M1917 Browning machine gun

The M1917 Browning machine gun is a heavy machine gun used by the United States armed forces in World War I, World War II, Korea, and to a limited extent in Vietnam; it has also been used by other nations. It was a crew served, belt-fed, water-cooled machine gun that served alongside the much lighter air-cooled Browning M1919. It was used at the battalion level, and often mounted on vehicles (such as a jeep). There were two main iterations of it: the M1917, which was used in World War I; and the M1917A1; which was used thereafter. The M1917, which was used on some aircraft as well as in a ground role, had a firing rate of 450 rounds per minute; the M1917A1 had a firing rate of 450 to 600 rounds per minute.

M1917 Browning machine gun
Class Manportable
Type Machine Guns
Manufacturer Browning Arms Company
Origin United States of America
Country Name Origin Year
United States of America 1917
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Browning Arms Company View

In 1900, John Moses Browning filed a patent for a recoil-powered automatic gun. Browning did not work on the gun again until 1910, when he built a water-cooled prototype of the 1900 design. Although the gun worked well, Browning improved the design slightly. Browning replaced side ejection with bottom ejection, added a buffer for smoother operation, replaced the hammer with a two piece firing pin, and some other minor improvements. The basic design of the gun was still the 1900 design.

The Browning is a water-cooled heavy machine gun, though some experimental versions were made that did not use a water jacket; the air-cooled M1919 was later developed as a medium machine gun. Unlike many other early machine guns, the M1917 had nothing to do with Maxim's toggle lock design. At 47 pounds (21 kg), it was much lighter than contemporary Maxim type guns such as the first 137-pound (62 kg) German Maschinengewehr 08 (08/15 model: 43 lb (20 kg)) and the British Vickers machine gun, while still being highly reliable. The only similarities with the Maxim or Vickers are the principle of recoil operation, T-slot breechblock, "pull-out" belt feed, water cooling, and forward ejection. Its sliding-block locking mechanism saved weight and complexity, and was used in many previous Browning designs. The belt fed left-to-right, and the cartridges were stacked closer together than Maxim/Vickers (patterns copied by most guns later.)

The Army Ordnance Department showed little interest in machine guns until war was declared in April 1917. At that time, the U.S. arsenal included only 1,100 machine guns, and most of those were outmoded. The government asked several designers to submit weapons. Browning arranged a test at the Springfield Armory in May 1917. In the first test, the weapon fired 20,000 rounds without incident. The reliability was exceptional, so Browning fired another 20,000 rounds through the weapon without any parts failing. The Ordnance Board was impressed, but was unconvinced that the same level of performance could be achieved in a production model. Consequently, Browning used a second gun that not only duplicated the original trial, but it also fired continuously for 48 minutes and 12 seconds (over 21,000 rounds).

The Army adopted the weapon as its principal heavy machine gun, utilizing the M1906 .30-06 cartridge with a 150-grain, flat-base bullet. Unfortunately, production was a problem. Several manufacturers started producing the gun, but they had to set up the assembly lines and tooling. By June 30, 1918, Westinghouse had made only 2,500 and Remington had made only 1,600. By the time of the Armistice, Westinghouse had made 30,150, Remington 12,000, and Colt 600.

Until the start of World War I, the Army had used a variety of older machine guns, like the M1895 Colt–Browning machine gun "Potato Digger" (which Browning had also designed) and weapons like the Maxim Gun, the Benet–Mercie M1909, and the Hotchkiss M1914 machine gun. Although the Model 1917 was intended to be the principal US Army heavy machine gun in the war, the Army was, in fact, forced to purchase many foreign weapons - the French-produced Hotchkiss 8 mm machine gun was actually the most numerous heavy machine gun used by the American Expeditionary Force.

In 1926, the Browning's rear sight was revised to incorporate scales for both the new M1 Ball (172-grain boat-tail bullet) and the M1906 (150-grain flat-base bullet) ammunition. With M1 ball, the M1917 had a maximum range of about 5,500 yd (5,000 m); with M2 ammunition, about 3,500 yd (3,200 m). The rear sight had a battle sight as well as a raised leaf-type sight suitable for employment against either ground or air targets.

The M1917 saw limited service in the later days of World War I. Because of production delays, only about 1,200 Model 1917s saw combat in the conflict, and then only in the last 2½ months of the war. Some arrived too late for combat service. For example, the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, fighting as part of the Second Division didn't exchange their Hotchkiss M1914 machine guns for Browning M1917 machine guns until November 14, three days after the armistice. The U.S. equipped about a third of the divisions sent to France; the others were equipped equally with machine guns bought from the French or the British Vickers machine guns built by Colt in the US. Where the Model 1917 did see action, its rate of fire and reliability were highly effective. The M1917 weapon system was inferior to the Vickers and Hotchkiss guns because the British and French cartridges had about 50 percent longer range than the .30-06 service cartridge used in World War I.

The Model 1917A1 was again used in the Second World War, and was primarily used with the M2 ball, tracer, and armor-piercing ammunition introduced just prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Some were supplied to the UK for use by the Home Guard since all production of the .303 Vickers were needed to resupply the equipment abandoned during the Fall of France. The M1917's weight and bulk meant that it was generally employed as a fixed defense or as a battalion or regimental support weapon. At the fierce battle of Momote Airstrip in the Admiralties, the US Army's 5th Cavalry machinegunners killed several hundred Japanese in one night using their M1917 Brownings; one gun was left in position after the battle as a memorial to the desperate struggle.

The Model 1917 was called to service again in the Korean War. On at least one occasion, U.S. soldiers in the Korean War urinated on the gun when water-cooling had failed in the frigid temperatures of the Korean winter. The Model 1917 was slowly phased out of military service in the late 1960s in favor of the much lighter M60 machine gun chambered in the new 7.62mm NATO cartridge.

The attributes of the Model 1917 (and similar weapons, such as the Vickers machine gun)—continuous fire from a static position—had been rendered useless by the transition to highly mobile warfare. Many of the 1917s were given to South Vietnam. The last ones in regular US service were on the machine gun infiltration course at Fort Benning, Georgia, where their sustained-fire capability was an advantage in long nights of shooting over the heads of low-crawling trainees. The gun did continue to see service in some Third World armies well into the later half of the 20th century. Some are still in use today by irregular military forces because its water cooled barrel allows for long periods of sustained fire.

Type Heavy machine gun
Place of origin United States
Service history
In service 1917–late 1960s (U.S.)
Used by Argentina
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Dominican Republic
South Korea
United Kingdom
United States
South Vietnam
Wars World War I
World War II
Korean War
Vietnam War
Production history
Designed 1917
Number built 128,369
Variants M1917, M1917A1
Weight 103 lb (47 kg) (gun, tripod, water, and ammunition)
Length 980 mm
Barrel length 24 in (609 mm)
Cartridge .30-06 Springfield
Action Recoil-operated automatic
Rate of fire 450 round/min, 600 round/min for M1917A1
Muzzle velocity 2,800 ft/s (853.6 m/s)
Feed system 250 round fabric belt

End notes