The story of the development of the Barrett M82 .50 BMG semiauto rifle is really a neat story – much more interesting than most people probably expect, and reminiscent of many firearms development stories of the 1800s. Ronnie Barrett was working as a photographer in the late 70s, and became interested (perhaps obsessed?) with the idea of a semiauto .50 caliber rifle after a photo session with a Vietnam War jungle patrol boat (which was armed with a pair of M2 .50 caliber machine guns). At the time, the only civilian options for the .50 BMG cartridge were conversions of WWII antitank rifles like the Boys and PTRD.
Barrett, with basically no formal engineering background, sketched up a design and approached some machine shops for advice and assistance. He started working in his garage, and after a couple years had a function prototype completed. He sold the rifles commercially at gun shows and through publications like Shotgun News until making his first military sale in 1989, to the Swedish government. The following year he received an order from the US military, and sales took off from there.
Contrary to common expectation, the Barrett M82A1 is not really a “sniper” rifle – as a semiautomatic design with a recoil-operated action it’s potential accuracy is much less than that of a bolt action precision rifle – and this is amplified by the lack of a precision .50 BMG cartridge in US military service. In practice, the M82A1 will shoot about 3 MOA with normal ball ammunition, and about 1.5-2 MOA with good handloads. It is used primarily as an EOD rifle to detonate heavy-walled unexploded shells at a safe distance, and as an anti-material rifle to attack light vehicles and infrastructure at a long distance. These are relatively large targets, which require the large payload of a .50 BMG projectile but not the extreme accuracy of a true “sniper’s” rifle.
The French FAMAS was one of the first bullpup rifles to be adopted and built in large numbers by a military power. It was adopted by France in 1978 at right about the same time as the Steyr AUG was being adopted by the Austrian military. Bullpup rifles offered a short overall length without sacrificing barrel length, an advantage that seemed quite valuable for troops who were to spend significant amounts of time in vehicles, where space is at a premium. In French service, the FAMAS was also made the formal replacement for both the MAS-49/56 rifle and the MAT-49 submachine gun, thanks to its compact nature.
The FAMAS is interesting mechanically, as it is one of very few production delayed-blowback rifle designs (the other common one being the CETME/HK series). The FAMAS uses a lever-delaying system, which allows a very simple bolt and action mechanism. The F1 model (adopted by the French Army and still in use today, making up the bulk of FAMAS production) has a 1:12″ twist to its rifling, effectively limiting it to 55 grain projectiles – and it also requires steel-cased ammunition to run reliably. The G2 variant (adopted in 1995 by the French Navy) changed to a 1:9″ twist, introduced a full-hand trigger guard, and also uses NATO standard AR15 magazines instead of the proprietary 25-round magazine of the F1.
In the late 1980s a small number of semiauto FAMAS rifles were made by St Etienne and imported into the US by Century. Most people say 100-125 rifles, although serial number suggest this may have actually been 225-250 rifles. Regardless, they are quite scarce and expensive today.
Welcome to your briefing on the new equipment we are issuing for the Spring Offensive of 1919. With this new secret weapon, we can finally push the Germans out of France and end the war!
Biafran troops, circa 1968
The Republic of Biafra was supported by Czechoslovakia during its brief existence, and the men here are equipped with a Czech ZB-53 machine gun and what appears to be a CZ-47 or CZ-247 submachine gun.
The Villar Perosa is one of the first small machine guns developed and used by a military force. It was designed in Italy and introduced in 1915 as an aircraft weapon, to be used in a flexible mount by an airplane’s observer. The gun consists of two independent firing actions mounted together. Each fires from an open bolt as a rate of 1200-1500 rounds/minute, feeding from a 25 round magazine of 9mm Glisenti cartridges. This allowed the maximum possible volume of fire in an aerial combat situation, where in 1915 ballistic power was not particularly important.
As aircraft armaments improved and synchronized, belt-fed machine guns became practical, the Villar Perosa was quickly made obsolete in aerial use. The Italian military experimented with several applications of the weapon in ground combat, including slings and belt fittings for marching fire, tripods, mounts with integral armor shields, and bicycle mounts. None of these proved particularly successful, as the elements that made the gun well adapted to early aerial use (high rate of fire with a small cartridge) made it relatively ineffective for infantry use.
Ultimately, the best use of the Villar Perosa was to break them up and convert the actions into shoulder-fired submachine guns. Designs to do this were developed by both the Beretta company and Villar Perosa themselves, and in 1918 these guns entered service at the same approximate period as the first German MP-18 submachine guns. Because of this recycling, intact M1915 Villar Perosa guns are quite rare today.
The Mauser Selbstlader M1915 was the result of many years of work by the Mauser brothers to develop a semiautomatic rifle suitable for military use. They tried many different types of operating systems, and this one is a particularly unusual recoil-operated mechanism.
Only about 600 of these rifle were made, with about 400 of them being shorter carbine variants and the remaining few hundred infantry-pattern long rifles like this one. They use 25-round detachable magazines (which look like MG13 magazines but are not interchangeable with them), and are chambered for standard 8mm Mauser ammunition.
The locking system of the M1915 uses a pair of large flaps very much like the Mauser 06/08 pistol, but not a recoiling barrel like the pistol. Instead, a camming plate floats on a bit of spring tension in the rear of the receiver. Upon firing, the plate tends to stay in place because of inertia while the rest of the rifle recoils backwards. This differential movement makes the camming plate go forward relative to the rest of the weapon, and in doing so it unlocks the two flaps. Very unusual.
David Marshall Williams was hired by the Winchester company in 1939, and would have a hand in a number of major projects during his 10-year stint with the company, although best known for the M1 Carbine. The Carbine was an offshoot of the Winchester G30 and G30M rifles, which would also evolve into the G30R and Winchester Automatic Rifle. Another offshoot using this same basic mechanism was this undesignated .50 BMG semiautomatic antitank rifle developed by Winchester during World War II.
This rifle, like its developmental precursors, uses a two-lug, Garand type rotating bolt and a Williams gas tappet short stroke action. It has a 10-round detachable box magazine.
Although I have not found a testing report, the gun was apparently tested by the Canadian military and performed quite well. It was never purchased or put into serial production, however, most likely because as an antitank rifle the .50 BMG cartridge was not effective by the end of World War II.
I previously reviewed a book on archaeological study of the Little Bighorn battlefield, which did an excellent and very insightful job of tracing the battle through tangible artifacts, including forensic tracing of different individual weapons across the field. I recently picked up another book on the battle (Little Bighorn to the Americans; Greasy Grass to the Sioux and Cheyenne). This work takes a very different approach to the history: following the stories from the descendants of the combatants who were there that day. The author, Wendell Grangaard, is a 53-year resident of the Dakotas and an avid historian. His work as a construction crew chief in the area put him in contact with many Sioux and Cheyenne, including (instrumentally) Benjamin Black Elk, whom he first met in 1967. Benjamin Black Elk was an iconic Sioux historian, and his father (a cousin of Sitting Bull) had been one of the warriors at the Greasy Grass.
Through Black Elk and others, Grangaard compiled a collection of battle accounts of that fight and the others before and after it. His interest in firearms led him to combine these oral histories with detailed research on the arms carried by both the tribes and the whites at the time. The result, in the form of this book, is a retelling of the battle with a focus on the arms used, and with numerous photos of the specific weapons carried, captured, and lost that day. More importantly, Grangaard’s lifelong friendship with the tribes and interest in their customs has allowed him to present the warriors’ accounts in an objective light, explaining actions like the mutilation of bodies and the use or non-use of captured arms from the battlefield. The Little Bighorn stands out from other battles because Sitting Bull had decreed that the weapons of the fallen whites should not be taken on that day, which made for a substantial dilemma for the warriors. Many took arms anyway, but they often treated them as the property of Wakan Tanka and kept them wrapped up and hidden. Guns captured at the Little Bighorn were rarely discussed or seen in public, unlike arms from other battles, which were treated as rightful and glorious spoils of war.
At any rate, Grangaard has done a fantastic job in this book of presenting the individual battle accounts with the event on the large scale, and allowing us to understand what the day was truly like for the Indian forces there. The book begins with some introductory explanation of Sioux and Cheyenne culture as well as US Cavalry organization. It then moves into brief descriptions of the events that led up to the Battle of the Greasy Grass, including the Fetterman Massacre (the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand) and the Rosebud Battle. Each of the 21 accounts which follow includes a map showing the warrior’s movement through the day, and also what is known of the man’s life after the battle. In more than one case, he is able to trace specific individual firearms from original issue to the Cavalry to their capture on the field and through to surrender on the reservations years later or to present-day ownership. The combination of macro and micro views of the fight from a writer with a nuanced understanding of both sides makes this a fantastic and engrossing read.
The book is not available on Amazon, but can be purchased through Abe Books or directly through the publisher, Mariah Press. Or you can do what I did, and pick up an autographed copy from the gift shop of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. But however you acquire it, this is an excellent book for anyone who is interested in firearms or the history of the American West – and if you enjoy both subjects, you will find few books more interesting than this one!
With the failure of the G30M and G30R to lead to any military orders (American or otherwise), the Winchester company took the advice of the Ordnance Department to scale the design up to an automatic rifle. The BAR had a number of known shortcomings in WWII, and the military was interested in replacing it. The Winchester Automatic Rifle (WAR) offered the same basic set of features with a lighter weight and lower cost.
The WAR used a 2-lug rotating bolt like the Garand’s, in combination with a Williams short stroke gas tappet action. Chambered for the standard .30-06 cartridge and using 20-round magazines, the WAR could be used as a semiautomatic rifle or in full automatic with a rate of fire of approximately 600 rpm (slightly more or less depending on whether a muzzle device was used).
The WAR passed initial Ordnance inspection with flying colors, and a contract for 10 was placed, for more extensive testing. It passed these tests well, but they took place in the summer of 1945. By the time a major contract was a real possibility, World War II had ended, and the budget for new arms development was slashed. Had the war continued, the WAR likely would have begun to replace the BAR in US military service.
British women sort through donated American guns for the Home Guard.
“When the ships from America approached our shores with their priceless arms special trains were waiting in all the ports to receive their cargoes,” Churchill recalled. “The Home Guard in every county, in every town, in every village, sat up all through the night to receive them…. By the end of July we were an armed nation…. a lot of our men and some women had weapons in their hands.”