THE MYTH OF THE WINCHESTER 74
The official issue to the Auxiliary Units in 1942 of a suppressed .22 calibre rifle has attracted attention by researchers from the late 1960s onward, becoming a key element in the legend of the Auxiliary Units as silent assassins. The Winchester Model 74 has attracted its own mythology in this story.
The fact that, despite their easy availability, there was not an official issue of 'silenced' .22 rifles until 1942 suggests they were not a key element in the Auxiliary Units' armoury. The myth owes much to David Lampe's The Last Ditch in 1968, where he described the .22 rifle as a ‘sinister’ assassination weapon capable of killing a man over a range of a mile. The myth of the one mile range derived from the warning on the packs of supersonic cartridges that they were ‘dangerous within one mile’. This was, however, only their maximum duration in flight (and only sub-sonic round could be used with a sound moderator). Not realising that the .22 rifle only officially issued in1942, Lampe also tried to link them to an August 1940 statement of intent that their role would including sniping (something for which only the Scout Patrols ended up being properly equipped). The maximum accurate range of a .22 rifle was actually just 100 yards and the Auxiliers were tested in competitions at only 20 yards (and only on open sights).
The legend of the .22 'sniper' rifle was reinforced by the widespread circulation across the internet of an illustration of a Winchester Model 74 .22 calibre rifle fitted with sound moderator and a No.42 telescopic sight, mistakenly assumed to come from an SOE manual. In 1991 H. Keith Melton in OSS Special Weapons and Equipment published an illustration of a ‘silenced’ Winchester Model 74 with a No.42 scope in the style of a page from the 1944 OSS manual with a footnote 'Issued by SOE' (p.42). Although the introduction to the book made clear that the layout of this page was an artistic fabrication, the illustration was soon spread across the internet as being from a genuine OSS manual. Unfortunately, Melton has been unable to identify the original source of this attribution (correspondence with author in 2022) and no evidence of the use of this rifle by SOE has been confirmed.
By the time of Melton’s The Ultimate Spy Book in 1996, any reference to a SOE connection of the Winchester Model 74 had disappeared but the continued circulation of the 1991 image has continued the popular myth of this rifle. Once a small number of veterans subsequently recorded that their patrols had been issued with such a rifle the popular legend of the Auxiliary Units as deadly assassins, using a supposed SOE .22 calibre sniper rifle, became an almost unassailable romance. The assumption consequently also began to grow that the Winchester Model 74 must have been the standard .22 calibre sniper rifle of the Auxiliary Units.
The first official issue of a.22 rifle with a 'silencer 'and (somewhat reluctantly) a telescopic sight, was not until April 1942 which makes any serious intent as a 'sniper' or assassination tool to be used during a Nazi invasion doubtful. By then the Auxiliary Units were moving away from their covert sabotage role into acting as reconnaissance teams for the local Home Guard, armed with Thompson and Sten sub-machine guns. Morale was suffering as they began to lose their raison-d'etre and one way to buoy up spirits was to issue them with a new range of 'toys'. No attempt had been made until then to issue them with any suppressed weapon. This is despite suppressed .22 rifles and pistols being commercially available in pre-war Britain. Despite the initial shortage of service rifles, there was also no mention of using a .22 rifle as an extemporised sniper rifle in the wide variety of manuals produced for the Home Guard from 1940 onwards. It important to remember that the early covert role of the Auxiliary Units was to creep silently onto a target and set its explosive charges before disappearing equally silently. Whilst a suppressed .22 rifle might have been useful in dealing with any guard dogs, it could not guarantee a silent kill at night against a sentry, probably with back towards them and wearing a thick greatcoat.
Within the miscellany of .22 calibre rifles issued from April 1942, only the bolt-action Winchester Model 69 is specifically mentioned in the known Auxiliary Units record, suggesting that this may have been particularly common. The impression of the Winchester Model 74 as the standard Auxiliary Units .22 calibre 'sniper' rifle as created by the illustration in Melton (1991) was reinforced by the subsequent recollections of a small number of veterans who, in the early days of collecting oral testimony, were able to identify this distinctive semi-automatic rifle (possibly after being shown the Melton illustration), as opposed to others who provided only imprecise descriptions of undistinguished Winchester or Remington bolt action rifles. As an example of how easy it could be for received wisdom to become presented as established fact, the original catalogue entry for the Winchester Model 74 in the Imperial War Museum (FIR 10534) reads ‘A small quantity of these rifles were purchased during the Second World War for issue to the British Auxiliary Units ... These rifles were fitted with silencers and optical sights, and were intended for use in assassinations. It is not known for certain whether this particular rifle saw such service.’ But when it was put on display, the caption was less ambiguous: ‘.22 Winchester rifle with silencer issued to an Auxiliary Unit’. Any Winchester Model 74 tapped for a telescopic sight and threaded for a sound moderator now risks being assumed to have seen service with either the Auxiliary Units or SOE.
Despite its immediately-distinguishable features, the lack of documentary or photographic evidence argues against the distribution of the Winchester Model 74 to the Auxiliary Units on any large scale. The Winchester Model 74 was an innovative design for a semi- automatic small-bore rifle which only came onto the US market in 1939 and was not widely marketed in Britain before the war. Although an ‘economy’ model, it was well-made and accurate. It originally fired a .22 Short cartridge but in 1940 a version was introduced that was also capable of firing a .22 Long Rifle cartridge. The receiver is built on the basis of an 8.5-inch-long steel tube housing a simple blowback-operated bolt, largely enclosed by the receiver. Fourteen rounds can be fed through a cut-out in the side of the buttstock and are held in place by a spring-loaded rod that fits through the checkered-steel buttplate.
One early piece of evidence for the import of Winchester Model 74 rifles for British service is contained within a contract to Parker-Hale on 6 October 1941 to provide to the Ministry of Supply an unknown number of Winchester ‘automatic’ rifles within a larger consignment of 2,066 Winchester rifles.There are also later photographs of brand-new Winchester Model 74 rifles, individually-boxed in commercial packing, being delivered to Weedon on 23 March 1942. But this post-dates the main distribution of .22 calibre rifles to the Auxiliary Units under a contract to Parker-Hale of 13 March to fit sound moderators to 600 rifles already supplied to the Auxiliary Units. It is, however, possible that a small number were supplied at a later date. The total number of Winchester Model 74 rifles supplied to the British government is not known.
During the Second World War, bolt-action .22 rifles were purchased from the USA by Britain in huge numbers, via the British Purchasing Commission or later the Lend-Lease scheme, to be used as training rifles. Winchester had discovered this to be a lucrative market, allowing it to off-load surplus stock, including making-up rifles from spare parts. A bolt-action was preferable as a training rifle, preparing for that action in a larger calibre service rifle and so the arrival of the semi-automatic Winchester 74 posed something of a problem as to how it might be used. Although the bolt-action rifle is still considered more suitable than a semi-automatic as a sniper rifle (as when fired there is only one stage of recoil and less risk of stoppages) this was a new debate in 1942 and may have aroused a degree of interest in the Winchester 74. The initial sound of cocking the enclosed bolt of the Winchester 74 by its small lever is far quieter than an equivalent bolt action rifle although, when fired, the blowback action of a semi-automatic makes more noise from the gas that is released at the breech. It should, however, be noted that there is no evidence of SOE or the War Office experimenting with, or using, any suppressed .22 rifle in action other than the use by SOE of suppressed Mossberg and Remington .22 rifles in the Far East for their traditional role of small-game hunting and similarly by OSS 'carpetbagger' aircrew as a survival rifle. Instead, SOE used either suppressed .22 or Welrod pistols or the suppressed Sten gun. But with an ability to empty its 14 round tubular magazine in under 4 seconds, it is easy to see why the new Winchester 74 might have had attractions in trialing a short-range .22 calibre sniping rifle. The possibilities of compensating for the lack of power of a .22 calibre round by delivering the ‘double tap’ of quick shots to the chest to better ensure a kill were appreciated by Auxilier Bob Millard, who was otherwise dismissive if the .22 calibre rifles: ‘we had a Winchester 74 which is a semi-automatic so two or three quick chest shots was a possibility’. (His account does, however, contain inconsistencies - at one point describing it as have a 5-shot magazine.) The use of a Winchester 74 with a sound moderator would also improve the accuracy of such a tactic by reducing recoil between shots. However, the use of a 'silencer' necessitated using sub-sonic .22 rounds and these had an increased risk of stoppages in a semi-automatic - not something to contemplate in the middle of dispatching an enemy! This risk may have been even greater using standard service .22 ammunition as this was reputedly even more under-powered, with a maximum effective range of just 50 yards. The fact that there are less than a dozen recorded examples of a suppressed Winchester Model 74 in service, and only in the Auxiliary Units, suggests that there was no extensive trial.
The Winchester Model 74 was never offered for general sale with a fitted telescopic sight by Winchester. Whereas the other scoped Winchester and Remington .22 rifles in British services were fitted with standard commercial telescopic scopes, an oddity with the wartime Winchester Model 74, according to the 1991 Melton illustration and some surviving examples, is its apparent pairing with the No.42 artillery scope. This created a distinctly ‘bodged up’ partnership that belied the wide availability of more suitable telescopic sights, including proven WW1 sniper scopes. The only advantage of the No.42 was that its large diameter gathers lots of light and therefore had attractions for using it for night-time operations, more so than small diameter Winchester, Lyman or Weaver scopes of 2.5x or 5x magnification illustrated in surviving photographs of Auxiliary Units .22 calibre rifles. The original intention of the No.42 scope still remains unclear. It was was a simplified version of the standard No.32 sniper scope but lacked any integral adjustment for elevation and windage. The first 100 No.32 scopes were first issued to commandos in December 1941 and entered general service in February 1942. The No.42 scope may also have been introduced in 1941. The variety of graticules found with the No.42 scope suggest an instrument intended for a wide application.
(b) Single vertical wire
(c) Interrupted crosswire
(d) No. 32 style post and crosswire (the ‘sniper’ variant)
Their only confirmed use in wartime action was with the co-axial BESA machine gun in the MkVII and MkVIII Churchill from 1944. Here their task was not pinpoint accuracy but a guide to laying down a beaten zone of fire in a given area. Before they went into action as a tank machine gun sight, the No.42 and No.53 scopes were, however, experimentally used in 1944 trials as a potential simplified alternative No.32 scope on the No.4(T) sniper rifle. This may inform the date of issue of the Winchester Model 74 / No.42 scope to the Auxiliary Units (although there is anecdotal evidence that at least one was issued before September 1942). While lacking the turrets of the No.32 scope that allowed for measured integral adjustment, it was hoped the sealed tube of the No.42 and No.53 scopes might avoid the problem of early No.32 scope models which could fog in humid conditions. Paired with the No.4(T) rifle, the trial overcome the lack of internal adjustment on the No.42 and No.53 scopes only by using a specially-designed bracket that allowed adjustment for range and deflection for windage. The decision to abandon the experiment is significant for an assessment of any serious use of the No.42 scope on a .22 calibre rifle – for which no special mount was designed. It may be that discarded examples were then passed on to the Auxiliary Units, without any serious expectation that they would have to be used in action.
Without a bespoke mount, and using only the standard Parker Hale ADM5 mounts with which surviving examples are now found, lateral adjustment could only be made for initial zeroing, with no provision for accurate windage adjustment in the field; the screws on each side of the rear mount having no marked incremental settings or ‘clicks’. With such inherent design problems and with an issue of parallax at short ranges, combined with low powered service ammunition, it would have been impossible to guarantee a kill at c. 50 – 100 yards with a single shot using a .22 rifle fitted with the No.42 scope. It is consequently difficult to consider the No.42 telescopic sight as a seriously-considered sniper scope for the Auxiliary Units. Despite the strength of the legend, less than half a dozen such combinations are known. possibly issued as late as 1944 and there are no provenance surviving examples. Three of the known Auxiliary Units patrols that used the Winchester 74 rifle are in Scotland - Leuchars and Kings Barn in Fife and Golspie in Cathness. Other Winchester Model 74 rifles are reported from Bathampton (Bath) patrol and Iden patrol (East Sussex). In just three instances (Bathampton, Iden and Glospie) are they specifically associated with a No.42 scope.
In the shortage of imported scopes in the immediate post-war period, the No.42 scope was marketed to the public by Parker-Hale as a small bore rifle scope, whilst acknowledging the absence of vertical or lateral adjustments caused problems. They believed, however, that it could be set up accurately for 50 yards, with it being possible to estimate the drop at 100 yards. Of course, in their advertising they did not have to accommodate any wartime need to ensure an instant kill on a human target! Parker Hale attempted to similarly sell surplus US M46 artillery sights as a rifle scope. There is a particular difficulty in establishing the context of rifles that then came onto the market in the post-war period as Parker Hale also had a contract to re-furbish and sell off surplus War Office .22 rifles in the 1960s, resulting in the distinct possibility that some of the Winchester 74/No.42 scoped rifles may have been put together by Parker-Hale at that time from wartime vintage rifles with the otherwise unsaleable No.42 scope.