Rifles > Historical

Guns of the "Banana Wars" Part One

Using rifles, handguns and machine guns, marines fought in fierce battles in the Caribbean and Central America.


“Smedley Butler at Fort Reviere, Haiti” by Col. Donna J. Neary; courtesy of the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

In the gathering gloom, and with its flat cars and boxcars filled with khaki-clad Marines, a narrow-gauge train rolled slowly to a halt in the Nicaraguan town of Masaya. Suddenly, more than 100 mounted Nicaraguan rebels rode up and down alongside the train in the dark, firing into the cars. The Marines’ commanding officer, Maj. Smedley D. Butler, fired his Colt revolver back at the rebels, and ordered his detachment of Marines to open fire. A thunderous fusillade of small arms fire burst from the surrounding windows and rooftops, as the engine picked up speed. Butler later described the scene in his autobiography, Old Gimlet Eye.

“A sheet of fire was spitting into the darkness on both sides of the road. Four hundred Marine rifles were popping with tongues of flame, and the sixteen machine guns were rattling out a staccato beat, the engines were screaming and puffing—all in one narrow little street, while the natives shot back at us from both sides of the street.”

This small action took place in 1912, during a “peace-keeping” mission that would later be known as the First Nicaraguan Campaign. Indeed, there would be many more such actions involving Marines in Central America and the Caribbean during a period that is now known as the “Banana Wars.” These small wars were fought for a number of reasons during the American ascendancy in the region between the Spanish-American War and 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt withdrew the last Marines from Haiti. Some were pacification campaigns in support of American foreign policy, others were intended to protect the new Panama Canal, a few were directed at preventing the spread of German influence into the region, but most were launched to “protect American interests and citizens.” Since most of the “American interests and citizens” in the region were involved in the expanding tropical fruit industry, especially bananas, the name “Banana Wars” seemed to sum up the Marine Corps’ experience. The Marine Corps’ involvement in the region was interrupted by service in France during World War I, so the Banana Wars really can be viewed in terms of the early (1903-1917) and late (1919-1934) campaigns.

The small arms used by the Marine Corps in the early Banana Wars include the M1905 and M1909 Colt revolvers, the M1903 Springfield rifle, the M1909 Benet-Mercie “machine rifle,” and the Colt M1895 “potato digger” machine gun. The M1911 pistol was also introduced and used to great effect in that period, and it and the “’03” rifle carried on as the principal arms used by Marines in the later Banana Wars, although the automatic weapons being used changed radically after World War I.

In 1905, two years after the first of the Banana Wars campaigns in Panama, the Marine Corps adopted its first completely USMC-specific firearm, a Colt revolver, to replace the Navy arms carried by Marine officers up to that year. Like its Army and Navy counterparts, it was chambered in .38 Long Colt, but it had a smaller grip profile than the 1902 military Colt revolvers and it sported checkered walnut stocks. Four years later, the Marine Corps followed suit with the Army and Navy in adopting a military variation of the popular Colt “New Service” revolver, chambered in an improved version of the .45 Colt—at that time the most powerful handgun cartridge available.

Experience in the earlier Philippine Insurrection and the Moro Uprising had taught the U.S. military establishment that the .38s stopping power was insufficient against a determined enemy. The Army and Navy revolvers were identical to the civilian version, with the exception of having a lanyard ring and markings on the butt, as Colt had refused to make any modifications to its standard handgun under the Army contract. However, Colt conceded to the Marine Corps’ insistence on a significant change for its revolvers.

The grip, again, was noticeably smaller than that of the civilian New Service revolvers and the M1909 Army and Navy models, and the walnut stocks had a rudimentary style of checkering. Both the M1905 and the M1909 had “USMC” and a serial number stamped into the butt, near the lanyard ring. Unlike the Army model, the number on the Marine Corps version was different from the actual factory serial number, which was found inside the crane housing. While the Army ordered more than 19,000 revolvers between 1908 and 1911, the Marine Corps purchased only about 1,300 guns. As was the case with all of the services, the Marine Corps abandoned the M1909 revolver in favor of the M1911 pistol, when the Corps adopted it in 1912. This semi-automatic pistol would play a major role in all of the subsequent Banana Wars, while many of the obsolete revolvers would find their way into the Haitian Gendarmerie, although the actual printed regulations of the Gendarmerie and its successor, the Garde d’Haiti, specified only .38-cal. revolvers.

The legendary M1903 Springfield rifle, affectionately known to Marines as the “’03,” would become one of the most revered battle rifles in history. Adopted by the Marine Corps in 1908, it supplanted the Krag-Jorgensen rifle, which had, in turn, replaced the revolutionary, but fragile, M1895 straight-pull Winchester-Lee in 1900. The rifle carried by Marines throughout the Banana Wars was in nearly all respects identical to those issued to the Army and the Navy, except that the Marine Corps designed and implemented an enlarged peep aperture on the rear sight, and a wider front sight blade. The Marine Corps also issued a larger front sight hood than the one supplied to the Army.

When this rifle was first issued to Marines, the Marine Corps was not known, as it is today, for its marksmanship ability. In fact, the Marine Corps’ record in winning shooting competitions was rather dismal in the years prior to 1912. However, with the encouragement of Commandant George F. Elliot and other notable shooters, such as Charles H. Laucheimer, Douglas C. McDougal, and future Commandant Thomas A. Holcomb, the Marine Corps very soon reached an enviable position in competition shooting, which it has maintained to the present day. If one individual can be singled out for this success, it is Col. William A. Harllee. A tough, no-nonsense and outspoken Marine, Harllee not only significantly improved the Marine Corps’ marksmanship program, but also encouraged civilian marksmanship and set the standard for Army marksmanship programs during World War I. Moreover, Harllee had been on the battlefield when accurate rifle fire really made the difference. As a sergeant in the Texas National Guard, he had successfully employed his Krag rifle during the Philippine Insurrection. While the Marine Corps did not have the opportunity to demonstrate its deadly long-range rifle shooting ability in the Banana Wars, as it had just prior to its advance into Belleau Wood during World War I, it is obvious from the after-action reports of these jungle fights that the insurgents nearly always suffered far more losses from Marine rifle fire than they were ever able to inflict on Marines. Engagements during the Banana Wars were most often short-range ambushes along footpaths and trails in a lush and forbidding tropical jungle.

The 16 machine guns described by Butler were Benet-Mercies and Colts, and were mounted on the flat cars and on the roofs of the boxcars forming the train rolling through Masaya. The Marine Corps had recently adopted the M1909 Benet-Mercie light machine gun or, as it was then known, “machine rifle.” Developed by the Hotchkiss Co. in France, it was named for an American firearm designer, Laurence Vincent Benet (son of the noted U.S. Army Chief of Ordnance in the post-Civil War period and uncle of the celebrated poet of the same name, Stephen Vincent Benet) and the French head of experimental design at the Hotchkiss Company, Henri Mercie. The light machine gun was in use by cavalry units in France (in 8 mm Lebel) and Britain (in .303 British), and by the U.S. Army. Chambered in the standard American .30-cal. rifle cartridge, the clip-fed and shoulder-fired machine gun was supported in the front by a spindly bipod and in the rear by a butt-mounted, screw-threaded monopod.

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1 Response to Guns of the "Banana Wars" Part One

peter wrote:
February 19, 2013

Thanks for a great article. Liked reading about this. I read part#2 1st and it was so good that I had to find part#1. Just became a member on the 30 of January and have not got my Items in the mail. But hope to get this article in it.