Stop Butts for Testing Aircraft Guns, 1917-1939

A Gloster Gauntlet during a firing demonstration at Kenley's stop butts during Empire Air Day, 1938.
'Flight' magazine, June 1938.
The stop butts can be seen in the distance. Empire Air Day, 1937.
Surrey County Libraries (RAF Kenley by Peter Flint).
In this postcard from the mid-1930's, the sheds in front of the butts can be seen in the background. The back of the sheds is open and the outer wall of one of the butts seems to be visible.
Roger Packham (Bourne Society)
A 1926 aerial photo, showing the walls of the stop butts behind the sheds that stood in front of hangar 2.
©️Historic England (Britain from Above EPW005997)
An earlier aerial photo from 1921, showing the aircraft butts with the sheds in front of them.
©️Historic England (EPW005997 - Britain from Above)
1917- Kenley's hangars were still under construction but the stop butts have already been built.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Leslie Hollinghurst (RAF Kenley by Peter Flint).
The stop butts can be seen in silhouette behind the man on the left in the greatcoat. To the right of the photo are the Belfast Truss Hangars and to the left is the Officers' Mess. On the far left is one of 615 Squadron's Hawker Hectors, which they flew from December 1937 until November 1938.
Gerry Burke

Controversy has always surrounded the use of Kenley’s ‘rifle range’ to test and harmonise aircraft guns. There are local witnesses who saw the bi-plane fighters of the late 1930’s demonstrating their fire-power there during Kenley’s Empire Air Day displays.
Despite this, it is clear that Kenley’s ‘rifle range,’ which still stands today, was not constructed specifically for the purpose of testing aircraft guns. It’s intended use was for service personnel to practice their shooting skills.

However, Kenley used to have another set of stop butts..

Most of the photographs of aircraft firing demonstrations on Empire Air Days don’t have enough context for us to pinpoint where they took place. However, one photo from “Flight” magazine, June 1938, clearly shows an aircraft firing demonstration taking place at stop butts in front of hangar 2, the central Belfast roof truss hangar nearest the airfield. This arrangement of walls, possibly banked with sand, would have caught stray bullets when aircraft guns were tested, before World War 2. 

The stop butts were constructed in Kenley’s earliest days, when it was an Air Acceptance Park, and can be seen in a photo taken by Air Chief Marshal Sir Leslie Hollinghurst in 1917, before the hangars were even finished. At least until the mid-thirties there was a double shed directly in front of them, but they are clearly visible behind the sheds in aerial photos. By Empire Air Day 1937, on 20th May, the sheds were gone, but the walls were still standing and can be seen in the background of photos of the event. 

These narrow stop butts were built for fighters with centrally-mounted guns, synchronised to fire through the propeller, and must have been rendered obsolete by the introduction of monoplane fighters with wing-mounted guns. They were probably demolished, along with hangars 1, 2, and 4, as part of the programme of improvements which put Kenley on a war footing during 1939. A ‘Works Service Report’ in Kenley’s station diary notes the construction of new machine gun test butts at the end of November 1940. 

Many thanks to Neil Broughton and Tony Adams

EPW005997 ENGLAND (1921). Kenley Aerodrome, Kenley, 1921.

EPW017127 ENGLAND (1926). Kenley Aerodrome, Kenley, 1926

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