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John Browning's Automatic Rifle

From the trenches of France to "Frozen Chosin," The BAR proved its worth on countless battlefields around the globe for more than three decades.
By Bruce Canfield

Reprinted from American Rifleman, Aug. 1997. Without question, America’s most prolific and revered arms designer was John Moses Browning. The Utah native’s contributions to the field of small arms development are unparalleled. The guns he invented for the commercial and sporting market are almost too numerous to list and many of his designs are still made today. While sometimes overlooked, Browning-designed military arms are even more impressive. One of the most important U.S. military arms of the 20th century will forever, fittingly, bear the name of its designer, the Browning Automatic Rifle. Generally referred to by its initials, the BAR set the standard for automatic rifles from its inception during the First World War and for several decades afterward. Few U.S. military arms elicit as much widespread admiration as does the venerable BAR. Many veterans of the Second World War and Korea remember the BAR as a reliable and very effective arm. While many gripes were lodged against the gun’s weight, few complaints were heard when the chips were down in actual combat. The BAR proved its worth on countless battlefields around the globe for over three decades. The BAR had its roots in the trenches of France during World War I when both sides were mired in bloody and protracted trench warfare. When the U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917, it soon became painfully obvious that our armed forces were woefully unprepared to fight a modern war. With the exceptions of such excellent arms as the Springfield M1903 rifle and the Colt M1911 .45 pistol (both, incidentally, in short supply), our troops were primarily equipped with obsolete and generally unsatisfactory arms. One of the most serious gaps in our armament capability was the lack of a satisfactory light machine gun. An automatic that could be used by troops moving to the assault was desperately needed. Our French allies had attempted to fill this void with the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 ‘CRSG’ (Model 1915). Chambered for 8 mm Lebel, it was generally referred to as the “Chauchat.” Our doughboys soon fractured the French pronunciation and called it the “Sho-Sho.” The U.S. purchased some 16,000 Chauchats from the French, and our troops quickly discovered that it was extremely unreliable, and found it ineffective and unpopular. Clearly, a better arm of this type was needed by our troops.

they made the necessary production drawings and blueprints from the prototype and returned it to Colt the following Monday morning. the firm wished to establish another manufacturing site in Meridian. to produce the BAR. and a new factory would have required training an entirely new work force.Fortunately.S. the legendary John M. were awarded BAR production contracts. and. Winchester began delivery in December 1917. the government reached an agreement with Colt and John Browning to acquire the patent rights to the gun “for the duration” of the war. The first recorded U. The Ordnance Department did not agree as a maximum number of BARs had to be produced in the minimum period of time. All three firms were already heavily involved in arms production. Compared to the wretched Chauchat. As stated by the Assistant Secretary of War in 1919: “The [BARs] were highly . 1917. BARs began to flow from the production lines. Army use of the BAR in combat was on September 12. Marlin-Rockwell in January 1918 and Colt in February 1918. It was known as the “Browning Automatic Rifle” and was soon referred to primarily by its initials “B-A-R. After familiarization and training. it was designated the “Model of 1918. Working literally around the clock. was already operating at peak capacity. it was a godsend. in setting up its own production line. Since the Colt plant at Hartford.. Interestingly. in the hands of the 79th Infantry Division. Val Browning. Conn. Winchester then assisted the Marlin-Rockwell Corp. 1918. it was first demonstrated in France by Lt. On May 1. The BAR immediately proved to be an unqualified success as a combat arm. the BAR began to be issued to front line troops and used in actual combat. Browning had quietly been working on a design of his own for a reliable and effective automatic rifle. the Marlin-Rockwell Corp. but the new automatic rifle was deemed a priority and the firms began to tool up rapidly. the inventor’s son. Browning had previously entered into a working agreement with Colt Patent Firearms Co. to this end. and Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Although the BAR was actually adopted in 1917. There were no engineering drawings or even detailed specifications for the gun since the only working model in existence was Browning’s handmade prototype.30-’06) cartridge and was capable of semi-automatic or fully automatic operation at the rate of some 550 rounds per minute.” This was presumably done to prevent confusion with the Browning Model of 1917 water-cooled machine gun. and limited issue to our troops overseas began by the late summer 1918. Winchester’s engineering department was allowed to borrow the prototype from Colt for just one weekend. the Secretary of War convened an ordnance panel to test and recommend for adoption a light machine gun or automatic rifle. Connecticut. In September 1917. Browning’s was quickly adopted.” The BAR was chambered for the standard M1906 (. Colt also received a BAR contract within the rather strained capabilities of its Hartford plant. The logical solution was to seek other sources. which had obtained the rights to the design from the inventor.

The non-reciprocating charging (cocking) handle was on the receiver’s left side. The BAR was equipped with a 20-round detachable box magazine. The model designation. An “Assistant Gunners” belt was also produced that had four magazine pockets and several more pockets for rifle stripper clips. some 52." The BAR proved its worth on countless battlefields around the globe for more than three decades. it was actually a lightweight compared to contemporary automatics of the day. The M1918 BAR was gas-operated and weighed some 16 pounds. they invariably functioned well. manufacturer and serial number were stamped on top of the receiver. The BAR was also issued with a special cartridge belt with a metal “cup” on the right side into which the butt was inserted. M1917 “Enfield” rifle. but longer than. The BAR was issued with a leather sling similar to. Although these guns received hard usage. All metal was finished in an attractive commercial grade bluing and the stock and checkered forearm were made of walnut. Unlike later versions. At the time of the Armistice. It remained in production until the latter part of 1919 by which time 102. the original Model of 1918 was not fitted with a bipod.praised by our officers and men who had to use them. The top of the barrel was marked with the initials of the manufacturer and the month and year of production. The BAR was robust and its entire receiver machined from a solid block of steel. The belt also had four pockets that held two magazines each and a pouch for two M1911 .S. first aid pouch and similar items to be carried on the belt.45 pistol magazines. Grommets on the belt allowed for a pistol holster. While this might seem heavy. The BAR had a 24-inch barrel with a screw-on cylindrical flash hider. This enabled it to be used in the “marching fire” mode of operation that was envisioned for the BAR.” Our troops were still in the process of fielding the BAR in quantity when the war ended in November 1918. but none have been observed.238 Browning Automatic Rifles had been delivered.  John Browning's Automatic Rifle (page 2) From the trenches of France to "Frozen Chosin. The rear sight and buttplate were the same type as used on the U. canteen.125 M1918 BARs had been manufactured. It has been reported that larger capacity versions were tested. being on the front for days at a time in the rain and when the gunners had little opportunity to clean them. the M1907 rifle sling and with three metal .

The modifications and additions added substantially to the BAR’s weight and the M1918A2 weighed some 20 pounds as compared to M1918’s 16 pounds. although the monopod saw very little use. and 500-650 r. Metal guide ribs were added to the front of the trigger guard to assist in changing magazines.p.m. After World War I. M1918A2s were produced by converting M1918s. A modified buttstock with a folding buttplate and provision for a monopod was also adopted. Some BARs were stolen from National Guard armories and other sources and used by some criminals during the turbulent times of the ’20s and ’30s. In 1922. the BAR stayed on in Uncle Sam’s inventory and saw a surprising amount of service in various small-scale military actions around the globe in the 1920s and 1930s including China. approximately 300-450 r.adjustment hooks. a smaller and lighter experimental BAR was tested by the army for cavalry use but not put into production. the M1918A2 was not capable of semi-automatic operation. In 1937. It fired only in full-automatic and had a slow and fast rate of fire. so there was no separate production.” but sales were limited due to the ready availability of standard military BARs. the first major variant was adopted as the “M1918A1.p.” The M1918A2. The BAR played a prominent role in the downfall of two of the most notorious criminals of the era. Just before America’s entry into World War II. The government contracted with two commercial firms. After Pearl Harbor. Colt produced a commercial version of the Browning Automatic Rifle known as the “Monitor. the final and most widely produced version of the BAR was adopted as the “Model of 1918A2. was fitted with a hinged bipod. respectively. It was also fitted with a folding buttplate to help keep the gun on the shoulder when firing full-automatic. Also. The fore-end was reduced in height and length and the rear sight was replaced by one similar to the type used on the M1919A4 air-cooled machine gun. Unlike the M1918 and M1918A1. and thousands were converted to M1918A2 specifications primarily by Springfield Armory during the early 1940s. like the M1918A1. but the latter’s was attached to a special flash hider on the barrel rather than on the gas cylinder.m.” It was identical to the M1918 but had a hinged bipod with spiked feet attached to the gas cylinder. Haiti and Nicaragua. . M1918A1s were modified from existing M1918 BARs. some M1918s were never converted to the ’A2 specs and were issued and used during World War II. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. and one was in the hands of the law enforcement officers who fatally ambushed the infamous duo. BAR demand increased dramatically and new production sources had to be found quickly. Initially. The handguard was cut down in height to expose more of the barrel for better cooling. A number of unaltered M1918s were sent to Great Britain under Lend-Lease (often seen with red bands painted on them) and escaped conversion.

Sustained automatic fire could rapidly burn out a barrel. and has the striking penetrating power desired in the jungle.30 cal. The most common complaint lodged against the M1918A2 was its weight. To help reduce the weight some removed the bipod. The biggest advantage of the BAR over . but required extensive modification of the receiver and was not practical. The Johnson had some innovative design features and was much lighter in weight than the BAR. Many unit commanders sought to obtain as many BARs as possible for their troops. Although it was a superb performer in many applications. it was not capable of sustained automatic fire as were the Browning M1917A1 and M1919A4 . The weapon continues in popularity.. The BARs were soon in the thick of fighting and they once again proved to be effective and reliable. the way old John Browning had built them in the first place.380 BARs to the government during the war. cartridge. An illustrative example of the BAR’s performance is contained in a 1943 Marine Corps report: “Browning Automatic Rifle. the BAR was extensively used in Korea where it provided excellent service within its limits. which exceeded 20 pounds. However.S.30 cal. Lt. These two firms delivered a total of 208. The BAR’s rate of fire and reliability were much appreciated by our combat troops. John George commented on this situation in his book “Shots Fired in Anger”: “Two weeks after we were on Guadalcanal we had thrown away all the gadgets (bipod. . It was again placed back into production during the early 1950s . but the fact that the barrel could not be easily removed and replaced was a serious drawback. cal.International Business Machines (IBM) and New England Small Arms for M1918A2 production.” The BAR’s role had shifted somewhat from providing “marching fire” to troops in trench warfare to becoming the standard squad automatic weapon. etc. Col.30. Due to these factors.45 cal.) and were using the guns stark naked . submachine guns was the penetrating power of the . This was in addition to the earlier BARs. The only other automatic rifle fielded by the United States during the war was the M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun. squad automatic weapon of the war. it was only modestly used during the war. it had a number of deficiencies as well. The BAR’s limited magazine capacity was one detriment. and it essentially played the role of light machine gun. it was actually somewhat of an anachronistic arm by end of the Second World War. due to its design. The BAR was the U. Its weight prevented it from being used as a true automatic rifle.. It functions under all conditions with few exceptions and stoppages. Some experimentation with adapting the BAR to belt feed and a more readily replaceable barrel was done. belt-fed machine guns. However.” Despite the BAR’s weight. The BAR’s barrel could only be removed and replaced by an ordnance depot. it provided excellent service to our troops during World War II and was widely praised. M1918A2. After World War II.

military small arms have garnered a better reputation or are looked upon with more respect than John Browning’s automatic rifle. the BAR has served this nation with distinction. a number of BARs remained in inventory well into the Vietnam War era. . and many were supplied to the South Vietnamese and other allies. The “all purpose” M60 machine gun was adopted in the late 1950s as a replacement for several arms including the BAR. However. From its baptism of fire in the trenches of France in 1918 to the steaming jungles of Guadalcanal or the frozen Chosin Reservoir.S. few U. These Korean War-vintage M1918A2s were very similar to late production World War II BARs and were fitted with a carrying handle attached to the barrel. This made carrying it for short distances a bit easier but further increased its weight. However. The BAR’s days as a front line automatic rifle are over.when several thousand were manufactured by the Royal McBee Company.