We’ve noted here before that civilian JOHN MOSES BROWNING (reverent hush) was the Albert Einstein of small arms development, so we’ll set that part of the story aside.
One of his most famous and enduring creations has been the Caliber .50 M2 HB Machine Gun, more commonly known as the Browning Ma Deuce or the "Fifty Cal". Anyone referring to the odious M60 7.62mm machine gun as the “Sixty Cal”, however, needs to be immediately bitch slapped.
Anyhow, the Ma Deuce has been around a long time. Browning essentially built the gun around the .50-BMG cartridge, now officially known as the 12.7x99mm NATO, in response to General Black Jack Pershing’s desire for a heavy anti-aircraft and anti-tank gun in WWI. A hurriedly produced prototype was actually revealed in 1918, in less time than it takes for the modern military-industrial complex to decide upon what type of coffee to serve in the conference room. It worked, but it was a rush war-time project. For instance, Browning called for a 36-inch or longer barrel but, at the time, Winchester could only rifle a 30-inch barrel. (The current Ma Deuce has a 45-inch barrel.) A standardized version with upgrades became the short-lived M1921 anti-aircraft machine gun. More upgrades led to the legend as we now know it being born and standardized for U.S. military service in 1933 as the M2 in three different versions—water-cooled and air-cooled heavy barrel ground machine guns and an aircraft model. The rest, as they say is history.
The Ma Duece was used as an infantry weapon from the tripod. It was used as a fixed main armament in fighter-bomber aircraft (P-40, P-51, P-47, P-38, Sabre jet, etc.) and as a flexible mounted weapon in various bombers, up to and including the tail “stinger” in the B52 Stratofortress. It saw use as an anti-aircraft weapon in various ground, vehicle, and naval mounts. It armed a variety of wheeled and tracked vehicles, boats and ships. It was even used as a sniper weapon. It became the standard heavy machine gun for just about every Cold War nation outside of the Soviet sphere of influence, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. It is still manufactured in several countries and still in use all over the world.
If it works so well, WHY FIX IT? Well, mainly because, as always, the Army thinks gadgetry can replace proper training and practice.
While the Ma Duece is legendary for its reliability and robustness, it has one problem that is the main cause of damage to the weapon; failure to set headspace and timing after changing barrels. The only other way to hurt it is to drop a bomb on it.
Heavy MG barrels get hot after sustained firing of that big-ass .50-BMG round. Browning took that into account with a barrel which could be changed rapidly. However, after changing the barrel, one needs to properly set the headspace and timing. This requires use of a “Go” “No-Go” headspace gage and two “Fire” “No Fire” timing gages. They are all attached together by a little chain and one comes with every gun. In a real emergency situation, the gun can be head-spaced by screwing the new barrel all the way in and backing it off two clicks. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. I was trained in this over and over so that I could probably still figure out how to do now it twenty years later.
Headspace and timing gages. Most problems stem from Operator headspace and timing. Operator headspace and timing problems stem from Leadership headspace and timing.
Failure to headspace and time the Ma Duece can and will result in malfunctions and failures. Malfunctions and failures involving 55,000 psi of chamber pressure are Very Bad Things. According to the Pentagon, some 39 soldiers have been injured during the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pentagon Wonk Army Major Christopher Kasker said, “This is not a contractor flaw. This is caused by soldiers not following the procedures in the technical manual.”
No Skippy, this is caused by LEADERSHIP flaw in not properly training soldiers and then seeing to it that they can and do headspace the weapon.
Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Ryan, after putting down his crackpipe, claimed, “It’s a very tedious process. It can upwards of twenty minutes on a really bad day.” (Of course it’s perfectly acceptable to keep a rifle which “may need care and cleaning many times a day” in hopes it will fire when you need it, but that’s another story.)
I don’t recall it ever taking over five minutes to set headspace and timing. Two or three minutes is probably more common. You could train a chimpanzee to do it in twenty minutes. But training requires LEADERSHIP, which, in a zero-fault politically correct environment, quickly disappears. Real leaders and warriors wind up leaving the service in disgust. This leaves political wonks who unquestioningly parrot the Party Line, even if they know it’s wrong, and who would sacrifice their mother on an alter at midnight for a promotion.
Not to worry! The Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex to the rescue! Good old GE has come up with super-secret chocho-fudgie “Quick Change” barrel kits which do not require setting headspace and timing, turning the Ma Deuce into the M2A1. They’re a real bargain too, the conversion kits costing a measly $5,700 per unit. (They could buy a whole new gun for $11,000.)
Is it a good idea? Most certainly yes, in theory. My whining? I have complete faith in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex to screw the project up eight ways from Tuesday.
They’ve tried to replace the Ma Deuce before, with predictable (negative) results. The M85 .50-caliber machine gun was developed for the M60-series Patton tanks, enabling the commander to fire the weapon via remote control from inside the tank. It was another idea that was really good in theory but not so much in practice. It required special metallic belt links for the ammunition which were, of course, not interchangeable with those many millions of Ma Deuce links. It required a special cupola atop the tank turret which gave the vehicle an overall height of well over 10 and a half feet tall, as opposed to the target presented by its main opponent, the T-72, which was 7 feet 9 inches tall. There were also some reliability and feed problems. With the arrival of the M1 Abrams tank, they went back to a standard Ma Deuce on a pintle mount.
Then came the GE GAU-19, a multi-barrel .50-caliber version of the Mini-Gun, introduced in 1983. Again, a good idea in concept. The weapon system as mounted on a Hummer weighs 460+ pounds and requires electrical power from a 24-volt truck battery, recharged by the mounting vehicle or aircraft’s engine. It has seen limited use in US OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters and is also used in small quantities by the cutting-edge military powerhouse nations of Mexico, Columbia, and Oman.
Next in line was the GE OCSW Objective Crew-Served Weapons System, a hybrid gas and recoil-operated weapon designed to replace both the Ma Deuce and the Mk 19 40mm automatic grenade launcher (another civilian designed weapon) in one fell swoop. As one would expect, this worked about as well as the M14 replacing the M1 Garand, BAR, M1/2 carbine, and M3 Grease Gun submachine gun all in one fell swoop. Lots of problems, piss poor project management, and tens of millions of dollars poured into the project. Order cancelled after field trials.
Meanwhile, the Ma Deuces and Mk 19s in the sandbox were wearing out. Rather than buy new ones, the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex started pouring millions into the .50-caliber XM312 CCSW Common Close Support Weapon. “We can quickly develop a replacement for the Ma Deuce and save all kinds of money (it cost twice as much per copy as the M2) by basing it on an existing developmental weapon systems.” The resulting weapon? See last paragraph plus a cyclic rate of fire of only 260 rpm. Field trials in 2005. Project cancelled 2007.
The Ma Duece soldiers on. From past projects, I do not have a whole helluva lot of faith that the big budget R&D boys will “improve” this tried-and-true design. It would be nice if they prove me wrong, but a betting man wouldn’t like the odds.
Meanwhile, since at least the Korean War, GIs and Marines wanted a lightweight portable .50-caliber rifle. By mounting a USMC 8x Unertl scope on a Ma Deuce and using the precise adjustment of the traverse and elevation mechanism on the tripod, the men in the field turned the Browning into a long-range heavy sniper rifle. The results were applauded all around (in Korea), with kills recorded as far as 2,000 yards. In Vietnam, Marine Corps sniper legend Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock set his long-standing record of a 2,500 yard shot with a Ma Deuce set up in such a matter.
Sniping with the Ma Deuce in Korea. Notice the angle of the scope and the barrel; they're shooting waaayyyy out there past Fort Mudge.
No matter how well it worked, the Ma Deuce is a crew-served weapon and too heavy to lug around on infantry operations in mountains and jungles.
Since having become obsolete as tank killers, the old WWII vintage anti-tank rifles, especially the Soviet 14.5mm weapons, had long been used by soldiers in the field as long range and/or anti-material rifles on everything from machine gun nests to parked aircraft to locomotives to small boats. This is what the boys overseas really wanted.
Why they're called Anti-Material Rifles. USMC Raiders, Makin Island, 1942. The only American unit equipped with the British .55-inch Boys anti-tank rifle, they used them to permanently ground two big 4-engine Japanese Kawanishi H6K flying boats in the Makin lagoon.
Various innovative American infantry officers showed it could be done. As early as 1949 WWII combat veteran Col. F.B. Conway was working on the concept at Aberdeen. Using an old German Panzerbucshe PzB 39 anti-tank rifle, Conway re-threaded the receiver to take a Ma Deuce barrel, modified the bipod for increased stability, put a 3x8 anti-tank gun scope on it, and designed his own effective muzzle brake. The Army hierarchy showed no interest. In the 1950’s, Conway and his team tested the “.50 PzB” as he called it in the open deserts of Fort Bliss, TX. Results showed an effective range of 1,400 yards in the hands of the average shooter; Conway himself could hit a 4x4 foot target at 2,800 yards with a few ranging shots. Conway was also later involved with the Redfield ART (adjustable Ranging Telescope) used on the M21 sniper rifle, and modified one to the trajectory of the .50-BMG round with excellent results. Again, the Pentagon boys had no interest in the contraption.
William Brophy's "field modified" Korean War PTRD .50 worked better than the 1970's Advanced Research Projects Agency's Flechette Rifle.
In Korea, then Captain William S. Brophy, a long-time competitive shooter, was working on something similar. He used a captured North Korean Soviet-made PTRD 14.5mm anti-tank rifle, once more modified to take the Ma Deuce barrel. He also mounted a Unertl scope and the T&E mechanism from a 57mm recoilless rifle on the butt as a precision adjustable monopod. It worked so well that even Army officialdom had him take it to Aberdeen Proving Grounds for testing. At 1,000 yards, it shot well within Minute-of-Angle. Then the Korean War ended and the Army forgot all about it again.
In the waning years of Vietnam, the Whiz Kids decided that such a rifle wouldn’t be a bad idea. Rather than a simple conversion such as Brophy, Conway, and a military adviser named Walker had, the Military-Industrial boys of the Advanced Research Projects Agency decided to build a whole new weapon from the ground up. Although using the receiver of an old British Boys .55-inch anti-tank rifle, they mated it with a super-duper smoothbore .50-caliber barrel firing a dart-like saboted tungsten dart at a whopping 4,500 feet per second. Although capable of penetrating two inches of steel inside 100 yards, it was a bust as a sniper weapon. Sniper weapons require accuracy; after all the R&D and money, the very best they were ever got out of the Flechette Rifle, after much development, was around 5-6 MOA at 600 yards. Vietnam ended and the project was dropped altogether.
The idea languished until the 1980’s when Tennessean Ronnie Barrett stepped up to the plate. Following in the footsteps of Christian Sharps, John Browning, and Eugene Stoner, a civilian tinkerer built a better mouse trap than all the Military-Industrial-Congressional R&D boys ever could have. Barrett had no military, gunsmithing, or engineering experience, but he knew a good idea when one came along. With the aid of a local machinist, they started building the prototype weapon in Barrett’s gravel-floored garage, working weekends and evenings. In four months’ time they took the prototype weapon to the range.
Incorporating improvements discovered building the prototype, the team then manufactured thirty new weapons, that number arrived at because that was how many slots they had in the gun rack. Advertised in Shotgun News, the things sold like hot cakes and they could not keep up with demand. Final tweaking resulted in the Barrett Model 82A1. Sales were mostly civilian, except for an order of a hundred weapons by the Swedish Army. Then came Operation Desert Storm. The United States Marine Corps and some Special Forces groups purchased Barretts. The weapon lived up to all expectations and was soon in use with the military and police forces of some thirty countries.
Once more, the rest is history. Thanks mainly to Barrett, military forces all over the world can’t get enough of the anti-material rifle, and they run the gamut from .50-caliber to 20mm, from single-shots to Barrett’s 10-shot semiautomatic.
In case anyone was wondering what to get me for Christmas...
So, while a new & improved quick-change barrel for the Ma Deuce is a terrific idea in theory, I would expect a good example to come from some guy tinkering in his garage rather than a multi-million (or billion) dollar project handled by the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex.
This is also just one more argument against civilian gun control. How are we going to come up with any good weapons if we leave it to the "professionals"?