Stinger: The Hacked Machine Gun Of Iwo Jima

During the Second World War, the United States was pumping out weapons, aircraft, and tanks at an absolutely astonishing rate. The production of military vehicles and equipment was industrialized like never before, and with luck, never will be again. But even still, soldiers overseas would occasionally find themselves in unique situations that required hardware that the factories back at home couldn’t provide them with.

A Stinger machine gun in WWII

Which is precisely how a few United States Marines designed and built the “Stinger” light machine gun (LMG) during the lead-up to the invasion of Iwo Jima in 1945. The Stinger was a Browning .30 caliber AN/M2, salvaged from a crashed or otherwise inoperable aircraft, that was modified for use by infantry. It was somewhat ungainly, and as it was designed to be cooled by the air flowing past it while in flight, had a tendency to overheat quickly. But even with those shortcomings it was an absolutely devastating weapon; with a rate of fire at least twice that of the standard Browning machine guns the Marines had access to at the time.

Six Stingers were produced, and at least on a Battalion level, were officially approved for use in combat. After seeing how successful the weapon was during the invasion of Iwo Jima, there was even some talk of putting the Stinger into larger scale production and distributing them. But the war ended before such a plan could be put into place.

As such, the Stinger is an exceedingly rare example of a field modified weapon that was not only produced in significant numbers, but officially recognized and even considered for adoption by the military. But the story of this hacked machine gun actually started years earlier and thousands of kilometers away, as Allied forces battled for control of the Solomon Islands.

Battlefield Improvisation

Looking for any possible advantage over a tenacious and entrenched adversary, the fact that soldiers would attempt to re-purpose the AN/M2 for infantry use is hardly a surprise. After all, there would have been no shortage of these high-performance weapons. The AN/M2 was fitted as defensive armament on many US Navy aircraft used in the Pacific theater, such as the SBD Dauntless, PBY Catalina, and Grumman Avenger. Each time one of these aircraft became too damaged to fly, several AN/M2s would become available.

Twin .30 AN/M2 guns mounted in a SBD Dauntless

The weapon also had some very compelling features. Since it was developed for use in planes, it was built to be as light as possible while still delivering the high rate of fire necessary for air-to-air combat. Compared to the standard M1919 Browning in use by infantry, the AN/M2 would have seemed like a considerable upgrade.

Unfortunately, while the gun was light enough to easily carry, it was impractical for a soldier to actually operate reliably in its standard configuration. Never intended to be used outside of an aircraft’s defensive turret, the AN/M2 didn’t have it own sights, a stock, or even a traditional trigger. It had all of the functional components, but none of the features which would allow a person to operate it.

But this didn’t stop Private William “Bill” Colby from pushing one into service while defending Bougainville island in 1943. By hastily attaching a bipod to the front of the AN/M2, he was able to rig the weapon up well enough to provide fire from a defensive position. The additional firepower allowed Colby to successfully repel a surprise Japanese assault, proving that the concept had enough merit to warrant further development.

Preparing for the Invasion

A year later, Sergeant Milan Grevich and Private First Class John Lyttle came up with their own take on the AN/M2 modification. While Private Colby’s addition of a bipod allowed the weapon to be fired from a stationary position, the Marines needed something they could take with them as they advanced from Iwo Jima’s beaches and moved deeper into the island. For their purposes, the AN/M2 would need to be far more mobile, and potentially even usable by a single soldier from a standing position.

Firearms researcher Ian McCollum holds a replica Stinger

Spare stocks for the M1 Garand rifle were cut down to size, hollowed out to accept the unique shape of the machine gun’s rear buffer tube, and bolted to the back of the gun. A trigger assembly was fashioned from scraps of sheet metal, and an adapter was fabricated so the bipod and carrying handle from the far smaller Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) could be fitted.

Simplistic front and rear sights were also fashioned (or in some cases, taken from a BAR) so the operator would have an idea of where their shots would land. But as the Stinger was meant to be used as a suppressive weapon in relatively close quarters, pinpoint accuracy was never really the goal.

The Stinger was born, and just in time. Supposedly the finishing touches were still being made on the guns even as the Marines sailed towards Iwo Jima. Gervich himself carried one of the six weapons into battle, four were distributed among the Company’s rifle platoons, and the last one was given to Corporal Tony Stein.

Legend of the Stinger

As Corporal Stein wasn’t from the same Company as Gervich or Lyttle, there’s some debate as to why he received a Stinger of his own. But as a machinist by trade, it’s possible that he assisted in the assembly of the weapons with the understanding he would be given one once they reached Iwo Jima. In any event, the exploits of Corporal Stein and his Stinger were immortalized in his posthumous Medal of Honor citation:

The first man of his unit to be on station after hitting the beach in the initial assault, Cpl. Stein, armed with a personally improvised aircraft-type weapon, provided rapid covering fire as the remainder of his platoon attempted to move into position.

….

Cool and courageous under the merciless hail of exploding shells and bullets which fell on all sides, he continued to deliver the fire of his skillfully improvised weapon at a tremendous rate of speed which rapidly exhausted his ammunition.

While the Stinger moniker itself was perhaps deemed inappropriate for inclusion in a formal citation, the fact that the weapon and its improvised nature was specifically mentioned multiple times speaks to how effective it was during the battle. Had the war continued much longer, it seems almost a certainty that more Stingers (officially sanctioned or not) would have been produced as soldiers heard accounts of how they performed on Iwo Jima.

A Brief Moment in Time

Despite the success of the Stinger at Iwo Jima, the story stops here. Six months after American forces raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, Emperor Hirohito officially announced that Japan would agree to the unconditional surrender outlined in the Potsdam Declaration.

Raising the American flag on Iwo Jima

Whatever interest there had been in mass producing the Stinger, or an LMG like it, the end of the war made it unnecessary. Like many of the other fearsome weapons that were proposed or tested during the the last throes of the Second World War, it was deemed excessive in the post-war era.

So where are the Stingers now? Nobody actually knows. Since they were built out of scrap parts, they wouldn’t have appeared on any official manifest. Once the war ended, weapons and equipment were often unceremoniously discarded. It’s entirely possible they never left Iwo Jima, and ended up buried under the island’s black sands. Or if they did get removed, they could have been dumped in the ocean along with all the other wartime hardware which suddenly became more of a burden than an asset. There may even be a Stinger collecting dust out there in someone’s attic; part of a trove of souvenirs that a stoic Marine brought home from the war, now dutifully stored by his grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

While the Stingers themselves may be lost, the story of the men who built them continues on. More than 75 years after a few enterprising young Marines decided to see if they could cobble together a machine gun more powerful than anything in their Government-sanctioned inventory, one can’t help but be inspired by their ingenuity as they prepared for what they knew might be the last days of their lives.

52 thoughts on “Stinger: The Hacked Machine Gun Of Iwo Jima

  1. During the period of rapid Japanese advance, Australia faced the prospect of being cut off from either UK or US material support. Which was coming in on long and threatened supply lines anyway. So also had to improvise light machine guns and other weapons under threat of invasion. One such was a MG conversion of a Lee Enfield.

    1. No, The USMC is not under the “jurisdiction” of the USN. The commandant and the CNO both report to the Secretary of the Navy. It is not uncommon for some USMC units (or for some facets such as aviation), to fall under command of Navy units, and vice versa, but the jarheads belong to the same civilian authority as the Navy, as per their equal representations on the JCS.

      That said, at one time the the jarheads did “belong” to the Navy. From their start as the Tun Tavern drinking and shooting club, until the immediate post-WWII era, they did belong to the Navy, and did not have anyone on the JCS.

      Forward-deployed Army and Marine infantry troops are among the most creative and determined hackers the American people have seen. Another very talented and creative group are the machinists mates on a nuclear carrier. No two of these chips are the same, and many at-sea component failures cannot be fixed with anything in ship’s stores – it has to be made on site.

      As evil as war and proxy conflicts are, our species always seems to be the most creative when we need to find a new way of killing each other. And, as my gunny always said “too many stupid people, not enough napalm”.

      1. Not just the Americans. And inventive beyond understanding in both making and breaking things. Especially breaking things… (Letting soldiers get bored doesn’t have to be bad as they might do things like build a Stinger, but don’t let them get too bored!)

  2. “Whatever interest there had been in mass producing the Stinger, or an LMG like it, the end of the war made it unnecessary. Like many of the other fearsome weapons that were proposed or tested during the the last throes of the Second World War, it was deemed excessive in the post-war era.”
    Tell that to guys that where fighting in Korea just 5 years later. It is a real shame that the post war era was less then 4 years what with the Berlin Airlift and Korea. One has to wonder if the rapid and in many ways excessive disarmament of the west did not have a negative effect.

    1. Negative effect? WW II armaments had to be tossed, destroyed or donated, so that MIC can make new ones. With very favourable price, of course.

      And that did not stop to this day. There’s no money for kids lunches or clean water, but always money for MIC and weapons.

    1. Why? Guns are full of really interesting, clever engineering and applied physics in action. I just built a gun from parts, and it was a fun tinker project, with a huge community of helpful people. You can build a gun that is just picking parts and assembly, or you can machine some of the parts, and one could even make a gun from scratch or improve an existing design. Its like code though, if it gets too complicated it wont work well, elegant solutions only.

      1. Ian McCollum AKA “Gun Jesus” is a firearms historian and researcher with a book on French service rifles and an entertaining You Tube channel. He’s not a widely known hacker. Hence the surprise his picture is on Hackaday.

        1. Ian actually gave a talk at DEF CON 24 about 3D printed guns, so he’s not completely outside of our normal sphere (and perhaps we aren’t out of his).

          But on a more personal note, I’m a big fan of Forgotten Weapons and have been subscribed for a few years now. The video he did on the Stinger awhile back was definitely a big help while researching/writing this.

  3. I remember reading stories of a Japanese tactic where they would provoke the Americans into laying down cover fire, then wait for the Americans’ heavy machine guns to overheat, and they would rush the gun nest and destroy the glowing-hot gun barrel with a strike from a katana! This gun would’ve been particularly vulnerable to such a counterattack.

      1. Actually Mythbusters tested this and found that a barrel that had been repeatedly cooled by pouring water on it could become brittle enough to shatter with a sword:

        https://mythresults.com/episode64

        Of course it would be an incredibly risky tactic, but it if only worked once out of a hundred times it was tried, that’s all it would take to become a legend.

    1. Are you sure you didn’t see that in a Japanese cartoon? A katana would do nothing to a gun barrel except maybe scuff the finish. Those things are made from poor steel for cutting down unarmed peasants. Even a solid wooden club would do more damage to a gun barrel. Plus, not to mention that the soldiers had sidearms which would make approaching a machinegun nest very hazardous.

      1. Misinformed. A proper katana is made of high quality steel and is designed for use against an armed and armored opponent carrying a similar weapon. Simply bending the barrel slightly would suffice.

        In China the military guandao was produced ouf of cheap steel. A different ballgame.

      2. The katana that most soldiers were carrying were “shin gunto” which were not made out of tamahagane but were mass produced contemporary swords from typical crucible steel at military arsenals.

        That said, no bladed weapon is going to do much to a machine gun barrel. Provided the blade was made correctly (high edge hardness), it would do more damage to the blade than the barrel.

        1. the blunt edge of a sword would easily dent beyond repair a red hot tube. The sharp side may gouge it quite a bit. This story is clearly bullshit, but some of ya’ll clearly have never hammered red hot metal…

          1. I actually used to have a baby forge and I still have my little 110 pound anvil. Cutting 1.2″ diameter round stock with a chisel and a hammer is a workout. I’d still be practicing blacksmithing if I could cut stock like that with a single blow. Hell, I’d sell my anvil too: just have someone hold the stock I want to cut in the air with tongs.

            Barrels heat from the chamber to the muzzle, so even if a barrel is “red-hot” (which should never be allowed to happen) most of the barrel will not be. If you try and shoot a gun until the muzzle is red hot, it’s either going to jam from the bolt warping or the threads holding the barrel into the trunnion are going to shear and the gun is going to explode.

            The situation is a bit stupid for another reason: all of the American machine guns in common use are recoil operated. Lets say someone cuts the barrel (presumably with a lightsaber). The next thing that would happen is that said swordsman would be shot, many, many times at close range with the machine gun because it is still operational. Maybe the velocity would be reduced and if enough the barrel was cut, the projectiles would tumble but it would remain 100 percent lethal.

    2. M2 50 cal BMG crews carry several barrels and the BMG has rapid barrel changes. They rotated barrels as they got hot. The 1919 30 cals of the time were water cooled. Less than 30 seconds for an experienced crew (15 seconds for one person on M2A2 today).

      1. Minor correction, the water cooled .30 cal Brownings are the 1917 series, the 1917A1 being the WWII issue model. The 1919 series are all air cooled. The 1919A6 model, first issued in 1943, was the first 1919 series gun intended to allow barrel changes from the front, without requiring the whole internals set to be field stripped from the rear. But you are on the money other than that little detail.

    3. You mixing up many things together here..

      – Red hot barrel and Barrel which was repeatedly cooled down.
      – Different type and origins of Katanas

      So repeatedly cooled down barrel is brittle, you can maybe succeed with katana but you may succeed better with something giving crush, not cut – like hammer or axe. Brittle surface is very hard and resistant to the cuts of light and sharp objects.

      Glowing red barrel loses its brittle but is a bit softer, more plastic – more resistant to crush, less resistant to the cuts.
      So or so, infantry machine guns had cooling gird around barrels which would make cutting thru very difficult.
      And yes, machine gun operators had personal backup firearms and machine guns generally were too valuable so every soldier would protect them with rifle shooting. However was is always terrible mess..

      Katanas
      In Japanese army, Katanas were usually inherited from ancestors as a form of family treasure. You not need to be nobble family for that, it was part of cultural tradition. To have Katana from high quality Damascus steel you not need to be a Japanese noble at all. We are talking about WW2 and Japanese regular army. Not about Chinese which did not used Katanas.

      Not sure if is just a another urban legend but as I heard, many marines were killed by Katanas from top-down cut thru rifle and helmet as they were told to use rifle as physical shield against top-down sword swings.

      I would believe that, Japanese soldiers were traditionally trained with katanas for extra powerfull top-down swings and rifle barrel/body has small steel profile.

  4. From Wikipedia:
    “On February 19, 1945, he (Corporal Tony Stein) took part in the amphibious landings which began the Battle of Iwo Jima. As his unit moved inland, he stormed a series of hostile pillboxes using his “Stinger” and made eight trips back to the beach to retrieve ammunition, each time taking a wounded Marine with him.”

    Greatest generation indeed.

    Glad my generation and those following me have never had the opportunity to be called the “greatest generation”.

    Battlefield innovation is an absolute art form. Many great ideas have come from the “dumb grunts”. The current TUSK (Tank Urban Survival Kit) employed on the M1 Abrams and on the Humvee is basically the combination of many improvised survival enhancements thought up by the guys in the field. Things like chain link fencing spaced a few inches from the armor or metal slats angled at a 45 degree angle to defeat RPGs by causing them to detonate early. I am always amazed at some of the improvised engineering on both sides of the fighting my dad would tell me about from his time in Vietnam.

    It would be awesome if HaD would cover more of these. Hobart’s Funnies are good place to start when looking for this kind of story.

  5. It looks like this Stinger was useful only for beating off Banzai charges, considering poor sights.

    If the enemy wasn’t volunteering for bullets, it would be much more difficult to use effectively.

  6. Excellent article. There have been several Stinger repros done over the years, at least half a dozen that I know of. All have solved the difficulties of interpreting the fuzzy details of the two original photos of Sgt. Grevich and his Stinger by making choices as they feel is appropriate. But there is much guesswork involved, due to the poor quality of the existing photos. Two details stand out, however, that most get wrong. The carry handle is not off the BAR, but is in fact one of the handles from the ANM2 spade grip. How it is mounted is more difficult to determine. Also, the rear sight has its windage knob on the left side, which eliminates the BAR sight from the equation. But the M2HB does have that feature, so it is very possible that a heavily modified M2 sight mount is used. Those would have been easily available at the time, and could be attached with screws to the top plate.

  7. My US Uncles were in all these battles, Guadalcanal, Palermo Casina Italy, Pacific Islands. Taught me taught me to use a 30 cal when I was FIVE in 1966 M1 Garrand and BAR too! We Army Reserve had a Sherman Firefly Tank Buster 76 mm Long Barrel 17 Pounder that could cut like butter through A Tiger Tank. Super Long Barrels. High Velocity modified Welded Straight Hull Shermans. Naval Guns too.

    I drove it. He called me Dead Eye Dick.
    I drove a Centurian 105 MBT and M113 Army Reserve. Browning .50 Cal gunner.

    Cheers! Flags of Our Fathers.
    Note the Battleship movie. USS Missouri and Omaha Beach. Vietnam QUOTE: Get your heads down Aussies! We’re Lobbing A Salvo of NINE 15 inch rounds on top of the Gooks. Neighbour was there. Nui Dat., Vung Tao etc.

    Went onboard the Missouri in 1988 when it was in Sydney Harbour.

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