Browning Machine Guns Still Chugging Along

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Everyone talks about the AKM being the most reliable firearm ever invented, but it is nice to see other designs coming to the forefront of reliability every now and again. In this case, I present a pair of Browning machine guns.

Granted, this is no indication that every Browning out there is extremely reliable. In fact, I would rather state the reverse, and I know many machine gunners out there can vouch for this, in that the fifty caliber M2 certainly isn’t the most reliable thing in the world. Knowing how to properly headspace and time the the gun is an almost lost art, it has a large number of small parts that need to be assembled in very specific ways or else operation can break them, or it won’t happen at all. I personally have been the recipient of an unreliable M2 because the gunner hadn’t properly headspaced and timed it before a patrol in Helmand, and we thus had a nonfunctioning M2 while taking fire. Not the best of situations.

Regardless, the first story is from 2011 and is about an RAF Spitfire that crashed in Ireland in 1941 and was recently dug up, remarkably preserved because of a peat bog.  The second came online days ago in Anniston Army Deport and is a receiver that had been in constant Army service for over 90 years, without going through a single overhaul of any of its parts. Now granted, the thing might have sat in a wearhouse for the entire time, but 90 years is a long time, a world war, Korea, Vietnam, and all the training that took place in between. In both stories, the Browning machine guns were deemed to be fully functional (they had to swap some parts out in the RAF crash).

From Anniston in Alabama-

In more than 90 years of existence, the receiver with serial number 324 has never been overhauled.

“Looking at the receiver, for its age, it looks good as new and it gauges better than most of the other weapons,” said John Clark, a small arms repair leader.

Despite the fact that the weapon still meets most specifications, it may be destined for the scrap yard.

Modifications made to the weapon in the field mean part of the receiver would have to be removed through welding and replaced with new metal, a process which usually means the receiver is scrap.

“I’d rather put this one on display than send it to the scrap yard,” said Clark, adding the weapon’s age makes it appealing as a historical artifact.

Currently, the 389th M2 is on display in the Small Arms Repair Facility. There is an approval process the older weapon would have to go through in order to be similarly displayed. Clark and Jeff Bonner, the Weapons Division chief, are researching and beginning that process.

Untitled

And from the Spitfire crash, the entire movie is on the link I provided above, but I can’t share it on here because it is from the BBC-

We had hoped for one Browning .303 in reasonable condition – we got six, in great shape, with belts containing hundreds of gleaming .303 rounds. The Irish soldiers then stepped in. This was a cache of heavy weapons, however historic they might be.

Next came fuselage, twisted but in huge pieces, over a meter across, still painted in wartime colors, with neat stencils of the plane’s ID and the iconic RAF bullseye-style roundel.

Despite hitting the ground at well over 300mph the artifacts were incredibly well-preserved. The wheel under the Spitfire’s tail emerged fully inflated, the paper service manual, a first aid kit with bandages and dressings, the instrument panel, the harness that Wolfe had torn off as he hurled himself out of the cockpit and my highlight – Wolfe’s leather flying helmet.

Thanks to a “wild idea” from Lt Colonel Dave Sexton, ordnance technical officer in the Irish army, it was decided an attempt would be made to fire one of the Browning guns that had spent 70 years in the bog.

His team painstakingly cleaned the weapons and straightened pieces bent by the impact. Finally, on Tuesday we were able to stand on an old British Army range just north of Athlone for the big day.

The Browning .303 machine guns looked as good as new. Soil conditions were perfect for preservation. Beneath the peat there had been a layer of clay. Clay is anaerobic, it forms an airtight seal around all the parts, so there is no oxygen, which limits corrosion.

Had they been in sandy soil, which lets in water and air, the metal would have been heavily corroded.

The Irish specialists had chosen the best preserved body and added parts from all six guns, like the breech block and the spring, to assemble one that they thought would fire. They made the decision to use modern bullets, to reduce the risk of jamming.

Wearing helmet, ear protection and body armor I crouched in a trench a meter away from the Browning, which I would operate remotely.

Every part of the gun, to the tiniest pin, had been under a peat bog for 70 years, to the month.

This Spitfire had seen service during Britain’s darkest days and is reliably credited with shooting down a German bomber off the Norfolk coast in early 1941. The Irish had found large amounts of carbon inside the weapon, evidence of heavy use.

I turned the handle of the remote firing mechanism. The Browning roared, the belt of ammunition disappeared, the spent shell cases were spat out and the muzzle flash stood out sharply against a grey sky.



Miles V

Former Infantry Marine, and currently studying at Indiana University. I’ve written for Small Arms Review and Small Arms Defense Journal, and have had a teenie tiny photo that appeared in GQ. Specifically, I’m very interested in small arms history, development, and Military/LE usage within the Middle East, and Central Asia.

If you want to reach out, let me know about an error I’ve made, something I can add to the post, or just talk guns and how much Grunts love naps, hit me up at miles@tfb.tv


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  • GMJosh

    Proper head space and timing of an M2 shouldn’t be a lost art. We teach all of our machine guns crews how to do it and when to do it. Hell all of our flack jackets have the gauges in the pocket and I have my own that they gave all of us when we graduated “A” school.

  • Kyle

    Headspace and timing isn’t a lost art at all. I know the USMC still teaches it all the time because I was taught how to do it.

  • nova3930

    If I’m not mistaken part count reduction, easing head spacing and timing are the focus of the ongoing upgrade program..

  • Georgiaboy61

    The water-cooled .303 caliber Vickers medium machine gun surely must rate in any discussion of ultra-reliable historic military firearms. These MGs were extremely heavy and robustly-built, and typically required a 6-8 man team to emplace and operate: gunner, loader, and additional men to serve as water and ammo bearers and to provide security for the position and perform other tasks as needed.

    The Vickers was legendary for its reliability. According to the late, eminent firearms historian Ian Hoag, crews of 100th company of the British Machine Gun Corps. fired their ten MGs continuous for twelve hours, using up one-hundred replacement barrels and shooting one-million rounds of ammunition without a failure.

    Not only was the Vickers reliable, the .303 round was hard-hitting and at 2,000 yards effective range, it could extend a beaten zone far out into the battlefield. In those days, heavy MGs were regarded in part as indirect fire weapons akin to artillery – and the heavy water-cooled Vickers was probably not ideal to the high-mobility battlefield, but after a century, that is still impressive performance.

  • imachinegunstuff

    I was a 0331 and the M2 failed usually every ten to twenty rounds, and usually it just had to be racked again. We were taught headspace and timing and it was drilled into us over and over.

  • Sam

    Dang reading the article and comments… I have to disagree. We had brand-spanking-new M2s my Afghanistan deployment. Tolerances were initially pretty tight, so lots of lube was needed… but they functioned flawlessly. As long as headspace and timing is done correctly, I’ve never had problems with them.

  • FWIW: The M2 receiver is unlikely to be 90 years old because the M2 designation didn’t exist until 1933. The M2’s .50 BMG forefathers, the M1921 and M1921A1, were declared obsolete during WW2.

  • BearSlayer338

    There is a 1911 in my family that has been passed down since WWI,that is still running fine.
    It has had a few springs replaced but other than that it is stock and the issue magazines still work,probably has at least 15K of rounds through it,2k of which I personally put through it.
    If I ever get married and have a son who is pro gun I’ll pass it down,if not I’ll pass it down to my best friend.

    I have also had new production 1911’s that have never failed,I think 1911’s get a bad rap for reliability because people replace parts that don’t need to be replaced and they don’t have the new parts properly fitted.

    • Giolli Joker

      If you get married and you have a son that is NOT pro gun, it means you failed somewhere. 🙂
      (Not an avid shooter, ok, but not pro gun…)

  • NukeItFromOrbit

    The existence of the .303 Browning makes me wonder why exactly the Brits adopted the 7.92mm Besa machine gun. The Besa was an outstanding weapon for sure but it added another caliber to an already complicated logistics picture.

    Sorting out who needed what sort of rifle caliber ammo (.303 for most, .30-06 for lend-lease M1919s, 7.92 for Besas) must have kept a lot of quartermasters busy.