John M. Browning and America’s Guns of WWI

John M. Browning poses with his early water-cooled Model 1917 .30 caliber machine gun. It became the basis of many US machine gun variants used on land, sea and in the air during WWI, WWII, Korea, and even up to the early days of the Vietnam conflict. Browning Archives photo.

Looking Back 100 Years to the Dawn of the Doughboys Going “Over There” - Americans Arrive in France in the Summer of 1917.

The last of America’s Doughboys – the veterans of the WWI conflict (then called the “Great War” and the “War to End All Wars”) have all passed on now, as have so many of the proud vets of WWII, the global war that followed WWI only a quarter century later. Fortunately, the rich history of their skill at arms, and many of the arms themselves, are still with us. 

General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in WWI. Wikipedia photo.

One of names that appears again and again in that era is that of John M. Browning, America’s most prolific and innovative gun designer. It was during the period just before and during WWI that Mr. Browning made some of his greatest contributions to the safety and national security of America by focusing his inventive genius on military firearm design.

It was the summer of 1917, and US Army General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing had just landed in France along with the first contingent of US troops that made up the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to assist the French and British military forces in repulsing the invading army of Imperial Germany. 

Pancho Villa, circa 1916. Library of Congress photo.

As in most of our wars, the first US troops to enter the combat zone were equipped with whatever weapons available when the balloon went up, and they were trained in the tactics of previous conflicts. In this case many of the American’s weapons and tactics dated back to the Spanish American War of 1898, and were used when chasing the militant bandit Pancho Villa across Northern Mexico in 1916.

The primary infantry rifle of the US forces early in the conflict was the bolt-action Model 1903 Springfield chambered in .30-06. As America mobilized an army soon to number more than a million men, the Springfield was in short supply. Thus the 1914 Enfield pattern rifle then being produced in the USA for England was reworked to handle the .30-06 cartridge and was soon designated the US Model 1917 Enfield. This Enfield became the most common infantry rifle used by Americans during WWI.

The John M. Browning-designed Model 1911 autoloading pistol in .45 ACP. Browning Archives photo.

Sidearms for the US Doughboys and Devil Dogs were a mixed lot. Foremost among them was the new John M. Browning-designed Model 1911 autoloading pistol in .45 ACP. The combo of a fast-shooting pistol combined with a large caliber, heavy bullet was a potent fight stopper when it was adopted in 1911, and it demonstrated that power again in 1917. (After more than a century the 1911 pistol in .45 ACP is still considered the finest fighting handgun and ammo combo ever created.)

Predictably, as this new military automatic pistol was also in short supply, existing .45 caliber double-action revolver designs were quickly pressed into service. These stop-gap wheelguns were designed to fire either the .45 ACP using spring steel “half-moon” cartridge clips or a rimed version of the same cartridge, the .45 Auto Rim.

This WWI-era “trench broom” is the John M. Browning-designed Model 1897 pump shotgun built by Winchester. Browning Archives photo.

US Army Lt. Val Browning, eldest son of the famous gun inventor, demonstrates the Browning Model 1917 water-cooled machine gun to fellow Army officers somewhere in France during WWI. Note the sewn fabric ammo belt that held the .30-60 cartridges. US Army Signal Corps photo from the Browning Archives.

The Americans also made good use of short-barreled pump shotguns which became informally known as “trench brooms” due to their effectiveness in cleaning out captured trench works of enemy soldiers during raids and assaults. Among the most popular of these was the John M. Browning-designed Model 1897 built by Winchester.

These imposing pump guns were fitted with a perforated metal heat shield over the barrel and a lug for mounting the standard 16” Springfield rifle bayonet. They proved so demoralizing to the enemy that the Imperial German Government even lodged a formal international complaint, calling them inhumane. (Since the Germans had also been the first to use poison gas in combat during WWI, their pious complaint about shotgun-wielding US troops was simply ignored.)

In the area of machine guns, sadly the US military was both ill-prepared and woefully under-equipped to fight a modern war. At the time of the US entry into the war in early 1917, our military had at best a few hundred mostly obsolete machine guns of various types in inventory. Facing the US Doughboys and Devil Dogs was a determined and capable enemy possessing tens of thousands of heavy machine guns, all manned by experienced crews who had been dealing with the horror of bloody trench warfare for almost three years.

 

By the end of the war in late 1918 the US inventory had grown to more than 50,000 heavy machine guns (generally considered as machine guns that were crew-served and mounted on a tripod). Many military experts of the time considered that one good machine gun crew was capable of producing the same firepower as 100 or more infantry riflemen.

Enjoying a lull in combat during WWI, this Allied machine gun squad takes a short break in their trench. Note the wooden ammo crates and the water tanks, pumps and hoses used to keep the gun’s barrel cool during sustained firing. Wikicommons photo.

The most effective US machine gun of the period was the John M. Browning-designed Model 1917, a water-cooled gun capable of sustained bursts of fire that proved to be extremely reliable under the muddy conditions of trench warfare. The typical American machine gun crew consisted of four to six men: the gunner, the assistant gunner, a “pumper” who used a hand-operated pump with hoses and a water can to keep a constant flow of liquid going to help cool the barrel, along with one or more men to carry the tripod and the numerous heavy wooden crates of fabric-belted ammunition. 

The typical WWI-era tank was slow, ungainly and under-gunned. It was also a preview of things to come. Shown here is a young Lt. Col. George S. Patton in WWI. He would later command many of the Allied tank battles in Europe during WWII. US Army Signal Corps photo.

Determined to win the struggle and destroy their enemy, both sides searched for ways to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Poison gas, aerial bombardment, massed artillery barrages followed by human wave infantry charges all proved imperfect solutions to the problem.

One of the technological solutions developed by the British to breach enemy trenches was a motorized metal-tracked contraption called the “tank.” They were so named because the cover story used during their secret development and construction was they were simply big metal water tanks.

John M. Browning personally test fires a prototype of the .50 Browning Heavy Machine Gun. Browning Archives photo.

Underpowered, ungainly and unbearably noisy and hot inside, these early tanks did have one great battlefield advantage. They proved to be nearly impervious to the fire from infantry rifles and machine guns.

As the saying goes, if you have a harder nut to crack, you need to find a bigger hammer and that’s exactly what General Pershing did. He asked Army Ordinance and John M. Browning to come up with a heavy machine gun and a cartridge that could punch a hole in the armor plates of these early combat vehicles.

John M. Browning quickly set to work scaling up his Model 1917 .30 caliber machine gun to a full half-inch bore diameter, and very soon the mighty .50 Browning M2 Heavy Machine Gun was born. Mr. Browning personally test fired prototypes in Colt’s cow pasture late in 1918.

Lt. Val Browning demonstrates the Browning Automatic Rifle Model 1918 somewhere in France during the summer of 1918. US Army Signal Corps photo from the Browning Archives.

As so often happens in military and industrial history, the big .50 Browning was just a bit too late getting into mass production to take a crack at those early German tanks. However, just 25 years later hundreds of thousands of .50 caliber Browning M2s would see service with US and Allied forces on the land, sea and in the air in every theatre of WWII. It was a total game-changer back then, and it remains in front line military service with the US and her allies today.

 

While the Browning name became closely associated with heavy machine guns during WWI, it was an innovative fully-automatic shoulder weapon that could be carried and fired by an individual soldier during an infantry assault that took its name directly from the famous inventor. This gun was the Browning Automatic Rifle…the now famous BAR.

John M. Browning actually started working on the design of the BAR about the time of the US entry into WWI. Mr. Browning was famous for “burning the midnight oil” to get a new gun design into production. From initial sketches to a working model took Browning only a few months. The demonstration of the BAR for military brass and members of Congress in 1917 was a huge success and it was immediately recommended for adoption and mass production.

Again, as often happens in military and industrial history, totally new firearm designs may suffer major challenges as they move into mass production, especially when several different companies are making the same gun in vastly different locations. And so it was with the BAR. Fortunately, these teething problems during mass production were soon worked out, often by Mr. Browning himself working alongside the engineers and machinists at each defense factory.

“Interestingly, (the BAR) was first demonstrated in France by Lt. Val Browning, the inventor’s son,” notes military historian Bruce Canfield. “After familiarization and training, the BAR began to be issued to front line troops and used in actual combat. The first recorded U.S. Army use of the BAR in combat was on September 12, 1918, in the hands of the 79th Infantry Division. The BAR immediately proved to be an unqualified success as a combat arm.”

The fighting in Europe ended at 11:00 o’clock on November 11, 1918. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns finally fell silent…at least for a time.

But that’s another story for another day…

Looking back, history has shown that much of the American military success on the ground in WWI, and on the land, sea, and air during WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and even up to the present day, can be traced directly back to the small arms designed and refined by John M. Browning.

And that’s a lasting legacy all Americans can all be proud of.

Today’s Sporting BAR – Celebrating 100 Years of Browning Innovation

While original military BARs are few and far between these days, the modern sporting BAR from Browning is readily available at your local Browning dealer.

A product of the inventive genius of Bruce Browning, John M.’s grandson and the 4th generation of Browning gun designers, today’s sporting BAR is magnum cartridge capable, highly accurate, soft recoiling and relentlessly reliable. Just like the one Bruce’s grandpa designed about 100 years ago.

You can learn more about the modern sporting BAR when you stop by and handle one for yourself at your local Browning retailer.

A special 100th Anniversary BAR

A highly embellished BAR Safari Mk II celebrating the first 100 years of the great 30-06 cartridge. First developed as a military cartridge, and quickly accepted as an all-around big game cartridge. These rifles have highly embellished nickel-plated receivers with gold enhancement commemorating the 30-06’s military origins and its roots in hunting. The buttstock and forearm are Grade 3 Turkish Walnut with skip-line checkering and an oil finish.   

Photos are copyright Browning Archives, Browning Arms and/or used with attribution or permission or are in the public domain. Review was written by Browning staff writer Scott Engen. Copyright Browning 2017.