Bill Ruger’s Prototype WW2 Light Machine Gun

In April 1940, the US Ordnance Department circulated a request for a new light machine gun to replace the Browning M1919A4. It was to be shorter and lighter than the Browning, and was not to be based on the Browning system (presumably the Department wanted to move on from the bulky and heavy 1919 system to something more modern). Being an optimistic and self-confident young engineer at the time, Bill Ruger figured, “How hard could it be?”. He whipped up a design and took it to the Auto-Ordnance corporation, who promptly wrote up a contract to build the gun and submit it to trials.

As it turns out – and as Ruger would later write – it could be quite hard to create a ground-up new design to beat John Browning’s work in just 4 or 5 months (shocking!). When Ruger’s gun was tested, it was found to have a few good aspects, but was generally unreliable and failed to complete the scheduled 10,000-round endurance test. All of the other guns in that trial failed for various reasons, though, and a second trial was scheduled, giving the manufacturers time to improve their designs. Ruger and Auto-Ordnance were unable to substantially correct the problems with the gun, however, and it did as badly in the second trial as it had in the first. Ultimately, a separate procurement process by the Infantry Department would result in the M1919A6 Browning, which was adopted for the role of light machine gun.

This experience would serve Ruger well, as he would go on to do quite a lot more work with Auto-Ordnance before forming his own tremendously successful company.

Thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum for allowing me access to film this!

20 Comments

  1. Interesting.

    Did anyone else hear the noise in the background of the video when Ian wasn’t speaking? Sort of a non harmonic hum? HVAC or something else in the building, maybe. A little distracting, it would make a great sound to pipe into cells at Gitmo.

  2. Seems like a pretty sensible and simple MG… Any firearms experts that could enlighten me as to the possible reasons it failed and didn’t even survive the 10.000 rounds challenge?

  3. Another great video about a gun I was unaware of. I think it foreshadows what was to come for Mr. Ruger. Frankly I think he was a genius.

  4. Sturm, Ruger Co. had been in 2017 3rd largest firearms manufacturer in United States with sales at 517M. This year according to source I cannot locate they were first. Interestingly, vast majority of their production is civilian.

    That is “gone long way” for Mr. Ruger, although he is no more sharing this world with us. Inventiveness, focus on objective and hard work were qualities of his which did bring results after all.

    • I must see that I always though of Bill Ruger more as entrepreneur than gun designer, though never dig deeply in his history.
      Nonetheless, I think it is good example that military contracts (especially during war) are all-or-nothing. If you succeed – glory and $ to you, if not – most probably way is that documents created during development will go to archive and collect dust. If I am not mistaken Ruger later go more toward civilian market, where it is harder to get as big order as for military, but there is much greater chance of some success (or multitude of smaller orders), even if production is much smaller.

      • Not only military orders have lots of lead time, but their production is inefficient, unless type/ model of weapon is “trop” (full success). In that case there is many years of follow-up till the design moves into public domain. The best case to illustrate is Colt and M16.

        The opposite case is civilian market. One such example (to leave Sturm, Ruger Co. out for one minute) is Kell-Tech of George Kellgren. His orientation in market is unique. He does not care whole lot for military stuff, while his niche are models which seem to attract high demand from civilian shooters. Kell-Tech is notoriously short in supply with substantial backlog of orders. The man is bright; he does it right.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Kellgren

  5. 1) Lt Col Arthur Wellsley’s comments after his first campaign, “At least I learned what not to do, and that is always a valuable lesson”.
    2) The US Army had a strange idea of what made a LMG, a LMG – I mean a tripod? …but everybody else did, too, the British put the BREN on a tripod and the Germans the MG34 on a tripod as well. At least the MG34 was designed to do so, so it could function as a medium MG.And I’ve always felt the M1919A4 should have been classed as an air-cooled medium MG, not a light MG.
    3) Sad thing, the US Army could have had a true LMG during WW2, if they just looked south of the border. I give you, the Mendoza LMG = firstin 7mm, then in 30-06
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mendoza_RM2
    And as presented by Ian’s Japanese Cousin
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXBeYuSoOgk

    • I would say that what they wanted would be better described as lighter machine gun (than 1919) rather than light machine gun.

      “Sad thing, the US Army could have had a true LMG during WW2, if they just looked south of the border. I give you, the Mendoza LMG = firstin 7mm, then in 30-06”
      According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mendoza_RM2 U.S. Government actually ordered Mendoza light machine gun for 7,62×63 mm cartridge, but war ended before any delivery commenced:
      (…)In 1943 Rafael Mendoza and his son Hector traveled to the U.S. to sign an agreement with Maury Maverick, Chief of the U.S. Bureau of Government Requirements for 5,000 Mendoza light machine guns in .30-’06 Sprg. caliber and 3,000 Mendoza machine guns in .50 BMG caliber. While Hector studied drafting at the University of Detroit, Rafael traveled the U.S. making arrangements to manufacture the guns ordered. During those years, Rafael became friends with John Garand and Capt. Melvin Johnson–both noted firearm designers in their own right. When World War II ended in September 1945, the U.S. Government canceled most arms contracts, including those for Mendoza, before any guns could be delivered.(…)
      But that was in 1943, when Estados Unidos Mexicanos and U.S.A. were officially belonging to ALLIES team and actually co-working quite closely (see Bracero), when in 1940 both were neutrals. This do not prevent selling of Mendoza design, but there was not clear common cause.

      Though, interesting what-if would be if U.S.A. would employ one or more fire-arms designer, fleeing from Nazi occupation – as British have done, more than in one case, during WW2, to name few cases:
      František Janeček (designer of Littlejohn adaptor); Czech
      Stefan Janson (designer of EM-2); Polish
      Marian Jurek (designer of https://guns.fandom.com/wiki/Jurek_Mk.II ); Polish
      Roman Korsak (designer of EM-1); Polish
      Jerzy Podsedkowski (designer of MCEM 2); Polish
      Josef Veselý (designer of V-42); Czech
      See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20_mm_Polsten
      And what they already did during Great War – just replace Nazi with Kaiser occupation:
      Dieudonné Saive – worked for Vickers; Belgian
      But as Great Britain declared war to Nazi Germany in September 1939, they have were good reason to work for British. This did not occur in case of U.S.A. before it found itself in state of war against Germany in December 1941.

    • They need not have looked beyond US borders. Americans designed two excellent machine guns for WWI: the 1917 (which became the 1919) and the Lewis.

      Instead of thinking “Which of these more closely resembles a good LMG?” then replacing the Lewis’s pan with a box mag, and the shrouded barrel with a quick-change type, they ignored the obvious and ADDED parts, bulk, and weight to the chunky medium MG to get a “light”.

      At least the Luftwaffe figured it out, and did a half-decent job at that.

  6. I assume the tripod mount is located at the lower rear of the gun. Unless the tripod has a long cantilever the gun would be quite muzzle heavy.

    • Missing tripod make assessing of this gun harder, as it is important part of whole system.
      Failed 10,000-shot test is objective fact and hints reliability problems, however it is quite wide term, as it might denote both “exploded into smithereens during attempt of 1 shot” and “become inoperable /but not beyond repair/ after 9,999 shot”
      I am wondering how Auto-Ordnance Company treated this development. How many resources (and workers?) they assigned to fix detected problems? If attitude was “just give him a try”, it might be that problems might be fixed, but they decided not to invest more in project with uncertain outcome.

      • I take it that “this” was the gun tested. The selector switch doesn’t work in semi auto. Not a big deal, but something happened to make this come up short of 10,000 rounds. Poor cold weather and dirty reliability were also issues. The second try seems to have been more than further development along these lines, but like the missing tripod who knows?

        Incidentally the tripod could have had a clamp on the front end to keep it from being so muzzle heavy.

  7. One reason for the “failure” of this Ruger machine gun is that the US Army was rather fuzzy about what it wanted its machine guns to do. There’s the “pick two” quandary: get it cheap, get it soon, get it right! Sometimes that quandary is “you get only one of the above.” Most of all, though, it helps to know what you want in the first place.

    Back in 1915 the French Army adopted the Chauchat even though it was far from perfect because France needed something NOW that could advance with the first assault waves and provide automatic fire in the assault and then substitute for the Hotchiss heavy machine guns until the latter could be dragged up during the consolidation phase of an offensive. Ian claimed that the Chauchat was regarded as a 200-meter weapon by the French Army (their VB rifle grenade also was a 200-meter weapon coincidentally) and even though a two-man crew was desirable, the Chauchat could be managed by one man.

    What was the US Army going to use that machine gun for? Replace every M1917A1 and M1919A4? Would that have included vehicle-mounted guns (coaxial and bow-mounted tank machine guns, those in aircraft) or was that just ground guns? How would the new machine gun, when adopted, been integrated into the rifle company? The US Army Airborne put one M1919A6 in its rifle squads:
    https://www.battleorder.org/us-airborne-ww2

    At least a dozen infantry weapon systems were in use at regiment and below in 1942:
    Pistol, M1911A1
    Submachine Gun, M1928A1
    Rifle, M1903
    Rifle, M1
    Automatic Rifle, M1918A2
    Carbine, M1
    Rifle Grenade
    Hand Grenade
    Machine Gun, M1917A1
    Machine Gun, M1919A4
    Machine Gun, Caliber 50, M2-HB
    Mortar, 60mm
    Mortar, 81mm
    Anti-tank Gun, 37mm

    I may be in error including the Thompson–only a few were provided for special missions at regimental level if I read the sources correctly and they weren’t really TO&E weapons. What a training nightmare! Logistics were snarled, too. Adding yet another machine gun to this mess would have shot the program down if Ruger’s machine gun wasn’t an order of magnitude better than both the M1919A4 and M1917A1. An example of “order of magnitude better” would be the replacement of the pistol by the M1 carbine in the infantry regiment–when and where possible. Sometimes the compact pistol was necessary and the carbine was too bulky and heavy–but the carbine had at least ten times the fighting range of the pistol and a soldier armed with a carbine could contribute to the infantry firefight–the soldier armed with a pistol would be doing well to protect himself against an enemy soldier charging him with fixed bayonet. The M1 Carbine also replaced rifles–the Carbine cost about half as much as a Garand and many personnel who would have otherwise have drawn either a Garand or a substitute Springfield as their personal weapon (cooks and mechanics and other headquarters personnel) were better served with the carbine. I could go on making the point that the Carbine was a decided advantage–to the point where adding the logistics burdens of additional training and a second “rifle” cartridge was worthwhile–but the point I’m making here is that the M1 Carbine had a clearly-defined role when adopted and it filled that role brilliantly.

    What was Ruger’s machine gun supposed to do? The heavy machine gun platoons in the weapons companies had long-range sustained fire missions in 1940, and the M1919A4 was earmarked for the rifle company’s weapons platoon, with two M1919A4 for offensive missions and a second pair of M1919A4 in reserve to bolster the company defensive perimeter (the machine gun squads would be divided among the reserve guns for defense). At least that was the plan in 1940–due to sheer numbers of machine guns needed, the “reserve” machine guns may have vanished as suggested in these TO&E:
    http://www.ghqmodels.com/pdf/toe3-usarmymarineinfantrybattalions.pdf

    The failed Johnson Light Machine Gun was intended to replace the Browning Automatic Rifle–the Johnson was lighter and may have been cheaper. The Browning Automatic Rifle had flaws–but soldiered on because it performed better than the replacement and was already in the pipeline.

    Ruger’s prototype wasn’t ready for mass production–and both Browning machine guns (M1917A1 and M1919A4) were not only in full-scale production but were in use by 1941. The training program was already in place. Tens of thousands of machine gunners had been trained–soon to be hundreds of thousands.

    When the M60 General Purpose Machine Gun was adopted to replace the M1917A1, the M1919A4 and the M1919A6 machine guns (along with vehicle and aircraft-mounted guns) the M60 wasn’t as capable as the old water cooled gun in the long-range sustained-fire mission. It was far more portable, and the M60 was a single weapon to train with–there are significant differences between the M1917A1 and M1919A6. Our British cousins had their own Vickers heavy machine gun and BREN gun to worry about. Was Ruger supposed to develop what became the M60 machine gun back in 1940?

    I come up with more questions every time I get answers.

  8. I had to do some research. Ian mentioned the Stinger (modified AN/M-2 caliber .30 aircraft machine gun) and six saw action in Iwo Jima in 1945. The guns weighed in at 25 pounds and were 40 inches overall. They were deemed impractical due to “excessive” rate of fire.

    Bill Ruger was a genius. A Marine Corps armorer managed to do what the professional firearm engineers couldn’t manage. The M1919A6 was as much as ten pounds heavier. Fire rate of the Stinger was three times as high–and that caused problems with ammunition consumption and overheating. Even so, it’s interesting that a Marine overseas used salvaged machine guns to develop a light machine gun that out-performed the M1919A6.

    https://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/2016/5/12/firepower-in-the-pacific-the-stinger-machine-gun/

  9. America had some odd ideas about machine guns in WWII.

    The Browning M1917 was obviously the medium machine gun, just as Britain used the Vickers in that role.

    Britain then had the Bren as the LMG. What did America have? The M1919A4 is not a light machine gun. It is perhaps a light medium machine gun.

    The BAR is a bit too lacking to be an LMG. It was designed as an automatic rifle, and that is what it was.

    The M1919A6 was just infernal. Too heavy, too long, too clunky.

    If you watch films from WWII it is quite rare to see an M1919A6. The others are common.

    Interestingly, I have been watching a lot of footahe lately about the war in the Pacific, and I have noticed that you almost never see a Marine with a BAR with a bipod. The Marines seem to have used the BAR as an automatic rifle. Army units, on the other hand, always seem to have the bipod. Maybe they were not prepared to think a bit more flexibly, but the Marines always seem to have their own take on things.

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