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Browning M1917 (Model 1917) Belt-Fed, Water-Cooled Heavy Machine Gun (1917)

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 10/6/2013

The Browning M1917 had the distinction of fighting in World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War and the Vietnam War - quite the testament to her original design.

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The Browning M1917 machine gun became one of those rare weapons in American military history that went on to fight in most all of the major conflicts of the 20th Century. Developed during the latter stages of World War 1, it was still in use by the time of World War 2 and fought on in Korea with US troops and in the Vietnam War with the South Vietnamese. The system was produced in enough numbers to ensure that the Browning name would be synonymous with the US Army for generations and lead up to further Browning developments in the ensuing decades. Despite its limited availability in World War 1, the system came into its own during the inter-war years leading up to World War 2 and was the featured heavy machine gun of the US Army in that span. Though initially categorized as a heavy machine gun by 1917 standards, the weapon was later "downgraded" to the medium machine gun category at a later time.

Famed American gunsmith John Moses Browning, having already developed a successful history in the design and production of small arms, took to designing a new machine gun. He undertook several key experiments between recoil-operated and gas-operated systems and came away with the belief that recoil-operated systems were the way to go, citing the latter's potential. In 1890, Browning received his US Patent for a recoil-operated machine gun and, despite the weapon's availability by 1910, the powers-that-be in the US Army found little interest in the Browning creation. This would all change with America's involvement in World War 1 by April of 1917. By then, the Browning M1917 was accepted into service after some impressive test firings for the US Army. In one such showing, the M1917 chewed through 20,000+ rounds of ammunition without a single malfunction.

Despite the need for a heavy machine gun system (and preferably of indigenous design for availability's sake), the US Army only received a fraction of the available M1917s by the time Doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force went to France. This meant that only the last few groups of American units were actually issued the M1917 for use in combat. As such, the US Army was forced to rely on the purchase of machine guns from her Allies, namely France. However, in the short time that the M1917 was in service in the conflict, it was noted for her strong qualities - mainly her reliability under fire and her high rate-of-fire.

Water-Cooling Over Air-Cooling

The M1917 made use of a water-filled cooling "jacket" fitted around the barrel. This jacket helped to dissipate the heat generated around the gun barrel as a result of each successive firing. In some ways, this method of cooling proved more efficient over other air-cooled types. However, water-cooling carried with it some inherent disadvantages. A fresh water supply would have to be made available for the crew to replenish the water container once the local supply was expended. This therefore required additional crewmembers for optimal support of the weapon. Couple that with the fact that the water-cooled jacket and water, along with the tripod, ammunition and gun itself, made for one cumbersome system, it was not uncommon to need up to four personnel to port and man the weapon.

In air-cooled machine guns the barrel was, of course, cooled by the air around it. While effective to an extent, it forced the operator to wield the weapon through short-controlled bursts of fire to allow for adequate cooling of the barrel in between trigger presses. Additionally, the barrel would eventually have to be changed to keep it from overheating outright and this often proved a time-consuming affair - not to mention the dangers in handling a red hot barrel under fire.

In either regard, however, each form of cooling held with it some advantages and disadvantages. It should be noted that water-cooled machine guns eventually gave way to air-cooled machine guns by the time of the modern age of warfare.

Recoil Operation

John Browning developed his recoil-operated system to take advantage of the recoil force found in the expanding powder gasses of each successive shot. The action pushed the barrel and bolt rearwards until stopped automatically to which the ammunition feed sprang into action and inserted a live round into the chamber from the available ammunition belt. By this time, the bolt was set into place by the recoil spring and the weapon was made ready to fire once more. If picture in a fast, repeated action, one gains a sense of the power provided for by the M1917. This operation afforded the M1917 its recoil-operation and allowed for full automatic fire at 400 rounds per minute in the base M1917 and (ultimately) upwards of 600 rounds per minute in the revised M1917.

M1917 Walk-Around

External design of the Browning M1917 followed much in line with the German Maxim 08 and British Vickers before it (it should be noted that the Browning design has no relation to either weapon system). The main mechanical functions of the weapon were held in a rectangular body. Attached to the foreend of the body was the type's identifiable cylindrical water jacket used to cool the barrel with a portion of the barrel muzzle extending out some at the bottom edge of the jacket. A carrying handle could be attached along the top of the barrel jacket for some level of portability. The trigger was part of a spade grip assembly fitted to the rear of the body and proved an effective method of distinguishing the Browning design from both the German Maxim and British Vickers. A mounting leg was present at the forward underside base of the weapon for fitting onto its tripod. The tripod was a heavy, tubular affair that provided the operator with both a swivel and elevation action to train effectively onto targets. A flip-up type sight was situated at the forward end of the upper body. Ammunition feed was situated along the left side of the body and utilized a fabric 250-round belt held in an ammunition box. This ammunition box contained M1906 .30-06 cartridges and pictures show that the box could be fitted directly alongside the weapon body or kept along the ground when firing. The operator maintained a sitting or prone position behind the weapon while test-firing photographs also showed a hunched-over operator stance being taken.

The Browning M1917 featured an automatic firing action based on recoil operation. Rate-of-fire for the original M1917 was approximately 450 rounds per minute while this was bested in the remanufactured M1917A1 to 600 rounds-per-minute. Muzzle velocity was listed at 2,800 feet-per-second. Ammunition feed was through a simple 250-round fabric belt. Total weight with the gun, tripod, water canister and ammunition load was just over 100lbs (103lbs to be exact; the gun itself weighed 32lbs or 15kg), requiring several personnel to maneuver the weapon into place. Hence its use was almost mainly on the defensive.

Variants

The M1917 was the initial production model, designated by the year it was first made available for service. These were produced in substantial numbers in the closing months of World War 1 but only 1,200 were made available out of the 40,000 delivered before the armistice while a grand total of 68,000 were produced before the end of the war. A tripod was standard field issue and used to stabilize the firing action and provide the operator with a certain degree of movement across his firing line. Rate-of-fire was listed at 450 rounds per minute. The M1917 was developed into an air-cooled, open jacket machine gun for use on aircraft and became the standard airborne weapon for American planes for some time. Base on the combat experiences in World War 1, the M1917 was revised regularly throughout the 1920s (including its leaf sight component in 1926) but no "official" revisions took place until 1936, producing the improved M1917A1.

The M1917A1 was a remanufactured version of the base M1917 handled by Rock Island Arsenal but maintained the original's overall design, layout and general appearance. Such improvements to the base system helped to help increase the service life of the machine gun with one notable improvement to the line being the new rate-of-fire between 450 and 600 rounds per minute. Other revisions included reworking the feed mechanism, the sights and improving upon the tripod. Modifications took place from 1936 to 1937. The M1917A1 was featured in World War 2 (producing yet more modifications from 1942 to 1944) and incorporated use of tracer, armor-piercing and M2 ball ammunition. The M1917A1 became the US Army's standard battalion-level machine gun up until the middle of the 1950s to which it was then replaced by the M60 General Purpose Machine Gun of 7.62mm caliber - itself having origins in the fine German MG42 machine gun series. The M1917A1 saw service in both World War 2 and the Korean War. By this time, the system had effectively met her period of combat usefulness for the United States.

M1917A1 crews in World War 2 learned their machine guns from the inside out, trained to take apart and reassemble the weapon from memory while blind-folded. Training also produced operators that could adjust their weapons only by feel and change their barrels in the dark of night while under fire from the enemy. Out of the crew of three, each member was trained in the other's actions so all three could operate independent of one another if the situation called for it. One member handled the tripod while the other set the gun atop it. The third crewmember handled the water container and ammunition supply. World War 2 M1917A1's were fitted to the M18A1 tripod.

As the M1917 made use of the water-cooled system, such a cumbersome device aboard a fighter aircraft was, of course, unreasonable for use in aircraft. The M1918 was an aircraft-based derivative of the M1917 and developed as an air-cooled alternative with a lighter and open-air jacket along with use of a heavier barrel. Though development ensued while the war was still being waged, the weapon was not made available in time to take part in the conflict. The M1918M1A was a variant of the M1918 meant to operate from a flexible mounting such as from a rear observers cockpit position. The M1918 gave birth to the M1919 (mentioned below), initially an air-cooled, heavy barrel weapon meant to arm American tanks in World War 1.

Colt produced the M1917 in military and commercial forms. These included the Model 1917, Model 1928, MG38, MG38B and the MG38BT.

The M1917 line was simplified in an air-cooled model known as the M1919 designed specifically for cavalry forces as these units also saw the need for such a weapon system, though made more lightweight and therefore mobile on the battlefield. This development - as noted by its designation - appeared after World War 2 but went on to see action in ensuing conflicts. The M1919 spawned the M1919A tank gun and was modified and upgraded into other forms.

Operators

The Ksp m/36 was the Swedish designation of the M1917. These were forged in two distinct calibers for two distinct duties. The 6.5x55mm model was developed specifically for use as an anti-infantry support weapon while the 8x63mm was an anti-aircraft derivative. By the end of the 1970s, all M1917s in Swedish service were converted to fire the 7.62x51mm NATO standard round.

The Ckm wz.30 were Polish-built M1917 models with the only major difference being their use of 7.92x57mm Mauser rounds.

Norway operated the M/29, essentially Colt-produced M1917s and chambered to fire the 7.92mm round. The M/29 saw service in World War 2 during the invasion of Norway in defense of the homeland from Nazi German incursion.

Argentina became another M1917 operator, these being Colt-produced M1917s.

Conclusion

As previously stated, the M1917 was eventually replaced in US service by the newer 7.62x51mm NATO M60 General Purpose Machine Gun. The days of a heavy defensive weapon had long past and the need for a more mobile infantry solution was apparent. The M60 fit the bill and the legacy of the M1917 was effectively over. The weapon does surface from time to time in those forgotten corners of the world where revolutions and tribal warfare are a seemingly daily occurrence. Though effectively out of service with US forces by the time of the Vietnam War, some US Navy units used the weapon in the early stages of the conflict.

Manufacture of the M1917 was handled by Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Company, Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company and the New England Westinghouse Company. Production spanned from 1917 through 1945.

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Specifications for the
Browning M1917 (Model 1917)
Belt-Fed, Water-Cooled Heavy Machine Gun


Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Co; Colt Patent Firearms Mfg Co; New England Westinghouse Co - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1917


Overall Length: 978mm (38.50in)
Barrel Length: 609.00mm (23.98in)
Weight (Empty): 103.62lbs (47.00kg)


Caliber: .30-06 Springfield
Action: Recoil-Operated; Automatic
Feed: 250-round fabric belt
Muzzle Velocity: 2,800ft/sec (853m/sec)
Rate-of-Fire: 600 rounds per minute
Sights: Flip-Up Adjustable Rear Sight


Variants:
M1917 - Initial Production Model Designation; tripod-mounted; 450 rounds-per-minute rate-of-fire.


M1917A1 - Remanufactured M1917s; work conducted by Rock Island Arsenal; 450-600 rounds-per-minute rate-of-fire; revised feed unit; re-graduated sights; revised tripod.

M1918 - Aircraft Version; air-cooled; heavier barrel with lighter pierced jacket casing.

M1918M1 - Flexible-mounted variant of aircraft-based, air-cooled M1918.

M1919 - Revised and simplified version based on the M1917 series; air-cooled; developed for calvary use in WW1 but appeared too late; heavier barrel with lighter "cut" casing jacket; developed into the M1919A1, M1919A2, M1919A3, M1919A4, M1919A4E1, M1919A5 and M1919A6.

M37 - Tank Machine Gun based on the M1919; left- or right-handed feed system; ejection chute for metallic link belts.

M2 - Developed from outset as aircraft-based weapon; solenoid-based release or spade grips.

Mark 1-1 Model 0 - US Navy use; 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition; differing feed and barrel; based on M1919A4.

Ksp m/36 - Swedish designation of M1917; produced in 6.5x55mm anti-infantry and 8x63mm anti-aircraft versions; later re-chambered for 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition.

Ckm wz.30 - Polish designation of M1917 copies chambered to fit the 7.92x57mm Mauser round.

M/29 - Norwegian designation of M1917.

Colt Model 1917 - Commercial Variant produced by Colt; based on the M1917.

Colt Model 1928 - Commercial Variant produced by Colt; Type A flash hider; thumb-mounted safety; Argentine designation of Colt-produced Model 1917s.

Colt MG38 - Commercial Variant produced by Colt; water-cooled; spade grips.

Colt MG38B - Commercial Variant produced by Colt; water-cooled; spade grips.

Colt MG38BT - Commercial Variant produced by Colt; shorter heavy barrel; air-cooled; similar to Browning M1919A2 model; developed for use as a tank-mounted anti-infantry machine gun; spade grips.


Operators:
Argentina; Norway; Poland; Sweden; United States