Sunday, January 18, 2009

Living History: Arming the US Army, John M. Browning

This image shows a Browning Automatic Rifle that is held in the Army Heritage Museum Collection. (Photo by Army Heritage Museum.)

This image shows 2nd Lieutenant Valmore A. Browning firing a Browning Machine Gun. The weapon's firing rate was 500-600 shots per minute. The ammunition capacity was 250 cartridges in a box, 8 boxes to a gun. This gun was used in the Argonne Sector and is being tested by Lt. Browning at Thillombois, Meuse, France, October 5, 1918. (WWI Signal Corps Collection.)

This image shows John M. Browning, the inventor of the gun, and Mr. Burton, the Winchester expert on rifles, discussing the finer points of the Browning Light Gun (BAR) at the Winchester Plant. (WWI Signal Corps Collection.)

This image shows the component parts of the Colt M1911 Pistol. (WWI Signal Corps Collection.)

Living History:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2009 -- John Moses Browning was born on January 21 (or 23), 1855. A gunsmith's son, he grew up under the training of his father, Jonathan Browning. Designing and building his first firearm by the age of 15, John Moses Browning set out on a long career in firearms development. His work spanned almost 60 years and he is credited with 128 patents and over 100 different weapons. His contributions to the U.S. Army began with the development of a machine gun.

In 1916, Browning finally interested the Army in a machine gun that he had developed in 1905. The Army saw the need for an efficient rapid-fire gun to complement the French Hotchkiss, the British Vickers, and the German Maxim. Browning's weapon went through the Army's trials process in May 1917. It was accepted, and manufacturing began, with the weapon designated the .30 Caliber, Browning M1917 Heavy Machine Gun. The gun was a belt-fed, water-cooled design that usually required six to eight men to operate it. One man would fire while a second fed the belt into the weapon, and the other men carried ammunition and spare parts. Over 70,000 of the guns were produced by Colt, Remington and Westinghouse in the initial production run. The size was problematic at times, so Browning simplified the design and created an air-cooled machine gun, the M1919, which was smaller and lighter.

While developing his heavy machine gun, Browning was also working to create a light machine gun that could be carried and used by one individual. The weapon was designated as the Browning Automatic Rifle, Model of 1918, .30 Caliber, or the BAR. This machine gun was a gas-operated, air-cooled, magazine fed hand held weapon. It saw service at the very end of World War I. The weapon was ideal for the French tactics of the late war period. A group of soldiers could advance over no-man's land while using mobile automatic weapons to pin down the enemy. One drawback was the limited capacity of a 20 round magazine. This limited the rate of fire, so the BAR was used primarily as a mobile light machine in the trenches. John M. Browning's son, Lieutenant Valmore A. Browning, was a machine gun instructor in the U.S. and France during World War I. The BAR saw heavy action in World War II and Korea, but by the 1960s the development of the M14 and M16 rifles made the BAR obsolete.

Another Browning designed weapon used by the Army is the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911. Adopted in March 1911, the pistol replaced the smaller and less powerful .38 Caliber Long Colt revolvers. The .45 had better stopping power, and Browning's simple design made it easy to operate and clean. The short recoil design of the M1911 is the basis for almost all the modern self-loading handguns. John M. Browning's prolific work on weapons and weapon systems has contributed to the safety and freedoms of the USA and our armed forces ever since.

(Report by John Keilers, U. S. Army Military History Institute.)

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