SPRINGFIELD, Mass. –
It has served in every major and many minor American military conflicts since serving in World War II. It has been mounted on and fired from fighter planes to navy warships to today’s M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks. Officially it is known as the Browning machine gun, .50-caliber heavy barrel, M2. To the average Soldier it is “Ma Deuce” and the basis of the current version went into production in 1933.
“Very great weapons system, very reliable … oldest weapon [still in use] in the United States arsenal” said Staff Sgt. Brian McClelland, training noncommissioned officer, A Company, 126th Brigade Support Battalion, Massachusetts Army National Guard. “Very few changes have been made to this weapon; they added a safety a few years ago,” he said.
Other weapons changes have now occurred and the Soldiers who gathered at the 126th’s armory in Springfield on February 24 were learning about them.
Three of the changes deal with issues unique to the M2: Changing the barrel and ensuring proper headspace and timing.
Because of the length of the weapon (the barrel alone is 45 inches long) and the fact that the barrel can overheat when firing for an extended period of time, the M2 is designed with a removable barrel. This allows the Soldier in the field to be able to remove/replace the barrel when necessary by screwing the barrel into place by hand. A special glove is included for use when the barrel is hot.
Headspacing the M2 ensures that the barrel is set in the proper position. Proper timing guarantees that all of the weapons moving parts are properly placed so that a round can be loaded and fired safely. This is done by hand and requires a special tool.
This is so important that in the Army field manual for the M2 warns “Firing a weapon that has improperly set headspace and timing could result in damage to the machine gun or injury to the gunner.”
The improvement was a small round metal stud that is attached to the barrel and a matching grove placed on the body of the weapon.
“The barrel is being locked into the barrel extension and locked into the same place every time,” said Richard Rathburn, training specialist, U.S. Army TACOM. “It alleviates the Soldier from having to set the headspace.”
Eliminating the need for constant headspacing also eliminated the need for always timing the weapon. It also lowers the time the M2 is unable to fire to as little as 18 seconds.
“I like the fact that you don’t have to do headspace and timing on it; it’s already preset,” said Sgt. Miguel Nieto, team leader, A Company, 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts Army National Guard. “You can use a barrel from a different weapon and put it on the weapon you have … I think it’s pretty awesome.”
When the headspace and timing on the weapon needs to be done it can’t be performed at the operator level and is sent to a maintenance facility.
“We run into that. The one’s who love the old .50 cal. are the ones who were actually doing the procedures correctly never had a problem,” said Rathburn. “There were training issues where the headspace and timing were not being set properly. There were … catastrophic malfunctions happening, so that’s why we went to the headspace and timing [no longer being an operator function].”
One other advantage of the upgrade is that now the headspace and timing only needs to be done after approximately 30,000 – 50,000 rounds have been fired.