There are many positive things to say about the American Republic —along with a few deserved criticisms. One of my criticisms is that we Americans seem never to learn important lessons from history —so we are continually forced to relearn them. This relearning process is too often painful for our nation —for its complex society. Maybe one day we’ll smarten up, but I’m not holding my breath.
Speaking of lessons unlearned, given their experience with the British Army the founding fathers were distrustful of standing armies. I find this odd because the British Army’s presence within the thirteen colonies prevented hostile attacks against British settlements. Years later, at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, observing how the American militia cut and run when confronted with a well-trained British Army, President James Madison remarked, “I could never have believed so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”
Our reliance on state or federal militia to defend our homeland was one of those unlearned lessons. War is not for amateurs. Federalized state militias during the American Civil War were not much of an improvement over the Revolutionary War minute men. History shows us, too, that finding enough resources to fight a war against Spain in Cuba was very close to becoming an unmitigated disaster. There was only one combat force ready for war in 1898; the U. S. Marine Corps was able to field a single (reinforced) battalion —one that was engaged with the enemy before the Army figured out which of its senior officers was in charge. Who knows how many horses drowned because the Army couldn’t figure out how to unload them from transport ships and get them to shore.
The United States was still unprepared for combat service at the beginning of the First World War. Politicians —those geniuses in Washington— had little interest in creating and maintaining a standing armed force. Worse, our military leaders were incompetent and complacent, and as a result of this, the US military lacked modern weapons. When Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, the American army was forced to rely on weapons provided by Great Britain and France. It wasn’t that the United States had no weapons, only that our arsenal was a mishmash of firearms requiring an assortment of munitions that were both inadequate and inefficient for the demands of general war. In particular, the United States arsenal included ten different revolvers of varying calibers, 12 rifles of foreign and domestic manufacture, and six variants of automatic weapons/machine guns.
The world’s first rapid-fire weapon was the brainchild of James Puckle (1667-1724), a British inventor, a lawyer, and a writer, who in 1718 invented a multi-shot gun mounted on a wheeled stand capable of firing nine rounds per minute. The Puckle Gun consisted of six flintlock barrels, operated manually by a crew. The barrel was roughly three feet long with a bore measuring 1.25 inches (32mm). The weapon was hand loaded with powder and shot while detached from its base. To my knowledge, this device was never used in combat.
Today, we classify machine guns as either light, medium, or heavy weapons. The light machine gun (with bipod for stability) is usually operated by a single soldier. It has a box-like magazine and is chambered for small caliber, intermediate power ammunition. Medium machine guns are general purpose weapons that are belt-fed, mounted on bi-or tripods, and fired using full power ammunition. The term “heavy machine gun” may refer to water-cooled, belt-fed weapons, operated by a machine gun team, and mounted on a tripod (classified as heavy due to its weight), or machine guns chambered for high-powered ammunition. Heavy machine gun ammunition is of larger caliber than that used by light and medium guns, usually .50 caliber or 12.7mm.
One example of America’s use of rapid-fire weapons was the weapon designed by Richard J. Gatling in 1861, which seems to follow the Puckle design. Called the Gatling Gun, it was the forerunner of the modern machine gun (and of modern electric motor-driven rotary guns and cannons). It saw only occasional use during the American Civil War, and only sporadic use through 1911. It was not an easily transportable weapon.
Wide use of rapid-fire (machine) guns changed the tactics and strategies of warfare. Magazine or belt fed ammunition gave opposing armies substantial increases in fire power. No longer could soldiers advance in a frontal assault without incurring massive casualties, which then led to trench warfare. Machine guns would never have been possible without advances in ammunition —a shift away from muzzle loading single-shot weapons to cartridges that contain the round, propellant, and means of ignition.
The first recoil-operated rapid-fire weapon was the creation of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, a British-American inventor. The Maxim gun was used by the British in several colonial wars between 1886-1914. Maxim’s work led to research and development by Hotchkiss, Lewis, Browning, Rasmussen, Mauser, and others.
First World War
The only machine guns available to the United States at the beginning of World War I were the Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié, the Chauchat M1915, M1918 (pronounced Show-sha), which was a light machine gun made in France, Belgium, and Poland, the Colt-Vickers (called the potato digger) was a British water-cooled .303 caliber gun, the Hotchkiss 1914, and the Lewis gun. While the Lewis gun was designed in the United States in 1911, no one in the Army’s Ordnance Department was much interested in it, which caused inventor Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis to seek license for its production in the United Kingdom in 1914.
Some of these machine guns were more dependable than others; they are, after all, only machines. But one consequence of faulty weapons was the needless combat-related deaths of many young men, whose weapons failed to work at critical moments. Whenever combat troops lose confidence in their weapons, they become less aggressive in combat; they lose their determination to win —they lose battles.
America’s War Department in 1914 was inept. Not only were the Army’s senior leader’s incompetent, the entire organization was ill-prepared to carry out the will of Congress. Of course, the Congress might have taken note of these conditions before declaring war on Germany in 1917, but it didn’t. Before America could go to war, it was necessary to increase the size of the Army through conscription, complete re-armament was necessary, and massive amounts of spending was required to satisfy the needs of general war. Until that could happen, until war technology could be developed, the American soldier and Marine would have to make do with French and British armaments.
In 1917, John Browning personally delivered to the War Department two types of automatic weapons, complete with plans and detailed manufacturing specifications. One of these weapons was a water-cooled machine gun; the other a shoulder fired automatic rifle known then as the Browning Machine Rifle (BMR). Both weapons were chambered for the US standard 30.06 cartridge. After an initial demonstration of the weapons capabilities with the US Army Ordnance Department, a second public demonstration was scheduled in south Washington DC, at a place called Congress Heights.
On 27 February 1917, the Army staged a live-fire demonstration that so impressed senior military officers, members of Congress, and the press, that Browning was immediately awarded a contract for the production of the BMR and was favored with the Army’s willingness to conduct additional tests on the Browning machine gun.
In May 1917, the US Army Ordnance Department began this additional testing of the machine gun at the Springfield Armory. At the conclusion of these tests, the Army recommended immediate adoption of Browning’s weapon. To avoid confusing the two Browning automatic weapons, the rifle became known as the M1917 Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning. Over time, the weapon was referred to as simply the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR.
What was needed then was a company capable of producing the weapons in the quantities needed to arm a field army —which is to say, three infantry corps, each consisting of three infantry divisions, each of those having three regiments, and each regiment consisting of three infantry battalions. It would be a massive undertaking. Since the Colt Firearms Company was already under contract to produce the Vickers machine gun for the British Army, Winchester Repeating Arms Company was designated the project’s primary manufacturer. Winchester, after providing invaluable service to Browning and the Army in refining the final design to the BAR, re-tooled its factory for mass production. One example of Winchester’s contribution was the redesign of the ejection port, which was changed to expel casings to the left rather than straight up.
The BAR began arriving in France in July 1918; the first to receive them was the US 79th Infantry Division. The weapon first went into combat against German troops in mid-September. The weapon had a devastating impact on the Germans —so much so that France and Great Britain ordered more than 20,000 BARs.
The Marines, always considered the red-headed stepchildren of the U. S. Armed Forces, now serving alongside US Army infantry units, were never slated to receive these new weapons. Undaunted, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment developed a bartering system with co-located units of the 36th Infantry Division. The Marines traded their Chauchats to the soldiers in exchange for the new BAR. Given what I know of the average Marine’s ability to scavenge needed or desired resources, I have no doubt that the Marines were able to convince the doggies that one day, the soldiers would be able to retain the French guns as war souvenirs, whereas the BARs would have to be surrendered after the war. Unhappily for the Marines, senior Army officers learned of this arrangement and the Marines were ordered to surrender the BARs and take back their Chauchats.
The BAR was retained in continual use by the US Armed Forces (less the Air Force, of course) from 1918 to the mid-1970s. The BAR’s service history includes World War I, Spanish Civil War, World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War, Indonesian Revolution, Korean War, Palestinian Civil War, First Indochina War, Algerian War, and in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cyprus, and the Thai-Laotian Border War.
The BMG and BAR were not Browning’s only accomplishments.
John Moses Browning was born into a Mormon family on 23 January 1855. His father, Jonathan, was among literally thousands of Mormon pioneers that made their exodus from Illinois to Utah. The elder Browning established a gun shop in Ogden in1852. As a Mormon in good standing, Jonathan had three wives and fathered 22 children.
John Browning began working in his father’s gun shop at around the age of seven where he learned basic engineering and manufacturing principles, and where his father encouraged him to experiment with new concepts. He developed his first rifle in 1878 and soon after founded the company that would become the Browning Arms Company. In partnership with Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Browning developed rifles and shotguns, from the falling block single shot 1885 to the Winchester Model 1886, Model 1895, the Model 1897 pump shotgun, and Remington Model 8. He also developed cartridges that were superior to other firearm company designs.
Browning Arms Company is responsible for the M1899/1900 .32 ACP pistol, M1900 .38 ACP, M1902 .38 ACP, M1903 Pocket Hammer .38 ACP, M1903 9mm Browning Long, M1903 Pocket Hammerless .32 ACP, M1906/08 Vest Pocket .25 ACP, M1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP, the US M1911A1 .45 ACP, Browning Hi-Power 9mm Parabellum, the Colt Woodsman .22 long rifle, and BDA handguns in .38 and .45 ACP. He developed ten variants of shotgun, eleven rifles, six machine guns, and was awarded 128 patents.
What it takes to win battles is reliable weapons expertly employed against the enemy. John Browning gave us expertly designed, quality manufactured weapons to win battles.
We no longer rely on state militias to fight our wars, but we have taken a turn toward including more reserve organizations in our poorly chosen fights. The US also has, today, a robust weapons development program to give our Armed Forces a battlefield advantage. Despite past failures in providing our frontline troops quality weapons, the US Marines have always succeeded against our enemies with the weapons at their disposal. Occasionally, even entrenching tools were used with telling effect against the enemy.
If American Marines have learned anything at all about warfare since 1775, it is that success in battle depends on never taking a knife to a gunfight.
- Borth, C. Masters of Mass Production. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945.
- Browning, J. and Curt Gentry. John M. Browning: American Gunmaker. New York: Doubleday, 1964.
- Gilman, D. C., and H. T. Peck (et.al.), eds. New International Encyclopedia. New York: Dodd-Mead.
- Miller, D. The History of Browning Firearms. Globe-Pequot, 2008.
- Willbanks, J. H. Machine guns: An Illustrated History of their Impact. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
 Benjamin B. Hotchkiss (1826-1885) was an American who, after the American Civil War, with the US government little interested in funding new weapons, moved to France and set up a munitions factory he named Hotchkiss et Cie.
 Julius A. Rasmussen and Theodor Schouboe designed a machine gun that was adopted by the Danish Minister of War, whose name was Colonel Wilhelm Herman Oluf Madsen. They called it the Madsen Machine Gun.
 The invention of Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911 that was based on the initial work of Samuel Maclean. The US Army’s ordnance department was not interested in the Lewis Gun because of differences between the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier and Colonel Lewis.
 Larceny has been a Marine Corps tradition since the 1890s. During World War II, Marines were known to steal hospital sheets from adjacent Navy hospitals, make “captured Japanese flags” out of them, and sell them to sailors and soldiers as war souvenirs. During the Vietnam War, anything belonging to the Army or Navy that was not tied down and guarded 24-hours a day was liable to end up on a Marine Corps compound. In 1976, three Marines were court-martialed for stealing two (2) Army 6×6 trucks, attempting to conceal the thefts by repainting the trucks and assigning them fraudulent vehicle ID numbers. In 1976, our Marines were still driving trucks from the Korean and Vietnam War periods. Despite overwhelming evidence that these three Marines were guilty as hell, a court-martial board consisting of five Marine officers and a Navy lieutenant, acquitted them. Apparently, no one sitting as a member of the court thought it was wrong to steal from the Army.
 Franklin Roosevelt’s “lend-lease” program provided thousands of US made weapons to the Communist Chinese Army during World War II. The Communists under Mao Zedong hid these weapons away until after Japan’s defeat, and then used them to good advantage against the Chinese Nationalists. Some of these weapons were used against American soldiers and Marines during the brief “occupation” of China following World War II. The United States government continues to arm potential enemies of the United States, which in my view is a criminal act.