On the morning of June 6, 1944, a detachment of 200 U.S. Army Rangers approached the coast of Normandy and prepared to carry out the unenviable mission of scaling a perpendicular cliff behind the beach and silencing a battery of 155mm cannons located in a series of massive reinforced concrete bunkers atop Pointe du Hoc. Equipped with nothing heavier than mortars and Browning Automatic Rifles, or BARs, they managed to fight their way to the top, only to find telegraph poles substituted for the big guns, which had been removed but were later found some distance away.
Undeterred, the Rangers pushed on to their second objective, the road between Grandcamp-Maisy and Vierville-sur-Mer, where Sergeant William “L-Rod” Petty suddenly found himself face to face—literally—with two Germans who had jumped up out of a deep shelter hole. Petty was right on top of them, but the sergeant instantly threw himself to the ground, firing his BAR as he fell. The 30.06-caliber rounds went harmlessly between the Germans, but the BAR’s racket so unnerved them that they dropped their weapons and threw up their hands, which moved a friend of Petty’s, walking behind him, to comment dryly, “Hell, L-Rod, that’s a good way to save ammunition—just scare ’em to death.”
The BAR was much more than just a psychological weapon for American GIs during World War II. BARs were well designed, well made, reliable and easy to use and service. They could be stripped in the field without tools, and the weapon’s simple design and reasonably low manufacturing tolerances meant that dirt and dust never presented BAR operators with the sort of problems that the MG34 presented the Germans, despite its superior belt feed system and sophisticated recoil-operated mechanism. Of the BAR’s other competitors, perhaps only the British Bren gun was superior. It was slightly lighter and liked by many because of its greater accuracy when fired in semiautomatic mode.
Browning Automatic Rifles fall into the category of so-called light machine guns, although considering that a BAR weighed 40 pounds with a full complement of 12 magazines, not many of the soldiers who lugged them across Normandy and the Rhineland would probably agree with that description. Perhaps a better designation would be “portable,” since most of the BAR’s forerunners required as many as four men to operate them.
The first reliable machine gun to see general use was the Gatling, introduced to Federal forces in the very final days of the American Civil War. Hand-cranked, it consisted of 10 barrels revolving around a central shaft—each barrel gravity-loaded during the first half rotation around this shaft, and spent cases ejected during the second. It was not a bad weapon for the time, especially considering it could fire about 600 rounds per minute. But smokeless powder, with its slower, even burn rate, spelled the end for hand-cranked weapons.
In 1884 Hiram Maxim presented the world with its first recoil-operated, fully automatic machine gun, in which propellant gas from the expended round drove the bolt back against a spring to carry out the operations of reloading and firing. Called Maxims or Vickers, after the company that bought Sir Hiram out, these weapons were used in countless small colonial skirmishes. But they really came into their own during World War I, when guns using Maxim’s operating system mowed down the soldiers of every army by the tens of thousands. Indeed, World War I came to be known as “the machine gun war” because of the lethal effectiveness of those weapons.
Although they fired conventional rifle bullets, the Maxim and its descendents were still heavy machine guns in every sense of the word. Britain’s Vickers weighed in at a massive 85 pounds, two-thirds of which was accounted for by the tripod needed to support and control the ill-balanced, water-cooled barrel. What was needed was something lighter, carried and fired by one man, who could thus advance with and support the infantry.
In 1917 John M. Browning, the godfather of automatic firearms, produced the answer. Relatively light in weight, less than 20 pounds, the gas-operated BAR with its impressive 550-round-per-minute rate of fire, 20-round magazine and 600- yard range, compared favorably with the heavier, recoil-operated, trench-based machine guns. Chambered for the 30.06 Springfield rifle round and designated the model 1918A1, it could be fired in semiautomatic or fully automatic modes, with the added advantage that only one man was needed to operate it. BAR variants were turned out by Colt, Winchester and the Marlin Rockwell Corporation, totaling 85,000 weapons before the Armistice in November 1918. Colt alone eventually made five different models.
To load the BAR, its gunner turned the selector lever back to “S” for safe and pushed the magazine home until the retaining catch engaged. Pulling back the handle on the left side of the weapon cocked the action, although the cartridge remained in the magazine until the trigger was pulled, at which time, in moving forward, the bolt stripped and chambered a round. The shooter could then set the change lever on the left, above the trigger guard, from S to either “F” for single shots in semiautomatic mode or “A” for fully automatic operation. Incidentally, the location of the cocking lever meant that the firer never had to remove his finger from the trigger when carrying out this operation. Many versions came with a shoulder support strap, hinged to the butt plate, allowing a BAR to be supported and fired from the hip more easily.
When the Browning was fired, gas from the cartridge was directed by way of a port or regulator to a cylinder under the barrel, which contained a piston connected to the operating slide. This residual gas pressure drove the operating slide to the rear, cocking the weapon. In semiautomatic mode, the piston was caught and held by the sear so that the trigger needed to be depressed again to fire. Changing the lever to fully automatic disengaged that sear, allowing the weapon to keep firing as long as the trigger remained depressed and rounds remained in the magazine.
It was essential to ensure that the gas driving the piston entered the cylinder at the right pressure, but after a number of rounds had been fired, the gas port started to collect powder residue, which decreased the amount of gas entering the ports, causing both faulty ejection and a failure to properly cock the bolt. With a view to alleviating this problem, BARs were fitted with a three-port regulator, such that if the weapon failed to eject a spent case, the firer manually cleared the offending case and moved the gas regulator to the next largest opening. Care had to be exercised with that mechanism, however, especially to reset the regulator back to the smallest hole after cleaning— otherwise, firing a newly serviced Browning resulted in so much recoil that the rifle became unmanageable.
Machine gun development between the wars, at least in the United States, was mostly confined to larger weapons, such as the Browning .50- and .30-caliber machine guns. By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, however, the U.S. Army had been reorganized so that the nine-man rifle squad was built around a single BAR.
The BAR had changed slightly, too, the standard issue weapon now being designated the M1918A2. It no longer had provision for semiautomatic fire, the two-position fire selector switch now specifying slow (300-450 rounds per minute) or fast (500-650 rpm). It is interesting to note that the original field manual for the M1918A1 BAR stated, “The Browning automatic rifle is primarily intended to be used to deliver rapid, accurately aimed single shots,” and, “Owing to the difficulty in holding the rifle when firing bursts of continuous fire, bursts should only be fired in an emergency at particularly vulnerable targets, and should be of from three to five rounds.”
Despite its many good qualities, however, the BAR still shared a major disadvantage with all air-cooled light machine guns: When the barrel began to overheat after sustained firing, accuracy dropped alarmingly. German experts got around that problem by supplying their MG34 light machine gun with a quick-change barrel. This problem led to unfavorable comparisons being made to some of the European light automatic weapons, such as the Bren and the Danish Madsen, and was one of the major reasons for the BAR’s replacement soon after the Korean War.
In addition to the modified fire selector, the M1918A2, introduced to the U.S. Army in 1940, was fitted with a buffer spring in the butt, greatly reducing recoil, and a 21⁄2-pound folding bipod. The bipod was easily removed, and most GIs removed it, finding it an encumbrance unless they were in a fixed defensive position. A flash suppressor was fitted to the M1918A2—not to hide the muzzle flash from the enemy, but rather to shield the shooter’s eyes and ensure he didn’t lose his night vision. As a final extra, the A2 could take four different types of cartridge: the ball M2, a 150-grain bullet with a 50- grain charge (150/50); the tracer M25M1, used for identifying targets and for signaling; the armor-piercing M2 165/53, identified by its black tip, for use against lightly armored halftracks or armored cars; and the armor-piercing incendiary, for use against lightly armored inflammable targets.
All in all, the new BAR was slightly superior to the old model, although the U.S. Marine Corps, which organized its 13-man squads around three fire teams, each equipped with a Browning, preferred the semiautomatic mode in many tactical situations and so modified its M1918A2 models accordingly.
Unlike World War I, WWII was predominantly a war of movement, and American battle techniques suited the highly mobile Browning. At Pearl Harbor, BARs were employed as impromptu antiaircraft weapons against incoming Japanese dive bombers. They also provided infantry support in the vicious hedge-to-hedge conflict that characterized most of the Normandy campaign.
It was the BAR, at least in part, with its combat reliability and high rate of fire, that saved the enlisted men and NCOs of units such as Lieutenant Lyle Boucks’ platoon. On December 16, 1944, members of his intelligence and reconnaissance platoon of the 394th Regiment, 99th Division, found themselves in the Ardennes, at a little town called Lanzerath, as the Battle of the Bulge shifted into top gear. Facing several German columns and with orders to “hold at all costs,” Bouck pushed his 18 men into foxholes on the edge of the village and prepared to ambush the Germans, assigning his BAR men forward positions to maximize their lethality. Unfortunately for the Americans, their ambush was discovered and Bouck and his men found themselves in a firefight against overwhelming odds.
Private William James, firing his BAR at what he described as “tall, good-looking kids,” recalled the sickness that he felt as he cut them down. “Whoever’s ordering that attack must be frantic,” he remarked. “Nobody in his right mind would send troops into something like this without more fire support.”
Eventually, the ammunition for their BARs and machine guns ran out, and Bouck and what was left of his men surrendered. Bouck celebrated his 21st birthday on December 17, lying on a stretcher in a makeshift field hospital, his only thought being, “What a hell of a way to become a man.”
BARs proved useful in the Pacific theater as well. On Bougainville’s Hill 700, the men of 2nd Battalion, 145th Infantry, were dying where they stood, hopelessly overwhelmed by the weight of Japanese numbers. The sergeant in command of Company E’s forward mortar observation post was alerted by the noise of some Japanese soldiers cutting the fourth and last double apron of wire protecting his pillbox. They had actually placed a Bangalore torpedo under the wire, when the unnamed sergeant opened fire with his Browning, leaving eight of the Japanese hanging in the wire. Undeterred by the arrival of additional Japanese, the sergeant held them off with the BAR, while calling down a superbly accurate 60mm mortar barrage, which he calmly adjusted in and around the wire before ducking back into his pillbox. There he spent the rest of the night, peppering his luckless attackers with 60mm mortar rounds, which he directed all around his position, ensuring the survival of himself and his men.
The Browning remained in service through the Korean War. Chambered for the 7.65mm NATO round, the venerable workhorse remained in use by the Army until 1957. Today, because of federal legislation concerning selective fire rifles, its ownership is restricted, although many legal BARs are owned and fired for recreation. Modern manufacturers have even taken to building a brand-new, semiautomatic-only version, so that the U.S. Army’s old gun really can live again.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.