The BAR in Korea

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #Guns
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The BAR in Korea

December 22nd, 2020

7 minute read

The BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) was designed as an automatic rifle, chambered to fire the full-sized .30-06 round. In the World War I era, the term “machine rifle” was also used. The most important factor to bear in mind is that the BAR is a rifle. Even though it was only used in the closing days of the Great War, the BAR made a huge impression, on both American Doughboys and throughout the armies of Europe.

BAR shot from a hilltop in the Korean War
His BAR smoking from extended full-auto fire, a Marine gunner engages communist troops from his hilltop position. Image: NARA

The interwar period saw a great deal of effort invested by many nations in creating “light machine guns”. Germany led the way in the development of the “general purpose machine gun”. Whether “light” or “general purpose”, the most effective of these designs featured a quick-change barrel.

BAR gunner in Korea circa 1952
A BAR gunner with the 25th Infantry Division in Korea during 1952. Image: NARA

Automatic rifles normally do not have an easily removable barrel, and the BAR was no exception. When the light machine gun concept was in fashion, U.S. Ordnance added a bipod, carrying handle, shoulder support and flash hider to the BAR. But dressing the big Browning rifle up as an LMG did little to make it more effective, simply adding weight. Even so, the BAR increased its legend throughout World War II. Its battlefield performance more than proved the soundness of the automatic rifle concept.

BAR on a bipod
BAR in its World War II-era configuration with the 25th Infantry Division in Korea, January 1951. Image: NARA

By the time the Korean War began in 1950, many of the hard-learned lessons about how to best use the BAR had been forgotten or ignored. Most of the BARs issued to troops bound for Korea were fitted with the same add-ons that had been taken off and thrown away in the previous conflict. By the end of the Korean War, most BAR gunners had again stripped down their weapons to their original 1918 configuration.

Marine with a BAR in Korea in front of a Joseph Stalin poster
A Marine BAR man in Seoul, September 27, 1950. Image: NARA

A Landmark Report

In his highly detailed report, “Commentary on Infantry Operations and Weapons Usage in Korea, Winter of 1950-51”, Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall describes the BAR as “The Mainstay”, and elaborates on the effective use of John Browning’s big automatic rifle in the rugged Korean terrain:

“Under the conditions of the average infantry fight in Korea, the BAR, even more than the machine gun, provides the fire base around which the action of other infantry weapons builds up and the force expresses itself unitedly. the men also make this estimate of its effectiveness; they state frankly that it is the mainspring of their action, and that wherever the BAR moves and fires, it gives fresh impulse to the rifle line.

BAR rifle in Korea
The BAR as an automatic rifle: Marine BAR gunner, his weapon stripped of accessories (except the carrying handle). Image: NARA

Appreciation of the BAR within Eighth Army therefore reaffirms experience with the same weapon in World War II operations both in the Pacific and in Europe…It is still considered “indispensable” and troops shudder at any suggestion that it might ultimately be replaced by some other weapon. They cannot imagine having to get along without it.

“The BAR, which is a lesser target and usually has as its operator an individual who combines boldness with a requisite stealth, is therefore the main counteragent. BAR fire is also the chief depressant of sniper fire delivered from ranges which are too close in for the mortars and too far out for the grenade. One man with a BAR, if he is the right man, will have a stronger neutralizing effect upon a local sniper-infested area than the random fire of five or six riflemen. Almost invariably, BAR men are exemplary in their conservation of ammunition. They do not have nervous fingers; they sustain fire only when the situation truly demands it. Why this is so is something of a mystery; it is recorded here as fact because the BAR record in Korea is one of consistently strong performance by the operators.

“If the machine gun, stopping the enemy frontally, is threatened by flankers circling toward it over dead ground, BAR fire is used to cover the corners and save the gun. During the mop-up, it is the main weapon for neutralizing foxholes.”

U.S. Marine in Korea with a BAR rifle
Marine BAR gunner firing his weapon in automatic rifle configuration. Image: NARA

Issues with Reconditioning

The onset of the Korean conflict found America rather unprepared. Many of the infantry weapons first issued to units in Korea during 1950 came from stocks of U.S. World War II weapons stored in Japan. Many of these arms and some of the ammunition had been improperly stored, and there were, at first, far too many firearms that failed or would barely function at all. General Marshall describes the hearty and reliable BAR:

“Concerning the new BAR, fresh from the factory, there is no problem. Practically without exception, this weapon has met with full success every test which the inclement weather of Korea and the dust and grime of the countryside have imposed upon it.

BAR rifle training in Korea circa 1952
While the BAR was presented as a squad automatic, in practice, most U.S. troops used it in its original role as an automatic rifle. Image: NARA

“Much of the trouble seemed to be centered in a weakness in the recoil spring, though because of complications due to seeming frost-lock it was not always possible to determine the seat of the difficulty. The check-up revealed that almost without exception, the BARs which had gone out of action were old weapons, reconditioned by Ordnance in Japan. The old springs, it was reported, had been cleaned but not replaced. Also, according to staff information supplied from Tokyo, the inspection system … during the initial phase of the weapons-reconditioning program had been technically inadequate and generally weak, with the probable consequence that some of the rebuilt weapons had not been adequately tested … invariably where the weapon had failed, it was a reconditioned BAR.”

U.S. Marines in Korea at a bunker ridgeline
A Marine defends his ridgeline position with the accurate, hard-hitting BAR. Image: NARA

In the Okinawa campaign of the spring of 1945, USMC units had significantly increased the number of BARs among Marine infantry while reducing the number of M1 Carbines. In a decision driven by combat experience, the Marines chose automatic firepower, along with the range, accuracy and penetrative ability of the .30-06 round. World War II was over within a few months, and much of this thinking was either shelved, ignored or forgotten. General Marshall remarks on how the power of the BAR was “rediscovered” in Korea, and the concept of doubling the amount of these weapons was renewed.

Soldier carrying a BAR
Even at 19+ pounds, the BAR isn’t the heaviest thing this Marine is carrying. Korea 1952. Image: NARA

“In the view of the great majority of infantry troops and commanders in Korea, the fighting strength of the infantry company would be greatly increased by doubling the number of BARs, while reducing the number of M1 carriers proportionately. This could be done without adding an upsetting burden to the company load. The final argument for the change is that it would make more perfect the balancing of offensive-defensive strength within the infantry company.”

BAR gunner in a bunker in Korea
Marine BAR gunner with his weapon stripped down to its original 1918 configuration. Image: NARA

The M14 as the Squad Automatic

As the M14 became America’s battle rifle, additional work was done to allow the M14 to replace the BAR in the role of squad automatic. Most battle rifles of the era had a squad automatic version, including the Soviet AK-47, the G3, the BM59 and the FN FAL. All of these had their good points, but none were a fully satisfying answer to the squad automatic question.

BAR in Korean circa 1951
The BAR with all the heavy accessories — bipod, flash hider, and carrying handle. Korea, February 1951. Image: NARA

The M14E2 featured an in-line stock and a large pistol grip intended to help control the weapon during full-auto fire. A plastic upper to the forend was added to save weight, but this weight saving was undone by the addition of an M2 bipod, muzzle brake/compensator, and a folding metal vertical foregrip.

The weapon was, at best, a compromise, subject to the same problems of others in its class, including rapid overheating, and the inability of magazine-fed weapons to sustain automatic fire. Even so, the M14E2 was approved for production and issued beginning in 1963. By 1966 it was redesignated the M14A1 and faded from service as the M14 was replaced by the M16.

M2 Carbines in Korea, along with a BAR rifle
The three men to the right carry the M2 carbine, equipped with 30-round magazines. At the left, the BAR man provides the mobile base of firepower for the patrol. Image: NARA

The Legend Lives On

The Browning Automatic Rifle remained in service, appearing in some numbers in the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Clearly, its influence was felt across multiple generations and designs of battle rifles, light machine guns, and squad automatic weapons. All these years later, the BAR is still heavy, intimidatingly so for some. It is also still accurate and hard-hitting. What’s more, it is still a legend.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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