|Rifle||Charlton Automatic Rifle||Manufacturer||Charlton’s Motor Workshop|
|Cartridge||.303 British||Overall Length||45.5″|
|Action||Long Stroke Gas Piston||Barrel Length||26″|
|Magazine||10 or 30 detachable box||Weight||16lbs|
Necessity is the mother of invention and New Zealand, far removed from the U.S. and British equipment sailing for Europe, had to get creative. Lacking BREN or even Lewis guns for home defense, they turned on their bolt actions to create one of the strangest LMGs we’ve seen.
Attempts to stem the German flow meant every resource available in the colonies was being poured into a fight in Europe, and later Africa. New Zealand had met the call and shipped men and light material out for duty but was having trouble importing heavy equipment at home. With the Japanese moving in the Pacific, they wanted to have their own defenses ready. Shipments of light machine guns were few and their future deliveries could not be guaranteed, so plans were made to convert the firearms they did have in reserve on the island.
Philip Charlton devised and developed the means to convert surplus antique Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield bolt action rifles into a replacement light machine gun. The gas operated system was likely derived from early auto-loading conversions of the Lee platform but it is unique in being an LMG configuration.
The Lee rifles were disassembled and their bolt handles cut off. They were reassembled in a light machinegun configuration with attached bipod, pistol grip, and foregrip. Sheet metal cooling fins were fitted over the barrel, the rear sight floated above these, and an improved compensator with front sight was placed at the end. Two tubes were fitted down the right side of the rifle. The top containing the gas pistol and the bottom the return spring. A cylinder was placed at the rear of the piston to contain a buffer spring. Attached to the piston is a bolt cam with a helical cut channel that seats over an additional lug welded to the bolt’s original right side locking rib. Steel plates were fitted down the left side of the action to add strength, shroud the bolt, support the buffer, and provide a raceway for the bolt cam. A new trigger group with fire select and safety was installed. Selection between semi-automatic and automatic fire was controlled by the pull depth of the trigger, so the selection lever simply moves a block behind the trigger to set the pull depth. This became a problem for the new gun as semi-automatic was a bit of a spring balancing act and unreliable.
Operation of this confusing looking LMG is pretty straight forward. A 10-round Lee magazine or 30-round specially modified BREN magazine is inserted into the magazine well. Pull the operating handle (attached where cam meets the piston) to the rear of the action and let go. Spring pressure drives the assembly forward as the bolt catches the first round in the magazine and chambers it. The cocking piece snags on a sear during this stroke, cocking the action. A squeeze of the trigger releases the firing pin and allows it to spring forward and discharge the cartridge. As the bullet travels down the barrel it fills it completely, pushing all the air ahead of it out. It also seals the now-expanding gas behind it, which keeps the pressure up for the length of the barrel. As the bullet clears the gas port a portion of this bleeds through a hole in the barrel and acts on the piston down the right side, driving it rearward. The motion of the piston pushes the bolt cam back, the extra bolt lug moves in its helical channel, lifting the bolt and unlocking it. The bolt continues rearward with the piston and bolt cam, extracting and ejecting the spent casing. The spring again drives it all forward and the bolt is relocked by the same camming action in reverse. If the trigger was held the firing pin is free to discharge the next cartridge immediately, if released it snags and firing stops. The firing rate is reported at roughly 600 rounds per minute.
Approximately 1,500 Charlton Automatic rifles were produced in New Zealand. Because they were intended as emergency use LMGs for the Home Guard and Japan did not invade New Zealand proper, they were never used. Post war the whole lot were gathered up and stored in Palmerston, where they were lost in an accidental fire. There are only a few examples surviving in museums today. A derivative design, produced by Electrolux, was assembled in Australia as a shoulder fired automatic rifle during the same period.
Sadly, we did not get a lot of hands on time with the Charlton. This rare example was photographed by Nicholas Gore during his own vacation. We’d like to thank him and the Waiouru Army Museum for providing him access to this unique and rare firearm.