The Besal Was Wartime Great Britain’s Desperate, Last-Ditch Machine Gun
Cheap and easy to make, the weapon was for fighting a German invasion
by MATTHEW MOSS
In the autumn of 1940, Nazi Germany controlled most of mainland Europe, France had surrendered and the British Army had evacuated the continent — in the process, leaving behind much of its arms and equipment.
To make good losses, the U.K. government ramped-up arms production. Gun-makers updated existing designs such as the Bren light machine gun and the Lee-Enfield Rifle, simplifying them in order to boost production rates.
But officials also considered new small-arms models. Hence the British military’s adoption of the cheap, easy-to-manufacture STEN submachine gun. There were also calls for a simplified light machine gun that armorers could produce in any machine or workshop.
In June 1940, right before the fall of France, the British Ordnance Board had sent out a memo requesting an easy-to-make light machine gun — a contingency in the event that the Germans bombed the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, the United Kingdom’s main machine-gun producer.
The Birmingham Small Arms company won the contract to develop the design. BSA’s chief designer Henry Faulkner came up with a gun he called the Besal.
The Besal’s production standards were significantly lower than those of the standard Bren. It was truly a last-ditch weapon. Officials intended to issue the new gun if a German invasion were imminent or already underway.
Faulkner’s design was, in essence, a simplified Bren gun chambered in .303 and feeding from the Bren’s standard curved-box magazines. But unlike the Bren, the Besal featured a basic trigger mechanism, a simple pressed gas-cylinder and a body that was held together by cheap pinning and spot-welding.
The weapon had a folding but non-adjustable bipod and a plain wooden butt stock. Ordnance planners expected that manufacturing the barrels would represent a serious bottleneck in the weapon’s production. They suggested recalling the spare barrels the Army issued with each Bren gun and using them in new Besals.
The Brits were that desperate.
BSA produced the first prototype Besal in 1941 and testing began in March 1942. The Besal proved to be reliable and effective during trials.
The initial Mk. I prototype had a conventional side-mounted cocking handle. Later refinements copied the cocking system from the BESA tank machine gun, which BSA also produced. This system required the operator to push the pistol grip forward then pull it to the rear in order to cock the weapon.
This was a more complicated system than the gun’s original mechanism was. It and a number of other changes to the receiver moved the Besal away from its original role as a simple, cheap, quickly-made alternative to the Bren.
Reflecting this, in early 1943 the gun got a new name — Faulkner, after its designer. But by 1943, with the Allies pushing into Italy and preparing to invade France, the need for the Besal/Faulkner had evaporated and the government canceled the project after having only produced a few prototypes.
This story originally appeared at Historical Firearms.