The BAR in Vietnam: Legacy of the French

By James L. Ballou

Since the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) was phased out of US Service in 1957, some might believe the BAR was not used in the Vietnam conflict, but they would be wrong. The French had been supplied with BAR’s from World War II for post war rearmament. Much US equipment was used by French forces to fight the Viet Minh. It might surprise some Vietnam veterans to know that the American OSS fought side-by-side and even trained Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, who became one of our most treacherous adversaries.

Between 1946-1953 French forces in Indo China made great use of American World War II weaponry including the BAR. By the time they left, many BAR’s had been captured from them. Also, Communist China supplied BAR’s that they had captured from the US in the Korean Conflict.

The world held its breath in 1954 with the great battle at Dien Bien Phu. At that time Ho’s forces were armed with everything from World War II Japanese rifles to BAR’s captured from the French. We should have learned from the defeat of the French, who had the toughest troops in Indo China at the time.

From 1959 to 1961 our involvement in the conflict was only clandestine under the auspices of the CIA, the successor of the OSS. By 1961 American Special Forces began the slide into Southeast Asia that lead to our costliest war both in logistics and in world prestige.

The Viet Cong, who supplanted the Viet Minh, used the BAR as effectively as Edson’s Raiders did during World War II. Mounting it on the bow of a rubber boat or a sampan gave the mobile firepower for which the BAR was intended.

Most of my stories come from Vets with fond remembrance of the BAR. One spoke highly of the diminutive Montagnard who saved his life with his agile use of the heavy weapon. Another story involved a pilot flying a Navy Sea Stallion Helicopter on an air sea rescue of a downed aircraft crew. On their way back to base they were hit by AA fire from a Dshk-38 that caused engine failure from the 12.7x108mm round. They auto-gyroed down safely and began the overland trek to the base. They were eventually ambushed from a VC position reinforced with logs. The pilot’s “bail out” gun was a BAR. He made short work of the enemy with well-placed bursts that drilled on through the log barriers. Don’t tell him the BAR was obsolete.

Most BAR’s were employed by ARVN troops under South Vietnam command, but they were reluctant to use them because they were heavy and drew fire. Most photos show them with the weapon carried on their shoulders, muzzle forward.

One e-mail I received related how much the Montagnards loved the BAR. The rifles were issued by the 5th Group Special Forces and had been reconditioned by their armories in Pleiku. The Montagnards were tough, loyal fighters. I did some contract work in Cambodia in 1966-68, and was amazed to see the agility and ease with which they handled the 20-pound weapon.

Another Vet remembered BAR’s aboard the Carrier USS Valley Forge. Possibly these BAR’s were in 7.62x51mm NATO since the US Navy was the last US force to officially have it in their inventory. To accomplish this of course the rifle had to be re-barreled. Since the NATO cartridge is shortened, the magazine-well had to be modified to accept an entirely new magazine that was similar but not identical to the M-14. In addition, the ejection port was elongated and the gas port enlarged to increase the amount of gas pressure impinging upon the piston. This led to the T-34 BAR as described in Springfield Armory Publication, Notes on Development for project TS 2-2015 dated March 16,1949.

Though the M60 was the primary GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) during the Vietnam War, the BAR was often the primary MG of the diminutive ARVN troops, again proving the BAR was best issued to a smaller man, as he made a smaller target.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V5N9 (June 2002)
and was posted online on February 14, 2014


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