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US Army M274 ‘Mechanical Mule’

A vehicle does not have to be particularly large in order to pack a knockout punch with its weaponry. Nor does it have to be armoured to destroy an armoured vehicle which is many times greater than itself. An example to prove these points was provided recently by my old friends of the American Infantry Preservation Society re-enactment group who turned up at an event with an M274 ‘Mechanical Mule’ on to which they had mounted an M40 106mm calibre RCL. The recreation was based on an actual version designed to produce a weapon platform. The effect was incredible and attracted a great deal of attention.

The M274 Mechanical Mule entered service with the US Army in 1956 and the combination recreated by the AIPS was based on a variant known to have been used during the Vietnam War. Around 11,240 vehicles were built by various companies, including Willys and Bowen- McLaughlin-York, in six variants until production was stopped in 1970. Of this figure, it is estimated that around 5000 Mechanical Mules were lost during the Vietnam War. This low survival figure makes the Mechanical Mule rather a rare vehicle to own.

The Mule measures 11 feet and 10 inches in length, and four feet two inches in width and height and weighs only 795 pounds, making it no problem to store in an averagesized garage. It is a 4X4 vehicle capable of carrying payloads up to half a ton, which during the Vietnam War was useful for carrying ammunition and other supplies. During its development programme, extensive field trials were conducted in Florida where it demonstrated its worth as a workhorse for cargo carrying loads, evacuating wounded stretcher cases and its versatility by serving as a platform for mounting weapons.

Built to Last

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During the Vietnam War the Mule became an iconic image running around with supplies for troops either at fire bases or airfields. The type of engine fitted depended on the variant, but mostly the vehicle was powered by an air-cooled, petrol driven Continental-Hercules which provided a top speed of 25mph on roads. Its weight and size meant it could be carried under-slung by helicopters or internally by larger types and even air-dropped by parachute. It was useful in rough terrain, but with a ground clearance of only 12 inches it could not negotiate cross-country terrain. It has an operation range of over 100 miles and can negotiate water obstacles up to 18 inches deep. The vehicle also proved itself an ideal platform on which to mount quite heavy weapons such as .50 inch calibre machine guns and even TOW anti-tank missiles.These configurations would allow it to operate as a mobile fire support vehicle if a base was under attack.

They were never intended to operate out in the open to accompany a patrol, but on base they were nimble little things quickly deployed to points, carrying ammunition for its weapon configuration where they were needed the most. They could tow trailers and recoilless rifles RCLs. The AIPS configuration of their Mechanical Mule mounting an M40 106mm RCL is identical to those versions seen in photographs taken during the Vietnam War.

Fifth Wheel

One of the unusual aspects of the vehicle is the ability to move the steering column into different positions to permit the driver to operate it seated or even lying flat if under fire. The AIPS sometimes demonstrate this at shows, as well as using it to carry troops just as it would have done in Vietnam. As part of a static display on the Vietnam War it enhances other items of kit and presence of a Mechanical Mule helps depict the period, even when shown in the role of laying telephone cables or loaded with cargo. The design went on to inspire a number of similar developments for other armies including the Austrian ‘Haflinger’ and the Russian LuAZ-967.

Owning a Mule

Today the M274 Mechanical Mule is popular with vehicle owners and it can be insured with companies specialising in such vehicles. Spare parts are no problems and most items can be obtained on specialist sites on the internet. There is an ‘appreciation’ site with a forum and history pages at: www. mechanicalmulesofamerica.com. Occasionally they do come up for sale, but looking at the details they are very popular and do not take long to sell. In fact, a recent example in good condition and with no missing parts was offered at 8000 Euros and was very quickly bought. Mechanical Mules sometimes turn up at big vehicle shows where the owners use them as ‘runarounds’ and to carry essentials for the weekend. Despite its diminutive size, this is a serious vehicle and one which deserves its share of credit


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