View Full Version : Famed machine gun dates back to WWII

03-07-06, 02:10 PM
March 13, 2006
Famed machine gun dates back to WWII

By Charles A. Jones
Special to the Times

One of the infantry’s most powerful and reliable weapons is the famous Browning M2 .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon that produces devastating firepower.

Both the legendary firearms designer John Browning and evolving battlefield tactics during World War I influenced the gun’s design.

The German military developed a single-shot 13.2mm anti-tank rifle that could pierce the light armor of tanks, which first came into use during World War I. The U.S. lacked such a weapon and decided that one was needed in a similar caliber, but that it should be a machine gun, not a single-shot weapon.

Winchester Repeating Firearms Co. developed the cartridge, a .50-caliber round roughly equivalent to the German cartridge.

As for the weapon itself, Browning modified his .30-caliber machine gun so it could fire Winchester’s .50-caliber cartridge.

Browning’s prototype was not ready for testing until after World War I. He further refined it to accept a new, much more powerful .50-caliber cartridge. The Frankford Arsenal, an Army ammunition plant in Philadelphia, had refined Winchester’s cartridge into the new cartridge for Browning’s gun.

The result was the water-cooled Model 1921 .50-caliber machine gun, which became — with modification — the M2 water-cooled .50-caliber machine gun.

But the bulk and 100-pound weight of the water-cooled model restricted its use primarily to fixed positions such as anti-aircraft defense. It was effective in this role because water cooling permitted long bursts of fire without overheating and ruining the barrel.

To cut weight and make the gun more portable, an air-cooled model was designed; without water as a coolant, a heavier barrel had to be used.

The air-cooled model became the famous Browning M2 heavy barrel machine gun. It proved a more versatile weapon that could be used against targets on the ground or in the air.

For ground use, it was mounted on vehicles such as jeeps, half-tracks, trucks and tanks.

A tripod was developed so that the gun could be used by infantrymen; however, the M2’s 81-pound weight limited its mobility, especially after adding its 44-pound tripod and large cartridges. The M2 could not be placed into battle quickly by foot soldiers, and carts were developed to carry it and its components.

For sea use, the gun was mounted on various naval vessels. For aerial use, it was mounted on all types of aircraft, including fighters and medium and heavy bombers.

One particularly effective use of the M2 was the “Quad 50,” which featured four .50-caliber guns mounted in a turret in the rear of a half-track. The result combined the advantage of mobility with great firepower.

Perhaps the most famous incident involving the .50 caliber was that which earned Army 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy the Medal of Honor in 1945. Murphy repelled a combined German tank and infantry attack by mounting a disabled, burning American tank destroyer and using the .50-caliber machine gun on its turret to single-handedly kill or wound about 50 Germans, his medal citation stated.

The M2 is still in use.

The writer is a lawyer and a Marine Corps Reserve colonel in Norfolk, Va.