The Boys Anti-Tank Rifle was part of Britain’s interwar development of weapons designed to take on tanks. While the artillery got the 2 pounder, a cheaper, lighter alternative was needed for the Infantry to help deal with tanks and other armored vehicles. Out of this necessity came the Rifle, Anti-Tank, .55in, Boys.
A Boys Mk.1. Source: Wikimedia
Design and Development
The British Army had shown interest in an anti-tank rifle during the First World War, mainly that designed by famous gun designer Philip Thomas Godsal. However, due to the lack of a German tank threat, with those that did appear easily dealt with by artillery or other means, no further development past prototype stage was taken.
In 1934, the Small Arms Committee started a programme for an anti-tank rifle to be used at platoon level with the ability to penetrate 16mm of armor at 100 yards (91 meters). The work was led by Captain Henry C. Boys, Assistant Superintendent of Design at the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield. The team looked at the Polish Karabin przeciwpancerny wzór 35 anti-tank rifle and used its design as inspiration for their own project.
From this influence they built, like many other anti-tank rifles of the time, a large-scale bolt action rifle. It was designed to take a modified .50 BMG cartridge but, after initial trials, the bullet was increased to a .55 calibre. However, unlike many of its counterparts, it was fed from a top loading magazine with the spent cases being ejected down. Due to this, the sights were put onto the left-hand side. To help reduce the effect of recoil, a circular muzzle break with three slots on its circumference at sixty degree spacing was added. The whole barrel and receiver were mounted on a slide that pushed against a large spring when the weapon was fired. There was also a walnut cheek-piece and the butt was curved and padded to allow for better control of the weapon. It was also mounted onto a unique looking T-shaped monopod that allowed for a stable firing platform.
A British soldier on Salisbury Plain, 1939. You can see the unique Boys monopod. Source: Imperial War Museum
To give it a high velocity in order to penetrate armor, the barrel was 910mm long and had 7 grooves. This allowed the weapon to achieve a velocity of 802 meters per second, and was highly accurate up to a range of 300 yards (274 meters).
The prototype was given the name ‘Stanchion’ and it was tested in early 1936, the original .50 BMG modified cartridge being described as having “a disappointing armor-piercing performance”. This led Captain Boys to redesign the round, increasing it to .55 caliber. The bullet was 926 gr. hardened steel core bullet with a lead sleeve and a steel jacket. This was then placed into a .50 BMG case that had an enlarged neck for the .55 round and a belt added near the base to stop it from being chambered into .50 caliber weapons. This allowed for a penetration performance of 23.2 mm of armor at 100 yards, this was a significant increase over the specifications of the initial requirements. The trials continued throughout 1936 and in November 1937 the ‘Stanchion’ was accepted for service. Unfortunately, Captain Boys died only days before and so the rifle was renamed Boys in his honor.
Close up of the sight and muzzle break on the Mk 1 Boys. Source: Wikimedia
Modifications and Upgrades
It was soon noticed that the .55 Boys cartridge was insufficient to the task and a redesign was ordered. The team reduced the weight of the bullet itself and increased the propellant, making a lighter but faster bullet. This was adopted into service as the Mk.II bullet in June 1939 and the Mk.I bullet was declared obsolete in December of that year. In 1942, an Armoured Piercing Composite Rigid (APCR) was developed after British engineers had examined captured German 7.92×94mm Patronen. It used a tungsten carbide core with an aluminum jacket. This design improved muzzle velocity to 944 m/s and allowed it to penetrate 20mm at 300 yards, but due to the development and deployment of more effective anti-tank weapons, like the PIAT, this cartridge was never officially adopted.
A Boys mk.II cartridge (left) versus a .50 BMG cartridge. Source: Wikimedia
It wasn’t just the cartridge that went through upgrades but the rifle itself.
Due to the outbreak of war, the need for the Boys AT rifle was increased and soon the Canadian company, John Inglis and Company, was producing the Boys (alongside the many other weapons it was producing for the Commonwealth war effort). It was during the production here that the engineer team took it upon themselves to make some modifications. The most noticeable is the muzzle brake, often referred to as the harmonica. It was a rectangular block with the rear-ward slanting gas vents directed horizontally either side. It has been theorised that it came about as a result of US Army testing with the Solothurn S 18-1000. This helped with the recoil but more importantly, it reduced the amount of debris that was thrown up (the original muzzle brake pushed the blast downwards as well as upwards and to the sides), thus not giving away the position of the gun. The other advantage was it was of simple design and didn’t require a lot of maintenance, unlike the original brake, that needed dissembling and oiling when not in use. Another modification was the replacement of the monopod with a Bren gun bipod, which helped with production. It also received much simpler fixed sights and the butt padding was reinforced with rubber. These modifications were designated Mk 1* and were officially adopted in 1942, with new rifles being made to this specification, and some original marks being upgraded.
A Mk 1* Boys. Notice the muzzle brake and bipod. Source: acant.org.au
In mid-1942, in order to give Airborne forces some hard-hitting firepower, a lighter and shorter version of the Boys was developed. It used the Mk 1* as a base but shortened the barrel to only 762 mm and got rid of the muzzle break. However, this had the negative effect of increased report and recoil, also less penetration. Numerous parts were made from aluminum to help save on weight. The tradeoff was that these pieces were softer and thus more prone to bending and breaking. The butt padding was also filled with feathers and the bipod was made of lighter metals. There is also conflicting evidence that it was squeeze-bore, using a necked down .55 calibre case for a .303 calibre armor piercing bullet. This was to help save on weight for the airborne troops but still give a high velocity and armor penetration, however, this is countered by some reports stating that the round was solely designed as a training device, as this allowed the Boys to be used on all standard .303 ranges. Very few were produced and the project was canceled in 1943 when the Boys was declared obsolete.
Besides these three official models of the Boys, there were also experiments and other modifications taken. Two Boys Mk Is were produced in a 13.2 calibre (the same calibre as the Tankgewehr of 1918). It has been suggested that this was part of an experiment to give bombers like the Lancaster a hard-hitting defensive gun against frontally-armored German fighters. However, this has been argued against due to the impracticality of having a single-shot gun for aircraft defense. Ian Skennerton mentions in his book, “The Lee-Enfield Story”, that a smoothbore 13.2mm Boys was tested in mid-1945 and it is theorised that it was for testing a sabot round.
Another interesting modification came about during the US Army’s sniping trials. Taking the Canadian produced Mk 1*, it was converted to fire .50 BMG, the barrel was replaced with a M2 Browning barrel and a telescopic sight was fitted. It was reported that this gave it extreme accuracy at over 1,000 yards (914 meters) and some were even issued to combat units.
By the end of 1943, when the weapon ceased production, a total of 114,081 Boys of all marks had been produced.
Baptism of Fire – In Finnish Service
The Boys would see its baptism of fire with Finland during the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish Winter War. During the closing weeks of 1939, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland shocked the world and many gave the Finns only a few weeks before they capitulated. Despite the overwhelming odds, the dogged defence of the Finns had stalled the Soviet advance and allowed for military aid to reach the frontlines. Finland was lacking in many modern arms, including anti-tank weaponry and asked any nation for help. The United Kingdom offered to donate 100 of its Boys to the Finnish cause. These arrived in January 1940 and 30 were given to the Swedish Volunteer Corps and the other 70 deployed on the Karelian Isthmus. The weapon was extremely effective at penetrating the armor of the Soviet BT and T-26 tanks but the Finns found that they needed to aim for the crew positions in order to get the best use out of the gun. Out of the 100 in service, only 6 were lost in combat.
Two Swedish Volunteers in early 1940 in Finland carrying Mk 1 Boys. Source:Wikimedia
During the Interim Peace (1940-41), the Finns acquired another 100 Boys from the British and bought 200 more from the Germans (who had captured a large amount from retreating forces during the Battle of France). Given the official designation 14mm pst kiv/37 (Panssarintorjuntakivääri) it was issued at a rate of 4 guns per company and were used throughout the Finnish forces until being replaced by the Lahti L-39. During this part of the war, the Boys had lost its edge and due to the upgrading of Soviet tanks it was now essentially ineffective as an anti-tank weapon and was soon issued to coastal troops or even put into storage. The Finns did find that the gun was good at engaging bunkers and other hardpoints at long range but, due to the muzzle flash, the manuals stressed the need to fire and move. These guns were kept on the official reserve lists until 1956 when the vast majority were sold off to the United States.
British and Commonwealth Service
The Boys was adopted into service by the British Army in 1937 as a Platoon level anti-tank weapon. Soon afterwards it was decided that it would be deployed as a section level weapon. However, by the outbreak of war, the Rifle platoons still only had one Boys per Platoon but the Mechanised Platoons had 4 per platoon, mounted in Universal Carriers.
The British forces employed over 58,000 of the Boys during the Second World War. During the early campaigns, like Norway and France, the Boys performed adequately against the thinly armored Panzer I, II and IIIs. The first German tanks knocked out by British troops were by a Boys during the Norwegian campaign. Sergeant Major John Sheppard of the 1/5th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment (TA) was deployed near the village of Tretten to help protect the right flank when three German Panzers approached his position. Taking up the Platoon’s Boys, which he had never used before, Sheppard fired three rounds into each tank, knocking out two of them and making the rest third retreat. For his actions that day, which helped keep the right flank of the British position solid, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Soldiers of the Rifle Brigade exercising with a Boys in 1939 before the outbreak of war. Source:Imperial War Museum
However, the Boys didn’t garner much favour with the troops, mainly due to its weight (weighing 16kg unloaded, it was roughly the same as a Vickers Machine Gun) and because of its frightful recoil. Anti-tank rifles work by hitting critical parts of the tank which are thus disabled. They do not have any explosive filler to destroy a tank through explosive like anti-tank guns. This meant a tank could take several hits before stopping (if it stopped at all), thus demoralising troops. During the evacuation of Dunkirk, the heavy rifle was left in large numbers upon the beaches.
During the reorganisation in 1941, the Boys was issued at 1 per section for Rifle platoons. Many were mounted on the Universal Carrier in a primitive form of tank destroyer (despite regulations stating that all weapons should be dismounted from the Carrier before use). The weapon also saw mounting upon the Morris CS9 Light Armored Car and Morris Light Reconnaissance Car, Chevrolet WB, the Lanchester 4×2 and 6×4 armored cars, the Humber Light Reconnaissance Car, Marmon-Herrington MKII Armoured Car, and even the World War I-vintage Rolls Royce Armoured Cars.
A Univeral Carrier armed with a Boys. This carrier is painted to represent an ‘enemy’ tank during an anti-invasion exercise in the South of England, 15 June 1941. Source: Imperial War Museum
A pair of Humber Mk III Light Reconnaissance Cars. These vehicles were armed with Bren Guns and Boys Anti-Tank Rifle. Source: Imperial War Museum
It was also given to the reformed armies of the Governments in Exile, like Poland, to give them some form of anti-tank protection. These exiled armies were organised along similar lines to the British Army and so the Boys saw issue at platoon level and in similar fashion to the British, it would be replaced in 1943-44 by other more effective infantry mobile anti-tank weapons.
Members of the Polish Armed Forces in the West manning an improvised Armoured Train in Scotland, 1941. These trains were armed with a 6 pounder gun, two Boys anti-tank rifles and six Bren machine guns. Source: Imperial War Museum
The next action for the Boys with the British was during the North African desert fighting. It fared very well against the Italian tanks. Only against the Fiat M13/40, with its 30mm frontal armor, did it struggle. However, the poor tactical handling of the Italian forces meant that it wasn’t really an issue. The Germans had learned the lessons from their 1940 campaigns and had uparmored their Panzers in order to combat the Allied anti-tank capabilities. In the aftermath of Operation Crusader, the British forces conducted a study in which they concluded that no Boys had successfully engaged a tank.
It was the ineffectiveness against newer tanks that saw the Boys being utilised in other roles by the British. For example it was used against fortified positions, especially during the closing stages of the Desert Campaign and the Dieppe Raid. It was declared obsolete by the the end of 1943 and the new platoon level anti-tank weapon would be the PIAT. But the Boys would continue to be kept in the companies of the army for use in an anti-material role.
While its usefulness on the European Front was waning, on the Far Eastern front it remained relevant. Japanese armor was relatively light (the Type 95 had a top thickness of 16mm and the Type 97 30mm) and so easily fell prey to the Boys. The first Japanese tank disabled by Commonwealth forces was a Type 95 Ha-Go at Ahioma in August 1942. Australian forces had used their Boys to bring the tank to a halt and force a surrender. The men of the 1/14th Punjabi Regiment, British Indian Army used their Boys to knock out several Japanese tanks and blunt the assault against their positions in Malaya 1942.
A German soldier with a Boys anti-tank Rifle. Source: Axishistory
As mentioned above, the Germans had acquired a large amount of Boys rifles from the retreating British forces in France 1940. These were then redistributed to Static units and other lower tier units for defensive and training works. It was designated the 13,9 mm Panzerabwehrbüchse 782(englisch).
A German-produced pamphlet on the Boys
The United States received 771 Boys Mk.1* from Canada. Some of these were used in the sniper trials as mentioned above. Others were given to the newly formed Ranger battalions, 20 per battalion, but there is no record of their deployment in combat. US Marine Corps “Raiders” used the Boys on their special operations in the Pacific. The most famous use came during the Raid on Makin Island. Two flying boats attempted to land on the lagoon with reinforcements for the Japanese garrison there only to find themselves under fire from a pair of Boys. One was set on fire soon after landing, the other attempted to take off but was so riddled with Boys rounds that no sooner had it left the water than it plunged back in, breaking up. One of the last uses of the Boys came from the Americans.
Members of the United States Marine Corps Raiders manning a Boys during a training exercise in 1943. Source: ibiblio.org
The Soviets received 3,200 of the Boys through the Lend Lease programme. The vast majority of these were deployed with the Universal Carrier and were seen as a vehicle armament, used for engaging hardpoints and soft-skinned vehicles rather than a dedicated anti-tank weapon (they employed their own anti-tank rifles for that). They were also sent to fronts where tanks were less common, like Murmansk, and also to training units. In the run-up to the 1943 Summer campaign, the Soviets requested ‘no less than 500 Universal APCs with a 13.5mm Boys AT rifle.’ Generally, the weapon was much liked by the Soviet soldier, it was seen as more reliable and effective than their own PTRD-41.
A Universal Carrier armed with a Boys in Soviet service. Source: WarThunder Forums
Another user of the Boys was the Republic of China. 6,129 Mk.1* were sent as part of the aid from the Allies in 1942/43. The Chinese utilised the rifle to good effect in ambushes, as showed by the Special Anti-Tank Company of the 85th Army, which used their Boys to knock out two Japanese tanks, and force the rest of the column to retreat in Zhong Yangdian, April 1945. However, they disliked the weight and preferred the more versatile American Bazooka. This meant many of those Boys sent were never used on the frontline. Some of these fell into the hands of the Communist Chinese forces in the ensuing Chinese Civil War, but it is unclear if they were used.
A group of Chinese Nationalist Soldiers practicing with a Boys Anti-Tank rifle. Source: Twitter
Portugal also bought some Boys from Britain during the early stages of the war to help with their shortage of anti-tank weaponry. However, the vast majority didn’t get out of storage due to lack of need and reports of poor performance. Some were sent to Portuguese possessions, such as Macau, in case Japan didn’t respect their neutrality.
An unspecified number of Boys were supplied to the Philippines for their resistance against the Japanese occupation. These saw use similar to how the Chinese deployed them, in ambush positions to take out the thin-skinned Japanese tanks. After the liberation of the Philippines, these rifles were then used during the Hukbalahap Rebellion and by Filipino forces in the Korean War.
During the Korean War, the United States Army saw there was a need for a long-range, heavy calibre rifle and Ralph Walker of Selma Alabama converted several Boys to .50 using M2 barrels (similar to their sniper trials during the Second World War) and attaching telescopic sights to them. These were then given to special sniper teams to effectively engaged Chinese and North Korean forces up to 1100 yards away (1005 meters).
Some of these Communist Chinese Boys are suspected to have been sold to Congolese rebels during the Congo Crisis in 1964-65. However, how many and how they were used is indeterminable. Same goes for the Italians during the Second World War, who had acquired an unknown number during the early stages of the Desert Campaign but how they were utilised is not known. There are reports of the Boys having been supplied to members of the Hellenic Army during the initial stages of the Italian invasion of Greece, with some still being in service during the Greek Civil War.
Some were also sold to the Republic of Ireland to help supplement their military forces during the Second World War (known as the Emergency) but, like many other smaller forces, their distribution is unknown. In connection to the Irish Boys, the Official Irish Republican Army is known to have possessed one which they used during an attack on HMS Brave Borderer in September 1965, causing severe damage to one of its turbines.
Irish troops unpacking a Boys Anti-Tank Rifle. Source: Forgotten Weapons
A small, unknown amount was also in use by Jewish Insurgents and later by Israeli Forces in the post-war years.
Israeli troops with a Boys preparing for Operation Horev, 1949. Source: Wikimedia
The Boys has somewhat of a mixed reputation. Within popular history culture, it is normally maligned as a useless deadweight upon the infantryman. Within academic circles, it is highlighted to have been useful but was obsolete by the time the war was underway. Both sides have valid points to their arguments.
The Boys was noted for its ferocious recoil, with many British soldiers complaining of headaches, bruised or even broken shoulders. This isn’t uncommon though for large caliber anti-tank rifles of the time and it was noted by official papers that the majority of these injuries could be avoided if the individual held the weapon in the correct manner. The dangerous noise level emitted from the gun was recognised by those higher up and regulations stipulated that the weapon must not be fired without ear protection (the first weapon of the British army with mandatory ear protection). Despite this, it still earned a horrible reputation, earning many nicknames like ‘Elephant Gun’ or ‘Charlie the Bastard’. The penetration certainly wasn’t poor. With a muzzle velocity of 884 m/s, the Boys was able to penetrate up to 23.2mm of armor at 100 yards. However, this was the lowest penetration compared to its contemporaries.
During the Winter War, the weapon was at its most effective. The light skinned T-26s and BT-7 tanks which made up the bulk of the Soviet tank arm were vulnerable to the Boys even at ranges up to 400 meters. Finnish tactics stressed the stalling of Soviet columns upon the sparse road networks on the Russo-Finnish border and using ambush tactics with hit and run to cripple the invaders. The long range and heavy punch of the Boys allowed this. Even during the more conventional warfare on the Karelian Isthmus, the Boys performed well as a long-range sniping weapon, being accurate up to long ranges.
During the British Campaigns of 1940, it was effective against the Panzer Is and IIs, as well as all the lightly armored half-tracks and scout cars used by the German forces. The occasional stories of Boys being useless against German tanks (often either embellishments or half-truths when against Panzer IIIs and IVs) spread far and wide and created a sense of panic and uselessness that was exacerbated by the general confusion and panic of the French Campaign. Even in the Desert, it was able to combat the Italian and majority of German forces until the upgraded Panzer IIIs and IVs appeared.
A Boys Mk1* in its packed and stripped down form. Source:DesertRats.com
The biggest issues with the Boys came from its heavyweight, despite being designated as a man-portable weapon, it weighed as much as a Vickers Machine Gun. It wasn’t uncommon for the Boys to be passed unto the new guy or platoon miscreant and it almost always is seen being marched between two men. It was this weight that meant it needed to be in a prepared position and thus didn’t suit the more mobile, fluid nature of the modern battlefield. It was mainly down to this reason why it was one of the first weapons to be abandoned during a retreat and why specialist groups like the Long Range Desert Patrol and the Special Air Service replaced it with other weapons (like the M2 Browning) as soon as possible.
Another issue came from the misunderstanding of its deployment. As it was designated ‘Anti-Tank’, the common soldier and officer alike expected it to perform in a similar fashion to a 2 pounder, that is, destroying a tank. The Boys was meant to work in conjunction with other weapons to allow the infantry platoon to combat armor. Its primary purpose was to incapacitate an armored vehicle so it may be dealt with by more specialised anti-tank weapons or even infantry borne explosives. However, the word of an infantryman travels fast within the British army and it wasn’t long that those who returned from France had whipped up such a reputation about the Boys that the Commanders were forced to act. Numerous pamphlets were issued explaining the correct handling and deployment of the weapon, like aiming for tracks, vision ports, gripping the rear handle and pushing into the shoulder. There is also a famous example of combating this rumor. Disney was commissioned by the Canadian Directorate of Military Training, the Canadian Department of National Defence and the National Film Board of Canada to produce an animated and live action educational film on the proper use and handling of the Boys. The end scene states “a rifle is like a woman, treat her right and she will never let you down”. It also didn’t help that most of the ranges within the UK were not capable of handling the Boys and so training with it was limited.
A still from the Disney film, ‘Crack That Tank’ commissioned by Canada to help dismiss the rumours about the Boys. Source: Rifleman.orh.uk
Due to the constant upgrading of Axis tanks in face of more superior and widespread Allied anti-tank weaponry (especially those for the infantryman like the Bazooka and PIAT), the Boys was left behind. This didn’t mean it wasn’t useful though. It was still kept in Divisional inventory until the end of the war. It found uses like long range sniping, anti-fortification and convoy ambushing. This was especially appreciated during the Italian campaign, where Italian and German strong points could effectively hold off much larger forces. The Boys was able to penetrate sandbags and even rocks in order to negate the Axis advantage. Tests conducted in early 1940 showed that the Boys could penetrate up to 355mm of concrete and 254mm of sandbags.
While the Boys gained a much-undeserved reputation, when one looks at its combat records, it speaks for itself. It was a weapon that could, when in the right hands, perform well. As one Australian says after a battle in the desert, “The Italians counterattacked with nine tanks and hundreds of infantrymen. Private O.Z. Neall knocked out three Italian tanks with his Boyes anti-tank rifle, a feat that astounded everyone —the Boyes rifle was noted for its uselessness.”
An American propaganda poster showing a British ‘Tommy’ with a Boys slung over his shoulder. Source:Rifleman.org.uk
|Caliber||.0.5507 in. (13.99 mm)|
|Barrel Lenght||36 in. (910 mm); Airborne: 30 in. (762 mm)|
|Overall Lenght||5 ft 2 in (1.575 m); Airborne: 4 feet 8 inches (1.427 m)|
|Weight, unloaded||13lb (16.3 kg)|
|Practical Rate of Fire||10 rounds per minute|
|Muzzle velocity||Mk I: 747 m/s (2,450.1 ft/s); Mk II: 884 m/s (2,899.5 ft/s)|
|Effective firing range||23.2mm penetration at 90° 100 yards (91 m); 18.8mm penetration at 90° 500 yards (460 m)|
|Feed system||5-round detachable box magazine|
|Action||repeater, cylinder lock (bolt action)|
Links & Resources
Jaegerplatoon- AT Rifles
Zaloga, Steven J. , The Anti-Tank Rifle, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018
Weeks, John S. , Men against tanks: a history of anti-tank warfare, Mason/Charter, 1975
War Office, Boys Anti Tank Rifle Mark I, Aldershot Gale and Polden Limited, 1944
War Office, Small Arms Training Volume I, Pamphlet No. 5 Anti-Tank Rifle 1942
The Boys Anti-Tank Rifle. Illustration by Yuvnashva Sharma funded by our Patreon Campaign.