I tend to break down WW2 machine guns used by infantry into four categories, which are:
- Automatic Rifle – Section weapon, limited magazine, no spare barrel capability (ex. BAR, FG42)
- Light Machine Gun – Section or platoon weapon, larger magazines but with quick change barrels and bipod mounted (ex. Bren, Type 96, Hotchkiss 1922, Russian DP)
- Medium or General Purpose Machine Gun – belt fed weapons, bipod, tripod or carriage mountable, multiple quick change barrels and/or water-cooled, rifle calibre ammunition (ex. .30 cal Browning, MG34, MG42, Vickers .303, Russian Maxim-Sokolov)
- Heavy Machine Gun – tripod or carriage mounted, multiple quick change barrels and/or water-cooled, heavy calibre ammunition and limited anti-vehicle capability (ex. .50 cal Browning, Russian DShK)
Now, I can hear the gnashing of teeth about my placement of these weapons in these categories, but from a wargaming point of view, it doesn’t really matter. Most wargaming rules have a more limited classification, and most gamers use their machine guns (and other support weapons) incorrectly anyway. Some of this is due to the rules used. For example, including tripod mounted Vickers machine guns in platoon level skirmishes. In my opinion, a weapon intended to be used at minimum 800m to 1200m shouldn’t appear on a table that is 400m by 400m in game scale, at least not very often. Mostly it’s because gamers (and rules authors) don’t understand the value of the weapons, what Machine Gun Doctrine is or the tactical basics of machine gun deployment.
Let’s have a look at machine gun theory for a minute. LMG’s, either at platoon or company level, have very specific uses. The most important is the provision of suppressive fire, either in the defense or the attack. This is done through the accuracy and the volume of fire sent to a specific target area. The ranges we’re talking about are from point blank out to approximately 600m. This is the point where the “cone of fire” is still mostly vertical, lower than the height of an average man and the ballistic trajectory of the bullets hasn’t started to drop yet. This is also called grazing fire.
Once your LMGs (in the “Base of Fire” or “Firebase”) have provided enough suppressive fire to “win the firefight”, the rest of your platoon can maneuver around the enemy and make a flank attack. In the Commonwealth Forces, this was known as using “one foot on the ground” to enable assault elements the freedom of movement to charge the enemy preferably at right angles to the grazing fire.
That’s pretty simple, and is fairly easily accounted for in most wargame rules. I mean, it’s just application of fire along with the rifleman in the platoon, right? However, most gamers in my experience never correctly form a base of fire, and practically never do a left- or right-flanking manoeuvre.
While MMGs, GPMGs and HMGs are also capable of grazing fire, that is not their main role. Using techniques developed during WW1, (by the Canadians) these weapons were capable of accurate, long range fire which was an integral part of battalion-level fire planning. These techniques, or variations of them, were used by most combatants during WW2.
Offensively, MMGs or GPMGs would be used to fire along fixed lines, dominating ground and isolating enemy positions by firing on flank and depth targets. At night, using tracer ammunition, these fixed fire lanes could be used to establish boundaries for attacking troops, assisting them in maintaining their axis of advance.
Defensively, machine guns could be used to supplement mortar fire by firing into suspected enemy FUPs (Form up Points), dead ground, and defensive obstacles like minefields and wire. They could also be used to deny ground and lines of communication and movement by using sustained fire from multiple weapons.
These tasks were made possible by the use of beaten zones being fired onto targets. In Commonwealth use, these fire tasks were assigned by the Battalion Machine Gun Officer and were complementary to the battalion’s artillery, mortar and antitank fire plans.
Let’s look at machine gun theory again. The beaten zone is the elliptical pattern formed by the rounds striking the ground or the target. The shape of the beaten zone is dependent on the range to target, and the angle of the ground relative to the trajectory of the bullets. The range to target is usually from 1000m out to 1800m (each type of machine gun is different), and really needs at least two guns firing alternating 20 to 30 round bursts for an extended period of time.
The practical application of machine theory in this way requires a long list of equipment and advanced training. Multiple quick change barrels, an elevation adjustment mechanism, survey gear, stockpiled ammunition, and a large crew were essential. Crew training include siting and laying of the guns, preparation of range cards, preparation of the fire trench and alternate positions, and a host of other tasks. Personnel in machine gun platoons were considered specialists, and were not likely to be exposed to close range enemy small arms fire.
This is where most WW2 rule sets break down. If you are playing a skirmish level game, these elements from dedicated machine gun sections or platoons probably shouldn’t be on the table. Even in most company level games, these weapons could be considered off-table, the same as mortars and artillery. Once we start getting into battalion level games, these machine gun platoons either disappear from the order of battle, or are limited by fire ranges or mechanisms that don’t allow for their proper use.
I’ll finish with a comment on tactical deployment of machine guns. Regardless of type, when siting the guns, one should endeavour to put the machine gun in a defilade position, which allows for enfilade fire on the enemy, at ranges that make return fire ineffective. That is a most difficult combination to achieve, but one that guarantees results. Guns sited for interlocking fields of fire or mutual support should also be considered. Opening fire should come as a surprise to the enemy, and then the machine guns should quickly change to alternate positions.
If the wargame rules that you use don’t adequately reflect the doctrinal use of machine guns, consider adapting them. In most WW2 infantry platoons, machines guns represent over half of the platoon’s combat power. A shame to waste it, don’t you think…?