Call it 'Ma Deuce' or 50-cal, the Browning M-2 machine gun is one bad mother of a weapon

The Browning M-2 heavy machine gun has served U.S. soldiers since the 1930s. Department of Defense photo.

The Browning M-2 heavy machine gun has served U.S. soldiers since the 1930s. (Department of Defense photo.)

It’s one of the longest-serving weapons in the U.S. arsenal, packing a punch that few forget whether they are firing the weapon or on the receiving end of its tremendous firepower.

The Browning M-2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun casts a long shadow over U.S. military history – and it holds a special place in the hearts of many soldiers.

Nicknamed “Ma Deuce” by World War II G.I.s, some who have fired the weapon consider it the mother of all machine guns.

“Witnessing the down-range effects of the .50-caliber bullet is an eye-opening experience,” writes Gordon Rottman, author of Browning .50-Caliber Machine Guns.  “There are few who can say they were wounded by a .50-cal. Those hit seldom say much more.”

First conceived during World War I, the Browning M-2 has been in production since 1933. Since then, it’s made history in the hands of some extraordinary fighting men.

A wounded Audie Murphy, one of America’s most decorated soldiers, fired one atop a burning tank destroyer and held off six Panzer tanks and 250 German soldiers for more than hour during a battle in Eastern France, an act of bravery that won him the Medal of Honor.

The long-range firepower of the Ma Deuce combined with its single-shot ability convinced legendary Marine Corps sniper Carlos Hathcock that he had an unusual but effective weapon. In 1967, Hathcock mounted a 10-power scope on an M-2, which he later aimed at a Viet Cong guerilla that he killed 2,500 yards away – a nearly one-and-a-half mile shot that remained the world record for longest sniper kill until 2002.

In 2003, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith climbed on top an armored vehicle and fired the 50-cal at more than 100 enemy soldiers that pinned down his platoon, saving the lives of his men. Killed during the fire fight, Smith received the Medal of Honor posthumously, the first awarded in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The technological terrors of World War I with its use of armor and airplanes convinced American Expeditionary Force commander Gen. John Pershing that the Army needed a heavy machine gun if it was going to keep pace with world militaries. Both the French and British possessed large-caliber machine guns like the Hotchkiss, but during World War I the U.S. inventory of machine guns only fired rifle-sized calibers.

Eventually, American weapons genius John Browning experimented with his existing M1917 .30-caliber machine gun design to develop a heavy machine gun that fired the .50-caliber round. By 1921, the Army adopted an experimental, water-cooled .50-caliber machine gun based on the Browning design that was the “father” of the Ma Deuce.

After Browning’s death, other weapons designers corrected flaws in the M1921 such as its lightweight barrel.  During the 1930s, the Colt Co. took over production of the weapon – but it was still essentially Browning’s original design and it gained the familiar designation of Browning M-2.

The classic configuration of the Ma Deuce is a belt-fed, air-cooled, recoil-operated machine gun. Its size alone makes it look formidable: It is nearly six-feet long and weighs 84 pounds without its tripod, 128 pounds when tripod mounted.

It fires up to 550 rounds per minute, but it can be set to fire single shots. Because of the weapon’s design, the ammo belt can be fed from either the right or left after a few adjustments to the gun.

What’s more, the 50-cal has the potential to let the gunner “reach out and touch someone.” The weapon’s effective range is 6,000 feet, but its maximum range is four miles.

Both the Army and the Navy loved the M-2 and by World War II it was everywhere: Mounted on tanks as a coaxial gun, placed in aircraft to shoot down enemy fighters, mounted on a tripod so GIs and Marines could lay down suppressive and covering fire, and placed on board naval vessels as an anti-aircraft gun.

There was even a holy terror nicknamed “the Kraut Mower,” the M-45 Quadmount. Originally designed as an anti-aircraft weapon, it was four Ma Deuces in an armored housing mounted on a halftrack.

But as the war progressed, innovative soldiers discovered it was a hellishly effective anti-personnel weapon.  For example, if a machine-gun nest or a sniper pinned down Allied troops and the M-45 was nearby, they would have it open fire on the German position.

The barrage of .50-caliber rounds would simply mow down the building or tree and its German threat – hence, the weapon’s nickname.

The Browning M-2 has its weaknesses. If the gun’s barrel overheats a new barrel needs to be installed on the weapon. The gun will malfunction violently if a barrel change is not performed exactly right, and the task was often a finicky and time-consuming job.

M-2 malfunctions caused by improperly performed barrel changes injured dozens of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan before the Pentagon approved adoption of a “quick change” kit in 2012 that allows a barrel replacement without manually resetting the weapon, according to a Department of Defense report for Congress.

Its weight and tendency to vibrate the gunner’s body can make it awkward to use. But it is a powerful weapon that can dominate any tactical situation.

And that’s why the ‘Ma Deuce’ will be on battlefields for years to come.