4 Sailors v. New England Arms

This case involved an M-1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) which was manufactured for World War II.  The rifle was part of a ship’s armament and was being fired off the fantail for training.  It was loaded and set down; and promptly began an unattended runaway of all 20 rounds, chopping up the legs of 4 sailors before running dry.

After a long legal process, courts held that New England Arms, the successor to the company that made the BAR (and more than 180,000 others during 1942 to 1944) could be held liable.  Over a period of more than a year, no one (including various civilian experts and the Crane Naval Weapons Depot) could solve the problem.  Both sides approached Department of the Army for assistance.  DA bucked it to the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, where I was an Assistant Professor at the time.  I was given permission to take the case in my personal capacity.  I came in to assist the Plaintiffs.

Upon examining the subject BAR (in front of assembled multitudes of attorneys) it took less than 5 minutes to find that the nose of the sear, and the sear engagement notch on the bolt carrier, were both chipped off.  This damage allowed the BAR to appear to function normally but, if loaded and cocked (the BAR fires from an open bolt); a jostling would allow the bolt carrier to over-ride the sear, go forward and fire the weapon.  Thus, I dry replicated the incident .  Another 15 minutes and I figured out that the trigger group could be re-assembled in such a way that one leaf of the 3-leaf trigger spring could be incorrectly positioned.  This incorrect positioning reduced the amount of sear engagement which, over time, would lead to the damage in question.  I was able to replicate this, both dry and live, on  exemplar BAR’s.

I was deposed and the case was eventually settled, with the 4 maimed sailors receiving compensation.