Sitting on a display case in the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum’s “World Wars Room” is a Model M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). Introduced late in World War I and now known by infantrymen around the globe, the “BAR” was the product of the fertile mind of John Moses Browning. He is considered to be one of the world’s foremost firearms designers with 128 firearm patents. He is credited with the development of modern automatic and semi-automatic firearms along with a range of accessories, used by the military and civilian communities worldwide.
About John Moses Browning
Browning was born in Ogden, Utah in 1855 and at age 13 went to work in his father’s gun shop. His prolific work continued unabated until, while working on a design for a new self-loading pistol, he literally died of a heart attack in 1926 at his workbench in his son Val’s design shop in Belgium. Throughout his life, John Browning remained totally focused on his craft. He is known for such weapons as the M1911 pistol, the Browning Hi Power pistol, the M1917 .30 caliber water-cooled and M1919 .30 caliber air-cooled machine guns, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, and the Browning Auto-5 semi-automatic shotgun. The U.S. Army adopted his classic BAR “Browning Automatic Rifle” early in 1918. Variations remained in use until the early years of the Vietnam War.
Origins of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
War brings massive advances in a variety of areas, from medicine to tactics, and of course to weaponry. Early in World War I, both sides recognized the value of a relatively lightweight and easily carried automatic weapon for use by infantrymen was evolving. John Browning was right at the forefront with a response.
The French Army had already introduced the lightweight (and cheaply made) Chauchat (an example of which is also in the Varnum Armory collection). This type of weapon would allow an infantryman to continuously fire at an enemy while advancing, a technique called “walking fire”. Trench warfare, which often entailed high volume of concentrated fire, was also an effective application.
Browning quickly developed his idea for an automatic rifle and introduced it in 1917. Following tests in Washington DC before some 300 observers and after additional testing at the Springfield Armory, the U.S. Army accepted the weapon. Although it required some modifications, it quickly proved its reliability under the most adverse conditions. Early models allowed single (semi-automatic) or full automatic fire of between 350 to 550 rounds per minute of 30.06 caliber ammunition, using 20 round magazines. Incidentally, Browning also demonstrated his .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun to the same audience. After some modifications, it also ordered by the Army as the M1917 model. Like the BAR, it would also serve well into the 20th century. Again, you can see an example of the M1917 in our Varnum Armory collection.
The Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in World War I
When the American Expeditionary Force began arriving in Europe in 1917, it was at first equipped with a variety of European weapons, including the French Chauchat machine rifle (the Chauchat was also manufactured under contract in the U.S.). The gun’s poor quality was readily visible in its open, spring-loaded magazine. It easily clogged and also had the disturbing quality of falling out of the weapon. One look at the Chauchat and comparing to the BAR will make the differences quite clear.
Initial shipments of the BAR arrived in Europe in September of 1918, and the 79th Infantry Division took it into action. John Browning’s own son, Army Lieutenant Val Browning, personally carried it. The French immediately ordered 15,000 of them to replace their Chauchat. The BAR saw limited action. The Armistice was declared less than three months after the weapon’s first battlefield use. It is said that AEF Commander, General John Pershing, was also concerned that the BAR could fall into enemy hands. And was reluctant to issue it in large numbers. Some 52,000 BARs were delivered to the Army before the war ended.
Post World War I use of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
After the World War I, Browning continued to experiment improve his designs. Colt Patent Firearms and Winchester, both in Connecticut, were the principal manufacturers of his designs. Winchester took over the lion’s share of manufacture when Colt could not keep up with demand due to other contract commitments. It was Winchester that made some further improvements, such as adjusting the ejection of spent casings to one side instead of vertically. A third company, Marlin-Rockwell, also entered production and between the three firms turned out more than 100,000 BARs by the end of the World War I. Civilian models came out after the war, but never gained popularity because of their high price (and all such weapons were banned from private ownership in 1934).
In 1931, Colt introduced another variation: the Monitor Machine Rifle. It is one of the lightest-weight automatic .30 caliber weapons (about 15 pounds) and was intended for use by law enforcement (only 125 were manufactured). During prohibition, the military BAR was especially popular in the underworld (in spite of so many representations of the Thompson submachine gun in the movies). It was the favored weapon of bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker (Clyde got his weapons by robbing National Guard armories).
The BAR remained in military service through the Korean War and into the Vietnam War, although it started to be phased out in the late 1950’s, replaced by a variant of the M14 and later the M16. The Army began phasing out the BAR in the late 1950s and was without a portable light machine gun until the introduction of the M60 machine gun in 1957, a general-purpose machine gun. In the mid 1980’s, it began issuing the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon.
The Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in World War II
Between 1917and 1945, more than 350,000 BARs were produced. The major percentage came in World War II, with some 249,380 turned out. In 1938, as war clouds were looming, the Army recognized the need to equip squad level units with a lightweight automatic weapon began to issue a modified BAR, identified as the M1918A2. It was supplied with a bipod, which most BAR users discarded, preferring to use it as a shoulder-fired weapon and carry it with a sling. Initially, at the squad level, BARs were the only automatic weapons issued to a 12-man unit. Everyone was given basic training in its use. Although three men were assigned to its operation (a gunner, an assistant and an ammunition carrier), eventually, one man bore the burden with other infantrymen carrying additional magazines or belted .30-caliber ammunition.
In Europe, American forces encountered German units who had every fourth infantryman carrying a well-made automatic weapon. Japanese forces used the lightweight Type 96 squad-level machine gun. Both enemy forces could put out significant rates of fire with their weaponry and American units soon began issuing more BARs per squad to improve continuous fire against the enemy. Marines in the Pacific became particularly adept in using the BAR in tactics against well-entrenched Japanese. One of the BARs drawbacks was its small 20-round magazine. It also malfunctioned unless regularly cleaned. However, with some further modifications and better instruction in field maintenance under battlefield conditions, it quickly became a favored, shoulder-fired automatic rifle in all theaters.
An East Greenwich connection to the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
Now, let’s make the East Greenwich, RI, connection to the BAR. As demand for the weapon soon outstripped the capacity of the major arms makers, an unusual consortium of New England companies was created under the name “New England Small Arms Corporation”. It consisted of diverse companies who quickly converted from the civilian product lines to arms making: Massachusetts participants were A.G. Spalding & Brothers in Chicopee, Blake Manufacturing in Clinton, National Blank Book in Holyoke, and Elliot Addressing Machine Company in Cambridge. International Silver in Meriden, Connecticut, and none other than Boston Wire Stitcher Company in East Greenwich, RI, rounded out the membership.
Rather than produce components for shipment to larger prime manufacturers, New England Small Arms undertook the entire production process, producing weapon components, and then sending them to a converted facility in the Crompton section of West Warwick, RI, for final assembly into a completed weapon. Using this process, New England Small Arms produced 180,380 BARs during World War II, or an unbelievable 90% of the entire wartime production of 208,380 weapons. Given that large number, it is entirely reasonable to consider that the M1918A2 in the Varnum Museum was produced here in Rhode Island. All of companies quickly returned to peacetime outputs following cancellation of military contracts. Boston Wire Stitcher, or Bostitch as we know it, remained at its Division Street factory until it moved Route 2 in the 1960’s.
The Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in the Korean War
During its employment in the Korean War, it was praised by soldiers for its ability to sustain high rates of fire in all conditions. As noted, BARs remained in service into the early years of the Vietnam conflict. It was favored over early versions of the M-16, which was prone to jamming. James Ballou, in his book “Rock in a Hard Place: The Browning Automatic Rifle Story”, published in 2000 by Collector Grade Publications, Ontario, California, quotes an Army Special Forces sergeant remembered that “we had a lot of Viet Cong infiltrators into our camps who would steal weapons every chance they got. Needless to say, the most popular weapon to steal was the venerable old BAR.” The Ballou book is a good overall reference on the weapon.
Phasing out the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
BARs could still be found in National Guard armories into the mid 1970’s. Significant numbers had also been made over the years under license for overseas military in Poland, Sweden, Belgium, and China among other places and were still in use by some military units into the 1990’s.
About the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum
Our M1918A2 was manufactured around 1943. It is equipped with the folding bipod stock and the familiar 20-round magazine. It has a black walnut stock that, due to wartime shortages, was replaced by a plastic Bakelite stock (same material as in the old Western Electric dial telephone units). Our ownership of “the opposition” in the form of the German “Sturmgewehr” infantryman’s machine gun and the Japanese Type 96 allows for an eyeball comparison of the major automatic weapons carried by both sides in World War II.