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Burton Light Machine Rifle

An Early American Assault Rifle

The term “assault rifle” has garnered a lot of controversy over the years. Many confuse the term with the legislative catchall that changes its definition depending on the state or the year, or the whim of whichever politician is peddling their pet agenda, namely the assault weapon. However, there’s a general definition of the term. Assault rifles are considered by the Defense Intelligence Agency as “short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between a submachine gun and rifle cartridges.” Other definitions also discuss the detachable magazine as a characteristic. Several contemporary examples are the United States’ M16 and Russia’s AK, but the first production assault rifle is generally considered the Sturmgewehr 44 (STG-44).

Decades prior to the development and adoption of the STG 44, however, other firearms fit the modern definition. And the requirements for that definition are even older. The term “machine gun” predated the development of automatic technology, appearing on patent documents as a category of firearms with iconic inventions, such as the 1862 patent of Richard Jordan Gatling’s Gatling Gun. While those technologies don’t necessarily meet the legal and modern definition of the term, the first successful automatic machine gun is often attributed to Hiram Stevens Maxim around 1884.

The 1880s also saw the birth of semi-automatic technology, including Mannlicher’s semi-automatic rifle. In the 1890s, handguns like Hugo Borchardt’s C-93 not only incorporated semi-automatic technology, but also a detachable magazine. And the concept behind the selector switch is just as old. In the 1890s, Mexican military officer Manuel Mondragon developed a straight pull rifle that bore his name. A unique feature of this gun is that it’s technically select fire. The switch is labeled “A” for safe, “L” for normal fire, and “R.” This mode locks the trigger and automatically drops the firing pin when the bolt is in battery. The gun is still manually operated. Regardless of how the machineries continued to evolve, however, the foundation for each technology predated the 20th century.

The turn of the 20th century marked a period of rapid military transition. From the implementation of the machine gun to smokeless powder, armies were experimenting with new technology and new methods of mobilizing. The United States underwent a major transition as the army changed from a frontier garrison force into a modern military. In Europe, countries expanded their standing armies into the millions. These armies also began to arm themselves on an unprecedented scale in preparation for a war that would involve mass mobilization of civilian populations and needed arms to suit. Militaries also adopted new technologies. Machine guns began to see more widespread use, and inventions like tanks and combat aircraft revolutionized how wars were fought. With all this change, it’s no surprise that early versions of the assault rifle would be developed during this time of technological transition.

And one company that sat at the forefront of technological advancement in the military was one remembered more for its lever actions than machine guns — Winchester. Due in part to an international marketing campaign from 1919 that spun the expression, “Gun That Won the West,” Winchester’s military and ammunition development is less well known to the average person. Prior to their nostalgic look back on the mythological and actual roots of the company, Winchester was a global military arms and ammunition manufacturer. And Winchester was always known for its skilled designers, including Benjamin Tyler Henry, John Moses Browning, William Mason, Thomas Crossley Johnson, Frank Burton, and Melvin Johnson.

T.C. Johnson developed several semi-automatics in the early 1900s, including the Models 1903, 1905, and 1907. The 1907 was a blowback semi-automatic rifle chambered in .351 Winchester Self Loading cartridge. Some of these guns were converted to selective fire — causing some researchers to apply the modern term assault rifle to this gun. However, there’s a firearm developed a decade later, during the war, that also fits the definition.

The designer of this gun was Frank Burton. Burton, whose father was James Burton known for refining the French Minié ball at Harpers Ferry, worked on many firearms throughout his tenure at Winchester, including some of the Models designed by TC Johnson. The Burton Light Machine Rifle was developed in 1916-17 and only one firing prototype was ever produced. It’s housed in the Cody Firearms Museum’s Winchester Arms Collection. There’s not a lot of information known about this gun. Much of what has been written about it is based on a 1980s Man at Arms magazine article. Some of that information includes that this gun was originally meant to take down hydrogen-fueled balloons using incendiary ammunition.

However, according to ammunition expert Daniel Shuey’s ammunition test cards of the loadings for those rounds, none of them were listed as incendiary. Additionally, the article doesn’t cite sources, it only thanks former Winchester Arms Collection Curator Tom Hall for allowing the author to examine the gun years prior and former Cody Firearms Museum Curator Herbert G. Houze for providing photographs. The Cody Firearms Museum journal, Armax (no longer in print), has an article about the Burton, and it doesn’t reference incendiary ammunition. Further research is currently being conducted and will be published jointly between Cody Firearms Assistant Curator Daniel Michael and historian Matthew Moss, who runs the website Historical Firearms, so hopefully soon we’ll know more.

As for what we know now, it was designed for a dual purpose. It has two barrels. One is an aircraft barrel for use on a plane and the other, an infantry barrel with a bayonet lug and bayonet. However, this gun was still very much ahead of its time. The firearm is a selective fire blowback rifle. The cartridge, .345 Winchester Self Loading, was about as creative as the gun itself. Also designed by Burton, it was adapted from the .351 Winchester Self Loading cartridge but had a pointed bullet. These cartridges were loaded into twin, top-mounted, 20-round-each, detachable magazines. And the magazines themselves are unique. They feed one at a time and don’t have an automatic transition. Rather, the magazines have two locking functions, one to store it and one to lock it in place to chamber a cartridge. When one magazine is expended, the user would pull the empty magazine back and push the loaded magazine into position to fire the next set of 20 rounds.

As the war ended, however, the Burton saw neither adoption nor production. It wasn’t the only design innovation that was stalled by differing technologies and the Armistice. During the war, individual-portable, semi-automatic, and automatic rifles saw action and many more saw developments, yet by World War II, only two countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, had large stockpiles of semi-automatic rifles for their soldiers. Other countries still issued bolt actions, mostly variants of the guns that had been in use two decades prior. Widespread military cuts and the difficulty in switching production meant that other new developments like planes and tanks had taken precedence, choices that would shape the next global conflict. Yet by the end of World War II, assault rifle technology would be adopted and inspire many more versions around the world.

The Burton is a gun that never was, but it has developed a cult following of online gun aficionados and researchers, thanks to popular pages publishing information. And while the actual Burton never saw battle, it saw alternate reality use in the popular video game, Battlefield One.

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