The Browning Machine Gun: Your 1 Definitive Guide

The Browning machine gun (a .30-caliber M1919A4 light machine gun) tore its way through World War II, being highly effective in its performance and delivery. This should come as no surprise, though, as the previous world war’s heavy machine gun, the M1917, saw great success in its time, as well. 

So much so that many other nations quickly adopted these types of guns and used them to similar levels of effectiveness. The main issue with heavy machine guns, however, is that they were very cumbersome to transport and use. 

Their massive size and weight severely limited them in the applications that they could be used. In fact, their most effective application was from a fixed position. As you can imagine, there were only so many places to effectively mount and operate a heavy machine gun. 

Be that as it may, when the machine gun was well-positioned and ready to fire, it could and did do some serious damage.

Yes, World War I saw many casualties at the hands of the heavy machine gun, making it one of the war’s most feared and effective weapons. Invented by weapons expert John Browning, the heavy machine gun was a belt-fed and water-cooled weapon that was mounted via a tripod.

Multiple variations of this weapon would follow in the years to come, with many of them taking their place as a pivotal machine gun in combat. As good as the M1917 was in its limited range of use, it still had issues that needed to be overcome in order for Browning’s weapon to reach the level of acclaim that history tells us about.

Drawbacks Lead to Refinements

When in action, the M1917 performed admirably, leaving havoc in its wake. Still, its drawbacks limited its use. Weighing approximately 100 pounds, refinements would need to be made in order to produce a versatile machine gun that could be used in aircraft or on tanks, for example. 

This would require removing the water jacket and heavy tripod, for starters. The idea was to slim down the heavy machine gun for greater freedom, thus affording its use in other applications besides fixed positions.

However, before Browning could finish such adjustments, the war ended (November 11, 1918). But that didn’t stop the development of a better version of the Browning heavy machine gun from continuing. 

In the following year of 1919, the world finally saw a .30-caliber, air-cooled machine gun adopted for tanks. Further development pressed on through the 1930s, with air-cooled Browning machine guns being made for infantry arms.

Experimentation took place to test different barrel lengths and tripods. As such, lighter machine guns were born, proving far more portable than the heavy Browning machine gun that came before. 

The M1919A4 Is Born

So impressive were these configurations that the United States Army Ordnance Committee wanted a version made specifically for the use of tanks. This version would boast air-cooled refinements and sport a 24-inch barrel with cooling slots. This began the life of the Browning M1919A4 Machine Gun.

As such, it became the standard light machine gun that would later be used throughout World War II. The new and improved Browning machine gun had a lighter tripod that played a role in reducing its weight to an impressive 45 pounds.

This was a much-needed improvement that paved the way for expanded use in various applications. And yet, other advancements were present that shaped the new machine gun into a versatile companion for troops in combat.

The Browning machine gun started out feeding rounds via a fabric belt but was later updated with metallic links. Its firing rate is 450 rounds a minute, the same as the previous Browning M1917 heavy machine gun.

Before World War II, the M1919A4 was a converted version of the M1917A1, which was a modified version of the M1917 that was capable of firing 600 rounds a minute. But once the war began, official M1919A4s were manufactured.

These light machine guns were contracted out to a division of General Motors and the Buffalo Arms Company. Modified versions of the M1919A4, known as M1919A5s, were produced specifically for tanks. Apart from lacking a pistol grip, the M1919A5 also had a modified backplate that allowed it to be mounted to armored vehicles.

The M1919A4 Browning machine gun was designated as a flexible weapon, whereas the M1919A5 was considered as being a fixed weapon. With these differences, the M1919A4 found its niche as being an advantageous machine gun throughout World War II.

From 1942 to 1945, GM’s division (Saginaw Steering Gear) produced more than 350,000 M1919A4 Browning machine guns. Not only did they produce these weapons at a faster rate than the Buffalo Arms Company, but they also had significantly lower production costs.

As such, the United States military canceled Buffalo Arms Company’s weapons contract midway through 1943. It makes sense that this happened, as Buffalo Arms had only produced about 38,000 M19194s in its first year of production.

Saginaw Steering Gear simply smoked them in both production and costs, making them the number one manufacturer of the M1919A4 throughout the second world war. They would continue to pump out arms for the United States military, giving our troops the necessary firepower to see the war to its completion.

The M1919A4 in Combat

While the M1919A4 certainly had its drawbacks compared to the M1917A1, such as a lower firing rate, you can’t argue with the advancements it provided. Most notably, perhaps, is the fact that the M1919A4 Browning machine gun effectively cut its weight in half, going from the 103 pounds of the M1917A1 to a much more portable 45 pounds.

For this reason alone, the M1919A4 was preferred by United States infantry throughout World War II. Troops could efficiently advance the new Browning machine gun forward on the battlefield with few issues. Its feathery weight made it a breeze to relocate for new firing positions.

This simply couldn’t be accomplished with the massive M1917A1. Once you had a position picked out, that’s where you had to stay if you were in the middle of a firefight. This severely limited troops in battle, as you didn’t have many options other than to stay where you were and hope your M1917A1 saw you to victory.

This wasn’t of great concern with the M1919A4. It’s portability and effectiveness combined to make it the premier weapon in battle. Marine Lt. Col. Victor Krulak once stated at a meeting before the United States Army Ordnance Committee toward the end of 1943 that the M1919A4 Browning machine gun was the most dependable weapon he’d ever used.

He even went so far as to say that as long as the M1919A4 was around, there was no need for a water-cooled machine gun. That’s some pretty high praise and is indicative of the remarks others echoed concerning the M1919A4. 

Lt. Col. Krulak’s words are even more compelling when you consider the effectiveness of the M1917A1 in Guadalcanal the previous year. So, with these acclaims in mind, what are the specifics of the Browning machine gun that made it such an effective weapon? 

We know that it is lighter in weight and therefore more portable. But we need to examine the M1919A4 a bit closer to get a better understanding of it. Let’s begin with what loading and firing entailed.

From .30-Caliber M1906 to .30-Caliber M2

Originally, the M1919 fired the .30-caliber M1906 ball cartridge. Later, however, it was capable of firing the .30-caliber M2 ball cartridge. Both were contained in a fabric belt that was fed from left to right. 

As we mentioned earlier, an M1 metal link was later adopted, which formed a disintegrating belt. To load the M1919A4, you had to insert a pull tab that was on the ammunition belt. This was done from the left side, and you would use either the metal links from the improved belt or a metal tab that was on the fabric belts.

You would have to do this until the first round in the belt was engaged in the feeding pawl, thus holding it in place. The next step was to pull back the cocking handle and then let it release. It was crucial how you did this. Your palm had to be facing up, as this helped to protect your thumb from getting hurt by keeping it away from the barrel.

If you had already fired the Browning machine gun and were reloading it, the barrel would likely be extremely hot. If you actuated the cocking handle palm-down, your thumb could easily get burned on the barrel. 

Anyway, with the cocking handle released, the first round would be advanced and positioned in front of the bolt. This allowed the bolt’s extractor/ejector to grab the first cartridge and remove it from the belt, thus setting up a chain reaction for the next round to be lined up with the extractor.

At the juncture, the first round would be chambered and ready to fire. With each round fired, a sequence was initiated by the gun that extracted the spent round and set up the next round for firing. 

Hidden Dangers

Whereas the original M1917A1 was a water-cooled machine gun, the M1919A4 was air-cooled. This made the Browning machine gun a much lighter weapon, but it also required a closed-bolt system that could cause serious injury after prolonged firing.

Whenever the M1919A4 was fired repeatedly, it would become extremely hot, resulting in potential “cook-offs.” When a cook-off occurs, anyone nearby, including the gunner, could be in danger.

Because of the closed-bolt design, extended firing would cause the barrel to become red-hot and could ignite the next cartridge. Being a machine gun, continued rounds would be fed through, thus causing the barrel to get even hotter, all the while uncontrollably firing subsequent rounds.

Depressing the trigger wouldn’t stop this chain reaction because it’s the heat of the barrel that’s causing rounds to be fired. As such, you could only wait for all of the ammunition to run out. A nightmare to deal with, to be sure.

This was another reason why gunners were taught to fire the Browning machine gun with their palms facing up. In the event that a cook-off occurred, the charging handle wouldn’t dislocate their thumb.

Gunners were also trained to pull the ammunition belt so as to prevent the further feeding of rounds. What’s more, to reduce the possibility of cook-offs, gunners were taught to only fire the Browning machine gun in short bursts. This helped to delay heating so that the barrel wouldn’t reach uncontrollable temperatures. 

Shooting the Browning Machine Gun

When the Browning machine gun was ready to shoot, a round would be loaded into the chamber, locking together the bolt and barrel group. As the rear of the trigger pivoted up toward the operator, the front of the trigger would tip downward. 

This pulled the sear out of the spring-loaded firing pin and allowed it to move forward, striking the cartridge primer. The barrel extension recoiled toward the rear of the weapon upon shooting it, and a cam in the bottom of the gun’s receiver would draw the locking block out of engagement. 

With the barrel extension recoiling, it would strike the accelerator assembly while a spring-loaded piece of metal would pivot from the receiver just below the bolt, behind the barrel extension. 

The curving fingers of the accelerator would then engage the bottom of the bolt, causing it to move rapidly toward the rear. The extractor/ejector pivoted over the front of the bolt, gripping the base of the next round in the belt. 

The bolt would move down the track, lower the next round over the spent case, and push it out of the extraction tracks. There is a spring in the cover of the feed tray that causes the extractor/ejector to be pushed down on top of the following round. 

If the gunner had the feed tray opened, the extractor/ejector would pull upwards, allowing the belt to be removed if need be.

The M1919A4 had to be mounted to a tripod in order to get the best results. An adjustment screw made it possible for the Browning machine gun to be pointed in various directions for more versatile shooting. 

In doing so, the gunner could perform wide, sweeping shots in an attempt to take out enemy armaments and troops. And thanks to its substantially lighter weight, the Browning machine gun could be taken to different positions throughout combat (with assistance), thus giving the gunner a much-needed advantage.

It Takes a Team

Being a company support gun, the M1919A4 needs to have a crew of five. Although it is indeed much lighter than the heavy machine gun, the Browning machine gun still requires help from other troops to move and use effectively. 

This is a bit of a paradox, as the gun is too light to be used in sustained fire (this would later be remedied with a heavier tripod and barrel). On its own, the M1919A4 weighed 31 pounds. And when mounted to its tripod, another 14 pounds was tacked on.

As we detailed earlier in the guide, fixed mounts were employed so that the Browning machine gun could be affixed to armored vehicles, thus increasing the weapon’s versatility. In fact, throughout World War II, the M1919A4 would be used on jeeps, amphibious vehicles, tanks, half-tracks, landing craft, and armored cars.

Whether being used for defense or assault, there is no question that the Browning machine gun played a pivotal role in the war. Company commanders appreciated the additional firepower that the M1919A4 provided them in combat, and in some cases, made the difference between retreating and advancing.

Although the original M1919 was designed solely for use with tanks, multiple variants have since preceded it, the most popular being the M1919A4. In the years since, the Browning machine gun has been superseded by the M60.

The M1919A1 and the NFA

Being a machine gun, the M1919A4 falls under the National Firearms Act. As such, you will need to fill out the necessary ATF forms to get approval to own such a weapon. There is a lot of unrest at the moment surrounding NFA weapons and guns in general.

Because of that, you may want to consider acting fast if you wish to get your hands on a Browning machine gun – or any machine gun, for that matter. What’s more, it would be wise to invest in an NFA gun trust, as well. 

The more you can protect your firearms, the better. In this day and age, it’s important to have all the legal support that you can get. An NFA trust will ensure that your arsenal is secured in the event that something happens to you.It pays to take a proactive approach to your weapons, and an NFA trust will ensure the future of your weapons. It would truly be a shame to acquire a historic Browning machine gun, only to see it taken because there wasn’t sufficient legal documentation protecting your firearms collection. If you’d like to kick off the process of establishing a trust, you can do so here. As always, stay safe and exercise your 2nd Amendment rights!