A Sleeping Giant: The Nepalese Bira Gun
May 23, 2016
Though the Bira gun was designed toward the end of the 19th century, its actual story begins several decades earlier, in 1814, when the Nepalese launched an attack on India and occupied the hill stations of Mussoorie, Simla and Dehra Dun.
As those areas were particularly favored by the British due to their temperate climate during the summer, and because they were more than a little miffed that the Nepalese should have the nerve to attack at all, the authorities moved against the Gurkhas. Though initially rebuffed, British East India Company troops, led by Gen. David Ochterlony, finally took command of the situation and ultimately threatened Nepal's capital, Katmandu.
The King of Nepal, deciding at this point that discretion was the better part of valor, met with the British and allowed them to establish a residence in Katmandu. He also gave them the right to cross Nepal and trade with Tibet. The Company was further permitted to recruit Gurkha soldiers, whom they would take full advantage of in the First and Second Sikh Wars, the Indian Mutiny and beyond.
For their part, the British agreed to supply the Nepalese with arms and ammunition, which over the years ended up amounting to some 430 tons of muskets, rifles, handguns, ammo, blades artillery and assorted other bits and pieces — which were stored in the old palace of Lagan Silekhana in Katmandu. In 2003, International Military Antiques and Atlanta Cutlery bought the lot and brought most of it back to the United States, where collectors and shooters have been reaping the benefits of this treasure trove ever since.
While the British supplied Nepal with a wide variety of armaments, they were loath to comply with the Gurkhas' requests for machine guns, fearing they would copy them (as they did a wide variety of other arms) and end up with many more repeaters than their benefactors felt was prudent for the area.
Not to be deterred, the Nepalese decided to design a machine gun of their own. As they had no capability in producing automatic firearms, it was decided that a crank-operated mechanical machine gun, similar to the American multi-barreled Gardner, would be just the ticket. The inventor was Gen. Gahendra Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana, one of the most able Nepalese military engineers of the time.
Nepal had a huge quantity of .577-450 British Martini-Henry ammo on hand, so it was decided that the gun would be chambered in that caliber. Work began, and by the mid-1890s the gun was finished. Named after the reigning king, Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah, and weighing in at some 1,000 pounds, the Bira gun was completely handmade. Very few parts from one gun would fit on another, and in some cases individual screws were even numbered to specific holes.
It was mounted on an iron artillery carriage set upon an axle terminating in two beautifully fashioned teak spoked wheels. While most of the gun was steel and iron, brass was used for the wheel hubs, traversing and elevating wheels, some gearing, a curious receiver-mounted clinometer — without any degree markings — and a cast dedication plaque set off by red paint, which translated to: Bira Gun no. [serial number] Invented by Gahendra Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana by the order of Gurkha Government Sri Sri Sri King Bir Shamsher Janga Bahadur Rana K.C.S.I [Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India] Ang Thong Ling Pimma Kang Wang Sprang, Prime Minister, Commander in Chief. Nepal [date — either 1896 or 1897].
Looking like something that could have been used on Captain Nemo's Nautilus, the Bira gun had two barrels that were fed from a large 30-pound pan magazine, which held 120 rounds of ammunition in 60 rows of two rounds each — one on top of the other. When fully loaded, the mag and contents weigh some 40 pounds, certainly making it a chore to attach and remove the magazine when charged — though, like other parts, the magazines were numbered to individual guns, making interchangeability iffy, at best. The magazine was placed on a heavy spindle on top of the forward part of the receiver, with its cartridge-shaped port aligned with a similar aperture on the piece itself.
The Bira gun fired by turning the crank backward, rather than forward (as was usual with the Gatling and the Gardner). Gahendra opined that this was a more natural movement, and it could be performed longer without fatigue. After operating the gun, I can't say I disagree with him.
The crank handle operates two large bolts, which are cammed to fire in succession. It also activates a pawl that rotates the upper portion of the magazine, allowing two rounds to drop into a shuttling feed tray that moves back and forth, sideways, placing a round in position, from which it can be chambered by the forward motion of the bolt. When the round is fired, the empty case is plucked free of the chamber and drops out of the bottom of the receiver. Actually, it's a fairly efficient contrivance, assuming all things are properly timed, adjusted and well lubricated.
The history of the Bira gun in America starts back in the late 1970s, when a small batch was imported into the States by Interarms, in association with Navy Arms' owner Val Forgett. Unfortunately, it was not discovered until the guns arrived that they were missing their feed trays; because of some misunderstandings during negotiations, the Nepalese refused to send these over. Thus, until IMA and Atlanta Cutlery brought theirs in, it was impossible to own an operational Bira gun in the U.S.
Our particular Bira gun was one of the early imports, without its tray. It was obtained on the off-chance that among the several tons of recently imported matériel the missing part for gun No. 35 could be located. Christian Cranmer, president of IMA, was sympathetic to my plight, and after a search he came up with the tray that had been separated from the gun for some 30 years. He kindly sent it to me, and then I spent a frustrating day reverse-engineering and assembling and disassembling the monster, in an effort to figure out just how the tray fit into the whole scheme of things. Nothing on a Bira gun is lightweight, so as well as learning the ins and outs of the thing, I got in a great exercise session.
Early on, Richard Pumerantz, owner of Ten-X Ammunition, became intrigued with my project and offered to send me some dummy .577-450 ammo for testing, as well as the loaded stuff for the firing session — with one stipulation: He had to be present when the Bira gun was touched off for the first time. His Ten-X load, incidentally, propels a 480-grain bullet at 1,333 fps.
Timing the contrivance was not as simple as one might imagine, especially because the magazine was not the one originally made for this particular Bira gun. In the end it was necessary to fabricate shims for the magazine's rotating pawl and spring-loaded brake, which allowed a proper lineup of the magazine and receiver apertures. When this was accomplished, feeding with Ten-X ammo, some older dummies I had handloaded myself and even empty cases was 100 percent. A trip to the range was in order.
To transport the beast to the Angeles Shooting Range in Lake View Terrace, Cali., my friend Pat Johnson arranged for a heavy-duty stakebed truck with lift gate, which was used for hauling large motion picture studio props. It took three of us to get the gun into the truck, and even then we had some difficulty.
Initially, we loaded the pan with just four rounds to make sure it was feeding properly and that it would, in fact, discharge the cartridges. We lined up on some jugs full of colored water about 80 yards away, turned the crank and were rewarded with four fast reports — the Bira gun had spoken again after a 100-year slumber. When I talked with Christian Cranmer later, he opined that this was probably the first time a Bira gun had been fired live since the end of the 19th century.
We then loaded up the pan and ripped off another dozen rounds or so. The Bira gun jammed, and we had to remove the magazine and winkle stuck rounds out of the feed tray. This sort of happenstance was repeated throughout the session, which was puzzling, because in earlier function tests we had experienced no feeding problems. The difficulty was found to be a broken lower extractor on one of the bolts, a piece of which was fortunately discovered among the pile of empty cases by Pat. When you think of it, it was amazing the Bira gun worked at all with a damaged part, but then, Gahendra designed the device to be rugged, if nothing else.
The Bira gun proved to be accurate once we dialed it in, and at the end of the day, no jugs were left intact. Some very small movements of the traversing wheel produced considerable sweep at the muzzle. As the gun was designed to be a piece of defensive artillery, this is not surprising; it would allow the Bira gun to cover a wide area with little effort — especially if it were teamed with one or more of its mates.
You can never fully evaluate any firearm without actually shooting it, and the Bira gun was no exception. A case in point: The barrels are held onto the frame by two heavy pins. Along the undersides of the barrels are two double loops of chain. We discovered that by simply knocking out the pins, the barrels could be easily separated from the receiver, then pulled free and held by two men by the chains — even if the barrels were hot from firing.
This would allow a stuck case to be pushed out of the chamber with a rod, the barrels reinserted and the gun put back into action in a relatively short period of time. As probably a great portion of the .577-450 ammunition supplied to Nepal by the British was of the earlier foil type with an attached iron base that could be easily ripped off by the extractors, this would be a particularly valuable feature.
As of this writing, the broken extractor is being repaired; as soon as that repair is accomplished we'll be taking the Bira gun out for another go. I have to admit that shooting this mechanical marvel was one of the best days I've had at the range in some time.
It's interesting to note that we can find no reference to the Bira gun ever having been fired in anger. It appears that 50 or so of them were built — and then put right into storage. When one recalls that the design came out some 10 years after the Maxim, it is not surprising that it found itself rapidly overtaken by the new technology and became obsolete almost as soon as it was built.
Still, the Bira gun remains one of the most fascinating, if quixotic, solutions to an arms problem in recent history. Currently, IMA and Atlanta Cutlery still have a few of these guns for sale at a reasonable price (when you consider that Gatlings can easily go for $100 grand or more), so there's still a chance to add one to your arms room — if it will fit.
Had the Bira gun come along a couple of decades earlier, it might have made something of a name for itself. But as it stands, even after breaking its century-long silence, this still remains one of the most enigmatic machine guns in history.