Weapons of the 1916 Rising
by Lar Joye
By 1916 the general public had begun to realise that World War One was going to be a different type of war. Machine guns and artillery dominating the battlefield and caused most of the casualties, and created a stalemate for 4 years. New inventions such as poison gas, heavy artillery, fighting planes and tanks were created in response to the war.
During the 1916 Rising there were no attacks with planes or tanks and only very limited use of artillery. Therefore the weapons used in the Rising were mainly the personal weapons of the participants. For the organisers of the 1916 Rising the lack of weapons was always a concern, and limited them in what they could do during the insurrection. This issue of weapons had also dominated previous rebellions since 1798 when pikes were the main weapon of the rebels. Several times Spain and France sent ships and troops to fight the English in Ireland. All these efforts at invasion failed, often because of unfavourable weather, such as when the revolutionary French government sent 15,000 men and weapons to Bantry Bay in 1796. In 1867, the Fenians in America sent a ship, Erins Hope, with weapons but failed to land them and returned to New York. Another what if scenario of Irish history.
After centuries of failure in obtaining weapons the Irish Volunteers had a huge success on 26 July 1914 when the Asgard, the yacht of Erskine Childers, then a famous writer, sailed into Howth, north Dublin, with 900 Mauser rifles, which were quickly unloaded in 30 minutes and distributed to waiting Volunteers and boys of Fianna Eireann. The landing was a response to the very successful landing of rifles earlier that year in April by the Ulster Volunteer Force, which landed 216 tons or 35,000 German, Italian and Austrian rifles at Larne. The Howth gun-running, although on a smaller scale, was heralded as a great success and the rifles where quickly hidden despite the efforts of the police and the army to intercept the Volunteers. The next day the remainder of the rifles were landed at Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. In total, 1,500 rifles were landed along with 45,000 rounds of ammunition.
The Mauser rifles, which quickly became known as the Howth Rifle, were designed by Peter Paul Mauser and it was the first cartridge rifle adopted by Prussian Army in 1872. It was a revolutionary design for 1870’s but by 1914 the German Army was using the more modern Mauser Gewehr 1898 rifle. Padraig Pearse admitted shortly after the landing that the Mauser’s were of an 'antiquated pattern, without magazines, and are much inferior to the British Service Rifle'. Indeed, Darrel Figgis who purchased the rifles with The O’Rahilly in Hamburg, described the Mauser ideal 'for our purpose, cheap and undeniably effective'. The Mauser was an effective weapon, although technically obsolete, firing a larger bullet than the British Lee-Enfield. However, for the volunteers many of whom had never fired the rifle before Rising it had ferocious recoil as Tom Walsh learned: 'In the excitement I did not heed the lectures and did not hold the gun correctly. The result was that [the first time I fired it] the butt hit me under the chin and knocked me out'.
Prior to the Rising the organisers were conserving the use of ammunition, and this meant a lack of firing experience for Volunteers with military rifles. Shooting clubs were established using smaller .22 rifles and target rifles but these do not prepare you for a revolution. The other disadvantage of the rifle was its low rate firepower, only firing 4 or 5 rounds a minute as it did not have a magazine. Soldiers in the British Army at the time were trained to fire 15 bullets a minute with their Lee Enfield rifles which had 10 round magazines. Finally, the Howth rifle created a lot of smoke and created a large boom noise when it was fired, unlike the Lee Enfield Rifle which meant it was easy for British Army to spot rebels firing the rifle. The landing of the rifles was, however, a public relations success for the Volunteers. Tom Clarke took his rifle to Limerick the following day and on arrival in Limerick he marched with it on his shoulder from the station to John Daly's home and presented it to his old friend and prison comrade.
The antique Howth rifle was the main rifle of the Rising but there was also an assortment of other weapons. In fighting a rebellion this was a problem as John P Dungan explains in his book A History of the Irish Army, 'without standard weaponry, collective training and concentration of force it was unlikely that guerrilla warfare, no matter how skilfully waged, could achieve military victory in the field'. Ernie O’Malley went further in describing his experiences during the War of Independence when he described the variety of rifles and muskets in one Brigade area covering 200 years as follows: 'British long and short Lee Enfield’s, police carbines, Lee Metfords, single shot Martini-Henris, Sniders, Remingtons, Winchesters, German, Turkish or Spanish Mausers, French Lebels, American Springfield’s, Japanese patterns, Austrian Steyers and Mannlichers, old flintlock muskets, muzzle loading Queen Anne’s'.
The 6 garrisons during the Rising had a similar variety of weapons, each one requiring a different type of ammunition and training. Shotguns were also used during the Rising and special bayonets were adapted for them. However, the shotgun had very limited impact in the battles as did the few pikes brought to Royal College of Surgeons and Dublin Castle. Of course, the 1916 Rising was planned with the expected arrival of weapons from Germany. The SS Aud, was to land weapons in Kerry on Good Friday but was intercepted by the Royal Navy. The rifles on the ship were captured Russian rifles, as Germany was not able to provide Mausers due to the need equip their own Army. Altogether there were 20,000 Mosin-Nagant rifles with ammunition and about 10 machine guns on board.
Prior to the Rising, if you could afford to, you could buy revolvers and automatic pistols in a sporting shop. Patrick Pearse had a number of pistols as did Countess Markievicz and these are now in the National Museum of Ireland collections. Popular among the Volunteers was the Mauser 96 pistol designed in 1896 by Peter Paul Mauser. It excited interest because it introduced the concept of a wooden holster that could be attached to the pistol grip to convert it into a carbine. The Mauser 96 was the first really successful military automatic pistol which a very powerful 7.63mm bullet and it had 10 round magazine. One of its earliest and enthusiastic users was Winston Churchill who fought as a Lieutenant at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, and wrote about 'the large magazine capacity and the rapidity of fire'.
In Ireland the Mauser Model 1896 and the later Model 1912 are commonly known as 'Peter the Painter' and this is due to the Siege of Sydney Street on 18 December 1910, in which Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, played a role. The previous day, three Eastern European anarchists, armed with Mauser 96 pistols, had shot dead three City of London Police Officers after they failed to rob goldsmith H.S Harris in London. One of the anarchists was Peter Piakoff, better known as 'Peter the Painter', he later died during the siege when surrounded by police officers and a section of the Scots Guards, the anarchists died when the building was set on fire. Within the museum’s collections there is the 'Peter the Painter' used by Lt Michael Malone at Haddington Road during the 1916 Rising against the Sherwood Foresters.
On the British side the main participants of the Rising were Royal Irish Constabulary, Dublin Metropolitan Police and the British Army. Originally, the members of Royal Irish Constabulary were recruited from men of Irish birth and stationed in small barracks around the country. The Constabulary was established in 1822 becoming the Royal Irish Constabulary in September 1867, after suppressing the Fenian Rising earlier that year. There were 12,000 members from 1910 to 1920 and 85,000 members in the onehundredth of its existence. The RIC Constables were said to have been the eyes and ears of the British Government in Ireland - maintaining peace, enforcing the law, and helping to collect taxes. The RIC members did not always carry weapons when they were on patrol but they did have access to weapons in their stations. These included revolvers, shotguns and carbines. The RIC had an advantage over the general public because under the Registration of Firearms Act, 1843, all owners of firearms had to have them licensed and stamped by the Royal Irish Constabulary using a mark that represented the county or the city in which the weapon was held in, followed by a number. Ireland was the first country in world to require gun licences.
Carbines are shortened muskets or rifles used by cavalry units which are easier to use on a horse. From 1896 the Lee Enfield Carbine was issued to the British Army cavalry, it was shorter than the standard infantry rifle and the magazine held six bullets against ten in the larger rifle. In 1907 it was decided to take the carbine out of army service and to issue one rifle to infantry and cavalry units the Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle Mark III (SMLE). In the RIC the 10,000 carbines remained in service from 1904 to 1920 when they were replaced by the SMLE.
The RIC was also equipped with the Winchester model 1897 pump action shotgun. The shotgun was an ideal weapon for dealing with large crowds having a 5 round tubular magazine under the barrel. The revolver used was the .445 Webley service revolver and like all RIC weapons was marked with a RIC stamp and individual number. The RIC had adopted its first Webley revolver in 1868 and the weapon was thereafter marketed by Webley as the 'RIC model' and sold to various colonial police forces.
Closely modelled on the London Metropolitan Police, the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) was smaller than the RIC with responsibility for policing in Dublin City. From 1836 to 1925 there were 12,556 members based in 24 stations, on average 1,200 members at any one time. The DMP was broken down into seven Divisions from A to G: the G Division was the detective unit with responsibility for intelligence gathering. Unlike the RIC the DMP were unarmed except for the detectives. In the wake of the 1916 Rising it was decided to issue Lee Enfield carbines to the DMP although this was opposed by its members and decision was later reversed.
At the outbreak of World War One the British Army was the only professional army in Europe and was small compared to the conscript armies of the Germany and France. Normally British Army regiments were rotated through Ireland for two to three years, and prior to 1916 Ireland would have been seen as quiet station compared to India or Africa. However, the British Army in Dublin in Easter 1916 was very small, as the main focus was fighting the war in France. At the outbreak of the Rebellion the following mainly Irish regiments were in Dublin training for the war:
Monday 24th April
6th Reserve Cavalry Regiment: 886
3rd Royal Irish Regiment: 403
10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers: 467
3rd Royal Irish Rifles: 671
Tuesday 25th April
Curragh Garrison: 2,600
Reserve Artillery Brigade: 100
Templemore Garrison: 500
Composite Belfast Battalion: 1,000
By Thursday with the arrival of 50th (North Midland) Division there were 17,000 British Army soldiers in Dublin. In addition there were in 1916 four Irish Cavalry Regiments and nine Irish Infantry Regiments in the British Army until the southern regiments were disbanded in 1922. The Infantry regiments had their training depots in Ireland for example the Royal Munster Fusiliers were based at Tralee and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were based at Naas.
The British Army was equipped with the weapons needed for a full-scale war and the standard rifle used by the soldiers was the Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle Mark III. This rifle emerged in 1907 and was designed based on the British experience of the South African or Boer War of 1899-1902. A well designed weapon and used by the British Army in various forms till 1950’s and in the Irish Army till the 1989 in the FCA. A well-trained soldier could fire 16 well-aimed shots a minute, known as the 'mad minute', providing a devastating effect as was clearly seen in early months of World War I at the Battle of Mons. Normally British Army soldiers would be equipped with 150 bullets and the rifle was effective to 500 metres.
The Lewis Machine Gun was the standard light machine gun of the British Army in World War I and used during the War of Independence. It was designed by an American Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, and adopted by the British Army in 1914. From 1915 all Vickers heavy machine guns were grouped into the Machine Gun Corps and all infantry battalions were issued four Lewis machine guns instead. The only other light machine gun used by the British Army was the Hotchkiss Machine Gun that was issued to the British Cavalry units as the Lewis Machine gun was found to be too bulky. Machine guns were used from Easter Monday by the British Army and gave them a large advantage over the Volunteers.
The British Army used the 18 pounder field artillery gun in Dublin in 1916. There were only eight of these in Ireland, all in Athlone at the outbreak of the Rising, and only 4 of them were in working order and these were sent quickly to Dublin. Naturally as Britain was preparing for the Somme offensive in France during the summer of 1916 that is where all their artillery was. As in France, the 18 pounder was found not be an effective weapon: it fired a shrapnel shell which is like a large grenade and was designed to explode above the heads of soldiers fighting out in the open. Soldiers in trenches and in buildings could withstand such shelling, and what was needed were high explosive shells.
The four guns were broken into pairs, and used to shell Liberty Hall from Tara Street and destroy barricades on the North Side of the city and then the GPO. In the end most of destruction in Dublin was due to fires started by the shelling and the rebels, this meant it was too dangerous for the Dublin Fire Brigade fireman to put out the fires, and by Thursday night to city centre was all on fire. In addition to artillery the patrol ship the Helga was rushed into position to the assist the British.
Prior to World War I the ship was owned by Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, and in 1915 the Helga was taken over by the British Navy and became known as HMS Helga and classified as an Armed Auxiliary Patrol Yacht. The ship was armed at the front with a 12 pounder coastal defence gun, crewed by two sailors with a range of 11,000 metres and could fire 15 rounds a minute. At the rear there was a smaller 3pdr gun, known as a pom pom. On 25 April 1916 the Helga sailed from Dun Laoghaire to shell Boland’s mill and on the following day fired over the loop line railway bridge at Liberty Hall. In total the Helga only fired 40 rounds during the Rising and it is difficult to analysis how effective the fire from her guns was.
In conclusion, with the loss of the SS Aud and 20,000 rifles on board the chances of a successful Rebellion were, unlikely as the Volunteers were not well equipped to take on a professional army. The successes that they had was when they ambushed the soldiers and used their local knowledge to their advantage. However, they were quickly overwhelmed by superior fire and man power. Nonetheless lessons were learnt during the 1916 Rising and a different approach was taken during the War of Independence.
J P Dugan, A History of the Irish Army (Dublin 1991)
Labhrás Joye, “Weapons of the War of Independence (Illustrated) “in the Sword Journal of Military History Society of Ireland, Vol. 27 (2010) pp. 295-321.
Ernie O’Malley, On another Mans wounds (Dublin 1979)
M. J. Mullane, The Cruise of the Erins Hope or Gun Running ’67 (Dublin, 1916)
National Museum of Ireland collection
The 1916 related Collection of National Museum of Ireland:
The National Museum of Ireland has 6 Howth Rifles in the Easter Week collection; EW.158 – Howth rifle, of Tom Clarke, inscribed “Tom Clarke to John Daly. One of the first two pieces landed at Howth Pier Dublin 26th July 1914
EW.1434 – Howth rifle, Mauser, 11mm
EW.2815 – Mauser bolt action single shot rifle, one of the Howth Consignment, stamped “1172 B, W crowned, Gebr Mauser & Co Oberndorf”
EW.3524 – Howth rifle, stamped with maker’s and proof marks (Mauser), 7588D
EW.4535 – Howth rifle, Mauser, serial number 7052, 1875
EW.249 (loan) – Howth rifle, Mauser single shot, bolt action pattern
EW.275.1 (loan) – Howth rifle, 11 mm Mauser no.1076
The museum has 3 Mosin-Nagant rifles taken from the SS Aud which were taken off the ship while it was being transferred to Cork from Tralee Bay as trophies. These are:
EW.9 – Rifle captured from the SS Aud, 1916. Serial number 17640. Silver plate attached to butt reads “Irish Rebellion 1916 Rifle recovered from German SS Aud sunk near Queenstown 21st April 1916”
EW.2816 – Russian rifle salvaged from the “Aud”. Russian inscription and the number 194770 on breech, 46885 on back of bolt, 35991 on magazine.
EW.5876 – Mosin rifle, Russian, c. 1896. Fixed foresight and graduated rear sight. Fully stocked with metal ramrod, bolt action with 5 cartridge magazine. Serial number 155050.
The National Museum of Ireland has a number of Lee Enfield Rifles associated with the War of Independence:
EW.1490 – Lee Enfield rifle, captured by the IRA at the Collnstown Aerodrome, 1920. Weapon number D 8963, bolt marked L 2984
EW.1722 – Lee Enfield rifle used by Sean O’Flynn of the Irish Volunteers. Scratched on the butt is “G 1” (G Company, 1st Battalion) and “SOF”, the initials of the donor, EW.2800 – Lee Enfield rifle, short model, Serial number 9416, bolt number 96662. “Gen. Liam Lynch CS IRA” carved on butt
EW.3100 – British Lee Enfield 1907 rifle, Liberty Hall, 1916
EW.4177 – Lee Enfield rifle 1905, part of the armoury of B. Coy., 5th Batt, 1st Cork Brigade IRA during the War of Independence, with canvas shoulder strap and “T?? Whitechurch” on butt
EW.4248 – Lee Enfield .303 sport rifle, made by BBA in 1918, serial number 1/26477. With leather strap. One of 7 bought by Capt. Tom Sheridan, Ballinaghg Battalion, Cavan Brigade. April 1920, and bearing the names J Vesey and Capt. J. Conway (of Sean Mac Eoin’s flying column, Longford) scratched into the butt.
The National Museum of Ireland has two RIC Webley’s in the Easter Week collection:
EW.2358 – RIC revolver, Webley. Serial number 109919, RIC no 2159.
EW.2357 – RIC revolver, Webley .38. Serial number 23250, RIC no 523
The National Museum of Ireland has one shotgun numbered NMIHE 1998-24 with RIC 498 stamped into the butt.
The National Museum of Ireland has two RIC carbines in the Easter Week collection:
EW.1056: RIC carbine rifle captured from R.I.C. by Irish Volunteers at the Battle of Ashbourne, 1916. Stamped on the brass plate on the butt “1 ’05 / RIC / 7938. EW.4534: RIC carbine captured at Ballivor, Co. Meath. Stamped on the brass plate on the butt “2 ’05 / RIC / 9022.
NMIHE 1998-24, RIC carbine stamped on the brass plate on the butt “1 ’05 / RIC 7878. All Carbines are marked VR Enfield 1899, LEC 1