The Great War and the Model of 1917 Machine Gun – It Was Called Mr. Browning’s Gun.

A John Moses Browning Moment in History Article.

The 100th Anniversary of the US entry into WWI.

As we remember the 100th anniversary of the US entry into The Great War and The War to End All Wars - the brutal conflict we now refer to as WWI – we should also recall the contributions of America’s most prolific and capable firearms designer, John M. Browning.

In the October 2017 issue of the NRA American Rifleman magazine, the noted writer and military historian Bruce N. Canfield explores in brilliant detail the development and deployment of the US Model of 1917 machine gun, that famous belt-fed, water-cooled Browning .30 caliber that became the basis for numerous evolutions and refinements, guns that soldiered on in the US and Allied military inventories for the next half-century. 

The US Model 1917 Browning machine gun. NRA photo.

Mr. Browning had developed his first gas-operated, belt-fed machine gun in the early 1890s, called the Model of 1895. While manufactured by Colt and procured in relatively small numbers by the US military, as the clouds of war gathered in Europe, America soon realized she had only a handful of serviceable machine guns to equip an army that would soon number in the millions.

“As America’s entry into the war became increasingly likely, however, (Mr. Browning) began renewed development of his new machine gun design,” Canfield writes. “In early May 1917, a prototype Browning water-cooled gun was ready to be tested alongside a number of other machine guns — of both foreign and domestic design — in trials held at Springfield Armory. The Browning’s initial test results showed a great deal of promise, and the inventor continued further refinement of the gun.”

New England Westinghouse tooled up to make M1917 Brownings, and on May 10, 1918, these guns awaited shipment to the U.S. Army and were soon bound for France. NRA photo.

An impressive live-fire demonstration for political leaders, military brass and the press was conducted near Washington, DC in early 1918. Because the barrel of the Browning gun was water-cooled, it could be fired for longer periods without building up the excessive heat that was (and remains) the bane of all rapid firing guns.

Inventor John Moses Browning’s son, Lt. Val Browning (r.) instructed soldiers on the use of his father’s Model 1917 machine gun in France, on October 5, 1918. NRA photo.

“Additional testing was conducted and continued to validate the gun’s impressive performance, and it was subsequently adopted as the ‘Machine Gun, Browning, .30 Caliber, Model of 1917,’ Canfield continues. “The first Model of 1917 machine guns were sent to France and demonstrated to American and Allied officers on June 29, 1918.” 

An American morale poster from the WWI era showing a somewhat stylized Model 1917. NRA image.

It’s of special note that one of the young officers assigned to train American and Allied troops on the use of this gun was Lt. Val A. Browning, the inventor’s own son. Knowing the details of the gun’s operation almost as well has his father, Lt. Browning was in a unique position to assist US machine gun teams getting up to speed in the closing days of WWI.

“Although 30,582 Model 1917 Browning machine guns were sent to France during the war, only 1,168 actually made it to the front lines to see combat service prior to the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918,” Canfield reveals. “The first recorded combat use occurred on September 26, 1918, in the hands of Doughboys from the U.S. Army’s 78th Division. 

The Model 1917 Browning machine gun on a Model 1917 tripod. Note the condensing hose attached to the gun’s water jacket which prevented any steam from escaping that might reveal the gun crew’s position to the enemy. NRA photo.

As was typical of the trench warfare in that conflict, environmental conditions were brutal when trying to keep guns and other gear working. According to Canfield’s article “The condition of the ground on these five days was very muddy, and considerable grit and other foreign material got into the working parts of the gun,” stated one post-operational report to US General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. “The guns became rusty on the outside due to the rain and wet weather, but in every instance when the guns were called upon to fire, they fired perfectly.”

USMC hero John Basilone won the Medal of Honor manning his Model 1917A1 Browning during the fierce fighting on Guadalcanal in early WWII. Gunny Basilone would later give is life in combat on Iwo Jima.

According to Canfield, another senior American Army officer, Gen. Hunter Liggett, praised the Model 1917 Browning in his post-war memoirs, in which he opined: “The American Army used the Hotchkiss bought from the French, until our Brownings arrived. The Browning was the most dependable and foolproof of all—French, German or British…and the best machine gun that appeared in the war.”

“Given the Browning’s stellar performance in World War I, it remained the standard infantry machine gun in U.S. military service throughout the post-World War I period,” Canfield states. “In the late 1930s, a slightly modified variant, the Model 1917A1, was adopted. Most of the existing Model 1917s were updated to the M1917A1 configuration. These guns subsequently saw widespread use during World War II in all theaters. They proved their mettle on many battlefields, and were particularly effective against…massed infantry charges in the Pacific.”

 

 

The .30 Browning design in many forms and variations was widely used on combat aircraft, naval craft and with infantry, armor and other ground units by the US and her allies during WWII, the Korean War and even into the early days of Vietnam.

“The .30-cal. water-cooled Browning was heavy and cumbersome…” Canfield concludes. “When mounted on its sturdy tripod in a defensive position, though, it was a rock-solid arm with tremendous firepower and amazing reliability. It has been called the best machine gun of all time.…Like the old saying goes, ‘it doesn’t take long to call the roll.’”

You can read this entire outstanding NRA American Rifleman article by Bruce Canfield a

https://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/2017/9/27/mr-browning-s-gun-the-us-model-of-1917-browning-machine-gun/

Photos are copyright Browning and/or used with attribution or permission or are in the public domain. Written by Browning staff writer Scott Engen. Copyright Browning 2017.