The Improvised Smith Gun of WWII

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In the first part of World War 2, things did not go too well for Great Britain. The island country found itself, for a long period, alone and isolated, with the armies of Hitler just a channel away from their shores. To further complicate the matter, the Germans had tanks and the Brits had few tank-killing guns. This case of military heartburn led to the invention of the Smith Gun.

Why the need?

Britain entered World War 2 in 1939 with a list of allies that included Poland and France. Added to these within a few months by default were Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Holland, and Belgium. Unfortunately, all of these were under Nazi control by June 1940, leaving the Brits all alone against the boots of the German Army. The only thing keeping Hitler from driving a convoy of Panzers right up to the gates of Buckingham Palace was the thin strip of water in the English Channel. This gave Britain a few months to breathe while the Germans built boats, printed German-to-English phrase books, and went after the Royal Air Force for good measure.

In this breathing spell, the Brits called for local defense volunteers between the ages of 17-65 to come forward. Called the Home Guard, some 1.5 million of these volunteers were on the job in every village and town across the country within days. Armed with shovels and shotguns, the NRA sent over thousands of donated rifles and pistols to help arm these volunteers. That was a nice gesture but what they really needed was something that could stop a tank.


The Improvised Smith Gun of WWII - christophereger - englishsmithgun1-968.jpg
(Being pulled by hand was about the maximum speed the Smith gun could go. If it went any faster it would be shaken to pieces due to light construction)

Retired Army Major William H. Smith, at the time working for a boilermaker, came up with the plans for a gun that was to carry his name. Designed around a 3-inch (76.2mm) smoothbore tube that was 4.5-feet long, the Smith Gun looked like a cross between a baby carriage and a hot dog cart. For propulsion, it had two solid circular wheels with a slathering of rubber glued around the edges. Without any air, springs, shocks, or struts, the 600-pound contraption rattled and wiggled as it was pushed or pulled slowly down the road. The gun tube was mounted while rubber bungee type cords in a cut out between the axle of the wheels and set to slew from one side to the other. To fire the device, the whole thing was tipped on one side, resting on the rim of a wheel, and the crew huddled behind it to get a round or two off. To remind the crew which ends to tip the gun over on, one wheel had a convex tower rim while the other had a concave one.

The Improvised Smith Gun of WWII - christophereger - englishsmithgun2-969.jpg
The Smith Gun has to be one of the very few guns ever made that was designed to fire on its side.

The ammunition that the gun fired was the standard low-pressure 8-pound mortar shell that was in use by the Army at the time. The shell was modified to be fired through the smoothbore barrel with a trigger made from a motorcycle clutch cable. As with the Smith Gun itself, the rounds were experimental and rapidly made, which meant that they often detonated while still inside the gun when the cable was squeezed. While the round was tested to be able to blow through a brick wall at 200-yards through the Smith Gun, it had to be within 50-yards of a tank to be able to penetrate 80mm of rolled steel armor.

The Improvised Smith Gun of WWII - christophereger - smith-gun-hifing-out-970.jpg
(The only real luck the Smith Gun could expect would be to attack such as this from a concealed position. Being exposed out in the open was suicide)

For those who have never stood ready to stare down a tank, waiting for it to get 50-yards away on a battlefield is rather suicidal. Besides the five rounds that could be carried with the gun itself, a separate carriage that carried 21 extra rounds was issued with each gun with the optimistic hope that all of these rounds would be able to be fired before the gun was destroyed in combat.

(The Smith Gun even made an appearance in Season 6, episode 4 of Dads Army, the 1970s BBC comedy about the World War Two Home Guard. The gun appears starting at the 56-second mark. Wait until you see the cover for it. )


The Smith gun replaced the even worse Northover Projector, a spud gun type device that fired a glass Molotov cocktail about a football field away. More than 4,000 were made and issued out to the Home Guard, who accepted them and made ready to use them for when the Germans crossed the line. The good news is that the Nazis stayed on their side of the English Channel and never did make that landing. By 1943, enough US troops had arrived in the UK to keep them speaking English for at least the rest of the war, then the next year all involved launched their own invasion going east across the channel at a place called Normandy.

....Leaving the Smith gun to fade away into history.

The Improvised Smith Gun of WWII - christophereger - smithgun-967.jpg

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January 27, 2013  •  02:37 AM
Cool article. I love history especially world war two. I love how the whole country came to save the world from fascism. Maybe we could do it here.
January 31, 2013  •  09:47 AM
It's always cool to read about inventions that come directly from necessity. WWI and WWII are full of these type of inventions.

It's always cool to read about what seems like the least likely person inventing some of the most needed devices.
February 6, 2013  •  10:47 AM
Great research! I had never heard of the Smith gun until I had read your article. Deployment of the Smith gun possibly could have stalled a German invasion long enough for other countries to come to the aid of Britain.
March 5, 2013  •  05:41 PM
Necessity is the mother of invention!
March 19, 2013  •  06:30 PM
An incompetent device that only made money for the manufacturer and thankfully never put to the test of real world defense.
March 30, 2013  •  04:55 PM
Ahh, the dream not recognized.

Use just one tube and an early rocket launcher.

Maybe the bazooka was the child of this device?