A US Marine with Alpha Battery, 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Platoon, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 363, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin, fires an M240B machine gun in the prone position. July 8, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Lydia Gordon.
On the morning of July 13, 2008, Sgt. Ryan Pitts and a small contingent of nine paratroopers were manning an observation post that overlooked a remote American base housing 48 of their brothers-in-arms in Afghanistan’s deadly Wanat Valley. The sun had yet to crest the Hindu Kush mountains surrounding the small outpost when a force of more than 200 Taliban fighters unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire.
Pitts was wounded in the opening onslaught. Shrapnel peppered his arms and legs. In spite of his wounds, Pitts returned fire with an M240 machine gun, slinging 650 bullets a minute at the advancing enemy. Whenever he needed to reload the 27-pound weapon, Pitts lobbed hand grenades over the outpost’s walls. While he fought to fend off waves of determined Taliban fighters, nine of his fellow paratroopers were killed and 27 more were wounded.
Marines with Battalion Landing Team 1/5, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, fire an M240B machine gun during a live-fire exercise on Combined Arms Training Center Camp Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, Mar. 11, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Cesar Ronaldo Alarcon.
Pitts survived the attack and would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in what became known as the Battle of Wanat. Had it not been for Pitts’ uncommon devotion to duty and his skill with the M240, the number of American dead would have been higher.
Army paratroopers weren’t the only ones who favored the M240 in Afghanistan. Eight days after Pitts’ heroic stand, Marine Lance Cpl. Brady Gustafson stopped another Taliban ambush with an M240, despite having one of his legs mangled in the initial moments of the fight. Pitts and Gustafson are among a host of service members who can attest to the M240’s reputation as the best machine gun in the American arsenal. Marine machine gunner Mason Rodrigue spent years training with the M240. He considers it the finest machine gun ever made.
“My favorite belt-fed weapon has always been and always will be the M240 simply because it does the most; one man can carry it, it’s extremely accurate, it rarely malfunctions, and it’s easy to train other Marines how to use it,” Rodrigue told Coffee or Die.
Lance Cpl. Benjamin Carr, a tiltrotor crew chief with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Reinforced), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, fires an M240 machine gun during a training exercise at a tail gun range off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, July 30, 2020. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brienna Tuck.
As Pitts and Gustafson proved, one well-trained warrior with an M240 can single-handedly change the tide of a battle.
“It can turn any man with the grit to hump it into a force multiplier,” Rodrigue said.
Soldiers share an affection for the belt-fed behemoth. US Army Staff Sgt. William Bolyard regularly relied on the M240 while serving in a scout platoon with Special Operations Task Force 102 during a 2019 deployment to Afghanistan. For Bolyard, the belt-fed weapon was invaluable, especially when used in conjunction with other weapon systems.
“There was no deadlier combination on the battlefield than a long gun paired with an M240. It was unstoppable,” Bolyard told Coffee or Die.
Lance Cpl. Christopher Yudin, a machine gunner with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, patrols through the town of Zamindawar, a known insurgent stronghold, June 1, 2012. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Timothy Lenzo.
During the Vietnam War, the United States relied on the M60 and the M219 for medium machine guns. The M60 was favored by ground forces for its durability and high rate of fire, but malfunctions spurred the Department of Defense to explore possible alternatives.
The M240 emerged as the best replacement for the M60. Compared to its predecessor, which averaged one malfunction per every 1,669 rounds it fired, the M240 averaged one every 26,000 rounds — a major improvement.
The first M240 made its way into the American arsenal in 1977 as a coaxial tank gun. In the 1980s, the M240 began to see use on other vehicles, boats, and aircraft. By the 1990s, the infantry had their hands on their own version — the M240G.
A Special Forces Soldier assigned to 3rd Special Group (Airborne) fires his M240 machine gun during a tactical vehicle live fire exercise on Aug. 7, 2019. US Army photo by Spc. Peter Seidler.
The M240G weighed 25.6 pounds and could fire 950 rounds per minute. It came with three possible gas settings that changed the weapon’s rate of fire. In spite of the ground variant’s high rate of fire, it left a lot to be desired.
The M240B is essentially an improved design of the M240G. Unlike the M240G, which had no hydraulic buffer, the M240B’s recoil is more manageable. It also came with a heat guard and Picatinny rail on top of the feed tray for an optic. In spite of these improvements, the M240B’s all-steel receiver left it 4 pounds heavier than the old M60. While the Marine Corps accepted the M240B’s weight as acceptable, the Army opted for a lighter variant, the M240L.
Marines with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit Ground Combat Element, Company A, participates in a M240B medium machine gun shoot during Alligator Dagger. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Timothy Valero.
By swapping out the steel receiver with titanium and replacing the large buttstock with a collapsible version, the M240L shaved 5.5 pounds off the M240B. Most M240Ls also come with a shorter barrel, further increasing the weapon’s maneuverability.
Most variants of the M240 are still in service, but new weapons like the Army’s XM250 indicate changes are coming to the US military’s machine gun roster. For service members worried that new firearms won’t arrive soon enough, stories like that of Pitts and Gustafson should eliminate any doubt that the M240 can hold its own in a modern gunfight.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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