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Some of my experiences with machine guns.
I can’t think of very many tanks that did not have at least one machine gun as part of the armament, but I am sure that there have been some. The original concept of the tank was, I think, to overcome the advantage that the German Army had, during WWI, in field fortifications and machine guns. Conventional infantry tactics at that time didn’t really have a good answer, so something else was needed. A mobile ‘pillbox’ complete with multiple machine guns and, in some cases, 2 pounder guns would have appealed to me as well, as a way to break the stalemate.
The connection between armored vehicles and horse cavalry has been established to my satisfaction. What was needed in WWI was a breakthrough, normally provided by the cavalry, but un-armored cavalry, when faced with machine guns, have not usually been successful. (I saw that movie about the Australian cavalry unit attacking a Turkish position during WWI and found myself rooting for the horses, but it was well done if the movie was even close to accurate.)
Enough maundering. I have fired several types of machine guns, and seen quite a few more fired. Some impressed me and a few didn’t.
When I started tank training at Fort Knox in 1975, I believe that all of the tanks used for training had a coaxial machinegun designated the M-79. (I’m sure that the ‘M’ is right) These were obviously mass-produced, and gave the appearance of being not-new. They fired the 7.62 mm NATO round and had a heat shield around the barrel. The receiver was boxy. Some models that I saw had a strange looking set of fin like things attached to the front of the heat shield. I can't imagine what they were for, but they were easily bent which caused the rounds to head in the most unlikely directions when fired. M60 tanks, at that time, carried, I think, about 3000 rounds in the hopper, and there were ‘banana’ boxes under the commander’s step that could be used to store even more. Sheridan’s carried about the same load, but no ‘banana’ boxes.
The ‘coax’ (coaxial machine gun) was not neglected during gunnery qualification. There were always at least two engagements that were ‘coax’ only, usually troop target silhouettes in an open area. (As if that happens a lot with noisy tanks approaching.)
I think that the M-219 was the next step in the coax family. Personally, I couldn't find any difference in performance from the M-79 although, in theory, the M-219 sounded like a better weapon. Maybe my people and I weren’t smart enough to understand the intricacies. Maybe many other tank commanders had them fire perfectly for years . . . but) mine never worked right, and I never met any other tank commander that had anything good to say about them. I never needed to worry about how long a burst my gunner would fire, because he wasn’t the one firing in the first place, most of the time. The loader would fire the gun manually (in between trying to keep the main gun loaded) until it quit. Sometimes the coax would not fire 15 rounds (normal burst) between stoppages, and the loader would have to apply whatever tool was handiest a few times to try to bring it back to life. These machine guns ruined, I believe, a whole generation of loaders as well as gunners.
Just before I left Germany, in April of 1979, we received ‘Belgian’ Fabrique Nationale designed machine guns as replacements for the M-219s. At first I was outraged that the USA’s idea of the perfect coaxial machine gun was being callously replaced by an import, but I got over that quickly. I’m stretching here but I think we called them the MAG-240 at first. They fit right into the coax mount with minimal modifications, and they would fire, no matter what. They were well made, easy to maintain, and they always worked.
At that time I was working as an assistant to the 3rd Armored Division’s Master Gunner, on the division tank gunnery qualification standardization committee. I spent nearly four months watching tanks fire every day. It was very easy to tell which crews had the new machine guns because they would start firing and not stop until either the TC realized what was happening, or they ran out of ammunition. I can’t tell you how many vehicles I saw come off the range with the coax barrel glowing red. The gunners were so used to having coaxial machine guns that would either not fire from their controls, or not fire more than a few rounds no matter who pulled the trigger, that they just sat with the selector on MG and kept the trigger pulled until the engagement was over. It took a long time to make them realize that they were actually controlling the machine gun, often for their first time, and that they were supposed to be firing 15 round bursts.
Sheridans, that I fired my first gunnery on, used the same coax. You may have read about my experience there. They also had an M2HB (Heavy Barrel) .50 caliber machine gun as the TC’s weapon. It was mounted outside the TC’s cupola in an extension of the ‘chicken box’. People who really got along well with the maintenance personnel might even have a set of toggle switches mounted on the spade grips that traversed the cupola electrically. I loved the M2. It was a Browning and had, I think, been accepted by the US military before WWI. It had a heavy barrel (it really was heavy) in order to absorb and dissipate heat so that it could be fired for long periods of time without major damage. I called my M2, on B-28, ‘Eatemup’ because it ate a pair of pliers once, while I was firing it, and didn’t stop or suffer any discernable damage, although the pliers were pretty useless after that.
I have heard that, especially during the early years of the conflict between the two Chinas, M2s were used as sniper weapons, especially when mounted on tripods and with the traverse and elevation attachments properly installed. Although it is against the Geneva Convention, I’ve heard that some people even used them for that purpose in Vietnam, but I’ve never met anyone who could verify that.
The M60A1 Main Battle Tank used the M85 .50 caliber machine gun instead of the M2HB. It was mounted inside the cupola with associated sights, traversing and elevation mechanism (manual) and the ammunition storage was also inside the cupola, wrapped around the inside a circular aluminum bin. I understand that the M1 Abrahms has gone back to the M2HB. Hmmmm? I liked the M85 just fine. It was significantly lighter than the M2, as I remember it, seemed to have fewer parts, making it easier to clean, and mine was very reliable. I just couldn’t hit anything with it, which was pretty frustrating. The combination of sights and traversing an elevation mechanism that had to be operated in ‘monkey motion’ (circular rub on stomach while patting the top of the head) just didn’t seem to have anything to do with the main gun controls, which were very easy for me to use.
My M85 was always spotless, and always fired (which didn’t do me any particular good) so all the other tank commanders that had M85s that were tricky would want to borrow mine before going down range. I have to admit that I was a bit of a prig. If their’s didn’t work at all, they had a chance, but no other way. I didn’t keep it clean for the fun of it.
M60 Machine gun - I’ve always felt that this was a cheap ‘knock-off’ of the German MG-36 (38?) MG-42, but I really liked it. When I was with the armored cavalry our jeeps each had a mount for an M-60. We had to take them to the field with us for any non-minor exercise and my helmet had a recurring dent on the left side from being thrown against it’s barrel during evasive maneuvers since it was locked in place. I won’t try to estimate the hours I’ve spent cleaning M-60s at 0200 after coming back from the field. A very friendly and reliable weapon, although a little heavy for long range foot work. It fires 7.62 NATO from the open bolt position and has two ammunition feed options (that I know of).
During PNCOC (Primary NCO Course) at North Fort Hood, Texas, we rotated responsibility for carrying the radio (AN/PRC-25) and the M-60 on a semi-daily basis. We got ‘bounced’ a lot because we had some very good and aggressive opponents who were not in the course. We got sick of it. We were helo-lifted into a supposedly clear area and got bounced on the pad. We were trying to find a place to form circle in heavy rain, and we got bounced. We were irate! We were trying to find a way to get away from those irritating people, and we got bounced.
But I’m not very smart or fast and I had (odds of the draw) both the radio and the M-60 . . . and a large number of (what I thought were excessively heavy) 7.62mm blanks. We made it into through a narrow place in the boundary of what turned out to be a field and I saw the light. They had to come through there to get to us. I must have been listening at one time because I picked a spot just on the far side of a high spot in the terrain from where I expected the ‘bad guys’ to appear, and waited.
I know that everyone that has ever been in the military, no matter where, has done this at least once, but I took a particular pleasure in saying ‘Hello’ to those people, whose names I will never know, and I was able to use up my entire load of blanks on them, and the graders told me that it was all right, that I hadn’t been ‘killed’ and that they had some more ammunition with them.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
Hi Doug....nope, you don't know me...and oddly enough, my name is Doug also!
Just wanted to clarify a couple of points for you on the coax machine gun page, if that's OK. The coax machine gun refered to as the 7.62mm 'M-79' is in fact, the M-73. (and M79 is the old single shot 'thumper' 40mm grenade launcher, used a number of them too). The M-73 7.62 MG was a purposed designed armored vehicled coax gun to replace the old 1917 .30 Browning machine gun (on which I originally trained and was on M-48's and M60's), as it had a shorter 'boxy' receiver section (which was noted) and was more space efficient in the turret designs to come. This was acheieve by a mechanically leveraged cam that gave up mechanical advantage for short throw which is why the recevier was shorter. Anyone who assembled one of these quickly learned where to place their fingers and how little pressure it required to move the bolt QUICKLY to the front when the spring was removed...as evidenced from cries of "Ouch" followed by swearing when forgotten! The recever was short and the barrel disproportionatly long compared to the old .30 Browning, which could also have the pistol grip backplate or a solenoid firing mechanism. I am not aware that the M-73 ever had a provision for tripod or pistol grip mounting, as this was not it's intended application. Guns which seek to achieve space efficiency and higher rates of fire often prove unreliable, as was the case with this and.... The M85 .50 cal machine gun which was to replace the M2HB. Sought a shorter recevier group and higher rate of fire for AA applications in tank cupolas. We called the higher rate of fire "Chinese Overdrive" at the Armor Board (Ft. Knox) when I was on the Initial Production Test for the M60A2 in 1973. They proved unreliable in regular service (the tank and the gun!) and both were withdrawn, thankfully.
Hope you don't mind my clarifying the nomenclature and a bit of history....
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