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The Browning Automatic Rifle

U.S. soldier with a Browning Automatic Rifle (Photo: U.S. military)

Today, we'll continue our review of WWII-era firearms with another American staple: the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR for short. Like the Thompson submachine gun (SMG), the BAR was also originally designed for use in World War I, arrived late, and had to find a new purpose in the interwar years and World War II.
 
When the U.S. was about to enter World War I in early 1917, the military quickly realized that it had an inadequately small and obsolete selection of machine guns in a war that was pretty much all about machine guns. According to records, the U.S. military had a total of 1,110 machine guns at the time. This was clearly insufficient, so American soldiers had to rely on whatever they could get from the British and the French. Unfortunately, much of that was the French Chauchat light machine gun, a hastily designed and shoddily manufactured stopgap weapon that was so unreliable that it went down in history as likely the worst machine gun ever, nicknamed by the troops "the damned and the jammed" for a reason.

French soldiers with a Chauchat machine gun in 1918 (Photo: Jacques Ridel)
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With America's entry into the war on the doorstep, legendary gunmaker John M. Browning stepped up to the plate. He personally traveled to Washington, D.C. with two prototypes he wanted to offer to the government: one eventually became the M1917 Browning machine gun, the other the Browning Machine Rifle, the BAR's prototype. He organized a live-fire demonstration of the weapon to a 300-man public, many of them congressmen, senators and other political and military insiders. The demonstration was so successful that Browning was quickly awarded a contract for the rifle (the machine gun needed further testing before becoming another iconic American weapon).

The purpose of an automatic rifle (and, in a wider context, a light machine gun) was to overcome the firepower disparity between defense and offense in trench warfare. Enemy trenches, already fortified positions by nature, were defended with machine guns. An assaulting infantry force equipped with nothing but rifles was at a great disadvantage. Contemporary machine guns, however, were far too heavy and bulky to carry around on the attack, necessitating some sort of weapon that was more portable but still had enough firepower to suppress a trench's defenders.

Australian soldiers practicing walking fire during WWII (Photo: Robert John Buchanan)

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Automatic rifles and light machine guns were matched to a tactic called walking (or marching) fire, designed to take enemy trenches. The assault infantry force would start walking (not running!) towards the enemy trench at a steady pace, constantly firing their weapons in semi-automatic mode either from the shoulder or the hip, forcing the defenders to keep their heads down. Once they got within charging distance, they would switch to full auto, rush the trench and make short work of the enemy. The BAR was designed to do exactly this. Here's an easily overlooked detail on the BAR to demonstrate how specifically the gun was designed for this purpose.

Fire selector on the M1918 (Photo: Forgottenweapons.com)
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What you see above the trigger is the fire selection/safety switch. "F" stands for (semi-automatic) "fire", "A" for "auto", and "S" for "safe". The little knob between A and S is a spring-loaded button designed to protrude slightly. Soldiers would start the approach using semi-automatic fire. Once they were ready to charge, all they needed to do was pull the switch to "A". However, you didn't want to pull the switch too far by accident, since that would have moved it to "S", rendering the gun incapable of firing. Browning introduced the protruding button to prevent such an accidentally move to safety. You could only engage safety once you made a conscious two-handed effort to depress the button and move the switch over it. The switch then kept the button depressed until it was moved forward again – this way you could easily and quickly start firing if you came under attack.

BAR ammunition belt, gunner's version (Photo: Henrysmilitarycollectables.au.com)
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Another sign of Browning's attention to detail was the gunner's belt designed to carry magazines. Three different versions were made, one for the gunner, one for the 1st assistant and one for the 2nd assistant, each with a slightly different arrangement of pouches. This was done because the three men were to carry different equipment, and Browning wanted each to have a perfectly designed ammunition belt that took their individual loads into consideration.
 
The first production model of the gun was the M1918. Production was initially done by Winchester, who were pushed into the job so rapidly that the first batch of 1,800 rifles were not up to spec, with rifle parts not being interchangeable between rifles. After a temporary halt to fix the problems, though, they were able to crank out 9,000 BARs per month.

Browning (left) with Mr. Burton, the Winchester expert on rifles, at the Winchester Plant (Photo: US Army Signal Corps Collection)

BARs started to arrive in France in July 1918, but General Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Force, deliberately delayed their deployment until September. He knew the end of the war was in sight, but he was afraid that the Germans would inevitably capture some of the new weapons, and might reverse engineer them, acquiring a formidable weapon. Therefore, he decided to only send the BAR into battle once the state of the war progressed to the point where the Germans no longer had the time to create their own copies. When the BAR was finally deployed in September, troops were trained in its use by the inventor's son, 2nd Lieutenant Val Browning. The guns were used to great effect by Army units in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

John Browning's son Val with an M1918 in France (Photo: Army Heritage and Education Center)

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Like the Thompson SMG (Read our earlier article), the BAR also had to find a new purpose after the war, even as new versions were being developed. A small number of the Colt Monitor, a commercial light-weight version, was bought by the FBI, various prisons and security companies. And like with the Tommy Gun, the BAR also found popularity with the underworld. More than a few rifles stolen from poorly guarded National Guard armories found their way into the hands of criminals. The infamous couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were particularly fond of (and very good at) using the automatic rifle, with Clyde often customizing his BARs to suit his preferences. The BAR also became a frequent sight on warships and in the hands of Marines.

Clyde Barrow holding a BAR (Photo: Gunsandammo.com)

As mentioned above, development on the BAR continued between the wars. Strangely, versions developed for the U.S. military were gradually falling behind foreign BARs, produced overseas under license for other nations' militaries. The reason for this was that the military insisted that old BARs should be capable of being retrofitted and upgraded to newer designs, which limited the amount of innovation that could go into new versions. Meanwhile, export and foreign models were under no such limitation. This saw the appearance of BARs in various calibers, with pistol grips, rate-of-fire reducers that made the anemic 20-round magazine last a bit longer, and, very importantly, easily detachable barrels that could be quickly replaced when they overheated.

Finnish machine gunner and his assistant with a Belgian-manufacture FN D, the most advanced version of the BAR, 1941 (Photo: Corporal Rolf Grandell)

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Poland even developed an aircraft-mounted version to be used against other planes. It had a massive fire rate of 1,100 rounds/minute (comparable to WWII's terrifying German MG-42) and a magazine that held 91 rounds.

Polish wz. 37, based on the BAR, mounted on an observation plane (Photo: Dobroni.pl)

Meanwhile, in 1938, America also produced its own definitive version of the BAR, the M1918A2. It came with a bipod and a buttstock rest to help the aim of prone gunners, and a rate-of-fire selector that allowed the user to switch between roughly 400 and 600 rounds per minute, at the cost of sacrificing semi-auto firing.
 
By the time World War II started, it was clear that the BAR was not going to be used in the role it was originally designed for. Even though the concept of walking fire still existed (and, in fact, General George S. Patton was a great advocate of it), this new war was no longer dominated by massive trench systems to be assaulted and taken. Instead, the BAR was pressed into service as a squad-level light machine gun, something it wasn't really designed for. When America joined the war, a single BAR was assigned to every 12-man Army squad. This system quickly proved to be insufficient against the enemy. While the standard issue Kar98 rifle was no match for the M1 Garand (Read our earlier article), German soldiers were well-equipped with superior machine guns and a good number of submachine guns – sometimes, one German in every four was equipped with some form of automatic weapon. A single BAR and a number of semi-automatic Garands just didn't cut it in the face of such firepower.

A BAR gunner and a rifleman firing on retreating German forces in WWII (Photo: warfarehistorynetwork.com)

The U.S. Marine Corps increased the number of BARs to 3 in every squad. While the Army did not officially follow suit during the war, an unofficial 13-man squad organization with 3 BARs was often practiced. These new squads were no longer organized around the riflemen with the BARs providing fire support, but around the BAR, with the riflemen being relegated to support and ammunition carriers for the BAR.
 
Even then, the BAR was showing its age. It could no longer keep with up with proper light machine guns such as the Japanese Type 96 or the British Bren gun. Its thin barrel would heat up quickly and, due to the government's insistence on backward compatibility, was still impossible to change quickly. It was sturdy and reliable, but only if it was cleaned daily to avoid internal rusting. The rate reducer was a delicate maintenance nightmare, described by one ordnance sergeant as "a Rube Goldberg device". The bipod and the flash hider were often discarded to make the gun lighter and more portable.

A WWII Marine carrying a WWI-era M1918 which was not modified to newer specs (Photo: Browning.com)

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Despite all the shortcomings of age, the BAR also made its probably most spectacular kill in World War II. In 1944, an unarmed American C-46 cargo plane was flying over Burma, ferrying supplies to nationalist Chinese and US Army Air Forces troops in the Far East. The plane came under attack by a Japanese Nakajima fighter. Having no other recourse, the pilot, one Captain Wally Gayda, stuck his BAR out the cockpit window, returned fire, and hit and killed the Japanese pilot.
 
Despite its age, the BAR went on to serve the U.S. military for quite a bit longer. It became a very popular weapon in the Korean War. At the time, North Korean and Chinese communist forces were fond of employing a deadly tactic against UN patrols. Highly trained, well-hidden machine gun operators would wait until a patrol approached then, then open fire at very short range. Coming under such a sudden and withering attack, U.S. machine gun crews could usually not move up their own Browning machine guns to return fire without suffering heavy casualties. Even if they did manage to get into position to return fire, communist mortar crews would finish them off while they were setting up.

Three BAR gunners in Korea, February 1951 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

The venerable BAR held the answer. Thanks to his lighter, more mobile weapon, a single BAR gunner, crawling on his belly if he had to, could sneak closer to the communist machine gun crew without being noticed and take them out. The BAR was also effective at chasing away or killing enemy snipers, and proved effective at defending against large-scale nighttime assaults.
 
The BAR even saw service in the Vietnam War. Many BARs, considered definitely obsolete by then, were shipped to the South Vietnamese army and other allied forces, but they were also popular with U.S. Special Forces "advisors", who preferred it over the M16 for its reliability. In fact, it was noted that Viet Cong infiltrators, who often stole materiel from Special Forces camps, also preferred to nick the BAR over any other weapon.

Viet Cong crossing a river, with the lead boatman holding a BAR, 1966 (Photo: unknown photographer)

Over all, more than 350,000 BARs were built during their 55 years of service in the U.S. military, and many rifles were used by countries all the way up into the 1990s. Earlier versions can be purchased for a price ranging between $30,000 – 60, 000 at auctions. A BAR rifle can also be seen in the 1998 war movie Saving Private Ryan, carried by Private First Class Richard Reiben played by actor Edward Burns.

Reiben firing his BAR in Saving Private Ryan (Photo: imfd.org)
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