My brother Steve was off to an afternoon movie matinee with his cronies and not all that happy that our mother made him drag me along. She and The Old Man would be off on some adult business when he got home from his Saturday half day of work, which was common in the early 1950s for many blue collar workmen. She, justifiably so, did not trust the eight year old me to be home alone. Both mother and brother admonished me about behaving and, armed with two shiny quarters for my ticket, popcorn, and candy bar, I rode drag on Steve’s gang during the walk downtown.
Exiled to a seat directly in front of him so Steve could keep an eye on me without acknowledging my existence, I sat candy bar in shirt pocket and popcorn in lap. The lights dimmed and there followed a travelogue, a cartoon, coming attractions, and the feature, The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster as 1820 frontiersman Elias “Big Eli” Wakefield. “Big Eli” and son “Little Eli” were leaving Kentucky for Texas. What followed was a love triangle between “Big Eli” and two women, which didn’t interest me much, and a quarrel with the villainous bullwhip wielding Stan Bodine, played by Walter Matthau, which did. Bodine, decades before and nowhere as nice as the heroic Indiana Jones and his bullwhip, uses his bullwhip as a weapon. In the climactic scene Bodine whips Wakefield raw but, losing his whip, is pummeled in the end by Wakefield’s fists.
On the walk back home Steve, ever the walking footnote, regaled his indifferent buddies with a myriad of minutia. Drawing on his even then impressive well of knowledge, he informed them that the bullwhip was the first man made device to break the sound barrier. In his Latin I text book, he said, there were pictures of mosaics dating from the second century AD showing lash whips like Bodine’s. The next man made things to exceed the speed of sound, according to an article he read in The American Rifleman, were conical bullets and that led to his favorite subject, aviation.
“Do you guys know that the first manned supersonic flight occurred on October 14,1947? Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager piloted the US Air Force’s rocket powered aircraft #46-062, the Bell X-1, named Glamorous Glennis in honor of his wife. Dropped from the bomb bay of a B-29 the Bell X-1 was the first airplane to exceed the speed of sound in level flight, reaching a speed of Mach1.06.” He went on to tell us that the fuselage design of the X-1 was based on the shape of the 50 caliber Browning Machine Gun bullet which was known for its stability in supersonic flight. The X-1 was simply a “bullet with wings.”
He was, as usual, accurate but there is more to the story which involves General John J. Pershing and John Moses Browning. The machine gun came into its own during World war I when Germany’s Mashinegewehr 08 and Great Britain’s Vickers Machine guns faced off across No Man’s Land. Ironically both guns were versions of American born, but later British citizen, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim’s original 1884 Maxim gun. The Maxim gun was first used by Britain in 1893 during the First Matabele War’s Battle of the Shangani when 700 British South Africa Policemen and five Maxim guns held of 3,500 Matabele warriors on Saint Crispin’s Day 1893. When the smoke had cleared some 1,500 warriors’ bodies littered the field while the BSAP buried four of their comrades. Of such events British historian, poet and essayist Hilaire Belloc wrote:
Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.
When the American Expeditionary Force landed in France in June of 1917 they had a motley collection of about 1200 near obsolete machine guns in their inventory including Colt-Browning M1895 “potato diggers”, M1904 Maxims, M1909 Benét–Merciés, Hotchkiss M1914s, and Lewis machine guns. This was a logistical nightmare and the Army put out a bid which Browning answered with a design he had been working since 1900. In its first test at the Springfield Armory Browning’s machine gun fired 20,000 rounds with a few stoppages due to poorly loaded cloth belts. It was followed with another 39,500 rounds that only stopped when the sear failed. A second gun repeated the original trial and went on to fire over 21,000 rounds in 48 minutes and 12 seconds, a cyclic rate of 435 round per minute. Designated the M1917, production guns arrived in France just a few months prior to the armistice, too late to really prove their worth. However, over the next six decades it would earn its spurs with service from the Banana Wars through the late 1960s until replaced by the United States Machine Gun, Caliber 7.62 mm, M60.
The United States did not have a heavy machine gun to match the Germans so Pershing asked the Army Ordnance Department to develop one to defeat armored vehicles and aircraft, specifying at least 50 caliber and a muzzle velocity of 2,700 feet per second so as to match the effectiveness of the French 11 mm incendiary armor-piercing round. Browning simply redesigned the M1917 for a larger for a more powerful 50 caliber cartridge that Winchester developed from the .30-06 design which, unfortunately, it did not meet Pershing’s specifications. Winchester later obtained some captured German 13mm Tankgewehr ammunition which gave them some insight and soon after the 50BMG cartridge was born. The resulting water cooled gun dropped the M1917’s single pistol grip trigger assembly in favor of twin spade handle grips with a thumb operated butterfly trigger, as a nod to its greater recoil, and was designated the M1921 Browning machine gun.
Browning died in 1927, but the work on refining the M1921 continued. By 1933, the now air cooled gun, was designated M2 HB (heavy barrel), and the “Ma Deuce,” was adopted.
The United States entered World War II with the M2 in service as fixed and flexible aircraft guns, anti-aircraft guns, a tripod mounted infantry version, and mounted on various vehicles as a dual purpose anti-aircraft and anti-vehicular weapon. After nearly 90 years it is still in service with the armed forces of 116 nations and over 3,000,000, and still counting, have been manufactured.
So, in retrospect, we need to credit Pershing, Browning, and two teams of anonymous engineers and ballisticians at the Springfield Armory and Winchester for the 50 caliber BMG and, therefore, man’s first successful foray into supersonic flight.
Bell X-1 USAF #46-062 Glamorous Glennis