The Winchester Machine Rifle, WWI’s Anti-Balloon Assault Rifle

One of several interesting automatic individual weapon designs from World War I, the Winchester Machine Rifle was a concept for a dual-purpose anti-observation-balloon/ground weapon that featured several concepts that, for better or worse, were definitely ahead of their time. Matthew Moss of the Historical Firearms Blog posted an excellent overview of the Winchester Machine Rifle, both there and on WarIsBoring:

Burton’s machine rifle used a blowback action and fired from an open bolt. The gun weighed 10 lbs. (4.5 kg) and its overall length was 45.5 inches (116 cm), making it slightly shorter and significantly lighter than the later Browning Automatic Rifle. It was select fire with a cyclic rate on automatic of 800 rpm. It fed from two vertical 40-round (and possibly 25-round) magazines which fitted into the receiver at a 60° angle. This allows for an uninterrupted sight picture along the barrel. Once the first (right-hand) magazine had been expended the other was apparently slid into position. Exactly how this was accomplished is unclear from the photographs.

The weapon had a number of interesting features: it was ambidextrous with its charging handle located beneath the receiver and it ejected spent cases downwards – much like a Browning SA-22. The weapon’s barrel was finned to aid cooling and the fore stock had a finger groove as well as a ring mount to attach it to the fuselage of an airplane.Burton’s Machine Rifle also had an in-line stock, a tubular receiver, its trigger group integrated with the pistol grip, raised sights (with the rear sights folding), and an interchangeable barrel to allow the weapon’s role to be switched from air to ground specialties. A ‘ground’ barrel was also provided which had an additional bayonet lug (see image #2). When considering these features and the weapon’s ammunition some have described Burton’s machine rifle as one of the first true assault rifles.

As Matt notes, the Winchester Machine Rifle could be considered one of the world’s first assault rifles. However, it also could be considered a predecessor to the submachine gun, as it was an open-bolt blowback weapon very similar in design to many later submachine guns like the Australian Owen. The .345 Winchester Machine Rifle round, though, was a true intermediate round, firing a 150, 173, or 189 grain spitzer projectile at muzzle velocities probably between 1,800 and 2,100 ft/s.

Although its primary design purpose was anti-balloon operations, the rifle also accepted barrels sporting bayonet lugs, indicating that the creators also considered its use by ground troops as well as aviators.

In his article, Matt admitted he didn’tknow the location of the Winchester Machine Rifle prototype, but in fact the sole known rifle made is located at the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum in Cody, Wyoming. If any of our readers are ever in that area, be sure to stop by and take a look!

More information on the Winchester Machine Rifle can be found in this Small Arms Review article by Jim Ballou.

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at


  • Tassiebush

    Each time I have read about this gun I have wondered why on earth it wasn’t developed further. It really seems like something that logically should have been a fairly common infantry weapon. It would have fit the whole walking fire concept very well.

  • Rock or Something

    Well look at that. Another potentially revolutionary design ignored by the powers at be.

  • Matrix3692

    wait, just to clarify something…… the .345 WSL only had incendiary bullets?

    • There were supposed to be both ball and incendiary types

    • iksnilol

      God I wish we only had incendiary 😛

  • Tahoe

    I agree that it seems like a no-brainer of a development – in hindsight. At the time, long-range aimed rifle fire was still at the heart of infantry “tactics”; the establishment had a hard time coming to grips with the new nature of warfare, and were (as usual) stuck in the past.

    Now, of course, we can look back and only imagine where small-arms development would be today, had this become the standard infantry weapon at the time.

  • Devil_Doc

    From the mag back, that sorta has an FG42 thing going on…

  • schizuki

    It looks like an Owen, a Thompson and an FG-42 had a productive three-way.

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    Thanks very much for sharing this article, Nathan. It was really interesting to read about yet another “forgotten weapon” [ with due reference and apologies to Ian McCollum 🙂 ]. I can see where it would have had a lot of potential if developed further, but it unfortunately went the way of so many otherwise promising firearms because of what Ian Hogg once summarized as “bad market timing”.

  • gunsandrockets

    So essentially an upside down, full-auto, Winchester SLR?

  • Cymond

    I think Ian McCollum needs to visit Cody, Wyoming!