Everyone is familiar with John Moses Browning’s military greats. The M1911A1 is widely regarded as the greatest fighting handgun ever, and is still in service today. So is his Browning M2 machine gun, the legendary Ma Duece which holds the record for longest continuous service by a machine gun. It would seem that you can’t really improve perfection.
While the M2 and the 1911 may be his most famous military firearms, Browning’s legacy of great military guns continues far beyond just those two. In fact, it goes back to 1895.
Browning’s first military classic was the M1895 machine-gun, or as it was commonly known, the Potato Digger. The M1895 became the first gas-operated machine gun to enter U.S. military service when it was adopted in 1895. The M1895 saw its first action during the Spanish American War, where its use by the U.S. Marines marked the first time a true machine gun was used to provide fire support for a U.S. infantry unit during an assault. The M1895 served through World War I, seeing use by the armed forces of Canada. It was largely replaced in U.S. service by another invention of John Browning.
The M1917 and the M1919
The next great machine gun from Browning was the M1917, a water cooled machine gun that entered service during the later days of the first World War. It featured a jacket around the barrel to cool the weapon during periods of sustained automatic fire. It was also the first belt-fed machine gun to be officially adopted by the U.S. Army. At the U.S. entry into WWI, the U.S. Army had a piecemeal assortment of machine guns in inventory, including the aforementioned M1895. While some were belt fed designs, none had been officially adopted until the M1917. The M1917 remained in service through the Korean war. Chambered in .30’06, it represented the first in a long line of American machine guns chambered in some variant of a .30 caliber cartridge. However, the M1917 wasn’t the only .30 caliber machine gun designed by John Moses Browning. In fact, thanks to television and movies, you’re probably quite familiar with the next gun on our list.
The Browning M1919 was a direct descendant of the M1917. Both chambered in .30’06, the M1919 removed the heavy water jacket, and made the machine gun into a relatively light weapon for mobile infantry use. The M1917 was largely confined to defending fixed positions, at which it excelled thanks to the extended firing time afforded by the water jacket. The M1919 however was air cooled, which meant it couldn’t sustain the same continuous rates of automatic fire as the M1917, but was, as mentioned, lighter and more mobile.
During the Second World War, the M1919 was mounted on practically anything that could carry a machine gun. Jeeps, tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft, infantry, boats – if you wanted a machine gun, you’d probably get an M1919. Quite a few were also made in .303 British for our allies during the war. After World War II, the guns served in Vietnam, and many were converted to 7.62 NATO and used up until the 1990s. In fact, you can still find M1919s in service today with the armed forces of nations across the world. It is one of the best machine guns ever made, with a reputation for reliability and durability that has only been surpassed by the Browning M2 in .50 BMG. In fact, while there are some design differences, the M2 .50 is, for the most part, just a scaled up version of the M1919.
The Browning Automatic Rifle
Browning’s military greats aren’t all crew served machine guns though, and while the next entry may seem obvious, I’m putting it in here not because it’s obscure, but because it’s my favorite Browning. The great Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR. There is something appealing about the idea of an automatic rifle firing .30’06 rounds from a 20 round box magazine. The BAR was the earliest example of the concept of the Squad Automatic Weapon, now filled by the M249 in U.S. military service. A man portable light machine gun could provide a rifle infantry squad with enough suppressing firepower to close and destroy the enemy during the maneuver warfare of WWII. While the BAR did see limited service during World War I, it wasn’t until World War II it did not become standard issue until World War II.
During the Second World War, the BAR was used in every theater of battle by U.S. Army and Marine units. It continued to soldier on through the Korean War and into the Vietnam War, where the BAR was frequently provided to our South Vietnamese allies to help fight the communist armies of the North. Not without faults, the 60 years of battlefield service gave the BAR a reputation for reliability in combat. Combined with the power of the .30’06 cartridge, it was a formidable presence during its service.
Our last military classic of Browning’s is one that you’ve probably not heard of. In fact, it’s the M4, but not the M4 carbine that you’re thinking. No, long before Eugene Stoner had dreamed up the M16 rifle, John Moses Browning had designed the 37mm Automatic Gun, M4. Neither a crew served nor individual weapon, the M4 autocannon was equipped in P-39 Airacobra and P-63 Kingcobra fighters. It was also very popular with the U.S. Navy as a deck gun for PT boats; the 37 mm explosive shell it fired was ideal for the search and destroy mission of PT boats during the Second World War.
However, the largest user of the 37mm M4 was not the United States, but rather the Soviet Union. During WW2, over 6,000 P-39 and P-63 fighters were sent to the U.S.S.R. as part of the Lend-Lease program. In fact, the 3rd highest scoring Soviet ace of the war picked up 44 of his 56 total kills in a P-39 armed with Browning’s M4 autocannon. While it certainly never achieved the fame and recognition of his other designs, the M4 autocannon holds an important place in history.
John Moses Browning’s lifetime stands as the pinnacle of firearms invention. Apart from the guns mentioned here, many of his other designs have also served in the military, from the 1897 shotgun to the 1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol in .32 ACP. Looking at the history of his guns is a history of battles against tyranny – without the inventions of John Moses Browning and men like him you’d probably be reading this in German.
By Caleb Giddings. Originally published in the September 2013 issue of GunUp the Magazine.