The M249 Machine Gun: An Overview

In today’s post, we are going to take a look at a weapon that every infantry Soldier will be familiar with…the M249 machine gun. The goal is to educate any of you who are not familiar with this weapon that is used by a huge percentage of infantry units. We will look at the history, the design, pros and cons, and other factors that make this the primary light machine gun used by the United States Army.


During the Vietnam era, the primary machine guns that were used by the Army were the M2 Browning and the M60. Both of these machine guns are very heavy with the M2 being used only in fixed placements (mounted on a vehicle or another fixed location). The M60 could be carried, but normally took 2 Soldiers to operate it efficiently.

Situations sometimes called for a high rate of automatic fire to help cover troops who were moving from point A to point B. In many cases, M2s or M60s were not available, so some Soldiers were ordered to set their M14s on fully auto to fulfill the need.

M14s were not designed with full auto in mind for extended periods of time. They would overheat and also jam when they were most needed. The other issue was that a 30 round magazine just wouldn’t last very long when firing at full automatic.

The same conditions were evident with the new M16s also. The Army realized they needed a lightweight machine gun that could be handled by one Soldier, and could provide the efficiency that wasn’t seen in the full auto modes of the basic service weapons.

The planning started. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s many ideas were considered. The thought was to use the new 5.56 mm rounds that were being used by many other forces worldwide, but many believed these rounds just did not have the power needed. Between the ammo, and finding a prototype, many different options were tested.

The decision was finally made in 1980 to go with a design that was adapted from a weapon that was already being used by other forces. A Belgian company by the name of Fabrique Nationale had been manufacturing the FN Minimi since 1975. Using a similar idea, a company that is a subsidiary of Fabrique Nationale, FN Manufacturing LLC in South Carolina started producing the M249. What many people do not know is that this same manufacturer also makes the M16, M1900 series pistols, the Uzi, the M2, and a wide supply of many other firearms.

Wars And Conflicts The M249 Has Been Used In

The M249 has been used by the United States Army and other branches of service in all of the following conflicts or wars:

  • The Invasion Of Panama in 1989

  • The Gulf War in 1990

  • UNITAF in 1992

  • The Bosnian War in 1992

  • The Kosovo War in 1998

  • The War in Afghanistan in 2001 and still happening

  • The Iraq War in 2003

  • And now the ever growing ISIS issue

The Operation Of The M249

The M249 is a gas operated and open bolt light machine gun. Ammo is belt fed and belt boxes are attached to the underside of the weapon. Belts are either 100 or 200 round feeds. The barrel is air cooled and in some conditions, it can become quite hot.

The barrel was designed to be quick and easy to change. It also comes equipped with a folding bi-pod. The M249 uses the 5.56×45 mm NATO rounds which have been greatly improved providing better “knockdown” power. One of the designs that some do not realize is: the M249 has the ability to use M16 magazines also. This means that a Soldier has other options if he/she has run out of ammo belts. Here are some basic figures:

  • Length-just under 41 inches

  • Weight-about 22 pounds with a 200 round box of ammo

  • Maximum effective range-Approximately 3200 feet

  • Rate of fire in a sustained stage is 85 rounds per minute

  • Cost is just under $4,100

Other Versions

As commanders saw need, there were adaptations to the M249 which gave us some other versions. The most noteworthy ones were:

  • The M249 PIP (Product Improvement Program). This M249 came with a lighter plastic stock, a pistol grip and a flash suppressor.

  • The M249 PARA. This was designed for paratroopers and had a sliding butt to make it more compact.

  • The M249 SPW. This was designed for special forces. It was all about being as light as possible. The carrying handle was removed, along with vehicle mounts and the magazine well.

  • The MK46 and MK48 were extreme designs. The 46 had rails adapted and varying barrels. The 48 was designed for the larger 7.62×51 mm ammo.

Many different world armed forces use these weapons either straight from the company, or they are counterfeits using the M249 design.

If a person has the proper licensing, they can order a M249 direct from the manufacturer here.

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Pros And Cons

The M249 has been in service for many years. Some feel that it is outdated. The United States Marines have began to look at other options with their primary testing being done on the M27 automatic rifle.

Many in the United States Army feel the M249 is wonderful. It is light and provides the desired effects when laying down cover fire.

One of the main issues that has been ongoing is in the Middle East desert like conditions, the M249s have a tendency to jam from the sand that regularly blows in storms. It also can overheat quite easily forcing Soldiers to change barrels often. It has been noted that the weapons also have a problem with rusting.

The Army has been overseeing refurbishing many of the M249s. The Army has purchased a supply of Heckler and Koch manufactured HK416s for testing purposes, but it has been agreed that these will not take over the work of the M249s.


I ran across this video online of a demonstration of the M249. Enjoy, and please overlook some of the bad language.

Final Thoughts

I would love to hear your opinion on the M249. Do you think it is still a feasible weapon that our infantry should use? Have you shot one? Please give your opinions in the comment section below.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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1 thought on “The M249 Machine Gun: An Overview”

  1. Very, very interesting! I don’t know much about guns but I would like to learn more. At least about the basic, self defense type ones. It’s so cool that you know all this, and in such detail, too. Great post.

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