It was after we had been on the ranges, one afternoon towards the end of the course that I had one of the most pleasant and contented moments I’ve ever known. We finished the live firing early for some reason. We were on a very open range surrounded by grass and scrub on an upland area offering a good view of other rolling hills. There was a cool breeze, but the sun was out in a beautiful blue sky with a few white clouds drifting about. To keep us occupied whilst we waited for the transport, the DS told us to clean our rifles. This was a chore because the way the 7.62mm Self Loading Rifle worked was that you squeezed the trigger which released the firing pin from the breech block and struck a percussion cap in the base of the round. The resulting detonation fired the bullet up the barrel followed at force by hot gases. Along the barrel was a small vent, some of the gases entered it where they passed through a gas plug and came into contact with the head of a spring loaded gas rod, forcing it backwards. The end of it consequently recoiled against the breech block forcing it back against its spring and when the force of the gases dissipated the springs reasserted themselves and the breech block came forward, re-cocking the firing pin, collecting the next round from the magazine as it did so and feeding it into the breech, whilst the gas rod returned to its chamber. All this happened in a micro second and left a small deposit of carbon on the gas plug and the head of the gas rod. After a range practice, they were caked with black carbon and all your cleaning kit provided to remove it was oil, wire gauze and flannelette. It took a heck of a lot of elbow grease and persistence, but it had to be sparkling clean before you returned it to the armoury.
At the rear of the firing point, the grass was short and lush like a deep pile carpet. There was a little bit of a hollow which offered a marginal amount of cover from the breeze and acted as something of a suntrap. There were already three blokes from my syndicate sitting in it. One was a Bombardier from the Royal Artillery the other two were Corporals, one Royal Corps of Transport, the other, Royal Engineers. They were scallywags. They seemed to have recognized each other as kindred spirits when the course began and had pallied about with each other ever since. The Bomb had got in the shit by playing the numbers game. Having given a lesson one day, he thought he was safe not to revise for the next and went drinking in Warminster. He got caught out, but in fairness, he came clean straight away and got off with just a chat with the Sergeant Major. I was on civil terms with them, after all, we were in the same syndicate, but Sergeants had their own rooms in the Sergeant’s Mess and the Corporals shared barrack room accommodation. Moreover, I was a Royal Military Police Sergeant which divided us still further. It seemed more likely that if we all found ourselves in town one night, I should be arresting them for some misdemeanour rather than drinking with them.
I might perhaps have been expected to sit with the other Sergeants to clean my rifle, but any fool can be uncomfortable and the grassy hollow they were in looked like a nice little spot. They didn’t mind me joining them and I was soon scrubbing away at my gas plug. The RCT Corporal was a heavy smoker and having evidently smoked all of his fags, he asked his mates if they had any. They hadn’t. I was casually listening to their banter as I worked and I knew that I had two cigarettes left in my packet. I fancied smoking one after I’d cleaned my rifle, but thought that wouldn’t be very nice to do so in front of them when they had none.
What the heck. It was a nice afternoon and they were members of my syndicate. I dug out my cigarette packet and chucked it over to the RCT lad.
“There’s two left. We’ll have to share them.”
“Aah, cheers Sarge!” he said delightedly and taking one to share with the Sapper, he gave the packet and the remaining fag to the Bomb. The Bomb hesitated and offered it back to me, but I smiled and told him to go on. I think they were all a bit taken aback by my friendliness. As he smoked, the Bomb watched me scrubbing away at my gas plug for a moment and then dug into his webbing to produce a small plastic bottle and a little scrap of Scotchbrite nylon scourer which was still a very new product at that time.
“Here Sarge,” he said offering them to me, “Try these.”
“What is it?” I asked, examining the non-descript bottle.
“Genolite,” he replied.
“It’s rust remover, great for fetching the carbon off things, but the Armourers don’t like it because they reckon it weakens the steel, so make sure you get it all off and wipe over with an oily flannelette as well, or else they’ll be able to smell it and you’ll get a bollocking.”
It was brilliant. I cleaned both my gas plug and gas rod in two minutes flat and it was my turn to be grateful.
“Aah, cheers Bomb. That’s magic!”
After we’d finished cleaning our rifles and the others were still beavering away at theirs, we reclined conspiratorially in the hollow, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine and the fresh air, and passing the time by talking about our wives and girlfriends, and kids, and postings and other stuff. It was like being a schoolboy again and just for that moment, as I enjoyed my surroundings and my company, and reflected on how good the course had been, I was perhaps, the most contented that I’d ever felt.