What Could Have Been: Tank-Killing Ma-Deuce from the 1930’s

While today ceramic, composite, and multi-layer armor has made most of the small to medium-arms obsolete for engaging tanks, in the early 1930s the beloved Browning M2 was being set up as a tank-killing rifle. Equipped with a Prismatic sight, the shoulder-fired (albeit ground supported) fifty-cal was the ideal long-range tank-busting weapon.


Modifications included adjustable bipod, charging handle, sight, stock, and rear monopod. The stock was set up with a purposeful gap to allow implementation of the standard recoil buffer.

Note that the gap between the rear of the receiver and the shoulder pad is necessary to allow space for the gun’s standard recoil buffer. Since the shoulder support does not move relative to the gun, the optic will not hit the shooter in this version either.

Full the full story hosted at Popular Mechanics by none other than Forgotten Weapon’s Ian MCCollum, hit the link here. 

Nathan S

One of TFB’s resident Jarheads, Nathan now works within the firearms industry. A consecutive Marine rifle and pistol expert, he enjoys local 3-gun, NFA, gunsmithing, MSR’s, & high-speed gear. Nathan has traveled to over 30 countries working with US DoD & foreign MoDs.

The above post is my opinion and does not reflect the views of any company or organization.


  • Major Tom

    I wonder how well it would have worked with Raufoss 211 ammo. Probably a fair bit better against things like trucks and planes and the occasional post-war BMP but I doubt even that would have made much difference against tanks of just about any stripe.

    • Georgiaboy61

      The infantryman with a 50BMG looking to damage to a tank would not typically be able to obtain penetration against rolled or homogenous armor plate on the most WWII-era tanks, but that is not the same as saying heavy MGs or cannon (similar to the Soviet PTRD 14.5×114 AT rifle) are ineffective. An experienced hand could obtain mobility kills by breaking a track or putting a shot through the thin rear-armor and into the engine. He could also, using incendiary ammunition, set off stored jerry cans or other fuel stored externally; if the flames didn’t kill the tank outright, the smoke could often caught a crew to bail out. Turret rings and hatches could be jammed; sights and optics damaged or destroyed.

      The gunner’s odds improved considerably when going up against soft-skinned vehicles and more-lightly armored fare such as half-tracks. If you can’t destroy the tank, then attack the infantrymen who protect the tanks and the trucks who resupply them – as the next-best measure.

      Having said all of that, it took a special man to go up against an enemy MBT using nothing more than an over-sized rifle like the Boys or the Soviet PTRD. The same would apply to the Ma Deuce.

      • Zebra Dun

        Shoot at vision slits, periscopes, the mantlet aiming sights perhaps even the tracks may get results if the tank sits still long enough.
        From above you might get a hit that counts for an Mobility kill through the engine compartments top.
        You would strike fear in the hearts and minds of the TC’s for sure.

      • jcitizen

        Very true!

  • BattleshipGrey

    They may be obsolete as tank killers, but you can always demote it to softer targets…and have fun of course.

  • Anonymoose

    .50BMG ammunition was never capable as a “tank killer.” The 13.2 TuF and .55 Boys were also totally ineffective against true tanks soon after the British introduced them during WWI. Of course, trucks, scout cars, half-tracks, and other lightly-armored vehicles were perfectly good targets.

    I’d still like to have one on a pintle mount in my truckbed, though.

    • hami

      The article mentions the rifle’s limitations as an anti-tank weapon.

      “As it would turn out, all anti-tank rifles became quickly obsolete once
      World War II got into gear. Tank armor increased in thickness very
      quickly, and by 1942 virtually all new tanks were impervious to the
      anti-tank rifles of the 1930s.”

    • Secundius

      @ Anonymoose.

      Yes you could! “Skipping Shot’s” or “Deflection Shot’s”. Skip a round under the tank, were the armor was the Weakest. The Emergency Escape Hatch and Entry Hatches were the Weakest Link in a Tanks Armor. And Armor Piercing 12.7×99 will “Punch” through it without any Difficulty At All. P-47 Thunderbolts, made Numerous Skip-Shots on German Tanks in WW2…

  • TVOrZ6dw

    My understanding is that the M2 was originally designed during WW1 to work in the anti-tank role, which is why it defaults to semi-auto fire.
    By the time it was field-ready the anti-tank roll was outdated, but history shows it excelled as an all-purpose heavy machine gun. But it still has to be locked into ‘Auto’ mode, otherwise its default setting is single-shot.
    This was by far the funnest toy I played with in the service. 🙂

    • Phillip Cooper

      It’s been a while (over 20 years, and admittedly I didn’t get much time on the .50), but I don’t recall there being a selector on the M2…. help me dust off some brain cells?

      • Matrix3692

        A picture worths a thousand words, they say.

        • Phillip Cooper

          OK, NOW I remember. Thanks!

  • TheNotoriousIUD

    I believe Carlos Hathcock used the M2 for his longest kill shot in Vietnam thereby establishing the .50 BMG as a viable sniper weapon.
    I could be wrong about that.

    • Bill

      I believe it even had a Unertl scope mounted to it somehow, as an experiment. I’ve always wondered how long it would have held up.

      • TheNotoriousIUD

        Apparently he used it several times.
        Dude was a bad ass for sure.

        • jcitizen

          I read somewhere that he went to an armory and pieced together one M2 out of several and found one with a barrel trunnion that was at the tightest spec for the go gauge, and then a barrel that had a large circumference bearing surface, so they would match up better to lower the “cone of fire”. He always used armor piercing rounds selected by rolling them across a flat surface to see if the bullets were seated correctly, but also because he claimed he could tell if the density was concentric. Apparently the tungsten cores are one of the best at consistent density, but there was always the occasional factory defect, and he would weed those out.

          • TheNotoriousIUD

            Interesting, ive not heard that.

      • jcitizen

        Actually scope mounts are fairly common on modern M2s. I’ve got one that I’m sure is surplus, but I don’t know who’s army, that looks like a cage! You can spot them pretty easy, as they have a large dove tail mount coming off the rear sight. I had several of them in armories I worked at. I never personally saw the scope – just the mounts for them.

        I believe Unertl had special built scopes just for that in military inventory, but you can actually get away with using a air rifle scope for quite a while. I used an old cheap Japanese built superstore special on one of my .50 cal rifle prototypes in the early 80s that survived about 30 rounds before the scope hairs broke. I was shocked to find out they were actually made of hair – I was just a kid, and pretty ignorant back then. I probably didn’t have any business building 50 rifles either.

    • Giolli Joker

      Well, according to his biography in “Marine Sniper” you’re correct.

      • TheNotoriousIUD

        Guess I was due.
        I haven’t been right about anything since 1997.

        • Giolli Joker

          Engagement/wedding year?

          • TheNotoriousIUD

            Nah, I called Green Bay for the Super Bowl.

    • Secundius

      @ TheNotoriousIUD.

      I believe Carlos Hathcock, used a Modified M2 called the SM2 or Single Shot M2…

      • TheNotoriousIUD

        You may be right but the accounts I’ve read have him sniping with the standard M2.

        • jcitizen

          I believe I read a book about him, and they showed a picture of a regular(hand picked) M2 HBMG with a huge scope mounted on it.

  • Matrix3692

    Carrying issues aside, I wonder what would it feel like, firing it in prone position……

    • Zebra Dun

      Sliding rapidly on your belly button backwards in a cloud of dust.

  • Lance

    Would have been fire for that year it was made. By 1940German tanks where heavy enough to with stand 12.7mm MG fire, Hence the Rocket launcher (Bazooka) was born

  • taofledermaus

    Even the 20mm Lahti was obsolete as a tank killer pretty quick as armor got thicker. But there were plenty of other targets they could be used on.

  • mechamaster

    “If the .50BMG Ma Deuce is do good job for anti-aircraft role, why not trying it in the tank armor ?”
    Someone in 1930 take the joke seriously, and experimenting with it.

    • jcitizen

      You could always hope for a lucky shot into one of the observation slots on the Tiger tank, or at least bust one of the periscopes or aiming equipment on a tank.

      • mechamaster

        yes, that’s one of tactic called “tank harassment”.

  • DaveP.

    There was an engineer named Robinson who designed a man-portable shoulder-fired .50… in 1943. At that time there was still a concern about Axis air power in Europe, and the idea was to create a platoon-portable antiair weapon that could down a German ground-attack plane. It used a ten-round magazine and fired full-auto.
    After D-day it was decided that killing Axis aircraft could be safely left to dedicated antiair units and fighters and the project was shelved… but I’ve always wondered how it would’ve evolved if it had been accepted for service.

    • Zebra Dun

      A lot of Blue on Blue shoot downs most likely.
      A lot of .50 caliber AAA rifles left beside gas masks in ditches too.

  • marathag

    Most common tanks of the 1930s were based of the Vickers 6 tonner, with a 13mm face hardened armor basis, 5mm minimum. Russians used their version, the T-26 till 1942, but had 18mm in the front hull, 14mm on the turret and 10mm in the rear.

    Even the early marks of the Panzer IV had 15mm armor on sides and rear until 1938, when that was increased to 20mm

    M2 AP black tip ammo could penetrate 19mm at 500M, 10mm at 1200M.

    under 100M, it was 25mm

    Ball could penetrate 8mm at 500M, 4mm at 1200

    So yeah, it was useable in the ’30s.

    • guest

      Even the Maxim was useful, to a certain degree, but that did not mean it was put into service specifically as an AT gun. Having an “ok” spec on paper leaves out important factors like what damage the ammo would actually do, at what angle the target was facing the shooter (45 degree angle relative to the front and it would be useless due to deflection) etc. One needs a good margin of penetration for a gun to be useful in this role, and as I wrote it was not obsolete just yet but it was “old enough” not to be adopted. Plus the weight and the whole idiotic idea of a semiauto conversion of a heavy MG.

      • marathag

        ‘Perfect is the Enemy of the Good’ That M2 offshoot would have been of some use as an AT Rifle, anti-material after that. I think it would have been a better choice for the Marines, rather than the Boys AT Rifle they used in the Pacific

      • TankGuy

        There is no need for a conversion on the M-2 HBMG, it’s had a semi/full selector forever. Also, infantry weapons platoons cart this weapon system, plus tripod and pintle everywhere they go already. Not to mention ammo…

        • jcitizen

          I wasn’t in the infantry, but we did a lot of mountains, and I had to hump the Ma Deuce a LOT up and down them. Not even a track vehicle could go where legs can. I was always wishing our unit was supplied with the special back pack strap system for the tripod, as that was the worst clumsy item to haul around.

  • DIR911911 .

    and squirrel hunting would never be the same . . .

  • JSpice

    I didn’t know Kirk Douglas was in the Army.

    • T Sheehan

      The Jaw Force is strong with this one.

  • Realist

    My shoulder ached after reading this article…

  • Zebra Dun

    My .50 BMG armed T-7 Combat Car on World of Tanks can run up to any red team Tank and fill it with lead from a whole magazine and get a K- kill.

    Well it is a video game.

    Made my ears ring just reading this.

  • LetsTryLibertyAgain

    Does anyone make reloading dies for that caliber?

    • jcitizen

      25 mm? Maybe some places that reload flares – they would have to be modified heavily to reload that specific kind of ammo.

  • LetsTryLibertyAgain

    Back From The Future 20/20 Hindsight: A good muzzle brake could have improved this excellent design.

  • jcitizen

    Hard to believe the ammo was actually designed around war planning to hit observation balloons – and maybe dirigibles also. If I remember my “Small Arms of the World” book, the 1st prototype looked just like a 1917 water cooled 30 cal heavy machine gun.