Charlton Automatic Rifle
Semi-Automatic Rifle / Light Machine Gun (LMG)
The Charlton Automatic Rifle was developed to stock New Zealand military units with a capable Bren-like automatic weapon.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
Any study in World War 2 firearms largely covers those of the major participating world powers of the time. This naturally leaves smaller nations that lacked the industrial might of the aforementioned often overlooked - as is the case with New Zealand and their "Charlton Automatic Rifle". Since such countries could not possible match the local capabilities to manufacture automatic weapons in volume, these nations often were forced procure proven systems from foreign sources in number. The Charlton Automatic Rifle was born out of sheer necessity as the Empire of Japan directly threatened the Australian mainland and, therefore, New Zealand proper. It therefore became increasingly apparent to New Zealander authorities that a strong self-defense mindset was needed and would be required for the inevitable Japanese invasion to come. To make matters more desperate, a large portion of New Zealand fighting forces were in North Africa with British and Commonwealth forces to stem the advance of the Axis powers led by Germany and Italy.
Since foreign weapon supplies from both Britain and the United States were largely tied up in other endeavors, several indigenous initiatives were enacted throughout Australia and New Zealand to help bolster national security. While New Zealand was heavily reliant on incoming shipments of British BREN and British-American Lewis machine guns, these were slow in coming and their future availability in doubt. As such, the New Zealand government funded an endeavor to produce a local modern automatic weapon - a task which fell to Philip Charlton and his Charlton Motor Workshops. The weapon would serve as an interim solution or as a permanent fixture should shipments of the British and American products never materialize. It was decided to convert existing stocks of aged Lee-Metford service rifles of 1888 and the (Lithgow) Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk III* bolt-action rifles of 1907 for the role. Design work on the new automatic rifle began in 1941.
The old rifles were given new all-new gas pistons and a sheet-metal receiver to protect the internal moving components from debris and snagging. Exterior protrusions such as bolt handles were done away with for obvious reasons and the internal mechanism was revised for semi-automatic/full-automatic fire. The end-product was a respectable-looking automatic weapon that proved serviceable in the intended role of fire support. After clearing the requisite field trials, the weapon was adopted for service in the New Zealand Army as the "Charlton Automatic Rifle" and serial production began in 1942. Charlton Motor Workshops of Hastings, New Zealand handled the Lee-Metford rifle conversions whilst Electrolux of Australia was handed the SMLE Mk III* rifle conversions. Both of the weapons revolved around the same primary semi-automatic firing function with a full-automatic fire mode built in for extreme circumstances. The internal working mechanisms were the same in either design as only their external appearances differed.
The New Zealand conversions were primarily differentiated by their use of a foregrip and standard bipod fixture which allowed for stable support firing from the prone or dug-in position. As can be expected with forced interim conversions, the outward design was largely utilitarian in its general approach with a straight wooden pistol grip, basic wooden shoulder stock, metal hand guard and cooling fins found at the base of the barrel. Barrel cooling fins were a design feature of years past and largely done away with by the end of World War 2. A gas cylinder was added under the barrel assembly in a conventional fashion and sighting was through a conventional iron arrangement consisting of a rear flip-up ramp installation and fixed forward post. The bipod was situated just ahead of the hand guard area. The weapon was fed from a 30-round BREN-type curved magazine while support for the 10-round Lee-Enfield magazine was retained for sound logistical reasons. The weapon weighed 16lbs unloaded and sported a running length of 44.5 inches while the caliber type was the widely-accepted .303 British round fired through a gas-operated, semi-automatic action at a rate of 600 rounds per minute to a muzzle velocity of 2,440 feet per second. Effective range was listed at 1,000 yards though targets could be engaged as far away as 2,000 yards albeit with diminished accuracy.
Comparatively, the Australian version of the Charlton Automatic Rifle was decidedly cleaner externally. It featured a similar shoulder stock and pistol grip arrangement with the magazine feed fitted just ahead of the trigger unit in a traditional fashion. The receiver was defined by its sharp lines which served to hide the internal functions quite well. The charging handle was set to the right side of the body in the normal fashion and the forend was shrouded in a perforated jacket while the barrel - up to the muzzle - still retained the appearance of the original Lee-Enfield rifles which gave the weapon's lineage away somewhat obviously.
In practice, the Charlton Automatic Rifle gave a good account of itself considering the rather hasty conversion process. Reports sold it as a reliable and effective weapon considering the circumstances in which it was designed and produce in. Their battlefield role was to be similar in scope to the American Browning BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and the British BREN light machine gun. However, their reach was short-lived for only 1,500 systems saw the conversion process in full and the arrival of BREN guns replaced the Charlton guns in the same support role. Once BREN guns were available in number, local production of Charlton guns was shelved in favor of the Owen Submachine Gun. As such, the Charlton Automatic Rifle remained in New Zealand Army service only until the end of the war in 1945 and not much longer. Its legacy was also hampered by an accidental fire erupting in its storage facility just after the war, destroying many of the existing Charlton guns. This left only a few in circulation of which some eventually found homes as museum pieces.
Regardless, the Charlton Automatic Weapon was a perfect case study of dire need combined with local ingenuity. Had they been pressed into direct combat service in numbers, they may have very well performed as expected, perhaps even matching the legacy of the famous British BREN.