In Battlefield 1’s alpha we’ve already run along the top of a blimp and leapt off to parachute into the battle below. We’ve mowed down our enemies with submachine guns and leapt from biplane to biplane mid-flight and had a pretty damn good time doing it. The World War I setting feels fresh and exciting after years of modern military shooters. But is it really anything like World War I? In the heat of the action it doesn’t much matter—fun is fun—but Battlefield 1’s variety of interesting automatic weapons got us wondering just how historically accurate DICE’s new shooter really is. So we decided to find someone who could vet it for us.
We reached out to the and showed archivist Jonathan Casey a highlight reel of weapons and vehicles from Battlefield 1. Casey isn’t a gamer and was clearly amused (and sometimes confused) by the action in Battlefield 1, but he gave us some insight into the century-old weapons we’d been playing with. According to Casey, most of Battlefield’s guns look accurate to the real things. The way we run-and-gun with them (and jump off the top of blimps), though? Not so much.
“The MP18 Bergmann didn't have a bayonet lug,” Casey said at the beginning of our Skype chat. He had reviewed the clip and shared it with the museum’s curator, who left Casey some notes about some of the weapons he knew well. “He told me it wouldn’t have that,” Casey added. “There was a later version that had a bayonet lug, after the war. The had a lug, later on. It has the snail, the round magazine, or it could be a stick [magazine]. Either one could fit in the side. [The curator] said he didn’t see him pulling back the bolt. It wasn’t the complete action to operate the thing.”
Points to EA for the design of the weapon being accurate, then, minus a little cheating on the reload animation and the slight anachronism of the bayonet. Those feel like pretty small, fair changes for the sake of gameplay. In general, Casey thought that most of the weapons I showed him checked out. The British SMLE rifle did have a left side-mounted scope. The machineguns on the planes were true to life. The Lewis gun did have an ammo drum mounted on top. The crazy typewriter magazine of the Benet-Mercier machine rifle (see below)? Yep, that’s correct too.
Outside of the weapons themselves, Casey pointed out some questionable bits of historical accuracy.
“You can tell the guy is German because of the weapon and from the cuff,” he said, referring to the image above. “It’s a German uniform. But the curator commented that the cuff was not right for that time. The piping, the cuff was a different design. Later. And he said they were wearing a glove. They wouldn’t wear a glove. The only people who wear gloves are wire parties, handling barbed wire, and grenadiers. Some other kind of German units. But a guy running around with an MP18 or whatever, assault troopers, wouldn’t. The glove didn’t seem right.”
“The other comment that the curator had was that the house to house fighting wouldn’t really be an accurate representation,” Casey said. “They didn’t really do that so much in WWI. We think of it more of WWII, like in Stalingrad when they’re house to house. It would take considerable research to understand what particular battle someone had in mind, where they’d be in a village and doing such a thing like that. So running around like that and blasting walls apart seemed not realistic given a WWI context, but it could be a judgment call, somewhat. Depends on the research.”
Casey pointed out that the quality of early automatic weapons used in World War I varied greatly, and a more realistic Battlefield 1 would see guns jamming quite often. The French Chauchat (which isn’t in Battlefield 1’s alpha, but could perhaps show up in the final game) was notorious for jamming. A quick search for the Chauchat brought up a page called so its reputation precedes it.
The was another air-cooled automatic weapon that had a tendency to overheat. Casey said that watercooled weapons tended to perform better, as did weapons with belt-fed ammo as opposed to the hard clip, like the Benet-Mercier above.
He was also quizzical when it came to the speedy reloads of weapons like the drum magazine Lewis gun.
“On the Lewis gun they were taking that snail magazine and just popping it on and off,” he said. “If that’s that easy to pop it off, he’d just smack it back into place, I suppose if you did that enough you could do that, but it seems like there’d be a little more time spent to make sure it’s seated right. It seemed like he did that too quickly.”
Another thing we get wrong as players all the time: reloading.
“I was looking in the righthand corner, and it’s like, he’s still got more bullets. It seemed like they’d burn half a clip and take it out. I don’t know why they didn’t burn through all 32 rounds. Why are you doing that if you’ve still got bullets in there? I don’t get it.”
“They had them as barrage balloons where they were tethered, to protect a city or something, and they would hang on wires.... I was reading even around London they had something like 50 miles long of a barrage system. Of blimps. You see a lot of that in WWII—when I think barrage balloons I think WWII—but they used them in WWI. I was looking a bit more into blimps, airships in general, and there’s the ones we call zeppelins, the big ones, rigid ships. And they were used mainly as a bombing platform. Some reconnaissance, but bombing and all that. But then you have those blimps that are used more like observation balloons, that's one category of things. But they would tether those balloons on a winch. They were considered legitimate targets for aviators to shoot at, those observation balloons. Captive balloons, they called them, when they’re tethered. The blimps would be moored to create a barrage wall.”
“[Zeppelins] predated the war, the design of it, by Count Zeppelin,” he said. “They started as a reconnaissance vehicle, and that’s where a lot of aircrafts started in the war. Reconnaissance, not fighting. Then the speed developed with technology, they became fighters and bombers. Zeppelins were used as a bombing platform, but I don’t think they were that effective. There’s a big airship and it took a lot of maintenance to not have much result from it.”
There were plenty of blimps in World War I, then, but Casey was pretty confused by our footage of German soldiers running across the surface of the blimp.
“Is he really running on the top of a skin of a blimp?” he said. “He’s up thousands of feet, running with a machinegun? I don’t know if that was ever done. Once, or something, maybe somebody did that. But it looked like a real James Bond thing that somebody thought of. It would be like running in deep sand or something. How would you get traction? And if the thing makes a jerk you’d be thrown off. I was thinking, what if they shot through the skin? I don’t know if it was helium or hydrogen, something explosive, like the Hindenburg going down, or what they used for gas.”
“He attacked an FT17 [tank], he was running downhill with a Bergman, it looks like, and there’s an FT17 coming up the hill. I didn’t think they would do that,” Casey said. “I saw him throw a bunch of grenades, they would tie grenades together for explosive power, and he threw it at the tank and blew it up or something. So I guess I could see the idea of that happening. But I was like, I don’t think you’d attack a tank with a submachine gun and then run off. But I can see it as a possibility.”
Can’t really blame that historically questionable bit of behavior on Battlefield 1: PC Gamer editor James Davenport is just that brave. (Or foolish).
Battlefield games have always given up on realism for the sake of the medic class, but BF1’s needle-in-a-jar medkit definitely stretches the sake of believability.
“He’s filling up a syringe with morphine or something, and then he has some bandages? That is so fast moving at first I didn’t get it,” Casey said. “He’s shooting one second and the next he’s got a syringe out and is poking people. At first I thought he was trying to kill somebody, putting them out of their misery. I think it would be, like he’s all-in-one: it would either be you have a machinegun and move forward and the medics come up from behind.”
I thought it was funny that this was the bit Casey pointed out: not the magical injection bringing people back to life, but that the medic was running around with a submachine gun.
On the whole, playing Battlefield 1 may not be much like experiencing World War I, but its depiction of the weaponry comes closer than we expected, with a few typical videogame liberties. Looking into their historical accuracy has been a lot of fun: we never knew about some of the more creative weapons designed in the early 1900s, like the Benet-Mercier, and playing with them has been our favorite thing about Battlefield 1 so far. Seeing the rest of the arsenal is definitely what I’m most looking forward to in the final game.