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Various nations explored ways to deploy automatic rifles before the cosmopolitan fire team found a permanent home in the U.S. Marine Corps.

For more than half a century, the rifle squads of the U.S. Marine Corps have been organized with a leader and three four-man “fire teams.” These are not only larger than most other types of infantry squads (which rarely have more than eleven men) but are also more flexible. A “triangular” squad of three permanent and largely self-contained elements permits a greater number of possible configurations than a “binary” squad made up of two elements, or a “unitary” squad with no permanent subdivisions at all. This makes possible a larger tactical repertoire than would otherwise be the case. However, the thirteen-man squad and the fire team that makes it so powerful have their roots in Europe. In fact, over the last century, several very different military forces developed them for different reasons and with varying degrees of success well before the marines.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a team of engineers working for the Danish army invented a weapon that defied existing categories. Light enough to be carried by one man and fired from the shoulder, this “recoil rifle” (rekylgevaer) had much in common with the bolt-action magazine rifles of the day. At the same time, it was capable of fully automatic fire, the definitive characteristic of a machine gun. Almost immediately, military men began thinking about how best to deploy such a weapon. Being classified as a machine gun proved to be a considerable handicap for the new rifle. When armies around the world explored the possibility of acquiring it, they invariably tested it against the full-size machine guns then being offered for sale. Rather than regarding the rekylgevaer as the world’s first automatic rifle, military professionals of the day often described it as a machine gun that lacked the steady platform and capacity for sustained fire of its competitors.

The new weapon was not without prominent supporters, however. In 1901, the man who had built the earliest prototypes of the new weapon, Lt. Gen. W. H. O. Madsen, became the war minister of Denmark. The following year, the Danish armed forces adopted the “Madsen gun” (as soldiers in the English-speaking world were beginning to call it) as a standard weapon.

The initial concept of employment for the Madsen gun was as unusual as its design. In the first few years of the twentieth century, most armies grouped their machine guns in detachments that were modeled on the horse-drawn artillery batteries of the day. Armed with four, six, or even eight machine guns, these “batteries,” as they were called, were often assigned to cavalry divisions.

The Danish army, however, assigned its automatic rifles at a much lower level, allocating a squad armed with three Madsen guns to each squadron of mounted troops. (In European armies of the early twentieth century, a cavalry division was a formation of some five thousand horsemen, while a squadron was a unit of roughly one hundred fifty men.)

At first, the Madsen gun squads were bare-bones organizations, with a squad leader, three gunners, and a man to lead the packhorse that carried the extra ammunition. A few years later, four additional men (three assistant gunners and a man to lead a second packhorse) were added to the table of organization for the squad. This new nine-man squad was more robust than its predecessor; among other things, it could immediately replace any gunner lost in combat and its members could carry twice the ammunition of a five-man squad. At the same time, as all nine members of the squad were fully occupied with firing or feeding the Madsen guns, they had little ability to provide for their own security.

In 1912, Lt. Halvor Jessen, a young officer on the staff of Denmark’s Ministry of War, proposed a new type of Madsen gun squad that would solve the problem of local security. This squad, mounted on bicycles, would consist of a leader and three four-man teams. Within each team, one man was the leader; two men would handle the Madsen gun; and the fourth, armed with a bolt-action rifle, kept distractions at bay. (He also carried some of the additional ammunition that horse cavalry units loaded on pack animals.) According to Jessen’s plan, a platoon made up of four such squads would serve as a mobile blocking force. When an infantry division advanced, its commander would dispatch the Madsen gun platoon to hold bits of key terrain. If the division retreated, it would serve as the “rear guard of the rear guard,” covering the withdrawal of less mobile units.

By the standards of the first decade of the twentieth century, Jessen’s concept of a mobile automatic rifle unit was nothing short of revolutionary. At the time, most other infantry squads, including squads of bicycle infantry units and those made up of dismounted cavalrymen, were unitary organizations. That is, each consisted of a certain number of men (usually between eight and twelve) who messed, marched, moved, and fired as an unarticulated group. To this end, each squad was provided with but one leader, who might not even rank as a noncommissioned officer, and had no permanent subdivisions. By contrast, Jessen’s automatic rifle squads were triangular, made up of a squad leader and three regularly constituted subdivision elements, each of which had a clearly designated leader of its own.

Lieutenant Jessen’s experimental platoon soon fell victim to the success of its two main items of equipment, Madsen guns and bicycles. On the eve of World War I, the Danish infantry adopted the Madsen gun as its standard machine gun. At the same time, it began to convert some of its infantry battalions into bicycle units. Danish commanders could then improvise mobile blocking forces of their own, and saw little need to form a unit that was exclusively concerned with that role.

A few months later, the outbreak of World War I delivered the coup de grâce to Jessen’s automatic rifle platoon. Though Denmark declined to take sides in that conflict, the Danish army devoted the bulk of its efforts to building field fortifications, and there was little energy or attention to spare for improvements related to mobile operations.

Soon after becoming a footnote to Danish military history, the concept of a squad made up of three four-man automatic rifle teams found a new and highly unlikely home. In the spring of 1915, Erich von Falkenhayn, the de facto commander in chief of the German forces on the western front, concluded that trench warfare might last for quite some time. As a result, he asked one of the more creative members of his staff, an enigmatic Col. Max Bauer, to set up three large-scale experiments.

The first two experiments would eventually bear fruit in the “storm troop” tactics that would play such a large role in the latter years of World War I. The third was a pair of “musket” (Musketen) battalions, each of which consisted of thirty-six squads that were, for all practical purposes, identical to those proposed by Lieutenant Jessen. (In the days of muzzle-loading fire – arms, the English word “musket” had often been used to describe any shoulder arm designed to fire single bullets. The Ger man word Muskete, however, had been reserved for the heavier members of that category.)

How the German army managed to obtain a sufficient number of Madsen guns to arm the two Musketen battalions is something of a mystery. The Danish company that manufactured the Madsen gun has no record of sales to the German army. (Of course, any transfer of weapons from neutral Denmark to a belligerent would have been made under the table.)

Some argue that the Madsen guns were captured from the Russians, who had used the weapon as a cavalry machine gun for more than a decade. While this was in keeping with the common German practice of collecting, refurbishing, and reusing enemy weapons, documentary evidence of such captures is conspicuously absent.

Colonel Bauer’s concept for deploying his two Musketen battalions borrowed much from the work of Lieutenant Jessen. Like Jessen, Bauer envisioned his automatic rifle units as a means of rapidly occupying important pieces of ground and then using their superior firepower to defend those positions against substantially larger forces.

The environment for which Bauer’s mobile blocking units were designed, however, was very different from the one in which Jessen’s bicycle platoons were to have operated. Where the Danish unit was created for service in the (temporarily) empty ground that separated two fastmoving armies, its German counterparts were formed to dominate empty ground of another sort. Bauer knew that there was nothing he could do to stop the British or French from using artillery to pulverize a linear mile or so of German trenches, then sending in their infantry to occupy the former German position. The initial British attack at Neuve Chapelle on March 10, 1915, had proven that. He therefore optimized the Musketen battalions for the task of occupying ground on the shoulders of such a penetration, to prevent a dangerous break-in from becoming a catastrophic breakthrough.

The Musketen battalions eventually fell afoul of the same embarrassment of riches that had led to the demise of the Danish bicycle platoon. In the middle years of World War I, German forces acquired a considerable stock of machine guns. Toward the end of that period, moreover, an increasing number of these guns were considerably lighter than the standard full-size machine guns of the prewar years. By the start of 1918, when garden-variety infantry battalions had sixteen or more of the new light machine guns (particularly the cut-down Maxim gun known as the 08/15), the Ger – man army on the western front found itself with more than a thousand units that were capable of carrying out the mission that the Musketen battalions had been formed to fulfill. It is not surprising, then, that soon after the Germans completed the task of is suing light machine guns to infantry companies, they converted their Musketen battalions into units of other sorts.

The decade that followed World War I was a good one for automatic rifles. New models, such as the famous Browning automatic rifle, became available. Most Western-style armies, moreover, provided at least one of these weapons to a significant portion of their rifle squads. As only one man in each of these squads was needed to fire the automatic rifle, the other men invariably carried ordinary rifles. Nonetheless, the duties of these rifle-armed soldiers were fundamentally different from those of common rifle squads. Rather than using their rifles to inflict harm on their enemies, the riflemen of automatic rifle squads were chiefly concerned with transporting, feeding, and protecting their squad’s automatic rifle. In the rare instances where they used their own rifles, moreover, it was to preserve the squad’s chief weapon from firing unnecessarily and prematurely disclosing its position.

At first glance, the proliferation of automatic rifles in the period between the two world wars provided a golden opportunity for the revival of triangular squads of the type proposed by Lieutenant Jessen and created by Colonel Bauer. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear why no army of the interwar era attempted such a reform. In an era when the world was awash in weaponry left over from World War I, it was impossible for the military authorities of most countries to obtain the funds needed to buy large numbers of expensive weapons. Indeed, only the richest armies of the interwar period were able to provide each infantry squad with a single automatic rifle. The rest had to make do with a mixture of automatic rifle squads and squads made up entirely of men armed with bolt-action rifles.

The only interwar army to adopt a triangular structure for its squads was that of the Chinese Communists. However, the “three-by-three” framework of Chinese military units, in which three teams made a squad, three squads made a platoon, and three platoons made a company had nothing whatsoever to do with armament. Like most guerrilla organizations of the mid-twentieth century, the Chinese Communist forces were poorly supplied with automatic weapons of any description. Rather, they adopted the three-by-three structure for their military units because it matched the political structure of the Communist Party, the chief building block of which was the three-man cell.

In the late 1930s, Maj. Evans F. Carlson of the U.S. Marine Corps spent several months in China with a unit of Communist guerrillas. By the time he returned to the United States, he was filled with enthusiasm for the “three-by-three” system of military organization. In the spring of 1942, Carlson was given command of the 2nd Raider Battalion, a unit that had been raised to conduct commando-style raids on enemy-held islands in the Pacific. Seizing this opportunity to put his ideas into practice, Carlson divided the rifle platoons of his command into three ten-man squads. Each squad had a leader and three three-man “fire groups.” Within each fire group, Carlson armed one man with a Thompson submachine gun, the second with a Browning automatic rifle, and the third with one of the new M1 Garand rifles.

The great virtue of Carlson’s fire group system was the enormous volume of shortrange firepower that each ten-man squad could generate. Its great defect was the absence of any margin of error. Among other things, the loss of a single man left a fire group without the ability to carry its minimum load of ammunition.

A sister unit of Carlson’s battalion, the 1st Raider Battalion, solved this problem by dividing its squads into two four-man teams, each carrying a single automatic rifle and three Garands. Over the course of 1943, other marine units experimented with variations on these two basic approaches to the subdivision of infantry squads, with some preferring a squad made up of three three-man groups and others a squad of two four-man teams.

Toward the end of 1943, Gen. Thomas Holcomb, commandant of the Marine Corps, convened a board of officers to settle the matter of the ideal organization of marine infantry units. After deliberating for several weeks, the board decided that marine infantry units ought to enjoy the benefits of both the three-group squad and the four-man team. It therefore recommended the adoption of a triangular thirteen-man “rifle squad” that consisted of a leader and three four-man “fire teams.” Like the teams of Lieutenant Jessen’s bicycle platoon and Colonel Bauer’s Musketen battalions, each new fire team was to consist of a leader, an automatic rifleman, an assistant to the automatic rifleman, and a fourth man who was primarily concerned with the security of his comrades.

The only significant novelty in the new marine rifle squad was the stipulation that the fire team leader be given the rank of corporal, and thus the status of a full-fledged noncommissioned officer. By contrast, the leaders of the rifle teams in the Musketen battalions were Gefreiter, closer in status to a senior private.

In the half-century that followed World War II, the Marine Corps made the triangular squad a key feature of nearly every infantry unit it put in the field. During the same period, however, most of the world’s armies organized their infantry in very different ways, with squads made up of two identical fire teams, lopsided squads consisting of a small light machine gun team and a larger rifle team, and squads that had no subdivisions at all.

Ironically, one of the few advocates of the triangular squad outside of the U.S. Marine Corps was Lt. Gen. Franz Uhle-Wettler of the West German Bundeswehr. In the latter years of the cold war, Uhle-Wettler argued that light infantry units made up of thirteen-man, three-team infantry squads were an essential complement to the mechanized and armored divisions that NATO had placed along the border between East and West Germany. Though Uhle-Wettler never mentioned the Musketen battalions as a model for his concept, he was an accomplished historian of World War I.


Originally published in the Autumn 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here