by PAUL HUARD
World War I is often called “the machine gun war” because of the devastating use of automatic weapons such as the Maxim gun. It’s also when some of the drastic developments in machine gun technology occurred.
Artillery fire actually killed more men than machine guns, but statistics simply don’t convey the horror of European armies on the Western Front facing automatic fire. For example, during just one day in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme the British lost 21,000 men — many of them killed by Spandau machine guns, the German version of the Maxim.
But the Maxim was heavy. It weighed 60 pounds before it was loaded with an ammunition belt and water in its cooling jacket, and it took four to six men to move and operate it.
It didn’t take long for both military men and weapons designers to consider what it would be like to deliver “walking fire” with a lightweight, man-portable automatic weapon.
The French attempt in 1918 was called the Chauchat, named after chief designer Col. Louis Chauchat. The 8 x 51-millimeter Chauchat was portable — it weighed about 20 pounds — and had a detachable box magazine. It could fire in both semi-automatic and full-auto … and it was piece of crap.
Its flimsy metal parts and a magazine that was open on one side were cost-cutting decisions made by individuals clueless about how filth from the mud-clogged trenches caused the Chauchat to malfunction frequently. Soldiers issued the Chauchat referred to it as “damned and jammed.”
But by then, the United States had entered the Great War. That not only meant the influx of American manpower but also the nation’s industrial might and ingenuity — including the formidable abilities of John Moses Browning, the Thomas Edison of weapons design.
The result was the Browning Automatic Rifle, one of the most influential and frequently-used machine guns ever designed.
“For nearly fifty years the hard-hitting, mobile Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, served in U.S. infantry units as a light squad automatic ‘base of fire’ weapon, providing quick bursts of concentrated fire,” wrote weapons historian Robert R. Hodges, Jr., noting the BAR saw action from the waning days of World War I through Vietnam and beyond.
In July 1918, a new weapon arrived in France and was quickly placed in the hands of the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry Division. Dubbed “Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning, M1918,” one of the men who received the weapon was 2nd Lt. Val Browning, son of the new rifle’s designer.
He quickly put it to good use. Browning and the men under his command advanced on German positions, firing the M1918 with devastating effect and complete reliability.
John Browning designed a light machine gun that fired the formidable .30–06 caliber round, the same ammunition used by U.S. soldiers in their M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles. “Light” didn’t mean lightweight — the weapon with a loaded 20-round box magazine weighed more than 20 pounds — but compared to the Chauchat it was a godsend.
A War Department official commenting on the BAR’s use said, “The rifles were highly praised by our officers and men who had to use them. Although these guns received hard usage, being on the front for days at a time in the rain and when the gunners had little opportunity to clean them, they invariably functioned well.”
Soon, the French army began swapping its Chauchats with BARs.
“The two things that stand out about the BAR are it represented a huge advance in infantry squad weapons when it first appeared in 1918, and its reliability — it worked when it was needed,” said John C. Nystrom, former Indiana State Police trooper and firearms trainer who advised Iraqi and Afghan police. “The BAR gave the infantry squad an automatic weapon that could be taken anywhere a man could carry it.”
In Europe during World War II, the tactical doctrine was to use one BAR in the form of the updated M1918A2 per squad. Doctrine soon went out the window in many cases when G.I.s begged, borrowed, or stole additional BARs to lay down suppression fire in the face of Germans who carried many more portable machine guns.
In the Pacific, the BAR was a staple weapon of Marines who used it in jungle warfare and during “island hopping” campaigns. In both theaters, one of the BAR’s more interesting uses was as an anti-sniper weapon. Once troops identified a sniper’s position, a rifleman with a BAR could pepper the “hide” with automatic fire more precisely than machine guns or submachine guns.
In Vietnam, special operators sometimes selected the BAR as their personal weapon. Nystrom, who is also a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, National Guard, and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, recounted the story of a high school acquaintance who joined the U.S. Air Force Air Commandos and became the most experienced BAR shooter he ever knew.
Sent on a mission to Laos to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the man wanted a weapon he could trust. At his base, he decided to try a few.
“There were crates of weapons from all over the world, and he tried them all. He settled on the BAR,” Nystrom said. “With and unlimited supply of guns and ammo, he decided one day to shoot a BAR until it couldn’t shoot any more — he wanted to know just how much abuse the rifle would take in an emergency situation.”
“In the end, the barrel glowed red, the wooden front hand-guard caught fire, rounds finally stuck in the drooping barrel, but the gun didn’t blow up,” he continued. “It was thrown away as unsalvageable, but there were crates full to replace it, and it was the gun he trusted to take in battle.”
Eventually, the M60 general purpose machine gun replaced the BAR, as did the M240 and M249 series of squad-level machine guns.
But the BAR is far from gone and forgotten.
Even today, there are serious efforts to bring back the BAR. The Heavy Counter Assault Rifle by Ohio Ordnance Works is a modernized version of the classic weapon. It has a 30-round magazine, adjustable Magpul buttstock, polymer pistol grip and Picatinny rails — and is chambered in .30–06 just like its venerable grandfather.
The company hopes that the Pentagon will take a serious look at the HCAR. Their argument is a 21st century incarnation of the BAR with its .30–06 round has more stopping power than the 5.56 x 45-millimeter M249 squad automatic weapon or the 7.62 x 51-millimeter M14 battle rifle.
Whether the Department of Defense shows interest remains to be seen. What is obvious is the BAR, a weapon designed almost a century ago to bring portable and reliable firepower to the stalemate of the Western Front, remains an influential firearm that still turns heads today.