Due to its isolated location at the culmination of international trade routes, New Zealand has become a well-known centre of resourcefulness and innovation, inventing leading-edge and world-changing products. Some notable examples are; Disposable syringes and tranquilliser guns, the referee whistle, the eggbeater, the electric fence, jet boats, flexible plastic ear tags for livestock, bungy jumping, flat whites and pavlova. While these products have all had a peaceful intent and provided a valuable contribution to the world, New Zealand’s war experience in the twentieth century has also contributed to military innovation. Discussed here is the Kelsey swivel-stock rifle, a New Zealand invention from the 1950s that allowed a Sten Sub Machin Gun to be fired from behind cover and around corners.
During the latter stages of the Second World War and based on the lessons learnt on their Eastern Front, the German military identified a requirement for aiming and firing weapons around corners and from within Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs). The Germans developed the Krummlauf barrel attachment for the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44) and Maschinengewehr 42 (MG 42) to meet this requirement.
The Krummlauf was produced in two variants:
- The “I” variant for infantry use,
- The “P” variant for use in AFVs to provide cover over blind spots to defend against assaulting infantry
The “I” and “P” barrels for the StG 44 and MG 42 were produced with bends of 30°, 45°, 60° and 90°. However, only the “I” 30° Barrell for the StG 44 was produced in quantity.
With a very short lifespan—approximately 300 rounds for the 30° variant and 160 rounds for the 45° variant—the Krummlauf barrel was under great stress. Additionally, due to the barrel bend, bullets shattered as they exited the barrel, producing an unintended shotgun effect. Developed too late in the war for testing and refinement by the Germans, postwar testing by the United States Army resulted in some modifications; however, the Krummlauf remained unreliable despite these modifications. The Soviets also experimented with a curved barrel, producing an Experimental PPSh with a curved barrel, but with the curved barrel seen as a novelty, interest in the concept was soon lost.
Despite the concept of a bent barrel to allow the firing around corners, proving impracticable, Lieutenant Colonel John Owen Kelsey had seen the need for such a capability during New Zealand’s streetfighting in Italy and set about finding a solution.
Colonel Kelsey was born in New Plymouth in November 1904. Before World War II, he served as an Engineering Officer for two years with the Royal Navy. This engineering background led to his first New Zealand Army Ordnance posting in 1939 as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 13th LAD New Zealand Ordnance Corps (NZOC). Shortly after he arrived in Egypt in 1940, he was promoted to Lieutenant and posted as the Assistant Senior Ordnance Mechanical Engineer (SOME). He became the SOME and was promoted to Temporary Captain a few months later, and in November of the same year, he became the Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (Equipment) (DADOS E) HQ 2NZ Division. He was also promoted to Temporary Major while holding this position and, in April and May 1941, took part in the campaigns in Greece and Crete. On return from Crete, he was transferred to the British Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) Deputy Director Ordnance Services(DDOS) office for a few months and then returned to 2NZEF as the Chief Ordnance Mechanical Engineer (COME) in August 1941. His duties were extended a year later when he became the Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (ADOS) and COME 2NZEF.
After forming a separate Corps of New Zealand Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (NZEME) in December 1942, Colonel Kelsey relinquished the appointment of COME and became the ADOS 2NZEF/ADOS 2NZ Division and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
Temporary promotion to Colonel followed from February to March 1944 when Colonel Kelsey was appointed as the DDOS of a Corps for operations in Italy.
He returned home on well-earned leave in April 1944 after four and a half years away but returned to the Middle East in September 1944. He resumed the ADOS 2NZEF and 2NZ Division appointments and maintained these responsibilities until the end of the war, completing six years with the division and taking part in every campaign. For distinguished service, Colonel Kelsey was Mentioned in Despatches.
On his discharge, Colonel Kelsey went into business as an accountant at Whakatane but was not very successful and relocated to Auckland, where he obtained a post in the Public Relations Office in Auckland but was subsequently asked to leave. Setting up a public relations office in Devonport, where he slept on a couch in the office because he could not afford to board, Colonel Kelsey set to work developing his Sten Gun adapted to fire around corners.
In June 1953, The Press announced that a Sten gun adapted to shoot round corners had been developed by Colonel Kelsey, known as the Kelsey swivel-stock rifle and that the army had tested it at Waiouru Military Camp. Following the success of these tests, the device was sent to the War Office in London for further examination.
Colonel Kelsey had adapted the Sten gun to have a swivel butt and a unique sight. Unlike the wartime Krummlauf, it was not a weapon with a bent barrel but a standard Sten Gun. The weapon could be used in the usual way, with shooting a round left or right corners enabled by simply resetting the butt to 90°to the parrel and sighted using a unique sight. The sight was based on the principle of the periscope, using prisms with exact details placed on the secret list.
With no reply from the War Office by the end of 1953 and confident with his design and that it could be adapted for other firearms, Colonel Kelsey took out world patent rights and intended to fly to England or America to try to sell the invention to armaments firms. However, despite being optimistic about his future, Colonel Kelsey struggled with the toll of adjusting to peacetime life, business failures, financial difficulties, a failed marriage and some unhappy love affairs and was discovered by the police on the floor of his office in Clarence Street, Devonport, at 5.30 pm. on 8 February 1954. Under his body was a .22 calibre rifle which he appeared to have been holding.
A letter on the table addressed to whom it may concern said he was experimenting “to try to find the reason for dissipation of recoil in a rifle or submachine-gun. This is immensely important to me, now that the Kelsey swivel-stock rifle has proved successful”, he added “that there was considerable risk in the experiments” with a footnote added that the tests were to be made at training grounds near Whenuapai.
After reading some of Colonel Kelsey’s letters in chambers, the Coroner found that there was ample evidence that Colonel Kelsey had many personal difficulties. If he had intended to test the rifle at the time of his death, he would not have needed to write the letters, in one of which Kelsey stated he was “going to die,” The Coroner said he was forced to conclude that the cause of death was suicide by a self-inflicted bullet wound in the head.
With Colonel Kelsey’s passing, the development of the Kelsey swivel-stock rifle progressed no further.
In the 2012 history of the Sten Gun, by Leroy Thompson, a variant of the Sten Gun matching Colonel Kelsey’s device is precisely described, indicating that the weapon was tested and, although never progressing past the prototype stage, a record of existence along with some photos kept.
No other New Zealand Ordnance Officer has held such a variety of appointments on active service. Colonel Kelsey was an OME, SOME, DADOS(Equipment), COME, ADOS, DDOS, and acting CREME. Despite his wartime service and the award of the MBE and Mention in Dispatches, there was no place for Colonel Kelsey in the regular post-war army. Despite his optimistic belief in the success of the Kelsey swivel-stock rifle, Colonel Kelsey struggled to adjust to the post-war world. Without understanding the effects of wartime stress that exist today now, he fell through the gaps and took his own life. Additionally, given the stigma surrounding suicide that has existed for many years, his wartime service and potential achievement as an inventor have never fully been recognised.