The U.S. Army’s “Ma Deuce,” the .50-caliber M2 machine gun wielded by World War II hero Audie Murphy, is being revamped to prevent malfunctions that have injured dozens of soldiers.
Congress shifted $34 million at the Army’s request to supplement $15 million originally sought in this year’s defense budget for modifications to correct a “safety issue” with the M2, according to the conference report accompanying legislation. The funds may benefit gunmakers General Dynamics Corp. and U.S. Ordnance Inc.
The money will buy about 6,400 kits that let soldiers change barrels without manually resetting the weapon, a sometimes time-consuming process that can result in hand or face wounds when done improperly, Army officials said. The Army plans to seek more funding and hold a competition later this year to buy 28,000 more kits, part of an effort to upgrade its entire M2 inventory of 45,000 guns to newer M2A1 models.
“We’re able to make it a little better and hoping to continue adding to its legend,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Ryan, product manager for crew-served weapons at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, said in an interview.
The added funding for upgrades was shifted from a program to buy M2A1s. A quick-change barrel kit costs about $5,700, compared with about $11,200 for a new machine gun, according to Pentagon budget documents from February 2011.
“It’s a much more cost-effective way to convert the fleet,” Fred Coppola, deputy project manager for soldier weapons, said in an interview. The kits also include enhancements such as a muzzle-flash suppressor, he said.
The Browning .50-caliber machine gun was developed by John Browning in 1918 at end of World War I. The belt-fed machine gun became standard-issue in the U.S. Army in 1933. Its large bullet, thick barrel and high rate of fire make it particularly lethal against light-armored vehicles, low- and slow-flying aircraft and boats.
Audie Murphy, among the most decorated American soldiers in World War II, used one atop a burning tank destroyer in France to fend off a German infantry attack on Jan. 26, 1945. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. Troops took to calling the gun Ma Deuce after M2.
“It was just something that soldiers came up with,” Gordon Rottman, a special-forces weapons specialist in Vietnam who wrote the book, “Browning .50-Caliber Machine Guns,” said in an interview. Its Vietnam War-era nickname was “the 50-cal.”
The M2 has been linked to weapons malfunctions and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since December 2007, at least 143 malfunctions occurred, including 124 in Iraq and 19 in Afghanistan, and at least 39 soldiers were injured from 2009 to 2011, Army Major Christopher Kasker said in an e-mail.
“This is not a contractor flaw,” said Kasker, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. “This is caused by soldiers not following the procedures in the technical manual.”
Soldiers need to change the barrel on an M2 when it overheats. They wear heat-resistant gloves when handling the barrel, which glows neon orange during heavy fire. They can be hurt if they don’t properly reset the weapon by hand, as is required on the older weapons before firing.
“Weapon may explode if not properly headspaced!” an online M2 instructional poster warns.
Headspace is the distance between the face of the bolt and the bottom of the cartridge case in the chamber, and timing is the adjustment of the gun so that firing takes place when recoiling parts are in the correct position, Kasker said.
Setting them involves screwing in the barrel, listening for clicks and making adjustments with a small tool. “It’s a very tedious process,” Ryan said. “It can take upwards of 20 minutes on a really bad day.”
In addition to cuts, bruises and burns, malfunctions can lead to equipment failures such as rounds firing when they’re not supposed to and cracked barrel extensions, Kasker said.
“The quick-change barrel kits will completely resolve this long-standing issue with the M2,” he said.
The weapon will operate more like the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon or “SAW,” and the M240 Medium Machine Gun, allowing soldiers to “stay in the fight longer,” Ryan said.
Troops described the upgrade as an added benefit, similar to the military’s adoption of rifle scopes and softer seats in armored trucks.
“If there’s something you can do cost-effectively that will better the weapon, why not?” Marine Lance Corporal Casey Estep, a mechanic who manned an M2 on guard duty last year in Afghanistan, said in an interview.
Upgrades in Alabama
The Army will upgrade M2s returning from the war zone at Anniston Army Depot in Alabama, Kasker said. The design was incorporated into new guns beginning in fiscal 2010, according to budget documents.
“Improved parts and components” have been added to the M2 over the years, Rottman, the author, said. “But this is the first really major change that reconfigures the weapon since it was adopted.”
The Army has awarded a contract to General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products, part of Falls Church, Virginia-based General Dynamics, to buy 6,000 new M2A1 guns and is negotiating an additional 3,758 guns, Kasker said. It previously bought standard M2s from General Dynamics and U.S. Ordnance of McCarran, Nevada.
General Dynamics has received about $240 million since April 2009 under five contracts for M2 work, including converting M2s to M2A1s and supplying new guns, according to Karl Johnson, a company spokesman. Now it may face competition.
A notice seeking sources for the 28,000 upgrade kits has received responses from five interested vendors: Ohio Ordnance Works Inc. of Chardon, Ohio; Baxter Machine & Tool Co. of Jackson, Michigan; MRF Machine and Hydraulics Inc. of Kent, Ohio; Midwest Tool & Die Corp. of Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Advanced Precision LLC of Reno, Nevada.