Motorcycles in the U.S. Military
The military has always used modern advancements in technology to gain the advantage. In the early 1900’s, America was leading the world in motorcycle technology. So, it’s no surprise that the U.S. Military has taken advantage of the speed and agility of our favorite two-wheel machines throughout history in wartime efforts.
Motorcycles were first utilized during the Mexican Revolution. During the “Border War,” Pancho Villa and his troops were on the run on horseback along the border. The U.S. Military, under the leadership of General “Blackjack” Pershing, sent troops on Harley-Davidson motorcycles to run them down.
World War I brought about the first wide scale use of motorcycles in the military. 80,000 Indian motorcycles and 20,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles were ordered for the war. Entire infantry units were mobilized on motorcycles in the trench warfare. Motorcycles were utilized in combat loaded with a variety of features such as machine guns and stretchers to transport wounded soldiers. However, the military found their greatest use was their speed for reconnaissance missions, security patrols, and communication in delivering messages such as orders between units.
Indian was originally the leading motorcycle manufacturer in the world. They introduced the Indian Powerplus Big Twin in 1916 for military use and dedicated the majority of company production to support the war. At the time, Indian motorcycles were faster and outperformed Harley-Davidson models. Unfortunately, Indian failed to transition well back into the civilian market after the war ended.
Harley-Davidson did a great job of winning loyal customers through their military partnerships. Although they initially received fewer orders than Indian, they beat them in the end through leveraging strategy. Harley-Davidson began training Army mechanics through their, “Quartermaster School, “which evolved into the Harley-Davidson University that exists today. Army mechanics learned to work on Harley motorcycles, which kept them loyal to the brand following the war.
The motorcycle used in the Great War was the Harley-Davidson Model 17F/J. It was powered by Harley’s 61-cubic-inch F-head engine producing 15 horsepower. The 3-speed transmission made it simple to ride. The motorcycles were custom designed and modified for war with features such as medical stretchers, sidecars, shields, and machine guns.
By World War II, Harley-Davidson was leading the American motorcycle industry. They continued to upgrade designs for faster, more powerful bikes. In 1940, they introduced the WLA aka “The Liberator.” The design was taken from the popular WL civilian model and upgraded for military use. The WLA was equipped with a 45” flat-head motor. It was fast, repairs were simple, and it could take a beating. It was popular to see these models carrying holsters for the Thompson submachine gun. 70,000 WLA’s were ordered for American and Soviet troops.
Indian was still around for WWII and produced 1,000 Model 841 Motorcycles specialized for fighting in the desert.
In 1945 the Germans introduced the BMW R71 featuring game-changing technology that captured the attention of the world. Unfortunately benefitting the Nazis, the bike featured a 750cc engine with a side-valve motor and shaft combo that gave them a distinct advantage in speed, performance, and durability. U.S. soldiers were so envious of the technology that they captured a few of the BMW’s and brought them home where Harley-Davidson reverse-engineered the design. The result was the Harley-Davidson XA.
The Harley-Davidson XA was a shaft-driven motorcycle with telescoping forks that was more advanced than any American-manufactured bike in that era. Unfortunately, the XA never saw a day on the battlefield, because the Jeep became the vehicle of choice for the military.
When troops returned home, they were buying the military Harley-Davidson WLA’s. They had no use for the excess military features, so they chopped them off. This is where the “chopper” derived its name. Military comrades organized together in the 1950’s and biker culture was born.
After WWII, motorcycles would never again be used at the mass level by the military. Advancements in communication technology rendered them unnecessary for transporting messages. The military would continue to use motorcycles on a smaller scale for specialized operations.
In 1987, Harley-Davidson bought the rights to the Armstrong MT500, which was a British dual sport motorcycle. Harley produced a 500 and a 350 model for use in the Falklands War and Desert Storm, as well as NATO forces. The single-cylinder 482cc Rotax four-stroke produced 32hp making it a blast to ride on any terrain. It was used for recon missions in Operation Desert Storm because of its speed and ability to withstand diverse conditions. The only downside was it ran on gasoline, when diesel fuel would have been more convenient in that region.
In the late 80’s, the military found it more convenient to utilize the Kawasaki KLR650 (military modified as the M103M1) since it would basically run on anything you put in the gas tank. You could burn diesel or jet fuel at 96 miles per gallon.
Modern warfare has changed drastically over the past century. It’s hard to believe that just 100 years ago, soldiers were still charging into battle on horseback. Today, motorcycles still have their place in specific military operations.
Special Forces utilizes a small number of Zero XXm electric motorcycles made by Zero Motorcycles of Santa Cruz, California. They are black, stealth, and virtually silent; perfect for getting in and getting back out quickly, while undetected. They deliver 54hp and require no maintenance. One battery charge lasts over 3,500 hours! The Zero motorcycles have been used for recon missions, rescues, and covert operations.
We won’t likely ever see motorcycle orders in the tens of thousands again for military use, but our favorite two-wheel machines will always have their historical role in the armed forces. To all the brave soldiers who have faced combat of any kind, we salute you.