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Remembering the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle: A Favorite of Bonnie and Clyde

By: Friedrich Seiltgen

The Browning Automatic Rifle, or as it is correctly pronounced, “B-A-R,” was another legendary design by the weapons genius John Moses Browning.

Browning created the BAR chambered in 30.06 in 1917 for the U.S. Expeditionary Corps. The BAR was a replacement for the French Chauchat used by U.S. forces at the time. The BAR was also designed to be carried and fired from the hip in a new concept known as “walking fire” or “marching fire.” Created by French forces, the theory was that soldiers armed with the BAR would cross “No Man’s Land” and lay down fire on enemy soldiers in their trenches to keep them pinned down. Then the rest of the unit would launch an infantry charge to finish them off in hand-to-hand combat. Although the BAR would not see much WWI service, the BAR and the walking fire tactic would see use in WWII under the command of Gen. George Patton.

The BAR, with its machined receiver, was extremely reliable, but the lack of a belt-feed system and the use of a 20-round box magazine would limit its role somewhat, as the gun needed frequent reloading. The BAR was something in between a battle rifle and a squad automatic weapon. The BAR would end up as more of a Light Machine Gun (LMG).

Prior to the BAR, approximately 16,000 8mm Chauchat rifles were transferred from French inventories to U.S. Forces. The Chauchat was not a very reliable weapon and prone to malfunction. The guns were modified to fire the U.S. standard 30.06 cartridge and renamed the 1918 .30 Chauchat. Due to poor engineering, the rifles became even more malfunction prone. The U.S. reverted to the 8mm versions as they were considered reliable in comparison to the modified version.

Enter the revered John Moses Browning, who demonstrated his new design to “war department officers and experts” at the Colt Firearms factory in Hartford, CT. After the successful demonstration, the war department placed an order for 12,000 units!

Although the rights for the BAR belonged to Colt, they were busy producing two other Browning designs: the 1917 Browning Machine Gun and the 1911 Government Model Pistol. Colt decided to bring in Winchester arms as a subcontractor to produce the BAR.

In a somewhat strange set of circumstances, Colt delivered the prototype to Winchester for only one weekend to allow engineers to take photographs, measurements, and learn all they could about the BAR in order to manufacture it. The prototype was delivered to Winchester on a Saturday at high noon and was taken back at 0800 on Monday.

The BAR came with a special sling and a “gunner’s belt” that was equipped with a metal cup of sorts that held the buttstock during “walking fire.”

The BAR did not see extensive use in WWI. The first combat use was in September 1918 by the U.S. Army’s 79th division during the battle of the Argonne Forest, just two months before the end of the war. The BAR would later service in WWII and Korea where it was instrumental in slowing down human waves of Chinese soldiers in such places as the “Frozen Chosin” reservoir.

After WWI, the BAR was available for civilian purchase, but the price tag was too much for Depression-era shooters. As usual, criminals were interested in the BAR, and money or the law were no object. The BAR was the favorite of Clyde Barrow and his Gal Bonnie Parker. Legend had it that Barrow knew his way around a BAR and taught Bonnie how to fire one. Barrow stole many a BAR from National Guard armories, and having loaded them with armor-piercing ammo, Clyde and his gang would go on a crime spree throughout the Midwest.

The effectiveness of the BAR was illustrated in April 1933 when the Barrow gang was confronted by a five-man team of law enforcement officers at their Joplin, Missouri hideout. The police suffered two casualties and stated they only got off 14 rounds total during the gunfight. A Missouri highway patrolman would later tell the story of Bonnie Parker laying down suppression fire from her BAR while he used a large tree for cover, saying, ”That little red head filled my face with splinters on the other side of that tree with one of those damned guns.”

Regarded as a pioneer in the development of automatic weapons, the BAR is another chapter in the genius of John Browning’s designing career. If you need a BAR fix, you can purchase a semi-auto version with all the accessories from Ohio Ordinance Works.

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, First Aid, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. Contact him at polizei22@msn.com.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Image cropped from Image:American WW II firearms.jpg |Source=Image cropped from Image:American WW II firearms.jpg |Date= |Author=joelogon / Joe Loong, cropped and retouched by [[:user:Atirado

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.