The BBC's 1964 Masterpiece "The Great War"

Of all the events of the Twentieth Century, it is the First World War that has had the most dramatic and longest-lasting impact on the psyche of Western civilization, more so than all the events that followed.   For anyone with an abiding interest in that war, the 1964 BBC documentary The Great War is an invaluable reference to understanding.  Narrated by Sir Michael Redgrave, the 26-part documentary is a superbly-crafted work.  The tenor of the broadcasts reflects the erosion of the naïve hopes of the warring parties in 1914 into the grim fatalism that the years of slaughter evoked, and the upheaval that would ultimately topple the crowned heads of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia.  BBC producers make excellent use of voice to read the actual words of the key participants such as Edward Grey, Bethmann-Hollweg, Conrad von Hotzendorf, Joffre, Haig, Falkenhayn, and others.  The series features remarkable and little-seen motion footage of the world of 1914-18, including the civilians, the politicians, the armies, and the great battles of that war.   The battle footage heavily emphasizes the two great killers of that war (in inverse order), the machine gun, and modern breech-loading recoil-dampened artillery.

Of note also are the poignant, and sometimes extremely moving, interviews with the participants of events of the great tragedy.  Some had been in the thick of the fighting, others young subalterns or staff officers at the sleeve of the decision-makers.   Most remarkably, the BBC managed to produce a documentary about momentous events that changed the world and yet also managed to allow the viewer insight into the inestimable human tragedy that these events summoned.   At the time of the release of The Great War, those events were closer in time to the audience than the beginning of the Vietnam War is to our contemporary world.   The twenty-six episodes are around forty minutes each.  Worth every second of the time spent.

Oh, and as the credits roll at the end of each episode, one can spot the name of a very young (19 years old) contributor named Max Hastings.

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?

The Iowa Guard Ironman

This has been floating around the web a few days, and LT Rusty sent me a link, which, I guess means he wanted me to post on it.


Carrying ammo for belt fed machine guns has always been a problem for the infantry. 7.62mm ammo for guns comes in watertight metal cans of 200 rounds. Inside, there are two belts of 100 rounds each (in a mix of four ball to one tracer). Each belt is in  a cloth bandolier with a cardboard box inset. Theoretically, this cloth container can be attached to the gun. In reality, it can’t be. The metal can is heavy and awkward to carry. The bandolier is much handier to carry, but is fragile. Further, a 100 round belt doesn’t last very long in a fire fight. But exposed ammunition is fragile and liable to picking up all kinds of dirt and debris. When that happens, the dirty ammo causes jams and malfunctions. There’s few things more useless than a machine gun that won’t fire.

At any rate, a few Iowa Army National Guardsmen in Afghanistan, pondering on the problem, decided to make an improved system to carry ammo, and it’s straight out of Hollywood.

Who hasn’t seen Predator? If you haven’t, report to the re-education camps. Your pop-culture history is sorely lacking. Of course, if you have seen it, you remember Jesse Ventura (before he went insane) carrying a Mini-gun with a backpack ammo system. While the intrepid Iowa Guardsmen aren’t using a Mini-gun, they did pretty much copy the ammo system.


Having hand built an example, they also asked Big Army to take a look and consider building them for everyone. Which the good folks at the R&D lab at Natick are doing.

A couple thoughts. First, I distinctly recall seeing a very similar system a couple years ago. In fact, I can’t find it, but I’m almost certain I blogged a youtube video of a nearly identical system.  That system was being demonstrated at a range facility.

The other thought is, while the feed system probably does work pretty well, adding that much weight to a gunner (who already has an incredibly heavy load, even with a Mk48 instead of a conventional M240B) is problematical.  500 rounds of 7.62mm ammo is roughly 40 pounds of ammunition. 

Also, per the article,  $1,700 for a freakin’ feed chute? It’s stamped steel! Holy cow!

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.


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Close Air Support is a valuable tool for our troops in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the precision guided weapons CAS brings to the fight have doubtless saved many of our troops lives. The Air Force doesn’t really like doing CAS. They do it, and they do it well. But there are other things they’d rather be doing.

And let’s face it, having a $40-80 million dollar fighter stooging around for 6 hours at a pop, burning upwards of 50,000 of jet fuel at $3 a gallon per mission, just in case someone might need a strike (and they usually don’t) is an expensive way to do business. Further, there are only so many flight hours you can put on a jet. Much of the US jet fleet is old and getting older fast. And most of the time, a strike fighter is overkill. Further, at 20,000 feet and 500 knots, the crews of these jets don’t have the situational awareness we might like.

Attack helicopters are great, but they are limited by their relatively short endurance and light weapons. They also have trouble operating at higher altitudes such as those found in Afghanistan.

And while UAVs have come a long way, there’s still a limited number of them. Further, bandwidth constraints put a real upper limit on how many can be used. With their limited sensor field of view, their situational awareness is even worse.

So what to do? Well, the Navy, and to some extent, are looking at buying a converted turboprop trainer or similar aircraft to supplement the “go-fast” planes in the close air support role. Under a program known as “Imminent Fury” the services want to field a Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (LAAR) Aircraft.

To a certain extent, this is reinventing the wheel.  Even before the US involvement in Vietnam entailed large numbers of ground troops, modified T-28 trainers were being used as light attack aircraft. And the Air Force’s basic training jet, the Cessna T-37 “Tweet” was modified and built as the highly successful A-37 Dragonfly. This is to say nothing of the highly successful, purpose built OV-10 Bronco, which was used by the Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as several other nations. But after the Vietnam war ended, the services turned their eyes to what was considered the most critical theater, Western Europe. In an area like that, with highly developed integrated air defenses, no light aircraft could reasonable be expected to survive, and accordingly, almost all the light planes were retired.

Now, 8 years into the war on terror, the institutional side of the services are finally beginning to grasp that they have to be able to support the effort, and cannot do so with the existing force structure.

Theo Spark: Video: Marines On Patrol – Attack Suspect Bunker

A tip of the hat to Theo.

One point- when you see these young Marines leaving on patrol, take a look at the loads they are carrying. They make it look easy, but it ain’t. All that weight wears you out pretty darn quick, no matter how good condition you are in.

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more about “Theo Spark: Video: Marines On Patrol …“, posted with vodpod

Is the 5.56mm too small for Afghanistan?

There’s an interesting article over at Defense Tech about the problems grunts are having with long range engagements in Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, with its dense jungles, or Iraq, with its urban terrain, many parts of Afghanistan have long vistas. Quite often, our troops find themselves in fights at ranges from 300 to 500 meters. As an added bonus, they almost always find that the enemy has the high ground. The M4 carbine, which is the standard rifle for our troops, just isn’t designed to shoot that far.

MAJ Thomas Erhart, as a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the Army’s Command and General Staff School, has written a monograph that addresses the concerns, and offers some solutions.

I don’t really agree with all his conclusions. He raises valid concerns about the lethality of the current M855 5.56mm x 45 round. But just because it probably isn’t immediately incapacitating at 500 meters doesn’t mean that a hit on a Taliban is worthless. Would the Army be better off with a 6.5mm or 6.8mm round? Almost certainly. But the Army isn’t going to go there. So the real question becomes, what can we do with what we have?

First, he minimizes the influence of SAWs. The M249 is quite accurate for a machine gun, and can easily reach out 800m or more.  Second, while the M4 is hardly the optimum weapon for ranges past 300 meters, it can place effective fires out to 500 meters. It just takes a lot of training.

And training is the heart of the issue. The Army just doesn’t train troops to shoot past 300 meters. And there’s no real good reason why they shouldn’t. MAJ Erhart addresses some of the reasons why, mostly as a holdover from the days of conscription. And frankly, the current marksmanship training is probably good enough for non-combat arms troops. But there is no reason why infantry troops shouldn’t be held to a higher level of marksmanship.

The Marines have long trained at ranges of 500 meters (though this marksmanship training isn’t terribly realistic, any training at that range is better than nothing).  The Army could quickly and easily address the training concerns, without major changes to doctrine or equipment. They can, and should.

Wish List

In the comments of our Bradley gallery below, frequent commenter GaigeM asks what I would like to see added to the Bradley:

If you could improve that Brad in any way, how would you? Trying to get a feel for what would be the next generation of AFV/IFV (with symmetrical warfare in mind).


Gaige, most of the improvements I’d like to see have been made. My biggest heartburn (as a dismount) was the seating in the back. It made sense when the Army thought the Firing Port Weapons would be important. But they were almost never used. Keeping the complex seating into the A2 variant, which only had the ramp weapons, was lunacy. In any event, the ODS variant introduced bench seating that made a lot of sense.

Improvements to the fire control system went far beyond what I thought it really needed. A laser rangefinder was nice, in that several Brads took TOW shots at targets beyond max range. That was never really a problem with the gun. Now, the fire control system, with a LRF and a lead-generating computer ensure first round hits, in a system comparable to the M1’s fire control. This never struck me as terribly important when the main gun is an auto-cannon. The addition of a Commander’s Independent Thermal Vision sight, with its ability to hand-off targets is very nice. I just wish there was a more elegant place to put it than sticking up like an afterthought.

As for the comm/nav/C3 installation (either BFT or FCBC2), that’s pretty neat, what little I know if it, and I especially like that there is a panel in back for the squad leader to gain situational awareness. In the bad old days, there were theoretically headsets for the dismounts to listen to the intercom, both for fire commands for the FPWs, and to maintain situational awareness, but they never worked (if you plugged them in, they tended to drain so much signal strength that the driver couldn’t hear the intercom, or even the crew in the turret). Even if they did work, it’s a poor substitute for a visual presentation. After all, seeing is believing.

For the hull, we’re rapidly approaching the max weight we can add without suffering some serious drawbacks in performance. We’ve already souped up the engine from the original 500hp to 600hp, just to keep the nominal speed up to 42mph. As a result, you aren’t going to be able to add a lot in the way of armor. Some critics have complained that the Brad’s armor won’t stop anti-tank weapons. That’s not the point. The point is that very few anti-tank weapons will cause a catastrophic loss of the vehicle so quickly that the crew doesn’t have time to escape. To date, the Army has written off 55 Brads in Iraq. That’s an entire battalion’s worth, but it would be interesting to know just how many were casualties. I suspect it is pretty low, especially compared to Humvees.

As for the armament, might as well get rid of the last two FPWs in the ramp, if they haven’t already.  I used to wish there was a commander’s weapon on a cupola around his hatch, but now I’m undecided. I’ve heard that some Brads have had the TOW system replaced with a two-round Javelin launcher, so they can “fire and forget.” That trades a little range and lethality for the ability to shift targets faster. Not sure I’d want to see the whole fleet go that way (I’d rather see Javelin seekers built into a TOW body instead), nor even sure how many have had this done. It may just be a test program. Can’t think of any changes to the co-ax I’d like.

As for the main gun, the 25mm Bushmaster… It’s pretty long in the tooth. I’d really like to see it replaced with something along the lines of the 4omm on a CV-90.  Failing that, I’d at least like to see the 30mm MK46 chain-gun. But you can’t just throw one in a turret and slap it on a Bradley. There’s a relationship to gun size and turret ring diameter, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to enlarge the turret ring diameter on a Bradley hull to fit it.  Now, you mentioned this in the context of a next-generation vehicle, I think it’s pretty likely we’ll see a bigger gun. In the next-gen vehicle, we’ll also likely see a greater electrical generation capacity. And a battery charger.