Military culture is different from mainstream culture, and predictably, military cultures around the world are different from American military culture. However, there seems to be one tradition every military culture keeps, and that’s nicknames. Specifically, nicknames for gear. I’ve trained with a half dozen different military forces. In that time, I learned we all love nicknaming equipment. From trucks to rifles, they all earn some alternative name. Today we are going to look at the nicknames for service weapons, specifically American service weapons over time.
The art of nicknames
Nicknames are given to various weapons for various reasons. Sometimes it’s reflective of the weapon’s name or its capabilities. Sometimes it’s a term of endearment, and sometimes it’s most certainly not. Nicknames only stick if there is an element of truth to them, and that’s why the following seven service weapons have nicknames that are so memorable.
M1 Thompson – “Tommy Gun”
The Thompson submachine gun had lots of nicknames. My favorite is “Chicago Typewriter,” but that was a name given to it by gangsters. The term “Tommy Gun” might have also been one of its many gangster nicknames, but it stuck throughout the gun’s military service. General John T. Thompson designed and sold the weapon, so it bore his name as was the tradition in those years.
Soldiers could call it the M1, but there was already an M1 Carbine and M1 Garand, and Thompson sounded much too appropriate. “Tommy Gun” seemed to fit just right. It rolls off the tongue and lends a blue-collar touch to the name.
Two things of note should be mentioned. The Thomspon was also called the “Trench Broom” in World War One. That nickname didn’t necessarily stick after we left the trenches. Second, the name Tommy was also slang for a British soldier, and the Brits certainly used the Thomspon, so if you see Tommy with a Tommy, you know what they mean.
The M3A1 Submachine Gun – “The Grease Gun”
One good turn deserves another, and the same goes for WW2-era submachine guns. The M3A1 and M3 submachine guns gained the famous “Grease Gun” moniker quickly after their adoption. The reason being is that they resembled the mechanic’s tool. Grease Gun has become such a popular moniker it’s more recognizable than just M3.
The M3 series of guns are designed to provide a cheaper alternative to the Thompson. It used stamped and welded steel and had a rather crude appearance compared to the Thompson. It was a ‘tube’ gun in many respects, much like the Sten gun. Although, it was certainly more robust than any Sten gun.
Industrial looks earn industrial nicknames, and the M3’s nickname was right on the money.
M2 Machine Gun – “Ma Deuce”
The M2 Machine gun came from the brilliant mind of John Browning at the end of World War 1. America wanted a heavy machine gun to kill the early tanks, and they got it. It turns out by the time the M2 entered service, tanks could take a burst of .50 cal. rounds without issue. However, a heavy machine gun could defeat lightly armored targets, destroy hardcover, and lay down long-range fires on infantry forces.
The name Ma Deuce is a very affectionate name given to the M2. Everyone loves the M2, and as a machine gunner, I loved blasting away with this beast. “Ma Deuce” clearly plays on the M and 2 in M2 machine gun. That is obvious, but my School of Infantry instructor explained it thusly, “We call her ‘Ma Deuce’ because she’s your second mom, and she’ll take care of you.”
M60 Machine Gun – “The Pig”
America’s first general-purpose machine gun served from 1957 up into the 1980s when the M240 was introduced. The M60 served as an infantry machine gun and slugged its way through the jungles of Vietnam, Operation Just Cause, and the Persian Gulf War. To this day, it serves in limited roles with numerous American forces.
As far as nicknames go, “The Pig” might be the most appropriate. Belt-fed machine guns are loud, greedy, and rather large. The title Pig fits perfectly, and it became a popular weapon among troops in Vietnam. It wasn’t without its problems, but it was fairly lightweight for a medium machine gun and easily maneuverable. The Pig was certainly a beloved pet to the infantryman.
M1895 Colt-Browning Machine Gun – “The Potato Digger”
The M1895 Colt-Browning Machine gun was a very early example of an automatic weapon. Marines famously used these in the Spanish-American war to invent the concept of maneuvering riflemen while machine guns suppressed the enemy. The design was fascinating and ties back to Browning’s lever-action rifle designs, believe it or not.
Potato Digger became the favored title of the M1895 due to its operating lever working much like that on a lever-action rifle. With every shot, it swept forward and down and back again. This exposed mechanism would dig holes if held close to the ground. Thus, the M1895 earned the name “Potato Digger.” Dan Daly earned one of his Medals of Honor wielding a Potato Digger, and as far as nicknames go, it was an affectionate one.
The M16A4 – “The Musket”
By the time the M16A4 entered armories, large portions of the Marine Corps and Army adopted the M4. This led the M16A4 to being a big long rifle in a field of carbines. As such, the M16A4 earned many nicknames, but the one that stuck was The Musket. It’s easy to see why.
First, muskets are known for being big, long guns, and the M16A4 certainly fit that description compared to the M4. Second, muskets are old guns, and the M16A4 was certainly seen as “old” up against newer designs. The term Musket was one of both derision and of appreciation. It’s affectionate– but like little brother affectionate, not girlfriend affectionate.
Maxim MG08 – “The Devil’s Paintbrush”
I saved the best for last. Not the best service weapon necessarily, but the best nickname. Man, soldiers in World War 1 went extra with their nicknames, and calling the Maxim MG08 the “Devil’s Paintbrush” is certainly extra. The Maxim operated as the world’s first true machine gun.
In World War 1 every military involved in the conflict wielded the Maxim Gun or a variation of it. In battle, the MG08 proved extremely effective, and the amount of ammo it put out was brutal. It could move from the right to the left and left to right, spraying an area with bullets. Maxim Guns are a major part of what created the concept of “No Man’s Land” between two adversaries’ trenches, and it’s easy to see why soldiers of the time called it the Devil’s Paintbrush.
The world of nicknames
Nicknames are an awesome way to cement the legacy of a service weapon. What’s unique is that they come from the bottom down, from the individual soldiers wielding the weapons in combat. High-level officers might get to choose official names for service weapons, but Joe gets to choose its real name.