The Browning Automatic Rifle, better known as the "B-A-R," was the Marine Corps' squad automatic weapon for many years. It was part of the infantry Marine's arsenal from the closing days of World War I right through the Cold War. In World War II, the BAR provided the fire support Marine outfits needed to fight and maneuver in the rugged Pacific campaigns.
Designed by the legendary John M. Browning, the BAR was an enduring weapon of the 20th Century. In World War I, American forces in France were first equipped with the French Chauchat automatic rifle. A dismal failure in combat, the Chauchat had so many problems, they were nearly impossible to enumerate. During the final months of the war BARs were issued to divisions of the American Expeditionary Force. In addition, all stateside divisons embarking for France were issued with BARs. The new automatic rifle was first used in combat during the fall of 1918 and proved itself superior to any other similar weapon then in service.
The original concept of the BAR was for a close support weapon for the rifle platoon. A method called 'marching fire' was developed for the weapon whereby the automatic rifleman kept a steady rate of fire to suppress enemy targets. The accompanying riflemen were then theoretically able to take and secure the objective, after which the platoon leader deployed the BAR in a defensive position overwatching the platoon's frontage. Capable of semi-automatic or automatic fire, this weapon was a marvel of reliability (especially when compared against the Chauchat)
The M1918 version of the BAR was a handsome weapon built to the highest standards by either Colt or Marlin-Rockwell. With a deep blued finish and polished walnut stocks it was not only a weapon of war, but also an example of the best in the American armaments industry. Weighing a trim sixteen pounds, the M1918 was designed to be carried and fired using the sling for support. The first BAR ammunition belts were even built with a metal cup into which the butt of the rifle was placed to aid in marching fire.
In the interwar decades the BAR underwent several minor modifications, the last of which bore the nomenclature M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle. First issued in 1940, semi-automatic mode was deleted from this version. In its place were two modes of automatic fire; slow rate at 300-450 rounds per minutes, and fast rate at 550-600 rounds per minute. A bipod and carrying handle – both removable – were added, as was an improved rear sight. Other changes were made, some minute and some major.
Marines liked the old semi-automatic mode since the BAR was rock steady, especially when fired from the prone position. Depot-level armorers were capable of modifying the slow rate-setting to semi-automatic fire. Numerous Marine units took advantage of this capability and altered their M1918A2s. BAR men themselves also made changes to their weapons in several ways. Simply by removing the bipod and carrying handle, the rifle slimmed down by nearly four pounds.
The new BAR was finished in a matte coating to prevent shine off the flat surfaces. The walnut stocks were unfinished and later in the war, the walnut buttstock was replaced with one made of bakelite. Whereas the M1918 had a classic and refined appearance, its son was strictly GI. But all of these improvements came at a price: the M1918A2 tipped the scales at a hefty twenty pounds.
Two firms, IBM and New England Small Arms, contracted to build the M1918A2 during World War II. During the years 1940-1945, they produced over 208,000 BARs for the US armed forces. The the old World War I workhorse M1918s continued to soldier on. Thousands of them received depot conversions to the A2 standard but many others were issued and used just as they had been built in 1918.
Under the D-series Table of Organization approved on 28 March 1941, each rifle platoon was assigned a BAR squad. Consisting of a corporal squad leader and seven non-rated Marines, the squad was equipped with two BARs. A third BAR was carried in the company supply truck as either a spare, or for use when extra firepower was needed. This BAR could either be assigned with an improvised crew to the BAR squad, or attached to one of the platoon's rifle squads.
Based upon lessons learned during combat in the South Pacific, Headquarters, Marine Corps, approved the D-series Table of Organization on 15 April 1943. The BAR squad was herewith dissolved and the automatic rifles became an organic part of the rifle squad. This increased the number of BARs in the rifle platoon to six, two per squad. The squad leader now became responsible for deployment of his automatic rifles, a practice which extends to the present day Marine Corps.
The final major reorganization of the rifle squad came with the F-series Table of organization, approved on 27 March 1944. With this configuration the squad was fomed into three fire teams of four Marines each. The fire team was built around the firepower of its organic BAR. The platoon now took on the shape which was to endure for seven decades and many wars. With three BARs, the squad became an even more potent formation capable of fire and maneuver alone or within the platoon organization.
The BAR was the core weapon of the Marine rifle squad. Marine Corps doctrine stressed that fire team leaders should keep direct control of their BAR men in the assault. The squad leader was charged with designating BAR positions on the defense, and organizing the other fighting positions around them. Marines respected the firepower of the BAR, and it earned a reputation as a reliable weapon that could not be broken. There was no sound that reassured Marines more than the steady hammer of the BAR firing in a tight spot.
Because the BAR served in such a key role in the rifle squad and platoon, automatic riflemen often found themselves at key spots on the battlefield. Whether in the attack or on defense, these Marines and their weapons were the bedrock of their units. Often at the cost of their own lines, BAR men balanced on the point of the sharp end in combat. These three examples serve as testimony to their courage and steadfastness.
During the invasion of Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942, the 1st Raider Battalion was handed the task of assaulting Tulagi, an outlying island defended by a determined force of Japanese naval infantry. During a hard day of fighting the Raiders fought through to establish a defensive line. Late that night and in the pre-dawn hours next morning, the surviving Japanese troops launched a series of desperate banzai attacks against the dug-in Marines. Driving against the Marine positions, the enemy tried four times to break through. The Raiders smashed each attack, exacting a fearsome toll against the fanatical enemy naval infantry. At first light Capt Lew Walt, Commanding Officer of Able Company, checked his company positions:
For his courageous sacrifice, Pfc Ahrens won the Navy Cross. Tragically, he would not live to wear his medal for heroism. Only 22 year old when he died of his wounds on 8 August 1942, Edward Ahrens was among the first Marines to fall in thecampaign for the Solomons.
Another heroic Marine of World War II was Pfc Frank Witek of Chicago, Ill. Pfc Witek was a BAR man in Company B, 1st Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division during the campaign for Guam. During the battle for Finegayan on 3 August 1944, his platoon was pinned down by heavy fire.
Pfc Witek first covered his shipmates by firing a full magazine from his BAR while standing erect. While his platoon withdrew to reconsolidate, Pfc Witek remained to cover one of his wounded buddies waiting for evacuation. Hit by enemy machine gun fire again and pinned down, the platoon went to cover.
Pfc Witek unhesitatingly moved forward, throwing hand grenades and firing bursts from his BAR. He closed to within 5 to 10 yards of the enemy position, destroying the emplacement and killing eight Japanese soldiers. He was struck and killed by enemy rifle fire. For his heroic and sacrificial actions, Pfc Witek was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. He was one of countless automatic riflemen who put their lives on the line for their buddies.
On Iwo Jima's blood-soaked ground, Marines Pfc William S. McCarver of Zeigler, Ill., rose to the heights of courage. He served as a BAR man in Company D, 2d Battalion, 27th Marines, Fifth Marine Division, His posthumous Navy Cross citation tells the story best:
Such was the caliber of men who carried John Browning's legendary BAR in the Fleet Marine Force during World War II.
SOURCES AND NOTES:
(1) The story of Pfc Edward Ahrens is from page 106 of The United States Marines Corps in World War II by S. E. Smith, Random House.
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