On July 28, 1914, European peace spun apart like the stress of a busted grandfather clock finally coming to pieces. Russia mobilized her million-man armies to march on Austria-Hungary. The Dual Monarchy, in turn, was mobilizing to punish Serbia over the assassination of their heir-to-the-throne, Franz Ferdinand, by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, one month before. Imperiled by these events, Germany insisted Russia stop. Russia refused and Germany declared war on Russia. The next day, on August 3rd, Germany declared war on Russia’s ally, France, and implements the Schlieffen Plan. This 1906 hypothetical exercise to invade France through neutral Belgium combined with a holding action against Russia. On August 4th, the Germans entered Belgium. Great Britain, a signer of the 1830 Treaty of London that guaranteed Belgian neutrality, declares war and joined her erstwhile French allies in what was becoming the First World War. The problem? France and Germany each had armies that numbered several million men strong, respectively. Britain did not.
For the first time in one hundred years, Britain was in a land war and caught with a regular army of only about 250,000 men. Still, the order was given and the British Expeditionary Force under Sir John French, six infantry and four cavalry divisions strong, landed in France in mid-August 1914. While few in number, the British were trained vigorously on the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle, one of the best small arms of the age. The British Tommy would later gain a reputation as a master rapid-fire marksman and the practice of the ‘Mad Minute’ used by the pre-war British army would go on to be adopted by competitive shooters and milsurp addicts across the globe. But how much of the ‘Mad Minute’ is practice and how much is a myth? Follow along as we explore the pre-war history of the British army, its approach to musketry, and how the “Mad Minute” came into existence.
Great Britain and the Failure of the Balance of Power Game
As Americans, we tend to play up the British Army. After all, they were the opponents we bested during the American Revolution. But in truth, Britain’s power projection and protection lay with the Royal Navy. In land warfare, the British Empire was most dangerous through her diplomatic abilities. For centuries, Britain relied on the concept of balance of powers in Europe, ensuring that any one power could not overpower her neighbors and pose a threat to the British homeland. The War of Spanish Succession and the Napoleonic Wars follow this logic. Britain built continental alliances since they alone could not go toe-to-toe in land combat with the likes of France, Germany, or Russia. The First World War saw Britain exercise as much of her diplomatic power as ever, as well as a direct intervention on the Continent.
The British Army: Small But Mighty
At the turn of the 20th century, it was becoming obvious that the system of alliances Britain relied on to keep her safe was beginning to untangle. Britain sided with her historic enemies, France and Russia, against a rising Germany. Germany had unified largely thanks to Britain sitting out the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. This new nation had more manpower than any one of her neighbors and just behind Britain in her industrial capacity. By 1906, Germany had concluded alliances of her own, through close economic cooperation with Austria-Hungary, the Balkan nations, and the Ottoman Empire. That year, Germany began building a large fleet to rival that of Britain. The Anglo-German Naval Arms Race continued on for several years and it was now clear that mistakes had been made and the British Army needed to expand. To supplement the regular British Army and its reservists, Parliament passed the Territorial Force Act in 1908, creating a British equivalent of our own Army National Guard. By 1914, the British Army consisted of 250,000 regulars and 450,000 Reservists and Territorials.
The British regulars were small in number compared to the multi-million-man conscript armies that most of the combatants employed, but what they lacked in numbers they compensated for with an aggressive training platform. The Army’s Musketry Regulations printed in 1909 and amended in 1914 show us the small-arms training regiment for the whole of the British Army. Much of the manual is dedicated to marksmanship and rapid-fire drills using the No. 1 Mk. III Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle.
The training that the British Tommy received before the first World War was informed by the harsh lessons of the Boer War (1899-1902) and put into practice with a rifle the British high command had already written off. The Boer War demonstrated the folly of unsupported frontal attacks in the face of opponents armed with modern magazine rifles. Man to man, the Boers were using the superior Model 1890s series Mauser rifles in 7x57mm. The best British arm at the time was the Lee-Metford, a rifle mechanically similar to the Enfield, but using compressed black powder cartridges. The Mauser was flatter shooting, used smokeless cartridges, and could be rapidly reloaded with five-round stripper clips. The British experience in the Boer war mirrored that of the Americans after the Spanish-American conflict. Rather than drop their existing rifle, the British opted to adapt it to a smokeless cartridge and charger loading, though the .303 British round was somewhat problematic. The Lee Enfield was a good rifle, but by the 1910s, the British War Office was looking at a Mauser-pattern rifle as a replacement. But war was declared, and the British Army was stuck with the Lee-Enfield. Fortunately, marksmanship training had turned around since the Boer War and at the start of the Great War, the British regular Army was considered the best trained in the world.
The Mad Minute?
The British Tommy of World War I has been described by historians and firearm experts as masters of the bolt gun and their bolt gun, the No. Mk III SMLE, is among the best bolt action rifles ever made. It was reported that the men of the BEF were trained to fire 30 rounds per minute on a target 300 yards away. When the British Army first met the Germans in the Battle of Mons on August 23, 1914, their fighting abilities with their Enfield rifles were put to the test.
As the Germans took Brussels and pushed the retreating Belgian army eastwards, the French 5th Army pushing into Belgium was exposed. The Germans unexpectedly ran into the BEF along the Belgian-French border at Mons. Emperor Wilhelm II encouraged Gen. Alexander von Kluck to wipe out that “army of contemptibles.”
Outnumbered 3:1, the British held their ground against Kluck’s German 1st Army for 48 hours, allowing the French to safely extricate themselves from peril before withdrawing toward Paris. Most estimates put British losses at 1,600 killed or wounded, with German losses as high as 5,000. Some literature has pointed to German testimony of British machine guns opening up on the Germans, when in fact, all that was facing them were riflemen rapid-firing their Enfields. The testimonies on the battle were dubious, but they created a legend that refuses to die.
The Mad Minute was first chronicled in 1945 by Major CHB Pridham in Superiority of Fire. Therein, he describes the practice in detail as an exercise among instructors to demonstrate a maximum rate of fire. The Enfield, as it happens, is blessed with a smooth, cock on close action that locks in the rear when the bolt is turned down. The bolt handle is placed right above the trigger guard, allowing the user to hold and cycle the bolt with the thumb index finger and press the trigger with the middle finger. Pridham states that an Instructor-Seargent Snoxall at the School of Musketry was able to fire thirty-eight aimed rounds per minute in a record set in early 1914. If we take into account the ergonomics of the Lee Enfield and the fact that it uses a ten-round magazine, instead of the usual five in bolt actions of the time, the Mad Minute is theoretically possible, if not probable. But there is a lack of literature to back it up and what does exist can be countered.
The Mad Minute is a popular competition practice among competitors armed with bolt action rifles, but its historical context is limited to a work produced thirty years after the start of the First World War. If we take Pridham at his word, the Mad Minute is a theoretical exercise among instructors that may have been imparted toward recruits down the line. That begs the question: what sort of training did recruits receive?
The training guidelines found in Musketry Regulations demonstrate many aspects of rifle shooting from range estimation to shooting with the wind, but the emphasis is the rapidity of loading, rapidity of firing, and accuracy for regular, reserve, and territorial troops.
All troops were required to practice loading from the prone position using dummy rounds in five-round chargers to the point of second nature and the rifleman’s rate of fire was to be increased “provided no bad habits are adopted.” Individual fire on targets upwards of 600 yards was at the digression of the soldier. Short bursts of rapid-fire were permitted in training and in practice. This is known as collective rapid fire and it came at the direction of the senior officer or NCO available to a particular unit and the number of rounds for rapid fire is given in order. This directed fire was a way of conserving ammunition until there was a breakthrough by the enemy. Likewise, bursts of rapid-fire could surprise the enemy before he can take cover. In collective rapid fire, a man was expected to be able to engage the enemy out to 1000 yards with 12-15 rounds per minute, although there is no upward limit unless accuracy is lost.
In qualification shoots, the requirements varied by branch of the Army service. Each soldier was allotted 250 rounds of ammunition for qualification and individual practice per year. Shooting drills ranged from slow fire to snap-shooting from a low ready position with a four-second time between movements. Regulations do have a rapid course of fire for regulars and reservists (but not for territorials) with required the soldier to hit a “Second Class Figure,” a target 48 in. x 48 in. at 300 yards with 15 aimed shots in one minute. That is one round fired every four seconds from the prone position. While these tests and the doctrine of encouraging rapid fire gives the Mad Minute myth some truth to it, given the trooper’s ammunition allowance, mag dumps were not in the yearly budget. Most semi-rapid drills in practice involved five-round bursts on targets between 200-500 yards in 35 seconds. The British took their marksmanship and speed seriously, but that speed is not nearly as quick as advertised nor is it something practiced often or exercised on an individual’s initiative.
What Really Happened When the BEF Went Into Battle?
Musketry Regulations might be a bit dated, but I believe it to be a must-read for a rundown on the numerous tricks the British Tommy had up his sleeve and how you can apply them to your own marksmanship training. On its own, the manual is proof positive that the pre-war British Army took marksmanship and speed seriously, albeit that speed is not nearly as quick as advertised by later commentators; nor was that speed practiced regularly or exercised individually on the battlefield.
But the professional British rifleman had an outsized impact on a German army sourced largely from conscripts. At Mons, it was alleged that German witnesses believed they were facing machine guns, when in fact the soldiers in front of them only had Enfield rifles. I have not been able to track down these anecdotes, but if they do exist, it is likely those witnesses were survivors of directed collective fire and real machine guns. The Regulations were modified in 1914 to include training material on the Vickers machine gun. The BEF had them and on the defense at Mons, they were put to use. How much of that fire was directed rifle volleys and how much of it came from machine guns? We will never know, but it is more alluring to think of a man making a difference with his rifle.
After the German advance on Paris stalled, the BEF, French, and Belgians raced with the Germans to fortify their positions all the way to the English Channel. The end of the Race to the Sea culminated in the First Battle of Ypres. This prolonged month-long slog in October and November 1914 saw the last open clashes between the BEF and the German Army before trench warfare permanently defined the landscape. The Germans lost upwards of 130,000 men, including an entire reserve corps of students who allegedly went to their deaths with songs on their lips, confident they could sweep the British from the field. The British would not be vanquished, but the veteran troops suffered high casualties after months of combat. By Christmas 1914, most of the BEF’s regulars were casualties. In their place, came droves of eager volunteers and reluctant conscripts that had to carry on the war for another three years. For the British fighting man that would deal with the privations and mutilated triumphs in the World Wars and retain that characteristic stiff-upper-lip so characteristic of the British character, it became easy, if not necessary, to look at the BEF, “that army of contemptibles,” and enter battle with greater confidence as he was armed with the same heritage and the same rifle as they.