An interesting weapon is the star of this newsreel from British Pathé, which shows British troops training with their anti-tank rifles on a French beach.
Their weapon of choice is the Rifle, Anti-Tank, .55in, Boys, commonly known as the Boys Rifle or the Boys Anti-tank Rifle. The Boys was a product of the interwar period, and it filled a British Army requirement for a lightweight – and cheap – anti-tank weapon for the infantry.
Designed by Captain Henry Boys and produced by the Royal Small Arms Factory, the Boys could penetrate around an inch of armour plate at ranges of 100 yards. This was enough to pierce thin armour and hit the critical parts of halftracks, armoured cars, and some light tanks. The Finns used the rifle to great effect during the Winter War, knocking out Soviet T-26 tanks with relative ease.
While the Boys Anti-tank Rifle served well with the BEF in the Battle of France and in the early stages of the North African campaign – being reliably able to defeat early panzers at close range – the powerful rifle had a less good reputation in British and Canadian service. It was painful to operate (the recoil giving it the nickname ‘elephant gun’), heavy, and struggled to penetrate enemy armour at anything more than around 100-200 metres range (target dependent).
Steps were taken to rectify this. Training pamphlets highlighting how to use the gun effectively (and in conjunction with other infantry-carried arms) were issued, a more powerful tungsten-core round was developed to keep the Boys competitive, and the Canadians commissioned Walt Disney Studios to produce an instructional film on the rifle (see below). Additionally, there were various projects to increase the utility of the Boys, one example combined the Boys with the .50in round and the barrel from the M2 machine gun to create what was apparently a hard-hitting large calibre rifle accurate to 1,000 yards. While a handful may have reached the hands of marksmen, it was never officially introduced.
However, tank armour began to increase in thickness very quickly and the Boys rapidly became obsolete as an anti-tank arm. It was replaced by the considerably more effective PIAT in 1943, before the more powerful tungsten round was introduced in great numbers.
While the Boys soon became almost useless against all but the lightest armour, it continued to be effective against targets such as machine gun nests or small bunkers – in particular, sandbags. In the desert and in Italy, it was a potent anti-infantry device – the rifle’s large round proving useful against the commonly used improvised sangars at long range. This earned the rifle a reprieve, and it continued to be used in those roles until greater numbers of the .50in M2 machine gun became available to Commonwealth forces.