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

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 7/19/2015

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.

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.

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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: 978 mm (38.50 in)
Barrel Length: 609.00 mm (23.98 in)
Weight (Empty): 55.12 lb (25.00 kg)

Caliber*: .30-06 Springfield
Action: Recoil-Operated; Automatic
Feed: 250-round fabric belt
Muzzle Velocity: 2,800 ft/sec (853 m/sec)
Rate-of-Fire: 600 rounds per minute
Range: 6,560 ft (1,999 m; 2,187 yds)
Sights: Flip-Up Adjustable Rear Sight

* Listed caliber(s) for firearms may be model dependent if more than one model type/chambering was produced. Always consult official manufacturer's information or a licensed dealer.

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.

Argentina; Norway; Poland; Sweden; United States