Prior to WW I the U.S. Army had little interest in machine guns. Their last major field operations were the Plains Indian Wars, which weren't wars at all, but a series of mostly small unit encounters, the Spanish-American War which lasted only a few months, and the "Punitive Expeditions" into Mexico, following Poncho Villa's 1916 raid on Columbus, NM resulting in the murder 15 U.S. citizens.
Model of 1917 Browning Machine gun
The incursions into Mexico displayed what the Army wasn't good at, combating a popular insurgency.
The term "popular", in the case of Poncho Villa, would depend on who you were talking to at the time . The recognized government of Mexico in 1916, which had about as much control of the country as they do today, considered Pancho a horse thief, cutthroat, barrio drunk and tin horn revolutionary, not necessarily in that order.
Just prior to the Spanish-American War the
Army had obtained several different types of automatic weapons on a limited
basis including John M. Browning's gas operated,
air cooled, Colt built Model of 1895 also known as the "Potato Digger"
because of the jointed swinging arm on the bottom of the weapon.
Automatic weapons played only a minor role in the Mexican unpleasantness.
Browning also did much preliminary work on a water cooled, recoil operated machine gun however, since there was little commercial interest this project was shelved.
The jewel is what is generally referred to as Browning's Model of 1901 water
cooled machine gun. Photo courtesy of the RIA Museum, Jodie
All of this changed rapidly in April of 1917 when the U.S. entered WW I.
When the war started the regular U.S. Army was about the numerical equivalent of the armies of Denmark or Chile.
The only things we had going for us was that the Spanish-American War had convinced the powers that be that the Mauser rifles fielded by Spanish troops in Cuba were superior weapons to the Krags used By U.S. troops resulting in the adoption of the Model of 1903 rifle. Lastly, Pancho Villa's murder of U.S. citizens
on U.S. soil so incensed the country and strained the Army to such an extent, that the National Guard was federalized and got in nearly a year of practical field service in the southwest, rather than the usual weekly drills in some musty armory.
Not only did we
not have much of an army, but we had little equipment suitable for the
Browning pulled the water cooled Model of 1901 machine gun plans off the shelf, dusted
them off and created what would become the Model of 1917. Colt, Remington and New England Westinghouse geared up
Besides having few machine guns the Army had zero
tanks and we were dependent on our allies to furnish both. Every
nation prefers to use indigenous weapons if possible, the United States
was no exception.
We started on a tank building program, and we needed machine guns to arm the tanks.
a water cooled M1917 was a poor candidate because of the weight, and
the possibility of damage to the water jacket rendering the weapon
inoperative. The M1917 also did not lend itself to the ball type mounting
required to protect the tank crew from enemy fire.
In 1918 the
Army turned to Colt and John Browning. Apparently Browning figured that he had
already worked out the basic mechanics of a successful recoil operated
weapon, so, he decided that by removing the water jacket and designing
a heavier barrel and a few additional changes the M1917 could be
converted to an air cooled weapon suitable for use in tanks.
Army system of weapons nomenclature in use at the time, using the words
"Model of" and adding the year of adoption, did not take into account
the rapid development of weapons systems during a world war.
up with three "Model Of 1917'' , a rifle, a revolver and water
cooled machine gun.
There was already a Model of 1918 the Browning
Machine Rifle, later known as the Browning Automatic Rifle, trying to
avoid making a bad situation worse, the Army decided to name the new
tank weapon Model of 1919 Tank Machine Gun.
Westinghouse received a contract to manufacture a large number of the
18 inch barreled Tank Machine Guns. When the war ended the contract
was reduced to about 500 weapons. Eventually about 1300 tank guns were produced.
The war not only ended, but
all interest in spending money on weapons and a standing army
evaporated, and the country reverted to its isolationist policies until
the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
One thing the Army took away
from its WWI experience was the need for automatic weapons on the
The Cavalry, seeing its role being eclipsed by
mechanized warfare, was desperate to increase the combat power of mounted
The first experiment was the adoption of the short
lived M1922 variant of the Browning Machine Rifle, by this time the Army had revised its system of weapons
nomenclature substituting the upper case letter "M" for the words
fill the bill, so in 1930 the Cavalry obtained several M1919 Tank
Machine Guns, jury rigged some sights, front and rear, as the original
M1919's either had no sights or tube sight mounted on the rear of the
casing, fabricated a new tripod, and presented this to the Ordnance
Department as the weapon they were looking for.
The M1919 and it's
tripod mount weighed in at under 50 lbs vs. the M1917 water cooled and
its tripod at just under 100 lbs. Besides the weight saving,
you didn't need a water supply for cooling, a steam hose or a steam chest for catching
and condensing the boiling water caused by sustained firing. However, you did
give up the water cooled Browning's nearly unlimited sustained fire capabilities.
Infantry, not to be out done, in 1931 acquired 72 of the tank guns
conducted some field tests, and climbed on the bandwagon.
weapon was called the M1919A3. It was called the M1919A3 because the
Army's nomenclature system assigned a letter suffix to the model number
to indicate a variant and a digit behind that to identify a variant of
The M1919A2 sometimes referred to as the "Cavalry Model"
Originally both tank guns, the one with the sight
and the one without were called the same thing M1919, This likely
caused some confusion so the one without any sights at all kept the
M1919 designation and the one with the tube sight was named the M1919A1.
By default the the "Cavalry Model", became the M1919A2. During the interwar period, which included the Great Depression, Congress was extremely stingy with appropriations for military projects. Very little development work on new weapons occurred.
Between 1931 and 1936 when the Rock Island Arsenal inherited the Springfield Armory's responsibilities for Caliber.30 ground type machine guns,
RIA carried out experiments intended to produce a better performing air cooled machine gun, albeit on a shoestring budget.
Most of the M1919A2's shortcomings could be traced to the length of the barrel. The 18 inch tank gun barrel failed to achieve the full potential of of both the M1 Ball, and the M2 Ball (formerly known as the Caliber .30 Model of 1906) cartridges.
It was determined through a series of tests that by increasing the barrel
length to 24 inches, the same length as the M1917 the range and accuracy could be improved.
These tests produced two developmental weapons rarely discussed, the Browning Tank Machine Gun M1919E2 and the M1919A2E3 both equipped with 24 inch barrels.
The M1919A2E3, shown here mounted on a M1917A1 tripod, looks like a M1919A2 with a 24 inch barrel barrel.
However, many other changes are represented here.
During development of what would be the M1919A4, and subsequent variants, many of the original Tank Machine Gun features were changed.
This picture from August, 1935, shows the one piece aluminum grip that replaced the walnut grip panels, the rear sight mounted on the cover latch, reinforced rear edges on the side plates and a different retainer system for the belt feed pivot pin assembly. This example has the dove tail bottom plate, left over from the M1917 parent, with the reinforcing stirrup and the M1919A2 front sight mounted on a ring attached to the barrel jacket near the muzzle just like its parent model the M1919A2.
There were other internal changes, not visible made during the developmental work, such as several different types of buffer systems consisting of various combinations of fiber discs, springs, stops and friction cones. The buffer system, located in the back plate, was intended to absorb some of the rearward energy of the recoiling bolt to prevent battering of the rear surface of the bolt and excessive strain and damage to the rear portion of the side plates.
What appears to be the same weapon pictured above is
the M1919E2 development version again mounted on the M1917A1 tripod.
This picture was also taken in August, 1935.
In the Ordnance Departments system of nomenclature the "E" in the model designation indicates an experimental design.
Those weapons classed as "experimental" never received a Class and Division Major Item number indicating that the weapon was a Standard or Substitute Standard or Limited Standard item.
The principal difference between the two is the location of the front sight now mounted on the front of the casing.
location, while reducing the sight radius by nearly 2 feet to about 14
inches, made mounting the weapon on vehicles much easier, besides this style
front sight folds flat on the top of the weapon, protecting it from
damage while being transported or deployed. This front sight location
remained constant on those weapons equipped with a front sight until the end of the service life of the M1919.
Both of these pictures, which I have not seen previously published, came from a document obtained from the RIA Museum which described development changes leading up to the adoption of the M1919A4 Fixed and Flexible Browning machine guns.
By September 30, 1936 the Ordnance Department had completed a set of drawings for M1919A4 Fixed and Flexible and had assigned Major Item numbers,
The Fixed model intended for use in tank mountings where they would be trained and elevated with the main gun was assigned Major Item number 51-83.
The Flexible model intended for use mounted on tripods or various mountings on vehicles was assigned Major Item number 51-84.
The only difference between these two weapons was the back plate and buffer assembly.
Cut from a 1937 dated document titled "Notes on the
M1919A4 Caliber .30 Browning Machine Gun" .
The Fixed model had a vertical buffer
adapted from the M1918 Aircraft machine gun with no pistol grip, and the Flexible had a horizontal buffer identical with the M1917 except for a different style grip assembly that allowed the stem of the M2 tripod T&E to be latched into a recess at the heel of the grip for ease of transport when the weapon was removed from the M2 tripod.
The document pictured above outlines the changes required to the M1917 water cooled and the air cooled M1919A2 and the M1919 Tank Machine Guns to convert them to M1919A4 configuration.
The Army had about 70,000 M1917 water cooled weapons left over from WW I many of them in new condition.
There was likely more sentiment in Congress to supply funds to retrofit existing weapons to a new configuration than to build new ones.
This photo is from a document titled "Notes on the Browning Machine Caliber .30 M1919A4- Modified" published by RIA in 1938.
It outlines some changes made to the original design such as providing a hold open device for the top cover (2), modifications to the belt feed lever (4), adding a handle to the cover latch required by the moving the rear sight from the latch to a mount attached to the left side plate (1), and a smaller diameter (.617) hole in the muzzle (booster) plug (3). Last but not least, the design of the rivets holding the rear of the top plate to the side plates was changed (5).
The smaller hole in the muzzle plug along with a different driving spring was part of an experiment in increasing the rate of fire to 600 rounds per minute.
The idea of increasing the rate of fire was dropped after objections were raised about exceeding the design limits of the weapon.
This photo other than the slotted barrel jacket represents the production version of the M1919A4 Fixed and Flexible weapons.
The M1919 family of weapons, just like many other things in wartime,
underwent almost constant evolution during its service life.
design, component materials, and manufacturing methods were in a continuous state of flux.
All of this effort was directed toward producing a better
performing weapon, increase production output, lower cost and conserve material all at the same time.
Saginaw Steering Gear Division of General Motors applied their considerable production know how by introducing the concept of casting some of the M1919 parts using a perlitic malleable iron alloy previously used to cast hard to machine interchangeable auto parts.
trade named this class of casting materials "ArmaSteel". The Ordnance Department used several different alloys to cast parts for weapons, however over the years all of them are commonly referred to by Saginaw's trade name.
Innovations like this, previously unknown in Government operated manufacturing facilities, lowered the cost of a single M1919A4 from a contract price of just over $650 to less than $60 in four years.
As the war clouds gathered over Europe and relations with Japan deteriorated, the Industrial Services Division of the Ordnance Department began a search for non-traditional arms manufacturers.
Their experience during WW I demonstrated that the traditional arms manufacturers would be inundated with production demands.
Additionally, most of the arms markers were located in nearly the same geographical location close to the east coast of the United States, not a good thing when considering the possibility of air attack.
The Rock Island Arsenal was selected to be the supervising Ordnance facility
for .30 caliber Browning ground type machine guns replacing the Springfield
Armory who, after 1936 were up to their necks with production of the M1 rifle.
While RIA was finalizing the production design of the M1919A4, Industrial Services was busy securing firms to manufacture weapons.
Buffalo Arms Corporation a subsidiary of the Houdaille-Hershey Corporation located in Buffalo, NY, and
the Saginaw Steering Gear Division of General Motors based in Saginaw, MI were selected to manufacture the M1919A4 along with RIA. Buffalo's approach to manufacturing relied on the use of sub contractors to produce the majority of parts used on their M1919A4's.
Buffalo Arms was already manufacturing weapons for Britain including aircraft versions of Browning machine guns in the standard British .303 caliber. Production of U.S. M1919A4's began in March of 1942 and ended in July of 1943 after producing about 38,000 weapons.
Saginaw received an "Educational Contract" in June of 1940 to do an engineering study to establish requirements for machine gun production.
By September 1940 the world situation had deteriorated to the point that Ordnance Department entered into an agreement with Saginaw to build and equip a plant to produce the M1919A4 with the pilot models being delivered by December 1941.
Saginaw began to build a new plant, and started work on production in an existing building.
On March 27, 1941, 7 months ahead of schedule, Saginaw delivered the first of the pilot production weapons.
By December, 1941 Saginaw had produced over 14,000 weapons. Not bad for a company that had never previously produced any kind of weapon.
By war's end Saginaw had produced about 367,000 M1919A4's along with several thousand M1919A5's used on the M3A1 Stewart light tank and about 44,000 M1919A6's.
RIA began manufacture of the M1919A4 with two pilot productions weapons in April, 1940 and by the end of the year had produced almost 3,000 weapons and by the end of WWII nearly 30,000.
In 1943 the Ordnance Department decided to limit weapons production to one weapon per plant. Buffalo Arms concentrated on .50 Caliber BMG's and RIA the M1917A1 water cooled BMG.
Saginaw being the high quality, high production and lowest cost provider became the only producer of purpose built M1919A4, M1919A5 and M1919A6 weapons after July 1943 except for about 1,000 or so manufactured by RIA near the end of 1944.
Besides finished weapons each manufacturer also provided a specific number of spare parts per 100 weapons manufactured.
Barrels, a high use part, were manufactured at a rate of 5 per weapon, one for the weapon being produced and four spares.
Some parts, such as barrels, were produced by contractors who did not build complete weapons. The Guide Lamp Division of GM the maker of the" Liberator" throw-away .45 caliber pistol made of sheet metal stampings and the M3 and M3A1 "Grease Gun" sub-machine gun was such a parts provider.
Border Cities Industries, Windsor, ON, a GM Canada company, also manufactured the M1919A4, however, their production went to British Commonwealth countries and was not under the supervision of the U.S. Army Ordnance Department.
As the need arose other variations of the basic design such as the M1919A5, a fixed version intended for use in tanks, and the M1919A6 bipod equipped infantry weapon were developed
RIA continued to be the responsible Ordnance facility for caliber .30 BMG's through the post war period and the development of the M37 Browning
machine gun the last, and arguably, the best of the breed.
At the close of the Korean War RIA made a run of M1919A6 purpose built weapons and some M1919A4E1 fixed weapons for use on tanks while the M37 was being readied for production.
Post Korea Saco-Lowell Shops also manufactured complete M37 and M1919A6 weapons along with spare parts including barrels for both weapons. Saco,
located in Biddleford, ME, an old time New England maker of production
machinery for the textile industry, was still producing A6 barrels and presumably M37 barrels into the early 1960's
Machine gun production responsibilities shifted back to the Springfield Armory in 1957 and the M60GP machine gun in Caliber 7.62X51 NATO slowly replaced the Brownings.
National Guard and Army Reserve units still had M1919's in their arms rooms into the mid 1960's.
General Mac Arthur's "old soldiers never die, they just fade away" comment certainly applies to the M1919's. Thousands were acquired by Israel and various other countries, sometimes being converted to 7.62X51 or other calibers and sometimes remaining in their original configuration.
M1919A4's were in use in the Viet Nam War as as helicopter landing skid mounted, solenoid, controlled machine guns and the U.S. Navy modified several thousand to 7.62X51 NATO and used them as armaments on river patrol craft.
Lake City Ordnance Plant in Independence, MO was still loading .30 Caliber ammunition as late as 1976.
In 2009 I saw a picture of a student demonstration in Portugal showing what appeared to be an armored personnel carrier with a M1919A4 on a swivel mount being manned by a Portuguese soldier.
M1919's are still in use today in some countries, not bad for a basic design over 90 years old with no new complete weapons being manufactured for almost 60 years.
Many 1919's, like my late1943/1944 Saginaw produced, Israeli vet, have escaped the cutting torch to live on as semi-automatic shadows of their former selves.
Too bad it can't talk, or maybe its better that it can't.