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Captured Tankgewehr 900Allied soldiers examine a captured German Tankgewehr anti-tank rifle in 1918.

Four questions for David O'Neal

"People will get a chance to see this legendary Tankgewehr, and learn about its extraordinary history" 

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission

Our friend David O'Neal has an interesting specialty -- he restores artifacts from World War I. His latest project is certainly one of his most unique -- it is the ground-up recreation of one of the most extraordinary weapons from World War I -- a Mauser Tankgewehr anti-tank rifle. This enormous rifle was designed to shoot at allied tanks and armored cars, with a huge bullet that could penetrate even their thickest steel hulls. The full story of his restoration, which is still underway, can be followed at David came across a collection of parts from one such rifle, and accepted the challenge of restoring it to museum-use. We spoke to David to hear about the challenges that he has faced to bring his vision to reality.

Wow - you have quite a unique restoration project underway. Please tell us about it!

David ONeal 300David O'NealThe Tankgewehr (tank-rifle) is the world’s first anti-tank rifle, developed by the Germans in 1918. This weapon was specifically designed to combat the onslaught of allied armor on the Western Front.

I obtained the1918 Tankgewehr rifle from fellow WWI Collector Hayes Otoupalik, who is a Special Military Historical Advisor to the National WWI Centennial Commission. Hayes has been essential in finding the initial parts and has volunteered the wood parts from his personal T-Gewehr for replication to complete this amazing restoration project.

This project T-Gewehr S/N 5043 was badly burned in a fire. All that was left were the blackened and charred metal components of a monster rifle. The task of the WWI Preservation Collection is to restore this rare and unique weapon back to museum quality display status.

When I learned that Hayes had recovered this Tankgewehr, I knew I had to restore it…it’s what I do. “Preserving the past…for the future”

What was the overall role of these Mauser Gewehr weapons, how were they employed, and what was their history of use in the war? Did they succeed?

In November 1917 the British launched the first full scale tank offensive at Cambrai. The attack caught the Germans by surprise and the British managed to push approximately 20 Kilometers through the German lines. The church bells rang in Britain for the first time in two years. The British were stunned by their own success and failed to properly support the attack. The Germans continually counterattacked and won back all the lost ground. This organized tank assault by the British, made the Germans realize that they needed an anti-tank weapon immediately.

Parts verticalThe restoration project began with a collection of blackened and charred metal components from a destroyed Tankgewehr.The Germans began development of the TuF (Tank und Flieger - Tank and Aircraft) machine gun. A dual- purpose machine gun that used a huge 13.2 mm TuF round. They realized that they could not design and deploy the TuF machine gun as fast as they needed it, so they created the 1918 Tankgewehr as a stop gap measure to take on the tanks. Essentially the Mauser engineers roughly based the T-Gewehr on the Mauser 98 rifle and incorporated some features of older designs to use the 13.2 mm TuF round.

Two to three T-Gewehr were issued per regiment. They were operated by 2-man crews. The primary gunner would carry the rifle, 20 TuF cartridges in a cloth shoulder bag and a tool kit. The secondary crew member carried 2 cloth shoulder bags 20 rounds each and an ammo box that contained 72 cartridges.

These specially-selected crew members hunted enemy armor, and positioned themselves to be within 500 meters of the enemy tanks to be effective. They targeted viewing ports and known areas of the tank occupied by drivers and gunners. They had information on fuel and ammunition storage and targeted those areas as well. These soldiers were extremely brave to stare directly down the barrel of enemy tanks, knowing that they were also closely supported by enemy infantry.

There were numerous reports from the battlefield telling of wide spread battle damage and tank crew casualties caused by anti-tank rifle fire. Although the weapon proved that it was a beast on the battlefield, it could not keep up with the large number of allied tanks. The Germans were out resourced by the Allies and could not stop the waves of tanks approaching Germany.

What will be the future of this project once it is completed? Are there other Gewehrs out there?

6ee24ada2a6d55e015d8f6be872b266fOn a workbench at the WWI Preservation Collection facility, the restored Tankgewehr starts to take shape. It is hard to say how many Tankgewehr rifles have survived from WWI. I would venture to say that there could be as few as 500 in the world, maybe less…they are stashed in museums and personal collections. There were approximately 15,000 T-Gewehr rifles made in 1918, and now 100 years later, they occasionally surface. They were distributed to many different countries after the war. Many were destroyed - being used for destructive testing in the development of modern anti-tank weapons. The Treaty of Versailles would not allow the Germans to keep them, many were probably destroyed and melted down.

My Tankgewehr S/N 5043 will have a place in the WWI Preservation Collection. It will be photographed and those pictures will be available for everyone online. I would be open to allow the T-Rifle to travel to museums on loan for limited display engagements. It really is an awesome weapon to behold.

What drew you to this effort? Why was this interesting/important to you? What have you learned about the soldiers, and about the war, through this project? What details about it have struck you, and stuck with you?

I once restored a WWII Jeep because I felt sorry for it. A proud combat vehicle that just needed someone to make it right again. It deserved to be brought back from the brink.

The Tankgewehr is much more than that, It’s literally a blip in the timeline. They only made them for one year in 1918…then they were gone to history.
It feeds my interest in WWI, which is unique in that fact that I like to involve myself in the study of the weapons and equipment in the field, and at the soldier’s personal level. It does not get much more personal than being “face to face” with a British MK IV tank on the battlefields of WWI.

This project has shown me what industry can do in a crisis situation, how the need for an anti-tank weapon was designed and put into full scale production in just a few months using a brand-new cartridge. That is just amazing to me.

The soldiers that carried the Tankgewehr into battle had nerves of steel, but you have to stop and think that these soldiers also had confidence in their equipment. They knew they had the ability to stop a tracked behemoth right there in the mud. The psychological impact that had on the tank crews must have been overwhelming, knowing that a TuF round could come right through the armor and take you out right where you sat.

I am so humbled to have taken this project on, I feel as though I am doing something important by bringing it back. S/N 5043 will be completed by January 2018, and people will get a chance to see this legendary Tankgewehr, and learn about its extraordinary history in WWI. I don’t know what my next project will be, but I hope it is as exciting as the Tank Killer.

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