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John Browning's iconic medium machine gun

The .30 cal Browning

Men from the 77th Infantry Division with an M1919A4 on the island of Shima, May 1945 (Photo: wearethemighty.com)
Men from the 77th Infantry Division with an M1919A4 on the island of Shima, May 1945 (Photo: wearethemighty.com)

Today's article spotlights another iconic World War II firearm: the famous M1919 Browning machine gun, perhaps better known as "the .30 cal".
 
John Moses Browning was one of America's greatest gun designers ever, and he certainly left his mark on American machine gun history. He was one of the two designers of the M1895 Colt-Browning, the "potato digger", nicknamed so because its operating lever would dig into the soil during motion if the gun was placed too close to the ground. Browning then designed the M1917, a water-cooled heavy machine gun, which, like another Browning design, the Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR (Read our earlier article), arrived in Europe late in World War I and only saw limited service there. However, the need for another, even newer, machine gun was already arising.

Lieutenant Val Browning, the inventor's son, demonstrating the use of the water-cooled M1917 in France (Photo: Army Heritage and Education Center)
Lieutenant Val Browning, the inventor's son, demonstrating the use of the water-cooled M1917 in France (Photo: Army Heritage and Education Center)

The United States started producing its own tanks and needed a machine gun to mount on them. The M1917 had a great disadvantage in this new role: it was water-cooled. The barrel was surrounded by a thick metal jacket filled with water, and Army decision makers were afraid that the extra thickness of the barrel, as well as the significant weight of a water-cooled gun, would make it accident-prone and an easy target for anti-tank fire.
 
The U.S. military was using many foreign-produced weapons at the time, and the most obvious choice for a thin (and therefore air-cooled) tank machine gun was the French Hotchkiss Mle 1914. The Hotchkiss, however, had a unique problem of its own: it was made in France. It made little sense to buy machine guns in Europe, ship them across the Atlantic to America, mount them on American-made tanks, and then ship the whole thing back to Europe for use in the war. It was much more reasonable to just design and build an American machine gun, and Browning was certainly up to the task.

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U.S. Marines training on how to fire M1917s and M1919s (arranged alternatingly) from the hip (Photo: U.S. military)
U.S. Marines training on how to fire M1917s and M1919s (arranged alternatingly) from the hip (Photo: U.S. military)

The M1919 (just like its big brother, the .50 caliber Browning M2, nicknamed "Ma Deuce") was a development directly based on the M1917, only it had a thicker, heavier barrel without a water jacket. The .30 caliber cartridges were initially contained in an ammunition belt made of woven cloth. This did have the drawback of leaving the gunner with an empty cloth belt after use, an item that just got in the way. Eventually, the M1 link was developed as an alternative. Each metallic link connected one cartridge to the next one, and was automatically removed and ejected from the gun during firing. This way, a machine gunner ended up with a large number of tiny links scattered on the ground, which was less likely to trip him up than a long piece of fabric.

U.S. soldiers operating an M1919, the ammunition is attached to a cloth belt (Photo: ww2db.com)
U.S. soldiers operating an M1919, the ammunition is attached to a cloth belt (Photo: ww2db.com)

As mentioned before, the M1919 was originally designed for use on tanks, which gave it a distinctly different appearance from the infantry machine gun most readers would be more familiar with. Tank doctrine at the time thought that the tank will never need to fire its machine gun at anything more than maybe 100 yards away. As such, accuracy was not a big consideration. The barrel was only 18 and a half inches long, which made it a compact fit on the tank, but did limit accuracy. Also, targeting sights came in two versions, one (essentially a small metal tube you had to peek through) preferred by the British, the other, a more traditional sight, better liked by everyone else. Neither version, however, was particularly good for shooting at long-range targets.

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The barrel of an early M1919. Note the shortness of the barrel and the distinctive oblong cooling slots. (Image: Forgotten Weapons)
The barrel of an early M1919. Note the shortness of the barrel and the distinctive oblong cooling slots. (Image: Forgotten Weapons)

One unfortunate heritage of the M1917 was the closed bolt firing mechanism.  This means that when the weapon is ready to fire, the round is already in the chamber. (In contrast, the next round in an open bolt system rests outside the chamber and only enters it when the trigger is pulled.) The closed bolt was not a big problem with a water-cooled gun, but did become an issue with air cooling. If the metal of the firing chamber heated up sufficiently from extended use, the cartridge resting inside it could "cook off" from the heat surrounding it – it would go off on its own without the gunner pulling the trigger. The unintentional firing, in turn, would cause the next round to enter the chamber, which would be similarly cooked off. A stopgap measure against such accidents was telling machine gunners to always reach for the charging handle, located on the right-hand side of the gun, with their palms up and therefore their thumbs away from the gun. This did nothing to prevent a cook-off, but at least the gunner's thumb would not be dislocated if the handle started suddenly moving on its own. Another partial fix to the problem was the addition of a latch that could keep the chamber open, allowing it to cool off slightly faster.

An American-made M2A4 light tank (in British service), armed with five M1919 machine guns as its secondary armament (Photo: U.K. War Office)
An American-made M2A4 light tank (in British service), armed with five M1919 machine guns as its secondary armament (Photo: U.K. War Office)

The infantry also picked up the M1919 as their mainstay machine gun, though it proved to be an imperfect fit. The M1919A4, the first definitive infantry version in the early years of World War II, had a longer, heavier barrel and a number of improvements over the tank version. It also had its own shortcomings, the greatest of which was the tripod it came with. The gun was designed back in the World War I era, when such weapons were assumed to be of a defensive nature: you'd haul the bulky thing to the right spot, deploy it, and wait for the enemy to come to you. On the more mobile battlefields of World War II, however, the five-man machine gun squad had to move around a lot, carrying their gun with them at all times. The solid but heavy tripod made this a terrible chore. Adding insult to injury, all too often it couldn’t even be deployed, as the terrain was too uneven to support it. In such cases, the gunner just had to prop up the gun against a rock or something similar.

Used even by the enemy: German paratroopers with a captured M1919A4 in the Netherlands (Photo: Nac.gov.pl)
Used even by the enemy: German paratroopers with a captured M1919A4 in the Netherlands (Photo: Nac.gov.pl)

When the tripod could be deployed, though, it allowed the gunner to take advantage of a neat feature of the gun. The elevation of the gun could be set with a screw and would not change: once elevation was set, the gunner could easily move the gun horizontally, but not vertically. This allowed the gunner to sweep the gun left and right at incoming enemies without having to worry about aiming too high (above the enemy's head) or too low (in front of their feet).
 
Once American troops met German forces in Africa, and later in Europe, they discovered that the Browning had a disadvantage against the MG 34 and MG 42 machine guns. The German guns not only had a higher rate of fire, but were also designed with infantry mobility in mind, and could be moved around more quickly and easily. A new version of the M1919 was developed in an attempt to match the German machine guns at their own game. The M1919A6 had no tripod and a lighter barrel, and was equipped with a bipod in the front and a buttstock in the back to make it easier to deploy on any terrain.

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An M1919A6, note the bipod and the buttstock (Photo: ww2aircraft.net)
An M1919A6, note the bipod and the buttstock (Photo: ww2aircraft.net)

The M1916A6 was a reasonable development but not entirely successful. Though the lack of a tripod meant that the machine gun squad could be one man smaller, the addition of the buttstock, the bipod and other changes actually made it one pound heavier than a tripodless M1916A4, and 6-7 pounds heavier than the German guns. Nevertheless, it became and remained the U.S. Army's main medium machine gun until the 1960s.

An American infantryman covering his squad members with an M1919A6 while the others move Vietnamese children out of the line of fire (Photo: historicalfirearms.info)
An American infantryman covering his squad members with an M1919A6 while the others move Vietnamese children out of the line of fire (Photo: historicalfirearms.info)

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Of course, once you have a machine gun, nothing's really stopping you from mounting it on all sorts of vehicles, and the M1919 was no exception. The .30 caliber Browning machine gun, used on a wide range of vehicles, became one of the most common vehicle-mounted secondary armament not only for the American military, but also the Allies at large.

An M1919 mounted on a jeep somewhere in the Pacific, with a Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go tank in the background (Photo: ww2db.com)

The ubiquitous machine gun even made it to the skies in the form of the .30 AN/M2. This aircraft-specific version was lighter and had more than twice the rate of fire of the "normal" .30 cal (1,200 to 1,500 rounds per minute as opposed to 400 – 600), which was necessary to hit fast-flying enemy planes. The AN/M2 saw use on American planes early in the war, but the introduction of newer, better-armored enemy aircraft made it less effective as time went on. Its high rate of fire and the use of API-T ("Armor Piercing Incendiary Tracer") ammunition helped, but it was still gradually replaced by the .50 AN/M2, the aircraft version of the .50 caliber Browning machine gun.

Twin AN/M2s in the rear-facing turret of a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless (Photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
Twin AN/M2s in the rear-facing turret of a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless (Photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

A few enterprising Marines realized that the lower weight and higher rate of fire meant that the .30 AN/M2 could actually be turned into a very good infantry weapon. The result was the "Stinger". The guns would be salvaged from crashed or disabled planes, equipped with a bipod, a custom trigger, an M1 Garand (Read our earlier article) buttstock and rear sights, and pressed into service. Only six Stingers are known to have been made, and they were most likely all destroyed after the war since the U.S. military was never very fond of nonstandard equipment. Marine Corporal Tony Stein famously used a Stinger during the landings on Iwo Jima. He used his customized gun to storm several Japanese pillboxes. Running out of ammo quickly, he made eight trips back to the shore for more belts, always carrying a wounded Marine on the way down to friendly lines. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor, but he was killed in action (still on Iwo Jima) before he could receive it.

One of the six Stingers. (Photo: unknown photographer)
One of the six Stingers. (Photo: unknown photographer)

The M1919 was an altogether decent weapon within its limitations, but it truly came into its own as a land-based vehicle-mounted gun, and various versions were made for different caliber ammunition. The British made good use of a .30 caliber version, which was used on a wide range of British planes including the iconic Supermarine Spitfire and the older but still very serviceable Hawker Hurricane.

Though not a perfect weapon, the M1919 was still a very solid one. It was phased out of U.S. service in the 1950s, but is still in use in several military forces around the world. In fact, even the U.S. picked it up once more, during the Vietnam War. Those particular Brownings, designated the Mk 21 Mod 0, were converted to fire 7.62mm NATO cartridges and were used on the gunboats patrolling the country's labyrinthine waterways.

A machine gunner of the Mobile Riverine Force with a Mk 21 during the Vietnam War (Photo: Wikipedia)
A machine gunner of the Mobile Riverine Force with a Mk 21 during the Vietnam War (Photo: Wikipedia)

Many other Brownings were also chambered to the 7.62 NATO standard during the Cold War and saw service with numerous countries, Israel being one notable example. Interestingly, quite a few of these Israeli M1919s eventually found their way back to the United States, where they were converted to semi-automatic fire only. Buying a working, fully automatic machine gun is both very expensive and difficult, but these converted M1919s are a somewhat more affordable option for historical firearm enthusiasts. You can find several M1919s in museums around the world, for instance at the Utah Beach Museum in France or at the Bastogne Barracks in Belgium.
 
The M1919 is featured in many war and action films. One of its less expected appearances was in Tim Burton’s Batman movie from 1989, where the Batmobile was armed with dual M1919s popping out of the fenders of the car.

The dual M1919s popping out of the Batmobile’s fenders (Photo: imfdb.org)
The dual M1919s popping out of the Batmobile’s fenders (Photo: imfdb.org)
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