Usage by the Marines
The M1917A1 Heavy Machine Gun was one of many weapons designed by the legendary John M. Browning. It was first used in World War I as the M1917 HMG. Nearly 70,000 of these weapons were produced in 1917-1918. After the armistice, many of these weapons were placed in long term storage.
Between 1936-1937, Rock Island Arsenal made numerous modifications to these weapons, redesignating the HMG as the M1917A1. With the coming of World War II, the US Army Ordnance Department placed contracts for new weapons. During the war, nearly 54,000 M1917A1's were built by American manufacturers.
In the Marine Corps, the M1917A1 was used primarily in the the Marine infantry battalion. Under the D-series Table of Organization in effect at the start of the war, there were 24 heavy machine guns found in the battalion weapons company. These weapons were organized into three heavy machine gun platoons.
As the war progressed, the number of heavy machine guns decreased in favor of lighter weapons. Under the F-series Table of Organization, approved in May 1944, the heavy machine gun platoons were assigned to the rifle companies, for a total of 18 HMG's.
In addition to the HMG, the squad was authorized two hand carts, one for the gun, and the other for ammunition. The squad leader was a corporal, and the rest of the Marines were non-rates. The gunner fired the weapon and the assistant gunner fed the weapon and helped with target identification. The other Marines in the squad were ammo bearers. When the gun needed to be moved from one position to another during combat, the soldier carrying the weapon itself would make use of an asbestos glove to protect his hands from the burning hot barrel casing.
In the attack, the HMG's could be employed to cover the flanks on the axis of advance, or to provide suppressive fire on the objective. In the defense, they were a key part of the battalion's fires. The guns' water cooling and heavy tripods enabled them to fire thousands of rounds if necessary.
Weighing nearly 100 pounds, the M1917A1 was difficult to transport. It was cumbersome to hand carry and its ammunition was also heavy. HMG's were usually placed in static positions. They were best suited to the defensive role of breaking up Japanese night attacks and banzai charges like the Battle of the Tenaru RIver. Like as was said above, the machine gun found particular use by the marines in the Guadalcanal Campaign, where it was one of the most used weapons during that time, along with the Springfield Model 1903.
It's most notable usage again was by John Basilone, who used it to mow down many Japanese soldiers in an ensuing battle, even while it was off its tripod. He kept using it throughout the battle, except when he moved some dead bodies out of the way of his friend's field of fire. During the battle, Basilone's asbestos glove was lost and he had to carry the gun by it's hot barrel casing, even stopping en route to a new position to fire on several Japanese troops, causing himself third-degree burns on his hands and arms.
This machine gun was also used by many others, even in those same battles. Even in WWII it was slowly being phased out in favor of the M1919 .30 cal machine gun. After WWII, it was used to a limited extent in the Korean War before it was phased out by the M60.