M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun

M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun
M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun
Colt Potato Digger.JPG
Colt Browning M1895/14 Machine Gun in 7mm Mauser caliber, possibly used in the Mexican Revolution.
Type Machine gun
Place of origin  United States
Service history
Used by See Users
Production history
Designer John M. Browning
Designed 1889-1895
Manufacturer Colt
Marlin Rockwell
Weight 16kg
Length 1040mm
Barrel length 711mm

Cartridge 6mm Lee Navy
7x57mm Mauser
.30-40 Krag
.30-06 Springfield
.303 British
Action Gas, lever actuated
Rate of fire 400rpm
Feed system Belt
Sights Iron

The Colt-Browning M1895, nicknamed potato digger due to its unusual operating mechanism, is an air-cooled, belt-fed, gas-operated machine gun that fires from a closed bolt with a cyclic rate of 450 rounds per minute. Based on a John Moses Browning design dating to 1889, it was one of the first successful gas-operated machine guns to enter service.[1][2][3]


Operating mechanism

Filed for patent in 1892, the M1895's operating mechanism was one of Browning's early patents for automatic rifles;[4][5] he had previously been working on lever action rifles for Winchester such as the Winchester 1886. The M1895 uses a unique operating mechanism, which is quite similar to that of a lever-action rifle. The earliest prototype developed by Browning in early 1889 was a .44 caliber black powder cartridge rifle, weighing under 12 pounds. Operation was via a lever located under the barrel, which operated the action when swung downwards. The lever was actuated by the muzzle blast operating upon it.[2]


M1895 operating mechanism showing the lever in the forward (top) and rear (bottom) positions

An improved design based on Browning's prototype lever mechanism was offered to Colt by Browning in 1892. The lever was moved back, and power was supplied by a gas port about six inches (15 cm) back from the muzzle. To minimize heating during rapid fire, the gun used a very heavy straight countor barrel (finned for ventilation on later variants), bringing its weight up to 35 pounds; the standard tripod mount with seat for the gunner, added another 56 pounds. Despite the heavy barrel, the closed bolt mechanism would cook off shots if a round was left chambered in a hot barrel. This required that the gun be unloaded immediately after an extended burst of firing.[2] During testing of the gun, it was found to be capable of firing extended bursts of over 1000 rounds before the barrel overheated and bullets began to tumble out of control; upon stopping, the red-hot barrel cooked off four or five additional shots before cooling down.[6]

The gun was originally chambered in 6 mm Lee Navy and later, after the adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen rifle, in .30-40 Krag, 7x57mm Mauser caliber (the same cartridge used in the Spanish Model 1893 Mauser), and .30-06 Springfield in 1914. The 1914 version also included a lower tripod for firing prone; this is likely what led to the gun's nickname of "potato digger", as the operating lever would dig into the ground if it were fired from too low a position.[7]

The M1895 was made for export as well; the Russians ordered several thousand M1895 machine guns in 1914 in 7.62 x 54R caliber for use in World War I. In .303 British caliber, the M1895/14 saw service in England and France. The M1895 was also sold in 7x57mm Mauser caliber for use by various countries in South America.[3]

The Colt's unusual method of operation had both advantages and disadvantages compared to competing machine gun designs of the day. The lever-operated repeating action gave the weapon a relatively slow rate of fire (less than 400 rounds a minute). However, the slow rate of fire combined with a heavy barrel also allowed the gun to be air-cooled, resulting in a simpler, lighter, and more portable machine gun compared to water-cooled designs. Though combat reports of action stoppages were not uncommon, most of these could be overcome by manually cycling the action. As gunners gained experience with operating an air-cooled machine gun, it became apparent that avoiding long continuous periods of fire materially added to the weapon's reliability and barrel life.


The M1895 was the first machine gun adopted by the United States military, and it saw service with the Army (who never formally adopted it), and the US Navy/US Marines, and was adapted to use in many roles. It was mounted in tripods, horse drawn carriages, boats, aircraft, and even armored cars. The US Navy was the first to begin testing, as early as 1893, with a version chambered in the Navy's 6mm cartridge.[8][9]

Early conflicts

U.S. Marines pose with a belt of 6 millimeter ammunition for the M1895 Colt, c. 1910. The photo shows two types of mounts, the early model tripod and the high wheeled gun carriage.
Polish soldiers with the M1895/14 during the Battle of Warsaw

In 6mm Lee Navy caliber, the M1895 saw service with the United States Marines during the Spanish American War, including the 1898 invasion of Guantanamo Bay, where a Marine battalion deployed four Colt guns (two of them borrowed from the USS Texas ship's armory).[10] The M1895 proved to be a significant advance in firepower for the Marines, who employed them in the first known use of machine guns by the American military to provide tactical support of infantry forces during an assault. In contrast, Army regular forces in the campaign were still burdened with heavy, manually operated Gatling guns that required heavy artillery carriages pulled by mule transport. Roosevelt's Rough Riders, a dismounted volunteer cavalry regiment that fought in Cuba, also deployed two M1895 Colt machine guns in 7 x 57mm Mauser caliber (built for export, both guns were privately purchased for the Rough Riders), but although they did cause some Spanish casualties were reportedly somewhat unreliable. As Col. Roosevelt noted, "These Colt automatic guns were not, on the whole, very successful...they proved more delicate than the Gatlings, and very readily got out of order."[11] The two M1895 guns were transferred to Lt. John Parker's Gatling Gun Detachment, who used them in the siege of Santiago.[12]

The M1895 in 6mm Lee was also utilized by American Naval and Marine forces during the Philippine–American War, and the Boxer Rebellion, where it proved to be accurate and reliable.[13] Around 1904 the Mexican government purchased 150 of these guns in 7mm Mauser caliber, and these guns were employed throughout the protracted Mexican Revolution.[14][15] Use of the 7mm M1895 in the Mexican Revolution has been photographically documented, including the use of the gun by what appears to be a Villista. The US Navy also deployed some 6mm Lee M1895 guns from ship armories during the 1914 Vera Cruz fighting and occupation.

The US Army, while never formally adopting the M1895, purchased 2 guns in 1902, followed by an additional purchase of 140 guns in 1904. These guns, along with small quantities of Maxim and Vickers guns, were issued to various units for evaluation purposes. These would see intermittent use by Army and National Guard Units at least until 1921. The first formally adopted machine gun by the US Army was the M1909 Benet-Mercie (Hotchkiss) machine-rifle, a bipod-mounted, strip-feed machine gun.

Further south, the M1895 was also used by the Uruguayan Army against rebels during a late flare-up of the Uruguayan Civil War in 1904.

Canadian mounted troops successfully used .303 M1895 guns in the Second Boer War (1899–1902). In one spectacular rear guard action a Colt gun mounted on a light carriage was able to stop a pursuing Boer Cavalry unit. The Canadian success with the M1895 led to the further use of the gun by the Canadian Army in World War I.

The M1895 was also used by various U.S. state militia and guard units, including the Colorado national guard. A few of these guns fell into the hands of private militias staffed by mine company guards after the state discontinued funding of most of the guard units assigned to maintain order during a prolonged miners' strike. In 1914, an emplaced "digger" of one of these private militias fired extensively into a miner camp in Ludlow, Colorado, an event later termed the Ludlow Massacre. A privately purchased M1895 also provided the main armament of an armored car of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency used to terrorize miners' camps during the strike, which the miners called the Death Special.

World War I

The M1895/14 Colt-Browning saw use in France by some Canadian infantry formations. Deploying to France in 1915, the 21st Canadian Light Infantry Battalion used .303-caliber M1895/14 machine guns in combat. These guns saw significant combat but were soon replaced by Vickers machine guns. They were not taken out of combat however, but were instead given to equip formations of the Belgian Exile Army. The French also tested the Colt and some were used in early aircraft for testing. Additional Colt guns were sent to the Russians, who used them extensively. The Italian navy also used the Colts (and later Marlin production guns) for their navy. As many as four were mounted on each Italian torpedo boat.

While the United States used the M1895 for training, it was considered obsolete by the point the United States entered the war, and saw no service. Colt ceased production of the M1895 and variants in 1916, selling the machinery and rights to manufacture to Marlin Rockwell who took over the still active Russian military and Italian Navy contracts in order to concentrate on increased Vickers production.

After Marlin started making the Colt 1914's, it developed an improved version of the M1895 was designed and produced by Marlin Rockwell (currently Marlin Firearms) in 1917 and it was adopted by the US Army as a training weapon and approximately 2500 were purchased. This improved gun, the Colt-Browning M1895/14, was also called the "Marlin Gun" and "Model 1917". The primary improvement was the use of a detachable barrel, a more generous side plate cut-out and a sliding door on the right side plate opening (also made larger) for easier access. Despite these improvements, the Marlin was limited to 500 rounds of continuous fire due to a tendency to overheat. The Navy also purchased a version of the Marlin gun with a gas piston in lieu of the lever mechanism, although very few if any guns saw service aboard ship.

A second, much more radical version of the M1895 was introduced in 1917 for tank and aircraft use, later designated the Marlin M1917 and M1918. Like the Navy Marlins, these variants used a linear gas piston in place of the 'potato digger' arm and bore little outward physical resemblance to the basic "digger" design. The new reciprocating piston was located parallel to the barrel and below it, allowing the gun to be mounted lower to the ground. Another improvement was the use of aluminum fins as a heat radiator. Most Marlin M1917 and M1918 guns saw use in aircraft as defensive armament. By the last months of World War I, almost 50% of the Spad XIII fighter aircraft in France had their Vickers guns replaced with Marlins. Had the war progressed into 1919 the Marlin would have been the primary U.S. tank and aircraft gun. The M1917/1918 also equipped Thomas Morse Scout aircraft used for advanced training at stateside bases.

The Marlin gun would see postwar use on the machine gun version of US Army's Six Ton Tank, an American copy of the French FT-17. However, the Marlin guns quickly disappeared from U.S. military service after the great success of the .30 Browning machine guns and variants subsequently adopted for air, ground, and shipboard use.

Postwar Service

After World War I, some Colt-Browning guns (possibly including the M1917/18 Marlin variants) saw use in the Russian Civil war. Its most spectacular use came during the Czech Legion's exodus from Russia, where the guns (either Colt-Browning M1914 or Marlin M1917 models) were photographed in sandbagged stations on the top of trains being used to transport the Legion as it withdrew from Soviet Russia. Many of these guns were also used in the Russo-Finnish war of 1920. At the outset of World War II, M1917 and M1918 Marlins were also sent to Britain for use by the Home Guard, but were never actually employed in combat.

The last documented use of the type was by the National Guard against striking miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain, West Virginia in 1921. A contemporary photo illustrates a Colt-Browning gun with a ribbed barrel in the hands of a guardsman supporting Sheriff's deputies. The ventilating ribs indicate the gun was most likely a Marlin M1917/18 machine Gun purchased by the Army in 1917-18 for training and familiarization purposes, as the U.S. military never purchased the Colt M1895/1914 variant.

The Belgian army acquired a large number of 7mm Mauser M1895/14 versions towards the end of World War I, which were kept in storage after the conflict and allocated to certain reserve infantry regiments before the outbreak of World War II. The guns were widely used in action during the German invasion of Belgium between 10th May and 28th May 1940.



  1. ^ http://world.guns.ru/machine/usa/colt-browning-m195-e.html
  2. ^ a b c Julian S. Hatcher (1962). Hatcher's Notebook. Stackpole Books. pp. 79–81. ISBN 0811707954. 
  3. ^ a b United States Army. Ordnance Dept, Herbert Treadwell Wade (1919). Handbook of Ordnance Data. p. 307. 
  4. ^ US 544657 
  5. ^ Wilson, Mike. "John Browning's Patent Numbers". http://funarg.nfshost.com/r2/notes/browning-patents.html. Retrieved 2009-05-22. 
  6. ^ United States War Dept (1904). Annual Reports of the War Department. Govt. Print. Office. pp. 83–92. 
  7. ^ Roger Pauly (2004). Firearms: The Life Story of a Technology. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313327964. 
  8. ^ "Browning Machine Guns". http://browningmgs.com/Images_1919A4/Brownings.htm. 
  9. ^ United States Navy Dept. (1893). Annual Reports of the Navy Department: Report of the Secretary of the Navy. Published by United States Government Printing Office. p. 235. 
  10. ^ Venzon, Anne, General Smedley Darlington Butler: Letters of a Leatherneck 1898-1931, Greenwood Publishing Co, (1992), ISBN 0-275-94141-8, p. 8: The battleship USS Texas landed three field pieces and two additional M1895 Colt-Browning machine guns on June 12, the latter procured from the ship's own armory.
  11. ^ Roosevelt, Theodore, The Rough Riders, Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 25, February 1899, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, p. 568
  12. ^ Parker, John H. (Lt.), The Gatlings At Santiago, Middlesex, U.K.: Echo Library (reprinted 2006), p. 68: At Lt. Parker's order, the Detachment secured about 10,000 additional rounds of captured Spanish 7mm Mauser ammunition, which allowed the gun crew to keep the two M1895 guns in action.
  13. ^ Joseph H. Alexander, Don Horan, Norman C. Stahl (1999). The Battle History of the U.S. Marines: A Fellowship of Valor. HarperCollins. p. 26. ISBN 9780060931094. 
  14. ^ Philip S. Jowett, A. M. De Quesada, Stephen Walsh (2006). The Mexican Revolution 1910-20. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781841769899. 
  15. ^ "THE WEAPONS COLLECTION". REME MUSEUM of TECHNOLOGY. http://www.rememuseum.org.uk/arms/machguns/armmg1.htm#124. 

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