For an army that has used machine guns for a hundred years or so, we have had remarkably few weapons serve as a standard machine gun. When I talk about machine guns, I mean what the Army calls a machine gun, not Hollywood or the press. A machine gun is a weapon that is primarily designed to provide automatic fire, not just one that can. For instance, the M-16 is an automatic weapon. You can set the selector switch to automatic and pull the trigger. The weapon will fire automatically until the magazine is empty. But it was designed to be used mostly as a semiautomatic weapon, where one pull of the trigger fires one round. Machine guns, which are usually belt fed, almost always fire full auto. Many don’t have any provision for semiautomatic fire.
We aren’t going to go back to the Gatling gun and its counterparts. In many ways, they were considered artillery, and treated as such.
The first really successful machine gun in the US Army was the Browning M1917. This gun fired the same .30-06 rifle cartridge as the standard US rifle, but fired it from a cloth belt holding hundreds of rounds. The big fat thing on the barrel is a water jacket. The water in the jacket cooled the barrel when firing long bursts. How long? Well, when Browning was trying to sell the gun to the Army, he fired two bursts, of 20,000 rounds each. Right now the Army says that an M-4 carbine is ready for replacement after firing 7,000 rounds over the course of its life.
This ability to place huge amounts of automatic fire on target was very much appreciated by the infantry during the trench warfare of WWI. And it still had a place long after that. With a range of well over 1000 yards, the M1917 could be used to support our troops during an assault. The M1917 remained in service throughout WWII and the Korean War. The Weapons Company of each infantry battalion had a platoon of them.
The only real problem with the M1917 was that it weighed so much. The gun itself was heavy, then there was the sturdy tripod, water in the jacket and a spare water can, and then enormous amounts of ammunition. It was almost a given that a vehicle would be needed to transport the gun team. As the Army tried to get away from static trench warfare, something lighter was needed that could accompany troops on the move. Since most of the Army moved by foot, this would have to be light enough for a team to carry long distances.
Browning had the answer there as well. By removing the water jacket and placing a perforated cooling jacket around the barrel (to allow cooling air to circulate) Browning considerably lightened the gun. Coupled with a new, lightweight tripod, the new gun was adopted as the M1919. While it could not sustain nearly as high a volume of fire as the heavy, water-cooled guns, it could be quickly and easily moved by a three man team , allowing it to follow troops almost anywhere on the battlefield. The three man team consisted of the gunner, who carried and emplaced the tripod (and then fired the weapon when emplaced), the assistant gunner, who carried the gun (and then assisted with loading the gun when in operation) and the ammunition bearer, who carried additional ammunition, and was armed with a rifle to provide local security while the gun was being emplaced.
While the 1919 couldn’t provide the same volume of fire as the 1917, the gun was still incredibly reliable and capable of laying large volumes of fire upon the enemy. It’s vastly superior portability also meant that it would be up front where the fight was. Normally, each infantry platoon had to machine guns assigned. The M1919 was such a solid design, it remained in service from 1919 up until the early 1960’s.
During WWII, the Wehrmacht (the German Army) was mostly equipped with bolt action rifles. To make up for this lack of firepower, each squad was centered around the excellent MG42 light machine gun. This provided the bulk of the squad’s firepower. The Americans were greatly impressed with this gun. After the war, the Army looked to find a gun that would be lighter than the M1919 and more portable. They wanted a gun much like the MG42, firing from either a tripod or, usually, a bipod, using a buttstock.
After years of development, the Army adopted the M-60 machine gun as its standard medium machine gun. It had a number of “improvements” over the MG-42. It was chambered in the NATO standard 7.62mm x 51 cartridge. It deliberately had a lower rate of fire, to reduce the ammo needed and diminish the need to constantly change barrels.
While the M60 was issued in the same two guns per platoon manner as the M1919, it was often used in the role of a squad automatic weapon, much like the MG42. The M60 became iconic, seen almost every night on the evening news during the Vietnam war. But the M60 wasn’t without its own problems. It was somewhat fragile. When I was an M60 gunner, one of the real issues with the weapon was the various leaf springs on the gun. Many would fall off, even when properly installed. For instance, it wasn’t unusual to lose the leafspring that held the trigger group onto the gun. Soon thereafter, the trigger group would try to get away. We had to lace the guns together with parachute cord or safetywire. This made it almost impossible to disassemble the gun for clearing jams. The feed tray was made of stamped metal and was vulnerable to being damaged from relatively slight impacts. If that happened, the gun wouldn’t feed at all. And the gas piston could be inserted backwards during assembly after cleaning, leading to a gun that wouldn’t fire on full auto.
After trying several modifications to the weapon, the Army finally adopted a new medium machine gun, the M240. This is the American name for the Belgian MAG58, which, ironically, lost the original competition to the M60. The M240 has been in use as a vehicle mounted weapon in the US for about 30 years, but it was only in the mid-1990’s that the services started using it as a standard infantry weapon.
The 240 is a solid, well designed gun. It weighs just a little more than the M60, but is very resistant to damage and very easy to maintain. It is incredibly reliable. If your gun is jamming, UR DOIN IT RONG!
It is ironic that after the development and use of machine guns for 100 years, the Army is using a gun first designed over 50 years ago, one that initially wasn’t adopted largely because of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome.
Part 2 will cover some of the other Great Guns of the US Army.