The Browning .50 cal

“Ma deuce”

Beaches of Normandy Tours

An American soldier with an M2 in Normandy in 1944
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

The Browning M2 is a .50 caliber (12.7 mm) heavy machine gun known for being the second longest-serving firearm in the American military after another invention by its designer John M. Browning, the M1911 pistol. With its origins dating back to the First World War, the M2, nicknamed "ma deuce," is still in service in more than 60 countries of the world. Used in a myriad of roles by the infantry or on tanks, planes and ships, it proved to be effective against personnel, unarmored or armored vehicles, vessels, emplacements, and aircraft, too. Over the many decades of its service, it stood the test of time. Let’s see how this famous weapon came into being.

John M. Browning with a shotgun circa early 1900 (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)
John M. Browning with a shotgun circa early 1900
(Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)

The development of the .50 cal began close to the end of World War I. In light of the increasing armor protection of the German warplanes and vehicles, General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force ordered the development of a heavy machine gun. John Moses Browning, one of America's greatest gun designers, was assigned with developing a heavy machine gun with a larger caliber. He worked with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company on the new ammunition. Browning also designed the earlier M1917, a water-cooled heavy machine gun, which, like another Browning design, the Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR (Read our earlier article - The Browning Automatic Rifle), arrived in Europe late in World War I and only saw limited service there. The .50 cal was a development directly based on the M1917, just like its smaller brother, the M1919 (Read our earlier article – The .30 cal Browning). They relied also on the results of German weapons development like the new anti-tank rifle, the Mauser Tankgewehr 1918 and its cartridge.

John M. Browning personally tests an early prototype of his water-cooled .50 caliber heavy machine gun (Photo: Museums at Union Station)
John M. Browning personally tests an early prototype of his water-cooled .50 caliber heavy machine gun (Photo: Museums at Union Station)

Winchester and his colleagues developed the prototype of the new water-cooled weapon, named M1918, in less than a year, but, similarly to the other new designs, arrived just by the end of the Great War. On top of that, the protype did not meet the requirements of most of the branches of the U.S. armed forced for it was too heavy and had a strong recoil. With the war over, only the U.S. Coast Guard - Coastal Artillery ordered some, designated as M1921, to be used in an anti-aircraft role. Browning died in 1926 and the development was taken further by a Springfield Armory engineer, Dr. Samuel Green who took into account the needs of the U.S. military. He made modifications so that the gun could be belt-fed from the left or right and that it could be easily modified according to the needs of the different branches of the armed forces. The final version, the M2, was produced by Colt and entered service in 1933.

Different versions of the M2 (Photo: Springfield Armory National Historical Site Archives)
Different versions of the M2
(Photo: Springfield Armory National Historical Site Archives)

First, Colt began delivering water-cooled M2s for anti-aircraft use by the Navy. This was followed by the M2HB, a "Heavy Barrel” model, which had a thicker-walled and air-cooled barrel (earlier versions were water-cooled). The normal M2 weighs 121 pounds (55 kg), while the M2HB weighs 84 pounds (38 kg). It was used by the infantry and on armored vehicles. The Air Force wanted an air-cooled model with a light barrel and higher rate of fire which ended up being the .50 AN/M2 (AN standing for Army/Navy since it was a joint project). These were used extensively on almost every American fighter and bomber, and replaced the earlier .30 caliber guns. 

Beaches of Normandy Tours
The B-26 Marauder’s tail turret with AN/M2s at the Utah Beach Museum in Normandy, France (Photo: Author’s own)

During World War II, the United States used it in many different roles: infantry support weapon on a 20 kg tripod, fixed attack or turret-mount defensive aircraft gun, anti-aircraft gun on ships or armored vehicles, coaxial or dual-purpose mounting in some tanks. As opposed to the 11,000 M2s produced during the interwar years, nearly 2 million were manufactured during WWII. The AN/M2 light-barrel version was used on most American bombers, such as the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-26 Marauder (Read our earlier article – The “Widowmaker”). After the war, .50 cals were gradually phased out due to the development of new weapon systems like rockets.

Hollywood legend Clark Gable with a .50 cal in a waist gun position of a B-17 bomber (Photo: Roger Freeman Collection, IWM)
Hollywood legend Clark Gable with a .50 cal in a waist gun position of a B-17 bomber (Photo: Roger Freeman Collection, IWM)

Different types of ammunition were used in the M2: standard ball, armor-piercing, armor-piercing incendiary, and armor-piercing incendiary tracer rounds. For blanks, a special blank-firing adapter is attached to the barrel of the gun.

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An M2 with a blank-firing adapter during a field exercise (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Mounted on vehicles, the M2 proved very effective: its rounds could easily penetrate the weaker points of low-flying German aircraft and armored vehicles, even that of tanks. The problem with the turret mountings was the weak protection of the gunner since he was greatly exposed on top of the vehicle to enemy fire or even low-hanging branches. Some units even added makeshift add-ons to provide more protection to the gunner. The Germans hated the M2 since it could give sufficient protection even to unarmored vehicles to repel attacks.

German soldiers using a captured M2 in Normandy, France in June 1944 (Photo: Reddit)
German soldiers using a captured M2 in Normandy, France in June 1944 (Photo: Reddit)

Maybe the most devastating and feared configuration of the M2 was the M45 Quadmount, nicknamed the "meat chopper" and "Krautmower,” a combination of four .50 M2HB guns mounted on an armored housing and fed from 200-round “tombstone” drum magazines. It was used mostly in an anti-aircraft role on the M16 half-track or on towed trailers. It turned out to be an effective anti-aircraft weapon. With the Luftwaffe getting weaker and launching less attacks, it was used often against infantry. Snipers hiding on trees were frequently killed by M45s simply by firing on the trunk and cutting the tree into pieces.

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An M45 Quadmount in the National Museum of Military History in Diekirch, Luxembourg (Photo: Author’s own)

Due to the environment and conditions in jungle combat, the use of M2 was not widespread in the Pacific. Still, it could be used against lighter Japanese fortifications and roadblocks with great efficiency. Commonwealth forces used them (designated as .5 Browning) on the vehicles received under lend-lease and later replaced most of their own machine guns with it especially in North Africa.
 
During the war, several of the Medal of Honor recipients fought the enemy with an M2. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor 
(Read our earlier article – Medals of Honor at Pearl Harbor), Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John William Finn manned a AN/M2 while fighting the attackers. He was presented with the Medal of Honor on September 14, 1942, by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz on the deck of the USS Enterprise in Pearl Harbor. His citation reads as follows:
“For extraordinary heroism, distinguished service, and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. During the first attack by Japanese airplanes on the Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, he promptly secured and manned a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on an instruction stand in a completely exposed section of the parking ramp, which was under heavy enemy machine gun strafing fire. Although painfully wounded many times, he continued to man this gun and to return the enemy's fire vigorously and with telling effect throughout the enemy strafing and bombing attacks and with complete disregard for his own personal safety. It was only by specific orders that he was persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention. Following first-aid treatment, although obviously suffering much pain and moving with great difficulty, he returned to the squadron area and actively supervised the rearming of returning planes. His extraordinary heroism and conduct in this action are considered to be in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.”

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Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John William Finn with his Medal of Honor
(Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

During the decades following the war, the .50 Browning was fielded in several armed conflicts such as in Korea, Vietnam, Falkland Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe the most surprising role the M2 has been used in is a sniper rifle. Equipped with telescopic sights, they were used in the Korean War and in Vietnam. The most famous example was U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock who used his own equipment to hunt down enemy soldiers. The Vietcong nicknamed him "White Feather Sniper," because he used to snipe with a white feather tucked into the band of his hat. In 1967, he hit a target from 2,500 yards (approx. 2,286 m). He held this record for 35 years until 2002 when Canadian sniper, Arron Perry, scored a hit from an even greater distance in Afghanistan. Nowadays, it is the main heavy machine gun of NATO members and is used by more than 60 countries. Currently, it is used also by Ukrainian soldiers against Russian invading forces in Ukraine.

A .50 cal with a scope (Photo: quora.com)
A .50 cal with a scope (Photo: quora.com)

The M2 and its different variants can be seen in countless computer games and movies, such as The Longest Day, Fury or Rambo. The 1962 war movie, The Longest Day is a special example since it features a M45 Quadmount which is used as a German Flakvierling 38 anti-aircraft gun in a scene depicting Caen but shot at the actual Longues-sur-Mer German naval battery in Normandy.

Beaches of Normandy Tours
The scene from The Longest Day movie with the M45 Quadmount 
(Photo: IMFDB)

You can find several .50 cals in museums around the world and on the sites we visit on our tours. For instance, at the Utah Beach Museum in France or at the Bastogne Barracks in Belgium. As you can see in the picture below, even young ones have the chance to get acquainted with this formidable weapon during the D-Day anniversary celebrations in Normandy.

A young child manning the .50 cal during a D-Day anniversary celebration in Sainte-Mère-Église (Photo: Author’s own)
A young child manning the .50 cal during a D-Day anniversary celebration in Sainte-Mère-Église (Photo: Author’s own)
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