By Charles Brown
The story of the elusive M1919A4E1 is like the tale of the Ivory Billed woodpecker. We know it exists from the historical record, there are pictures and drawings of it, but it is seldom, if ever, seen in the flesh.
The M1919A4E1 gets short shrift in most of the books written about the ground models of the Browning .30 caliber machine guns because its production life was extremely short; 1 July 1952 to 30 June 1955, its numbers few, just over 18,000, and its applications limited. The sole purpose of the M1919A4E1 development was to act as a stand-in for the M37 .30 caliber Browning, which the U.S. Army believed would be the do-all end-all on the subject of .30 caliber air cooled machine guns used in armored vehicle and other applications. The M37 was to be last word in improvements to John Moses Browning’s basic design for a recoil operated machine gun that reached all the way back to his 1901 water-cooled prototype.
One of the problems they intended for the M37 to solve was that the design of the .30 caliber air cooled Browning ground machine guns had all evolved from the Model of 1917 with left hand only feed configuration. What the Army Ground Forces wanted was a weapon that could be fed from either direction making it easier to adapt to armored vehicles. This along with other things on the laundry list of improvements forced a redesign of major proportions.
Post WWII, some versions of tanks such as the M41 Walker Bulldog and M46 and M47 Patton, had the usual .30 caliber machine guns in the combination mount with the main gun replaced by .50 caliber machine guns. This sounded like as good an idea as most, other than the M41, which was not equipped with one, retained their forward firing .30 caliber ball mounted machine gun. However the ball mounted .30 calibers had a limited field of fire and one of the reasons for machine guns on tanks is to attack or repel infantry formations. The tanks equipped with .50 caliber machine guns in the combination mount with the main gun had a good field of fire but the amount of machine gun ammunition able to be carried inside the tank was reduced by as much as 60% in some applications. The Korean War with its mass “Human Wave” attacks by Red Chinese troops reinforced the need for lots of ammunition and it didn’t need to be .50 caliber to achieve the desired level of lethality.
Project development which started in 1950 for what would turn out to be the M37 dragged on in the typical peace time fashion. The principal reason for all this foot dragging was that everybody wanted something but nobody, especially in Ordnance, wanted a repeat of the problems experienced with the introduction of the M1919A6 in the fall of 1943, which got into service with insufficient field trials resulting in combat reliability issues: this turn of events was closely followed by the usual recriminations and finger pointing. What they needed was a weapon with proven reliability having the same footprint and performance characteristics as the M37 with or without changeable feed direction and they needed it yesterday.
The Rock Island Arsenal, in charge of M37 development, likely beginning to feel the heat, and set out to create something to relieve the pressure and satisfy the demand for a weapon for new production tanks and to convert existing tanks back to the .30 caliber combination mount configuration. This would allow them the luxury of the time needed to get the M37 right.
The designers at RIA came up with the idea to resurrect the M1919A5 or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. The M1919A5, who’s principal application was the WWII M3A1 Stewart light tank, declared obsolete in November of 1943 shortly after its debut in North Africa, had the rear bolt retracting feature, but no sights, or pistol grip and had been out of production since about April of 1943. Many of the unused A5s in storage had been converted to M1919A4 or A6 configuration.
RIA had been busy since the end of WWII refurbishing all manner of war material, everything from bayonet scabbards to self propelled artillery, including M1919A4 and A6 Brownings. RIA was also the engineering support source and the supervising Ordnance facility for the M1917A1, M1919A4 and A6 Brownings. They had the basic design for both the M1919A5 and M37 bolt retracting assembly, the ability to make anything and literally tons of M1919A4’s on hand either already rebuilt or awaiting rebuilding. They decided they could solve the immediate problem of supplying something to take up the slack caused by slow progress on the M37 project by using a refurbished M1919A4, adding the bolt retracting guides and bar, swapping out the bolt handle for the cocking stud used on the M1919A5, which was borrowed from the M1918M1 and M1919 Browning aircraft machine guns. Since the M1919A4E1 was supposed to be a short term fix the modifications were designed to be easily reversible even in the field if desired.
The M1919A5 design used rivets to attach the retracting handle guides to the right side plate to prevent vibrations from loosening the attachments. To simplify the conversion of standard M1919A4s to E1s and make restoration to the original configuration capable of being done in the field, it was decided to attach the slightly redesigned guide brackets and spacers with screws secured with safety wires. The A5’s curved retracting handle was redesigned to mimic the proposed M37 straight handle which had the grasping knob facing to the left directly behind the pistol grip back plate assembly. All of the M1919A4E1’s were rebuilt from whatever weapons were on hand and there is no evidence that any were new built or that conversions were done anywhere other than RIA. Research has located all of the M1919A4E1 parts and assembly drawings with the exception of the right side plate drawing which, despite having a drawing number assigned, does not appear to exist.
The M1919A4E1 conversion program ended by 30 June 1955 with a total production of 18,185. Between 1 January and 30 June 1955 RIA had also produced 2,301 M37 .30 caliber Browning machine guns and the M1919A4E1 started its slide into obscurity. Examples of M1919A4E1s are hard to find: even the RIA Museum doesn’t have one in their collection.
After a little help from friend Matt Danker, who shares my fascination or obsession with John Browning’s genius, we located 4 in two locations. The National Training Center and 11th Armored Calvary Regiment Museum at Ft. Irwin, CA had one but it had been on static display outside for decades and was not in the best of condition. The Texas Military Forces Museum located at Camp Mabry, a Texas National Guard Base near Austin, has three, all of them intact right down to the safety wires. After a couple of phone calls and e-mails the museum’s Registrar, Lisa Sharik, was kind enough to have one of their volunteers Robert R. Gates III, photograph the right side plates of their samples acquired in 1999 from the Center for Military History at Ft. McNair.
RIA rebuilt this weapon again into a M1919A4E1 under EB (Elmer Bjerke) who succeeded Mr. Krack. The “E1” in the model designation is hand stamped.
RIA used a civilian Chief of Small Arms Inspection instead of an Army officer. You can also see the original Rochester Ordnance District inspectors initials RLB for Colonel Ray L. Brolin and the Ordnance crossed cannons cartouche. Neither Colonel Brolin nor any other person whose initials appear on weapons produced for the U.S. government personally inspected every weapon; it is likely that they never laid eyes on any of them except for photo-ops. However, Colonel Brolin was the Ordnance officer charged with the responsibility for inspections and acceptance for Buffalo Arms’ production of M1919A4’s. The numerals 7417841 on the retracting handle bar are the drawing/part/stock number for the retracting handle assembly. This particular example does not have Colonel Brolin’s “RLB” marking only a sideways flaming bomb mark. It has had one rebuild at RIA which likely converted it to the A4E1 configuration.
The M1919A4E1’s were gradually replaced in front line combat units first with M37 and later M60s but they continued to serve in Army Reserve and National Guard units with and without their signature retracting handle assembly. Ray Westlake, a fellow Browning aficionado who served in the Army Reserve from 1966 to 1974, was a onetime Armorer with A Battery, 1st Battalion, 182nd Artillery, an Oak Park, Michigan Army Reserve unit that was equipped with the M1919A4E1, tripod mounted for battery perimeter defense. This unit used these weapons, on tripods tied to the hoods of jeeps with windshields removed, while patrolling Detroit during the 1967 riots. Ray recalls that the A4E1s, complete with bolt retracting handles, and were still in the weapons storage area when he left the unit in 1974.
The day of the stand-in for the M37 was over. Some were converted back to M1919A4 or to M1919A6 configuration, and a very few survived to live out their retirement in a museum safe from the cutting torch. If you see a M1919A4 with four tapped holes in the right side plate take a closer look. It could be an A4E1, or lacking threads likely a former M1919A5.
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