An M249 SAW (FN Minimi) in Paratrooper configuration at the Range 702 in Las Vegas

The Most Famous Machine Guns in American History

Machine guns have transformed the landscape of warfare with their relentless firepower ability. These weapons have defined tactical doctrines and embodied the rugged spirit of American resilience and innovation.

As we venture into the history of the most famous machine guns in American history, we will uncover how they have shaped and secured our nation.

Gatling Gun

Invented in 1862 by North Carolina native Richard Gatling, the infamous Gatling gun is now considered the grandfather of all modern machine guns.

The original version, along with many other rapid-firing guns, were tested during the Civil War, but were considered generally ineffective. The Gatling gun did not see much use in the American Civil War. 

Improvements to the design, including the famous rotating barrels and more importantly, use of brass cartridges, led to adoption by the U.S. Army in 1866, where it saw extensive use in conflicts against Native Americans in the American West. 

These improvements made the Gatling gun the subject of interest of many European countries, and it saw combat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. By 1871, Russia, England, Turkey, Spain, Egypt, and the United States Navy had all placed orders for it.

Despite some of its drawbacks, namely being carriage-mounted and horse-drawn, the Gatling gun started a revolution in military tactics that would spark the invention and use of machine guns as we know them today.

Maxim Gun

Invented by Maine native Hiram Maxim in 1884, the Maxim gun was the world’s first fully automatic machine gun. Its basic design concepts are still the basis of modern machine guns – the recoil of a round being fired ejects the spent casing and loads the next one.

It was portable, water cooled and belt-fed, which allowed it to emplace and displace with infantry and provide sustained automatic fire unlike any other weapon before it. It made infantry tactics involving formations of men in open fields completely obsolete, and changed cavalry tactics as well.

The Maxim gun finished the revolution in military tactics that the Gatling gun started. Though it took a few years to gain widespread adoption, its use by colonial forces in Africa made it, or a machine gun based on its design, a standard in every major European army by the turn of the century, and dominated the battlefield in the First World War.

M1917 & M1919 Machine Gun

World wars and world history were changed by the M1917 and M1919 machine guns.

Known as America’s first heavy machine gun, the M1917 was developed by Utah native John Browning at the height of World War I. The gun, which used a water-cooling design to fire more reliably, proved useful in Europe for American expeditionary forces.

After the war, the M1919 was developed and proved to be a superior design. The weapon was lighter and air-cooled and was used effectively in World War II as both an infantry and aircraft weapon.

The extensive use of M1919 and M1917 in major world wars made them symbols of American military prowess. Their reliability and strong firepower made them crucial factors in America’s involvement in both World Wars.

Thompson Submachine Gun

Famously known as the “Tommy gun,” the Thompson submachine gun is an iconic American firearm that emerged in the early 20th century.

Designed in 1918 by John T. Thompson, it became synonymous with the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition era.

Infamous American outlaws like Al Capone have been fictionalized in movies using the Tommy gun to outrun law enforcement.

Here are a few unique technical features of the Thompson submachine gun:

  • Utilizes a .45 ACP cartridge
  • Features a distinctive circular drum magazine or a box magazine
  • Employs the Blish Lock system

Thompson’s notable presence in historical events, movies, and literature has cemented its legacy in American history and popular culture.

Browning Automatic Rifle

Like the M1917 and M1919, famous firearms inventor John Browning invented the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).

Invented in 1917, the BAR was invented to give infantry the same firepower as a machine gun but with the mobility of a rifle. Although technically invented during WWI, it had a bigger impact on WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

The BAR was chambered for the .30-06 Springfield rifle cartridge. Its design featured a gas-operated, air-cooled, and magazine-fed system. The gun is capable of firing 500-600 rounds per minute.

An American infantry soldier with their BAR in tow symbolized American bravery and determination. Movies about WWII will feature the BAR in the hands of American soldiers, fighting bravely against enemies.

M2 .50 Caliber Machine Gun

Another of John Browning’s contributions to American history, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, is a legendary firearm used by the military during WWII. Commonly referred to as “Ma Deuce,” the .50 caliber has been a mainstay of every major U.S. conflict since the Second World War.

The M2’s versatility, reliability, and firepower transformed military tactics and technology. The firearm prompted changes in armored vehicle advancements and design. The M2’s long lifespan is a testament to its innovative design and legacy in American military history.

You can see the M2 in action in movies like Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan, and Thin Red Line.

M16 Automatic Rifle

As America became entangled in the Vietnam War, the M16 automatic rifle became the go-to weapon for American soldiers.

Developed by Colt Firearms, the M16 is a lightweight, air-cooled, gas-operated rifle chambered for 5.56mm ammunition.

Here are a few more technical details of the M16 that make it unique:

  • Capable of firing in semi-automatic, full auto, or burst mode
  • Incorporates a direct impingement gas system
  • Equipped with a lightweight, high-strength synthetic material for the stock and handguard

The gun’s main advantage was its lighter weight and smaller size than other rifles used at the time. It also had an automatic firing mode, allowing for rapid fire in combat situations.

Countless movies, shows, and books are filled with references to the M16. Its sleek, modern design makes it an iconic symbol of American military power.

M60 Machine Gun

The M60 machine gun’s size and appetite for ammunition earned it the nickname “The Pig.” The M60 was a mainstay in the American military throughout the Cold War.

This belt-fed, air-cooled, gas-operated machine gun fired the standard NATO 7.62mm round. The design was heavily influenced by the German MG 42 and FG 42.

Part of the M60’s long-lasting influence is due to its versatility on the battlefield. The machine gun can be used for infantry support and mounted on vehicles and helicopters.

The M60’s immense firepower is seen in action in movies like Rambo, cementing its legacy in the echelon of American military history.

Honorable Mentions (Not American)

While not American, the machine guns below have also changed the course of history with their impact on warfare, and their service in the United States Military. Here are two honorable machine gun mentions:

M249 Squad Automatic Weapon

Adopted by the American military in 1984, the M249 squad automatic weapon is a Belgian design similar to the BAR. Its purpose was to provide infantry with a machine gun’s firepower and a rifle’s portability.

America adopted the weapon because it uses a 5.56×45mm NATO cartridge, which is standard across NATO forces.

Using the M249, a single infantry soldier could mobilize with the firearm and lay down suppressive fire.

The M249 has been used in all major conflicts in the past 40 years, including the Gulf War, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War.

M240 Machine Gun

Another Belgian design, the M240, was designed in the late 1970s and adopted by the American military in the 1980s.

It was primarily used as a vehicle-mounted weapon and was only later adopted for ground infantry support. Because of its reliability and size, it replaced older models like the M60.

It is gas-operated, has an open-bolt design, and fires 750 to 950 rounds per minute. All branches of the U.S. military and NATO forces have adopted the gun.

Armed forces can attach the guns to vehicles, aircraft, and naval vessels or carry them for ground combat.

The History of America’s Famous Machine Guns

An M60 machine gun.

From the trenches of World War I to the jungles of Vietnam, the most famous machine guns in American History have safeguarded our freedom and democracy. They represent the peak of military technological advancement, and their legacies are preserved in American history books. Each gun has played a significant role in shaping military tactics and securing the nation.

Explore the iconic machine guns that shaped American military history, from the Thompson to the M249, and uncover their legacy and impact on warfare.

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