Ask any infantrymen in a line company about the value of a machine gun, and you might get a long, complicated answer based on years of training and practical experience. Or… you might get Private Snuffy telling you, “Machine gun good, machine-gun fire lots of bullets.” They’d both be right.
In the modern infantry, machine gunners utilize their weapons to lay down a wall of lead to pin down or destroy an enemy force. So, it may come as little surprise that the Marines appreciate these weapons so much that machine gunners get their own MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) separate from your average rifleman.
Remember the Maine. To Hell With Spain!
The Marines’ affinity for these lead-spreader makes sense, as the Corps helped shape the use of machine guns in modern conflict way back in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. After the U.S.S. Maine sank in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, calls of “Remember the Maine! To Hell With Spain” rang out across the country. And as luck would have it, the Marines were uniquely positioned to fight in this sort of war. Cuba, after all, is an island, and Marines excelled at ship to shore operations.
As such, the 1st Marine Battalion responded to the call and landed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on June 10th, 1898. They landed unopposed and were the first American military unit to plant the flag of the United States on Cuban soil.
They did this before the Army had even left the United States. The relative peace they encountered upon their arrival didn’t last, and the Marines knew it wouldn’t. With them, they carried the new 6mm Lee Navy, a fantastic and modern rifle for the time. Alongside it, they carried the Colt-Browning Model 1895 machine gun, also in 6mm Lee Navy.
Both weapons were high-tech at the time. The rifle featured a straight-pull bolt and used a unique and rapid loading clip system. The M1895 was an early machine gun that gained the name potato digger due to the operating lever that cycled out of the bottom of the gun. The Colt-Browning was superbly modern and weighed 35 pounds, which was light compared to the 60 pound Maxim guns that were also available in this era.
At the time, the Army was still using mule pulled Gatling guns, and when compared, the M1895 might as well have been a space-age piece of technology. Its lighter and smaller nature allowed the Marines to actually carry the guns during various portions of the Battle For Guantanamo bay.
The Marine machine guns get some
The Marines carried four M1895 Colt-Browning machine guns to shore, and they became invaluable in the Battle for Camp McCalla. Camp McCalla was tactically unsound, and in hind sight it seems clear that Marine leadership fell prey to complacency. They didn’t expect a battle and didn’t bring their artillery company ashore. They didn’t dig trenches, and the camp was on open sand.
You can’t predict the Spanish inquisition, but Marine leaders should’ve predicted a Spanish attack. At daybreak, June 11th, the Spanish did just that, with guerillas attacking the camp in force.
The guerillas may have had the advantage, but the Marines had the machine guns. They fended them off and chased them until night fell. But the victory was to be short lived. The Spanish may have failed to take the beach in their first try, but they had a significant numerical advantage. By some accounts, Spanish forces outnumbered the Marines by more than five to one.
As wave after wave of Spanish guerillas attacked, the Marines dug in, got two additional machine guns set up, and unloaded their artillery.
They fought for 100 hours against the Spaniards and held their own despite their poor positioning and the overwhelming odds. On June 13th, a unit of 60 Cubans arrived to support the Marines, led by Lt. Col. Enrique Thomas. Soon thereafter, Thomas advised the Marine officers to attack the Cuzco Well, the only nearby source of freshwater, to force the Spanish into a retreat.
Machine Guns, Spaniards, and the Well
The Marines saddled up, and 160 of them, plus 50 Cubans, began their way to Cuzco Well on June 14th, 1898. They brought three of their four machine guns with them.
After fighting through the heat of the day, perilous terrain, and brutal undergrowth, the Marines arrived at the base of the steep hill around Cuzco Valley. Unfortunately, they arrived at almost the same time as a sizeable number of Spanish forces.
Their Cuban scouts were spotted by the enemy, and a race began to get to the top of the hill. In 2021, if the enemy has the high ground, you JDAM the high ground. In 1898, however, taking the high ground was the key to victory. The Spanish already outnumbered the Marines, so without securing the high ground, the American troops were as good as dead.
They assaulted up the hill, and the Marine’s M1895 Colt-Browning machine guns poured lead into the Spanish troops nearby. The light 6mm rounds made it easier for Marines to carry extra ammunition so they could afford to use their belt feds to their full advantage.
Layin’ It Down
The machine guns laid down covering fire, supporting the Marine’s assault up the hill. Historically speaking, this was the first time Marines used machine guns to support an infantry assault. But in practical terms, the Marines grabbed M1895s and ran what we now consider to be a modern machine gun drill: Setting them up, shooting, then moving to continue support.
Since it weighed only 35 pounds, the Potato Digger moved easily. The machine guns acted as force multipliers for the Marines, and in fact, were a mobile assault force unto themselves.
In the end, the Marines defeated the Spanish, killing 60, wounding 150, and capturing 18 of them. On the winning side, two Cubans were killed in combat, with two Marines and two more Cubans wounded. The Marines destroyed the well and accomplished their objective.
The surviving Spanish fighters reported they had been attacked by 10,000 Americans, though the real figure was actually closer to 160. After that, Camp McCalla saw no further attacks by Spanish forces.
The Effect on Modern War
During the Battle of Guantanamo Bay, the machine gun established itself as a fight-changing weapon. Although the lessons learned in the Spanish-American war would be echoed on a massive scale in World War I a little more than a decade later, the Marines had proven that mobile machine guns were incredibly valuable, and when used properly, can inflict physical and moral damage upon an enemy.
To this day, Marine Machine gunners run gun drills where they rapidly set the machine gun in place with bipods, ammo, etc. They then take it down and do it again, over and over, much like the machine guns at Cuzco Well. To do this day, machine guns in the offensive are used to support infantry assaults and lay down suppressive fire. This allows riflemen to move quickly and swiftly to their objectives.
What occurred in 1898 still has a clear effect on the tactics of 2021.
Once thought to be the cornerstone of naval power, the advent of Naval Aviation and the rise of the aircraft carrier in WWII was the beginning of the end for the large-gunned ships of the line. Though battleships saw continuous combat in WWII and Korea, the US Navy was left without an active battleship upon the decommissioning of the USS Wisconsin in March 1958; the first time since 1895.
Most military enthusiasts are familiar with the Reagan administration’s 600-ship Navy and the reactivation of the battleships USS Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin. USS New Jersey would be the first to fire her massive 16-inch guns at enemy targets again during the Lebanese Civil War from 1983-1984. USS Missouri and Wisconsin would return to combat in 1991 during the Gulf War. However, USS New Jersey was brought back into active service once before.
Following the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, the loss of US aircraft over Vietnam increased exponentially. The planes that took part in the sustained aerial bombardment campaign were exceptionally vulnerable to sophisticated Soviet-made surface-to-air weapon systems provided to the North Vietnamese.
In an effort to alleviate these air losses while still delivering ordnance payloads, USS New Jersey was brought out of mothballs in April 1968 and modernized for active service in Southeast Asia. The only active battleship in the world, New Jersey, joined the gun line off the Vietnamese coast on September 25. Five days later, she fired her first shots in over 16 years during an engagement against PAVN targets near the DMZ at the 17th parallel. She would go on to fire 14,891 5-inch shells and 5,688 16-inch shells during the war in support of ARVN, US and even Korean troops.
2. M14 Rifle
An evolution of the famed M1 Garand of WWII and Korea, the M14 battle rifle became the standard-issue rifle for the US military in 1959. Firing the 7.62x51mm NATO round, the M14 was meant to streamline logistics efforts by replacing the M1 Garand, M1903 Springfield, M1917 Enfield, M1 carbine, M3 submachine gun, M1928/M1 Thompson submachine gun, and M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle. While the M14 exhibited outstanding accuracy and stopping power in its semi-automatic setting, its full-power cartridge was deemed too powerful for the submachine gun role and its light weight made it difficult to control during automatic fire as a light machine gun.
Though the M14 was replaced by the M16 as the standard-issue rifle in 1968, it found a new role as a precision rifle platform. It served as the basis of the M21 Sniper Weapon System introduced in 1968 and M25 Sniper Weapon System introduced in 1991. Though both weapon systems have been largely replaced by the M24 Sniper Weapon System, the M14 lives on as the Mk14 Enhanced Battle Rifle. Introduced in 2002, the Mk14 is a truer reincarnation of the M14. Where the M21 and M25 were restricted to semi-automatic fire, designated as Sniper Weapon Systems and saw more restricted issuance as a result, the Mk14 sees the return of selective fire, the designation as a battle rifle for both designated marksman and close combat roles, and issuance by the Army to two riflemen per infantry platoon deploying to Afghanistan.
3. Guns on fighter planes
With the advent of radar-guided and heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, like the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder, and the new threat of high-altitude, long-range Soviet bombers, US air combat doctrine called for the elimination of gun armament on fighter-interceptor aircraft. Though dedicated attack and fighter aircraft like the A-4 Skyhawk, A-7 Corsair II and the F-8 Crusader retained 20mm cannons for ground attack and close-range aerial combat, interceptors like the F-86D Sabre, F-102 Delta Dagger and the F-4 Phantom II dispensed with any type of gun armament in favor of rockets and missiles. The idea during the late 50s and early 60s was that these types of aircraft would engage in long-range combat without visual contact of their target and, even if they did get close enough to see the enemy that the new Sidewinder missile would be able to dispense with a hostile fighter with ease.
This idea proved to be fatal for pilots over the skies of Vietnam. For Phantom II pilots in particular, who escorted bomber flights over North Vietnam, the lack of a gun often left them without offensive options during a dogfight. A Marine Corps General recalled, “Everyone in RF-4s wished we had a gun on the aircraft.” As any Top Gun fan can tell you, the American air-to-air kill ratio in Korea was 12:1. According to the US Naval Institute, the Navy’s kill ratio in Vietnam was just 2.5:1. The drop in kill ratio was attributed to poor missile accuracy at just 10% and lack of dogfighting skills. The latter resulted in the creation of TOPGUN while the former resulted in the addition of an external gun pod to the Phantom II. An internally mounted gun was incorporated on the later F-4E models.