Winter 2005–2006


Pigs, heroes, and the American army’s biggest machine gun

Steve Featherstone

­Shooting holes in things is an enduring American pastime. Plinking cans set up on a fence rail. Sniping rats at the town dump. In Bullets by the Billions, a patriotic treatment of the Chrysler Corporation’s industrial prowess published in 1946, the company boasts that when testing ammunition it had no problem enlisting “men who loved guns and marveled that anybody could be found to pay them for shooting.” Apparently, “the chatter of machine guns and the bark of carbines, pistols and revolvers” at Chrysler’s Evansville, Indiana, ammunition plant “was nearly continuous” during the war.

The M85 .50-caliber machine gun mounted on US tanks in World War II.

Today, the serious business of testing the war machine belongs to men in white lab coats, but a close approximation of the old days occurs twice annually at Knob Creek Range—or “KCR” as it’s printed on baseball caps and coffee mugs—in Bullitt County, Kentucky. Here anyone can choose from an international buffet of automatic weapons arranged neatly on tables under white canopies and polish off a thirty-round magazine, or a fifty-round belt, for about one dollar per round.

I arrived at KCR having never fired an automatic weapon. I wasn’t prepared for the sound of 200 machine guns firing simultaneously. The sound wasn’t a sound at all, but rather a tidal wave of acoustic energy, a physical force that flattened the hair on my arms and reverberated in my ribcage. Set in a shallow valley with sharply sloping hillsides, KCR’s horseshoe-shaped firing range compounded the effect. Sound crashed against the hills and washed back over the line in a feedback loop of explosions and echoes of explosions.

But as shooters stopped to reload, it became possible to discern distinct percussive notes. A dissonant medley of small-caliber machine guns filled the middle register. Submachine guns, machine pistols, and assault rifles improvised around the edges in short, snappy riffs, sending streams of empty brass cartridges tinkling to the ground. And throbbing beneath it all like a heartbeat—pum pum pum! pum pum pum!—was the steady bass of .50-caliber heavy machine guns.

• • •

On 26 January 1945, Company “B” was out in the open country just beyond a tongue of woods near HOLTZWHIR, FRANCE. At about 1400 hours, the enemy counterattacked with a terrific punch ...

Lieutenant MURPHY remained at his CP, which was under a tree in the open meadow, so that he could direct artillery fire on the advancing enemy. Together with a tank destroyer ...

he held that rearguard position under raking fire from the German tanks. From my position in the woods, I saw a direct hit from an enemy 88mm gun smash into our tank destroyer ...

The enemy tanks were now abreast of Lieutenant MURPHY’s position, rolling across the open field on both sides of him and firing at him with their cannon and machine guns as they passed ...

As we engaged the KRAUT tanks with bazooka and directed artillery fire, I saw Lieutenant MURPHY climb on top of the burning tank destroyer. ... Though smoke was pouring from the open hatch, Lieutenant MURPHY... opened up on the enemy with the TD’s 50 caliber machine gun. The destroyer was ... chock full of ammunition and gasoline. ... It was like standing on top of a time bomb.

The KRAUTS threw everything they had at Lieutenant MURPHY ... he was standing on the TD chassis, exposed to enemy fire from his ankles to his head and silhouetted against the trees and the snow behind him.

As the infantry swarmed up toward the destroyer, they fired their automatic weapons and rifles. ... I could see their white machine gun tracers smash against the hull and turret and then glance off. The small arms fire seemed to be converging in on him from all directions, and I don’t understand yet how he came through it alive ...

Through all this furious fire, Lieutenant MURPHY stood in his exposed position and fired whenever the Germans attempted to advance. I saw him kill KRAUTS in the ditches and ground folds and on the open meadow....

The fight Lieutenant MURPHY put up was the greatest display of guts and courage I have ever seen. There is only one in a million who would be willing to stand up on a burning vehicle, loaded with explosives, and hold off around 250 raging KRAUTS for an hour and do all that when he was wounded. Lieutenant MURPHY not only stood off one of the most rugged and determined squarehead forces I have ever run into, but he must have killed and wounded about a hundred of them with directed artillery and 50 caliber fire.

Excerpted from eyewitness account of Pfc. Anthony V. Abramski, of actions performed by Audie ­Murphy, for which Murphy later received the Medal of Honor. Murphy was eighteen years old at the time.

• • •

February 1996 Aircrew Protection Division U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory Fort Rucker, Alabama Report No. 96-14

Force Transmission Through Chest Armor During the Defeat of .50-Caliber Rounds

A total of 17 pigs were procured for the tests; the WRAIR pathology report documents only 14 pigs, but pathology was not accomplished on pigs 3A-04, 4A-01, and 4U-02. All pigs were domiciled in the USAARL vivarium for 4 to 6 weeks prior to testing. This time was used to screen the animals for disease (CBX, BUN, and stool exam), and to develop a feeding schedule (standard pig diet for mature pigs) that resulted in a test weight of approximately 200 lb and to condition the animals to the environment as well as to the procedures of the experiment itself. The USAARL Veterinary Medicine Branch provided care and husbandry to the animals. The animals were trained by daily “rehearsals” to make them familiar with the fitting of the body armor, placement in the test cage, moving the cage to the test building, etc.

Projection of viscera of pig and man on body wall, left side.

• • •

Separated from the spectator bleachers by a chain link fence, the firing line was a long, open-air shed covered by a corrugated steel roof. On a typical autumn day, a handful of men would be spread out along the line, sighting in rifles for deer season, or perhaps target shooting. But today the line was crammed to the rafters with ammunition crates, tool lockers, and hundreds of machine guns.


A few shooters invited spectators to fire, for a fee, machine guns from their collections. The only gun that interested me was the .50-caliber Browning M2HB—also known as “Ma Deuce” or simply “the fifty”—the biggest, longest-serving machine gun in the US arsenal. The only one for rent belonged to an elderly man whose liver-spotted hands shook with Parkinson’s tremors. He stood on a wooden pallet, slowly working a hand-cranked autoloader that resembled a meat grinder.

I put my name on the list and paid $200 for a 100-round ammunition belt laced with red-tipped incendiary bullets. As I waited my turn, I talked—shouted—to Jason Fischer, a postman from London. He asked me to take a picture of him with two .50-caliber bandoliers slung over his shoulders in the manner of Hollywood action heroes. The bandoliers formed an X in the middle of his black T-shirt, on the front of which was printed the name of a band, Suicidal Tendencies. “Yeah, yeah,” Jason said, before I could come up with a good postman joke. “I’ve heard all the postman jokes.”

• • •

Audie Murphy’s life story is the stuff of American myth. He was one of twelve children born to poor Texas sharecropper parents. His father abandoned the family; his mother died when he was seventeen. To help support his five younger brothers and sisters, Murphy tried to join the Marines but was rejected because, at 5' 5", he was too short. So he joined the army. After three years of combat, he returned home the most decorated soldier of World War II. A month before atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Murphy was featured on the cover of Life magazine.

Audie Murphy on the cover of Life, 16 July 1945. “Most Decorated Soldier Comes Home to the Little Town of Farmsville, Texas.”

Murphy moved to Hollywood at the invitation of James Cagney, and in 1946 he received a bit part in Beyond Glory, as a cadet and roommate of the movie’s star, Alan Ladd. In 1955, after performing in a series of B-westerns with such titles as The Duel at Silver Creek and Ride Clear of Diablo, Murphy starred in perhaps his best-known film, To Hell and Back, which was based on his autobiography of the same name. Published in 1949, To Hell and Back was a best-seller, and the movie went on to become Universal’s highest-grossing picture for twenty years, until Jaws broke the record.

• • •

Test surrogate

The Landrace breed of pig was chosen for its light colored skin, which facilitated the detection of bruising and other soft tissue injuries. Certain metabolic characteristics, such as digestion, blood chemistries, and skin and muscle perfusion, are analogous to the human.

The pig also could be purchased in varying sizes from miniature swine to larger farm-bred animals. This enabled us to select animals approximating the weight of a human aviator, and whose chest breadth was similar to a human’s, resulting in our being able to use standard chest armor with no modification.

Twenty-four hours before testing, a pig was moved from the open-air vivarium into a climate-controlled quarantine room in order to minimize heat stress. The animal’s feed was stopped on test day at 0600 hours and the pig underwent the routine of cage placement, movement to the test building, and armor fitting. The animal was anesthetized in a calm condition prior to placement in the cage. Immediately posttest, the animal’s level of consciousness was estimated by direct observation (eye movement).

The animal was moved back to the quarantine room and removed from the cage as soon as possible after the impact. The animal was visually observed for alertness and heart rate, and the respiration monitored for the next 3 hours prior to euthanasia.

• • •

In line ahead of me was an attractive young woman who looked as if she’d accidentally stumbled onto the firing range during her morning jog. Now that she was here, she seemed determined to make the best of it. She pulled back her ash-brown hair into a ponytail and fired a test round. Then she paused to wipe her palms on her fleece and fired a few more. She didn’t try to aim the gun or touch it any more than was necessary to make it work—nothing like the men I observed, all inveterate stylists of destruction, including me. Firing the weapons wasn’t good enough for us. We gritted our teeth. We laid on our bellies or let loose from the hip. We tore through belts of ammunition and shouted for more. We wanted to annihilate something, but more importantly, we wanted to be seen annihilating it. The guns were props in some private war movie unspooling inside our skulls. Everywhere at KCR, packs of young men in camouflage battle dress huddled around video camera LCD screens to review their performances.

The woman finished the ammunition belt with a long, jerking burst that set her ponytail swinging against the nape of her neck. She smiled, more in relief than pleasure, and stood up to wipe the dust off her track pants. Her husband convinced her to stand next to the .50 for a picture; then he handed over the camera so she could take pictures of him wrapping the ammunition belts around his shoulders, just as the English postman had done. He smoothed his pleated chinos and grinned to show that he was in on the joke.

• • •

By the time I finished elementary school, I’d read every war book in the school library three or four times over. My favorite writer was Cornelius Ryan, author of The Last Battle, A Bridge Too Far, and The Longest Day, which I preferred to the movie version starring John Wayne. The film rendition of A Bridge Too Far, on the other hand—with its rambling complexity, its huge cast, and its graphic depiction of violence (for its time)—closely approximated Ryan’s account, and by implication, the battle itself.

I also watched every war movie broadcast on one of the two channels we received on our television, and I became something of a critic of the genre. I had little patience for war movies made in the 1940s and 1950s. The sets looked like sets—all potted trees, painted backdrops, and high-key lighting—and the actors stalked heroically through them with none of the weariness, fear, and skepticism I believed was part and parcel of the soldier’s experience. All the vehicles appeared to be drawn from the same US surplus motor pool and painted with appropriate insignia. And the only difference between the good guys and the bad guys was that the bad guys always flopped on the ground face-first when shot. Compared to the way in which today’s war movies revel in war’s grisly horror, these movies seem almost humane. The staged violence is a dramatic element rationalized in the service of character. It might not look authentic, but it has purpose and meaning.

To Hell and Back is that kind of movie. The narrative briskly traces Audie Murphy’s life, each scene building on the theme of self-sacrifice. It begins with Murphy’s hardscrabble upbringing, and the saintly devotion with which he cares for his younger siblings and ailing mother. As a soldier, Murphy is a reluctant hero. He is shy with women, and he never smokes or drinks alcohol. He refuses battlefield promotions. But when the bullets start flying, he is the first one out of his foxhole. In battle after battle, from Sicily to France, Murphy’s selfless devotion to his comrades in Company B begins to look more and more like a suicidal death wish.

• • •


The initial protocol for this project specified that the pigs not be anesthetized during the impact of the round. The basic idea was to evaluate the squeal level as well as visual cues to determine its consciousness level because cardio and pulmonary measurements were deemed inadequate to evaluate consciousness. Testing without anesthesiology was abandoned after one trial test due to difficulty in handling the animal. Subsequent to trial run #002, all the animals were anesthetized with Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium) and the anesthesia maintained during the test and post-test period.

• • •

In the lulls between shooting sessions, a young man chugged across the firing range on a farm tractor to set up new targets and to drag away the burned-out hulks. Before my turn with the .50, he unchained an old Chrysler New Yorker directly in front of my position. The feverish clicking of ammunition loaders up and down the firing line indicated that the other shooters had noticed it as well.

The signal came and the line erupted. Every muzzle pointed at the Chrysler. In a matter of seconds its windows disintegrated and the taillights exploded. Ornamental chrome peeled off the body in curled strips and then tore away. I was afraid there would be nothing left for me.

Clenching the .50’s spade grips, I pressed the trigger button and drummed a burst through the Chrysler’s passenger door. Small bits of debris and pebbles quivered in suspended animation beneath the gun barrel. There was surprisingly little recoil, however, considering the size and power of a .50-caliber round, which is almost six inches long from tip to rim, and half an inch in diameter—four times the size of a full-power .30-caliber rifle cartridge.

Still from To Hell and Back. Courtesy Audie Murphy Research Foundation. More info can be found on

Objects hit with a .50-caliber round from a distance well in excess of a mile, whether from the Browning M2HB or a .50-caliber rifle of the type favored by US sniper teams fighting in Iraq, absorb a force equivalent to a car dropped from a height of four feet. Delivered on the tip of a projectile, that’s enough energy to turn a concrete block into a cloud of dust, or to bore clean through an engine block. Most small-caliber weapons—anything bigger than .50-caliber qualifies as a cannon—won’t pulverize a mud brick wall and kill whoever may be taking cover on the other side. That might explain why Ma Deuce has been mounted on every type of US vehicle since 1933, from Jeeps to Humvees.

• • •

To Hell and Back was released in 1955, a decade after Murphy had stood alone atop a burning tank in a cold forest somewhere in eastern France, beating back a ferocious German assault with a .50-caliber machine gun. It must have been difficult for Audie Murphy the man to play Audie Murphy the legend. He had no formal training as an actor. He was no Brando. There is no evidence in the movie of Murphy plumbing the depths of his psyche or finding his motivation. Audie Murphy assumes the role of Audie Murphy as if he had been given direct orders to do so. He soldiers dutifully from scene to scene with efficiency and reserve. If one were to take his performance at face value, charging a German machine gun emplacement was only moderately more dangerous than sitting down to dinner with a poor Italian family.

Halfway through the movie, Murphy’s platoon assaults a German-held farmhouse in the dusty Italian countryside. Under fire, the men crawl on their bellies to the farmhouse door and storm inside, killing Germans on the stairway. On the second floor, they clear a room with a grenade blast. The men burst into the room and Murphy levels his Tommy gun at a figure near the wall. A full-length mirror shatters and falls to the floor. After the men realize Murphy has shot his own reflection, one of them jokes that it was the first time he’d seen a Texan manage to “outdraw himself.” Murphy turns to the man and angrily warns him against telling the other men in the platoon what he has done. His voice shakes.

• • •

Results revealed 1) one pig out of four died instantly where the 0.55-inch foam was worn; all the pigs survived with the thicker foams; however, even with the 1.07-inch foam, one of four sustained bradycardia for 10 seconds post impact; 2) the pathological and physiological findings indicated the standoff foam used transmitted excessive pressure and caused the trauma noted above; and 3) the PVC standoff foam is highly rate sensitive, causing a threefold pressure increase for the rear surface velocity estimated in the tests.

• • •

I’d paid extra for incendiary ammunition, but the Chrysler’s sheet-metal skin was too thin to set it off. I had to hit something hard, like the frame or the engine block. I swiveled the .50 around and fired a burst into the roof pillar. It popped free in a white flash and a puff of smoke. The corner of the roof collapsed. The passenger door sagged on its bottom hinge, then flopped on the ground. The interior of the car was a smoldering heap of shredded foam and fabric. I cleared the ammunition box in one long burst, traversing the length of the Chrysler from bumper to bumper. The car disappeared for a moment in a flickering cloud of gray smoke. Orange flames licked at its rear quarter panel from somewhere underneath.

I stood up and dusted off my pants. The Chrysler was completely engulfed in fire, the reward of a job well done. It gave me a feeling of satisfaction to watch it burn. But the other shooters weren’t finished with it. They kept pumping rounds into the charred wreckage with homicidal gusto.

• • •

Audie Murphy’s war experiences troubled him throughout his life. An insomniac, he became addicted to sleeping pills. He was often difficult to get along with. He gambled away three million dollars he’d earned as an actor, thoroughbred horse breeder, and country-music songwriter. Two years before he was killed in a private plane crash, in 1971, he was tried and acquitted for attempted murder for his part in a fistfight.

Audie Murphy’s grave is the second-most visited site at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1960, he was honored with star #1558 on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, which is located at the corner of Vine Street and Selma Avenue, on the ground next to a bus-stop bench.

• • •

The findings of the Walter Reed veterinarians are at Appendix D.

The conclusions from the necropsy are quoted:

­At three layers of foam, there was evidence of marked skin bruising and pulmonary hemorrhages at the site of impact. At four layers, gross lesions were limited to skin bruising, and microscopically, pulmonary hemorrhages were of mild severity. At five layers, there were multifocal random microscopic pulmonary hemorrhages. All lesions are consistent with blunt trauma. Further studies to define the level of protection need not entail initial live animal studies.

Thirty-seven copies of Cabinet no.12 (“The Enemy”) shot twice by an armor-piercing .50-caliber rifle and twice by an incendiary .50-caliber rifle at 100 yards. The marksman, Wayne Gunter, attacked the issues at Knob Creek Shooting Range, West Point, Kentucky in October 2005 under the coaching of Erik Hord. Photos Steve Featherstone. Special thanks to Featherstone and Kenny Sumner.

The “Enemy” issue was chosen to be the subject of this ballistic experiment because, as Cabinet’s worst-selling issue of all time, huge numbers of extra copies remain in storage. This was probably the result of the issue’s conceptually interesting but visually lackluster cover. Its theme also made it an obvious candidate to be pummeled by large-caliber weaponry. Our remaining 719 copies can be purchased for DIY reenactments for $10 each. A “pre-shot” issue is available for a tax-deductible donation of $100.­­

Steve Featherstone is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. His work has appeared in Harper’s, Granta, and elsewhere.

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