By: Friedrich Seiltgen
The Browning .50 caliber machine gun is officially called the M2, but veterans from WWII to today know it as “Ma Deuce.”
The M2 was designed near the end of WWI by master weapons designer John Browning. The M2 will soon see its 100th birthday, as it has been in production since 1921!
Use by all the U.S. military services and countless foreign countries attest to its design and ruggedness. The M2 is a caliber .50 BMG (Browning Machine Gun), recoil operated, belt fed, automatic, air-cooled machine gun capable of a sustained rate of fire of 550 – 1,300 rpm with an effective range of 6,800 meters! Total production of the M2 is over 3 million units built by General Dynamics (USA), FN Herstal (Belgium), and Manroy engineering (U.K.). It has served the U.S. military longer than any other weapon except for the Government Model 1911 Pistol, also designed by Browning.
The M2 was created at the request of Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing, who needed an effective weapon against the heavily armored Junkers J-4, the world’s first mass produced all metal airplane. Pershing wanted a gun with a minimum caliber of .50 inches and a velocity of 2,700 fps.
The M2 has a very distinctive sound. Enemy personnel knew the M2 was in action when they heard the “thump” of the Ma Deuce.
Widely Used, Many Configurations
The M2 has seen action in every conflict since its inception and has been used in virtually every configuration known.
During WWII, the M2 was mounted in multiple positions on the B-17 “Flying Fortress” (as seen in the movie “Memphis Belle”).
Another deadly configuration created by G.I.s during WWII was the “Kraut Mower.”
This configuration was originally designed for Navy Anti-Aircraft duty. It was simply four M2s mounted together on a halftrack. When the Germans were well dug in, they brought out the “Kraut Mower” and simply mowed down everything in their way – trees, grass, and enemy soldiers!
WWII hero Audie Murphy earned a Congressional Medal of Honor during the battle of Colmar Pocket when he jumped up onto a burning tank destroyer and held off 250 German soldiers and their six tanks using a M2. Murphy fought for more than an hour, killing more than 50 German soldiers. He only retreated when he ran out of ammunition.
During Vietnam, the M2 was used by USMC Sniper Gunny Carlos Hathcock as a sniper weapon. Hathcock mounted a 10X scope to an M2 and engaged combatants at 2,500 yards. He held the record for the longest kill until 2002.
Until its replacement by the M61 Gatling gun in the 80s, the M2 was used in the B-52 Stratofortress as a tail gun!
In 2003, near the Baghdad Airport, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Paul Smith used an M2 to defend his fellow soldiers from a company-sized force of Iraqi soldiers who attacked his unit while they were constructing a makeshift POW holding area.
Smith organized a hasty defense with what he had. He dodged enemy fire to man a Ma Deuce mounted on a disabled, burning Armored Personnel Carrier. He engaged the Iraqi company while exposed to enemy fire. His actions resulted in more than 50 Iraqis killed, allowing wounded G.I.s to be evacuated. Sgt. Smith received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously.
Currently, the Ma Deuce is undergoing another variation. The M2 Quick Change Barrel (QCB) is a design change that allows a barrel swap without checking the head space. There were several instances of injuries received from improper headspace on the M2 during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The QCB mod allows the gunner to change out a hot barrel in about 10 seconds instead of 90. Those 80 seconds are critical when under enemy fire.
While the M2 is capable of high rates of fire, the laws of physics still apply. The heat from high rates of fire will wear out the bore prematurely. It is recommended gunners use 5-7 round bursts with pauses in between, since there have been instances of catastrophic barrel failure due to sustained bursts. M2s have been fired until the barrel glows red and slumps; this obstructs the bore and causes barrel explosions!
Browning’s M2 is a rugged, timeless design developed by a genius master gunsmith who is also the inventor of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the 1911 Government Model, the Browning Hi-Power pistol, and the Browning Auto-5, the world’s first semi-auto shotgun.
Browning’s designs are genius and his legacy will live on forever.
Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He currently conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Lance Cpl. Andrea Cleopatra Dickerson (Public domain)