How tough were WWII-era Browning machine guns? So tough that after surviving a 300mph crash and seventy-odd years in an Irish peat bog, they still work.
From this story on the BBC website:
An excavation at the site of a 1941 Spitfire crash in a bog in the Irish Republic uncovered huge, remarkably preserved chunks of plane and six Browning machine guns. After 70 years buried in peat could they be made to fire? They certainly could, writes Dan Snow. It was June in Donegal, when we stood on a windswept hillside in hard hats and high-vis surrounded by a crowd of locals and watched by an Irish army unit while we filmed an archaeological excavation. This was the place where, in 1941, Roland “Bud” Wolfe, an American pilot flying a British RAF Spitfire, paid for by a wealthy Canadian industrialist, had experienced engine failure while flying over the neutral Republic of Ireland.
After flying a sortie over the Atlantic, Wolfe was on his way back to his base in Northern Ireland when he was forced to bail out. He parachuted safely to the ground – his plane smashed into the boggy hillside. Fast-forwarding 70 years and local aviation expert Johnny McNee was able to identify the wreck site. The ensuing dig was accompanied by intense anticipation. We did not have to wait long for results.
Suddenly the fresh Donegal air was tainted with the tang of aviation fuel. Minutes later the mechanical digger’s bucket struck metal. We leapt into the pit to continue by hand. One by one the Spitfire’s Browning machine guns were hauled out. We had hoped for one in reasonable condition – we got six, in great shape, with belts containing hundreds of gleaming .303 rounds. The Irish soldiers then stepped in. This was a cache of heavy weapons, however historic they might be.
After being broken down, cleaned and inspected, one of the Brownings was pieced back together from undamaged parts from the other guns loaded with modern ammo and worked flawlessly.
Irish specialists had chosen the best preserved body and added parts from all six guns, like the breech block and the spring, to assemble one that they thought would fire. They made the decision to use modern bullets, to reduce the risk of jamming. Wearing helmet, ear protection and body armour I crouched in a trench a metre away from the Browning, which I would operate remotely. Every part of the gun, to the tiniest pin, had been under a peat bog for 70 years, to the month.
This Spitfire had seen service during Britain’s darkest days and is reliably credited with shooting down a German bomber off the Norfolk coast in early 1941. The Irish had found large amounts of carbon inside the weapon, evidence of heavy use. I turned the handle of the remote firing mechanism. The Browning roared, the belt of ammunition disappeared, the spent shell cases were spat out and the muzzle flash stood out sharply against a grey sky. It was elating.
How cool is that?