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Mon, Apr 18, 2005

Better Replica Guns For Better WW1 Replicas

Pennsylvania Entrepreneur Closes The Realism Gap

by Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

You see a lot of strange things at your larger-than-average fly-ins, but a guy walking along with a Spandau 08/15 machine gun slung over his shoulder was an eye-opener. Such a gun is an ideal accessory for anybody restoring a World War I German fighter, or building a replica of one.

This wiry fellow, I thought, must have been strong as a gorilla, as the gun wasn't making him lean over like you'd expect -- an original Spandau weighs just about 30 pounds, and he had it hanging from a skinny leather strap.

Turns out that it wasn't that the guy, Landis Whitsel, was superman, but that the gun was a ringer -- a near perfect replica of the German gun, but weighing only about five pounds (production ones will be a bit heavier, about six pounds; the tradeoff is for greater durability).

How perfect a replica? Well, it has all the parts that the original had, externally, just made of lighter-weight, flight-friendly materials. It can't load or fire ammunition, and it's perfectly legal under Federal firearms laws (although it is best to check state and local laws, or your national laws if you live outside the USA, before ordering). To put it another way, I suppose you could say I'm a former machine-gun professional -- I was once a Special Forces Light Weapons Sergeant -- and I didn't realize the gun was a replica till I saw, from the way Whitsel handled it, how light it was. It probably would have fooled Oswald Boelcke, Werner Voss or Manfred von Richthofen, too.

The original MG 08/15, was called the "Spandau" by the Allies from the name of the Berlin arsenal which manufactured, and marked its name, on them. It was a lightened version of the Maxim gun, invented, ironically enough, by expatriate American Sir Hiram Maxim. Each Spandau on a German WWI fighter had 550 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition in a cloth belt, and fired at a rate of about 500 rounds a minute.  Normally, machine gunners and pilots fired these weapons in short bursts.

The right side of the replica has the Klingstrom mechanism that let the Imperial German Air Service pilot charge the weapon while flying the plane with his other hand. All you Red Baron wannabees out there will be disappointed to find that you can't actually charge the weapon with live ammunition and blow Snoopy's flying doghouse to splinters with it, but you might be pleased to know that it's so realistic, it looks like you ought to be able to.

The realism continues into the little details. The bottom has the interrupter gear. Don't actually connect this to the interrupter mechanism on your Fokker DVII or Albatros Scout, though; these gears are strictly decorative, as they're made of plastic.

The maker of this remarkable artifact -- the guy walking around Sun-n-Fun with a machine gun on his shoulder -- is Landis Whitsel of Repligun Vintage Machine Gun Replicas in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. After trying to get a replica Lewis gun for his Graham Lee Nieuport --his third homebuilt -- Whitsel bought a business that made replica Lewis guns. But the approximate nature of these weapons offended his sense of authenticity, and he threw out the whole design and started afresh.

The gun is made from a variety of materials, mostly aluminium and aluminum-magnesium alloys, but with some plastic castings; then it's painted and weathered. It's available in versions for radial-engined and inline-engined airplanes (they differed in the arrangement of the interrupter gear).

This photo shows one of the Spandau's raw Al-Mg alloy castings, for the trunnion block at the front of the receiver, compared with its appearance in the finished "weapon". The part is welded to the 6061-T6 sheet aluminum air-cooling jacket.

This much quality doesn't come cheap. One of Repliguns's museum-quality Spandaus will set you back a cool $2,500, although there's a $500 discount if you buy a pair, which is, after all, how they were usually mounted. Still, try finding a pair of originals at that price -- not to mention dealing with gun regulations, which ban even deactivated machine guns in some places, and getting your plane to lift 60 or so pounds of decorative deadweight.

What if you're not a RedBaron wannabee, but are building a Graham Lee or Bob Baslee Nieuport, or other Allied machine? Steve Culp opted for a real Vickers gun for his enhanced (360 HP!) replica Sopwith Pup, but then Culp is somewhat exceptional, and his machine can shrug off the extra thirty or forty pounds. For the rest of you, Whitsel promises a replica Vickers in the future; and he has a Lewis gun available now, with the same painstaking attention to detail as the Spandau featured here, for $2,000. There are many more photos of both guns on the Repligun website.

So, now you can fix that funny looking bare place on your Fokker Triplane or DVII. Or you can hang the gun over the mantel and make up your own war story.

FMI: www.repligun.com

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