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Walking Fire Concept: The 100 Year Legacy of the BAR

Today it is easy to take the concept of “walking fire” for granted – the “assault rifle” and Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) were designed to provide greater firepower without sacrificing mobility. A century ago, however, when the nations of Europe were dug into trenches, firepower with mobility was almost never an option.

Bar 1 and 2
The iconic Browning Automatic Rifle (Photo: Peter Suciu)

The French developed the Chauchat as a way to provide such mobility to soldiers, and the Germans followed suit with a slightly more portable version of the MG08/15. Both were far from ideal for moving across no man's land.

When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917 it was largely unprepared to go “Over There.”  However it had (arguably) learned from its recent combat experience in both the Spanish-American War and subsequent Moro Rebellion. From those conflicts came development of the Springfield 1903 bolt action rifle, which was based on the German Mauser K-98, and of course the now iconic Colt 1911 .45 automatic pistol. The latter can be credited to legendary weapon's designer John Browning – who was also considering the concept of walking fire as America prepared to send troops to France.

Browning Machine Rifle

Browning understood the need for a walking fire weapon and developed one that was shoulder fired. It should be noted that at the same time it should be noted that he was also working on the designs for the Browning .30 caliber machine-gun, the M1917 water cooled machine gun that greatly improved on the widely used Maxim design that was already responsible for untold deaths during the First World War.

That shoulder fired weapon was the Browning Machine Rifle, a weapon that ended up being a little more than a traditional automatic rifle but a little less than a light machine gun. Chambered for the .30-06 Springfield rifle cartridge, the weapon was designed to be carried by infantrymen in an assault. Following demonstrations to Congress in Washington, D.C. in 1917, the weapon underwent tests with the U.S. Army Ordnance Department at the Springfield Armory.

American military planners liked what they saw and the BMR was unanimously recommended for immediate adoption. To avoid confusion with the Browning M1917 machinegun the BMR was re-designated M1918 or more officially “Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning, M1918.” It was otherwise known as the Browning Automatic Rifle – BAR. Despite what some re-enactors today may suggest or what video games may imply it was never called a “bar” but rather  was spelled out phoneticaly, “B-A-R.”

Browning_with_his_BAR 2
A 1918 dated photo shows John M. Browning, the inventor of the gun, and Mr. Burton, the Winchester expert on rifles, discussing the finer points of the Browning Light Gun (BAR) at the Winchester Plant (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps Collection: https://www.army.mil/e2/-images/2009/01/12/28323/army.mil-28323-2009-01-15-100129.jpg, Public Domain)

The 100 Year Legacy of the BAR Begins

The weapon went into production in 1918 – and because Colt was already facing production issues, the original contractor for the BAR became the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (WRAC). Other firms like Colt and Marlin-Rockwell Corp. also began to producing it.

The M1918 BAR was designed as a selective fire, air-cooled automatic rifle. It fired from the open bolt position and was gas-operated via a long-stroke piston rod. The rifle's selector switch was located on the left side of its receiver and can be set to a manual safety (“S”) as well as semi-automatic (“F”) and full-automatic (“A”). The BAR feeds from a double-column 20-round box magazine.

To clarify one point that is also largely misunderstood, unlike the German MP-18 submachine gun, the BAR was not actually built with trench warfare in mind.

Explains gun historian and author Bruce Canfield,

“When the M1918 BAR was designed, it wasn't specifically for trench warfare but was intended as a ‘squad automatic weapon.' It was, literally, ‘state of the art' in 1918.”

Val_Browning_M1918 BAR 1
Val Browning, son of John Browning, posing in a March 1918 photo with his father's invention (Photo: Dreyfuss – Army Heritage and Education Center, Public Domain)

While its 20 round magazine may seem small by today's standards, it must be remembered that most bolt action rifles of the era held only five rounds – and even the British SMLE bolt action rifle held just 10. This provided a lot more ammunition than what the enemy typically had – and moreover these were full-sized rifle cartridges.

Dort Cart, curator at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City explains,

“It introduced a true capability of advancing rapid fire which gave a distinct advantage to infantry not having to wait for the advance of machine guns. It offered a good punch even though the ammunition was the standard 30.06 caliber. It also presented the appearance of good fairly automatic firepower, which is not to be discredited. With the overwhelmingly number of bolt action rifles in use, a BAR or the German Bergmann submachine gun gave a distinct advantage to the infantry.”

Compared to the Springfield 1903 rifle the BAR was heavy, but it was lighter than the German MG08/15. It was also more reliable than the Chauchat; and, compared to the Bergmann, had greater “stopping power” as well.

BAR WWI Museum 4
An original M1918 BAR at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City (Photo: Peter Suciu)

Continues Canfield,

“The weight of the original M1918 version was about 16 pounds, which was very reasonable for a full-power automatic rifle. The 20-round magazine was optimum for the gun as adding more ammo would increase the weight.”

It has been reported that the BAR was not widely issued in Europe for fear that the Germans might capture it and copy it, but this is largely a myth – German industry was already facing a number of shortages by 1918 and it would have been difficult for the Germans to copy and produce the weapon. Moreover, military leaders don't hold back a reliable weapon because of fears it will be copied.

The BAR only was used in small numbers because the war ended in November 1918. The Allies, including the United States, had been preparing for 1919 spring offensive that fortunately was not needed. There is little doubt that the BAR would have been utilized to its full capacity in any spring campaign.

Interwar, World War II and Beyond

The greater truth of the BAR is that despite its solid design and innovations, it actually didn't meet the original hopes of the United States War Department. The BAR was fed from a magazine with a limited capacity, was air cooled and didn't have a barrel that could be easily changed – thus it wasn't really a light machine gun. At 16 pounds, plus the weight of the ammunition, it was a heavy weapon and as such wasn't exactly the best automatic rifle.

Attempts were made to improve upon it following the end of the First World War. The first came about with the M1922 version, which was designed for use with the United States Cavalry! This version featured a ribbed barrel and an adjustable spiked bipod. This version failed to improve on the design.

The next significant version was the M1918A1, which included a redesigned spiked bipod, but this too failed to improve upon the original M1918 model. Finally in 1938 – 20 years after the original design – the weapon saw its biggest makeover as the M1918A2, which included a rate reducer with two selectable rates of automatic fire – and no semi-automatic fire. The weapon was further fitted with a flash suppressor and iron sights. During World War II a carrying handle was also added, while the buttstock was lengthened by about an inch.

BAR-WWII Museum 3
A number of American small arms from the Second World War, including an M1918A2 BAR. This photo shows how much larger the BAR is than the M3 “Grease Gun” (top left) and the M1 Carbine. These small arms are in the collection of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans (Photo: Peter Suciu)

In essence this was an attempt to turn the automatic rifle again into a light machine-gun. Unfortunately, instead of greatly improving upon the BAR many soldiers just found it to add even more weight!

Canfield explains.


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“By the time of the Second World War, the BAR was still a very good weapon but was becoming obsolescent – not obsolete – primarily because its barrel could not be easily changed. Also, the Army decided to ‘improve' the BAR by adding a bipod, folding metal buttplate assembly and receiver magazine guides.”

It was only arguably an improvement. Canfield continues,

“The stuff they put on the original model bumped the weight up to 20 pounds. While four pounds may not sound like much, it was significant. Because of the added weight and the questionable usefulness, the additions, especially the bipod, proved to be unpopular with many of the users and were often discarded to reduce the weight. They should have left it the way John Browning designed it in the first place!”

The BAR was just one of several weapons in the U.S. small arms arsenal during World War II, and it filled the role of Squad Automatic Weapon reasonably well – well enough that the weapon remained in use in the Korean War and even in limited capacity in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

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The author's great uncle: Corporal Louis Suciu, 104th Infantry Division, in Zschepplin, Germany in May 1945, carrying a M1918A2 BAR with the bipod removed to reduce the weight. (Photo: Personal Collection)

Adds Canfield,

“Despite the fact it was an aging design, the BAR was an extremely popular weapon with the majority of its users in WWII, and Korea because of its fire-power and reliability. It lingered on in service into the Vietnam era and was eventually replaced by the M60 machine gun. The M60 didn't have a very good reputation while the BAR is remembered as a classic American battle weapon.”

For its shortcomings it has been remembered fondly.

Says firearms expert Alex Cranmer, of International Military Antiques.

“It is incredibly powerful and accurate with a high rate of fire. Yes, it has limited capacity, but the magazine is quick and easy to change. However, the BAR was well built and sturdy, so lasted in a variety of battlefield conditions, plus it's incredibly powerful and accurate with a high rate of fire. Yes, it has limited capacity, but the magazine is quick and easy to change.”

All of those reasons are likely too why the BAR found another fan in the interwar era –namely famous bank robbers such as the infamous “Bonnie & Clyde.” Both Clyde Barrow and his girlfriend Bonnie Parker used the M1918 version of the BAR in their crime spree. The duo were known to cut down the barrel and stock and reportedly used “armor piercing” (AP) .30-06 ammunition.

Other bank robbers such as John Dillinger and Lester “Baby Face” Nelson also may have used the BAR at various times in their criminal activities.

To keep up with the firepower utilized by bank robbers and gangsters of the era FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI to obtain BARs for use by field agents. Some 90 or so were sold to the FBI, and before World War II the weapon became a favorite of state prisons, banks and even rural police departments.

The BAR in Popular Culture

Despite the fact the BAR today is widely seen in movies and video games, in truth the firearm wasn't a popular choice in movies until recently. In fact, the BAR is nowhere to be seen in any 1920s or 1930s gangster or war films at all!

The first believed on screen appearance of the BAR was in the 1943 Gary Cooper film For Whom the Bell Tolls about the Spanish Civil War. Interestingly those movie guns were likely World War I U.S. Army surplus, while the real BARs used in Spain were likely the Polish made Browning wz. 1928 – a version made under license that was chambered for 7.92x57mm Mauser. Those examples would have featured a pistol grip, something not seen in the 1943 film. While it is possible that some U.S. M1918 BARs were used in Spain it would seem rather convenient that such an example is the one wielded by a Republican soldier!

The BAR made further appearances in American propaganda styled films made during World War II including Guns Ho! and They Were Expendable. The BAR was seen in use by background and secondary characters in films such as Beach Red, The Bridge at Remagen and Kelly's Heroes. Charlton Heston's character Neville used a BAR fitted with an M3 active infrared starlight scope and IR lamp in the 1973 sci-fi film The Omega Man.

Omega-Man-BAR

The BAR's biggest “starring role” may be in 1998's Saving Private Ryan as an M1918A2 version – without bipod – is carried by Edward Burns' PFC Richard Reiben. Throughout the movie Reiben fires it on the faster of the weapon's two full-auto fire modes. As for the missing bipod, it should be noted that early in the film Reiben reported losing his BAR during the D-Day landings and found a “replacement.”

The BAR of course remains a popular small arm in numerous video game shooters including the Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Battlefield 1942 series. However, most gamers likely have no idea of the weight of this small arm.

BAR Specs:

Type: Automatic rifle/light machine gun
Caliber: .30-06 Springfield
Weight: 16 pounds (M1918) and 20 pounds (M1918A2)
Barrel Length:24-inches (M1918) and 18-inches (M1918A2)
Cyclic Rate: 500-650rpm (M1918 / M1922 / M1918A1) 500rpm (Colt Monitor) selectable 300-450rpm & 500-650rpm (M1918A2)
Fire Modes: “Slow” full-auto and “Fast” full-auto (M1918A2)
Bullet Capacity: 20 round box magazine

If you have time, watch this government training film:
https://research.archives.gov/id/35660

Like other Browning inventions, the BAR's iconic status will probably never go away.


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