The Browning Automatic Rifle was created to breach the stalemate fighting of World War I, but it found its place in the much more varied battlefields of World War II. Known popularly as the BAR, it was a staple component of every American infantry squad. The BAR had its limitations, but it was an effective weapon and one that was well-regarded by the soldiers.
The BAR was designed by inventor John M. Browning in 1917. His essential problem was to create a design that would increase the firepower of forces on the attack. The technology of the First World War largely favored the defense, and the machine gun in particular posed a severe challenge to attacking troops. The machine guns of that era did not lend themselves to an infantry attack role, in part because of size and weight and in part because the armies of the period lacked a system for using the machine gun in this way. Several designs were made to redress this imbalance at least partially; machine pistols, such as the Thompson sub-machine gun, were among them. The BAR offered infantry squads short bursts of automatic fire up through rifle distances.
The BAR was chambered in .30 caliber, and its rate of fire could reach 650 rounds per minute in theory. In practice, it ran out of ammunition long before this; its bottom-mounted box magazine only carried 20 rounds. This was a serious shortcoming for many firefights, but it was also a necessary concession. Much of the weight of a true machine gun in World War I came from its cooling mechanism, and much of the complexity in maintaining it concerned the exchange of barrels when one became too hot. A limited magazine reduced the weight that the rifleman needed to carry and simplified the rifle’s operation.
The original version, the M1918, was finally issued in the summer of 1918, but only in small quantities, and it played no meaningful part in the end of the war. Still, it was seen as a successful weapon, and it was produced in quantity in the interwar period. Refinements were attempted along the way, but the first meaningful change came in 1937, when the M1918A1 was adopted. This version offered a bipod, allowing the BAR to be fired like a light machine gun. Before this, it could only be fired like an ordinary rifle, with aimed shots being made from the shoulder or less accurate fire being made from the hip. The bipod was improved in the M1918A2, and the lower surface of the buttstock was altered to keep the rifle upright when not being held.
When war came again, the M1918A2 was available in numbers, and quickly proved itself in the eyes of the soldiers. While it was unsuited to sustained fire, it was ideal for short bursts of suppression fire, and any tool that visibly helped the GI to survive a little longer on the battlefield was destined for popularity. Each squad was issued one BAR, but the GIs eagerly sought more, and in the last months of the war many squads had two.
Replenishment was no simple matter. Much of the new production was needed to replace existing issued weapons. The same lightness of materials that kept the main rifle under 20 lbs (the bipod often being removed by the soldiers for precisely this reason) also ensured that the working parts were subject to considerable wear and tear. Fortunately, these same parts were created to facilitate mass production.
Other limitations included inaccuracy and difficulty in reloading in combat conditions. One of the reasons to use rifle cartridges instead of pistol cartridges (as in submachine guns) is the greater accuracy at range of rifle cartridges, but the BAR failed to capitalize on this advantage. One reason is the same as that behind its tendency to wear out: its action was very hard on the materials, and the handling of the BAR was correspondingly rough. Furthermore, the M1918A2 was designed to fire bursts only, in contrast to the original M1918 that could fire single shots. The BAR of World War II permitted only the selection of 350 rpm or 600 rpm. This made accurate fire improbable, but it facilitated suppression fire, and so it served to endear the BAR to the GI all the more.
Reloading was another matter entirely. The box magazine carried only 20 rounds, so reloading was an operation that needed to be performed regularly. In a typical American squad (12 men), two were dedicated to assisting the man with the BAR. Even so, with a box magazine mounted underneath the rifle, it was difficult to change the magazine quickly, especially when used as intended from a prone position.
In the long term, the BAR lacked a proper niche. It was too heavy and inaccurate to be a good rifle, but too light, too prone to malfunctions and too difficult to reload to serve as an adequate light machine gun. In contrast, German squads were built around a true multipurpose machine gun; in Vietnam, the US Army would have its equivalent in the M60. During the Second World War and the Korean War that followed, however, the BAR served a similar purpose.
Moreover, the BAR should not be considered in isolation from the context of its use in an American infantry squad. For a variety of reasons, it was well-adapted to this context. It used the same ammunition (.30 cal) as the M1 Garand rifles used by the rest of the squad, which makes resupply much simpler. Also, the virtues of the Garand were such that the two weapons complemented each other well, with a good balance of strength throughout the squad. The BAR permitted a brief concentration of power in one place to serve the squad’s objectives, without overwhelming the strengths of the rest of the squad in the way that the German machine gun team dominated the German infantry squad. Finally, the same lightness that increased the wear and tear on its internal mechanism also allowed the BAR to be used quite nimbly in combat, affording a high level of flexibility.
While the BAR was predominantly an American weapon, it saw limited service elsewhere. Many of the original M1918 guns were sent to Britain, where they were distributed to Home Guard units. The Belgians produced a version called the Modele 30; using a variety of rounds, these found service in Europe, Latin America and China for many years. Poland produced some in 7.92 mm for domestic use.
In the US Army, the BAR was discontinued in 1957. While its term of military service ended just shy of 40 years, it found a place in police use, and variations are still being developed today. These civilian BARs are known as Monitors.
The Browning Automatic Rifle was a very successful tool for a limited span of time. It was created to add some power to an attacking squad in a time when most weapons favored the defender. It was underpowered in comparison with the alternatives selected by other nations, but in the context of American squad tactics, it enjoyed the right balance between firepower and mobility to enhance the strengths of the squad. Many GIs loved the BAR as the weapon that helped to keep them alive in the war.
Bishop, Chris. The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II. Sterling, 2002
Bull, Stephen. World War II Infantry Tactics: Company and Battalion. Osprey, 2005
Miller, David. Fighting Men of World War II: Vol. 2, Allied Forces, Uniforms, Equipment & Weapons. Stackpole Books, 2008
Suermont, Jan et al., ed. Infantry Weapons of World War II. Krause Publications, 2004
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