Here's What You Need To Remember: The concept began in the First World War.
The concept of a “squad automatic weapon” was not new to the Second World War, and was in fact developed a generation earlier in the mud-soaked trenches of the First World War. The French were actually the first to deploy such a weapon, the largely disparaged Chauchat. While it suffered from design flaws it was still an innovative weapon.
During World War II, that concept evolved and led to the development of squad automatic weapons, and even to the modern assault rifle.
The U.S. M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle
During the First World War Americans went “Over There” with a weapon that was truly unlike anything the European powers were using. It was the Browning Automatic Rifle, designed and developed by prolific firearms pioneer John Browning. The rifle was still heavy, but lighter than the American-made/British-used Lewis Gun and German MG08/15 and far more reliable than the French Chauchat.
The American military was so worried that the Germans would copy the BAR that it feared even introducing the weapon into combat. In the interwar era bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow preferred the BAR—with a cut down stock and shortened barrel.
The BAR never fully lived up to the U.S. military’s original hopes that it could fill the gap between rifle and machine gun, but in World War II it still offered “walking fire” that few other weapons could provide.
The British Bren Gun
The British had learned from the experience at the end of the First World War that there was a need for a squad light machinegun. During the war it saw how the Lewis Gun and Hotchkiss Portative could provide mobility and firepower—something the larger Vickers heavy machine gun couldn’t do.
However, the British didn’t actually invent a new gun, but rather licensed a version of the Czechoslovakian-designed ZB vz. 26 light machine gun. The result was the Bren Gun. The name came from the first two letters of Brno, the place of origin of the ZB and the “en” from Enfield—the British maker of the Bren. The Bren fired the same .303 ammunition as the Enfield rifle, and thus it was not a light weapon. It was also distinctive for its top-mounted banana magazine.
Developed as a gas-operated light machine gun, the Bren had a firing rate between 480 and 540 rounds per minute. While it could be fired from the hip, and supported with a sling, it was still equipped with a bipod and was meant to be used in the prone position. The Bren Gun was operated by two-man crews, with one man carrying the weapon and another carrying a spare barrel, tool kit and extra magazines. In a squad or “rifle group,” several soldiers could also carry extra magazines.
The Bren saw service throughout World War II and was used in numerous conflicts around the world. It remained in service with the British Army through the Falklands War in 1982. The Bren even remains in service with the Army Reserve of the Irish Defence Forces.
Vickers-Berthier (VB) Light Machine Gun
The Bren wasn’t the only weapon the British military considered—and another was the similar looking, Vickers-Berthier, which at first glance could be confused with the Bren. In fact, this gun was in direct competition with the Bren in the years leading up to World War II.
It was based on a French design from World War I, and in 1922 the Vickers Company purchased the licensing rights to the French Berthier Model 1922. This design used a similar gas and tipping bolt mechanism as the Bren Gun and had a similar removable barrel. The Vickers Berthier proved to be a bit heavier and longer than the Bren and the offered no substantial benefits.
It was, however, adopted by the British Indian Army as it proved easier to produce and thus cheaper, while still being more portable than the aged World War I era Hotckiss and Lewis machine guns. It was produced at the Rifle Factory Ishapore in India. Yet, in 1942 to standardize parts and supplies the Vickers Berthier was phased out in favor of the Bren. The Indian-made light machine gun remained in use with reserve units of the Indian Army until the 1980s.
An export version was also sold to Latvia and Bolivia as the Vickers K machine gun—chambered in the 7.65x53mm (known as Argentine or Belgian) Mauser cartridge.
German FG42 and StG44
During World War II, the German military saw the need to replace its aging Kar98K bolt action rifles, while also offering more firepower to certain units. The result was not one but two different note-worthy rifles.
The first was the Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 or “paratrooper rifle 42” (FG42), a selective-fire automatic rifle. It was actually developed specifically for the use by the Fallschirmjägerger airborne infantry, which after the assault on Crete had been largely relegated to an elite infantry unit rather than as actual paratroopers.
Two different models of the FG42 were produced, and it was considered one of the most advanced weapon designs of World War II—and elements of the weapon were copied during the development of U.S. Army’s M60 machine gun.
The other was the MP44, later designated the StG44 or Sturmgewehr 44, “assault rifle 44.” This was the first successful weapon design to utilize an intermediate cartridge, the key element of an assault rifle. It was more compact than a battle rifle and offered a quicker rate of fire with a more powerful round than a submachine gun. The StG44’s influence can be seen in many post-war weapons, mostly notably the Soviet AK-47.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
This piece first appeared earlier this year and is being republished due to reader interest.