During World War One the British Army had been early adopters of the light machine gun concept, recognising the mobility and firepower offered by the Lewis Gun as early as 1915. Despite the Lewis Gun’s proven track record after the war a lighter weapon was sought.
In the final months of World War One the US had begun fielding the Browning Automatic Rifle, Model of 1918, in what they had envisaged as a ‘walking fire’ role. Relatively soon after the war British Ordnance began the search for what they termed a ‘light gun’. They took an interest in the BAR ordering 25 Colt Model 1919 commercial guns for testing and evaluation at a cost of £1,575 in November 1920. According to James Ballou’s book on the BAR, Rock & a Hard Place, the serial numbers of these guns ran between C-100374 to C-100398. The Colt Model of 1919 differed little from the earlier US military model, the principle changes were the lack of a flash hider and the use of relocating of the recoil spring to the butt, acted on by a transfer rod, from inside the gas cylinder tube.
This batch of guns was adapted to chamber the rimmed British .303 round, necessitating a curved magazine, a .303 barrel, an adapted bolt, extractor and ejector. In April 1921 the BAR along with four other light machine guns (the Madsen, Beardmore-Farquhar, a Lewis Gun and strip and magazine fed Hotchkiss guns) at the School of Musketry at Hythe.
The Browning fared well in the testing with the evaluating officer stating that for a “light gas-operated weapon the Browning has done remarkably well…” In fact the Browning was selected as first preference out of the five weapons tested. The testing board felt it was suitably light and would be the cheapest to manufacture. The board made a series of suggestions to improve the BAR for British service:
- Move the cocking handle to the right side of the weapon
- Fit a light bipod which is height adjustable
- Ejection port and magazine well dust covers
- Gas regulator hole to be clear of threads of regulator
- Improved method of fixing position of gas regulator
- Stronger butt
- Magazine well capable of receiving Lee-Enfield rifle magazines
No further action was taken until 1927 when it was decided that the Superintendent of Design should adapt several Brownings to improve the weapon for British service. According to Jame Ballou’s book these new modified BARs were not all from the original batch of test guns, at least one was a Colt gun purchased through FN.
The adapted BARs had carrying handles, flash hiders, bipods, Lewis Gun-style pistol grips, new rear sight and protected front post, an ejection port dust cover and a redesigned butt stock. A number of other changes were also made including switching the charging handle to the right (this change was found to be less necessary with the addition of a pistol grip).
While the modified BAR’s came fairly close to being adopted the principle problem remained the weapon’s limited 20 round magazine. Various larger magazines such as a 40-round box magazine from Colt and a 30-round drum were considered. By 1930 several new light machine guns had appeared and the Browning was beginning to look obsolescent. The Czech vz. 26 would eventually be adopted as the Bren.
We recently had the opportunity to examine what we believe to be a British trials BAR. Vic examined the gun finding that rather than a commercial Model of 1919, purchased for the first set of evaluations, it was marked as a Model of 1925. Interestingly, however, rather than resembling a Colt M1925 it had all the characteristics of an earlier M1919.
The gun examined, serial number C-102723, falls outside of the serial range James Ballou states belonged to the 25 original .303 BARs. While it is marked M1925 the gun shares none of the characteristics of an M1925 – lacking the reshaped wooden foregrip, stubby pistol grip and rate of fire reducer. It does, however, have the 1919’s style of stock, foregrip and its relocated recoil spring. Additionally, the gun has had a folding carry handle, very similar to that of the later British trials BARs, added.
With little solid information available there could be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the BAR Vic was able to examine was purchased for the later trials (between 1925-30) and it underwent minimal alterations – there is some variation between the documented surviving examples. The discrepancy between parts and the model name is curious. It is possibly a mix of parts were used to assemble the weapon during experimentation with configurations and an M1925 receiver was used as the basis of the gun but it was assembled with an M1919 barrel and furniture.
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Length: ~115cm / 45 in
Weight: .303 M1919 approximately 7kg, later trials guns between approximately 7.5-8.5kg
Sights: M1917 Rifle sights
Action: Gas-operated, rising bolt lock
Feed: 20-round curved box magazine
The Browning Automatic Rifle, R.R. Hodges, (2012)
Rock and a Hard Place: The Browning Automatic Rifle, J.L. Ballou, (2000)
Video from the Institute of Military Technology showing a .303 M1919 BAR (source)