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The General Purpose Machine Gun: The do-it-all gun

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You may have heard the term general-purpose machine gun or GPMG tossed around the military. What the heck is a general-purpose machine gun? It’s a mouthful for one, but it’s also one of the most prominent weapons used in the military, second only to the service rifle. The GPMG is an interesting concept that’s likely not going anywhere anytime soon. Even the light machine guns proposed in the Army’s NGSW contest are unlikely to replace the current GPMG.

For the United States, the general-purpose machine gun of choice is the M240. The M240B or Bravo is the most common variant, behind the newer, lighter, and more infantry-friendly M240L; L for lima, or light. The M240 is a belt-fed, fully automatic-only, gas-operated machine gun firing the 7.62 NATO round at 650 to 850 rounds per minute.

So what’s a general-purpose machine gun?

The GPMG chambers full-powered rifle round like the 7.62 NATO, the 7.62x54R, the 8mm Mauser, or similar cartridges. The weapon must be belt-fed and possesses a changeable barrel to provide sustained fire against the enemy.

general purpose machine gun
Belt feds rule!

What’s unique about the General Purpose Machine Gun is that it can fulfill numerous roles. It serves as a medium machine gun in the infantry and provides fire support and suppressive fire. It also can be used to man defensive positions with a variety of attachments.

It really is a general-purpose machine gun.

General Purpose Machine Guns are light enough for afoot patrol but capable enough to be used on a wide variety of vehicles. They can be easily mounted to a wide variety of vehicles, including trucks, MRAPs, JLTVs, and even tanks, AAVs, and various APCs.

machine gun on vehicle

Often these weapons can be modified to work better inside or atop vehicles with spade grips and the removal of the stock. You’ll find the GPMG mounted to helicopters, boats, and beyond.

GPMGs can commonly be used on bipods or on dedicated tripods.

Related: The weaponry of the future Marine Corps Rifle Squad explained

The history of the GPMG

The first general-purpose machine gun popped up in 1934 in Nazi Germany in the form of the MG 34. Lessons from World War I showed the importance of automatic fire and resolved the weight issues of WWI’s Maxim guns. The MG 34 stripped down the machine to a 26-pound hunk of metal capable of distributing 850 rounds of 8mm Mauser per minute.

Later on, the simpler MG 42 was developed to replace the MG 34, but both guns remained in production until the war’s end.

During the war, all sides learned of the importance of the GPMG. The United States had the Browning M1919, which excelled in some roles, but was cumbersome for infantry combat.

Nazi MG machine gun
A German MG machine-gun team.

The Russians experimented with various machine rifles, as did the Brits, Italians, and many others. However, the German use of the GPMG inspired practically every Allied post-war nation to develop their own General Purpose Machine Gun.

As a result, America developed the M60, the Russians built the PKM, the French the AA-52, and the Swiss and Italians copied the MG 42. Heck, to this day, the MG-3 is a modernized MG 42. Of all these guns, one stood out and stands out to this day, the Belgian FN MAG.

Related: The brutality of trench weapons in World War I

Notable general-purpose machine guns

FN MAG – The Belgian FN MAG might be the most capable GPMG on the list and the most popular. The FN MAG came to life in 1958 as a 7.62 NATO machine gun and became an instant hit. The Belgian firm FN designed the MAG with inspiration from various firearms, including the Browning BAR and the MG-42.

The Belgian FN MAG is an extremely popular general-purpose machine gun.

PKM – The Russian-made PKM has been largely exported to the former Eastern Bloc, China, and across Africa. It’s based on the Kalashnikov rifle and designed by a team led by Mikhail Kalashnikov. It’s one of the lightest medium machine guns out there, with a total weight of a little over 16 pounds.

The Russian PMK general-purpose machine gun.

MG5 – Developed by HK for the German military, the MG5 presents a modular option for the GPMG. Configurations allow it to shed weight for different roles, including mounted, universal, infantry, and special-forces use. It’s highly accurate and one of the most modern GPMGs in service.

The armies that use it

Everyone modern army in the world makes use of the GPMG. The Belgian FN MAG serves most of western Europe, North America, and large parts of South America, the middle east, and Asia. Dozens of different armed forces use it in various configurations. In the United States, the FN MAG is known as the M240.

The Russian PKM is mass-produced across the world and arms most of Eastern Europe, large swaths of the African continent, communist Asian countries, the Middle East, and anywhere Russia or China have influence.

The GPMG is as common as the modern assault rifle. As a concept, it provides long-range, sustained fire that can fit in nearly any role. From urban warfare to a dug-in defense, the GPMG rules. It rolls with infantry quads, mechanized units, on ships of all sizes, and up in the air with helicopters. They’ll be in any clime and place you can bring a gun.

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Travis Pike

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.