In the final episode, Dr Sam Willis looks at the drive to develop ever more precise weapons on the battlefield, from artillery shells to rifles to the Maxim machine gun.
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57D, Hatton Garden, London.
An area more infamous for an audacious jewellery heist
than for inventing weapons.
But it was here in 1883
that an eccentric American inventor built a gun that shook the world.
The very first burst of automatic gunfire
was heard in the basement of this central London building behind me.
God knows what the neighbours would have thought.
AUTOMATIC GUNFIRE This was the Maxim gun,
a game-changer in the story of British weapons.
It was believed that this would be a weapon that would end all wars.
It brought an industrialised efficiency to the whole business
of killing people, and could fire up to 600 rounds a minute.
The Maxim gun was the culmination
of a century of rapid technological change,
which took us from the Napoleonic Wars
to the weapons we recognise today.
This evolution of precision and firepower
was driven by the desire to defend our interests overseas
and expand the British Empire.
We developed ever more potent weapons
to stamp our will on the world.
These technical advances had all kinds of repercussions.
I'll explore how new tactics were pioneered
to use these weapons, such as the skirmish.
I'll discover how this quest for firepower
had a profound impact on our domestic law and order...
If you're the guy having to go up against
a criminal armed with the latest thing,
to know that the enemy have that
-is going to be a little bit frightening.
..and I'll take part in an unprecedented experiment.
Could a silk vest have prevented the outbreak of the First World War?
Military technology is often seen as the dark side of innovation.
But in this era, some inventors believed
they could put an end to war if they created the ultimate weapon -
an instrument so terrible that no-one would dare use it.
But technology wouldn't be the saviour we'd hoped for.
When these superweapons were deployed,
when the world went to war...
..they would wreak a havoc no-one expected.
At the dawn of the 19th century,
Britain was one of the wealthiest nations in the world,
so good at making weapons
that it flooded the international market.
Britain was engaged in a long, drawn-out war
against its old adversary - the French.
Wellington was squaring up against Napoleon
to decide the fate of Europe.
And there was one musket that would come to dominate the battlefields.
We are an island nation
and we didn't want to put boots on foreign soil until we had to.
So we armed and financed our allies to fight Napoleon on our behalf.
This is the Kalashnikov of its day,
and we made over 3.5 million of them.
The Brown Bess musket.
The India Pattern musket,
or the Brown Bess, as it was affectionately nicknamed,
came into service in 1797.
It was a sturdy smoothbore black powder gun
and was the weapon of choice for the infantry.
The Brown Bess may have been named after Queen Elizabeth I,
or the 15th-century weapon the arquebus.
Like all smoothbore weapons, it was not famed for its accuracy.
To find out how soldiers made the best of this unpredictable gun,
I have enlisted weapons expert Mark Murray-Flutter.
-How was that?
-That was amazing.
Quite a kick on it.
I want you to try and imagine
what it might have been like at Waterloo.
-Not everybody fires at the same time.
You get this sort of ripple effect,
so you get this constant fire going downrange
and that's probably what creates that fog of battle.
The idea of everyone having the same weapon really makes me wonder
if that put an added onus on originality,
-in terms of strategy and tactics.
-I think you're probably right.
You must understand, at this time, virtually every army
used something extremely similar.
And they were very similar in performance as well.
So the only difference you can really have is how you deploy it,
how you use it, how you utilise it.
Well, if I was armed with this beauty and I was at Waterloo,
what would I be seeing coming towards me?
You would be on an upslope, you'd be looking down into a shallow valley,
and you would probably be seeing, coming up that hill,
that gentle hill, a column of Frenchmen in blue,
with little hats on. They would - with great elan,
shouting, "Vive la France!" or "Vive L'Empereur!" -
they would charge.
As the French were advancing, in a way, almost,
they're appearing out of the smoke, as they get closer and closer.
The traditional British tactic is to have a line,
and we normally trained two to a line
but I understand, at Waterloo, we in fact had four to a line.
Four to a line.
Their French officer did note that approaching the British line
-was like approaching a red wall.
Very stoic. Very quiet.
And this was making the French very nervous.
-When am I allowed to fire?
-When your sergeant, or your officer,
your commander, will let you.
And normally we would expect you probably to engage
the first shot, the first volley, at about 70 metres. 50-70 metres.
But how did these soldiers hold their nerve
as the French hurtled towards them?
You had to hold your fire until you saw the whites of the enemy's eyes.
Firing any sooner was a waste of ammunition,
as the Brown Bess didn't have the accuracy.
This musket was an unpredictable weapon,
in part because the bullet in the Brown Bess was so unstable.
It only became potent in the hands of an experienced soldier.
Look at these tiny blocks.
They almost look like children's toys,
but in fact they were used to teach Napoleonic-era soldiers
how to drill with their Brown Bess.
Now, given that the British liked the French to come to them,
continuity of fire was crucial.
-Vive la France!
With the Brown Bess, it wasn't realistic
to aim at an individual soldier.
The infantry just had to put up a continuous wall of lead.
With four rows of men at Waterloo,
the training must have been relentless
to avoid shooting the man in front of you in the head.
These blocks were an important aid in getting the timing right.
Now, if a soldier could really lock down a drill,
then his response to a drumroll
would be automatic on a chaotic, smoke-filled battlefield.
At the Battle of Salamanca in 1812,
8,000 men were killed or wounded,
but 3.5 million cartridges were fired.
That's just one shot in every 437 having any effect.
Almost every Brown Bess was finished by hand,
which led to huge variations.
Bullets sprayed all over the place.
We clearly we needed to bring some refinement to our arsenal,
but this regiment wouldn't come from our infantry.
It would come from the biggest hitters of all - the artillery.
At the beginning of the 19th century,
British artillery were using canister shot
to repel infantry or cavalry attack.
This was a cylinder of thin metal filled with lead balls
which burst open upon firing.
But it was a short-range weapon.
All too often, friendly troops were hit
as the lead ball sprayed out from the canister across the battlefield.
But one ingenious idea by an ambitious young lieutenant
gave British troops an upper hand at Waterloo.
In 1784, a 23-year-old British artillery officer
began experimenting - in his own time and at his own expense -
with designs for a new weapon.
This British officer ploughed over £30,000
of his own private fortune into his military prototype.
He knew that the key to making canister shot
a devastating ballistic weapon was timing.
By modifying the canister so that it included a powder charge
and a delayed-action fuse, his design
gave the shell time to get to the enemy before it exploded...
..only then raining down death and destruction on them.
He called his design "spherical canister shot"
but it wasn't very catchy so it was soon named after him -
When Henry Shrapnel's invention was deployed
in the Peninsular Wars of 1808,
the enemy couldn't believe they could be engaged
with such accuracy and ferocity.
Shrapnel was quickly nicknamed "the black rain"
and to the French, it seemed from a future time.
French infantrymen were so terrified of the casualties from shrapnel
that they were often taken prisoner cowering, face-down,
but the effects were more than psychological.
The speed with which these twisted metal shards
exploded from the shell
was enough to rip your face apart,
and the British were even accused of poisoning their shells.
At the Battle of Waterloo, a very large percentage
of the French soldiers injured from shrapnel
never recovered from their wounds.
Shrapnel's death cloud turned the tide at the Battle of Waterloo.
Colonel Sir George Wood, commanding the artillery,
wrote to Shrapnel himself, saying that without it,
they would have lost the fight at the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte.
A crucial turning point.
The shell was enthusiastically adopted by
all of Europe's great powers.
The invention was so ahead of its time
that shrapnel was still being employed to deadly effect
during the First World War, over 100 years later.
In the Napoleonic era, the main problem
was the inaccuracy of infantry muskets.
With the Brown Bess, musket soldiers struggled to hit individual targets.
But away from the battlefield,
hunters, in their quest for prey,
had been using a gun that was much more accurate.
It was called the rifle.
But the rifle was prone to problems, and slow to load.
The army didn't know how to deploy it.
The rifle was first used by British forces
in the War of American Independence in the 1770s,
but it wasn't until the Peninsular War, almost 40 years later,
that we developed a unit designed to take advantage
of the range and accuracy of this new weapon.
And here they are.
The Experimental Corps Of Riflemen,
later known as the 95th Rifles.
This watercolour by Denis Dighton, painted during the Peninsular Wars,
shows them in action.
Often first into the fray,
this was a unit specialising in guerrilla warfare
They wouldn't stand around in massed ranks
wearing their bright red coast -
they'd lurk behind boulders.
What made them such a lethal force was their weapon of choice -
the short infantry rifle,
also called the Baker rifle, after its designer, Ezekiel Baker.
What makes the rifle so accurate
is the spiral grooves cut inside the barrel of the weapon,
which are known as rifling.
It's these carved grooves that cause the bullet to spin
and a spinning ball will travel straighter and strike harder
than one that sails without rotation.
The Baker rifle's unique selling point
was that it only went through a quarter-turn twist,
which reduced friction and gave the bullet a flatter trajectory.
Keen to test out the Baker rifle for myself,
to experience what it was like to sharp-shoot,
I've had to enlist in the 95th Rifles for the day.
The Rifle Corps' job was to find and disrupt the enemy,
weakening it before the main battle lines came to blows.
This new unit could shoot from such a distance
that you never saw the soldier coming.
MAN SHOUTS ORDERS
They became the Special Forces of their day -
the elite -
but the traditional field army was slow to embrace them.
The Rifles were initially sneered at by those in command
and they were seen as oddities by other units.
In fact, Lord Cornwallis once described the rifle itself
as "a very amusing plaything".
But the rifle marked a new era in the history of warfare.
From now on, armies would face off over far greater distances.
At Waterloo, Redcoats engaged at no more than 70 yards.
They could see the faces of their enemies.
They could watch them as they reloaded.
Now, new technology increased the range of engagement.
But what did that do to our ability to kill?
Major Rob Yuill was a rifleman
in the service of Queen Elizabeth II's army,
and now, in his spare time,
King George III's.
Were there any disadvantages of this rifle?
It sounds like a magical new weapon.
It was slower to load than a musket,
because you've got to force the ball down against the rifling
to get it to bite. But you're trading that time with space,
cos you're able to engage the enemy earlier
and put more balls into them before they can close on you.
Is it fair to say that it really changed the nature of warfare
-at the time?
Er, the concepts of fire and movement and dispersed formations
used by the riflemen in the 1800s
are exactly the same as are still used for fire and movement,
dispersed fighting in pairs,
that we teach at low-level infantry tactics today.
It feels quite modern as well, the uniform.
It's all black and it's green.
Yeah, the green stemmed from...
Yes, it was a slight version of camouflage,
but it was more to do with tradition that it came into the British Army.
The German Jagers that had been hired as mercenaries
in the American wars - "jager" means hunter,
and the traditional huntsman's clothing in Germany is green,
normally with red facings.
So the king himself was obviously German, Hanoverian,
King George insisted that they should wear green,
so British riflemen wore green.
Who were they trying to pick off? Who were their targets?
The riflemen were trained to, at range,
engage the leaders, the officers.
So they're looking for the fancy feather plumes,
they're looking for the gold epaulettes and gold on the uniforms,
because if you are able to take the head off the serpent, so to speak,
you're going to cause confusion further down.
That must take some skill, though,
being able to take someone out at a distance with one of these.
Yes, it is, and certainly the riflemen were trained to do it.
The most famous example is of a Rifleman Plunket
on the Retreat to Corunna who kills a French general
at what's estimated somewhere between 500 and 600 yards.
-He then reloads so quickly
that he then also shoots the ADC
that has gone to the aid of his fallen general.
So Rifleman Plunket was promoted to Corporal as a result of that,
but it does go to show that they could mark a man
and drop him at range.
The Baker rifles transformed soldiers into long-distance killers,
outranging the enemy
and making it dangerous to stand out on the battlefield.
The tactics of standing in lines en masse, in red coats,
trading volleys at close distances,
were becoming outdated.
In this changing field of battle,
whether you were a drummer boy or a general,
if you were caught in the open, you weren't just visible.
You were a sitting duck.
All Britain's economic resources
were feeding the Napoleonic War effort,
but developing new weapons was an expensive business.
Back home, people were feeling the pinch.
Social tension mounted, and there were riots.
It was the right of every British civilian to bear arms,
but the authorities were increasingly worried
about weapons falling into the wrong hands.
The government was paranoid about order,
or more accurately, disorder of the lower classes.
The Luddites were running rampage,
wrecking the new machinery that had stolen their jobs
in the mill towns of the North,
and the French Revolution still lingered in the air.
There was genuine fear that mob rule could break out at any moment.
Against this backdrop, an ordinary merchant named John Bellingham
walked into a gun shop on Skinner Street in London
and purchased two 50-calibre pistols.
He had an audacious plan in mind.
Guns were readily available.
It was the job of the public to help with peacekeeping and defence,
and ownership of guns was commonplace.
It was a consumer item.
But everything had its proper place.
You wouldn't walk around with a visible firearm.
It wasn't integrated into everyday wear like the sword,
it wasn't chivalrous to carry a gun.
There were very few rules on buying and owning firearms,
and given that security was so lax,
you could walk into practically anywhere with a concealed weapon.
Even the House of Commons.
And this is what Bellingham did at 5:15pm
on 11th May 1812.
He had a specific target -
the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval.
Ever since Elizabethan times,
there had been a fear of assassination by firearm,
but no-one had succeeded in striking right at the heart of power.
John Bellingham was waiting on a bench near here
for Perceval to come in.
No-one could have known that he had on his body
concealed the two pistols he bought earlier,
and that they were now loaded.
This document from the National Archives is morbidly fascinating.
It plots exactly what took place.
Circle number one is the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval,
having just entered the lobby,
and circle number two is his assassin, John Bellingham.
Without any warning, Bellingham got up from the bench
where he'd been waiting for Perceval,
calmly walked up to him and shot him point-blank in the chest.
Mr Perceval, on being shot, staggered backward
and cried, "Oh, murder! Murder!"
And then, in agony, he attempted to get into the House,
but fell at the mark
when he was "carried a corpse into the Secretary's room."
Now, these dotted lines explain what Bellingham did next,
and he simply turned around,
walked back to the bench where he'd been waiting,
and made no attempt at escape.
With the Prime Minister now dead,
Britain risked being left rudderless
with the mad King George III and an extravagant Prince Regent
until a new replacement could be found.
The assassination stunned the nation.
No British Prime Minister had ever been murdered before,
and fear quickly spread that it was a prelude to revolution.
For the next seven days before Bellingham was hanged,
hidden revolutionaries thought that a blow had been struck.
Bellingham became a celebrity, and something of a hero.
Even though Bellingham was a lone wolf,
the Treasury began to receive letters,
sparking fears of a wider conspiracy.
"My Lord, dreadfully are you deceived
"in thinking Bellingham had no accomplice.
"Beware the fate which waited Caesar on the Ides of March."
This small weapon, freely available and easily purchased,
sent tremors through the country,
but it was only the start of the political upheaval.
Britain had achieved victory over Napoleon at Waterloo,
but it was, so to speak, a double-edged sword.
There was now a glut of demobilised soldiers in the labour market.
Many were being informally used
to police a vocal working class calling for the vote.
Would the government now respond to the assassination
by turning its guns on its own citizens?
After the Napoleonic Wars,
there was a wave of bitter labour strikes
and agitation from the skilled working class.
Out! Out! Out!
For the radicals, the solution was not revolution,
but political reform,
and this new political activism terrified those in authority.
Meetings calling for political reform were repressed,
but this idea that anyone could suddenly
take part in the political process caught fire,
particularly in the industrial cities of the North.
In August 1819, these stirrings of radicalism
came to a head in Manchester.
What started out as a peaceful demonstration
by men, women and children for the vote
soon turned into a bloodbath
when the local mayor sent in the cavalry.
The actual cavalry.
For a few horrific moments,
the crowd must have felt
they'd been transported to a medieval battlefield,
as mounted troops charged them with sabres drawn.
15 people were killed
and it was estimated 400 to 700 were maimed.
The horrible events at St Peter's Field
were dubbed The Peterloo Massacre.
The term Peterloo echoed the Battle of Waterloo,
fought just four years before,
and was intended to mock those who had attacked unarmed protestors.
This was a volatile time, and the government
was not prepared to deal with this political insurrection.
After Peterloo, there was real concern
over using a standing army to control the population,
and certainly of arming one class to control another.
So in 1829, Peel's Act established
a system of paid, professional civilian constables for Westminster,
and crucially, they were not armed with guns.
While the rest of the country had the right to bear arms,
the police were issued with this -
a wooden truncheon -
and with this - a wooden rattle to raise the alarm.
Their uniform was deliberately chosen
to make them look like a civilian,
to make them look vastly different from the traditional image
of the soldier in red.
So in the midst of all of this political chaos,
the solution was a force much more sensitive and considered
than you might have expected.
We didn't turn our guns on our own people.
Even the truncheon was concealed in a hidden pocket
so as not to antagonise.
But if you drew it, you certainly had to know how to use it.
The truncheon is a defensive rather than an offensive weapon.
Essentially, it was a club to be used by the police
if they needed to defend themselves.
A police manual from 1889
includes a chapter on truncheon instruction,
and it's very informative.
It says to focus on the areas of the body
where the bone is prominent,
like the collarbone,
or even the side of the knee.
Although some of these truncheons were particularly beautiful,
symbolically significant for the policeman, for his station,
for his force,
in practice, it was just a hitting stick.
But the British didn't show the same restraint with their colonies
that they did back home.
Guns with greater and greater firepower were being used
to police the growing empire.
In the colonies, maximum impact, not minimum force,
was the order of the day,
as the British authorities were so outnumbered.
Superior firepower was the bedrock of imperial control,
enabling limited troops to suppress much bigger native populations.
And the latest lethal innovation
was discovered in the genteel surroundings of a giant glasshouse.
The Great Exhibition of 1851
was the very first World's Fair,
a celebration of the richness and diversity of empire.
This was an exhibition about faith in progress,
and weaponry was no exception.
Many of Britain's bishops were against the idea
of the inclusion of lethal weapons,
but Prince Albert insisted that weaponry played a part.
In fact, Albert's private secretary wrote to the organisers
of the exhibition, saying the way to preserve peace
was to perfect instruments of human destruction.
At the exhibition,
millions of visitors were amazed by a demonstration
from two American gun manufacturers.
Samuel Robbins and Richard Lawrence
wanted to show how new mass-production techniques
could be applied to gun manufacture.
Robert Tilney is a master gunsmith,
who's going to recreate this famous demonstration.
-Come in, son. Welcome to the gunsmith's.
He'll show me how Robbins and Lawrence dazzled the crowd.
This is real Yankee pizzazz
Robbins and Lawrence, two Americans, entrepreneurs.
Lawrence, fantastic mechanic.
-Robbins was the businessman.
They came up with the idea of bringing six US Government muskets -
-off the rack.
-At the show they would say, "Right."
Their gunsmith would take them to pieces and they would then go,
"OK, pick a piece out."
-I'm picking a piece out.
-"You, sir, pick another piece out."
"Do that, do this." And they put it together,
because every single part was totally interchangeable.
So you could make one rifle
-out of the parts from all of the other rifles.
Now, I suspect, knowing the Americans,
they've got full-blown chatter going on.
"Look at this, I've just picked this barrel up. Will it fit this rifle?"
"Of course it will cos we've made them.
"They're all interchangeable."
"Hey, presto, sir - here's your new working gun."
Now, that was amazingly quick.
-How did that help the British Army?
-If you've got...
Let's say, in the course of combat, somebody's smashed their rifle
through the rest and somebody's got a blown up or a bent barrel -
take the stock off the bent barrel one,
put the ordinary barrel on that,
-you've scrapped one and you've still got a working one.
So it's not just about repair, is it?
It's actually about manufacturing them in the first place
-and being able to produce them on a massive scale.
British arms, they would be finished by hand. Very good, well-made guns.
Finished by hand, though. The Americans go,
"We don't need any of that. We can make it cheaper, better, faster,"
by making machines to make bits.
And they made them to such a degree of precision,
everything would interchange.
You can certainly see how something like that can change the world.
Oh, yeah, yeah. It's a massive step forward in precision engineering.
So, essentially, it is the ultimate design of lock, stock and barrel.
Britain now mass-produced its own guns in a factory in Enfield,
Using the American system, over 1,700 came off the production line
each week and went straight to the imperial front lines.
One gun became the arm of empire - the Enfield rifle.
This weapon was precision engineering down to its very core,
including a unique bullet.
Pattern '53 Enfield.
-Have a look.
-Look at that.
That's a magical piece of kit.
So how did this shape the making of the British Empire?
It's a fantastic combat weapon.
People wanted rifle power and accuracy.
But you can't have the two.
You can either have speed or accuracy -
until a little Frenchman invented
-Which is the Minie.
And it's a hollow-based round.
For a kick-off, it's a bullet shape.
It's also undersized for the ball.
So it drops down the ball very easily.
But when you fire it...
the gas expands the soft lead into the rifling, so you now have a...
rotating bullet, so it's gyroscopically stable.
So you've got accuracy of the rifle
and the speed of the smoothbore musket.
So you've got rate of fire and accuracy.
'Robert Tilney has agreed to let me have a go at firing this masterpiece
You've got a centre kill,
just off at the middle but just below the dead centre.
If you look at the nine, you can see a strike.
Nine points. Whoo.
Britain was fighting battles from Suakin to Sevastopol.
Our empire encircled the globe, but we still wanted more territory.
Curator Peter Johnston is taking me into the vaults
of the National Army Museum.
-We've got something to show me round here, haven't you?
'In the early 1880s, the Mahdi Army
'unleashed a spectacularly successful jihad
'against British-backed rulers in the Sudan.'
'When combating an indigenous army on their turf,
'would the superior firepower of the rifle be enough?'
So you have the British soldiers here, very much crammed together.
It looks like they're about to be overwhelmed and in that respect
that's a kind of theme of Empire battles at this time, isn't it?
Absolutely, and so common of British warfare in this period where
your numerically inferior British
well-trained, well-disciplined but, more importantly,
well-armed would often go up against thousands more enemies from these
armies of the areas and countries they were trying to subjugate and
annexe, but relied on that firepower they could throw out to
really defeat them, their technologic superiority to overcome.
It's a very common theme for Victorian audiences.
And what I think's striking is that the rifle takes such a vivid place
in this painting, but this story's very much got two sides to it.
On the one hand, you've got a handful of British soldiers
fighting off an enormous host of Mahdists,
but even though they do that, they can't keep their empire.
No, absolutely, and what is actually happening here,
and what we don't necessarily get a sense of from the paintings,
is part of the British withdrawal in Sudan, actually deliberately
stepping back out of that and almost narrowing the borders of empire.
And this is a real sense of that,
that the Mahdi was probably too strong, supply lines were too
overstretched, there was no way the British could hope to really win.
This was a big psychological defeat for the British Empire
which had got too greedy.
Our only response to these indigenous armies
was more and more lethal firepower.
Without it, Britain's bloated empire was lost.
But could the right machine be more efficient that a skilled soldier?
In a basement in Hatton Garden, one man was developing a gun
that could be reloaded and fired at unprecedented speed.
In 1888, this thirst for new technology came to a head
with the invention of a weapon
that was unlike anything the world had ever seen.
It was believed that this would be a weapon that would end all wars.
It brought an industrialised efficiency to the whole business
of killing people and could fire up to 600 rounds a minute.
It rendered every other weapon that had gone before it obsolete.
This gun was the game changer.
It could fire far more quickly and more accurately than any soldier,
with just one press of a button.
It was named after its inventor, Hiram Maxim -
the Maxim gun.
With the Maxim gun, everything was automatic.
Cartridges were extracted from a continuous belt, fired, and then
the empty ones ejected by a mechanical process
in a continuous cycle.
Maxim also harnessed the recoil energy to load and fire it,
the natural force which drives the bullet forwards
and the gun backwards.
You didn't have to crank anything.
As long as you pressed the trigger,
it would keep firing until it ran out of bullets.
Maxim founded an arms company with money from the firm Vickers
to mass-produce these guns.
This is the improved Maxim Mark II, better known simply as the Vickers.
Maxim employed another technical innovation
to make the gun practically invisible.
The eccentric Maxim took his mechanical marvel on tour,
showing it off.
In one of his machinegun demonstrations,
he impressed the royal family by blasting the letters VR -
for Victoria Regina - into a target.
Prince Edward even had a go.
The Maxim gun was trialled throughout the Empire
and its reputation soon proceeded it.
Previously, offensive tactics were all about the charge,
but now the game had changed
and the British were ruthless in how they played their hand.
It was the ideal defensive weapon,
and it rendered obsolete the offensive charge,
so the British Army attempted to lure their enemy out into the open
so that they would charge.
In modern-day Zimbabwe, during the Matabele War, a small British unit
with just four Maxim guns utterly destroyed an army of 5,000 warriors.
The Ndebele warriors were well-armed -
they had Martini-Henry rifles -
but these were no match for the firepower of the Maxim.
As it was put by Hilaire Belloc in his poem The Modern Traveller,
"Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun and they have not."
The Maxim was able to psyche out the enemy just by its presence
in the theatre of warfare.
But many believed the Maxim gun wasn't just about firepower.
It could play a peacekeeping role.
The New York Times Magazine of 1897
even suggested that the mere existence of the Maxim gun would be
enough to convince world leaders to end their disputes diplomatically.
It says, "These are the instruments that have revolutionised the methods
"of warfare and because of their devastating effects have made
"nations and rulers give greater thought to the outcome
"of a war before entering into it."
And it ends with some wonderfully topsy-turvy logic -
"These are peace-producing and peace-retaining terrors."
The idea was that the Maxim gun would act as a moral deterrent.
Would any civilised nation dare to use it against its neighbours?
But on the street, the Maxim gun had the polar opposite effect.
It kicked off a mini arms race
for hand-held semi-automatic weapons.
This repeat fire began to seep down to the street - hard-hitting weapons
that fired repeatedly were the order of the day,
and none of them came more hi-tech than this.
This is the Mauser C96 and it soon became the must-have gun
of the criminal underworld.
And it was this weapon that took centre stage and what became
one of the most famous armed standoffs of the 20th century -
the Siege of Sidney Street.
The siege began with a botched jewellery robbery
by a cell of Latvian anarchists.
The unarmed police were at a grave disadvantage.
Three were killed and two others injured.
The anarchists had their ill-gotten gains to spend on the latest
technology and ammunition but the police by contrast prided themselves
in not being an armed force.
There wasn't a gun culture embedded in the police like there was
in the criminal underworld. In fact, there was, on average,
only two revolvers per police station in the Met in 1911.
An informant finally lead the police to the last two gang members -
holed up at 100 Sidney Street in London's East End.
By 2:00am, the police,
armed with their truncheons and what few revolvers they had,
had taken position in the houses either side of number 100.
They were armed with this, the Webley Revolver.
Outdated, cumbersome, inaccurate, weak -
but they had a bigger problem.
According to protocol,
they weren't even allowed to fire until they'd been fired on first.
The police just had to wait it out.
All night, in fact.
One superintendent was overheard to remark,
"If these are not the right men we will be a laughing stock."
As it turned out, the police had the right suspects.
But did they have the right weapons?
I want to try out for myself what the cops and robbers were using,
so I've come to meet Jonathan Ferguson
from the Royal Armouries.
What was the difference between these two guns, then?
Well, I think right away you can see that there's
a massive stylistic difference,
and that does reflect some superior technology in my left hand,
with the Mauser C96, 1896.
This is a fairly conventional revolver - Webley.
-Let me have a look at this one.
If you pull the trigger, the chamber goes round for rapid fire,
such as you might need in a gunfight.
You can literally, as you say, pull through on the trigger,
it's quite a strong trigger pull, your shots might go stray.
So, yeah, you can see it's a bit of effort required.
-Well made but it pulls off every time you turn it.
-And that's different with this one?
-The Mauser C96.
This is what's called self-loading, or semi-automatic.
-It looks slightly space-age in comparison with this one.
It terms of how it operates, it's always - because it loads itself -
-it's always a light pull of the trigger.
-So that cocks itself.
You then pull the trigger again. So, in other words, bang, bang, bang.
So you'd fire this and it would carry on recocking itself?
Literally as fast as you could pull the trigger.
You might even think it's like a machinegun that's coming at you.
All modern pistols work in a similar sort of way.
Revolvers are really old hat by now -
even then, you know, the turn of the last century.
So the police would have been envious of this as well?
Absolutely, yeah. Possibly afraid of it.
It'd be very difficult for them, essentially going into battle,
with someone they know has got a better weapon.
If you're the guy having to go up against
a criminal armed with the latest thing - you've heard about it,
read about it Scientific American, for example. To know that the enemy
-have that is going to be a little bit frightening.
So what effect did these weapons have on the ground at Sidney Street?
It all kicked off at 7:30 in the morning when the police decided to
attract the anarchists' attention.
Some pebbles were thrown at the second-floor window
and the anarchists fired back directly at the police.
One bullet went through an inspector's bowler hat.
The police were woefully outgunned and they had to call in the Army.
Troops from the Tower, the Scots Guard,
who brought a Maxim gun, and even Winston Churchill, who was
then in charge of law and order, all descended on Sidney Street.
By this time, Sidney Street was bristling with guns
from all over London,
including rifles donated by members of the public.
The climax to this extraordinary battle was caught on film.
The siege finally ended when the roof of 100 Sidney Street
caught fire, as a result of so many bullets being fired in.
The Latvian gunmen perished in the flames.
The siege had lasted less than 12 hours but its legacy
would continue for decades.
With gang crime on the rise, the Metropolitan Police
now bought semi-automatic weapons to match the Mauser C96.
Yet the basic principle of the unarmed bobby on the street
But this was 1911.
Europe was a tinderbox and it was almost inevitable that automatic
weapons would end up in the hands of politically motivated individuals.
On the 28th of June, 1914,
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie toured Sarajevo.
They'd been warned that their presence would exacerbate
political unrest but, despite the risks,
Franz Ferdinand and wife travelled in an open-top car.
Due to a wrong turn by the driver,
the car came to stop near Latin Bridge.
A teenager named Gavrilo Princip stepped out from the crowd.
He had in his hand a semi-automatic Browning Model 1910 pistol.
Princip wasn't an experienced marksman but he was only
about two metres away. GUNSHOT
He fired his pistol. GUNSHOT
These shots reverberated around the world.
The Archduke and his wife Sophie died within hours.
The First World War broke out just four weeks later.
But it was reported that Franz Ferdinand owned a bulletproof vest,
woven out of silk.
The man who designed these silk armours was a priest-turned-inventor
by the name of Casimir Zeglen.
Now, despite its appearance, a vest like this would come at a price.
This would cost a whopping 800 in 1914.
So it wasn't for the likes of you and me,
it was for European royalty, it was for heads of state.
Men like Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
This was confirmed by newspaper reports
the day after the assassination,
stating that the Archduke and his wife owned silk armour.
The Royal Armouries is conducting what I think is one of the most
important studies in the history of weaponry.
Using a replica bulletproof vest said to have been owned by
the Archduke, and exactly the same type of pistol used to murder him
and his wife Sophie,
Lisa Traynor aims to establish whether the Archduke's
bulletproof vest could have saved his life.
Now, had the Archduke survived,
could the First World War have been postponed or even prevented?
Tell me about the silk bulletproof vests.
How did you find out how they were made?
I came across a couple of patents made by Casimir Zeglen.
He was kind of obsessed with assassination
since the Mayor of Chicago was assassinated in 1891.
He dedicated his life to inventing
something to repel bullets.
Do we know if he was afraid of being assassinated, the Archduke?
Everyone was fearful of assassination at the
beginning of the 20th century.
And these are examples of your attempt to recreate those
-Yeah, these are examples of Zeglen's first patent,
which has about six layers to it.
So it has a layer of canvas, a layer of animal hair - or wool today -
a layer of silk,
a layer of something called pasteboard,
which is quite stiff, in Victorian book binding.
To my mind, a bit of canvas and wool and pasteboard is not going to
-stop a bullet, is that correct?
-That is correct,
-it's all about the silk layer.
How does silk stop a bullet?
Silk is very, very strong. The Japanese were using it in armour
way before Zeglen was making bulletproof vests out of it.
-It actually repels arrows.
-So we do know that.
How did he test the vest? That's what I really want to know.
Casimir Zeglen, a very, very interesting man,
he used to test his bulletproof vests by borrowing cadavers
from the local hospital, wrapping them in his bulletproof cloth,
hanging them up and shooting them,
and then he realised that it did work.
-He then moved from cadavers to live dogs.
-It gets worse and worse.
-No dog was injured in the making of the vest.
-And then when he was finally happy with that,
he started testing it on himself.
-The ultimate test.
-The ultimate test.
-The ultimate test for an inventor.
-And he survived.
What we're going to test today is Casimir Zeglen's latest patent
of the bulletproof vest, which, you know,
totally ignores the canvas layer,
it ignores the wool and basically it's just a vest made up of silk.
And you're certain, or as certain as you can be,
that this is very similar to the one that the Archduke...?
As certain as I can be.
We're going to shoot it against some ballistic clay that will
hopefully replicate the body.
If it does stop the bullet we can see the divot in the body
that would happen.
If it goes through we'll also see a great, big hole.
-Well, let's do the test.
Lisa is recreating the exact conditions of Franz Ferdinand's
assassination for this test.
Crack shot Andre Horn is firing a Browning Model 1910 pistol,
manufactured in the same factory during the same month as the pistol
used in the Sarajevo shooting.
Was Casimir Zeglen's inch of silk strong enough to save the life
of Archduke Franz Ferdinand?
-Right, let's go and have a look.
Look at that!
So that is a dent in the body.
It has stopped it!
-It stopped it.
-Silk stops bullets. That's proof.
That's amazing, well done. Well done.
That's magical. Proper bit of research, that.
-How do you feel, Lisa?
So relieved. We were both really nervous.
We can now conclusively prove that a vest made of once inch of silk
would have stopped a bullet from a Browning Model 1910 pistol.
But, of course, Gavrilo Princip's shot did strike home.
Ironically, the bullet hit Franz Ferdinand in the jugular,
around one centimetre below
the collar of the Archduke's military tunic,
most likely above where the bulletproof vest would have reached.
1914 witnessed the clash of huge armies equipped with the most
advanced mechanised weapons the world had ever seen.
In the first five months of the war,
shrapnel-firing artillery was the main killer.
But when trench warfare became established, the Maxim gun
and its successor, the Vickers machinegun, came into their own,
as they could be hidden so easily.
But these advances in technology
lead to a stalemate that nobody expected.
None of these innovations alone could deliver the Holy Grail,
the end to the stalemate of trench warfare.
We couldn't simply outgun the enemy.
We were back in the same situation we found ourselves in at Waterloo.
Everyone was fighting with similar weapons.
We became locked in a long war of attrition.
During this stalemate, soldiers began to fashion crude weapons
for hand-to-hand combat, sometimes out of broken machinegun barrels.
The first trench raids with these weapons took place in 1914.
In the closed environment of the trenches,
when soldiers came face-to-face with each other,
superior firepower went out the window.
Soldiers were stabbing and beating each other to death
with mediaeval-looking weapons,
like gauntlet daggers - something a knight may have worn.
Or this, a brutal trench club made out of a spade handle
and an empty grenade.
And even though we were entering the age of air power,
with aircraft flying over the battlefield,
in the early years pilots would rain down iron arrows,
known as flechettes, on the enemy.
Not unlike the longbowmen at the Battle of Crecy in 1346.
As with the trench clubs, technical sophistication seemed irrelevant -
it was about whatever tool got the task done.
For centuries, innovations in weapons and the constant drive
to increase precision and firepower had defined Britain.
We'd use sword, musket and machinegun to defend our country
and build a global empire.
Weapons had shaped our science, industry and our politics.
But even with the most modern technology,
we'd struggle to win the deadliest war of its age.
When the firing finally stopped on November the 11th, 1918,
an estimated 17 million people had died,
and 20 million had been wounded.
In the aftermath of the First World War,
we now put increasing faith in treaties, international conventions
Surely we could never allow such carnage to happen again.
In the concluding episode, Dr Sam Willis charts the evolution of weaponry in Britain from 1800 to the First World War, looking at the drive to develop ever more precise weapons, from artillery shells to rifles to the Maxim machine gun. The pace of technological change in the 19th century was phenomenal. Sam test-fires a 'Brown Bess' musket, the infantry weapon of choice at Waterloo in 1815 and discovers that a well-trained soldier could fire up to three shots a minute. He also looks at efforts to make artillery more effective on the battlefield with the invention of spherical case shot, a new type of shell that was named after its inventor - Henry Shrapnel. Sam finds out how accessible firearms were to the public in the early 19th century and tells the little-known story of Spencer Percival, the only British prime minister ever to be assassinated, shot at point blank range in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812. By the turn of the 20th century, several inventors believed that they could banish war if they invented the ultimate weapon, an instrument so horrific that no-one would dare use it. In the 1880s, Hiram Maxim, an American inventor, devised the first 'Maxim' machine guns in his workshop in Hatton Garden, London. The first rapid-fire weapon to harness the energy of its own recoil, the Maxim gun, and its successor the Vickers machine gun, could fire 600 rounds a minute and were used to devastating effect on the battlefields of the First World War.
Automatic weapons were also sought by criminal gangs, as Sam discovers when he looks back at one of the most infamous sieges of the 20th century - the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911. The series culminates in a remarkable experiment to find out whether a bulletproof vest made of silk might have stopped a bullet fired at Archduke Franz Ferdinand. With the aid of the Royal Armouries, Sam conducts a unique experiment with assistant firearms curator Lisa Traynor to prove that a bulletproof vest owned by the archduke would have stopped a bullet fired by his assassin, Gavrilo Princip. The killing of the archduke on June 28 1914 set in motion a chain of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War.
World War I was the deadliest war of its age, with the most technologically advanced firearms and weapons of almost medieval brutality used to wage a devastating conflict. When the firing finally stopped on November 11, 1918, an estimated 17 million people had died and 20 million had been wounded. In the aftermath of World War I, we now put increasing faith in treaties, international conventions and diplomacy. Surely we could never allow such carnage to happen again?