In April 1917 John Moses Browning successfully demonstrated a .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun to the Springfield Armory. The weapon cycled a total of 40,000 rounds at a cyclic rate of 600rpm without malfunction. Shortly thereafter he developed the .50 caliber version by request of Gen. Pershing, which went into service as the M1921. Additional changes were made, including the addition an air-cooled barrel option. The upgraded version was adopted later still as the M2. Slight modifications have been made in the years since, but until just the last couple of years the weapon has remained essentially unchanged for over a half a century. Literally generations of machine-gunners have employed the Ma Deuce.
The US Army has announced the next batch of M2 heavy machine guns to be improved. According to several sources, they're upgrading another 3,500 M2 heavy barrel machine guns into the A1 version. General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products was awarded an approximately $7 million contract to perform the upgrades.
According to PEO Soldier, the QCB M2A1 upgrade (Quick Change Barrel) improves the performance and handling of Mr. Browning's largest masterpiece. The A1 version has fixed headspace and timing configurations (reducing the amount of time required to accomplish a barrel change), a flash suppressor (that is said to reduce muzzle flash by 95%) and removable carrying handle.
The trade-off is an increase in the length of the weapon (approximately 2") and, more significantly, the addition of about two pounds. This isn't a terrible exchange (except in the unlikely event that you have to carry it dismounted or muscle it onto the back of a jackass), but such a substantial signature reduction in flash during limited visibility conditions is by no means a Bad Thing.
Note - by jackass, I mean a four legged beast of burden, not a 'special project' E-2.
This won't be the first batch of Ma Deuces upgraded to the A1 model. Approximately 1,700 were done last year, and a smaller number the year before that. The current plan is for all M2s produced in the future to be manufactured as the M2A1 while older machine guns are retrofitted or phased out as they're attrited.
You may recall Jack discussed this before. The original 2011 statement from PEO Soldier advises, among other things, that "...Not only is this weapon safer, but faster to operate as well,” said Bob Sulzbach, lead engineer M2A1 weapons system, ARDEC. “In tests, Soldiers demonstrated they could perform the barrel change in just eight seconds, giving them near continuous firepower and increased lethality. A common Soldier remark was simply, ‘Wow, it’s that easy? I can just shoot now?' Soldiers are so surprised by the system’s ease of use because for years they had to endure significant down time as they went through the barrel change routine and adjusted the headspace and timing properly. To change the barrel on the M2A1, a Soldier simply needs to press back on the charging handle slightly, rotate the barrel by its carrying handle, and slide the barrel off the receiver. He then slides the new barrel on and locks it into the J-slot on the barrel support and the gun is ready to fire. It’s that easy. The removable carrying handle also serves to protect Soldiers from the extreme temperatures of heated barrels, no special gloves are needed – one more finishing touch on an outstanding upgrade of a proven performer..."
One might assume, from the amount of money and effort being expended to upgrade and improve nearly 50,000 heavy machine guns, that no suitable replacement is anywhere near ready. However, I wouldn't have expected them to have steak and lobster night on a FOB in a war zone until I saw it in person so who knows? Until these potential replacements are fully developed the M2 is likely to serve another generation of soldiers.