When the US Marine Corps adopted a modified HK416 as their new “Infantry Automatic Rifle,” I really struggled to work out what they were thinking. The IAR is an excellent carbine, but as a replacement for the squad light machine gun? No chance. With its short, fixed barrel and magazine feed, it simply isn’t up to the job. It now seems that the Marines have been doing something sneaky with the aim of getting the 416 as their new service rifle, which makes sense – because that’s what the 416 is. It’s a rifle, not a support weapon.
My guess is that the “Infantry Automatic Rifle” name was picked to evoke the memory of the famous M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, which served as the USA’s squad automatic weapon from the end of World War One until the 1950s. The BAR also had a fixed barrel and magazine feed, a concept copied by the USSR with its Kalashnikov-based RPK and Britain with the L86 Light Support Weapon variant of the controversial SA80 bullpup.
The BAR had something else in common with the RPK and L86, too; it was a bloody awful machine gun.
I know that’s going to ruffle some feathers; the BAR is an iconic weapon, and there’s no doubt it’s beautifully designed and extremely well made. John Browning knew what he was doing when it came to guns, and if you gave him a requirement he’d design a weapon that matched it perfectly. The problem with the BAR was that it was designed to meet a requirement that never really existed.
When the USA entered WW1, a lot of senior officers were reluctant to accept what their new allies were telling them about trench warfare. They thought the British and French – and the Germans, of course – had dug themselves into trenches out of exhaustion or timidity, and plenty generals believed that aggressive tactics would soon get the static fronts moving again. The BAR was designed to support these bold advances by allowing the gunner to carry it on a sling and deliver “walking fire” as he moved forward. Browning’s classic design works very well for that; if you need walking fire, it’s an excellent choice.
The problem is that nobody needs walking fire. While the BAR had a lot more firepower than the Enfield M1917 bolt action rifles most US troops carried in WW1, it paled into insignificance compared to the Maxim MG08s that defended the German trenches. The BAR simply didn’t have the accuracy or firepower to go head on with a belt-fed heavy machine gun on a stable mounting. Machine gun fire dominated No Man’s Land, and it was the big Maxim and Vickers guns that provided it. Only the tank broke the stalemate and let the allies break out.
After the war the USA slashed defense spending through the 1920s and 1930s, and there was no money available to replace the BARs with a proper machine gun. It survived through WW2 because US riflemen were now armed with the semiautomatic M1 Garand, and that extra firepower was enough to cover up the BAR’s deficiencies, but by 1941 it was totally outclassed not only by Germany’s belt-fed MG34 and MG42 GPMGs but by the Anglo-Czech Bren light machine gun with its large magazine and quick-change barrel.
The BAR was lighter than its rivals, although not by a huge amount – an M1918A2 BAR weighed 19 pounds, against the Bren Mark 1’s 23 pounds – but it paid a steep price in firepower, range and reliability.
Machine guns generate a lot of force and heat, and they need a certain amount of mass to soak it all up. Clever design can reduce it, as can using a smaller caliber – the FN Minimi is a real machine gun, and it weighs just 17 pounds – but there are limits. Even with today’s technology it would be a real struggle to make a full-bore machine gun that weighed less than 20 pounds; the US Army’s M240L has a titanium receiver, and still comes in at close to 23 pounds. It’s just basic physics; if you make an automatic weapon that doesn’t have enough mass it will either melt or shake itself to pieces. A BAR won’t do that, but only because it’s traded off firepower for weight. As I said, it’s a beautiful design – but it was already obsolete in 1918, and so was the whole concept behind it. An “automatic rifle” can’t replace a machine gun, whatever the US Marines have been saying.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.