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M2 .50-caliber “Ma Deuce” is Still Going Strong in Her 90s

The 1919 design survives and thrives in the 21st century

The M2 machine gun is “an incredible story of longevity,” said retired U.S. Coast Guard Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Maurice Poulin, who operated the gun aboard the 82-foot cutter Point Cypress (WLB 210) in 1964. “It’s your best friend. You know it will always be there for you and it won’t let you down.”

All five U.S. military service branches use some version of the venerable .50-caliber (or 12.7-millimeter) M2, nicknamed the “Ma Deuce,” which has been on duty since it narrowly missed World War I by entering service in 1919.

All five U.S. military service branches use some version of the venerable .50-caliber (or 12.7-millimeter) M2, nicknamed the “Ma Deuce,” which has been on duty since it narrowly missed World War I by entering service in 1919. The military has many specialized versions, typified by the GAU-18/A carried by U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and fed via a disintegrating metallic-link ammunition belt. A typical M2 weighs about 60 pounds with its tripod, and is 5 feet 5 inches in length. The current version has a rate of fire of 1,150 rounds per minute.

M2 50.-Caliber Machine Gun

An aircrew member from the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron (ERQS) mans the GAU-18/A .50-caliber machine gun mounted to a HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter over Afghanistan, Feb. 5, 2012. The GAU-18/A is a specialized version of the famed M2 and is fed via a disintegrating metallic-link ammunition belt. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tyler Placie

“Other than the tent peg, or possibly the mess kit, I can think of no other piece of equipment that has served virtually unchanged after so many years,” said Master Sgt. John McDermott, an Air Force Security Forces weapons specialist. “We don’t care that it’s old. We care that it works.”

“Aboard ship, it was usually operated by a crew of two,” said Poulin. “If you were the gunner, you were strapped to the gun, and the gun was mounted on a tripod. The gunner gripped the weapon and fired it with a thumb-operated trigger. An ammunition man was responsible for getting belts of ammunition and getting them in place.”

John M. Browning (1855-1926), considered by many to be the greatest firearms designer in history, was responsible for the M2. Browning, however, did not foresee that his machine gun would be widely used in the air as well as on the ground.

John M. Browning (1855-1926), considered by many to be the greatest firearms designer in history, was responsible for the M2. Browning, however, did not foresee that his machine gun would be widely used in the air as well as on the ground.

The U.S. Army introduced the initial version of the M2 to combat units in 1919. The initial model was known as the M2HB, the suffix letters signifying a “heavy barrel.” During and after World War II, the gun appeared on aircraft, tanks, Jeeps, and armored personnel carriers. M2s carried by vehicles were often positioned on a circular M36 truck ring mount, which enables a gunner to fire in all directions.

M2 50.-Caliber Machine Gun

A U.S. Navy sailor aboard the USS Coronado (AGF 11), command ship for U.S. Third Fleet, keeps a vigilant watch at his .50-caliber M2 machine gun. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Palmer Pinckney

According to legend, wartime M2s used on fighter aircraft initially carried belts of ammunition that were 27 feet in length; hence the term “the whole nine yards.”

“When you think what a plane, tank, or submarine, looked like when the M2 first came out, and compare them to today’s planes, tanks and subs, you realize how well Mr. Browning’s design has survived technologically.”

At least a dozen factories turned out this classic machine gun, in some cases resuming production after a halt. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, American and Iraqi forces on opposing sides used M2s. The M2 has proven a valuable weapon for convoy escort duty, air base defense, and combat rescue in Iraq and Afghanistan.

M2 50.-Caliber Machine Gun

In the South Pacific in World War II, tail gunner Sgt. James E. Berryhill sits with a field modification of two .50-caliber M2 machine guns on his B-24 Liberator bomber. James E. Berryhill photo

“When you think what a plane, tank, or submarine, looked like when the M2 first came out, and compare them to today’s planes, tanks and subs, you realize how well Mr. Browning’s design has survived technologically,” said weapons specialist McDermott.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...