The 'mad minute' was an aspect of British army rifle training which dated from just before World War One
. It grew from the advent of the magazine-fed, bolt action Lee Metford
and Lee Enfield
rifles and was a means of polishing the soldiers' rapid fire
skills. Rapid fire had been stressed by Britain's armed forces since the days of the longbow (most notably at the Battle of Agincourt
), and even with the advent of the expensive, complex machine-gun, soldiers were often required to face down large amounts of hostile tribesmen, whilst armed only with rifles. Until the 1800s, even the fastest musketeer could manage three or four rounds a minute, whilst the breech-loading, single-shot, one-piece brass cartridge-firing Martini Henry
of the Zulu wars
upped this to the low teens. The magazine and repeating bolt action of the Lee Enfield
, adopted at the very dawn of the 20th century, allowed for an unprecedented volume of fire.
During the 'mad minute' British riflemen were required to hit a target 300 metres away, with at least fifteen rounds fired in sixty seconds; one round every four seconds. An modern-day, semi-trained guerrilla soldier with an assault rifle can easily top that, although not with the same accuracy, but the Lee-Enfield was a bolt action rifle, requiring the soldier to rotate and cycle a bolt with his hand between each shot. The rifle fired the powerful .303 cartridge, which had a hefty recoil, and the magazine could only hold ten rounds, requiring at least one reload during the minute.
Reloading a bolt action rifle of the time involved sliding bullets from stripper clips down into the magazine from above. The Lee Enfield required two five-round clips, and debate still rages as to the best method for ensuring high-speed fire; polishing the clip guides, flipping the bolt with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand whilst firing with the middle finger, or even reloading with the Lee-Enfield's detachable magazine (not usually recommended due to manufacturing imperfections which could cause each magazine to be of a slightly different size).
The mad minute turned out to be extremely useful in the early stages of the Great War, when the lightly-armed British Expeditionary Force was on the defensive; the BEF's soldiers could put up a tremendous, murderous volume of fire against advancing close-formation German troops, many of whom reported that they were facing machine-guns. As the war progressed and the British Army went on the assault, the soldiers who had trained for years with their rifles were mown down in minutes by automatic fire and shrapnel. This was a continuation of the lesson taught ever since ultra-elite medieval knights found themselves at the mercy of farmers with muskets; from the vantage point of the 1910s, it must have seemed as if the twentieth century would end with illiterate child soldiers blowing up tanks with H.G. Wells-style death rays.
The upper limits of aimed fire in the mad minute were 30-35 rounds per minute, slightly more than one round every two seconds, including the time taken to cycle the bolt and stuff four clips into the rifle. The mad minute has since come to refer to any period of continuous, minute-long firing, usually by an entire platoon or infantry squad; it was common in Vietnam as a means of raking forests and bushes for hidden NVA soldiers, and has been used to test automatic cannon, zero guns, or simply as a way to let off steam and make a lot of noise.