John Moses Browning was a genius — which is kinda like saying water is wet or snow is cold. It’s so blindingly self-evident, it really doesn’t need to be said. The operating mechanisms of his designs were revolutionary in their time, and continue to be used in modern firearm design today. Some of his masterworks continue unchanged (like the 1911 handgun), and others live on in the derivative designs of others. The Browning Automatic Rifle is one of those quintessential Browning designs that not only proved to be indispensable to soldiers in its day, but whose operating components would go on to form the basis for the main battle rifles still in use by some European countries in the 21st century. OK, so on with a little history lesson . . .
With World War I in full swing, the need for a lightweight, man-portable machine gun was becoming more and more critical. Browning had already designed one of the primary machine guns being used by the U.S. and allied forces (specifically, the M1895 Colt-Browning “Potato Digger”), but even that chunky, awkward tripod-mounted monstrosity was a svelte Swedish supermodel compared to the Vickers and Maxim machine guns that were the staple of the French trenches.
Machine guns were considered to be in the same category as a mortar crew or artillery battery, namely a fixed asset that was placed on the battlefield and then never moved. But when one attack after another broke through the enemy lines and then failed to hold the ground, they gained due to a lack of firepower, the generals decided that they needed a machine gun that could move with the troops as they advanced.
The Maxim gun weighed close to 60 pounds without ammo and water. It wasn’t going anywhere anytime fast, and generals needed something better. To that end, John Browning came up with two designs. The first was an air-cooled heavy machine gun, revolutionary in that it didn’t require a heavy water jacket and a constant stream of cold water to keep it functioning — the volume of water required for such a gun bogged down MG crews of the day.
The second design was the 16-pound Browning Automatic Rifle, a select fire rifle capable of being carried by a single soldier and deployed at a moment’s notice. It was the first firearm to fit the traditional definition of an “assault rifle.”
When Browning wanted to show his new designs off to the government, he organized a live fire demonstration in the heart of Washington, D.C. one cold February morning and invited congressmen and Army officials to witness his new machines. They were so impressed with the designs that Browning was awarded a contract to produce the guns for the military on the spot.
While other guns like the Thompson SMG would be introduced too late in the war to be distributed on the front lines, the Browning Automatic Rifle (officially designated the “Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning, M1918”) not only found its way to the American trenches but was credited as being a pivotal piece of equipment in one of the last battles of the war. Not only did it help the Allies, but one of the rifles was issued to John Browning’s son Val who was serving in the American infantry in France and demonstrated its abilities in action. The rifle impressed the troops and officers on the ground as much – if not more than – the politicians on that cold February morning, and the BAR was here to stay.
Between the wars, the BAR was sold to civilians and law enforcement alike. However, unlike the Thompson SMG it wasn’t used in significant quantities by mobsters and so never truly gained the same notoriety that its smaller cousin achieved.
While the BAR wasn’t in service long enough to make a significant dent in the Great War, it was downright pervasive in the big one. The Browning Automatic Rifle was issued as a squad level machine gun, meaning that small units now had the ability to form an effective base of fire while maneuvering and attacking the enemy. It gave the soldiers of WWII an advantage that they desperately needed in the previous war, and proved to be an extremely effective firearm. The BAR was so effective that it was still in active use when the Vietnam war heated up.
The eventual downfall of the BAR was its weight and cartridge choice. JMB chose the .30-06 Springfield cartridge for his gun because that was the primary caliber of choice for the U.S. soldiers in their M1903 Springfield rifles. Ammunition compatibility between the squad level guns meant that soldiers in the field could share ammo between each other when supplies started running low.
But while the .30-06 cartridge is a great round for killing enemy soldiers, it’s an extremely heavy and bulky cartridge. The largest magazine issued to the BAR crews was a 30-round magazine, and then only in anti-aircraft functions. Twenty-round magazines the size of waffles were the standard loadout, and the small capacity magazine combined with the heavy ammunition was just too much to carry. In addition, in order to fire that heavy and powerful ammunition, the gun needed to be over-engineered to take the strain of full-auto .30-06. That over-engineering led to a rifle that’s extremely overweight by today’s standards.
Sometime during the Vietnam War, the BAR was quietly replaced by the M60 machine gun. And the M60 was eventually replaced by the M240 and M249 series of squad-level machine guns. But for nearly 50 years, the BAR reigned supreme on the battlefield. And when you pick one up, you understand why.
Thanks to Kevin Brittingham, I had a chance to spend some quality time with a M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle recently. This improved version featured a bipod and a hinged buttplate as well as two rates of automatic fire to make the gun more manageable in full-auto mode and was in service starting around 1938 through to the end of the war.
The first thing you notice about the rifle is how goddamned big and heavy the thing is.
The BAR is not a small object. The barrel on the rifle is a good 24 inches, and the receiver adds even more length to the gun. All told, it’s damn near as big as my friend here. From simply toting it around a firing range for an hour, I have absolutely no idea how my forefathers lugged this thing across Europe.
While the gun is chunky, the weight also renders the recoil very manageable and makes the thing nearly indestructible. The gun was manufactured with the idea that it would see some heavy usage, and as a result the over-engineered parts of the gun are MASSIVE. The trigger alone on this gun is even chunkier than the bangswitch on SCAR rifles.
While the gun is big, the ergonomics are excellent. The carrying handle is perfectly placed such that the gun is balanced in the operator’s hand when being carried. And when in the firing position, the BAR handles like any other rifle of the time. The stock is perfectly shaped to give the shooter a good cheek weld and the handguard features a comfortable curve to fit your palm. The only ergonomic gripe I have about the gun is that the hinged buttplate doesn’t really work very well, but it doesn’t seem like very many people actually used it and the gun works just fine without it.
The bipod, however, is another story. This piece of kit comes from a time when bipods were still a new idea and it shows. Instead of the spring-loaded contraptions we have these days, the BAR’s bipod is deployed by fiddling with a series of wingnuts. It ain’t quick, and it definitely isn’t pretty. Still, it works.
Among the interesting features introduced on the firearm is the inclusion of a non-reciprocating charging handle, something other makers still haven’t quite grasped a century later. The charging handle also features a nicely curved knob, but it doesn’t give the shooter quite enough to hold onto in my opinion. During our session, we had a situation where I fired a burst and the gun jammed slightly out of battery with a round in the chamber. We tried the usual tricks, namely bashing the butt of the gun on the ground while pulling the handle, but there wasn’t enough to grab in order to get the leverage we needed. Eventually a screwdriver was employed to remove the malformed round (lovely Israeli surplus stuff, slightly corroded), but it showed a weakness in the design that could be deadly on the battlefield.
While we’re on this side of the gun, there are two more things I’d like to point out. First are the takedown pins on the side of the receiver which are held in place by some dimples in the metal. Swiveling those takedown pins allows the trigger group and handguard to slide free, leading to a quick and easy field strip, should the need arise. However, disassembling the gun any further is an absolute nightmare. I’ve seen it done once and I don’t want to try it.
One of the more interesting features of the A2 is that it came with two rates of fire, a “slow” and “fast” full-auto mode. A single selector switch allowed the gun to move from “safe” to either of those modes and there was an interesting addition of a pin that popped out and kept the selector from moving either off safe or onto safe by accident. In order to take the gun off safe, you need to depress that pin first. it’s an interesting addition and one definitely well thought-out for battlefield usage.
Also of note is the magazine release. The button to release the magazine was housed inside the trigger guard, on the side closest to the magazine. If it were introduced today, there’s no doubt that placing the magazine release inside the trigger guard would ruffle some feathers. But that’s where Browning put it and it made sense given how the magazine catch mechanism works.
Enough stalling, though, let’s talk about the operating mechanism.
There were many firearms to use a tilting breech locking mechanism prior to the BAR, but this gun brought it to a whole new level.
The gun fired from an open bolt (to keep the parts simple and allow air to circulate and cool the barrel), meaning that the firing pin was fixed and impacted the primer as soon as the breech was closed. But while the Thompson SMG could simply use a friction-delayed straight blowback design, the raw power of the .30-06 cartridge meant that the breech needed to remain closed until the bullet was well down the barrel and the chamber pressure had dropped.To keep the chamber closed, Browning adapted a tilting breech block system to keep the bolt closed until the conditions were right.
If you look closely at the bolt, you’ll notice what looks like a cam about halfway down the side of the bolt. This cam is attached to a piece of metal that rises up into the hump just to the rear of the ejection port and locks the bolt in place. After the bolt is locked, the force of the pressure in the barrel can no longer force it open again. You can see this movement very clearly in the slow motion part of the video, above. Interesting side note: this action eventually developed into the operating system for the FN FAL which has been called the right hand of the free world and is one of the most-produced firearms in history.
So that locked the breach, but there was a problem. The gun needed a second system to sense when it was safe to move the bolt backwards and to provide the power to cycle the action.
To make that happen, Browning adapted the gas system from the Colt-Browning machine gun to be a closed system instead of the open, trench-digging abomination that was his first attempt. The closed system used a long-stroke piston to cycle the action, pushing it all the way to the back of the receiver before allowing the bolt to move forward. It was one of the first times that such a gas system had been designed, and the success of the gun was so great that John C. Garand copied the idea for his M1 Garand rifle. The BAR was also one of the first guns to have an adjustable gas system that could be tuned to decrease the wear on the gun from heavier loads of ammunition and make the gun cycle properly even in adverse conditions.
While the gun was designed for a suppressing fire role, it came equipped with some killer sights, too. The ladder sights used on the gun are calibrated in hundreds of yards, with markings out as far as 1,500 yards. The shooter could choose to use the gun while looking down a peep sight or he could lay the ladder down along the receiver and use a notch cut in the top as a rear sight instead.
When firing, even with the weight of the gun and the gas operating system, the gun doesn’t want to stay on target for more than three rounds. The trigger is very heavy and while the first shot always seems to be on target the subsequent two don’t seem to land anywhere close. It makes the gun great for suppressing fire (where the object is simply to keep the enemy’s heads down while you advance), but for hitting targets at distance, it doesn’t seem all that useful. The recoil is simply too heavy to keep it on target for any period of time.
While the gun is heavy and hard to control, there’s no doubt that it is absolutely beautiful. The sleek lines of the receiver are stunning and the original parkerized finish is soft to the touch. It’s a work of ballistic art, for sure. And one that won WWII.
Browning Automatic Rifle
Caliber: .30-06 Sprg.
Weight: 16 lbs. empty
Operation: Long stroke gas piston
Capacity: 20 / 30 round box magazine
MSRP: around $10,000
Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
All ratings are relative compared to the other weapons in the gun’s category.
Accuracy: * *
First round always seems to find the target. After that all bets are off.
Ergonomics: * *
Heavy. Big. Uncomfortable shoulder thing that goes up. In short, not at all ergonomic.
Ergonomics Firing: * * * *
Recoil is pleasant, but the trigger is a touch heavy.
No. Just no.
Overall Rating: * * *
There’s no doubt that the BAR is a work of art, both aesthetically and mechanically. But there’s no way I’d want to carry this thing around a battlefield.