Malcolm Atkin Military Research
THE MYTH OF THE WINCHESTER 74
The official issue to the Auxiliary Units in 1942 of a suppressed .22 calibre rifle has attracted particular attention by researchers from the late 1960s onward, becoming a key element in the legend of the Auxiliary Units as silent assassins.
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 Lampe who in 1968 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 to 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 accurate range of a .22 rifle was actually just 100 yards and the Auxiliers were tested in competitions at only 20 yards
The legend 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 SOE manual. Unfortunately, the original source of this attribution cannot be verified 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 recorded that their patrols had been issued with such a rifle the popular legend of the Auxiliary Units as 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 1942 which makes any serious intent as an assassination tool doubtful. Within the miscellany of .22 calibre rifles issued at that time, only the bolt action Winchester Model 69 is specifically mentioned by name 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, as opposed to others who provided only imprecise descriptions of undistinguished Winchester or Remington bolt action rifles that, in fact, formed the bulk of their arsenal. 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. It was not widely marketed in Britain by Parker-Hale or the Army and Navy Stores in their pre-war wartime catalogues and so the 1940 and 1941 vintage rifles that have subsequently come onto the market may well be those supplied to the British government. 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 source 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 later photographs of brand-new Winchester Model 74 rifles, individually-boxed in commercial packing, being delivered to Weedon on 23 March 1942. This post-dates the main distribution of .22 calibre rifles to the Auxiliary Units but it is possible that a small number were supplied at a later date.
.22 rifles were imported in huge numbers from the USA as training rifles and a bolt action was preferable in preparing for that action in a larger calibre service rifle. The semi-automatic Winchester 74 therefore posed a problem in how best to use it. 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. 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. Nonetheless, 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, alongside other wartime experiments in silenced weapons. The possibilities of the Winchester 74 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’. The use of a Winchester 74 Iwith a sound moderator would also improve the accuracy of such a tactic by reducing recoil between shots (although a 'silencer' was not as efficient in removing all sound as movies would suggest).
An oddity with the wartime Winchester Model 74 is its apparent pairing with the No.42 artillery scope, which created a distinctly ‘bodged up’ partnership that belied the wide availability of telescopic sights more suited to the .22 rifle, 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 the night-time operations expected of the Auxiliary Units, 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 and its chronology still remains unclear, possibly because it never actually found a clear purpose and was replaced by the almost equally obscure No.53 scope, which Parker Hale post-war believed had been developed as a sniper scope for tropical climates to eliminate condensation. The No.42 scope was a simplified version of the standard No.32 sniper scope (whose design was only finalised in March 1941) but lacked any integral adjustment for elevation and windage. . The No.32 scope had a magnification of 3x and was typically zeroed at 400m. The first 100 No.32 scopes were first issued to commandos in December 1941 and entered general service in February 1942. 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 reported use in wartime action was with the co-axial BESA machine gun in the MkVII and MkVIII Churchill tanks, first used in action in 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 experimentally used in 1944 trials as a potential simplified alternative No.32 scope on the No.4(T) sniper rifle. This may inform the otherwise undocumented date of issue of the Winchester Model 74 / No.42 scope to the Auxiliary Units. 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 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 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 passed on to the Auxiliary Units as it is unlikely they were part of a trial themselves.
The No.42 scope was marketed to the public by Parker-Hale from the late 1940s (in the shortage of imported scopes in the immediate post-war period) 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. Parker Hale attempted to similarly sell surplus US M46 artillery sights as a rifle scope. Parker Hale had a contract to re-furbish and sell off surplus War Office .22 rifles in the 1960s and so there is the distinct possibility that they put together wartime vintage scoped rifles, including the Winchester Model 74 paired with the otherwise unsaleable No.42 scope for sale in the post-war period.
There is no means of adjusting for range or windage on the tube of the No.42 and without the bespoke bracket created for the No. 4(T) trials and surviving examples suggest it was mounted onto the Winchester Model 74 by standard Parker Hale ADM5 mounts. These only allowed a lateral adjustment for initial zeroing and were not designed to provide windage adjustment in the field; the screws on each side of the rear mount having no marked incremental settings or ‘clicks’.
With these inherent design problems, 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 without a bespoke mount. It is consequently difficult to consider the No.42 telescopic sight as an acceptable sniper scope for the Auxiliary Units, over the wide availability of tried and trusted alternatives. Despite the strength of the legend, less than half a dozen such combinations are known and it seems unlikely that they were part of the early distribution in April 1942, possibly issued as late as 1944 as an adjunct to the abandoned trials of the No.42 scope with the .303(T) sniper rifle. Three of the known Auxiliary Units patrols that used them 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.