The Besa Machine Gun
In the late 1930’s the British Army found that it needed a new machine gun for it’s armored vehicles, especially it’s tanks. Before the Brits had made due with the trusty Vickers machine gun, however the large and heavy water cooled machine gun was difficult to use within the tight confines of a tank or armored vehicle, escpecially mounted as a coaxial machine gun.
In 1938 British Small Arms obtained a license to manufacture a copy of the Czech ZB-53 heavy machine gun. The new machine gun, called the Besa, was fed from a 225 round disintegrating belt and had a rate of fire around 750-850 rounds per minute. Because the Besa was a Czech design, it was chambered for the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge. BSA began production in early 1939 in it’s original chambering. While there was talk of retiring the .303 British cartridge because it was a rimmed cartridge, there were intentions to convert the Besa to use .303 British. However on September 1st, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and war were declared.
The British Ministry of Supply determined that it would be easier and more economical to continue production in 7.92 and just manufacture their own ammunition rather than attempt to convert the Besa to .303. Doing so would take time in both redesigning the Besa and retooling machinery used in manufacturing it. With increasing demand for tanks the British couldn’t simply halt tank production until the conversion was made, thus it was decided to continue production in 7.92. The Besa also had an advantage in that it could use captured enemy ammunition, as 7.92×57 was the standard caliber of most German small arms.
The Besa would become the most commonly used machine gun for British tanks such as the Matilda, Valentine, Crusader, Cromwell, and Churchill. Models with tripod mountings were also produced for mounting on light vehicles and infantry use. The Besa came in six models. The Mark I was the original model. The Mark II featured a selector switch were the rate of fire could be reduced to 450-550 rounds per minute. The Mark II* was a simplified version of the Mark II and shared parts compatibility. The Mark III did away with the fire rate selector and did not share parts compatibility with earlier models. The Mark III* was similar to the Mark III but had a slower fixed rate of fire of 450-550 rpm. Finally a model was produced chambered for a very powerful 15mm cartridge. Besa production was discontinued shortly after the Korean War, and was retired from service in The early 1960’s.