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  • Writer's pictureT. Logan Metesh

M1895 "Potato Digger" & Lewis Machine Guns

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

USMC Rifle Range, Winthrop, MD, 1917

In 1917, Commandant of the Marine Corps Major General George Barnett went to the USMC rifle range in Winthrop, Maryland, to get some trigger time with the weapons that soldiers from the US would come across overseas now that the country had officially entered World War I on April 6, 1917.

Barnett graduated from the Naval Academy in 1881 and transferred to the Marine Corps in 1883. He became Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1914 and was no stranger to combat, having served on no fewer than three naval ships in locations such as Panama, Cuba, the Philippines, and China.

In this series of photos, Barnett takes the field dressed in his all-white uniform, surrounded by an assortment of soldiers, sailors, and civilians. They watch as he sits down behind the mount of a Colt M1895 machine gun and even goes prone to fire the Lewis machine gun.

Colt’s M1895

Commandant Barnett firing an M1895 machine gun.

The M1895 machine gun was nicknamed the “potato digger” because of the way it cycled the action, which looked as if the gun was digging in the dirt if it was placed too low to the ground.

Inventor John Moses Browning posing with the M1895 machine gun.

When a round was fired, the gases passed a port in the barrel that drove a plug, attached to a lever, out of the port and down in an arc. This motion unlocked the bolt and moved the breech mechanism to the rear, ejecting the spent case. A spring that is compressed when the lever is pushed down provides the energy needed for the lever and plug to return to the state of rest, with the plug in the barrel awaiting the next round to be fired.

Lewis Gun

Commandant Barnett firing a Lewis machine gun.

One of the most visually distinct machine guns of World War I was the Lewis gun, named for inventor Isaac Newton Lewis. The gun’s barrel shroud contained a finned aluminum heat sink to help cool the barrel by drawing in air from the muzzle blast generated when fired.

Inventor Isaac Newton Lewis demonstrating his gun.

The other visual distinction comes from its top-mounted pan magazine. Unlike a drum magazine, which uses spring tension to feed the rounds, the Lewis gun’s pan magazine is mechanically operated. A cam on top of the gun’s bolt turned a pawl mechanism that rotated the magazine each time the gun cycled.

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