Semiauto Battlefield Guns, Part II: Another BAR and an 8mm MG-34
Our ongoing evaluation of semiautomatic versions of famous machine guns continues with this comparison of two bipod-mounted guns, the stolid BAR and the beautiful German MG-34.
The original versions of firearms in this report, a BAR .30-06 and a German MG-34, may have been created for slightly different uses, but they saw combat in similar roles. Both could be used as light machine guns, transportable continuous-fire weapons that could reinforce small groups of soldiers while using the same ammunition the troops used in their rifles. And both, particularly the belt-fed MG-34, could be and have been used as general-purpose machine guns.
For our purposes, we tested reworked versions of these famous battlefield guns, shooting semiauto-only models instead of full-auto originals. We acquired our test BAR in .30-06 from Ohio Ordnance Works, the company that built the water-cooled 1917 Browning tested in our June 2003 issue. The MG-34 came out of Germany thanks to TNW, the Oregon company that made the M1919 A4 we recently tested (see sidebar).
They weigh between 20 and 25 pounds, and both are uncomfortable to fire from the shoulder because of their weights. Carried low, or under the arm, they are a whole lot easier to manipulate and may be fired in relative comfort, though precise aim is out of the question. Today’s buyer will want a bipod to get the most fun out of these historic pieces, and both come with period bipods. Did they shoot? Were they any fun? Here’s what we found.
Most readers will be familiar with the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR. It’s another John Browning invention from 1917, though it’s known as the M1918. During WWI, Colt’s, Winchester, and Marlin Rockwell made the gun, and by the end of that war approximately 85,000 had been made. The gun saw continued use through WWII and Korea, and is no doubt in use somewhere even today.
The above price reflects the walnut-stocked version we tested. A Bakelite-stocked version cost $2,850, a saving of $200 you may want to consider, because our test gun’s lovely black walnut stock cracked. We’re sure the company would make it right, but it’s mighty hard to crack Bakelite. The gun came with one spare magazine, carrying handle, sling and bipod, flash hider, and manual. The metal was evenly Parkerized over excellent metal preparation, and the walnut appeared to be oil finished, and was fairly well filled. Blued-metal finish is one of many options for this gun. The magazines were 20-rounders. Ohio Ordnance Work’s (OOW) website tells that the gun has been approved by the BATF as not being an assault rifle, with respect to the 1994 federal assault-rifle ban.
Much of this BAR was made new in the OOW factory in Chardon, Ohio. The company used many GI parts in the construction of the BAR, though the receiver was not one of them. The receiver began life as a casting of 86/20 steel, and was formed by CNC machines into what you see. The gun cannot be made fully auto. The OOW trigger is a redesign that ended up with a pull of just over 9 pounds, with slight creep. However, the 20-round magazines were U.S. mil-surplus, in original paper wraps. The sling also appeared to be mil-surplus. It attached to a swivel on the gas tube at the front, and clipped into another swivel beneath the butt stock. Just behind the rear swivel was a hole in the steel piece that held the sling swivel. In some versions of the BAR that hole accepted a butt support.
There was a protected ladder-type rear sight with aperture, and a U-notch appeared when the sight was folded. Markings on the rear sight were from 100 to 1,500 yards. A massive, permanently attached hood protected the front sight. The front blade was driftable for windage adjustments, and presented a flattop post to the shooter. We’d have liked it fatter. It worked well enough with the small aperture rear, but the U-notch was too close to our eyes for clear definition.
Compared with the MG-34 discussed below, the BAR was relatively simple, with few controls. The safety was a lever located on the left side above the rear of the trigger guard. It could not be put on without the gun being cocked. The BAR was generally massive looking and feeling. The pistol grip, formed as the rear of the receiver, was huge, and didn’t give good control of the trigger, we thought. Though the rifle could be fired from the shoulder, it would take an Arnold Schwarzenegger (maybe Rambo) to do so with anything approaching ease. It weighed 21 pounds, and that dangling, swinging bipod didn’t make things any easier.
There was a rotating selector for bleeding off different amounts of gas to run the recoil mechanism with varying types of ammunition. The selector was located at the forward end of the gas tube beneath the barrel. The bipod mounted to the barrel via the flash hider, and short of unscrewing the flash hider, there was no way to get rid of the bipod if desired. The bipod’s controls included a means to lock the legs fore-and-aft, and leg-length adjustments, something the MG-34 didn’t have (or seem to need).
The rifle was fitted with a folding carry handle affixed to the barrel, just above the hand guard. We though it was both heavy and clumsy, in that it did not aid shooting the gun from offhand. But it did wonders for transporting the BAR. However, when the rifle was carried on the shoulder with the action side facing downward in what was otherwise a comfortable carry mode, that handle flapped against the side of the face. But it was authentic, and featured a fine piece of walnut for the handle.
The gun was well made, showing excellent workmanship everywhere, with the exception of the cracked stock. (We could not tell what caused the stock to crack.) As such, we were not surprised that this BAR ran perfectly on the range. We had trouble inserting a fully loaded magazine until we opened the bolt. Once loaded, the BAR fed and fired without a flaw. Accuracy was on the order of three inches with all types of ammunition, from our special test range of 85 yards. There was evidence of shot clumping, which may mean the gun will respond to discrete ammunition selection, or to tinkering. Yet the firing of the BAR was not in the least comfortable. The gun recoiled into our tester’s face with each shot, and the common comment was that the gun would have been brutal in fully auto fire. There was a disconcerting metallic “whang” following each shot, easily heard by the shooter. This was something internal, not empty cases striking the gun. Empties were thrown a reasonable distance to the right of the gun.
One of the more endearing features of the BAR on the firing range was the folding shoulder flap on the steel butt plate. This helped keep the gun in place during our firing, and would probably be a great help for a fully auto version. Early BARs didn’t have it.
This gun was a special delight because we never dreamed we’d see one, much less get a chance to shoot it. The assembly and makeup of the MG-34 was complex, and the numerous joints and spring-loaded detents made us think of the fabulous Leica M-series camera more than of the first modern general-purpose machine gun produced in large quantities. Developed by Mauser in the early days of the Hitler regime, the MG-34 played an important part in world affairs throughout WWII, and following WWII it was used by the Czechs, Israelis, French, and even the Viet Cong. Weight was 26.7 pounds with bipod, and although this was five-odd pounds more than the BAR, the two were about equally easy to pack.
The lightweight sheet-metal bipod, for instance, folded against itself and locked onto a tiny stud beneath the barrel. A quick grab in the right place caused the two legs to spring outward, and the gun was instantly ready for deployment. The bipod could be quickly removed from the gun by pressing on a leaf spring and spinning the bipod to the top of the barrel. There was a second mounting point for the bipod on the rear of the barrel, right in front of the action, which gave different handling characteristics. We’ve said the bipod legs didn’t extend, but between the legs was a screw that controlled the spread of the legs, which accomplished the same thing.
The front sight blade, a tapered flattop post, was dovetailed to its mount and locked by a small screw, to provide fine-tuning for windage. The rear sight blade was a flat-topped V-notch in a ladder, with squeeze-lock elevation adjustments from 200 out to 2,000 meters. The rear sight folded precisely, and opened into a detented, vertical-locked position. There was zero slop in all the movements of this 64-year-old, war-experienced part. The entire sight mechanism felt like…well, like a Leica in its precision. This MG-34 was, we thought, high-quality goods. The gun was dated 1939 and had most likely seen service during WWII, yet it was still a beautifully functioning mechanism throughout. In fact, we’d bet the MG-34 is the most precisely machined machine gun ever made. One complaint about it was that it was too well made, and was thus prone to jamming in dirty conditions, but we can’t verify that, nor was that our experience with this one.
The original design fired from an open bolt. The original MG-34 was selective fire (later versions were full-auto only), based on a two-step trigger mechanism, which gave a single round or automatic fire depending on whether you pressed the upper or lower portion of the trigger respectively. A small finger inset into the lower arc of the trigger, much like the safety on a Glock, tripped the full-auto mechanism. TNW redesigned the action and converted the MG-34 to fire from a closed bolt. They accomplished this difficult task well, but there is a fly in the works. The conversion resulted in a stiff trigger pull that we guessed to be about 20 pounds. TNW personnel told us it was about 23 pounds, and that was normal for their rework. However, the pull was clean and crisp, and despite the high force needed by this design (easily applied by placing two fingers on the double-cut trigger), the gun was controllable and predictable. TNW informed us their MG-34 team is working on another redesign to reduce the trigger pull to more normal levels. We feel the effort this company made to bring a genuine MG-34 to the hands of shooters in any functional form whatsoever is to be applauded. This was a most unusual and very fine firearm, and we were happy to get a chance to evaluate it.
Proceeding along those lines, the gun was comfortable to the shooter both ergonomically and while firing. The pistol grip looked like that of a Luger, but less raked and comfortable. The grip panels were black high-impact plastic. The safety was another German marvel, having a spring-loaded button that locked the safety in whatever position it was placed. The top cover, which held the feed mechanism, had a serial number that didn’t match the rest of the gun but worked perfectly. It was easy to see how that part could be changed. Instead of being secured by a bolt and nut, the entire top mechanism came off by pressing its spring-loaded axle pin. This would be handy in battle if something went wrong with the feed mechanism. The whole thing could be replaced in seconds without tools. We were advised to keep the belt-feed mechanism well greased with “TW 25” grease, but it didn’t need regreasing in our brief experience with the gun.
Another quick-change mechanism was contained within the abbreviated wood butt stock. This device mounted to a large stud at the rear of the piece. Pressing a button and rotating the stock could remove it. If you pressed the button in front of that and rotated the butt stock, the mainspring came out, its stud being held in place by an interrupted thread that required only a 90-degree turn to take it out. Again, we appreciated the machining.
Ever wonder where the idea came from for the spring-loaded door on your AR-15? We don’t know if it’s the first usage of an ejector-port door, but the MG-34 had a hinged door there that looked mighty familiar. And of course there was a spring catch to keep the bolt handle closed and keep it from rattling.
The entire gun except for the pistol-grip module was finished in a magnificent blue that would make many custom rifle-makers jealous. A good deal of it, if not all, appeared to be original. The markings were filled with white paint, making them easy to read. The entire gun was most emphatically business-like in its looks, which we suspect would be wholly satisfying to the military collector.
This was a belt-fed weapon, but the Germans had several means to feed the gun including saddle-type and individual drum magazines. The metal belts that came with our test gun were extremely light and easy to use. You press an 8mm cartridge into each clip of the belt until the cartridge rim was caught by a sprung protrusion that was part of each clip. This was fast and simple, and allowed the gun to be fed without the need for auxiliary belt-loaders. (The Germans did provide belt loaders for the guns originally.) Placing the belt through the action with the open side of the clips down was all that was needed to load the gun. A tug on the bolt handle got a round into the chamber. Because of the nature of the gun’s original design, the bolt cannot be pulled until the safety is put in the Fire position.
On the range, the first time we tried the gun we had a few failures to feed in extremely cold weather with one type of ammunition. Once the weather warmed up, and with better ammo, the gun ran perfectly. The MG-34 was comfortable to shoot, giving the shooter very little felt recoil and almost no muzzle climb due to its straight-line design. We gave the gun a clean bill of health, with the caveat we’d love to have a 10-pound-or-lighter trigger pull, if it can be accomplished safely.
We did have one “double,” with two rounds going downrange in the tiniest fraction of a second. The cyclic rate of the MG-34 was generally 800-900 rounds per minute (the BAR was about 550), but aircraft-mounted setups had the MG-34 up to 1,200 rpm, or twenty rounds per second. Our “double” was almost unnoticeable. The gun didn’t recoil off target. The MG-34 was a lot more comfortable to fire than the BAR, in every aspect except its trigger.
One of our staff fired a fully auto version of the MG-34 a few years ago and said it was an easy weapon to control, and comfortable too. Reloaders will love the MG-34 for its neatly depositing the empties in a pile beneath the gun, unlike the BAR, which flings them into the bushes off to the side.
We thoroughly liked the feel and performance of the MG-34. Accuracy was on the order of 3.5 inches at 85 yards, and we by no means got all the gun had to give. Other than the difficult trigger, the sight picture didn’t exactly permit Camp Perry results, but good eyes would do well enough with it, as the Germans proved in WWII. This was a fine piece of history, not often seen, and provided an excellent means of study both from historic and mechanical engineering standpoints. We liked it a lot.
Gun Tests Recommends
Ohio Ordnance Works BAR 1918A3, $3,050. Buy It. Overall, the BAR seemed to be a well-made and fun replica of one of the world’s most famous firearms. It would give the owner lots of shooting fun for a long time, we felt. Ohio Ordnance Works seems to have a good handle on historic U.S. firearms. This is the second of their products we’ve examined, and like the first, it was well made and, we believe, worth the money not only because there’s nothing else out there like it (so far as we know), but also because the gun represents fair value for the cost.
Yes, this one needed to have its stock replaced, which we’d guess the company would honor at its cost, and it could use a better trigger pull, but it worked well enough as it was. We believe it would shoot better with a little attention, but that’s not really necessary to experience the flavor of the BAR. A trigger pull and slightly improved accuracy would enhance the fun of the gun for its owner, and would be worth looking into once you own it.
TNW MG-34, $3,595. Our Pick. Examining and shooting the MG-34 was a tremendously enjoyable experience for our shooters. Some of us have known about the MG-34 for decades, but never had a chance to get close to, much less examine, one. All the stories we’d heard about the fantastic German machining on these fine guns turned out to be true. The fact that TNW has located these guns, and has taken the time and trouble to make them available as semiautomatics to average shooters is commendable.
We encourage their team to attempt to improve the trigger pull, but even at 20 pounds of trigger per shot, this gun was well worth the trouble and expense, we thought. This gun got our attention like few others have, and we believe the informed buyer will enjoy it as thoroughly as we did. There can’t be many of these left in the world. We thought this was a whole lot more fun just to look at and examine than the BAR, so we made it Our Pick, despite its greater cost.
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