The Birmingham Small Arms Story
When “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson yelled out with a motorcycle gang to write Hells Angels, he wasn’t riding a Harley. He drove a 650 cc BSA Lightning, the fastest production motorcycle sold in America in 1966. At that time, BSA had been manufacturing motorcycles for more than 50 years and firearms for over 100 years. The old adage that need is inventive may have been coined with BSA in mind – for Birmingham Small Arms Co., Ltd. was not owned by the UK government but was always a private company.
Birmingham developed into a forging town with local blacksmiths who not only made tools for steel farming, but also swords and armor for the landed gentry. The first British government order for firearms was 200 snaphaunce muskets per month, made by a confederation of Birmingham smiths in 1689. This type of group production lasted 150 years. When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, it was estimated that the 7,000 arms trade workers in Birmingham were making 525,000 arms a year.
Even after the Napoleonic Wars, the small arms business remained brisk. But in the 1850s the British government’s arms factory in Enfield started the industrial revolution and installed machinery – and Birmingham was in trouble. In June 1861, the Birmingham Small Arms Trade held a meeting and decided to set up a company, the Birmingham Small Arms Company, to manufacture machine guns.
Modern arms making machines have been a mixed blessing. The factory could produce better weapons faster, but it would take large orders to be profitable. After a bumpy start, BSA received its first major order from the Turkish government for 50,000 Enfield rifle muskets and the future looked bright. However, with a manufacturing facility geared towards the mass production of military small arms, the future of BSA depended on each new order. In order to diversify and develop a product with steady demand, BSA entered the bicycle business in 1880; but the real money was still in small arms – like the tens of thousands of Martini-Henrys made on government orders and made as both hunting rifles and military target rifles. In addition, BSA was already active in the air rifle business in 1904.
BSA goes to war
When World War I started, BSA was on the ropes and while it had a contract for Lee-Enfield rifles, it could only produce about 650 a week. BSA worked 24 hours a day and was producing 10,000 rifles a week within two years. By the end of the war, BSA had produced 1,601,608 Lee-Enfield rifles, but that wasn’t all. Machine guns had emerged, and BSA quickly acquired the technology needed to build them.
In 1912, a U.S. Army officer named Isaac Newton Lewis visited the BSA and brought with him a prototype machine gun that he had designed that was gas-powered, air-cooled, and magazine-fed. BSA immediately recognized the value of such a small, compact mobile machine gun and negotiated a manufacturing rights contract. In 1913 the BSA boarded a Lewis on a Graham White airplane and shot a white sheet on the ground from 150 meters as a demonstration for the British military.
BSA Sparkbrook Model 1893 Mk II Magazine Lee Metford courtesy of NRA Museums
The British officers present, leaning on their cavalry sabers, viewed the demonstration as a good trick, but of no practical military use. However, they viewed the Lewis cannon as something that could come in handy and ordered a few. During the war, BSA eventually built more than 100,000 Lewis cannons. In addition to machine guns and rifles, BSA also supplied the military with folding bicycles and motorcycles in various configurations – including some with sidecars with Lewis guns. By the end of the war, the demand for almost all BSA products, with the exception of motorcycles, had declined.
BSA was kept alive by manufacturing motorcycles, but as the Depression dragged on, even motorcycle sales had almost stalled by 1939, when Hitler invaded Europe a few months later. The RAF needed Brownings for their Spitfires and Hurricanes, and BSA made the .303-cal. Browning machine guns in the wings of British fighters.
During the “Blitz” guards climbed the roof of the BSA and watched the sky for Nazi bombers. For the most part, old men and women were employed in the factory, as most of the able-bodied men were needed in uniform. When the air raid siren sounded, many employees worked on their machines until the last moment before taking shelter. Some workers refused to leave their stations and died on their machines. The Germans shot BSA with high explosive and then with incendiary bombs, destroyed buildings and machines, but each time BSA rose from the ashes and went back into production. BSA was never incapacitated and continued to produce weapons and motorcycles throughout the war.
Lean and leaner years
Times of peace have always been hard times for BSA, and the years after World War II have been meager for small arms manufacturers. The BSA has offered civilian weapons or civil versions of its military weapons from its inception. Enfield-style military muzzle loaders were replaced with large-diameter Martini-Henry drop blocks, then the martinis were replaced with Lee-Enfields.
Its .22 and .310 Martini-based small bore calibers (there were plenty of other chambers as well) were made occasionally from 1911 through the 1980s. The last version, the Martini ISA Match .22, was discontinued in 1985. From the late 1950s, BSA also offered hunting-specific bolt action rifles, including Royal and Majestic, Majestic Deluxe and Monarch Deluxe until 1974. 1986, a new range of bolt action rifles included everything from Varminters to Mannlicher-tipped sockets to bespoke bolt action hunting rifles. The last BSA rifle model imported into the USA was the single-shot repeating rifle CFT Target in 7.62 x 51 mm, but it was dropped in 1987.
Birmingham Small Arms Model 1922 Sporter Rifle courtesy of NRA Museums
Almost as well known as the martinis were the many box locks next to each other that bore the BSA trademark with three rifles. The production of “The BSA Hammerless Shot Gun” started right after the First World War. Generally English style with a straight grip and fragmentation fore-end, these Anson & Deeley based boxlock pistols were typically made in 12 gauge with only extractors and double triggers. As a BSA advertisement from 1920 proudly proclaimed, these weapons were “one of the world’s greatest achievements in machine manufacturing”.
After World War II, BSA got back into motorcycle production in seriousness too, and things looked pretty good for a while in the 1960s and early 70s. Unfortunately for BSA, a small Japanese motorcycle manufacturer stepped in with a marketing approach that was far removed from the bad boy image that motorcycles had acquired. With small 50cc electric start scooters and an advertising slogan that said, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” the Honda Motorcycle Company just put BSA and the other British motorcycle companies out of business. It seems that BSA’s death bell has struck, but BSA is just too big a name to slip into history.
A BSA Phoenix?
In 1985, the Spanish air rifle manufacturer Gamo acquired the rights to the name BSA and launched an inexpensive line of sports optics. BSA’s riflescopes and binoculars were a success, and as the business grew, Gamo looked for another line of products to fit under the BSA banner.
In 2003 a new line of BSA shotguns – “BSA Imports” – was introduced to the American market. The first BSA import weapon that came to the USA was christened “Classic S / S”. A slim, small box lock next to each other, available in every gauge from caliber .410 to caliber 12, the name “Classic” was absolutely appropriate. Over-Under and Autoloader both came from the legendary gun manufacturer in the USA. Along with a wide range of bore sizes for everyone.
Today BSA Guns Ltd. maintains its manufacturing heritage, manufactures air rifles, hunting rifles and sporting weapons, and exports 557 of its manufactured products. Airguns of Arizona is the distributor of BSA Guns Ltd. in the United States and offers a range of pre-loaded pneumatic (PCP) air rifles, including BSA’s Gold Star SE in .177 caliber – the first custom-made PCP target rifle to go out of the market at the UK factory in Birmingham.
The old Birmingham Small Arms Co. is a name that simply refuses to stay down.
This feature has been updated from its original appearance in the March 2005 issue of *. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page and select * as your member magazine.