Thanks to a devoted reader in New York, I received a copy of a book I have long been looking to add to my collection: American Guerrilla in the Philippines.
In preparing for my presentations on improvised munitions tomorrow and Sunday, I ran across this description by David Iliff Richardson of ammunition production behind the lines during world War II. It is more proof, if any were needed, of the futility of firearms confiscation.
After the battle of Baybay our army's first problem -- more immediate even than establishing a civil government and getting paid -- was ammunition. They had shot off almost everything they had. Besides, they had been using battery separators and battery terminal lead as well as other soft metals for their bullets. With soft metal like that, you fire a few times and the rifling of the barrel fills up. Then you get a recoil that knocks you ten feet.The whole ordnance problem became my baby. I had made a deal with Colonel McLish (another guerrilla unit leader, before leaving him, for four thousand empty .30 caliber cartridges. We'd load them and give him back one thousand loaded cartridges in exchange. I found a kid named Kuizon to organize an ordnance factory for us. We scrounged around and got a hand forge, some hack saws, and a file. That was the small-arms factory.This boy Kuizon did all the experimenting. He was about twenty-one, the son of a pharmacist from Bato. He had never been in the army before, but I made him a third lieutenant because he was so ingenious and willing.We foraged in schoolhouses for the bullets to fill the shells. The brass curtain rods there were made of a good hard metal just a little thicker than a .30 caliber bullet. We cut the rod up into appropriate lengths, then filed the end down to point it. There was an old broken-down Springfield rifle there, and they'd stick the bullet in this, thake a rod and try to run it through, If it went, it fit. If it didn't, they'd file some more.For the primer, we used sulphur mixed with coconut shell carbon. Later we were able to get hold of some antimony and add it to the mixture. Then it worked 80 to 90 percent efficiently. Our main source of powder was from Japanese sea mines that we would dismantle, We;d mix in pulverized wood to retard the burning because mine powder is too violent for a rifle bullet. It took us blowing up about five rifles -- blowing off the firing pins, the extractors, and the bolts -- to find out about that.All measuring was done rudely, by thumb and by guess and by God. You'd pour the powder into the cartridge with a little homemade funnel sort of thing until you thought you had enough. Then you'd put the piece off the brass curtain rod into the cartridge and crimp the cartridge around it with a pair of pliers. Presto, you had a bullet. Each bullet had to be tested for fit because all our cartridges had been fired once or twice or four times before. We'd load and extract each bullet. If the shoulder was too big, we'd crimp it down. If it was too small, we'd say that was fine.Getting the right measure for the mixture was Kuizon's business. It was all trial and error. When there was an error, the cartirdges would blow up in the gun. Powder flashes would come out between the bolts and burn his hands. One morning he broke three rifles in succession, burning his hands three times and jolting his shoulder so badly his toes ached."Sir, I do not like to do this work, sir," he admitted finally. "I will put the rifle on the table, sir, and test by long distance, sir."Finally we managed to dragoon an apothecary's scales and after a few more tests "by long distance" no more rifles blew up. Using this ammunition was hard on our guns, but it worked and killed a Jap to beat hell. The boys liked them because the mine powder gave the bullets so much power they never had to figure windage.Our ordnance factory never filled more than a one-room house, about twenty feet by ten. But we expanded it to making extractors and firing pins out of such steel as we could find -- usually spring steel. These weren't very successful, but they worked fine for a dozen rounds. I put sixty soldiers to work in the ordnance plant, but the filing of the brass curtain rods to fit took so long that our production never got better than an average of 160 bullets a day.
So, dear readers, the next time you are tempted to complain about the price or availability of ammunition, remember the guerrillas of the Philippines. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but to those who are constrained by an absolute poverty of means, necessity can be a mother.