Gun Review: Browning M2HB .50 Caliber

m2bw

The Browning M2 Machine Gun is the the stuff legends are made of. This gun was designed in 1918 and has been in continuous service since 1933. It is used by 100 nations and few improvements to the system have been made (new versions sport a spiffy flash hider and a QD barrel), and there is no indication that a replacement is on the horizon.

The M2 was born when General John “Black Jack” Pershing asked for a larger and more potent version of the M1917/1919 .30 caliber machine gun. The M2 was then mounted on everything from tripods to bombers (the B17 had 13 of these bad boys). In fact, Hermann Göring wrote “if the German Air Force had the Browning .50 Caliber, the Battle of Britain would have turned out differently”.

John Browning did not just contribute firearms to US military war efforts; He could have forced the US Military to license the design of the M2 machine gun on a royalty basis, which would have netted him an incredible fortune, but instead Browning accepted a flat $750,000 which was the military’s first offer as a gift to his country.

So there is the history lesson. How does this thing work?

Well, the gun is a lot like a 1919 but with no recoil booster up front. It operates via short recoil and fires from a closed bolt (a rarity in machine guns). The gun is very modular, and various barrel weights affect the cyclic rate (such as a light aircraft barrel). All kinds of different backplates are available as well, some allowing the gun to be fired remotely. The gun must be timed and headspaced every time the barrel is removed too.

But enough talk. It was time to take this to the range. But how does one transport such a ridiculously huge weapon system? Well the answer was pretty obvious: in the back of my friend’s truck.

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You know what I love about Texas? Well for one, this wasn’t a big deal and people were honking to wave and give us a thumbs up even in traffic. A policeman on a motorcycle drove right by too and didn’t do a damn thing! I can only imagine what would happen if we were to do this in New York!

So I figured seeing this thing in action would be more entertaining than reading another one of my long-winded reviews that are peppered with opinions and a few photos, so I made a video (watch on a PC, will not work on mobile devices):

So that was a lot of fun, albeit expensive fun on a hot Texas day. I would also like to note that with the T&E set we started gradually punching through the berm! We did however not make it through (I was running XM33 ball only, no AP/APIT or anything like that).

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Now I did make another video that shows how to headspace and time the M2 that some people may find entertaining as well:

And another showing how to link ammunition for the firearm using a linker:

So that is that.

What about cleaning?

Well cleaning is not that hard:

  • Remove barrel
  • Open top-cover
  • Remove backplate
  • Remove recoil spring
  • Slide bolt out until you can remove the retaining pin
  • Press retaining tab that holds the buffer body assembly in
  • Slide out assembly
  • Remove bolt and barrel extension group

You are now stripped and have these parts laying about:

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I usually wipe everything clean with a towel and then hit the parts with some brake cleaner. When it dries, I coat everything with a generous amount of CLP from a can or spray bottle (I have been told by many former military people that the trick to making these run forever is copious amounts of oil. Even motor oil will get the job done).

I throw a towel under the gun and let it drip dry for a few hours and then take it from the garage to my house. Now storing an M2 is no easy task, but makes a great conversation piece sitting in the middle of the living room:

m2hb

“Oh that? That’s just my .50 caliber machine gun. Care for a beverage?”

Ok, so it doesn’t stay there (as ludicrous as it would be) but it does dominate a good portion of my safe (barrel removed, receiver in the corner).

All in all I love the M2 machine gun, but anytime someone mentions buying one I make sure they know what they are getting into:

  • Ammo can bankrupt you, especially if you don’t reload (there is a reason M2s are cheaper than other beltfeds)
  • The gun weighs 130 lbs. (59 kilos) with tripod
  • Transporting the thing is a pain
  • Storing the thing is a pain
  • Finding a place to shoot it can be very difficult
  • Failure to headspace and time properly can result in injury or death (and a destroyed gun)
  • You need links and a linker unless you want a single shot

I support the right of civilians to own this gun and guns like it, but from a logistical standpoint it can be very hard to justify. That aside, the M2 is an amazing machine that borders on being a mechanical marvel.



Alex C.

Alex is a Senior Writer for The Firearm Blog and Director of TFBTV.


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  • echelon

    I’d love to have me a Ma Deuce…not that’d I be able to afford to adequately feed her, but still…

  • Joshua

    The mods made to the A1 by the Army actually fix all the headspacing issues and they are issuing a new tripod that is 20lbs lighter I think…Could be off on that.

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      The fixed head space modifications attending use of a quick-change barrel are nothing new or recent. Companies such as Manroy Engineering of the UK and SACO incorporated these in their QCB M2HB conversion kits as far back as the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Others have followed suit over the years, including FN, who have cleverly included the feature as standard in their latest resurrections of the venerable Browning. And all this happened long before the Army decided to incorporate the same basic concept in the M2A1 via the E50 improvement programme and M2E2. The long drawn-out process of recognition of excellence and final acceptance almost reminds me of the same convolutions that attended the Army’s eventual adoption of the MAG58 GPMG as the M240 — more than two decades after its inception and widespread adoption by numerous other armed forces around the world.

      You are substantially correct about the new lightweight tripod. The original M3 tripod weighed in at a hefty and very solid 50 pounds ( including T & E mechanism ), whereas the new tripod, designated the M205, weighs 16 pounds less at 34 pounds ( again, including the T & E mechanism ). The M205 also features a wider range of adjustability, a quicker and more precise T & E mechanism, and more user-friendly ergonomics.

  • Cherryriver

    Okay, this is absolutely the best, most interesting gun review ever. Ever.

    • Roger V. Tranfaglia

      Here here…and thanks for the reality check….

  • Halon330

    I ETS’ed back in February. I haven’t seen any versions of Ma Deuce that didn’t require headspace and timing. However you guys are the first one’s I have ever seen that placed your feet on the bock of the tripod like that to fire. Whenever we were firing from tripod, almost exclusively stateside on a firing range, we setup the tripod to sit a bit higher off the ground to that the sights could be used, then placed our legs over the back two legs of the tripod. Overseas Ma was used almost exclusively mounted on trucks. A few COB’s and FOB’s had them mounted here or there for perimeter security, but the 240B was much more common in that role. What I did see often was M2 mounted on an MRAP, and the MRAP positioned to fire from within the base. Definitely a hoot to shoot. The sheer percussion coming from that weapon is as intimidating to the enemy as the bullet that is busting things up downrange.

    • Phil Hsueh

      You must not have gotten the newer version of the M2 or they just weren’t adopted in large numbers. I do know that there the newest version of the M2 no longer requires headspace and timing checks when changing the barrel.

      As for firing the M2 with feet against the tripod, that’s how I was taught to shoot it in the Corps. We’d just mount in on the tripod and set directly on the ground and then rested our feet on the two back legs.

      • Patrick R

        I was taught the same in the Army in 2002. Things must have changed, he isn’t the only one i have seen or heard about putting their legs over the tripod. I just thought the guy that did it was “special”.

    • Patrick R

      I was shooting as I was trained to do back in 2002. I don’t know if what they teach has changed since then, but that is what I know to be accepted back then.

  • Taylor TX

    I cant decide to either love or hate you right now, Im in a sea of emotion! Great post, but seriously the envy is overwhelming 🙂

  • Drapetomanius

    The Mk-19 and the M2 are really the only military weapons that I’d want to privately own. They are so much fun. Maybe an RPG. The Mk-19, M2, and RPK, but that’s it.

    Okay the The Mk-19, M2, RPK, some detcord and comp C. And a dozen AN/M14 grenades.

    Military hardware is fun. Much moreso when one doesn’t have to put up with chronically angry, coffee-breathed E6s.

  • bbmg

    The veracity of that Goering is dubious at best. German aircraft were armed with 20mm cannon at the time of the battle of Britain, which as an aircraft weapon is arguably superior to the 50 cal.

    • worldwideREB

      yes but shoes guns had rate of fire, range and mechanical issues. (the cases were short meaning low velocity) and the fact that it outlived all of it is still on aircraft today speaks for its self.

      • bbmg

        The gun is in use today on aircraft only in the ground support role, guns meant for air-to-air combat in US service have been cannon since the 1950s.

    • Heard the quote attributed to him on Tales of the Gun on the history channel.

      • bbmg

        I’ve seen it elsewhere but without citation. A more accurate quote would be “If the German Air Force had concentrated on attacking RAF airfields and infrastructure, the Battle of Britain would have turned out differently.”

        Silly Goering.

        • Phil Hsueh

          While I won’t argue that Goering was pretty silly, the man demanded and got a panzer division for the Luftwaffe, the targeting choices during the Battle of Britain wasn’t his fault. From what I read it was Hitler’s decision to switch from bombing the RAF airfields and other strategic target to cities like London after an accidental Luftwaffe bombing of London incited Churchill to order a reprisal bombing of a German city of no real strategic value in return. As the story goes, this so infuriated Hitler that he ordered the Luftwaffe to switch from military/strategic targets to purely civilian targets.

    • mosinman

      i would argue that the M2 is superior to the MGFF that was common on the BF-109E3 during the BoB. the MGFF fired a pretty low velocity 20mm round and did not contain the the large amount of explosives that the later Mg151 had. it had a crappy ROF and was limited to 60 RPG which isn’t a lot of shooting. add in the fact that average WW2 pilots hit from about 3% to 6% of their shots. add that all up and 6x M2 machine guns look pretty appealing not to forget the fact that the .50 BMG held more incendiary material, had greater range and velocity and comparable RoF to the MG17 .

      • bbmg

        The MG FF/M was in widespread service during the Battle of Britain and was furnished with a MinengeschoĂź shell which held 18 grams of HE (compared to the 6-10g of comparable Allied cannon of the same caliber), fired at 540 rounds per minute and a healthy 2300 feet per second. The velocity and rate of fire are clearly inferior to the Browning, therefore the expected hit rate would go down, but a single hit from a cannon shell could bring a fighter down. Given that both approaches are a compromise, it is doubtful that if German aircraft had been equipped with M2s it would have given them a significant advantage.

        • mosinman

          even with the improved Mg151 it took around 3-7 hits to down a fighter.
          had they been equipped with M2s they would have had an advantage.
          more ammo= more planes killed and more firing time. the biggest failure wasn’t weaponry though, it was range. they simply couldn’t fly far enough or stay over Britain long enough to win long term

    • idahoguy101

      If Luftwaffe Bombers mounted Browning 50 caliber MGs they would have better defended themselves against RAF fighter attacks. The Me109 was better armed than the RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes used during the Battle of Britain. Those were armed with six or eight Browning MGs in .303 caliber. Later Mks of both fighters had cannons.

      • bbmg

        I don’t think better bomber armament would have made a difference, the Luftwaffe would have been better off removing all the guns from their Ju88s (like they eventually did with the Ju88S – http://www.cdvandt.org/Nachtfee-never-ending-Ju-88-S1-3.jpg ) and giving them higher speed thanks to reduced weight and drag to avoid combat rather than attempting to engage with fighters.

        For all the heavy armament carried by the B-17s and B-24s over Germany, it was only when accompanied by escort fighters that they were able to survive.

        • gunsandrockets

          Yep, the Mosquito solution.

  • Porty1119

    There is at least one company (TNW?) producing semiauto M3 replicas. If you’d like one of these without the ATF paperwork, it might be a good alternative. Overall purchase price compares quite nicely to any of the Barrett .50s.

  • Yellow Devil

    “A policeman on a motorcycle drove right by too and didn’t do a damn thing! ”

    Wait, he didn’t wave and honk his horn too?! In Texas?! What an a-hole.

  • S O

    “This gun was designed SinCE 1918”
    fixed it

    The Göring quote is most likely a fabrication.

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    Good ol’ Ma Deuce — still one of my favorite HMG’s of all time, old and new. The great thing about the more recent QCB ( Quick-Change Barrel ) options is that the headspace is fixed and therefore headspace adjustment is no longer needed with every barrel change, which saves a lot of work.

    Every weapon has a distinctive report when fired. There is certainly no mistaking the heavy pump-chug of an M2HB giving full voice as it is fired, or the equally distinctive thumping of an MAG58.

    • Patrick R

      No kidding that it has a destinctive sound. I am a bit sad that Alex didn’t mention the two guys that heard it a mile and a half away and found where we were shooting by following the sound of the full auto fire.

      • James Kachman

        That’s….oh goodness that’s amazing.

        • Patrick R

          They followed the sound of freedom.

      • iksnilol

        Don’t forget the sound of DSHKs, pure bliss that is.

        • Patrick R

          That would be the sound of oppression.

          • iksnilol

            Not for me, I am from Yugoslavia. We used DSHKs.

            Though that is a moot point, any MG doesn’t sound nice when you are infront of it.

          • Patrick R

            The DSHK was a Soviet weapon, thus the crack about oppression. In Soviet Russia, joke tell you.

        • DiverEngrSL17K

          I didn’t mean to leave out the venerable DShK, or any other weapon for that matter, so no offence intended. I was simply using the M2HB and MAG58 as examples of such, which is why I specifically said beforehand that “every weapon has a distinctive report when fired “.

          In fact, my personal all-time favorite 7.62mm GPMG is still the PKM, closely followed by the MAG58.

  • KestrelBike

    hahaha amazing!

  • big daddy

    Be careful of that recoil spring it can come shooting out fast enough to impale you in the gut.

  • Pf Dave

    This is my midlife crisis gun.

    Looks like the going rate for a semi-auto version is about $8k, and honestly I think I’d prefer semi-auto, with a scope, Carlos Hathcock style (plus my rifle club doesn’t allow full auto).

    Does anyone have experience with the semi-auto versions of this gun? There are a ton of them available from all sorts of sources but I haven’t seen any solid reviews or comparisons.

    • Patrick R

      Just buy a Barrett. Owning a belt fed semi-auto is like owning an exotic car except you gave a lawnmower engine in it instead of the proper one.

      • iksnilol

        Could you install a crank on the M2? Though I guess the Barret is probably a better choice for accuracy and portability.

  • William

    Congrats…you win the gun interwebs today!

  • kevin kelly

    Serious question: how do you afford all this cool stuff?!?

    • Patrick R

      Wouldn’t his finances be his business? Rude.

      • kevin kelly

        Eat a d***. F*****. Now that’s rude.

        • Patrick R

          No class left anymore, jeez.

      • iksnilol

        Maybe some of us want to start doing what Alex is doing. I should probably have gotten my chemistry degree and made a meth lab. Bad life choices I guess. Can’t really make money with physics and IT.

  • Will

    I fired my first Ma Duce in October 1964 at Ft. Knox.
    I swore, right then, right there, that if I ever found one that could cook I’d marry her!!!!

    • Jonathan Wright

      She may not be able to cook, but boy can she sing.

  • michaeljball

    Love the M2, and hopefully Ill own one some day. That said, it lacks the reliability and consistency of the 240… it still is a mechanical marvel and when you are working with them there is an intamacy that is absent with all other weapon systems.

    Headspace and timing is a right of passage for infantrymen. Same with dissassembly and re-assembly. Easily done in under 3 minutes (including the bolt, don’t cheat) with a little practice.

  • gunsandrockets

    Very impressive muzzle blast which raised a dustcloud several feet in front of firing position.

  • It is important to remember that JMB didn’t design the M2 itself, but rather its forefather: the Cal. .50 M1918. Colt’s Fred Moore was credited with the improvements that became the M1921. Moore had worked closely with Browning on previous projects, and ultimately became a VP at Colt. The US Army Ordnance Department’s Dr. Samuel H. Green was credited with updating the design into the modular M2 configuration. While we are most familiar with the basic infantry M2HB configuration, the same receiver can have parts swapped out to turn it into a coaxial MG for tanks, flexible and fixed configurations for aircraft, and a water-cooled configuration for anti-aircraft use. The user can also change the direction of the belt feed to suit the the installation.

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      I agree, and thank you for reminding us for the sake of truth, fairness and giving credit where credit is due!

    • gunsandrockets

      I think a scaled down version in .338 Norma Magnum would be an awesome infantry MMG. Fired from a DP tripod as a company level weapon.

  • Commonsense23

    The gun can be put into single shot mode where it will fire from the open bolt.

    • joe

      No it can’t. It still fires from the closed bolt in semi.

    • Patrick R

      Wrong.

      • Commonsense23

        So explain to me why when you put the weapon in single shot mode, and rack the charging handle the bolt remains to the rear then.

  • Tom Currie

    The supposed Göring quote seems unlikely as hell considering that the Luftwaffe certainly could have had the Browning .50 cal if they had chosen to build them. There was nothing secret about the design of either the gun or the cartridge.

    • dp

      Yes. they could have done that just as Japanese did with their Ho-103 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho-103_machine_gun
      In truth however, the M2 is quite labour intensive (receiver riveting) and Germans had to count every man-hour. Their guns in turn were ultimately simple.

  • Daniel

    The “B” stands for boners.

    • Patrick R

      I always thought the HB was for heavy breathing.

      • Daniel

        Huge Boners.

        • Patrick R

          I don’t know about you, but I can only handle one boner at a time (my own). Pluralizing that word makes it a little much.

  • iksnilol

    The bad: hard to fire from shoulder.

    The good: IT’S EFFIN AWESOME! WOOHOOO!

    The ugly: WOOOHOOO! CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF AWESOME!

    • Jonathan Wright

      we mocked up a horizontal firing handle and a sling system to fire one “from the hip” but GM1 started throwing things when we asked if we could try.

  • spiff1

    A friend of mine (since deceased) was stationed in Korea in the mid 1960’s, (duty he hated!), and was assigned to accompany 3 deuce-and-halves to the PRI range. The first truck, his, had ammo, the other 2 had one quad 50 each, with crew…It turned out that 5 North Korean saboteurs were returning from a screwed up mission in South Korea and thought that the trucks would be easy prey, and they ambushed them on the road. I forgot to mention that the 2 1/2’s had the tarps on…The crew took the tarps off and opened up…There were pieces of commies flying everywhere….TS!

  • spiff1

    I was an armorer in a Special Weapons unit in Germany and 1 M-2 in my inventory. The new (soon replaced) CO had appointed 3 newbies to be the M-2 crew unbeknownst to me, and they decided to dissemble the weapon in the cleaning area, away from my arms room. I heard a loud noise and then a scream, ran in and found the dumbass had taken the back plate (recoil plate) off without releasing the trigger. The spring went into his shoulder…The medics facility were only about 100 yards away and he was ok…I stripped the piece down and put it back into the arms room…That was over 50 years ago and today I can not remember the take-down procedure! Getting older can be a pain!!

  • IXLR8

    Some slow motion video of that thing would be true gun porn….

  • DanielS

    I still want one…