BAR Comparison: M1918 vs M1918A2

Ian shooting an M1918A3 Ohio Ordnance BAR

I was doing some reading up on the BAR, and some shooting with a semiauto Ohio Ordnance Works A3 model BAR recently, in addition to the recent 2-gun match we did with it. I got particularly interested in the improvements made between the original WWI version and the A2 version that was so heavily used in WWII and Korea. Pretty much every discussion of the BAR today is based on the A2, because there is nobody left alive who actually used the original M1918 in combat (with the exception of a few WWII vets who got unmodified WWI era guns).

US Army BAR variants
US military BAR variants

I do want to point out that this post is going to consider only the US military BARs. I know that the European military versions made by the Poles, Belgians, Swedes and other, and the civilian guns made by Colt solve some of the problems I am going to bring up – but my point here is more about the US Army than the potential of the BAR. Also, I should include the caveat that while I have fired a full-auto A2 BAR, I have only handled a WWI variant, not shot it. So consider the following speculative…

The conclusion that my friend Karl (who shot the A3 in the recent 2-gun match) and I came to is that the M1918A2 BAR is a pretty miserable weapon, easily obsolete by WWII and with many features that are more handicap than benefit to a shooter.But we had to wonder why John Browning, whose work was generally outstanding, would have made so many missteps on the design. And that required looking back to the original M1918 gun, which Browning actually designed (he was long dead when the A2 was conceptualized).

Let’s start with weight. One of the – if not the primary – problems with the A2 BAR is its weight of about 21 pounds. That is a beast to carry, particularly with the bulky bipod way out at the muzzle. If you want a taste of the experience, lash two M1 Garands together and go hike a few miles. Well, it turns out the original BAR was lighter – a full 5 pounds lighter! The M1918 weighed 16 pounds, or 25% less – and with that weight much better balanced thanks to the lack of bipod. Five pounds may not sound like a lot, but it is a very significant difference when you have to carry the weapon around all day, fire from the shoulder, move into covered or prone positions, and so on.

So what caused this increase in weight? Well, typical bureaucratic demands, really. Pretty much everything in military service gets heavier as it gets updated. Tanks do, aircraft do, the M16 did, and even the FG-42 did. On the BAR, the added bloat came from a hydraulic fire rate control buffer in the stock, a flash hider, a bipod (big addition there), folding shoulder plate, magazine guide wings, and a carry handle (ironically needed largely because of all the added weight). In my opinion (which I will freely admit is not supported by nearly enough experience), these were all poor choices to a greater or lesser extent. Let’s look at each one…

Hydraulic buffer. This was not to reduce recoil, but rather to slow down the rate of fire. The M1918 had two selector positions for firing, semi and full auto. The A2 replaced these with two full-auto settings, fast (~600rpm) and slow (~350rpm). Here’s an example (which I found on YouTube) of the two different speeds:

In order to allow slow full-auto fire, a hydraulic buffer in the stock was used to slow down bolt travel. There are three problems with this. First, I think two different speeds is an answer to a question nobody was asking – at least not anybody using a BAR in combat. Pick the best overall rate of fire, and couple that with semiauto. You know, like Browning did in the first place. Second problem is that the buffer adds weight. This problem is that the buffer was prone to failure. If the seals wore out, the buffer would lose pressure and cease to function, leaving the gun with both settings running at the “fast” speed. This was compounded by the gun’s lack of easy access to clean from the chamber end. Cleaning from the muzzle would allow solvent to drain down into the stock, and too much of that would compromise the buffer seals.

Flash Hider. Okay, this isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s small and light. But on the other hand, the BAR (all versions) had a 24 inch barrel; same as the Garand. Does the Garand need a flash hider? Not really. So does the BAR really get much benefit, especially considering that the device is nothing but a plain hollow cylinder?

Bipod. The biggie. I will agree that having a bipod on a support weapon like the BAR is a good idea…but the bipod they came up with was terrible. Here’s why:

  • Too heavy. Seriously, it’s something like 3 pounds. Significantly heavier than it needs to be.
  • Wrong mounting point. Put it on the gas block, not the muzzle. That would reduce barrel deflection and improve balance.
  • Too clumsy to deploy. You have to loosen a wing nut on each leg, lock the leg into its “deployed” notch, and then retighten the wingnuts. Two other wingnuts are used to extend the legs. This means that if you want to have rapid use of the bipod, you must carry the gun with it deployed all the time.
  • Unlimited rotation. It will spin 360 degrees around, and if you move quickly the wingnuts will sometimes block your sight picture.

Shoulder plate. Not a huge deal, but really not necessary. One of those things that some people want, and argue that it only adds a few ounces. Well, a few ounces here and a few more there and pretty soon you’ve added 5 pounds to your weapon. A much better idea to improve control would have been to add a rear pistol grip instead.

M1918A2 BAR buttstock parts
Let’s add some unnecessary extra bits to the stock!

Magazine guides. Possibly the first application of gamer modifications to a military arm? Well, probably not. But the intent was exactly like a big extended magwell on a competition pistol – to help the shooter guide new magazines smoothly into the receiver. Not a bad idea. But they went overboard on the A2 BAR, making them too big, too thick, and too heavy. Something a third the size would have worked just as well.

BAR magazine guides
M1918A2 magazine guides on left, original M1918 without guides on right

Carry handle. If it weren’t for the stuff listed above, the carry handle wouldn’t even have been necessary. And it was noisy and floppy, and lots of GIs threw them away even with the weight of the A2. Carry handles on light machine guns are typically there for manipulating hot barrels, not actually for carrying the gun with. A detachable barrel would have been a modification well worth the added weight, and it would have justified the handle – but they didn’t do that.

Sights. This one has nothing to do with weight, but really ought to be mentioned. The original BARs used basically the sights off the M1917 Enfield, which have a nice big rear aperture as a battle sight, and a second flip-up aperture for more precise shooting. It’s a really good combat sight. The A2 BAR, though, was “updated” to have instead the 1903 Springfield rear sight, which has an tiny open notch for a battle sight, and a narrower front post. It is better for target shooting, but pretty poor as a combat sight. I would say to battle sight on the A2 BAR is nearly useless. The only benefit to it over the original sight is that it allows windage adjustment…but I would much rather Kentucky windage my shots through a sight I can use than get exactly dialed in with one I can’t see half the time.

M1917 Enfield rear sight
The original M1918 BAR used this very nice rear sight…
1918A2 rear sight
…and then for the M1918A2 they deliberately changed to this. Ugh.

So…Why?

The BAR was originally conceived as an “automatic rifle” for walking fire assault – advancing across no-man’s land firing from the hip to suppress defending troops. That didn’t work out so well, but nobody knew that until they tried the idea out a couple times. The original gun was built for that purpose, which explains the fixed barrel (lower volume of fire and a need to keep the gun light and portable) and the lack of bipod. It quickly became clear that that tactic didn’t work, and between the world wars the concept of a light machine gun finally matured in a way it had not done by 1918. This new type of weapon had to endure more sustained fire and use positions of cover, while being operated by a 2-man crew. To this end, the guns had replaceable barrels, bipods, and top-mounted magazines to allow easier reloading by the assistant gunner and a lower profile on the bipod. Examples of these guns would be the ZB-26/30/Bren, Chatellerault 24/29, DP-28, Type 96 Nambu, and Vickers-Berthier, among others.

The US didn’t have a weapon that fit this tactical profile, but they had the BAR, which was on the right track, more or less. So they made modifications to bring it as close as possible to the LMG standard without having to spend all that much money in retrofitting the guns. The result (predictably, in hindsight) was an automatic rifle with a bipod, not a light machine gun. It developed and maintained its highly regarded reputation because of the qualities Browning gave it in the first place, and in spite of the “upgrades” made in 1939 when the A2 variation was formally adopted.

Why do you hate the BAR?

I don’t, really – I just think that it is valuable to understand what makes a weapon good and bad beyond simply accepting the mythology guns can acquire by being used by the winning or losing sides in memorable conflicts. The BAR has some outstanding qualities – it is remarkably accurate and remarkably reliable. That reliability, I believe, is a large part of why it developed such a great reputation – better to have a heavy and unergonomic gun that always works than one that feels great in the hand and malfunctions when you need it most. No doubt about it, the BAR worked.

If I were to get myself a BAR (and I don’t plan to do so; there are lots of other stranger things I would rather put the money into) I think I would look until I found an M1918 pattern one (whether semi-only or select fire) and get that instead of an A2 pattern. I’d rather have the gun the way John Browning envisioned it than as an Ordnance Department redesign-by-committee.