RUFFIN-IT: THE BAR IN KOREA AND VIETNAM
Before World War II was over, John Browning’s darling BAR had established a reputation for itself all across the globe, serving as an issued arm in many branches of service in the American military and in the armies of a number of other countries, including Belgium, China, Poland, and Sweden.
As this country settled into an uneasy peace with the Russian empire and its vast industrial military complex, the prevalent notion residing among those in charge in Washington seemed to be that because of the introduction of nuclear weapons into the equation, the era of large ground wars was over. All interest in developing new conventional arms ceased as our troops adjusted to garrison duties in Europe and Asia or returned to the work force at home.
When hostilities broke out on the Korean Peninsula in June of 1950, the weapons used by both United Nations and North Korean/Chinese forces were almost exclusively those left over from the recent War. Most of our troops carried the semi-automatic M1 Garand as their primary weapon, with M2 carbines, Thompsons, and M3 “Grease Guns” for close-in automatic support. Browning 1917 and 1919 .30-caliber machine guns and M2 .50-cals addressed the needs for longer-range automatic fire.
As was the case in both major theaters of World War II, the 1918A2 BAR was assigned for use at the squad level, giving our troops the mobility that weapon provided, plus the capability for short-range and long-range applications. It could lay down suppressive fire in automatic mode on the immediate flanks or against frontal assault or take out a sniper at 500 yards with its powerful 30-06 round.
Tactics employed by enemy forces during the war made it difficult for established machine gun positions, using the heavier Brownings, to effectively protect our troops as they advanced across hostile terrain. The BAR man, though, could quickly maneuver his weapon to address whatever threat was at hand. So great was its flexibility that the BAR frequently became a brigade-level weapon, shunted about to defend major perimeters from swift flank assaults characteristic of the Communist forces they were engaged with.
In short, the very attributes of the weapon that made BAR so effective in World War II assured its popularity in the Korean War: It was highly mobile, extremely reliable, and inherently accurate, and it could use ammunition stripped from machine gun belts or M-1 clips or left lying about as loose rounds.
As was always the case in WWII, there was no shortage of soldiers eager to serve as BAR man or ammunition assistant.
Early on in the Korean conflict, the BARs in service suffered a higher than usual frequency of mechanical issues, but the cause was quickly isolated and addressed: The weapons that had problems were almost without exception those that had undergone armory reconditioning during which over-used recoil springs were not replaced. Once the recoil springs were replaced, the BARs performed like new.
Demand for the 1918A2 during the Korean War was such that an additional 61,000 were produced during the period by Royal Typewriter of Hartford, Connecticut, who kept costs down by carrying on the tradition established by manufacturers of the weapon in the latter stages of World War II of making cast receivers and trigger housings of Armasteel.
The 1918A2 BAR, then, carried on its fine tradition of mobility, reliability, and accuracy throughout the Korean War, after which it was once again relegated to training facilities or distributed to National Guard armories to await its ultimate fate.
A final note on the exemplary history of the 1918A2: During the early stages of the Vietnamese War the BAR was issued to the South Vietnamese Army and its regional allies, where it once again rose to the occasion and often was the weapon of choice for those who could lay hands on it. It was also used by our Special Forces during the war. James Ballou, whose Rock in a Hard Place is the most comprehensive study of the BAR ever published, writes that during his three tours in Vietnam, he “thanked God for . . . having a BAR that actually worked, as opposed to the jamming M16. . . . (John Ballou, Rock in a Hard Place. Ontario: Collector Grade Publications, 2000. 204.)
This completes my treatment of John Browning’s 1918 BAR in its many configurations. It is a venerable old weapon that deserves all the accolades it has accrued over the decades. Lest you think that the old soldier has been laid to rest and forgotten, though, next week I’ll introduce you to the 1918A3, a semi-automatic version of the BAR available from Ohio Ordnance.