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On the History Channel show Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters 2 (S05E30) there is a segment on the French Chauchat rifle. Dr. Jack Atwater, former director of the US Army Ordnance Museum, makes the claim that American soldiers were issued inferior Chauchats even though the Army had the much superior Browning Automatic Rifle. He claims that the BAR was “such a good weapon that the decision was made that, if it fell into German hands, the Germans could pruduce [it] and use it against us.” For this reason, the show claims, the BAR was kept from American troops.

I can’t find any other reference to back up this claim. Wikipedia says that Browning was given the contract for the BAR on Feb 27, 1917 and on July 16 an order was placed with Colt for 12,000 of them. The order was switched to Winchester when Colt was unable to begin production right away. BAR’s began to be issued to troops by July 1918 and by the end of the war 52,000 of them had been produced.

There are numerous sources on the history of the Browning Automatic Rifle available on the internet, but I can’t find a single one that makes the claim that they were not issued to troops for fear of them falling into enemy hands. Why would Modern Marvels and Atwater make this claim and is there any evidence to back it up?

  • I have my great-grandfathers Springfield Krag bolt-action rifle. I believe it's successor, the M1903 was the standard issued rifle through WWI and into early WWII. Doing a quick Google, it looks like the Chauchat was a machine gun, not a rifle, so you may want to clarify that. – PoloHoleSet Nov 6 '17 at 21:26
  • Forgot about my link - range365.com/history-us-military-riflesd#page-18 – PoloHoleSet Nov 6 '17 at 21:53
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    @PoloHoleSet I’m not a big weapon buff, but generally when I hear “machine gun” people are referring to some sort of belt-fed weapon like an M2. The Chauchat would be what I consider an automatic rifle. Wikipedia refers to it as a “machine rifle.” Never heard that term. The official AEF designation was “Automatic Rifle, Model 1915 (Chauchat).” – Tom Nov 6 '17 at 23:24
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    @PoloHoleSet It's really just semantics, they both fulfilled the same role. They were both larger than the rifle the average infantryman would carry. They can both be called a light machine gun, but the army chose to call them both automatic rifles. The BAR was replaced with the Squad Automatic Weapon which indicates that one guy in each squad would have one, the rest would have single-shot, bolt-action rifles like the Springfield or the M1 Garand in WWII. – Tom Nov 7 '17 at 17:14
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    @PoloHoleSet Speaking of Springfield, if you ever find yourself in Springfield, MO the Bass Pro Shop there has the NRA rifle museum in there. They've got every iteration of the Springfield rifle produced. I'm not a gun enthusiast, but I still found that museum fascinating – Tom Nov 7 '17 at 20:00
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No it was not, the guns were delivered to troops as soon as was possible.

The BAR was not put into production until after the US entered WWI so it took time until the rifle was ready to get the troops on the front line, but it did eventually get to them and saw active combat during WWI.

From The Machine Gun, Volume I: History, Evolution, and Development of Manual, Automatic, and Airborne Repeating Weapons by George Chinn, page 179:

The first of these weapons sent overseas were routed to machine gun schools to acquaint the soldier with the much publicized American product that would rid him of the French arms. They met with the enthusiastic approval of all who viewed them. Requests came from the Allied high command to speed up delivery so as to have their presence felt at the front. The war ended, however, before we had equipped even a small portion of our own Army.

First combat use of the Browning automatic machine guns was on 26 September 1918 by a small detachment of the 79th Division. The following report was sent General Pershing by the commanding officer of this detail:

During the 5 days that my four guns were in action they fired approximately 13,000 rounds of ammunition. They had very rough handling due to the fact that the infantry made constant halts, causing the guns to be placed in the mud.

The condition of the ground on these five days was very muddy, and considerable grit, etc., got into the working parts of the guns. Guns became rusty on the outside due to the rain and wet weather, but in every instance when the guns were called upon to fire, they fired perfectly. During all this time I had only one stoppage, and this was due to a broken ejector.

Also from the Browning website:

This rifle, called the BAR M1918, was commissioned by the U.S. Army in an effort to break the stalemate of trench warfare in the battlefields of France and Belgium. [...] Its official U.S. military use began in 1918 and continued until the Vietnam war

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Generally, when you have a technological advantage over your enemy, it doesn't make sense to not use that advantage.

The bulk of the first troops of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France in January 1918. The Americans were woefully unprepared for the sudden ramp up - they managed to muster large numbers of infantry to ship over to Europe, but much of their equipment was outdated, and prior to entry into World War I, the typical infantry regiment was simply 1,000 men with a rifle each. Lessons learnt by the British and French by 1917 meant that regiments were broken into company and platoon formations with embedded fire support in the form of machine gun sections and platoons, and the US Army underwent a huge change in organisation to match these lessons.

The BAR was designed and prototyped for the US Army in the middle of 1917, but production did not begin until February 1918 - too late for it to be issued to the troops already shipped over to France - and wasn't mass produced until mid-1918.

Fortunately, the French were able to provide machine guns in the form of the mentioned Chauchat (which proved unpopular with the Americans for its unreliability), and the well-received Hotchkiss.

So, it was simple logistics that meant that the BAR was slow to reach the Western Front.

  • Your first sentence doesn't account for inventions such as the Proximity fuze, – daniel Nov 7 '17 at 11:20
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    The proximity fuze was used, though - albeit in situations where capture by the German's was not a risk, such as anti-air defence in Britain. On the other hand, the BAR could only be used on the frontline. – HorusKol Nov 7 '17 at 11:33

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