Ma Deuce

A Century And Counting
67

Duke firing a Ma Deuce .50 BMG.

In my entire career I don’t remember writing about a firearm with which I had only a few moments’ experience. But what an experience! The gun was the legendary “Ma Deuce” officially known as the M2 .50 Browning Machine Gun (BMG). Its power, accuracy and muzzle blast were awesome.

Big Bang

The location of my opportunity was southern Nebraska and I had been invited to join a small group being exposed to a variety of legally owned full-autos. After every invitee had taken a turn with a .303 British BREN Gun, a 7.92mm German Sturmgewehr, a 9mm British STEN Mk V and a U.S. .30 Model 1919A4, the day was topped off with everyone getting to shoot the Ma Deuce.

Towards the end of World War I in 1918, the U.S. Ordnance Department was advised by combat troops in France an especially powerful rifle was being used by the Germans. It was 13mm and could penetrate the Allied tanks’ light armor. Wisely the American ordnance officers felt our army should outdo Germany with an equally powerful machine gun.

John M. Browning took on the job but his new .50 caliber was not finished by the end of hostilities. Regardless, it was adopted by the U.S. Army as the Model 1921. It has been written JMB simply scaled up the .30-06 to make a .50 cartridge and Winchester Repeating Arms took over on the ballistic end. Whether true or not, a .50 BMG round is plain HUGE. Case length is 3.91″ and bullet diameter is 0.510″. The U.S. M2 FMJ round weighs just north of 700 grains at a nominal muzzle velocity of 2,810 fps. Take a minute to think about it — by comparison, a U.S. .30 M2 (.30-06) military load fired a 150-grain bullet at 2,740 fps.

Originally adopted as the Model 1921 but by mid-1930s there were some design changes. By then the U.S. Army dropped year of adoption for equipment and gave almost every item an “M” with a number meaning Model One, etc. Hence the Model 1921 became the famous M2 also known by troops as the Ma Deuce.

A .50 BMG round shown in comparison with a .30 Carbine cartridge.

Specs

I will be the first to admit my knowledge of Ma Deuce is very limited. Not only have I only fired one to the tune of a few score rounds but that single specimen is the only functional one I’ve seen personally. It was the air-cooled model with a 45″ barrel and sitting on a tripod. According to Bruce Canfield’s book U.S. Infantry Weapons of World War II, an M2 with tripod weighs 125 lbs. There was also a water-cooled version weighing 100 lbs. without mount and its jacket held 10 quarts of water. Cyclic rate of fire of .50 BMGs not on an aircraft was about 450 to 550 rounds per minute.

Weapon, tripod and ammunition weight limited .50 BMGs’ usefulness with infantry. However, with troops riding instead of walking, M2s gained great favor. By the end of World War II, virtually every tank or half-track carried M2s as well as many trucks and jeeps. There was a special half-track fitted with a rotating cupola holding four Ma Deuces. These were called the “Quad-50” and initially meant as anti-aircraft weapons, they were warmly welcomed by ground troops even through the Vietnam War.

At approximately 500 yards, the Ma Deuce was able to do this sort of damage to an abandoned cistern.

Tear Down The Wall

Anyway, back to that very cold day in Nebraska a few years ago. We were shooting the basic tripod mounted Ma Deuce on a rancher’s land. At least 500 yards distant was a concrete and brick wall — the remains of a cistern the rancher was in the process of tearing down. It was our target. Once the owner of the BMG got the .50 zeroed for us, we took turns shooting at the wall. Afterwards, I was amazed at the destructive power of 710-grain bullets at 500 yards. In plain terms they just chewed the wall to pieces.

The big Browning .50s were altered for mounting on airplanes but I have no data as to their rates of fire except that they were faster than infantry versions. Our World War II fighter planes carried two, three or four 50s on each wing. After shooting a .50 BMG I can understand how when an American pilot got an enemy plane in his sights a burst lasting only a couple of seconds often tore it apart. Additionally every B17 bomber carried from 10 to 13 .50 BMGs so it is little wonder many Luftwaffe fighter pilots didn’t survive a trip flying through their formations.

A military weapon’s success can be rated by the length of time it stayed in service. For the Ma Deuce, it’s at a full century and still counting.

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