is take a
close-up look at exactly how this thing works, and we’re gonna do a little bit of disassembly on it. One of the funny things to me is some of
the guns like this, these conversions that look absolutely bonkers are actually some of
the simplest guns to understand because as converted bolt actions, all of the elements of
their semi-automatic mechanism have to be bolted onto the outside of the gun. And so they’re really
visible, and obvious, and easy to understand. So if we go to the front here, we
have a gas port in the barrel right here, that comes down and drops
into a gas piston tube right here. Notice that there are fins on the barrel, sort of.
If we look at those up close you’ll notice that there’s segments in-between. These are all
individual fins that were manufactured and then dropped on to the barrel to act as basically cooling
fins. But rather than machine one big cooling sleeve, it was much more economical and
efficient to make them as individual pieces. That’s kind of a cool little detail there. Now back to the gun. We have our gas piston in this
tube. We have its return spring in this bottom tube. So again, both right out in the open.
There’s a charging handle here, and then the gas piston
continues back … on this guide rod. So this … keeps everything running
nice and straight and smooth and in line. We have a bolt in here, and if we look closely
you can see the … receiver socket for the original Lee, this is either a Long Lee or a Lee-Metford rifle,
and they have gone and welded on an extra bit here. So when this thing cycles, the bolt’s going
to travel all the way back here, just as it would with a standard bolt action Lee-Enfield.
However, when you’re shooting a bolt action Lee you don’t have to worry about the bolt
coming screaming back at your face at extremely high velocity, because it only
moves when you physically move it yourself. Because this is cycling back under its own
power there is a big guard built around it here to make sure that you don’t accidentally get your
face up a little too close and eat the end of the bolt. So, when this cycles it’s going
to come all the way back like this, the recoil spring down in here then basically
takes over and pulls the whole thing back. The bolt handle has been removed,
it would have been back here. and they have welded on this lug,
which is what actuates this scroll cam and causes the bolt to rotate up as this
moves backwards. So this angled scroll cam is going to convert back to
forth motion into rotary motion of the bolt. And it does the reverse when the thing closes. A few additional features here, ancillary
features. They have taken the sight from these old Lee rifles and attached
them back on. Not on the original sight base, but you’ve got those sights. Rather than
manufacture a brand new sight, just reuse that one. Since that rear sight is lifted up a bit on the barrel cooling
vents, the front sight needs to be lifted up a bit as well. And so why not add a bit of a muzzle brake there at
the same time, kind of kill two birds with one stone. There is, of course, a bipod on here to make this a
little bit easier to use, especially in full-auto mode. Bipod pivots a little bit, but
is otherwise fixed in position. Vertical front grip for controllability. This was
intended to be fired either from the shoulder, from the hip, or prone from the bipod. And certainly from the hip you need
some way to hold onto the front of the gun. Looking at the other side, we can see
of course the big protective shield here. We have a selector switch which has three
positions. Safe at the top which locks the trigger, “R” for repetition which is semi-automatic
there, and “A” for automatic at the bottom. So this was a select-fire rifle. The standard
protocol with it was to shoot in semi-auto, with full-auto reserved basically for emergencies
when you needed a lot of extra firepower. But these guns were delivered with only one magazine
each, so you really didn’t want to waste the ammunition. Because once the mag was empty you
basically had to take it out of the gun and reload it by hand before
you could continue shooting. Lastly, of course, there is a standard vertical
pistol grip, albeit a very simple one, added. Really made quite necessary, you’re
not sticking your hand under here. And even if this assembly weren’t here
and you … wanted to, that’s making it really quite likely that the bolt is going to come back
and just tear up the knuckle of your thumb. So, vertical pistol grip is really
an essential element there. Now the magazines are an interesting aspect of this. This particular one has been set up
with a 20 round Lee-Enfield magazine. These were manufactured during World
War One, … just like the trench magazines that the American and German forces had as well. However, after World War One, in the ’20s and
maybe into the ’30s, the British tended to use these in experiments with new light machine gun designs,
and so there are very few of these surviving today. Even though, as far as I can tell, they were kind of made
in the same quantity as other countries’ trench magazines. But the German and American trench
mags … you know, were non-detachable, and there really wasn’t anything you could do
with them outside of a Springfield or a Mauser rifle. Because the Lee-Enfield magazines are detachable, these made
a perfect magazine for experimenting with new automatic weapons. Now when Charlton made these conversions
he didn’t have access to these magazines. When he made his prototype he actually
converted a Bren gun magazine to fit, which takes a fair amount of work
because with its hold open tab the Bren gun magazine is substantially longer
front to back than a Lee-Enfield magazine, and will not easily fit a Lee-Enfield
receiver, so he converted one. Ultimately, when they did the mass conversion,
the mass production, the 1,500 guns for the military, they contracted with a company that was
making Bren gun magazines to make a run of basically 1,500 converted 30 round Bren magazines for
use in the Charltons, and that’s what this gun should have. However, because they just converted the magazines
and didn’t alter the magazine well in the gun, standard Lee-Enfield mags will fit. So you could
run this with a regular 10 round Lee-Enfield mag, or to make it look cooler, if you can find a 20
round Lee-Enfield magazine that will fit as well. There we go, locked in place. Serial number on this is 2,327.
The contract was for 1,500 of them. I am going to assume, but I can’t prove, that
they started the serialising at like 1,001 or 1,000, So this would put this right at the end
of production but within that 1,500 total. Now I can actually take the bolt out to show you
a little bit of the conversion work that was required. So the disassembly process (by the way I have a
complete scan of an original Charlton automatic rifle manual on Forgotten Weapons, that’s at
the same link as the story of the manufacture. So if your interested in that, which has all of the teardown
instructions in it, check out the website there), anyway, if we loosen this screw we can then rotate
this protective plate up. It’s a bit stiff. But that pivots up. We do that so that we can actually
slide the bolt out the back of the receiver. It’s nice reassurance to have this in place
when you’re shooting to know that this will stop the bolt from flying into your face
should something fail catastrophically. Now the next step is to take this
plate which pivots away from the gun. And this basically is the control rail for the
scroll cam here. So what we’re going to do is (pull this the rest of the way forward), we’re going to pull this back just a little bit, hold this
down, and lift the scroll cam up and off. So it’s in about that position, open this up.
This is kind of a three handed affair, there we go. So that lifts this piece up and out of the way. Now we can take the bolt,
rotate it into the unlocked position, bring it back here. Now we’re
gonna pop the bolt head up. This is just like an original, standard Lee-Enfield or Lee-
Metford, because that’s what this gun is down inside. Again, you can see the receiver end socket
here, and you can see the weld marks right there where they added on this extra track at the
back of the receiver. So this is all original Lee receiver, and you can even see some
of the markings on the front of the receiver, although they’re generally hidden
under this protective side plate. The Royal Armouries have helpfully provided
me with a Lee-Metford rifle bolt for drill. And this is what would have been originally used for the Charlton
conversion. So if we take a look at these two side-by-side, I believe they just manufactured the cocking
piece brand-new, because there’s a substantial alteration that would have been required and
I think it was simpler just to make new ones. This is also a very simple part,
nothing complicated about it. The bolt handle here has been lopped
off because that’s no longer necessary. And this is one place where the Charlton
has an advantage over, for example, the Howell conversion, which is the same sort of idea,
it’s a Lee-Enfield converted to semi-auto. On the Howell what they did was just cut the bolt
handle off and have a scroll cam operating down here. And in theory that’s going to put a lot of stress on this bolt
handle, getting slammed back and forth when the gun cycles. What they did on the Charlton was just ignore the bolt
handle and they actually welded on the camming lug here, as well as welding on this
control lug a little farther back. So if we look at the standard bolt, you can see
that this long rib is the same rib that we have here. The Charlton has just had two extra
pieces welded on on top of it in addition. So all in all, not that complicated.
The bolt head stays completely intact and original, and unchanged,
which is nice – that certainly helps. The locking … lugs, this and this,
those remain effectively unchanged. They’d have to do a good heat-treat job on this
to make sure it went back to its original hardness after they welded on that lug, but that’s
not a technically difficult thing to do. So there you go, one disassembled Charlton bolt. So looking at this now, hopefully you can see that it looks
really weird, kind of like a rifle that’s designed inside out, because that’s basically what it is. And yet,
despite the strange look, the strange appearance, it’s actually really easy to explain how this thing works
because, well, all the working bits are on the outside. I need to have this in semi-auto
to allow the bolt to go forward. Reattaching this is a little bit tricky because
I need to have that like a little bit up there, hold this back, and we want this and there we go, back in place. And Holy Cow, it actually works.
So let’s go ahead and push that back down, lock it in place. Now that we’re in semi-auto mode pull the
trigger, striker drops, gun fires just like it’s supposed to. The whole story of the Charlton is really one of remarkable
success given that this sort of project usually ends very poorly. They usually go nowhere, the idea of
converting bolt actions to semi-autos, it always sounds like a good idea, it always
seems like a great way to save a bunch of money. And we can take these obsolete things that
have no use and turn them into state of the art, you know, repeating rifles, semi-
automatic rifles and it never works. Well, this one remarkably kind of
did work. All 1,500 were produced, I guess after a lot of trials
and tribulations along the way, magazines in particular. But they were
all delivered to the New Zealand Army. And in fact the Australian government
expressed some interest in this as well. And the Electrolux company would go ahead and start
to get close to putting this into production themselves. That’s the subject for another separate video. … These were, as I said, not intended to
be front line combat weapons. These were going to be, and in fact were, distributed to the
New Zealand Home Guard. They went to a number, I think it was like four, different
army depots around the country, basically in case of invasion, like, should we need it. This means we can take all of our Bren
guns and send them out to troops in the field and not worry that the home
islands are completely undefended. Because in the event that we have some sort
of weird surprise attack, well, we’ve got these. So at the end of the war they were all
consolidated back into one basically warehouse, because they were no longer
necessary after the war was over. And unfortunately after the war that
warehouse burned down in an accidental fire, and that destroyed almost all of the Charltons in
existence. So these are very rare guns to find today. There are a few of them spotted around here and
there, mostly I think in Australia and New Zealand, but it’s really cool that the
Royal Armouries have one here. Presumably, I would suspect, the
[Kiwis] sent them one for evaluation or just to brag like, “Hey,
look what we did. It’s really cool.” So they have this one here and they were
generous enough to let me pull it out of the racks, and take it apart even and show it to you guys. So a big thanks to the Royal Armouries for that.
If you’re interested in getting into the facility yourself, it is unfortunately not open to the general public, but
it is available by appointment to serious researchers. So if there’s something that you are
looking into either for print or for other media, definitely get in touch with them. Their
website is also in the description text below. And some great folks, they’ll hook you up with an arranged
time to come in and study whatever it is you’re looking for. Thanks for watching.

100 thoughts on “From Bolt Action Lee to LMG: The Charlton Automatic Rifle

  1. We finally get to see one in the flesh! Well, it's everything it was described as in Small Arms of the World. Is it in any games?

  2. I really appreciate the option of a comprehensive text complementing the video and would like to see more of that.

  3. Thanks for doing this Vid Ian ~ I've been so wanting to see the Charlton on your channel. The story of it's creation is quite exceptional.

  4. sees bolt action conversion and takes drink thinking "just another ww1 conversion" WORLD WAR TWO? Spits out drink

  5. ~5:30 is saw it and b4 you said it i agreed. u just stamp it out of flat sheet stock or even cut up rods and stamp em, somewhat similar to stamping brass shells. malleable and ductile and squishy squishy and all that. leaving it just a little tight allows u to press it over the barrel and as you force it over the thick end from the narrow end it conforms tightly to the barrel and ofc if push comes to shove u employ people with mallets to do it without mechanization. fat end on the ground and a thicker, tougher tube with a mallet to press them on over til they squeeze over into place. the better the contact surface the better the dissipation and if nothing else the added metal gives more thermal mass and also has no need for any special, additional heat hardening/tempering.

  6. ~16:30 a lil extra flange/flap of metal on that spring plate that blocks the camming surface from coming off or going back in would help to speed things up. give more grip

  7. The Antipodes clearly had a genius for making really good automatics that look like they were built by Bob the builder.

  8. You have to be doing the Huot soon, right? How many more bolt-action-to-auto rifle conversions could there be surviving?

  9. my friends grandad was in the home guard in NZ, all he did was go fishing in the Waitaki river with hand grenades … he blew off his fingers

  10. All I can think of is it only needs a second magazine or an oversized one… and it's a perfect cross between Jakobs and Bandit.

  11. Its amazing what blokes in sheds can come up with, give the current state of affairs in NZ there may be a bloke in a shed in the rural NZ doing this all over again.

  12. I visited the royal armouries a short while ago. Would love it if this stuff was on display..sadly just regular stuff on view to the public. Still worth a visit if your in the north of england

  13. I'm fan of your channel Born and live in New Zealand served in the nz army and Have never heard of this rifle Thank you So much for this very interesting lesson Keep up the good work

  14. i think i know how it went betwen the inventor and the army
    "Hey! It is a good idea and all, but We bet it will not work. if it will work after firing a couple thousend of rounds We will order it (lughter in the background)" and after some time:
    "Well… OK! We will take a 1500 of them as soon as You can make them!"

  15. G'day Ian, don't forget when referencing seasons for your timeline that the Southern Hemisphere is the reverse of the North… spring is in September thru November in New Zealand. Love the videos and the history – is anyone doing "Gun Jesus" merch?

  16. at the 18:56 mark you earned eternal hatred from all of New Zealand by saying the Australians sent this one look at what "WE" did. but an absolutely remarkable gun from the Kiwi's.

  17. I've always wanted this gun to be in a video game because of how god damn cool it looks. These guns were urban legends and never did I think someone would actually get to get their hands on one. Even though I'm not there to see it myself, I am so glad you were able to find one Ian. I hope some day you are able to shoot one too

  18. you think they could've replaced the stock with something more like a Thompson stock… though they probably didn't see much of a need to do that due to these being more or less weapons for worse-case scenario home-guard type circumstances

  19. As New Zealand army is or was 'The Royal New Zealand Army ' you would have need the King permision to build and arm Royal New Zealand army with. I do not now if the King ask to see one, but it would be normal to send one to the Royal Armouries

  20. A very interesting video, I was talking to his son Matthew Charlton last week down in Hastings, I still believe he has a original

  21. This version was very good.
    The Australian Electrolux version sucked.
    One of these deserves to be on display in the Steampunk Capital of the World: Oamaru.

  22. Why do the New Zealand Home Guard get cool Automatic Rifles while the British Home Guard just getva bayonet on a stick……

  23. "Brett, we need LMGs! Should we start setting up lines to make a Bren or CZ?"

    "Well we could do that or I have this fever dream I've been cobbling into reality in my shed!"

  24. I would love to see one of this working! I LOVE how many bolt-action rifles were converted to semi-auto or auto with this funky kijnds of weird engeneering THAT WORKS! In my free time i like to make some really bad drawings of convertions of weapons like this, they suck but I like to imagine in my head how it would work.

  25. A beautiful gun. Imagine the Japanese if they would've encountered those. "The locals fear nothing. Just look at what they dare to shoot with! We have lost; lets go home!"

  26. I have never seen a gun quite as odd looking as this one, it looks like a Thomson that got elongated so that I could take Bren magazines that somehow got a lee enfield automatic cycling system spliced into it making it into this overly complex Rube Goldberg machine that somehow functions as a light machine gun. It also somehow looks futuristic whilst looking like a ww1 transitional design gone wrong.

  27. I assume, that if this is only issued with a single 20 round magazine, that you can load it with 10 round charger clips for the basic Lee rifle.

  28. Hmm… Copper/brass colored bits, visible rotating widgets, as well as wood furniture? Oh yes, Steampunk status confirmed.

  29. I have to say… They did a really great weld job on the lugs, especially on a gun that was only produced 1500 and intended for reserve troops. No slag marks like you might expect. Really clean well built for essentially a last ditch gun

  30. It looks like someone had a grainy picture of a Tommy gun and a Japanese Type 11, an early lee enfield and a bag of plumbing gear with instructions of "MORE DAKKA!"

  31. Charlton Automatic Rifle is the answer to the invisible Bob semple Tank, it's meant to be an anti Bob Semple Rifle. Because just in case the Bob Semple gets captured by enemy hands, you have this Rifle to take it out 😛

  32. yes, NZ is a tiny country with little money to invest in arms, but that conversion is just stupid and the contract is too – 7 months for a 2 man enterprise, sure …

  33. I'm from New Zealand and wasn't aware that this existed. Just looking at what was done at the time it is amazing to see what could be done with so little. Taking into consideration that there was rationing of anything considered to be essential to the war effort and they managed to engineer this effective simple weapon that was reliable only using leftover obsolete weapons. Just amazing and as we say here "good old kiwi ingenuity". Thank you for another great video on these forgotten weapons.

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