Browning M1917: America’s World War One Heavy Machine Gun

When the United States entered World War One, its military has a relatively tiny handful of machine guns, and they were divided between four different types, as the military budget was small and machine guns were not given much priority. However, since the failure of his gas-operated 1895 machine gun design to become a popular military item, John Browning had been working on a recoil-operated machine gun to replace it. This work became serious in 1910, and by 1915 Browning had met with Colt and agreed to give them exclusive license to his new design – and they began to work with him to refine and perfect it.

When the United States realized that it would be fighting in Europe and would need machine guns in 1917, it held an open trial for designs which Colt and Browning entered. The Browning gun was the undisputed star of the show, firing 40,000 rounds with only one parts breakage and no malfunctions that were not the fault of ammunition or belts. The gun was almost immediately adopted and pushed into production. Ultimately, Colt would allow the manufacture of its guns by Remington and New England Westinghouse, and Browning himself would accept a lump-sum royalty payment from the government for its use, which was about 3.5 million dollars less than he was contractually entitled to – out of patriotism and a desire not to profit too much from the war.

Browning 1917 machine guns would see only brief combat use in World War One, first tasting action in September of 1918. They would remain a staple of US military armament through World War Two, however, improved after the Armistice to the M1917A1 pattern. The gun we are looking at today is an original WW1 M1917, mounted on an equally rare M1917 original tripod.

Sorry, but this gun has been pushed to Julia’s next auction. They do have three other 1917 machine guns in this one, though.

39 Comments

  1. There was a WWI veteran in my home town in Missouri. He had used this type Browning in combat in WWI. His complained that the steam would give away their positions. I was also trained to used the Browning in 1965. I never could understand “setting the headspace.” But, this was because I never got to actually shot one after the barrel had been replaced.

    • I would have recommended adding a condensation tank to the setup, but maybe that particular reservoir got lost on the way to the front.

    • “never could understand “setting the headspace.” ”
      According to Browning machine gun Mechanism Made Easy (·300 calibre model 1917):
      THE CORRECT HEAD SPACE ADJUSTMENT
      (A) Partly screw barrel into barrel extension.
      (B) Remove extractor from bolt. With barrel and barrel extension in a horizontal position, place the bolt in its full forward home position in the barrel extension.
      (C) Lock bolt to barrel extension by lifting breech lock up into its seat ; hold it firmly in this position
      (D) Continue screwing barrel into barrel extension until resistance is felt (other than that of the barrel lock spring).
      (E) Release breech lock which should now fall of its own weight, if the head space adjustment is correct.
      (F) Remove the bolt.
      (G) Note position of barrel lock spring; if this is in between two barrel notches, screw barrel up to second notch. If barrel lock spring is seated in a barrel notch, screw barrel up to next notch.
      It is advisable to mark barrel with this correct head space adjustment so that quick head space adjustment can always be made on subsequent stripping and reassembling.

      • Daweo, what in the world!? I am talking about in combat when the barrel gets hot and has to be changed out. I can’t remember the exact details, but some how as fast as possible the hot barrel was removed. The new barrel put in. Then with a kind of blunt tool like a screw driver, one had to push the on the collar around the new barrel until the machine gun “sounded right.” The instructor demonstrated by making “bang” sounds with his mouth. He told us,”if the barrel is screwed too far one way, the gun with sound like; bang, bang, bang. Way to fast a rate of fire. If it is screwed too much the other way it will sound like; bang….bang….bang, that is too slow a rate of fire. ” One had to keep playing the the screw-driver-thing until it was just right; and do it fast. Good buddy, following the steps A to G, the enemy would have over run you.

        • Barrel-change under fire is not easy for a water-cooled weapon. Aren’t heavy machine guns supposed to be grouped together so that they don’t get run over by human wave attacks? And just why would you set headspace with a loaded gun?!

          • Cherndog, I am talking about the air cooled version, this was 1965, I not that old. Once you thought that you had the barrel in correctly, then you fired it, and listened to hear the report of the interval between each shot to see if the cyclic rate of fire sounded correct. As the instructor explained, If it was: bang, bang, bang; well, that was too fast a cyclic rate. If, on the other hand it was: bang….bang….bang; that was too slow a cyclic rate of the fire. It had to be; bang.bang. bang. Then it was just right. But one had to adjust it by hand with the screw-driver-thing.

          • “I am talking about the air cooled version”
            Ok, so source which I cited is irrelevant here.
            Therefore treat my previous posts as never existing.

        • “One had to keep playing the the screw-driver-thing until it was just right; and do it fast. Good buddy, following the steps A to G, the enemy would have over run you.”
          Well, it is just quote from Browning machine gun Mechanism Made Easy (·300 calibre model 1917), also notice that
          It is advisable to mark barrel with this correct head space adjustment so that quick head space adjustment can always be made on subsequent stripping and reassembling.

        • I believe you are mixing headspacing Br.1917 with timing. Although the subjects are related, it is not the same thing. First you must setup headspace to prevent cartridge breech explosion. In other words, H/S must not be excessive or too tight and yes, lock piece must engage fully. This is fiddly procedure which takes time; not exactly fun in combat situation.

          This comes from relationship among 4 parts: barrel, barrel extension, bolt and trunion; see attached video.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m07ZcxpHNgo

          There are some other videos if you want to continue, but this one is specifically toward 1917 model. For Br1919A4 I became familiar with, there are H/S gauges making process little quicker.

        • George:

          I am very interested that you seem to have been taught how to quickly change the barrel on an M1919. It was my belief that this would be an armoury job, as the M1919 was never designed with a quick change barrel.

          Obviously, old or shot out barrels could be changed by armourers, who would also reset the headspace, but I never thought it was contemplated that this would be done on the battlefield.

          Were you issued with a glove or any other accessory to handle the hot barrel?

          • Dear JohnK, I am like you, that is to say, I am curious now also. The points brought up on the forum like your input in valid. OK, this is what I think: SSgt Holstein was explaining field expedient procedures when it had to be done but you couldn’t get back to an armorer. The more I think about him, the more I remember. He was in Korea and faced the Red Chinese onslaught. He told stories of being separated from his unit without rations. I didn’t understand it than, like I do now. I wish I would have ask more questions. The funny screw driver thing I mentioned, after studying the websites, I remember, it was the headspace gauge he used. He tried to move he barrel to demonstrate setting the headspace with the gauges. But they were too flimsy and it didn’t really work. For sure, the point of his instruction was; when you have to do it you adjust the headspace to control the timing. Well, your point about being issued special gloves to handle a hot barrel; maybe when ten thousand screaming chinese are descending on your position, you use what ever gloves you have at hand. They told us a year or so later SSgt Holstein had been killed in Viet Nam.

          • George:

            Thanks for replying, I think that clears it up. The M1919 was not meant to have a barrel which could be changed in combat, but it was good to know how to change the barrel if you had to, that was good advice you were given.

            I am surprised in a way you were being taught the M1919 in 1965, I would have thought the M60 was standard by then, but I suppose it took a long time to replace all those Brownings.

            RIP SSgt Holstein.

          • JohnK, you are surely welcome. But, to tell the truth, I am like you, wondering how it was actually done. Maybe one had to wait for a lull in the fighting to change the barrel. Yes, and you observe correctly again, 1965 was late for instruction on the Browning. Very shortly afterward we got the M60. I sure was glad to see how easy it was to change out a barrel. SSgt Holstein had other “field expedient” procedures he also told us about. He told us about the soldier that was a real problem. SSgt Holstein tried to treat him with respect to get him to come around. But, finally “field expedient” procedures had to be executed. SSgt Holstein said he could not take it anymore and knocked the kid to the ground, got him by the neck and pounded him with his fist until he was black and blue. Now, that was a proper “field expedient” attitude adjustment.

          • George:

            Seems like you have some interesting memories. Sharing things like this helps make this site even more interesting. I wonder if the Browning was a 7.62mm NATO conversion? I think by 1965 the US military had pretty well retired .30 calibre amunition.

            SSgt Holstein sounds like one of those NCOs who are the backbone of any army.

          • John, it was just .30-06, but, nevertheless you have a point in that it was late for this caliber. You know, I remember something else. My uncle was in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. He talked about the Browning barrel “melting.” The only thing I could think of as a little boy was a wax candle. So, I remember, I ask him,”Uncle Howard you mean it melted like a candle made of wax.” He told me that what he remembered was that the barrel began to have small pieces of metal break or chip away from the end of the barrel. In other words, it would start of spall.

          • George:

            I guess in situations like that, it would have been useful for the gunner to have been able to change a barrel, assuming he had a spare one that is. I do know that it was very cold during the Battle of the Bulge, so your uncle must have put a lot of rounds through that Browning!

    • With the original watercooled ww1 m1917 wouldn’t the gun position be sort of obvious. I mean the gun weighed what three hundred pounds with the tripod.

  2. Were they still standard issue in WW2 ?I know I have seen pictures of them in action but not as commonly as M1919’s.

  3. A veterans memories of using a gun add to history; no matter how faulty their understanding or memory. People directly telling veterans that they are wrong is, at best, impolite, and is likely to cut off veteran’s contribution. There are ways and means of adding to knowledge, but writing a string of opinions answering yourself rarely does.

  4. Thanks to Denny for clearing up the issue we discussed earlier. Head-spacing is set to keep the gun from getting a ruptured case-jam on the first shot and shot-timing is to keep it from firing out of battery (which of course will be disastrous to the gun crew if not corrected)… If only the upper brass of the Army Ordnance department didn’t dismiss captured MG-42’s as “crappy tin toys that a house-wife could easily beat to death with a frying pan.”

  5. In my college library was a book surveying U.S. military production and development for WWI. According to its figures, the U.S. arsenal of democracy had managed to produce FOUR 1917 Brownings by the time of the armistice. Of course this might not be accurate, but I don’t think I’ve heard of any of these guns getting into action during the war itself, until today.

    • I don’t think I have ever seen a photo of American troops using an M1917 during WWI. They always seem to be using Hotchkiss guns. They were good guns, and I suppose it helped with logistics that they used the same 8mm round as the Chauchat guns.

      • The Chauchat wasn’t great but if well maintained was okay for mounting an assault upon the other team’s trenches. The problem with other light machine guns of the time was that they were designed for temporary static defense, and thus were too heavy for fighting on the move. I can’t imagine anyone actually running around spraying with a strip-fed Hotchkiss or a pan-fed Lewis gun. Just don’t use the 30-06 version of the Chauchat!

        • The WWI veteran where I lived in Missouri made that comment. He said,”we had the Browning, but the steam gave our position away.” Then, he though for a moment and commented that the Chauchat did not have that problem. He had to think for a moment and gather his thoughts, but he could remember the name “Chauchat.” This was around 1980 when I spoke with him.

        • Sorry Cherndog but Australian soldiers (and I am sure others) used the Lewis gun in assaulting German positions in WWI. Remember the weight of the Lewis is about the same as a MAG58, and does not have a belt of ammunition to get tangled up. (Nevertheless I would prefer the MAG!)

          • Okay, but the Lewis gun (which weighed 28 pounds with the standard pan magazine on top) wasn’t designed to be fired while literally on the sprint. With a Lewis gun or a Hotchkiss light machine gun one is supposed to stop and set up a firing position in preparation for any enemy counterattack. I haven’t read accounts of British/Commonwealth soldiers charging into German trenches whilst firing the Lewis guns everywhere like madmen.

            The Chauchat machine rifle (official terminology anyway) was designed for firing on the charge, just like the later Browning Automatic Rifle (and both suffered from doctrine misplacement). Being made mostly of stamped sheet metal, it was cheap and easily mass produced (more Chauchats could be manufactured within a given period of time than the Lewis guns). From what I can remember, the Germans freaked for a bit when they realized that the French had just about outproduced them in terms of automatic weapons per squad. And if I’m not mistaken, German flamethrower troops used captured Chauchats because they were a bit low on the priority list for troops to be issued machine guns.

            Did I mess up again?

      • Actually, the Model 1917 Browning was judged so superior to the Hotchkiss and Vickers HMGs used by the AEF in WWI, that it was feared they would be captured by zee Germans, and reverse engineered by the diabolical and expert machine engineering foe. So they were held in abeyance by the AEF along with the “U.S. Pistol, Cal. .30 Model of 1918” Pedersen device until the evening of the great dawn 1919 Spring Offensive… The Chauchat likewise lingered until replacement by the BAR was contemplated in large quantity.

    • I think you might be thinking of *Tank machine guns.*
      America’s Munitions, 1917-1919 has a table of U.S. contract MG production for 1918. Actually, it is “Acceptances of automatic arms, by months, in United States and Canada on Unites States Army orders only.”
      Ground machine guns
      Browning heavy–12 in April, 14.6k by October, total 56,608
      Vickers field… 1,021 in Jan to 103 Oct., total 12,125
      Colt 2,816
      Lewis field 291 in Jan. 2,500 total (note well the role of the Chauchat here!)
      Lewis caliber .303 1,050

      Aircraft machine guns
      Browning (too late to see service) 580
      Marlin 38k
      Lewis flexible 39.2k
      Vickers cal. .30 (Sep. on) 2,476
      Vickers 11-mm. (June on) 1,238
      Tank machine guns
      Browning 4
      Marlin 1.47k
      Automatic rifles
      Browning light (from 15 in Feb through 13,687 in October–69,960.

  6. America’s Munitions, p. 175:
    “Both types of Browning guns proved to be unqualified successes in actual battle, as numerous reports of our Ordnance officers overseas indicated. The following report from an officer, in addition to carrying historical information of interest to those following our machine-gun development, is typical of numerous other official descriptions of these weapons in battle use:

    The guns (heavy Brownings) went into the front line for the first time in the night of September 13. The sector was quiet and the guns were practically not used at all until the advance, starting September 26. In the action which followed, the guns were used on several occasions for overhead fire, one company firing 10,000 rounds per gun into a wood in which there were enemy machine-gun nests, at a range of 2,000 meters. Although the conditions were extremely unfavorable for machine guns on account of rain and mud, the guns performed well. … even though covered with rust and using muddy ammunition, they functioned whenever called upon to do so. … One of these had been struck by shrapnel, which punctured the water jacket. All of the guns were completely coated with mud and rust on the outside, but the mechanism was fairly clean. …

    On November 11 we had built 52,238 BARs in this country (the USA). We had bought 29,000 Chauchats from the French. … In heavy machine guns at the signing of the armistice we had 3,340 of the Hotchkiss make, 9,237 Vickers, and 41,804 Brownings.

    Based upon our output in July, August, and September, 1918, we (U.S. industry) were producing monthly 27,270 machine guns and machine rifles of all types, while the average monthly production of France was at this time 12,126 and that of Great Britain 10,947.”

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