Origins of the BAR, Part III: The BAR in WWI Combat

Val Browning with a BAR "Somewhere in France."

Val Browning with a BAR “Somewhere in France.”

The BAR was desperately sought by the AEF, and the officers of the Ordnance Corps recognized its brilliance immediately: while the equally brilliant M1917 water-cooled machine gun was subject to a degree of jiggery-pokery prior to adoption, the BAR was adopted, as is, at its very first demonstration.

But as we have seen, manufacturing took time to get started. There were drawings, and process sheets, and tools, and jigs and fixtures to prepare. John M. Browning typically worked in steel, and provided working prototypes: he never drew a set of production drawings in his life, and indeed, he is not noted for involving himself in questions of production, only of design. Therefore, the process of turning the BAR from his hand-tooled prototypes to a mass-producible arm for a citizen army took effort, which took time: about three months from contract kickoff with the outbreak of the war to first BARs with the AEF in France. Let’s go back to our expert, George Chinn:

In July 1918 the B.A.R’s arrived in France in the hands of the United States 79th Division, which was the first organization to be equipped with them and took them into action on 13 September 1918. The 80th Division was the first American Division already in France to be issued the weapons. It is an interesting fact that First Lt. Val Browning, son of the inventor, personally demonstrated the weapon against the enemy.

The B. A. R. was more enthusiastically received in Europe than the heavy water-cooled gun, and requests for purchase by all the Allied Governments were made immediately after it arrived overseas. The French Government alone asked for 15,000 to take the place of the inferior machine rifle, then being used by both French and American troops. The latter weapon was found so unreliable that many were actually thrown away by troops during action.

However, the War ended so soon after this that the bulk of the American forces were still equipped with machine guns supplied by the British and French.

While there exist some AARs praising the performance of the M1917, which went into combat about ten days later than the BAR, we’re not aware of primary source documents about the BAR’s performance. But while the contribution of a handful of BARs to the war effort might have been de minimis, the gun would embed itself in the American military postwar.

There is an interesting sidebar to the story of the BAR in France, as Tom Laemlein wrote in American Rifleman in 2012:

American divisions deployed to France after July 1, 1918 (including the 6th, 7th, 8th, 29th, 36th and 79th) carried the BAR with them. Incredibly, upon their arrival in France, most of these divisions had their BARs replaced with .30-cal. M1918 Chauchats, by order of Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing. The first recorded use of the BAR was with the 79th Infantry Division, and that was not until Sept. 22, 1918, during the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Just three other divisions would carry the BAR before the end of World War I.

General Pershing determined the best course of action would be to wait until most of the U.S. divisions could be fully equipped with BARs (and with a ready supply of the rifles and spare parts available) to gain the full advantage of deploying the new rifle. General Pershing also feared that if the BAR were deployed too quickly that the Germans would inevitably capture one, and seeing its great capability would reverse-engineer the weapon and make it their own.

Records of the Automatic Arms Section of the AEF present the status of automatic rifles in France as of Sept. 8, 1918: “At the present time 18 U.S. divisions have been equipped with the Chauchat. No more divisions will receive this weapon in the future. At the present time there are nine U.S. divisions equipped with the caliber .30 Chauchat. However this gun has proved to be not at all satisfactory, the cartridges sticking in the chamber after the gun becomes slightly hot. For this reason the gun has been issued as an emergency weapon and will be withdrawn as soon as the Browning Automatic Rifles are available. At the present time 27 U.S. divisions have been equipped with the Chauchat Auto Rifle, and two divisions with the British are using the British .303 Lewis machine guns. All divisions over and above this number have been equipped with the Browning Automatic Rifle.”

There’s even another interesting sidebar in there, relative to the Lewis gun, the British counterpart of the BAR at this time (1918). Lewis was not a Briton; he was, in fact, an American ordnance officer whose gun, due to branch politics, was never considered seriously by the US Army.

Finally, another American Rifleman story reproduces the text of a 17 September 1918 report b the Automatic Arms section of the AEF’s Engineering Division about what the report calls the “Browning Machine Rifle” or BMR, a name which apparenly didn’t stick. While the rifle had been in combat by the time, that’s not reflected in the report. A couple of interesting points:

The similarity in appearance between a B.M.R. and our service rifle is so great that when the guns are in the field that they cannot be distinguished from each other at a distance greater than 50 yds.

And the tactical employment envisioned was not the “walking fire” about which so much has been written. Instead:

The gun will be used for the most part as a rapid firing single shot weapon. It can be fired from the shoulder, kneeling or prone, the greatest accuracy, of course, being obtained in the latter position with the front of the forearm resting on some rigid body. In cases of emergency where the ammunition can be supplied, and where a large volume of fire is necessary, this gun will be fired automatically. Five hundred rounds were fired in 3½ minutes under field conditions, but this figure is a maximum for fire volume. Under ordinary conditions 300 rounds should be placed as a limit for continuous automatic fire except in cases of emergency.

Do Read the Whole Thing™. Automatic fire was envisioned as something to be used “In cases of emergency where the ammunition can be supplied, and where a large volume of fire is necessary.” That just goes to show that doctrine was evolving dynamically in 1917-18, and that it would evolve further in later years. By World War II, not only was the M1918A2 version not used “as a rapid firing single shot, weapon,” it couldn’t be: it had no semi-auto setting, and offered a low cyclic rate option in its place.

In the end, it’s impossible to avoid the thought that the BAR did achieve one very important result in World War I: it showed what was possible in wartime production.

7 thoughts on “Origins of the BAR, Part III: The BAR in WWI Combat

  1. Ti

    2016 Magpul calendar. I think Miss March is sportin’ an FN-D BAR. Love to see their gun library.

  2. Light Dragoon

    ” Therefore, the process of turning the BAR from his hand-tooled prototypes to a mass-producible arm for a citizen army took effort, which took time: about three months from contract kickoff with the outbreak of the war to first BARs with the AEF in France. ”

    I believe that should read “about a year and three months from contract kickoff with the outbreak of the war to the first BAR’s with the AEF in France”, since we declared war on April 6 of 1917, and the first divisions armed with the BAR arrived in France in July of 1918.

    Just being finicky, I assume it was intended to be written with the longer time-frame. Great article though, I adore the good old BAR. John M. Browning design, .30-06, and full auto. What’s not to love?

  3. Brad

    The contrast between doctrine and actual field use is of general interest and certainly seems to apply to the BAR too, in terms of use during WWI and WWII.

    I have no idea if the story was accurate, but some details stuck with me from an article on the 1918a2 BAR I read more than twenty five years ago in an old issue (September 1941?) of Infantry Magazine. The story was about the features of the (then) new 1918a2 model of the BAR, and how and why it was developed.

    It described the ‘old’ 1918 model of the BAR as an unsatisfactory automatic weapon: inaccurate, clumsy to reload, and prone to overheating; which led to actual use of the BAR more as a semi-automatic rifle than as an automatic weapon. The ‘new’ 1918a2 was supposed to resolve all of those problems.

    What really surprised me was the intended doctrine (at the time of the article) for use of the 1918a2 BAR, as the article described how some of the features of the new BAR were supposed to fit that doctrine. For example, three BAR were supposed to be grouped together as crew served weapons in an automatic weapon squad for support of rifle platoons! The cyclic rate reducer, muzzle fitted bipod, and shoulder support were all supposed to aid in accurate automatic fire; and when the buttstock monopod is fitted even used for automatic fire along fixed lines. The high cyclic rate setting of the BAR was supposed to be used for anti-aircraft firing!

    Now contrast that doctrine with actual employment during WWII, where from what I’ve read it was common for BAR men to discard the bipod (and that monopod was never used). And also the changes in doctrine, where by the end of the war the USMC was building four man fire-teams around the firepower of a single BAR.

  4. Haxo Angmark

    April, 1942, Burma: Jap 33rd Division infantry fighting in the Yenangyuan oilfields…looks like about 15 guys, and I see no less than 3 one-man LMG’s of 2 different types. Had no idea the Iapanese Army deployed this much concentrated infantry firepower…

  5. archy

    No mention at all of the Pedersen device-equipped M1903 rifles, some 65,000 of which were built with over a huindred thousand M1903 rifles modified for their use? They too were intended for the trench warfare *walking fire* attacks across no man’s land, and which if widely fielded would have most likely have been found most useful for nighttime work, if anything. The 7.65×20mm cartridge for the things, which had a 40-round magazine, lasted longer, finally serving as the French handgun cartridge in their modele 1935A and modele 1935S pistols and the MAS-38 submachine gun.

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