How to look for records of... Research and development in the British Army

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide provides a brief overview of records held by The National Archives that cover research, development and production of arms and other technologies by and on behalf of the British Army in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The records themselves are varied and extensive, with detailed written and visual information reflecting a broad range of topics, from reports from experimental artillery establishments to tank and small arms design. As well as successes, the records also document novel yet unsuccessful inventions.

2. Who created these records?

Although before the First World War technological development was – bar a small number of exceptions – largely the responsibility of the individual services, predominantly the Army and Navy, in 1915 the manufacture and supply of the materials of war were transferred to the newly created Ministry of Munitions.

While earlier records tend to be found within the War Office department, central direction of munitions development and production during the First World War and later periods means many also sit within other departments. The transfer of these responsibilities at different times has also meant records have been inherited and deposited by different departments, regardless of the date they were produced. As a result, you should consider broadening any search to include the series and departments given below.

3. Getting a search started and how to view documents

3.1 Speculative and basic keyword searches

This guide highlights some key series that you might like to explore. However, you may also wish to start with a more speculative keyword search of the whole of Discovery, our online catalogue. Consider the following kinds of keywords and search tips for searches:

  • name of weapon/vehicle/equipment
  • type of weapon/vehicle/equipment – be prepared to use broad as well as specific descriptions; some common examples include:
    • ‘armoured fighting vehicles’ as well as ‘tanks’
    • ‘small arms’ as well as ‘pistols’, ‘revolvers’ or ‘rifles’
    • ‘artillery’ as well as ‘guns’
  • very broad, general terms for military equipment and technological developments such as:
    • armaments
    • weapons
    • explosives
    • inventions
    • production
  • name of invention or inventor (person and company)

3.2 Advanced searches and browsing

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to restrict your keyword search by:

  • department code (see below for codes)
  • date (allowing you to focus your search on an event or period of interest)

The department code you use will be determined partly by the dates that you are searching within and partly on the specific subject matter. Development of weapons and other technological military advances were originally the domain of the Ordnance Office and the British Army itself. For the majority of these early records use the following department code:

  • WO (War Office)

After the start of the First World War, with the development of research establishments these responsibilities fell under various bodies. Therefore, for records from 1915 onwards use the following department codes (note that these departments also contain records that predate the parent organisations):

  • MUN (Ministry of Munitions)
  • SUPP (Ministry of Supply)
  • AVIA (Ministry of Aviation)
  • DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research)
  • DEFE (Ministry of Defence)

View the full list of series and records in the above departments by clicking on the department code and selecting ‘Browse by reference’ at the foot of the page.

Read Discovery search help if you need more guidance on how to search and browse Discovery, our catalogue.

3.3 Viewing the documents

None of the records referred to in this guide can be viewed online. To view them you will either need to visit The National Archives or order digital or paper copies to be sent to you. You can order copies from Discovery by clicking on the record title (you should register an account in Discovery before you request copies).

4. Development and testing of armaments and military technologies

These are records of weapons, vehicles and other military technologies proposed, in development or undergoing trials. To browse or search in a series, click on the series reference.

4.1 Records of the Boards of Ordnance

Browse within WO Division 19 for records of the Ordnance Office 1568-1983.

Browse or search within the following correspondence, reports and other papers concerning:

  • early 19th century design and research in WO 44/620-640 (visit us at The National Archives building in Kew to browse the index to these records in the printed version of our catalogue)
  • mid-19th to late-20th century design of armaments and munitions in SUPP 6

4.2 Records of private enterprise

Search WO 32 and WO 33 for records which show the importance of private enterprise and outside inventors to advances in military technology – these are extrememly large, broad series so browsing them, as opposed to searching them, will probably be very laborious.

Other potentially interesting avenues include the personal papers of influential individuals, such as Field Marshal Viscount Garnet Wolseley in WO 147.

4.3 Records of research and development establishments

Use the following list to determine which departments and series to search in for records of research, design or development in:

  • armaments, transport equipment and other technologies – search in the sub-series within DEFE 15
  • chemicals and explosives 1940-1976 – search in AVIA 37 and AVIA 67
  • rocket propulsion – search in AVIA

For records of the following establishments:

  • the Munitions Inventions Department of the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War – search in DSIR 37
  • the Armaments Research Establishment and its antecedents dating from the turn of the 20th century through to the 1930s – a manuscript history is in DEFE 15/31
  • various research and development establishments from the 19th century to the 1990s – search in WO Division 12, DEFE 15 and DSIR 37 for technical reports and memoranda

4.4 Records of experimental and testing establishments

Browse or search for reports and other records of:

  • the Director of Experiments and Research at the Ministry of Supply, predominantly from the early 20th century, in SUPP 28
  • artillery development and testing by the Proof and Experimental Establishments at Shoeburyness, Ty Croes, Pendine, Lavington, Cold Meece and Inchterf between 1852 and 1993 in WO 186
  • equipment trials from the Director of Artillery dating predominantly from the 1930s and 1940s in WO 196
  • small arms experiments and trials between 1853 and 1928 in the School of Musketry in WO 140

5. Novel inventions and armoured fighting vehicles

These are records of inventions designed to meet the specific needs of a conflict, some of which were abandoned and never produced, others which made it to the production line and were used in battle; this section also covers records of armoured fighting vehicles such as tanks.

5.1 Early records of invention

The Board of Ordnance correspondence collection in WO 44 contains details of inventions submitted to the Board by serving officers and civilians during the first half of the 19th century.

Visit us at The National Archives building in Kew to browse the index to these inventions in the printed version of our catalogue.

5.2 First World War

For novel inventions designed to tackle the challenges presented by the First World War search in:

  • WO 142 (files of the Trench Warfare and Chemical Warfare Departments)
  • MUN 7/273-344 (files of the Munitions Invention Department)

For documents concerning early tank development, design and performance search in:

For later design and production of weapons and other technological developments search in departments:

5.3 Second World War and post-war period

Search the following series for reports and correspondence concerning:

  • fighting vehicles and mechanical equipment in WO 194 (Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment records 1921-1984) and WO 362 (Inspectorate of Fighting Vehicles and Mechanical Equipment records 1960-1983)
  • new vehicles and equipment in WO 341 (Royal Armoured Corps records 1947-1985)
  • vehicles, equipment and armour in WO 351 (British Army of the Rhine technical reports 1950-1975)

Consult the following records for:

  • Tank Board proceedings for the duration of the war in WO 185/5-8
  • a report on the specialised armour used by 79th Armoured Division (Hobart’s ‘funnies’) through the latter part of the war in WO 205/1159

6. Inventors and patents

Depending on the date, financial rewards for inventors were settled by the War Office, the Ordnance Council, the Ministry of Munitions and the Ministry of Supply. Records of these awards often provide blueprints and details concerning technological advancements, as well as correspondence regarding financial awards.

Search the records below of Royal Commissions, which were set up to deal with claims. The content of these large files varies a great deal. Some of it is information about someone’s claim to have invented something and the correspondence about the case; others contain blueprints and very specific details about the invention:

  • the post-First World War Tomlin Commission in T 173 – search by inventor (personal name or company name) or invention
  • the post-Second World War Cohen Commission in T 166 – search by inventor only (although an index and register of claims is available to help navigate the series)

For records on patents and specifications of inventions you can search the T and TS series. Alternatively:

  • for more information, see our guide on Patents of inventions or
  • consult the Design Registers in BT 45 (use the subject index in BT 46/9 (1843-1883) to help identify relevant records)

7. Records of production: factories and manufacturers

These are records predominantly of the interactions between industry (state-owned and private factories), the armed forces and government departments, and include:

  • technical reports
  • production statistics
  • contracts
  • committee minutes – the records cover many and various committees which effectively undertook or oversaw the business of the ministries; examples include, in the First World War, the Munitions Works Board, the Trench Warfare Committee and the Land and Property Committee; and in the inter-war period and Second World War, the Joint Industrial Council, Flame Warfare Committee, Ordnance Board and Principal Supply Officers.
  • correspondence
  • entry books – these are ledgers arranged by product/contract type (for example, bits for 25 Pdr guns); they list the company manufacturing the product or undertaking the order, the items to be produced or altered, the number of items, the money paid, when the order was completed and other details.
  • plans of the factories and their sites

7.1 Search terms

Use the following keywords and types of keywords in our online catalogue to search the series and departments in 7.2 for records of production:

  • name or location of factory or production establishment such as ‘Woolwich’ or ‘Waltham Abbey’
  • contract type or – for some records – name of producer holding the contract such as ‘armoured cars’ or ‘Birmingham Small Arms’
  • statistics along with item of production – ‘small arms ammunition AND statistics’
  • technical keywords concerning production materials – for example, ‘acetone’, ‘tnt’ and ‘picric acid’ not just ‘high explosives’
  • ‘correspondence’, ‘minutes’, ‘board’ or ‘committee’

7.2 Relevant record series

For records of production at state as well as private contractors (for example, Birmingham Small Arms and London Small Arms), search (using the department codes in the advanced search) the following departments:

  • War Office (WO)
  • Ministry of Munitions (MUN)
  • Ministry of Supply (SUPP)
  • Ministry of Aviation (AVIA)

More specifically, search for records of the following:

  • Royal Ordnance Factories 1664-1989 – including entry books, committee minutes and other records – search in SUPP Division 7
  • early contracts awarded by the Ordnance Office – browse in WO 49
  • contracts awarded during the First World War by the Ministry of Munitions – browse or search by company name in the MUN department code (particularly MUN 7)
  • contracts awarded during the Second World War – browse or search by company name in SUPP or see the Contract Record Books in SUPP 4 (arranged by contract type)
  • all types of Second World War production – browse or search the statistics sub-series within AVIA 22

Search within WO 78, WO 385 and WO 397 for maps and plans of factories and establishments.

8. Records in other archives

You can search for the records of other archives around the country, including many of the those listed here, using our catalogue.

Follow the links below for contact information and links to the websites of the following institutions, each of which contain useful records regarding army technologies:

Company records for private firms that held state contracts are often located in regional archives. For example, those of Armstrong Whitworth can be found at Tyne & Wear Archives, while those of the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) company are now held at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick Library.

For the papers of Sir Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt – Director of Naval Construction and central to early tank development – visit the National Maritime Museum for records DEY 41-60.

9. Further reading

These books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list. The recommended book list might help you navigate these collections or put them in context.

The official history of the Ministry of Munitions.

Lists and Indexes Society, Volume 53 Alphabetical Guide to War Office and Other Military Records (HMSO, 1931).

Beckett, I. F. W. The First World War: The Essential Guide to Sources in the UK National Archives (Public Record Office, 2002).