Lancaster lays down the lead testing extra firepower

There’s an extra layer of defence around HMS Lancaster and her 200 crew to keep her foes at bay.

The Portsmouth-based warship has been fitted with heavy machine-guns to fend off small, fast-attack craft – guns tested for the first time off the South Coast this week as the ‘Queen’s Frigate’ shakes off winter cobwebs.

After a hectic 2020, the ship began this year undergoing maintenance before resuming her place in the Fleet’s order of battle having sailed on Sunday.

The .50 calibre gun has long been a favourite of the Royal Marines (on WMIK Land Rovers, for example) and aircrew – it’s fitted to the Fleet Air Arm’s Wildcat and Merlin helicopters when they are providing air cover or hunting down smugglers.

But for close-protection ships either rely on the lighter general purpose machine gun (GPMG), sometimes the Minigun (a manually-operated Gatling gun) and, as a last resort, standard-issue SA80 rifles.

As the name suggests the .50 heavy machine-gun – generally known as the ’50 cal’ or HMG (heavy machine gun) – spews out half inch/12.7mm diameter shells at 500-600 rounds per minute.

Effective at ranges up to about 2,000 metres, its bullets can penetrate light armour and will tear through plastics such as RIB speed boats.

It didn’t have as much of a kick as I thought it would, but it really came into its own with the sound of each round leaving the gun.

LS Mikey Benbow

It fell to Leading Seaman Mikey Benbow, Lancaster’s close-range weapons instructor, who attended a training course with his team on the use of the gun last year… and then had to wait nearly 12 months for it to be installed.

“I was eager to get on the mount as nobody on the ship had ever fired it before and although it’s within the confines of my job on board, it’s a new weapon to me and has given me another challenge and weapon to train with,” said Mikey.

“When it actually came to firing, to be honest it didn’t have as much of a kick as I thought it would, but it really came into its own with the sound of each round leaving the gun.

“I can imagine it would be more intimidating than our current weapons for someone to hear if they were attacking the ship.”

Multiple rounds were fired at various angles and in various directions from the bridge wing mountings to ensure the weapon was safe and the gunnery team can handle it – and can use it in anger if necessary.

Further shoots to hone accuracy and test efficacy are lined up, including against the Royal Navy’s ‘killer tomato’ large inflatable target, allowing comparisons with Lancaster’s existing machine and Miniguns.

In addition, the gunners also ran out the GPMGs and the ceremonial saluting gun.

As well as gunnery, Lancaster’s trials this week including working with Wildcats from Yeovilton by day and night to ensure they can operate the helicopter safely in all conditions, and testing her engines.

And for good measure the ship’s company will be put through their paces dealing with fire and flood – to be ready should either misfortune afflict the ship at sea.

Each member of the crew is trained to be able to deal with both and regular exercises on board ensure the ship is fully prepared for all eventualities.