Part 1: The BAR - A History
|Diagram of a M1918A2 BAR|
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|
|The BAR as it was adopted in 1918|
|Browning demonstrating the BAR to US Army field testers, 1917|
|An Illustration of the M1918A1 BAR, the first major modification to the BAR done by the US Army|
|The Browning M1918A2, as used by US Forces in the Second World War|
Part 2: Suppressing Fire Tactics in World War Two.
|A British Machine Gun team training near Bou Arada, Tunisia, 1943|
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.
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.
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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