Belt-fed. It’s a fun term, and it’s my favorite type of weapon. Call it my machine gunner mentality or a reflection of the joys of going cyclic; just don’t call me late for ammo resupply. As a machine gunner (from whence came the term belt-fed machine gun), I have loved belt-fed firearms with a fierce and terrible love for many years.
I handled my fair share of these guns in my time as a Marine, but we’re not here to talk about that. Well, much. Today we are talking all about what the term means, the history of these guns, and how it applies outside of the world of firearms.
What does it Mean?
Well, the title kind of explains it. A belt-fed weapon is a weapon that uses a belt of ammunition linked together. This is usually, though by no means always, a belt-fed machine gun. Ammunition is inserted into a series of links, and the links can be connected to form a belt. This belt then feeds into the weapon and is continually fed through the gun. The most common of those is a set of feed pawls. These feed pawls use the cycling of the action to activate and pull the belt through the weapon.
Therefore, the belt feeds through the gun as the weapon fires.
Why Go Belt Fed?
Most firearms in the civilian market are magfed, thus limited to the capacity of a single magazine. Theoretically, a belt of ammo could feed a weapon forever. There is no set capacity with most modern weapons that use belts. Belts of ammo can be linked together to provide however long a belt the gunner wants (until of course, the barrel melts or the weapon suffers a malfunction).
In the military, machine guns provide fire support. They fire fully automatic only, which consumes more than a bit of ammunition. Machine guns lay down suppressive fire, and the less time someone spends reloading, the more time they spend putting down suppressive fire. This makes belt-fed weapons the leading choice for suppressive fire and fire support.
Way Back When
How long have belt-fed weapons been around? Likely longer than you know. Surprisingly the first gun to use a belt came from the Brits in 1855. The Treeby rifle (or Treeby chain gun) was a chain-fed weapon. Not the typical belt, but something similar. The chain was interconnected, and a rotating sprocket wheel operated by the hammer moved the chain.
Two were initially developed. One used a 30-round chain, and one used a 14-round chain. The rifle could fire an entire chain of 30 shots in 90 seconds. The Brits considered it a defensive turret gun but rejected it due to the lower-powered charge.
Not surprisingly (at least to anyone who has played an M60, M240, or Stoner MG across the faces of bad actors), the first belt-fed machine gun came from the United States. This weapon came in the form of the Bailey Machine Gun. This wasn’t a machine gun the way we’d define it today, but rather a crank fire design similar to the Gatling gun.
Fortune L. Bailey designed the weapon in 1874, and a working model was built by Winchester the following year. That weapon used multiple barrels, just like a Gatling gun. These early belts held 100 rounds and did not eject the brass but could be reloaded and used. The Bailey gun used a .32 caliber rifle round and, in testing, achieved a firing rate of 1,000 rounds per minute.
During testing by the Navy, it was determined Bailey didn’t bring enough belts, but they allowed him to demonstrate the weapon. The first belt worked fine, but the next belt couldn’t be loaded. So the Navy didn’t consider the weapon after that, and it seems to have largely faded away.
Introducing the Maxim
Twelve years later, the first proper belt-fed machine gun changed the world. The Maxim machine gun premiered in 1886, and a new standard was set.
After the Maxim, the belt-fed machine gun became the military standard for fire support weapons. Machine guns with belts served throughout both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the GWOT, and to this day.
Note: there is a video on Military.com of Ukrainian soldiers training with Maxim guns on the range.
Not Just the Belt Fed Machine Gun
As we established, the first belt-fed weapon wasn’t a machine gun but a rifle. Several chain rifles were experimented with, but so was a chain revolver. The Josselyn Chain Pistol used a 20-shot belt that fed and moved due to the action from the hammer.
It seems only one of these pistols was produced, or at least only one survived.
Let’s move out of history and talk about modern weapons. A company called Ares developed an upper receiver for the AR-15 or M4 pattern rifles that feed on belts. Originally this weapon was called the Shrike. Then, Ares became Fightlite, and the Shrike became the MCR. Regardless, it’s an upper for the AR 15 that uses a belt, and you can buy one today if you want.
Freedom Ordnance also developed a 9mm rifle called the FM-9. The FM-9 brings belt-fed to the PCC world and is all kinds of cool. Companies have also produced semi-auto belt-fed rifle variants of the M249 and the M240.
The Many Types of Belts
Disintegrating belts are the most modern form. These are made from metal links that hold cartridges together. There have been experiments with polymer links, but I’m not sure they’ve ever been widespread or even adopted officially.
The links are separated from the cartridge when fed through the gun, and the belt essentially falls apart. It disintegrates, if you will. This makes the system more disposable and allows a gunner to connect belts together.
Non-Disintegrating belts stick together and can be reloaded and reused much easier. They also require the user to grab the belt, pack it out, and reload it. It seems more economical, but these thin pieces of metal can be damaged easily, and when damaged, they tend to be tougher to fix.
The Pulemyot Kalashnikova series of weapons, including the PKM, use a non-disintegrating belt.
Belt Fed As a Term
Belt-fed often refers to machine guns or guns in general. That doesn’t mean the term’s exclusive to firearms. Members of the military adopted the term belt-fed, and depending on when and where you served; the term might mean different things to you.
We see the term belt-fed to describe uptight members of the military who often yell and make a big deal out of nothing. Most famously, the 1st Recon guys from Generation Kill describe their Sgt Major as belt-fed when he polices their mustaches.
In my experience, the term applied to troops who were a little too moto. When your team leader seems too enthusiastic about clearing rooms, or your LT starts oorahing and hooahing a little too much, you refer to them as “belt-fed.”
Both seem to be apt descriptions that make sense when you look at what a machine gun does.
Belt-fed is just one more solution to solving (or labeling) a problem.
About the Author:
Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and lifelong firearms enthusiast turned regular guy. Now that he no longer works the 240B like Charlie Parker did his sax across the “Graveyard of Empires” he likes to write, shoot, and find ways to combine both activities. A self-proclaimed tactical hipster with an unhealthy flannel shirt addiction, Travis holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is the world’s okayest firearms teacher. You can connect with him on Insta if you’re so inclined, @travis.l.pike.