Generally referred to by its initials, the BAR set the standard for automatic rifles from its inception during the First World War and for several decades afterward. Few U.S. military arms elicit as much widespread admiration as does the venerable BAR. Many veterans of the Second World War and Korea remember the BAR as a reliable and very effective arm. While many gripes were lodged against the gun’s weight, few complaints were heard when the chips were down in actual combat. The BAR proved its worth on countless battlefields around the globe for over three decades.
The BAR had its roots in the trenches of France during World War I when both sides were mired in bloody and protracted trench warfare. When the U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917, it soon became painfully obvious that our armed forces were woefully unprepared to fight a modern war. With the exceptions of such excellent arms as the Springfield M1903 rifle and the Colt M1911 .45 pistol (both, incidentally, in short supply), our troops were primarily equipped with obsolete and generally unsatisfactory arms.
One of the most serious gaps in our armament capability was the lack of a satisfactory light machine gun. An automatic that could be used by troops moving to the assault was desperately needed. Our French allies had attempted to fill this void with the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 ‘CRSG’ (Model 1915). Chambered for 8 mm Lebel, it was generally referred to as the “Chauchat.” Our doughboys soon fractured the French pronunciation and called it the “Sho-Sho.” The U.S. purchased some 16,000 Chauchats from the French, and our troops quickly discovered that it was extremely unreliable, and found it ineffective and unpopular. Clearly, a better arm of this type was needed by our troops.
Fortunately, the legendary John M. Browning had quietly been working on a design of his own for a reliable and effective automatic rifle. Browning had previously entered into a working agreement with Colt Patent Firearms Co. which had obtained the rights to the design from the inventor. On May 1, 1917, the Secretary of War convened an ordnance panel to test and recommend for adoption a light machine gun or automatic rifle. Browning’s was quickly adopted. It was known as the “Browning Automatic Rifle” and was soon referred to primarily by its initials “B-A-R.” The BAR was chambered for the standard M1906 (.30-’06) cartridge and was capable of semi-automatic or fully automatic operation at the rate of some 550 rounds per minute.
Since the Colt plant at Hartford, Connecticut, was already operating at peak capacity, the firm wished to establish another manufacturing site in Meridian, Conn., to produce the BAR. The Ordnance Department did not agree as a maximum number of BARs had to be produced in the minimum period of time; and a new factory would have required training an entirely new work force. The logical solution was to seek other sources, and, to this end, the government reached an agreement with Colt and John Browning to acquire the patent rights to the gun “for the duration” of the war.
In September 1917, the Marlin-Rockwell Corp. and Winchester Repeating Arms Co. were awarded BAR production contracts. Colt also received a BAR contract within the rather strained capabilities of its Hartford plant. All three firms were already heavily involved in arms production, but the new automatic rifle was deemed a priority and the firms began to tool up rapidly. There were no engineering drawings or even detailed specifications for the gun since the only working model in existence was Browning’s handmade prototype. Winchester’s engineering department was allowed to borrow the prototype from Colt for just one weekend. Working literally around the clock, they made the necessary production drawings and blueprints from the prototype and returned it to Colt the following Monday morning. Winchester then assisted the Marlin-Rockwell Corp. in setting up its own production line.
Winchester began delivery in December 1917, Marlin-Rockwell in January 1918 and Colt in February 1918. Although the BAR was actually adopted in 1917, it was designated the “Model of 1918.” This was presumably done to prevent confusion with the Browning Model of 1917 water-cooled machine gun. BARs began to flow from the production lines, and limited issue to our troops overseas began by the late summer 1918. Interestingly, it was first demonstrated in France by Lt. Val Browning, the inventor’s son. After familiarization and training, the BAR began to be issued to front line troops and used in actual combat.
The first recorded U.S. Army use of the BAR in combat was on September 12, 1918, in the hands of the 79th Infantry Division. The BAR immediately proved to be an unqualified success as a combat arm. Compared to the wretched Chauchat, it was a godsend. As stated by the Assistant Secretary of War in 1919: “The [BARs] were highly praised by our officers and men who had to use them. Although these guns received hard usage, being on the front for days at a time in the rain and when the gunners had little opportunity to clean them, they invariably functioned well.”
Our troops were still in the process of fielding the BAR in quantity when the war ended in November 1918. At the time of the Armistice, some 52,238 Browning Automatic Rifles had been delivered. It remained in production until the latter part of 1919 by which time 102,125 M1918 BARs had been manufactured.