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M2 .50 Caliber Machine Gun: Massive and Old (But Irreplaceable?)

M2 .50 Caliber Machine Gun
Image: Creative Commons.

It’s a great machine gun, but it’s very heavy. And the U.S. Special Operations Command is looking for something lighter. It would be hard to fill the shoes of what many soldiers and marines call the “Ma-Deuce,” if it were to be replaced. Very few people survive a hit from the .50 caliber round fired by the Browning M2 Machine Gun. You’ve seen it in World War II movies, Vietnam flicks, and on the nightly news. There is hardly a combat unit in the U.S. military that doesn’t use the M2.

What’s the Problem With the M2?

But this gun weighs more than 80 pounds. The ammunition weighs a lot too. It’s usually attached to a tank, vehicle, or airplane. On the ground, troops will emplace the M2 first, usually in a fortified position. And there it stays, because at that weight, it’s not very mobile. But it’s still the most important weapon in an infantry unit. The M2 shoots a heavy round that is almost 6-inches long, and about an inch in diameter, so you could imagine the damage it can do.

It was introduced at the end of World War I and came into broader service in 1933 – one of the oldest weapons in the infantry arsenal. It can hit a target at around 8,000 meters and can fire at a rate of 600 rounds per minute.

Replacements for the M2 Are Cropping Up

Despite all the advantages of the M2, the U.S. Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) began looking for something more manageable to transport. MARSOC operators were one of the first SOF units interested in adopting the SIG Sauer 338 machine gun system or the General Dynamics Light Weight Medium Machine Gun. The Regular Army and infantry units of the Marine Corps are also interested in the Sig Sauer 338 to replace the M240B 7.62mm machine gun too. U.S. Special Operations Command, prodded by the testing of MARSOC, finally went ahead and ordered the SIG Sauer 338 for the entire special operation community in January of 2020.

There are drawbacks to the SIG. The good news is that it weighs only 21 pounds, which is even lighter than the M240B, but its maximum effective range is only 2,000 meters compared to the 8,000 meters of the Ma-Deuce.

M2 Browning Machine Gun 2

Image: Creative Commons.

M2 Browning Machine Gun

Pfc. Daniel Stillwell, a machine gunner with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, shoots the .50 caliber M2 Browning machine gun during crew-served weapons training at Schofield Barracks, Oct. 8 to Oct. 10.

Let’s Keep the M2 Anyway

As an infantry guy, I don’t want the M2 to go away. It’s too powerful and too versatile to retire, despite the weight. The same goes for the M240B. In fact, the M240B is my favorite weapon in the Army. I’ve never fired the SIG 338, but it looks great, and I can see why the SOF community is excited about it. I bet regular Army and Marine units will eventually go with the SIG 338 too because the M240B is on the chopping block. But as for the M2, it’s a big military in dangerous times, so someone somewhere is always going to need it.

1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. W.A.Rossin

    September 29, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    50 caliber is half an inch in diameter. I have used it in Iraq2094). It is not an inch in diameter as the story stated. Pretty much got the rest right, although nothing was said about setting heads pace and timing. Great military weapon, and all who have used it would not wish it to retire

  2. Michael Stephen LaPonte

    September 30, 2021 at 12:03 pm

    The bullet itself in 1/2 inch in diameter. The casing may be closer to one inch in diameter, but it needs all that powder to send the bullet downrange when vey few survive a hit.

  3. Lepke Buchalter

    September 30, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    I used the .50 in Vietnam. There’s no replacement for the round, maybe some lighter parts could be made.
    The round will go thru light armor, any car or truck, and can break engine blocks. This story is right, very few people survive a single hit.

  4. Rob

    September 30, 2021 at 1:06 pm

    None of the weapons mentioned is a replacement if it isn’t firing a similar round. The military already has machine guns in 7.62. Those are great but it’s not the M2. I agree that a modernized version that is lighter weight and easier to maintain would be great but 7.62 isn’t going to come close to filling the role of the M2.

  5. Enzo

    September 30, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    The casing at the primer end is actually .75 inches in diameter.

  6. Brent

    September 30, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    Man, I was coming here to say that. a “.50 caliber” is a half inch *by definition*! Pretty WTF kinda mistake; but yeah, the rest was pretty good.

  7. peter john

    September 30, 2021 at 2:43 pm

    You can make a lighter gun using more exotic alloys. And could even make a lighter round. But, it would be very expensive. And when it come to the army more guns and more bullets are always better.

  8. Mark Thomason

    September 30, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    We could do better than the M2, but we could not do so much better that it would be worth the cost of disposing of the old and making it all new. This is the same reason why defeated armies tend to have a small technological advantage for awhile. We are better off putting the same resources into other things than re-making the good enough M2.

  9. Dann

    September 30, 2021 at 6:23 pm

    Half an inch is not “almost an inch”…?

  10. Icepilot

    September 30, 2021 at 8:50 pm

    Could you replace the .50 with a .45 & match (or exceed) the ballistics? I think the short answer is yes, as has been demonstrated by the ammo industry, especially over the last several years. Better metals, greatly improved tolerances, design & maintenance improvements & weight reduction are available. Possibly even accuracy.
    Run a few million dollars thru DARPA & maybe you find the next John Moses Browning.

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