The Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, was a staple of American infantry forces through WWII and the Korean War, and has an outstanding reputation today. The gun was originally developed in 1917 and first fielded in the closing days of World War I, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In fact, per an agreement made with John Browning during development, the first American unit in France to receive the BAR was the 79th Infantry Division, whose numbers included Browning’s own son, 2nd Lt. Val Browning.
In its original form, the BAR was intended to use in “walking fire”, shot from the hip to suppress enemy forces while advancing (the same role as the Chauchat machine rifle). The tactical role of the light machine gun was really not yet understood by military brass, although troops in the field was developing tactics on their own to exploit the capabilities of these relatively new weapons. At any rate, the BAR was not equipped with a bipod, and the belts of magazine pouches included a metal cup on the right hip to hold the butt of a BAR to help steady it for this from-the-hip assault fire.
This assault fire concept didn’t work out so well in practice, and after WWI new tactics were developed. Among other things, this led to modification of the BAR to include a bipod and replace the original fullauto/semiauto selector mechanism with one that was only full auto, but with the option of a low or high rate of fire – under the designation M1918A2. It is this A2 variant that saw such extensive US use in WWII and Korea. Finding original M1918 BARs today that both survive and were not converted to the updated pattern is fairly rare, which brings me to the point of today’s post. We have a number of photos of just such and original BAR, and I want to post them for folks to have as a reference to compare to the other versions of the gun available (both military and commercial).
While I know the BAR was mechanically quite reliable, I’ve always gotten the impression it had a lot of flaws from a tactical perspective. It’s actually morbidly amusing to read about variants and note that pretty much every European country to adopt it (most in the 1930’s it seems) improved the grip and added a quick change barrel- at which point, for me at least, it becomes a much better weapon- (though I haven’t actually been able to find anything on how these variants actually performed in the field, but on paper they look good) That said no one seems to have come up with a solution to the ammo capacity.
This is my favorite form of the BAR! I have fired a 1918A2 standing without bipod and its just an awesome piece of equipment. Can you imagine going into battle with a BAR and a 1911 in WWI knowing that you carried that amount of firepower. I would imagine it at least had to settle a small amount of nervousness. Yes a Lewis or MG05/15 could be carried by an individual but they really are squad level guns and not very maneuverable and need a team to support. I really like the early version the BAR, There is something about adding the bipod to it that I just don’t like. It makes it seem like a Light MG rather than an Automatic rifle. Then it gets compared to the Bren which really is not a fair comparison. The BAR and Chauchat were really in a class to themselves and not in the Light MG class of the Lewis, MG08/15, Bren…etc. I think most people miss that fact today and its even more confused by the addition of the bipod. However no one looks at a RPK or Israeli Heavy Barreled FAL and thinks “who to they compare with the BREN”?
The 1918 BAR is pretty much the definition of a real Man’s gun if you ask me.
Interesting! I’d heard about the “walking fire” nonsense, but never saw that specialized ammo belt with the cradle for the buttstock. May not be the stupidest idea to be spawned during WWI, but it’s certainly on the list.
I have a friend who collects ammo belts and buttstock cups. The cups are not easy to come by and collectors need to learn the difference between real and reproduction.
Firstly, the buttstock cups are an integral part of the belt. They are not an individual item. Secondly, who is making reproduction Gunner’s Belts? I have searched high and low and not found anyone making them.
Back to the article, the BAR was not an individual weapon. It was manned by a crew of 3: the gunner, who carried and fired the weapon, and 2 assistant gunners who carried service rifles and had special belts of their own (with 4 pockets for BAR magazines and 4 for rifle clips). The assistants also had magazine bandoliers that had 3 pockets each to carry even more magazines. By 1937, a new 6 pocket belt was developed as stocks of the WWI-era belts ran out, and they were issued to all 3 members of the BAR team to simplify logistics. This was the way the BAR was employed from its adoption to its replacemet in 1958 by the M60.
All .. In 1956-58 101st and 82nd Airborne we still had 1918A2, M1’s M2 carbines A6 Cal 30’s M3A1 “Grease Gun’s”. As a Cpl at 135lbs 19 yrs old of all paratrooper (I thought)the BAR was a BUGGER to hold and fire from the shoulder and hit anything at 100yds except in slow fire and 3 or 4 rd bursts. The bipod let me engage man size target out to 400+ yds accurately. One thing I noticed, like the old EF Hutten TV advertisements, “when the BAR speaks … Everybody listens!”. The BAR has a rather funny recoil (my opinion)that is a slow push rather than a slap. It looks cool until, like the .30 A6 you carry it and a full ammo belt with a 45lb pack for 20 or 30 miles. Trigger group is a nightmare to work on in the field. BUT the BAR is (in my opinion) one of the toughest and most accurate of weapons in this class. Do some research and you will find the BAR in Vietnamese Infantry units, and SF Camps in the early 60’s.
Donald Burgett wrote briefly about the BAR in one of his books. Burgett was in the 101st and advancing through France. He commented that he was glad the 101st did not have BARs because he thought they were too heavy and without the extra firepower to match that extra weight.
Gerard.. I believe that eventually during WW II, Korea and I know in Vietnam, the BAR was prized as a suppression fire weapon in the rifle squad. The BAR man would, upon contact try to provide heavy suppressive fire while rest of sqd maneuvered. Accurate suppressive fire require a stable platform; enter the bipod, which also keeps the weapon out of mud etc. Specific and first priority targets were always any identified enemy automatic weapons (bad news is; that works BOTH ways). This is what led us to a squad automatic weapon (the M14E2, which proved great in concept and theory, but not up to the job) SAW, the fine M240 and M249 we have in various configurations today.
Which reminds me of another memoir I read, THE LAST PARALLEL: A MARINE’S WAR JOURNAL by Martin Russ. At one point Russ stripped a lot of stuff off his BAR including his bipod and flash hider. If I recall correctly he was trying to save weight but I think he was also trying to be cool and customize the rifle. Shortly afterwards RUss was on a night patrol, got in a gunfight, and was blinded when he discovered the flash hider was intended to help the shooter as much as intended to hide from the enemy.
I’m not convinced of the BAR’s ability to maintain ‘heavy suppressive fire’. I was always surprised at how long the US stuck with the BAR. I doubt a nation without the industrial capacity of America, or the ability to operate at a larger company-level with all the supporting arms it entailed would have stuck with the weapon.
It could provide good cover for a short time, but yeah, not for an extended period.
Interestingly, Bob Faris (late collector of note) had examples of most every WWII-era machine gun (including an FN-D) but refused to ever own a 1918A2 BAR. He served as an armorer in Korea, and spent so much time replacing shot-out BAR barrels that he detested them for the rest of his life. Troops were forced to use them in the role of a 1919A4 or 1917 and the barrels simply couldn’t handle the volume of fire.
All .. The BAR was NEVER intended to be or provide “suppressive” fire .. it just developed into a weapon that could provide more “suppressive” than any other on line/in hand weapon. I would not recommend going up against a BAR at 300 yds with a K98, Type 99, and taking into account every squad could not carry a 1919A4 or later A6 .. the BAR was used. As for sustained fire .. that to was NEVER intended of the BAR. I personally have burned the barrel out of a A6 during a little scrap initiated by NVA and VC on a camp in Vin Den. You do; as did the Marines and Army in Korea; “use what you got” till you ain’t got no more. The least of one’s worries in such times is burned out barrels going to depot. In WW II and Korea A6’s and .50 M2’s BURNED UP BARRELS.
Which reminds me AGAIN of another memoir. I cannot recall the book title (may have been 100 MILES OF BAD ROAD by Dwight Birdwell) but the writer was in an armored unit and stationed near one of the airbases during the Tet Offensive. His unit was defending the airbase and alongside the perimeter fence and fighting the enemy in a neighborhood. The writer ended up burning his .50 barrel out so much that the rounds were just spreading out all over. He had to change the barrel while under fire and atop the tank because he could not hit his targets at all.
As amazing as the BAR concept was for WWI it was hopelessly outclassed by WWII. It weight as much as a Bren or MG 34, but had no quick changeable barrels and only a 20 round magazine. I think the only reason they kept it in service was that the M1919 was even heavier and the US lacked any decent high firepower option at the squad level otherwise.
And there we go… please see my comment above.
To understand this is to understand why the Battlecruiser vs Battleship never worked out either. Just to close not to be confused.
Hmm, and here I thought I was agreeing with your post. Oh well.
As for the battlecruiser concept, only the British version abandoning the “armored against its own main gun caliber” rule were a disaster (Jutland, Hood vs. Bismark). Other countries’ battlecruisers maintaining the balance preformed rather well.
Ok, I guess I can see how that would be agreeing with me even if you then draw a conclusion that I specifically say is not really fair since you are comparing the BAR, an Automatic rifle to the Bren and MG34 which are light MGs. However you were saying that the Automatic rifle has been outclassed by the Light MG. However it was never really meant to fill that role and so not really outclassed as they are not in the same class. Maybe there was no longer a role for them?
Really BAR and Chauchat should be view in precursor to the Assault rifle IMHO. Still a light an maneuverable gun but not to replace the squad level Light MG.
Good points on the BattleCruiser… Yes I was thinking the British ships. The Germans BattleCruisers really did take a lot of abuse!
Is it just me, or does Lt. Val Browning look a lot like Rand Paul?
Except I think Val Browning took sufficiently after his old man to actually design a gun or two…
Reading all your previous comments, I think that you are all correct. Just my two pfennigs’ ( pennies, cents, centavos? ) worth — the BAR was conceived, designed and built as a machine rifle, not a light machine gun. By coincidental timing, the BAR appeared when the French tactical concept of “walking fire” ( heavy suppressive fire at relatively close ranges from assault infantry, most or all of whom were to be equipped with light automatic or fast-firing weapons ) was embraced by the U.S. Army during World War One ( to be exact, 1917, the BAR following very shortly thereafter ). At that time, the typical LMG ( usually an abbreviated derivative of a water-cooled MMG or an air-cooled version thereof ) was too heavy to fulfill this tactical concept, and the infantry rifle and its variations did not have enough firepower. The machine rifle was seen as the ideal weapon for this role, a lightweight light machine gun, as it were, that bridged the gap between hand-held infantry rifles and supporting machine guns.
John Browning had developed the BAR in response to an open invitation from the Machine Gun Board for all and any kinds of machine guns, and showed up with the prototype version of the water-cooled M1917 .30-caliber MG as well as the prototype BAR. To quote Ian Hogg in his book “Machine Guns”, “Both weapons passed the test with flying colors, and since the automatic rifle appeared to be the answer to walking fire, 12000 were ordered forthwith”. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bipod or no bipod, the BAR was, and is, an excellent machine rifle, NOT a light machine gun. It was never designed to fulfill the latter role, nor was it ever expected to substitute for a true LMG. Having said that, the practical exigencies of war often resulted in a very different outcome. As Thomas has said, “( you ) use what you got” ; equally so, as Ian McCollum and others have pointed out, the BAR could not provide extended suppressive fire. The weapon was still capable of providing good suppressive fire over short to medium periods of time prior to barrel overheating ; as long as the infantry it was supporting were able to take advantage of that time window, it was effective in that role. However, many firefights involved situations where this could not happen, which exposed the BAR’s weakness in that respect. One wonders how different things might have been if the FN Type D BAR, with its quick-change barrel and other improvements, had been available for more prolonged suppressive fire in the same situations ( allowing for the fact that it was still magazine-fed, with all the limitations this implies, instead of being belt-fed ).
Certain factors that are clear, regardless of how the BAR was used or misused, are that it was a solidly-built, well-made gun with few, if any, vices. In spite of its intended role as a machine rifle, it actually was able to function to a limited extent as a successful LMG, which says a lot for its versatility. Again, as Thomas has pointed out, it was never intended to fulfill the role of ( extended ) suppressive fire, yet was capable of far more than the average infantry line weapon.
In that sense, the BAR was an excellent gun that was let down by the failure of military tacticians to define a satisfactory role for its usage. Yet, by sheer coincidence, its range of capabilities happened to admirably fill the niche, within certain limitations, for a squad support weapon within the confines of the U.S. Army’s TO & E during World War Two. The Browning 30-caliber M1919A4 and A6 MG’s were too large and heavy for this role, and there was little beyond the M1 Garand rifle at the other end of the spectrum. Intermediate automatic weapons that could potentially have fulfilled this same niche — such as the M1941 Johnson LMG — were rejected or subjected to limited service adoption due to a variety of factors, some practical, others merely political.
Dog-gone Earl .. sure wish I had said that!
PS: The BAR is amazingly accurate when fired (trigger manipulation and piston adjustment)in single shot at very long range(distance a man sized target can be seen, many a BAR rear sight peep hole was enlarged slightly by company armorers.
Hi, Thomas :
That’s a really interesting piece of information that you brought up. Was the enlargement of the rear sight aperture done in response to more effectively accommodate human targets at the typical battle ranges encountered in modern warfare ( 150-300 meters ), or was it just to improve the overall sight picture for the gunner?
Not positively sure when first done or by who. During weapons training in 82nd ABN (1958) our instructor (WW II & Korea vet)showed us a rat tail file and said “this is a trick learned back in WW II by the marines” He also said they did it on Springfield’s also. He then very slowly inserted the tip about 1/32 and rotated in slowly 3 times, then lamp blacked it. I applied to every BAR I ever had assigned to me (several in VN) and have done it to two of my Springfield 03 arms room clunkers I shoot for load testing .30 cal. Sure makes the sight picture easier to establish. I DO NOT recommend it for any ones else’s 03. It works for me, that’s all. PS: Earl ..NEVER had anyone ever notice it during any inspections either. Soldiers ingenuity. hahahahaha
Based on what you’re telling me, it appears that the standard aperture on the BAR’s rear sight, as made at the factory, was just a tiny bit undersized, and that this field modification fixed the problem for all-round battlefield utility. Many thanks for a great soldier’s field tip and additional historical background!
Just a short note, at the Browning Museum in Provost Utah they have numerous versions of the BAR. It should be noted that the original version was rejected as the ejection oof the cartridger cases was vertical and tended to hit the user if used in “SUSPRESSION OR WALKING FIRE” Mode. This gun is actually the second version. You should visit the MUSEUM and see the many designs of the BAR.
Eugene and all interested. One of the few problems with the adopted version of the BAR with it’s “closed receiver” (unlike the M1 Garand or M1 Carbine); and like the Johnson 1941 Semiautomatic Rifle and the M16 / M4 series weapons now, getting a “stove piped” round or “double feed” round cleared from the chamber/receiver area, which can be caused by several things; is a real show stopper when you can least afford it. A good design idea from the standpoint of keeping dirt, dust, mud etc. out but makes getting your fingers in to clear the problem really hard. Especially if at night, and your a “little nervous” due to current on going events taking place in your immediate area of concern!
After the october crisis in Quebec (1970) the federal government decided to destroy weapons held in government armeries. Included in this destruction were new unissued bars The destruction consisted of a vertical torch cut on the left side of the receiver but the barrel and bolt were untouched.The one I saw was in unissued condition and the walnt furniture was superb. It seems to me that it was stamped 1919.The price was 200cdn pretty high when a mk 111 sten with new barrel was only 60 cdn so I didn’t buy it
The BAR as a military light machine gun may have had some shortcomings,but think of the BAR as a civilian arm aboard a yacht, airplane, or motorcycle sidecar. More potent than a Thompson sub machine gun with more “firepower” than a conventional rifle. The Colt made model 1919 BAR sported a blued finish and checkered walnut stocks and fore ends,in .30-’06 and 7 MM Mauser,etc, with selective fire. Perfect for the well-heeled gentleman adventurer or the wealthy colonial planter in the wilder parts of the world in the 1920’s and 30’s. The Colt Monitor was a police version with a pistol grip used by the FBI and Texas Rangers and was offered a few years later. FN in Belgium produced BARs as well.
I have seen photos of the BAR in OD color. was that color done in the field or was it factory painted.
I use the BAR in combat back in the 70s. I got stuck with it because it was the last rifle in the rack when I got to the depot before deployment.That thing was heavy! Whe you have to walk all day long in the jungle, when even the soles of your boots become unbearable heavy, carrying a BAR with a full load of ammunition is like a punishment. I took the bipod off, went from carrying two canteens to just one. I did not carry anything other than the BAR and ammo. It was reliable, no recoil, OK sights, but not worth the trouble of carrying the heavy load. The other problem was the 20 round magazine. Even with the low rate of fire, it goes out quickly. About a month later I got a FAL rifle. I was so happy to ditch the BAR!