M1917A1 Heavy Machine Gun


Weight (with water): 93 pounds
Rate of fire: 400-600 rounds per minute
Maximum effective range: 1100 yards
Method of loading: 250 round cloth belts

The M1917A1 was a water cooled, recoil operated, belt fed, heavy machine gun.

The M1917A1 Heavy Machine Gun was one of many weapons designed by the legendary John M. Browning. It was first used in World War I as the M1917 HMG. Nearly 70,000 of these weapons were produced in 1917-1918. After the armistice, many of these weapons were placed in long term storage.

Between 1936-1937, Rock Island Arsenal made numerous modifications to these weapons, redesignating the HMG as the M1917A1. With the coming of World War II, the US Army Ordnance Department placed contracts for new weapons. During the war, nearly 54,000 M1917A1's were built by American manufacturers.

In the Marine Corps, the M1917A1 was used primarily in the the Marine infantry battalion. Under the D-series Table of Organization in effect at the start of the war, there were 24 heavy machine guns found in the battalion weapons company. These weapons were organized into three heavy machine gun platoons. As the war progressed, the number of heavy machine guns decreased in favor of lighter weapons. Under the F-series Table of Organization, approved in May 1944, the heavy machine gun platoons were assigned to the rifle companies, for a total of 18 HMG's.

The photo at left depicts a Marine Corps heavy machine gun squad organized under the E-series table of organization. In addition to the HMG, the squad was authorized two hand carts, one for the gun, and the other for ammunition. The squad leader was a corporal, and the rest of the Marines were non-rated Marines. The gunner fired the weapon and the assistant gunner fed the weapon and helped with target identification. The other Marines in the squad were ammo bearers.

In the attack, the HMG's could be employed to cover the flanks on the axis of advance, or to provide suppressive fires on the objective. In the defense, they were a key part of the battalion's fires. The guns' water cooling and heavy tripods enabled them to fire thousands of rounds if necessary.

The photo below illustrates the heavy machine gun squad organized under the D-series table of organization. Hand carts were used to carry the gun, tripod and ammunition. The gun was dismounted from its cart for emplacement and firing. Marines often left their carts behind when taking the guns out on patrols and other offensive operations.

Weighing nearly 100 pounds, the M1917A1 was difficult to transport. It was cumbersome to hand carry and its ammunition was also heavy. HMG's were usually emplaced in static positions. They were best suited to the defensive role of breaking up Japanese night attacks and banzai charges. But Marines carried these weapons in every campaign of the war and used them to devastating effect.

GySgt John M. Basilone was one of the first Medal of Honor recipients in World War II. He served as a HMG section leader in Company D, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines during the Guadalcanal campaign. On the night of 24-25 October 1942, his courage and leadership were critical to smashing a Japanese regimental night attack by units of the Sendai Division.

GySgt Basilone received his Medal of Honor on 27 May 1943 while the 1st MarDiv was recuperating in Australia. He was then ordered home to take part in war bond drives. The Corps offered him a commission, but he said, "I'm a plain soldier, I want to stay one." He wanted badly to return to the FMF and requested transfer many times. His request was granted in early 1944 and he was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th MarDiv.

Serving as a weapons platoon sergeant, GySgt Basilone landed on Iwo Jima on 19 February 1945. Arriving on Red Beach with the 4th wave at about 0930, he immediately set to work moving his Marines forward across the fire-swept ground. Disregarding his own safety many times, he tried to restore momentum to the stalled attack.

He ignored concentrated fire and seemed oblivious to the danger all around him. Finally, Gunny Basilone's luck ran out at about noon. While briefing his Marines, he was killed by a Japanese mortar round. He was buried in the 5th MarDiv cemetery. The Gunny was later was the recipient of a posthumous Navy Cross.

PltSgt Mitchell Paige earned his Medal of Honor while serving with a heavy machine gun platoon in Company H, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in the early morning darkness of 26 October 1942. Manning an exposed position on the Ridge, a strategic terrain feature controlling the approaches to Henderson Field, Paige and his Marines were attacked by wave after wave of Sendai Division troops. The Marines defended their by tossing hundreds of fragmentation grenades downhill on the Japanese.

One by one, Paige's men were killed or wounded until he was left alone, himself wounded. He fired belt after belt of ammunition into the Japanese assault troops, even after they had gained the high ground. Running back and forth between his two machine guns, Paige kept up a steady stream of fire that prevented the enemy from consolidating on top of the Ridge.

Both machine guns were finally put out of action, and Paige ran to an adjacent unit, securing another heavy machine gun and ammunition. He continued to man his exposed position until reinforcements moved up, continuing a high rate of fire that broke up the Japanese attackers as they moved uphill. He then led the counterattack that crushed the last Japanese resistance, restoring the main battle line. After first light of the 26th, Marines counted 98 Japanese bodies on the Ridge, and a further two hundred in the ravine leading up to it.

Mitchell Paige received a battlefield commission to 2ndLt in December 1942 and retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 1959. He passed away in 2003 and is buried in Riverside National Cemetery, California.

A machine gun section fires on the range at at Camp Elliott in a still image from the motion picture To the Shores of Tripoli. Marine Corps machine gunners used a system of fire known as the "talking guns" to conserve ammunition and maintain continuous fire coverage. 20th Century Fox

A pre-war heavy machine gun squad fires on the range at Camp Elliott in a still image from the motion picture To the Shores of Tripoli. 20th Century Fox

In this still image, probably from a film shot at Cape Gloucester, a heavy machine gun squad moves off the line. The gunner carries the machine gun and water hose. The assistant gunner trails behind carrying the gun's tripod. Still image from USMC motion picture film

A heavy machine gun section of the 2nd MarDiv practices gun drill aboard ship enroute to Tarawa, November 1943. Training continued right up until the last moment as Marines prepared for the next combat operation, as is evident in this photo. Still image from USMC motion picture film


""Our crew and two others set off… in a flanking movement to the left, heading for some level terrain to the right of the Jap's position. It took about all the patience and strength most of us had going down that hill because we had to cover at least a hundred yards and use as much concealment as possible. We finally made it, setting up the guns in the flat section of the Jap's flank, my gun forward, the other two covering the rear."

"The Japs made repeated charges, but were caught in a crossfire until the defending unit was cut down to about sixty-five. With the cover of the rear guns we were able to move up with hand grenades and knock out the first pillbox, going on later to the second. The third pillbox was too high on the hill to get at, but our guns were able to engage it with a constant fire that allowed our men waiting on the hill to advance on the Japs.""

"Short Belts and Short Ranges" by Sgt I. R. McVay
Leatherneck Magazine August 1944

Officer candidates at MCB, Quantico, on a heavy machine gun range early in World War II. The wooden ammo boxes and fabric belts used with the M1917A1 are visible in this photo. Later in the war, metal ammo boxes and disintegrating link belts were introduced for use with this weapon. USMC Photo

Heavy machine gunners of a Marine defense battalion practice crew drill with their M1917A1 at Montford Point Camp, North Carolina prior to deploying overseas. The defense battalions were heavily armed units with a large number of automatic weapons. USMC Photo

A 28th Marines heavy machine gun squad on Iwo Jima, 1945. The pile of brass casings behind the weapon shows how much ammunition was fired out of these guns. During sustained firing, thousands of rounds could be fired in a short time. USMC Photo

A heavy machine gun in action on Iwo Jima. The cloth belt is clearly visible as it feeds from the receiver. In this weapon, casings ejected from the bottom of the receiver. Still image from USMC motion picture film







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