Lithgow - A True Sovereign Capability

In 1907, years before the first hint of a war had surfaced, Australian Prime Minister Deakin made it official that Australia’s defence supply would become a sovereign capability and would no longer rely on Britain. Just a few months later in early 1908 a large section of land was purchased in a small coal mining town 140km west of Sydney, called Lithgow. This site would go on to become the Lithgow Small Arms Factory and would continue producing world leading military and commercial small arms through both of the World Wars and right through to today.


The decision to establish a sovereign defence supply by Prime Minister Deakin proved to a wise one. Deakin brought about the establishment of a unified Australian Defence Force, and in turn, the capability for Australia to produce its own arms and munitions just as reports from British Intelligence began emerging that an increasing amount of posturing and military mobilisation was happening right across Europe and even Japan.

On the 8th of June 1912 the factory opened, producing the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield .303 inch bore, bolt action rifle. Two short years later, World War 1 broke out and Australian forces were sent abroad carrying Australian-made, superiorly built rifles.


When the idea of setting up the factory was conceptualised several Australian Defence officials travelled to both the UK and America to evaluate Greenwood & Batley (UK) and Pratt & Whitney (US), the two leading tenders for the Lithgow facility. The team went looking at each company’s processes and production techniques. It was immediately clear to the Australians that the production set up of Pratt & Whitney was far superior and required fewer skilled technicians. This suited the employment landscape within Australia at the time and subsequently, the US based company was selected.

Straight away the factory hit its first obstacles, including the fact that Pratt & Whitney had absolutely no experience in manufacturing parts that would comply with the specifications imposed by the British War Office. They also faced even more obscure issues such as a bizarre practice known and conducted only at the Enfield factory in the UK - they used two different measurement standards for an inch. 

Overcoming these hurdles took serious dedication from the staff, who in the end developed a whole new set of tolerances, drawings and specifications for its Lithgow made SMLE 303 rifles. In turn, these newly developed rifles proved superior to the rifles coming out of England at the time and set the standard for all of the British Enfield rifles as of 1924. 

There was also a drastic reduction in the time it took to produce a rifle. While it took anywhere between 48-72 man-hours per rifle in the UK, Lithgow had it down to 23.5 man-hours. Initial volumes for rifles and bayonets went from 15,000 per year to 20,000 in 1913, and then 35,000 in 1914. This was welcome news for the Lithgow locals who benefited greatly from the increased production rate as employee numbers skyrocketed from 120 in 1912 to over 1300 in 1918.


In the years after WWI it was decided that the factory would branch out into commercial work in order to maintain skilled labour and to keep the machines running. It also helped improve processes and gave the employees new ideas and a wider set of skill sets. Before long they were producing everything from aircraft part to shearing handsets, cinema projector parts and state of the art handcuffs. At one stage they were even making artificial limbs.


Once again rumblings about military mobilisation and aggressive posturing began emerging out of Europe and Japan in the late 1930s, and then in 1941 World War II erupted. The factory saw a sharp increase in activity again, including building works on site to accommodate the manufacture of both the Vickers machine gun and the Bren light machine gun.

The inclusion of the machine guns into Lithgow’s production lines meant a change in the processes and also the skilled labour required to assemble them. As opposed to the relatively simple bolt action SMLE 303, the Bren required 4,074 different types of tools for its manufacture and assembly. 

Production volumes increased again too with the outbreak of war. During WWI the factory manufactured 133,600 rifles – far more than had ever been anticipated. However, between 1939 and 1945 that number escalated to 439,000. To produce this number of small arms for the Australian Defence Force who were by now deploying all over the world, several feeder factories were set up to assist with the workload. Employment came from locals at these feeder sites at Forbes, Parkes, Dubbo, Orange, Portland, Young, Cowra, Wellington and Mudgee, and other workers commuted in and out of Lithgow by train. Employee numbers again skyrocketed to 5,700 at Lithgow and over 6,000 across the other sites, with women making up approximately 40 per cent of the staff. 


“I started here as an apprentice Tool Maker 38 years ago,” says Continuous Improvement Manager David Forbes. “I remember walking through the gates on my first day and being completely blown away by the scale of it all. It was like a mini city here on site. There were doctors and nurses, a team of painters who kept the place looking brand new, and there were people everywhere. This facility really has been an integral part of Lithgow’s history. Even today we have multi-generations of families working here.”

Forbes says the manufacturing processes undertaken at the factory today are cutting edge, although they still require trades with specific skillsets.

“When we’re designing something new our toolmakers will work with the designers to hand build sections of the design,” he says. “So, we have skilled tradespeople here and we believe in continuing that legacy through apprenticeships. It’s great to see the young generations here learning the trades and being able to apply them to modern manufacturing. We also have young university graduates moving here to be part of our team which is great for us as an organisation, and also for the town.”

One such graduate is Rowan Caldwell, a Materials Engineering Specialist.

“I remember when I first saw the site on day one, eighteen months ago,” Caldwell says. “It looked like a place with a rich heritage and history. I got out of the car and I could hear the F90s being tested on the range and in the indoor testing facility and there’s definitely something exciting about that. And I noticed straight away that although the site is old, the intent to exploit cutting edge technology was definitely there.”

Forbes says that the future of the facility in Lithgow is looking bright.

“We have more designs in the works at the moment,” he notes. “The business conducted a $1M upgrade on the existing barrel forging machine this year, the only barrel forging machine operating in the Asian Pacific region. To supplement the forging upgrade, a $1.8M robotic honing machine, the first of its kind, was commissioned giving the edge over pre-existing Barrel manufacturing processes used in other Small Arms manufacturing facilities around the world.

“When you combine that with our history of forging barrels and making accurate, reliable rifles here on site, our customers know our future products will bring all of that experience with it. Customers are not just buying any old rifle, they are buying an Australian made product, manufactured in a facility that has been producing rifles for Defence for over a century.

“The demand for our products is only growing, and with what I’ve seen of the current and future designs, that demand is going to continue to climb. We’re a regional facility, and we have employed a lot of the locals here at Lithgow since we opened our gates in 1912. They take a lot of pride in their work here and will always go that extra mile to make sure that whatever leaves the factory is the very best quality product, every single time.”