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Two-wheeled terrors: Motorcycles and the military

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Even though the hobby has been co-opted by suburbanites, the concept of two-wheel, cabless vehicles racing down the highway will always be cool. Motorcycles have been used by military forces ever since the first two-wheeled terror graced the roads. Today we are going to take a look at military motorcycles throughout the decades.

Pancho Villa and Black Jack Pershing

Pancho Villa is credited with the first military use of motorcycles. The man fought a revolution and quickly recognized the capabilities of the motorcycle. Villa’s forces used the Indian Powerplus as a hit-and-run machine.

After Villa hit a city in New Mexico, the U.S. Army dispatched General Black Jack Pershing to pursue Pancho, and with him, he took trucks, planes, and motorcycles.

Pershing’s boys rode J Model Harleys that could reach 60 miles per hour. They were light, agile, and faster than most vehicles at the time. Perhsing’s forces also had machine gun-equipped sidecars that acted as mobile-gun platforms for fast pursuits. His campaign proved the military application of motorcycles, and it’s what sent them to World War I.

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Military motorcycles in World War I

The first motorcycles used in WWI were the British Douglas Triumph and the German NSU and TWN. Interestingly enough, Triumph and TWN had the same manufacturer and owner, but one was British-based, and one German based. America entered the war in 1917 and the U.S. military brought with it motorcycles from Indian, Harley Davidson, and Excelsior.

The British did mount some machine guns to their motorcycle sidecar to make mobile-gun platforms but primarily used the vehicle to replace horses as mobile messengers. The Germans used them as messenger vehicles but also experimented with turning their horse-bound cavalry to motorcycle-bound cavalry, although it didn’t quite work.

The U.S. used them for everything: as messenger bikes, mobile gun platforms, scout and recon vehicles, and even mobile ambulances that hauled a soldier or two off the battlefield. World War I cemented the mounted soldier on a motorcycle.

World War II

By World War II, everyone was using motorcycles. They were used for many purposes, including scouting, messenger delivery, as mobile gun platforms, and more.

The Allies had the Welbike, a folding motorcycle designed by the British for their paratroopers. The Welbike would be dropped with the troopers, be unfolded and put together, and then ridden into battle.

The Welbike was a purpose-built British military motorcycle. (Creative Commons)

The Germans had the Sonderkraftfahrzeug 2, also known as the Sd.Kfz.2, which is tough to type either way. This can barely be considered a motorcycle. It features two rear tracks and a front that is motorcycle-like. It was considered a light tractor for airborne troops and could fit in a Junker Ju 52 aircraft. They were used on the Eastern Front to lay cable, pull heavy loads, and even transport soldiers.

The Sonderkraftfahrzeug 2

Related: Letters to Loretta: Life in German POW camp Stalag 17B

Vietnam War

Jungles are a tough place to use motorcycles and their use was rather limited by American forces. However, they were widely used by military police as they allowed military police to patrol large bases. Motorcycles would zip through an area more easily than a Jeep or large truck. The lightweight, easy-riding motorcycles were handy quick-response vehicles on large bases and in the urban cities of South Vietnam.

An M.P. riding a motorcycle during the Vietnam War era.

Gulf War

Delta Force had two tasks during the Gulf War: work as the personal security details for Stomin’ Norman Schwarzkopf and hunt Scud missiles.

Although we don’t have much information on the latter mission, Delta Force used Humvees, planes, and a mix of dirt bikes to hunt for Scuds. Unfortunately, due to the Unit’s secretive nature, we don’t know how many and what type of motorcycles they used.

Related: How US Special Operations Forces helped win the Gulf War

Military motorcycles in the Global War on Terror and beyond

Motorcycles are still used by the U.S. military but mostly by special operations units and typically for some very limited tasks.

Motorcycles can deliver small teams quickly over harsh terrain and allow troops to move with a lower profile than a vehicle. Air Force Special Operations Command reportedly uses mini bikes to survey airfields quickly and efficiently as the use of trucks could cause damage to some runways.

Two known modern motorcycles used by special operations units are the Kawasaki M1030 and the Christini AWD. These are both diesel bikes that can use JP-8 fuel, which is common throughout the military; this allows for the simplification of logistics. Although they are rarely used, these motorcycles are handy when needed.

Two-wheel terrors

Motorcycles have always been niche military vehicles. They are small, light, fast, and often easy to maneuver in rough environments. This gives them a number of advantages over other vehicles and they aren’t likely to be replaced anytime soon.

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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.