Feed Devices for Firearms

   By Cliff Carlisle

For a repeating firearm to function there has to be a means of supplying the ammunition for it to fire.  For a rifle, pistol or shotgun this is normally called the magazine.  There are 5 basic types of magazines that have been commonly used.  These are the tubular, box, detachable box, spool or rotary & drum magazines.

Tubular magazine on M1886 Portuguese Kropatschek.

The Volcanic pistol of 1854 was the first magazine fed firearm that was manufactured in any quantity.  It was a lever action (the predecessor of the Henry & Winchester) and had a tubular magazine under the barrel.  A variation of this system was the Civil War Spencer rifles that had the tube in the butt stock.   Tubular magazines were dropped from military use with the advent of small diameter bullets.  The point of one bullet in the tube would be against the primer of the next one in line.  The recoil could & did occasionally fire one of the rounds in the magazine.  The Japanese tried to solve this problem on their Type 22 Murata by putting a cup over the primer & putting a flat tip on the 8mm bullet.  The cup had a hole only large enough for the firing pin tip to go through & the flat tip of the bullet prevented any contact with the primer.  The French on their Mle 1886 designed the cartridge case with 2 angles to the body.  As the rounds were loaded into the magazine, the forward angle caused the round to cock to one side.  This prevented the tip from lining up with the primer of the round ahead of it in the tube.  In addition, on the early ammunition made for the Mle 86 a circular groove was incorporated into the head between the primer & the rim.  The bullet tip would go into this groove as an additional guarantee that the tip wouldn’t contact the next primer.

Incorporating a box magazine into the action was the next step.  An American, James Paris Lee, invented the first practical box magazine.  It was a single column box under the bolt in the action.  It had a spring & follower in the box.  The rounds were pushed in from the top to load it & the bolt stripped off the top round & fed it into the chamber when the bolt was

Detachable box magazine shown on a Mk1 Lee Enfield carbine.

Great Britain adopted a Lee rifle with detachable magazine in 1888 as the Magazine Rifle, Mark 1, known as the Lee-Metford Magazine Rifle.  This was the first military issue of a detachable box magazine.  The magazine could be loaded either while in the rifle through the bolt opening or while removed.

Single column box magazine on M1891 Mauser.

Mauser in Germany was the first to use a non-detachable box magazine in mass production.  It was a single column type & was used on the Belgium M1889 Mauser.

Charger for Japanese Type 99 rifle & clip for Dutch M95 Mannlicher.

To load the magazine in the rifle, Mauser designed a metal charger that contained 5 rounds of ammunition.  The rifle was made with guides machined into the top of the receiver bridge for the charger to fit into.  The charger is placed in the guides & the rounds pushed down into the magazine with the thumb.  This has become known popularly (but incorrectly) as a stripper clip.  To quote the British “Textbook of Small Arms, 1909”.

“Cartridges are carried in chargers and clips in order to accelerate the rapid loading of the magazine.  Chargers are used by being placed in grooves in the body over the magazine, where the cartridges are swept out of them into the magazine, and the empty charger thrown away.  Clips with their cartridges are placed in the magazine, the clip being held down by a catch, as in Mannlicher types from the Austrian Model 1886 on.  The cartridges are fed up by the magazine lever, or platform, which is made sufficiently narrow to pass between the sides of the clip.  When the cartridges are expended, the clip falls out through an opening in the bottom of the magazine.”

Staggered column magazine on G33/40 Mauser with charger in place.  The ammunition shows  5 different finishes the Germans put on steel cased rounds for rust prevention.

Single column box magazine that requires the use of a clip.  Dutch M1895 Mannlicher.

In Austria, a Mannlicher designed repeating rifle was adopted as the Model 1886.  This was the first use of a clip in the magazine.  See above for explanation of difference between clips & chargers.   In the photo, you can see the opening in the bottom of the magazine where the clip drops out when the last round is fed into the chamber.

Spool or rotary magazine as used on US Johnson M1941.

The spool or rotary magazine was designed by Schoenauer & was first used by the military  in the Greek Mannlicher-Schoenauer M1903 rifle.  The rounds were stripped into the action from the top as in the Mauser design.  The spool used in the US M1941 Johnson is a 10 shot & the rounds are stripped in from the side.  Note the charger guide in the photo.

Detachable box magazine as used on the US M14 rifle.

The early detachable box magazines like the British Lee-Metford & Lee-Enfield were used only to make it easier to load the magazine.  Note that the above illustrated Lee-Enfield carbine actually has a 2 link chain attaching the magazine to the floor plate.  This was to prevent loss while reloading on horseback.  With the advent of semi auto and selective fire rifles it became obvious that additional loaded magazines were necessary if the high rate of fire was to be taken advantage of.  By issuing each combatant multiple magazines there was less of a need to stop firing & load ammunition into the magazine.

71 round drum magazine as used on the PPSh41 SMG.

Drum magazines in the past have been used primarily on pistols such as the German WW1 Lange Pistole 08 (Artillery Luger) and sub machine guns such as the US Thompson and Russian PPSh41 sub machine guns.  With the modern small caliber rifle rounds there has been renewed interest in drum magazines & several different ones are now available.

Feed devices for machine guns include detachable box magazines, cloth belts, metal belts, feed strips, chargers & drums.

Detachable box magazine shown on a Japanese Type 96 LMG.

Detachable box magazines were used primarily for light machine guns.  Most had a capacity of 20 or 30 rounds.  They could be top mounted like the Japanese Type 96 & 99, bottom mounted like the US M1918 BAR or side mounted like the US M1941 Johnson LMG.

Cloth belt section for US .50 Browning MG.

The first machine guns used cloth belts.  An American, Hiram Maxim, developed the first successful machine gun in the 1880s.  It used a cloth belt with metal spacers between rounds to keep it centered in the feed way.  John M. Browning designed his M1895 MG (Colt Potato Digger) to use a cloth belt without the spacers.  It was much easier & cheaper to produce.  For cloth belts to work, the design of the machine gun has to be so that the round is pulled to the rear out of the belt, dropped down to align with the barrel & moved forward to chamber it.

Metal belts were made in 4 basic types.

Disintegrating links for the US .30 cal Browning MG.

Disintegrating links were designed for use in aircraft in the First World War.  The normal cloth belt was 250 rounds long.  As the belt became empty it tended to flip around in the air stream & could damage the wood & cloth airplanes of the era.   For the Browning and Maxim types each link is formed with 3 loops.  Two go around the case of the cartridge, one at the neck & one at the body.  The 3rd loop is offset to the side & is a slightly larger diameter so that it is loose on the case.  When the belt is assembled a round is pushed into the 2 loops.  Then the next link is positioned so that the 2 case loops are over the 3rd loop of the first link.  When the next round is inserted it connects it to the first one.  In this way a belt of any length can be assembled.  As each round is pulled from the belt, the empty link falls out of the bottom of the MG.  As an interesting bit of trivia, the term “The whole nine yards” is a WW1 saying that referred to the belt of cartridges used in the aircraft.  The length of the loaded belt was 9 yards.  When a pilot returned from a mission with empty guns he had given them the whole nine yards or everything he had.

Non disintegrating metal belt for Russian SG43 MG.  Each link is attached to the next by a coiled wire spring.


Non disintegrating metal belt for German MG34 & MG42.

In this type of belt the rounds are pushed straight ahead into the chamber.  They are not pulled to the rear first.  Consequently, the bottom of the link has to be open to allow the round to be stripped out of the link.  To better position them in the links and prevent movement which would jam the gun each one has a tab that engages the extractor groove of the case.  These links are also held together with a coil spring.


Disintegrating metal belt for US M60 LMG.

This type of link has a combination of the features found in the Browning & MG34 links.  The links interlock like the Browning but have the open bottom & positioning tab like the MG34.  The advantage is that you don’t have a long section of empty belt hanging out of the side of the MG while you are firing it.  The disadvantage is that if you have to refill the belt in the field it is far more difficult & time consuming to pick up the individual links & refill them.

Feed strip for French Hotchkiss MG.

Feed strip for French St. Etienne MG.

The Hotchkiss machine gun used a feed strip that held from 24 to 30 rounds.  It was fed into one side of the MG and came out the other as the rounds were fired.  The Hotchkiss action stripped the rounds straight into the chamber.  It was a very successful MG & was widely used.  Both England & France used Hotchkiss MGs in WW1 tanks.  The feed strips for these were made in segments of 3 to 5 rounds held together with pins.  This gave them a flexible belt holding more than the 24 or 30 rounds that could be used in the confines of the small tanks.

The French military adopted a Hotchkiss as the M1914.  The St. Etienne arsenal decided that they would “improve” the design.  The result was the St. Etienne MG.  They changed the gas system so that the piston moved to the front instead of the rear.  This required various links & levers and was far more complicated.  It also pulled the round out of the feed strip to the rear instead of stripping it directly into the chamber.  Even though the St. Etienne MG preformed very poorly in combat & was replaced in the front lines by the M1914, the French still had some in use when WW2 started.

Japanese Type 11 LMG hopper.

The Japanese had 2 machine guns that used hoppers mounted on the gun that contained  chargers. The Type 11 LMG used the same chargers that were used to load their rifles.  The Type 89 aircraft MG used a special charger for the 7.7X58SR it was chambered for.  The Type 11 (which was a Hotchkiss type) hopper held 6 of the 5 round chargers one on top of the other.  As the MG fired the rounds were pulled to the side out of the chargers and fed through the action.  When one was gone from the hopper the next dropped into position to be fed next.   The Type 89 used a large pie segment hopper that held a large number of chargers.  As a flexible aircraft machine gun this must have been very difficult to re-load during air combat.

 British Lewis drum magazine.

Japanese saddle drum magazine.

The drum magazine was used in the Lewis (US & British) & Russian Degtyarev (DP) LMGs.  Both had the drum mounted horizontally on top of the receiver.  They both held 47 rounds when used for ground combat.  The Germans used (Japan also copied & used it) a saddle drum magazine on the MG34 that held 75 rounds.  As the name implies, it set on top of the receiver & had a drum on each side that hung down beside the receiver.  When the MG has been converted to use this drum, it can not use belts until it is changed back.