Monday, November 30, 2015

Day 3: The Browning Automatic Rifle and World War 2 Suppressing Fire Tactics.

By the outbreak of World War 2 on September 1st, 1939, the Armies of the world had fully realized the destructive power of Machine Guns. Their Colossal fire power, suppression capabilities, and capability for annihilation were all dully noted by the Army Brass, and the horrific slaughter they caused in the Great war some 25 years earlier was still fresh in the mind's of the Generals of Europe and Asia, many of whom had fought in the war and experienced the power of the Machine Gun first hand. In the years leading up to the Second World War, new advances in Machine Gun Technology began to radically change Machine Gun tactics: Developments such as advanced Air-Cooling systems and interchangeable barrels allowed for the increased lightening of so-called "Heavy: machine guns, the development of Light Machine Guns such as the Bren Gun and DP-28, and the slow removal of heavy, bulky, water-cooled machine guns from front line service. However, despite the rapid advancements in Machine Gun Technology, the United States lagged behind. Today, on Swords and Socialism, we will discuss the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the United States' main Light Machine Gun in both World Wars, World War 2 suppressing fire tactics, and why the US lagged so far behind.


Part 1: The BAR - A History

Diagram of a M1918A2 BAR
When the United states entered World War 1 in April 1917, they found themselves with a woefully insufficient and antiquated hodgepodge of machine guns: the Army, in total, only had about 1100 machine guns, and these were a mixture of old Colt M1895's, Maxim M1904's, and M1909 Benét–Mercié's. Realizing quickly that this situation was untennable in the context of a looming war involving millions of soldiers, the Army began to make provisions for the development and adoption of a new Standard machine gun for the Military (until that time, US troops would be issued with surplus British and French Equipment.)

Enter John Moses Browning, the legendary and prolific Gunsmith, who, to this day, is America's most famous and most copied firearms designer. Browning was already well known by the United States Military: he was the brainchild behind the Colt M1911, which had been adopted as the Army's official sidearm, and his commercial arms, such as the Winchester 1894 Lever Action Rifle, Winchester 1897 Pump Shotgun, and Colt M1903 Pocket Pistol, were well known as effective and reliable weapons, and sold millions of models throughout the world.
Browning Demonstrating his "Browning Automatic Rifle" at the Winchester Plant, 1917
In February 1917, (before the United State's entrance into World War 1), Browning personally brought two prototype machine guns to Washington DC for demonstration in an attempt to win a government contract. One was a water-cooled heavy machine gun (which would later be adopted as the Browning M1917, and will be covered at a later date), and the other was a prototype of what would soon become the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).
The BAR as it was adopted in 1918

At the time, the BAR was a radical and revolutionary design. It was an air-cooled, selective-fire automatic rifle that used a gas-operated, long-stroke gas piston rod, moved by propellant gases bled through a vent in the barrel. Firing from an open bolt (when the rifle is ready to fire, the bolt is held back or "open." When the trigger is pulled, the bolt slams forward, chambering a round and firing it). It's sights went out to 1,500 yards, although hitting anything intentionally at that range was more of a fantasy than anything else. It was chambered in .30-06, the US Army's standard cartridge at the time, and was fed through a 20 round box magazine. It fired either in semi-automatic or fully automatic at a rate of around 600 rounds a minute. Weighing in at around 16 pounds, the weapon seems heavy until you realize that standard heavy machine guns of the time, such as the British Vickers or German MG--08 could weigh upwards of 150 POUNDS. Even so-called "Light" Machine guns of the time, such as the British Lewis gun or French Chauchat weighed in at around 30 pounds, making the BAR look like a feather in comparison. Overall, the BAR was an effective, efficient, and revolutionary design in 1917.
Browning demonstrating the BAR to US Army field testers, 1917
On 23 February, 1917, Browning, in front of an assembled host of nearly 300 people (including military brass, congressmen, senators, ambassadors, foreign dignitaries, and the press), conducted a live-fire demonstration with both of his prototypes. It was a complete and total success: Browning was immediately awarded a contract for the weapon and the BAR was hastily adopted into service. Further testing conducted in May 1917 supported that decision, and the BAR was officially adopted as the Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning, M1918, or better known as the M1918 BAR, and an order was placed for 12,000 units, to be fulfilled by the Winchester Company. However, despite the need for machine guns, production of BAR's did not begin to enter production until February 1918. The BAR's first began to enter France with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in July 1918, but were kept in reserve until 13 September 1918, when they were put into the hands of American Troops during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, and were later used extensively during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October-November. Overall, for the short time the BAR was in use in American hands, the BAR performed admirably for its time.
An Illustration of the M1918A1 BAR, the first major modification to the BAR done by the US Army
During the Interwar years, the BAR underwent two major "upgrades." The first was the M1918A1, adopted in June of 1937. The M1918A1 added a light bipod to the gas cylinder shroud and a hinged steel butplate. The intent of these changes was to increase the BAR's accuracy when firing short bursts. However, few M1918's were ever converted to the M1918A1 configuration, making it one of the rarest forms of the BAR. It was also around this time that the Colt Company, who now had production rights over the BAR, began to export the rifle, and it was adopted by several countries, in particular, Belgium, Poland, and Sweden. Each of these countries made their own variations to the original BAR design (but we'll cover that Later).

The Browning M1918A2, as used by US Forces in the Second World War

In April of 1938, the US Military deemed the limited improvements of the M1918A1 to be insufficient to modernize the BAR, and began work on a new set of upgrades. This new model was officially adopted as the M1918A2 BAR in June of 1938. The new M1918A2 model added a new rate-reducer mechanism designed by Springfield Armory, and housed in the buttstock. The rate reducer also provided two selectable rates of fully automatic fire only, activated by engaging the selector toggle. The bipod on the Gas Piston shroud was replaced by one attached at the muzzle,   magazine guides were added to the front of the trigger guard, the hand guard was shortened, a heat shield was added to help the cooling process, a small separate stock rest (monopod) was included for attachment to the butt, the buttstock itself was lengthened by one inch, and the weapon's role was changed to that of a squad light machine gun. Because of all these additions, the M1918A2 weighed in at 20 pounds, 4 pound heavier than the M1918. This was the main Light Machine Gun that the US Infantry entered World War 2 with. Unfortunately, the decision to keep tweaking the now vastly-outdated BAR instead of adopting a whole new light machine gun would prove disastrous in the long run.

Part 2: Suppressing Fire Tactics in World War Two.

A British Machine Gun team training near Bou Arada, Tunisia, 1943
Before we go any further, it is important to cover what suppressing fire is, and the different theories and strategies of fire suppression that existed around the start of World War Two.

Firstly, what exactly is suppressing fire? Well, dear reader, in a battlefield context, suppressing fire is gunfire who's job is to keep the enemy from carrying out it's objectives. This is usually done by covering the battlefield with large volumes of fire, mainly provided by Machine Guns, with sub machine guns, rifles, and other small arms providing a supporting role. The point of suppressing fire is not necessarily to kill the enemy: it is simply fire layed out to keep the enemy's head down and not firing at you so that your own troops could advance.
British Bren Gunner's in action, early 1940's

Now, with that out of the, the way, at the start of World War 2, there were 3 major schools of suppressing fire "theory," so to speak. The first was the light machine gun school, pioneered by the French and developed by the British. Its adherents included most of Europe, including countries such as Britain, France, Japan, Romania, Sweden, USSR, Belgium, Italy and many others. These countries equipped their infantry squad with bolt-action rifles and a magazine-fed light machine gun on bipod with a quickly interchangable barrel (Guns like the Bren, DP-28, FN 24/29, etc.) . The intention was to have a weapon that was capable of the supressing fire heavy machine guns (mounted on tripods) were but quick to set up and light enough to not hinder advancing troops. Nations of this school retained heavy machine guns in specialized units, often at as a machine-gun company attached to a regiment of infantry to provide the World War 1 levels of suppressing planned fire.
German Machine Gun Crew manning an MG-34, 1940's
      The second school was that of the general purpose machine gun.  Germany was the only real adherent of this school before World War 2, and their MG-34 and MG-42 are primary examples of this: Instead of using magazine-fed light machine guns, the General Purpose Machine Gun school made the World War 1 machine gun lighter - adding an advanced air cooling systems (and thus removing the heavy water cooling systems of World War 1 Era Machine Guns), rapidly interchangeable barrels, bipod (but the same gun could be mounted on a tripod if needed) and pistol grip. These were belt-fed weapons and heavy compared to the light machine guns used by other nations (Bren Mk III - 8,68kg empty, MG 34 - 12,1kg empty), but they provided a much higher rate of fire than their lighter counterparts, who could not fire as fast and had far smaller magazine capacities.

US GI's in action, 1940's
      The third and final school of suppressing fire was the rifle firepower school. While, before World War 1, the British and French had been adherents to this school, the only adherent before World War 2 were the Americans. The Americans believed that if each soldier was equipped with a semi-automatic rifle, they would be able to provide their own covering fire. Heavy Machine guns would still be retained, much like in the Light Machine Gun School, but mostly for defensive purposes instead. Because of this, in the minds of the US Army Brass, there was no real need to adopt a new Light Machine gun, and therefore, the BAR was sufficient to provide support while much of the suppressing fire came from the increased firepower from each individual rifleman. It is telling to note that the United States was the only adherent to this school before World War 2, and this system was dropped not long after the end of the war.

Part 3: Problems with the BAR and American Suppressing Fire Doctrine in General.

US Marine Gunner Using His BAR on Okinawa, 1945
So what was the big issue with the BAR? Well, to put it simply, while it was a innovative and advanced design when it was introduced in 1917, by 1945, it was an outdated design that had been updated to address either non-issues or the wrong issues, and forced to fulfill a role it was not designed to fill: that of the Light Support Machine Gun.  It is important to note that other countries who adopted the BAR as their Squad Support Machine Gun (In particular Poland, Sweden, and Belgium), they added several necessary updates such as advanced air cooling systems, and better bipods, which allowed the BAR to satisfactorily fill the role of Squad Light Machine Gun. The American Military, on the other hand, Ignored this changes entirely, and making updates that werer generally unnecessary to fix problems that did not exist. Because of this, the American BAR lacked several key components that would allow it to function in a light machine gun capacity: the major one being that it lacked any sort of advanced air cooling system or easily replaceable barrel, meaning that delivering prolonged, sustained supressive fire with it was impossible. As it turned out, when US troops first entered action, they realized that their individual semiautomatic M1 Garands, while giving American Soldiers an important increase of firepower on an individual level, on a squad level, their rate of fire was far slower than that of a comparable German, Japanese, or even Italian squad. This meant that the BAR was pressed into service to serve as a weapon comparable to a light machine gun, something it was never designed to do. To make matters worse, the Americans shunned the sub-machine gun - while other nations equipped their NCOs and eventually both squad leader and squad leader assistant with an sub-machine gun, the American army equipped them either with an M1 Garand or the ligher M1 Carbine (which also fired semi-automatically). Sub-machine guns were used for rear area troops in the American army, except for among the paratroopers (which also used M1919A6 bipod-mounted belt-fed general purpose machine guns). The Soviets went so far that they equipped a sub-machine gun company in every infantry regiment with only light machine guns and sub-machine guns, and the Germans did similarly, as well as developing the first ever assault rifle (the Stg-44), thus increasing the average firepower of a German Squad even more. This, in the end, left the average American Unit with far less firepower than their opponents, in spite of their advanced Semi-automatic Rifles.

Part 4: Epilogue

Polish Partisan Wielding a Polish Improved BAR, 1944
In the end, as much as I have ragged on the BAR, it is important to note that the BAR was not a bad gun; it simply was a weapon that was kept in service for far longer than it should have had. It was certainly a hell of a gun in 1917, but, in the configuration it was in when the US entered war in 1941, it had aged long past it's prime. During the war, the doctrine that gave the US troops the M1 Garand rifle also gave them no sub-machine guns and very few machine guns (and all of them heavy tripod-mounted) and an inadequate light machine gun. While the M1 Garand was an excellent rifle, experience was that it could not compensate for the lack of firepower of the American infantry. In the end, despite the advanced rifle technology of the United States Military in World War 2, It was the absolutely superb American artillery, and how superbly it was integrated with the infantry, that made the American infantry division the fearsome and effective formation it was. But that is a post for another time.

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