YouTube's foremost expert on vintage military hardware examines new shooter's historical chops
Everyone had the same reaction when DICE, the studio behind the venerable Battlefield franchise, unveiled Battlefield 1. It was fantastic that a major developer was taking a risk with an underutilized (and tragic) setting like the First World War, but we were curious how they were going to make a fun competitive shooter set in an era before infrared goggles, laser sights or tactical nukes. It begs the question: Is DICE portraying the Great War accurately, or are they taking liberties to make the game palatable for those who have grown up playing competitive first-person shooters that don't involve bayonets and cavalry charges?
Othais runs the YouTube channel C&Rsenal, which does painstakingly researched videos on some of the world's most famous vintage firearms. He's currently working on a book tackling every service weapon in World War I, and he also happens to be a huge fan of Battlefield: 1942. Othias, who prefers to not give his real name, is probably the best person to ask about the nuances of turn-of-the-century firearms and the liberties of game design, so we picked his brain to find out how Battlefield 1's weapons stack up against the historical record.
For the most part, soldiers in World War I carried bolt-action rifles and grenades. When things broke down, they usually resorted to hand-to-hand combat. The Russian Imperial Army de-emphasized the actual "fire" part of firearms while they were still active in the war – famously fielding battalions that had more soldiers than rifles.
Obviously, that doesn't make for great gameplay, so DICE fudged the numbers a bit in terms of weapon diversity. There's an entire class dedicated to submachine guns like the famous MP18 and Beretta Model 1918, but Othais tells me they were scarce.
"The MP18 was the only submachine gun you're going to see fielded in any appreciable numbers in World War I, even so, we're talking about maybe 10,000 by war's end,” he says.
You can't really have a Battlefield game without some sort of rocket launcher, but World War I happened before the time of bazookas and all-out armored warfare. The closest thing is a weapon called the "AT Rocket Gun," which actually existed – its full name is the "1.59-inch Breech-Loading Vickers Q.F. Gun, Mk II." Othais says it was designed to be an infantry-loaded light mortar, but it wasn't terribly effective.
"The gun spent the rest of the war being trialed on airplanes as anti-zeppelin and anti-train equipment," he says. "It still had a lot of problems thanks to poor ignition of the ammo. It was nicknamed the 'rocket gun' due to the low-speed tracer ammunition, resembling a rocket."
Battlefield 1 seems right on its portrayal of shotguns. The legendary Winchester 1897 – also known as the "trench gun" – worked so well that the Germans petitioned America to ban it, claiming it was in violation of article 23(e) of the Hague convention, which prohibits any "arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering." (Keep in mind, this was the same conflict that introduced mustard gas to the world.)
"The shortened 12 gauge shotgun with buckshot was an excellent tool [in the Philippine-American War]," he says. "So we also brought them to Europe, further modified with heat shields and bayonets for trench use. Germany's biggest problem with them was that they were cheap, effective and pointed at Germans."
The machine gun is maybe the most iconic weapon in World War I because it caused the most casualties in a war synonymous with mass slaughter. Battlefield 1 includes the Lewis Gun, the MG 15 and the Madsen MG, and it lets you shoot them from the hip. This pushes the bounds of believability.
"Yes, you can carry a WWI-era light machine gun alone and probably even run with it for some reasonable distance if in good shape," says Othais. "But shooting from the hip is a different story. We've already demonstrated it with probably the best recoiling of the bunch, the Lewis Gun. Now, I've got nearly 100 pounds on the average World War I soldier, so it wasn't too difficult to walk the gun while holding the trigger, but it still felt like marching uphill against the wind. You certainly weren't going to be running, jogging or walking briskly while firing."
In Battlefield 1, you have access to a number of rifles equipped with telescopic lenses. Given that the trenches of World War I were not conducive to the "one-shot-one-kill" fantasies that we see in more contemporary settings, it seems like DICE might have stretched the facts here.
"First things first, I need to spell out that a scoped rifle in World War I was a rare sight," says Othais. "Manufacturing optics was an intense process, especially the sort rugged enough to take up the recoil of a firing rifle. But you'll still see [scopes attached to other rifles] like the SMLE, Lebel, Carcano, and plenty of Mannlicher 1895s."
So maybe Battlefield 1's scoped rifles aren't quite as anachronistic as you might think. But the game also lets you add scopes to things like the Lewis Gun, which Othais explains is almost a complete fabrication.
"My biggest disappointment with the current Battlefield 1 setup is that it does feel a lot like a re-skin of Battlefield 4 that has cherry picked World War I equipment to fit the desired gameplay," says Othais. "Whenever World War I doesn't have something necessary, they just go for experimental, commercial or something semi-related. World War I also did not have a lot of personally-customized weapons – you would get in big trouble for defacing your rifle."