Yikes — Syrian Rebels Wield Old Aircraft Machine Guns

These guns will spew lead, but they’re not very accurate on the ground


After years of civil war and with a seemingly endless list of different groups and foreign benefactors, the arsenals of Syria’s rebel and terrorist factions have become diverse and eclectic.

Locked in what has become a brutal war of attrition, fighters can’t afford to turn down any weapon … even old machine guns meant for airplanes or helicopters.

In November 2015, the Turkistan Islamic Party, an Al Qaeda-linked group of ethnic Uighurs historically rooted in Central Asia, released a photograph of a fighter manning what appeared to be either an M-2 or M-3 Browning aircraft machine gun. Less than a year later, the Salafist coalition Ahrar ash-Sham released its own photos showing off the same types of guns.

The weapons are ill-suited to being used on the ground, although they are deadly. With the rebels seeking any weapons they can get, a .50-caliber machine gun is a still a .50-caliber machine gun, no matter what the manufacturer had in mind.

A GAU-16 machine gun, a development of the M-2 aircraft gun, in a more typical mounting on a U.S. Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopter. Navy photo

The history of the iconic Browning weapon — commonly just called the “50-cal” or “Ma Deuce” — dates all the way back to the end of World War I. Originally designed to shoot up enemy troops and vehicles, U.S. Army weaponeers quickly adapted the guns to warplanes.

By World War II, all the American services had versions for infantry, tanks, armored cars, ships, fighters and bombers. With a thick barrel, the standard M-2 infantry model — a.k.a., the M-2HB, for heavy barrel — weighed more than 80 pounds and could spit out 500 half-inch bullets every 60 seconds.

To handle fast-moving enemy planes, engineers modified the aircraft versions to fire up to 850 rounds per minute. With cold air blowing across the guns in flight, the airborne types could have lighter barrels without overheating.

It is easy to differentiate the two different versions by looking for the ground variant’s solid barrel or the aircraft variant’s perforated heat shield full of cooling holes. Some observers, including the Long War Journal‘s Threat Matrix blog, have misidentified the weapons in Syria as smaller .30-caliber Browning M-1919s because of the ventilated barrel jacket.

Not completely satisfied with these options, Army engineers designed dozens of even faster-firing prototypes. By the Korean War, new jet fighters including the F-86 Sabre packed a new M-3 gun capable of shooting a blistering-fast 1,200 rounds per minute. During the Vietnam War, the ground combat branch and the Marines began to experiment with putting the weapons on helicopters.

“The increased rate of fire would be beneficial when dealing with hostile helicopters,” small arms expert Daniel Watters wrote in an email to War Is Boring. “During the 1940s and even into the early 1950s, the U.S. military had often expressed interest in boosting the rate of fire of the M-2HB for the air defense role.”

In addition to the aircraft guns, Syrian insurgents have regular infantry M-2s, as well as old Russian-made DShKs. Moscow’s equivalent to the Ma Deuce, the Soviet-era DShKs fire similarly sized bullets at a comparable rate of fire.

But when shooting them on the ground, especially from a tripod, the aircraft Brownings have serious flaws. Without the benefit of a slipstream, they can quickly overheat causing the gun to jam … or worse.

“The much higher rate of fire would make the effect of the guns more devastating, but the much faster barrel overheating would compel an early end to the firing,” Anthony Williams, editor of IHS Jane’s annual volume on ammunition, told War Is Boring in an email. “Barrel wear would also be much faster.”

As more bullets fly out of the gun, they grind down the rifling that adds spin — and accuracy — to the projectiles. Without a steady supply of fresh barrels, gunners might quickly find their shots spraying wildly around the battlefield. And with all the fast-moving machinery slamming back and forth, the guns have a nasty habit of breaking down.

Despite nearly 70 years of improvements, no gun maker has completely fixed the M-3’s reliability problems.

And then there’s just the matter of keeping the heavy, fast-firing Brownings on target. When bolted onto a jeep or a helicopter, the shooter has the weight of the vehicle to help them control the gun’s violent shaking. In addition, the vehicle can help carry extra ammunition.

“While a vehicle can handle the extra ammunition weight necessary to support the increased cyclic rate, disembarked infantry rarely can,” Watters explained.

Williams concurred. “There’s a reason why NATO forces only strap M-3s onto aircraft,” he said.

Though weighing more than 40 pounds, the standard tripod for the infantry Ma Deuces is a poor substitute. Ahrar ash-Sham’s photos showed fighters had placed heavy sandbags on the tripod legs to help keep the gun steady.

With these drawbacks, the guns seem like an odd choice for Syrian fighters. On top of that, no one seems to know exactly what type they are or where they came from in the first place.

“I suspect that rebel groups use whatever they can get hold of,” Williams posited. “My guess is that they are among the many that the U.S. gave away in military assistance packages over the past seven decades,” Watters suggested.

Spying certain but less obvious features in the pictures, Watters noted the particular guns could be variants of the older M-2 aircraft guns, rather than the later M-3s. But this still leaves the door open for these Brownings to be one of nearly a half-dozen American variations alone.

Companies in Australia, Belgium, the United Kingdom — among others — also make versions of the famous machine guns. On top of that, the same central frame can serve as the basis for both infantry and aircraft types. “Most people forget that the M-2 is really one of the first modular military firearms,” Watters said.

Whatever the downsides, Ahrar ash-Sham — or whoever the next owners end up being — clearly sees these .50-caliber aircraft guns as powerful additions to its arsenal.

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