Heavy Machine Guns in the Attack

US Army Infantry battalions during World War II each had a heavy machine gun platoon assigned to the battalion’s weapon company. This platoon had four M1917 Browning .30 machine guns. While rifle companies (and, toward the end of the war, rifle platoons) had two M1919 .30cal machine guns, those were air cooled, and had limited rates of fire and ammunition supply. Because the M1917 was water cooled, it could sustain a much higher rate of fire for a longer time, and each gun team could often use their assigned jeep and trailer to move considerable supplies of ammunition.

 

 

Like almost everything else John Moses Browning designed, the M1917 was a splendid weapon. It was rugged, simple, reliable and extremely effective. It served as the US Army’s primary heavy machine gun from World War I through the end of the Korean War. Its design was developed into the air-cooled M1919 and eventually evolved to form the basis of the M2 .50cal machine gun, which serves to this day in our Army.

Today we tend to think of the heavy machine gun in terms of the M2 .50cal, but the term of art then meant more than simply one of large caliber. Heavy meant that it was a support weapon, generally firing from semi-fixed positions while rifle elements maneuvered. The light machine guns would maneuver with their companies during the attack as need. Heavy machine gun platoons would displace as the supported units outran the range of their supporting fire, but not generally actually maneuver.

For you non-Infantry types out there, almost all the tactics described here are still applicable, even if the heavy machine gun is no longer in use. For instance, the primary, alternate, and supplementary positions are applicable to light machine guns, tanks or Bradleys, or any other supporting weapon.

By the way, who remembers filling out one of these?
http://xbradtc.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/4366c-rangecard.gif

Going great guns…

Another repost since I’m too lazy to write anything this morning. 

 

Welcome Reddit readers. Part Two is HERE, and Part Three is HERE.

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 two machine guns assigned. The M1919 was such a solid design, it remained in service from 1919 up until the early 1960’s. (actually, the initial basis of issue was 2 guns per company, but by the end of WWII, most platoons had two guns-ed.)

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.

Going Great Guns pt. 2

Previously, we looked at some of the medium machine guns in the US Army’s service. Today we will focus on heavy machine guns. As a practical matter, the US Army has only had one, but we’ll also look at a weapon that has complemented, but by no means replaced that gun.

Near the end of WWI, tanks were becoming common on the battlefield. Not surprisingly, anti-tank weapons began to appear soon after. Of course cannons were popular for engaging tanks, but they had a slow rate of fire, and poor fire control meant they often missed their targets. Coordinating the fires of these cannons with the infantry was difficult as well.  Tanks of the day were designed with enough armor to turn rifle and machine gun bullets and shell fragments. Because they had little engine power to spare, armor was kept at a bare minimum. Accordingly, a heavier machine gun bullet could be counted on to penetrate them and would be a light enough weapon to accompany the infantry wherever it went. The high rate of fire would almost guarantee a hit on the tank, with a good likelyhood of destroying or disabling the vehicle. As an added bonus, the heavy machine gun would make an excellent anti-aircraft weapon, a need that was becoming clearer by the day. A heavy machine gun would have greater range than the light machine guns carried by airplanes and the heavier bullet would do correspondingly greater damage to a frail airplane.

Comes again John Moses Browning, a name that anyone with even a passing knowledge of American small-arms knows. Samuel Colt is better known to the public at large, but Browning arguably had a far greater impact. He scaled up his hugely successful M1919 machine gun from the .30-06 rifle cartridge to the .50 BMG cartridge (which he invented as well, specifically for the new gun) and produced the M-2 machine gun.

The aircooled M2 entered service in 1921. It was very quickly adopted to a variety of uses. In it’s tripod mounted form shown above, it was in the weapons company of each infantry battalion. It was also used as a secondary weapon on tanks, an anti-aircraft weapon on trucks (normally one in four trucks would have a mount), mounted on ships and boats, used in either a fixed or flexible mount on aircraft, and later as the primary weapon on armored personnel carriers.

It has been an enormously successful weapon. How successful? It is still in production and is used by at least 34 nations. That number is almost certainly low, and it doesn’t include some nations that we know used the weapon in the past. For instance, the Soviet Union received many guns as part of lend lease during WWII, mounted on trucks, tanks, PT boats, and airplanes. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the M2 is extremely well liked for its long range (up to 1800 meters, or over a mile) and its ability to penetrate masonry walls and cars. When you shoot someone with a .50cal, that tends to be that.

The M2 as seen above can be broken down for carrying into three main components- the barrel, the receiver, and the tripod. Mind you, each of these components is a pretty hefty load all by itself.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zCEnTMSGis]

My own experience with the .50 dates from my time as a TC on M113s in Germany. I fired the weapon quite a few times on the range, and using blanks, many times on exercises.  The .50 was mounted on a pintle attached to a cupola (like a very small turret) on the top of the M113. We had a tripod available if needed, and the barrels were stored in the track. The receiver itself was normally stored in the company arms room. When the time came to load up to roll out of the motor pool to go to the field, I would have to carry all my personal equipment, my rifle, my rucksack, and then I’d have to put the 84 pound receiver on the top of my rucksack and walk a half mile (uphill!) to the motorpool. That was pretty much the toughest thing about going to the field for me.

Still, firing the .50 was a great deal of fun, as it is pretty much the biggest gun in the inventory that you can shoot hands on.

The other heavy machine gun in the inventory is sorta a machine gun and sorta a grenade launcher. The MK19 was developed by the US Navy for use on patrol boats during the Vietnam War. It was further developed by the Army and entered service with the Army soon after that war.

The MK19 fires 40mm grenades at about 375 rounds per minute. It has a maximum effective range of 1500 meters against a small target. The most common 40mm grenade is the HEDP or High Explosive Dual Purpose. This grenade has a small HEAT warhead that can penetrate 2 inches of Rolled Homogeneous Armor and also fragments to kill or wound personnel within a 5 meter radius.

The MK19 is handy in that it gives infantry a means of defeating enemy light armor (and car bombs and trucks) and is an excellent weapon for suppressing enemy machine guns and snipers (would you stick your head up when someone is throwing 375 grenades a minute at you?), and can even penetrate masonry walls.

While the MK19 can be fired  from a tripod, operationally it is almost always fired from a vehicle mount. The Army commonly mounts them on Humvees. Typically, the MK19 is found in the weapons company of infantry battalions, used in conjunction with Humvee mounted M2 .50cals. The Marines mount them on Humvees as well. It is also mounted on each Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicle coaxially with a .50 cal machine gun in a small cupola.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8i9KsNfPOU]

There have been several attempts to replace the M2 and MK19 in US service, often by combining their characteristics. To date, none of these attempts have been particularly successful. It looks like the .50cal/MK19 combo will soldier on for some time more.

UPDATE: Here’s another attempt at replacing the M2 .50cal. We’ll see. Read the comments for some of the concerns.

Stay tuned for Part 3 where we examine the Squad Automatic Weapon.

(I know the videos show Air Force guys. These were the best videos showing the weapons and their operation. Plus, we get to laugh at them.)

Going great guns…

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.