The strange case of the Bulgarian Madsen



During the World War the Bulgarian Army employed a little number of Madsen machine guns, mainly in anti-aircraft role. They were delivered by the German Army, coming in all likelihood from the Russian war booty. But it is also possible that some of them were part of an order made by the Bulgarian Government itself on behalf of Germany, during the neutrality. The main sources about this complex affair were a contemporary report by Sir Henry Lowther, the British Ambassador in Copenhagen, and a text written in January 1918 by lt. With-Seidelin, the representative of the Danish firm in London, concerning the attempt made by the German government to purchase Madsen machine guns during the war.


As a result of trial in the Balkans in 1914, at the beginning of January 1915 a Bulgarian Military Mission was sent to Copenhagen to purchase from the Danish firm Dansk Rekyl Riffel Syndikat a stock of 660 – 7mm Madsen machine guns of an old pattern. These weapons originally belonged to Brazil and had been sent to Copenhagen to be modernised. Since the French government had proposed to take over the machine guns, they were purchased from the Brazilian government, but later the French withdrew from their obligation and the weapons were put on the market. They were therefore sold to Bulgaria and taken over and paid by the Bulgarian Chargé d’Affaires in Copenhagen. The question of the export was then settled entirely between the Danish and the Bulgarian government, without involving the firm.

The Bulgarian government, still neutral, had wished that the machine guns should be sent through Germany, but Denmark refused. The ship Blenda, on which they were first loaded, was stopped to prevent their falling into German hands. The transfer on the Swedish Pan was permitted only after the ship-owner and the captain had declared that they would proceed straight to Dedeagach. On 30 May the Pan sailed from Copenhagen, turning northwards, but shortly afterwards she was reported to be at the south of the Sound strait. On 2 June the captain of the Swedish ship Minna, stated that he had seen near Falsterbo transferring her cargo into a German torpedo boat. Later a London dispatch affirmed that the Pan had returned to a Swedish port without the machine guns and her captain had said that he had been deceived by the Germans who had promised him a safe passage through the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal.

The official Danish account of the incident was that the Germans, supposing the Pan to be destined to Russia, had first stopped and then released her. The captain and the Bulgarian agent, doubting whether the ship would ever reach Dedeagach, had landed the machine guns at Lubeck to be forwarded to Sofia by rail. The Danes asked that they were returned, but the German government refused to interfere with the property of a foreign state, stating that machine guns of that calibre would be useless to the German Army. Even if afterwards the Danish government received proof that they had been actually delivered to Bulgaria, they were retained by the Germans, who employed them to form special Musketen battalions. They were employed for the first time during the Champagne battle in September 1915.


The Brazilian Madsen would have been chambered for a 7 x 57mm cartridge, a slim, rimless round. The Bulgarian cartridge was the same as the Austrian 8 x5 OR, a short, fat cartridge with a rimmed case. The conversion from the Brazilian calibre to the Bulgarian one would not be a practical proposition, requiring a different magazine, magazine housing, feed mechanism, breech block and barrel that meant a virtually completely new weapon. On the contrary, the conversion to German 7.92 x 57mm would be a simple matter, requiring little or no alteration of the magazine feed or breech block, the only major change being the increasing of the bore of the barrel and the re-rifling or fitting newly made barrels. The same happened with Madsen captured on the Russian front, that, being originally 7.62 x 54mm calibre, were re-barrelled to 7.92 x 57mm by the Germans.

It is therefore highly probably that from the very outset the Bulgarian purchase was on behalf of Germany that was aware of the ease with which the Brazilian machine guns could be converted to their own use.