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Small Arms (Calibre)

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 25 April 1951

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asked the Minister of Defence whether the decision to substitute a.280 automatic rifle for the.303 Short Lee-Enfield has been taken in consultation with the military authorities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and what information he has as to whether this weapon is to be a part of the equipment of the Forces of other European countries which are members of that Organisation.

His Majesty's Government have decided, after extensive trials, to adopt the.280-inch calibre for small arms for the British Forces in substitution for the.303-inch calibre which has been in use for the last 50 years. The adoption of this calibre makes possible the design of a light self-loading rifle which will more than double the maximum rate of a soldier's fire. Before reaching this decision, His Majesty's Government had full consultations with other North Atlantic Treaty Powers. The Standing Group has formally approved the.280-inch rifle as "militarily acceptable," but I have no information as to whether any other North Atlantic country has yet decided to follow our example.

The problem is not the rate at which projectiles can be discharged, but the communications by which the supply of ammunition can be ensured to the people who are using the modern weapons. Will the right hon. Gentleman be careful not to waste money and effort on trying to create a new pattern of rifle when the other is quite good enough, as long as enough of them have been preserved, to do all the work which might lie before us in the future?

I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is desirable to effect improvements in our weapons, either by modernising existing weapons or by producing new weapons. I am informed that this rifle is perhaps the very best rifle which has yet been produced.

The Minister may recall that during the last war there were difficulties because the calibre of the American Service rifle and the calibre of our own rifle were slightly different. Is he satisfied that this change will not lead to similar difficulties?

To begin with, I am told that it reduces the load the soldier is required to carry, and that is an advantage in itself. It also has another advantage—it is cheaper to manufacture. There are certain technical advantages upon which, obviously, I cannot speak with any technical knowledge, but I am informed by the technicians and by military chiefs that it is a first-class weapon, and, of course, we wish to use first-class weapons if, unhappily, they are required to be used.

Is the right hon. Gentleman quite sure that this rifle will be of the same common calibre as that of the other Atlantic Powers? That certainly would be a great advantage.

I certainly agree with with the right hon. Gentleman that if we can standardise our weapons all the better. It has obvious advantages. But these trials were very extensive and they were undertaken in consultation with other countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, in particular the United States and Canada. We decided to adopt the rifle. Some of the other countries decided not to adopt it; they preferred another type of weapon. As for the rest of the countries concerned, they have not yet decided.

I must ask one more question, because this is important Will the right hon. Gentleman be able to give us an assurance that the running output, the current output, of the standard.303 rifle will not be checked or stopped in any way while these new improved types are coming into existence?

I will look into that, but I must tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House that my advice is that the present rifle, although it may have undergone some modifications, is the rifle which was in use during the Boer War.

That is all very well, but it was a good one, and we saved our lives by it.

Can we be told that there will not be a period when half the British infantry will be armed with one type of rifle and half with the other type of rifle?

Obviously, we shall not dispose of all the rifles we have in our possession until we have a sufficient quantity of the new weapons, and that, of course, will take some time. We are not proceeding with undue haste in the production——

We are proceeding with the necessary caution. I will certainly take account of what the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have said.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will not dispose of any.303 rifles until an adequate supply of new rifles is available?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is deplorable that in so simple a weapon as the rifle it has not been possible to arrive at standardisation among the North Atlantic Treaty Powers? In view of the importance of the question, will he consider making a full statement on the progress which has been made in standardisation, which, by all accounts, is negligible?

It is always deplorable when other people do not agree with the right hon. Member.

In view of the controversy among the experts about the value of rifles, would it not be better to continue the Four-Power Pact and not use them at all?