The American Soldier’s Loadout over the Past 100 Years

Meta: In today’s guide, we’re going to look at the American soldier’s equipment throughout history, with a particular focus on the firearms that they carried.


Warfare is constantly evolving, and some may argue that it leads to the largest leaps forward in science. The developments of the Second World War helped speed us towards space, and we’re still benefiting from the inventions that came to fruition throughout that massive conflict.

In this article, we’re going to take some time to look at how the average American soldier’s equipment has changed over the course of the past century. We’ll focus on each of the major wars that have (or haven’t, in the case of the Cold War) been fought from 1914 to the present day.

We’ll also take a look at the present day and some of the interesting developments that are being worked on so that we can give you an idea of where warfare is headed in the future.

World War I

The American Soldier of the First World War was equipped similarly to combatants from other nations, though they had a few key advantages. Their two main infantry rifles, the M1917 Enfield and the M1903 Springfield were both shorter than the full-length rifles used by many other armies.

This meant that troops were more maneuverable, and nearly every nation cut down the length of their base rifles after the conflict. As a sidearm, American soldiers were mostly equipped with the M1911, which went on to see service in many of the war’s that we’ll cover today.

World War II

World War II was a time of intense firearms development, and America was no exception to that rule. The US fielded a wide range of firearms ranging from the M1903 Springfield as a main infantry rifle to the Thompson SMG for assault and airborne units. The M1A1 carbine was a popular choice for officers and rear-echelon troops thanks to its pistol-caliber cartridge and smaller size.

A cheaper alternative to the Thompson was the M3 “Grease Gun,” which was a submachine gun made out of stamped metal. The most revolutionary American weapon of the war was the M1 Garand, as it made the USA the first country to ever equip its line troops with a semi-automatic rifle, greatly increasing their firepower.

The most common American machine gun of the war was the Browning M1919, which fired .30 caliber ammunition. However, some machine gun crews were even equipped with the M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun. On the squad level, some troops were equipped with the Browning Automatic Rifle, which fired from a 20-round box magazine.

Korean War

During the Korean War, American soldiers made use of much of the same equipment that they used during the Second World War. Following World War II, most combatants had a huge surplus of gear, so any further development was deemed excessive.

For this reason, a lot of the soldiers in the Korean War fought with M1 Garands and M1919 Browning machine guns. The larger, 3.5-inch Super Bazooka was perhaps the most significant upgrade and the only weapon that hadn’t also been used in World War II.

Vietnam War

By the time the Vietnam War began, American soldiers were starting to be equipped with more advanced weaponry. At the outbreak of the war, most soldiers had M14 battle rifles, but troops found them hard to control, and the ammunition was also too heavy to carry a significant amount.

Throughout the war, the US infantryman would be equipped with the M16 for the first time, which suffered from various teething troubles, including poor performance in adverse conditions. Other standout weapons from the Vietnam War include the M79 “Thumper” 40 mm grenade launcher and the M60 machine gun.

Late Cold War

During the later points of the Cold War, the United States Military experimented with various designs, but most of these weapon competitions led to no new models. Instead, the armed forces went through a few different iterations of the M16, which by then had proven itself.

In 1984, the M60 was replaced in its role as the primary light machine gun of US troops by the M249, which was developed from the Belgian Minimi by FN. The transition from 7.62 mm NATO to 5.56 mm meant that gunners could carry more ammunition without weighing themselves down.

The Gulf War

The Gulf War saw further use of existing weapons systems by US Soldiers, and the M16 was used extensively and supplemented by its carbine variant, the M4. The M14 EBR variant was also used heavily by designated marksman units during the conflict.

This was the first war in which the M249 was used extensively, and it proved itself rather admirably. Even then, the machine gun was rarely used in maneuvering warfare, as it was mostly used from static positions like machine gun nests.

Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States Army further downsized their inventory of M16 rifles, slowly transitioning to the M4 carbine. Due to the length of these conflicts, there were a few weapon systems that were developed over the course of them, including the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System.

As a vehicle mount, the Mk 19 grenade machine gun has seen more and more use due to its effectiveness against guerilla fighters. As for sidearms, the M1911 has been nearly completely replaced by the M9, which is based on the 92FS pistol from Beretta.

Present Day and Near Future

Weapons development hasn’t progressed as far as many people would expect in recent years due to the effectiveness of the existing systems. The cost of rearming each regiment in the US Army far outweighs the marginal benefits of them using guns newer than the current M4s and M249s.

Military development is now focusing on the integration of communication and battlefield intelligence technologies so that soldiers can more easily share info with each other. The ability to quickly and effectively communicate in a warzone promises to save more lives than a replacement gun ever could.


Thank you for taking the time to read through our guide to the American soldier’s equipment throughout recent history. Keep in mind that this is by no means comprehensive, as we could write about a subject like this for far longer. Feel free to let us know what you think of this short guide down below.

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