US Army Pvt. John Stafinski, a native of Seville, Ohio, fires his M249 Squad Automatic Weapon during a three-hour gun battle with insurgent fighters in Kunar province, Afghanistan’s Waterpur Valley, Nov. 3, 2009. US Army photo by Sgt. Matthew Moeller.
Lying in wait, I rested my finger on the safety of the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, known to troops everywhere as the SAW. The light machine gun had a fire engine-red blank firing adapter affixed to its barrel, and the “enemy” we were preparing to attack was actually another squad of new Marines. Everything else about the impending ambush felt real. Passing this simulated ambush was one of my final requirements to graduate from the School of Infantry.
When the squad leader finally fired his rifle as the signal to start the ambush, I pushed the safety in, leaned into the stock of the 22-pound machine gun, and squeezed the trigger.
A single bang rang out, followed by a click.
The SAW had jammed after the first round. Now I had to fix whatever the issue was, in the dark, as my squad fought for fire superiority.
A Squad Automatic Weapon gunner with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, fires the M249 on May 15, 2009. US Marine Corps photo by Pvt. Michael Gams.
That misfire was my first field experience with the notoriously effective — and finicky — M249. Battling a malfunction before letting the SAW climb anywhere near its 850 rounds-per-minute potential was not unique to me. That reputation for jams gave birth to a widespread joke that troops yelled when training without live bullets. To simulate a misfeed while firing, gunners yelled “bang bang jam!” — which gave way to shouts of “butter butter jam!”
Service members with time behind the SAW typically fall into two camps: love it or hate it. Whichever side you’re on, there’s no denying the SAW is an iconic weapon that has played a major role in American ground combat for nearly half a century.
During the Vietnam War, American troops dubbed the 1950s-era M60 medium machine gun “The Pig” for its hefty size and weight. The bulky weapon reliably slung 7.62mm bullets at 600 rounds per minute. It could be attached to helicopters, tanks, and trucks while also remaining manageable enough for a single grunt to carry on foot.
Americans used the Pig with devastating effect in Vietnam. It was a central weapon for US infantry squads into the 1980s, and some Coast Guard, Navy, and reserve units still field the weapon today.
An M60 gunner in Vietnam, 1967. Photo by Robert Hodierne, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
But after Vietnam, the M60’s weight, unique ammunition, and overall reliability led the Army to search for a lighter replacement. The result was the M249 light machine gun, or SAW.
The first M249s were fielded in 1982, following a 12-year search and testing period for a machine gun chambered in the smaller and lighter 5.56mm. The smaller rounds were already being used in the M16 rifles the US military issued as its primary individual weapon, meaning an entire infantry squad would already be carrying extra ammunition the machine gun could use. With ammunition reciprocity in mind, the SAW was selected for its ability to use both linked ammunition and M16 magazines.
US Army Pfc. Daniels W. Daquan, 50th Chemical Company, New Jersey Army National Guard, fires a M249 light machine gun during the unit’s annual training at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, May 1, 2019. New Jersey National Guard photo by Mark C. Olsen.
Americans carried the new and improved machine gun into battle for the first time in 1991 during the Gulf War. Since then, the M249 has seen action in every major US conflict.
In the last 20 years of war, the M249 has received several upgrades, including a forward pistol grip, various optics, and a collapsible buttstock. A short-barreled version known as the Para-SAW was designed for jump operations and close-quarters battle but soon became the preferred model by most troops.
In 2010, Marine Cpl. Clifford Wooldridge demonstrated just how devastatingly effective a SAW can be. While he was serving as a vehicle commander in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Wooldridge’s convoy came under attack. He dismounted and led a fire team on foot to flank the enemy’s position. Wooldridge surprised 15 Taliban fighters and opened up with his SAW, killing or wounding eight. The remaining fighters fled. Wooldridge then heard voices from behind a nearby wall. He rushed around the corner and came face to face with two more Taliban fighters. He killed them both with another burst from his SAW. As Wooldridge knelt to reload, the barrel of an enemy machine gun protruded from around the corner. He grabbed the weapon, wrested it from the enemy, and bludgeoned the Taliban fighter to death. For his actions, Wooldridge was awarded the Navy Cross.
Sgt. Clifford Wooldridge, combat weapons instructor, Marine Corps Security Forces Regiment, Chesapeake, Virginia, stands at parade rest after receiving the Navy Cross, May 18, 2012. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ali Azimi.
While few service members can claim to have beaten the enemy to death with their own weapon, many can attest to the SAW’s ability to quickly change the tide of a firefight. Steven Poth, another Marine who carried a SAW in Afghanistan, told Coffee or Die that the reliability of the M249 mostly depends on the proficiency of the person using it.
“I loved my SAW. It gave me the ability to gain and hold fire superiority for my team in a way other weapons couldn’t,” said Poth. “M249s were finicky, but any issues they had were easily fixed. Mine ran like a champ as long as it was well-lubed. A good SAW gunner knows the quirks of his particular weapon and could run it with no issues.”
Lance Cpl. Taylor M. Boyd, a Squad Automatic Weapon gunner with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, sights his weapon down a field during a patrol in Marjah, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2010. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Luis Agostini.
Wooldridge and Poth are among an army of gunners who love the SAW for its high rate of fire and maneuverability, but for every veteran who likes the M249 there is another who hates it. The weapon saw extensive service as the primary light machine gun of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the sandy environments frequently led to malfunctions.
Another common complaint is that, while lighter than the M60, the M249 is still heavy. A standard-length SAW weighs more than 20 pounds when loaded. As a result, when the military began looking for replacements, weight was a key factor.
In 2011, the commandant of the Marine Corps ordered the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle to replace the M249. The M27 weighed less than 10 pounds loaded and looked similar to other rifles like the M4 and M16, making automatic riflemen less conspicuous targets. The M27 is capable of a similar rate of fire as the M249 (800 rounds per minute) but is not belt-fed. By being strictly magazine-fed, the M27 requires more frequent reloading, though proponents of the M27 point out that reloading a magazine is typically faster than reloading a belt of linked ammunition. While M249s still sit in Marine Corps armories, the M27 has completely replaced the SAW within Marine rifle squads.
Just over a decade after the Marine Corps announced its separation from the SAW, the Army announced its own new light machine gun.
A fire team leader with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, fires a burst of rounds from the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle in the kneeling position during a training retreat on July 22, 2015. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Michelle Reif.
On April 19, 2022, the Army announced it had chosen the SIG Sauer XM250, a belt-fed light machine gun chambered in 6.8mm ammunition. The new caliber is slightly larger than 5.56 but comes cased in a lighter hybrid of brass and composite material. Unloaded, the XM250, also known simply as the light machine gun (LMG), weighs 12 pounds.
The switch from 5.56mm to 6.8mm marks the first time in over 60 years that the US military has introduced a new caliber of ammunition. The XM250 is just beginning to reach field units, and the Army plans to complete the rollout by the end of 2023. Col. Scott Madore, project manager of the Army’s soldier lethality team, said that while the Army is still the only branch to purchase the new LMG, “other branches have expressed interest” in fielding the weapon.
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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