By: Friedrich Seiltgen

Copyright © 2022

Gunpowder readers know that firearms sometimes get a nickname because of their looks or actions, just like people.  The German MG42 Machine gun of WWII earned the nicknames “Buzzsaw,” “Hitler’s Zipper,” and a few others.  Today we feature the “Potato Digger,” aka the Colt Firearms Model 1895, Browning belt fed, air cooled, machine gun.  The Potato Digger was a John Browning design, and America’s first operational heavy machine gun!  Now that I have you wondering why it’s called the Potato Digger, let me tell you.  The operating lever, which cycles the gun, is located on the bottom of the gun, toward the front of the barrel.  When firing the gun, the lever swings downward, then back up to its normal position.  If the gun was placed too closely to the ground, the lever would dig in and start throwing pieces of dirt into the air!

The first use in battle was with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in Cuba.  During its service in Cuba, the Potato Digger was used during the charge up Kettle hill, as well as San Juan Hill.  The gun used the same ammunition as the Spanish 7mm Mausers, so resupply was not an issue.  Unfortunately, the Potato Digger earned a reputation as somewhat unreliable.  Lt. Col. Roosevelt reported “These Colt automatic guns were not, on the whole, very successful…they proved more delicate than the Gatlings, and very readily got out of order.”  The gun was air-cooled, and its cyclic rate was 450 rounds per minute.  As with most air-cooled guns, overheating was a problem.  During testing, gunners were instructed not to fire long bursts, as the gun would overheat, and rounds would cook off.  As we all know, training and actual battle are not the same.

The gun would be declared obsolete in 1916, but went on to be used by British, Canadian, and Russian forces.  After the war, many of the guns were transferred to National Guard units or were purchased by private detective companies.  One Digger ended up mounted on an armored car and used to intimidate coal miners during the Colorado Coalfield War; the miners named it the “Death Special.”  During the Ludlow Massacre, an emplaced Digger was fired into a miner’s camp in Ludlow, Colorado, killing 21 miners, plus wives and children.

Now you know the story behind the “Potato Digger.”

That’s all for now folks!   Please keep sending in your questions, tips, and article Ideas. And as always – “Let’s Be Careful Out There”

Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department.   He conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, and Active Shooter Response.  His writing has appeared in RECOIL, The Counter Terrorist Magazine, American Thinker, Homeland Security Today, and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International.  Contact him at