AUTO vs. AUTO

The Beretta AR70/90 has been Italy’s general-issue rifle since 1990.…

The Beretta AR70/90 has been Italy’s general-issue rifle since 1990. It has full-auto and three-round-burst capacity, and the gas system can be set to shoot rifle grenades.

Few things put a smile on a gun fancier’s face like the thumping of a machine gun. Attending a recent Media Day hosted by FNH USA, which featured several of the company’s fully automatic offerings, I was surprised at how even the experienced gun writers were giddy to line up and wail a belt of ammo into the Nevada landscape. After handling and shooting such equipment as a full-time instructor for over a decade, I forgot how many folks, including gun enthusiasts, have little experience shooting at cyclic rates. Even within the military it is very rare to find skilled gunners, and most personnel are ignorant of gunnery to the point of deluding themselves into pretending they understand it. The majority of military “training” with machine guns is limited to equipment familiarity and gunnery skills are nearly nonexistent.

Untangling Terms

One of the big stumbling blocks is labeling every full-auto weapon a “machine gun,” without understanding automatic’s different roles. Part of the confusion may stem from U.S. law, which classifies a machine gun as any firearm that fires more than one round automatically with one pull of the trigger. In the real world, not all “machine guns” are created equal in ability or purpose. Terms used today to describe fully automatic firearms include “machine gun”—described as light, medium, heavy or general purpose—“automatic rifle,” “assault rifle,” “submachine gun” and “automatic weapon.” Each of these has a very different purpose, even when fulfilled by the same equipment.

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The M249 (FN Minimi), a light machine gun, was brought into U.S. service in the early 1980s to fulfill both automatic-rifle and light-machine-gun roles, under a new designation of “squad automatic weapon.”

The first fielded fully automatic weapons (for example, the Maxim, Schwartzlose and Dreyse) were cumbersome and resembled positioned artillery in form and function. The “mechanical” machine guns by Gatling, Nordenfelt and Gardner were properly labeled “machine guns” since they were loaded and fired by machinery. The effectiveness of the heavy, water-cooled “automatic” machine gun hit its peak in the mud and trenches of World War I, where militaries paid for the lessons of machine-gun gunnery with human lives. Although most militaries—including Uncle Sam’s—have largely forgotten those early lessons, formal gunnery with machine guns is just as effective today when understood and used appropriately. Emplaced WWI machine guns had a barrel surrounded with a water jacket for cooling and a cumbersome tripod for gunnery control. While good for gunnery, this ensemble could not be readily moved—there is tactical advantage to repositioning firepower on demand. Attempts at making heavy, water-cooled machine guns part of the maneuver element included wheeled mounts, skid-mounts and, in the American service, two strong-backed GIs.

Considered a “light” machine gun of that period was any fully automatic gun chambering a rifle cartridge that could actually be picked up by one man, even if the mechanism was nearly identical to the water-cooled, tripod-mounted heavy machine gun. Those of the WWI era that fired from a box magazine were generally called “machine rifles” by the U.S. service. This eventually led to the concept of the “automatic rifle,” an individually-issued, full-auto weapon that boosted firepower while remaining light enough to shoot and maneuver with riflemen. The M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was one of the first purpose-built automatic rifles, indicating that forward-thinking folks like Browning had realized that tactical roles varied—one design didn’t work across the board. Guns developed between the Wars, such the Czech ZB-30 that grew into the British Bren or the Soviet Degtyarev DP, were usually called “light machine guns.” But other nations who manufactured the BAR generally referred to it as a “machine gun.”

Terminology is wont to being provincial and changing with tactical application more than with design. On the other hand, U.S. box-fed automatics have usually been given the moniker “rifle”—such as the Benet-Mercie Machine Rifle and Browning Automatic Rifle—with the exception being the Johnson M1941 Light Machine Gun as issued and used by the Marines in the Pacific and by the Army in Italy.

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