THE M1918A2 BROWNING AUTOMATIC RIFLE

The Browning Automatic Rifle, Cal. 30, M1918A2,with Bipod.

The BAR was an air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed, shoulder weapon.

Weight of the BAR w/ bipod: 20 pounds
Rate of fire: 120-150 rounds per minute
Maximum effective range: 600 yards
Method of loading: 20 round magazine

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.

Marine Barracks, San Diego – mid-1941. A platoon leader conducts training on the BAR with the Marines of his platoon.

The BAR was not a particularly easy weapon to field-strip and some of the steps of disassembly and reassembly had to be done exactingly. For instance the recoil spring and guide were difficult and unforgiving to install and remove.

Also, the gas cylinder tube and forearm group could be accidentally installed wrong and the BAR would reassemble and pass a function check. But if installed this way, the gas cylinder would not line-up correctly. When the first round was fired, this non-alignment jammed the gas cylinder against its bracket under the barrel and bent the operationg rod severely. Life Magazine

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.

 

Reconstruction of a late-war automatic rifleman wearing the Field Marching Pack and M1 steel helmet.

The BAR is an M1918A2 with bipod and carrying handle removed. This Marine carries 13 BAR magazines – 12 in his ammunition belt and one in the BAR. His assistant, if assigned carries an additional 12 magazines.

The BAR fired primarily the .30 caliber M2 ball round. It shared ammunition compatibility with the M1 rifle, the M1919A4 and M1917A1 machine guns. This not only eased supply, but also enabled BAR men to strip ammunition from machine gun belts, M1 clips, or boxes of loose rounds. Equipment and uniform from the WW2 Gyrene collection

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.

The D-series BAR squad of the Marine rifle platoon. Under this set-up, the BAR teams could either be held under platoon control, or attached out to the rifle squads. USMC Photo

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 E-series Marine rifle squad. Two Automatic Riflemen were now assigned to the squad under direct control of the squad leader. USMC Photo

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 F-series Marine rifle squad. This organization proved to be extremely flexible and possessed outstanding firepower. The squad is now made of three fireteams, each with four Marines. An automatic rifleman is assigned to each team and the squad is built around the firepower of the BARs.

Seven decades after its adoption by the Corps, the Marine rifle squad is still organized as it was in the F-series Table of Organization. USMC Photo


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.

Of course, the BAR had its drawbacks too. First, it was downright heavy–the weapon with its 12 loaded magazines weighed almost 40 pounds. That was a lot to carry for a kid who might only weigh 140 pounds himself. Also, there was no provision to change the barrel after rapid firing, so the BAR got really hot. After firing a few hundred rounds in a short period, the barrel would glow red, and the heat scorched the wooden fore end beneath the barrel. And the BAR flat out burned through ammo. Automatic riflemen learned to fire in three to five round bursts, but that was still only four trigger pulls for a magazine. It took much longer to load a BAR magazine than to fire it. Of the BAR, World War II Marine William Manchester wrote in his memoir Goodbye Darkness–A Memoir of the Pacific War:

"The BAR was a bitch. There were bolts and firing pins, extractors and receiver groups, a sliding leg assembly, a flash hider, a bipod bearing, and a recoil spring and guide. I lack small muscle skills, and I have a mechanical IQ of about 32, but I became adroit with all infantry smalls arms. I had no choice. It was either that or my ass. The tricky part of the BAR, I remember, was putting your index finger on the checkered surface of the recoil spring guide, turning and pressing until the ends were clear of the retaining shoulders, and then carefully removing the spring and guide. You never hurried that part. If you let the spring get away from you, the guide would rip right through your throat."

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:

"In a foxhole in the center of the tenuous line he had done so much to hold, [Pfc Edward] Ahrens, an Able Company automatic rifleman, lay quietly, his eyes closed, breathing slowly. Ahrens was covered with blood. He was dying. Next to him lay a dead Japanese sergeant, and flung across his legs, a dead officer. Ahrens had been hit in the chest twice by bullets, and blood welled slowly from three deep puncture wounds inflicted by bayonets. Around this foxhole sprawled thirteen Japanese bodies. As [Capt]...Walt gathered Ahrens in his arms to carry him to the Residency, the dying man, still clinging to his BAR, said, "Captain, they tried to come over me last night, but I don't think they made it." "They didn't, Johnny," Walt replied softly, "they didn't."" (1)

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:

"Dauntlessly returning to his company on his own initiative after having been wounded and evacuated, Pfc McCarver, a few days later, valiantly undertook to make his way across fire-swept terrain to bring news of the front to his platoon leader. Despite a bullet wound received en route, he resolutely proceeded on his mission and succeeded in delivering information which saved the platoon from advancing into a strong enemy defensive position and enabled the platoon leader to map a comparatively safe three hundred yard gain. Refusing to be evacuated because of his wound, on the next day he daringly exposed himself to savage hostile hand grenade and rifle fire to move forward toward several Japanese in a sandbag emplacement, immobilizing them with accurate rifle fire until his squad could draw close enough to wipe out the hostile force with hand grenades. Later, while covering the advance of a flame thrower, he was fatally struck by a Japanese bullet."

Such was the caliber of men who carried John Browning's legendary BAR in the Fleet Marine Force during World War II.

Reconstruction of a BAR man firing his weapon in the prone. Firing from this position, a good BAR man could hit targets out to 600 yards. Equipment and uniform from the WW2 Gyrene collection

Reconstruction of a BAR man taking a nap in the sun. He has stripped off his 782 gear, but his weapon is close at hand if needed. Equipment and uniform from the WW2 Gyrene collection

Marks of honor and skill for an automatic rifleman: the Basic Badge with expert automatic rifleman bar. Also displayed is the Expert Rifleman Badge, the Purple Heart ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, and Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal ribbon with two campaign stars. Insignia and uniform from the WW2 Gyrene collection

FM 23-15 was the reference bible for the BAR. It covered many areas, including methods of fire, tactical employment of the BAR, maintenance, conduct of ranges, etc.

Click HERE or on the cover of FM 23-15 to download a copy of this manual from ibiblio.org. Photo from the WW2 Gyrene collection

 

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.
D-series Table of Organization, Marine Infantry Regiment dated 28 March 1941 w/revision of 10 January 1942.
E-series Table of Organization, Marine Infantry Regiment dated 15 April 1943.
F-series Table of Organization, Marine Infantry Regiment dated 27 March 1944.
U.S. Infantry Weapons of World War II by Bruce Canfield, 1998, Andrew Mowbray Publishers.
Goodbye Darkness – a Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester, 1979, Little, Brown and Company.
Guidebook for Marines, second edition, 1947, the Leatherneck Association.
Medal of Honor citation and official photo for Pfc Frank Witek.
Navy Cross citation for Pfc William S. McCarver.
Painting The BAR Man is by Col Charles Waterhouse, USMCR (ret), USMC Combat Art Collection.
The sketch of PFC Ahrens is from Leatherneck Magazine.
The photo of Pfc Witek is an official photo.




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