The History of Military Motorcycles in the US Armed Forces

When most of us think about military vehicles, the first thing that comes to mind is not the motorcycle. Motorcycles are more commonly associated with counter-culture, while tanks and all-terrain vehicles are the images that crop up when we consider military transportation. And, let’s be honest, a motorcycle doesn’t exactly look like the most tactically sound vehicle. It provides no armor, no shielding against enemy fire.

Despite this, motorcycles have played an important role in the U.S. military for one reason and one reason alone: they are fast. When the need for speed and agility overcame the need for protection, motorcycles were called into play. You already have to be pretty tough to ride a motorcycle, but to ride one in a war zone? You have to be tough as nails. The history of the motorcycle in the U.S. Military begins in the Mexican revolution. Soldiers sent by the U.S. were equipped with high-speed Harley-Davidsons to get them in and out of sticky situations. It wasn’t until the first world war, however, that motorcycles really became a standard in the American military.

World War I

 Though entrenched in Europe, the U.S. military deployed more than 150,000 motorcycles along enemy lines, used for conveying supplies back and forth from the rear to the front lines. Often, military motorcycles were used to transport extra rations and ammo from distant supply lines to those soldiers who were struggling in the trenches. The most important task given to the motorcycle, however, was reconnaissance and delivering messages. As the fastest and most agile vehicle on the front, the motorcycle was the most practical way to get a message from point A to point B, enabling the rider to get around all of the dangers of the battlefield with enough speed to avoid being shot.

World War II

 World War II saw even more motorcycles, being used primarily, again, by messengers and to convey supplies from bases to units in the field. More than 90,000 Harley-Davidsons were built just for the war, with even better specs that the civilian vehicle. For a while, the German motorcycles were outperforming the home-grown versions, but the BMW models were soon captured and their technology used to rev up the U.S.’s motorcycle. By the end of the war, Harley-Davidson had a bike that was nearly impervious dust, could ford deep water, and was still fast enough and smooth enough to get any soldier out of the worst situation.


 After the Second World War, motorcycles largely fell out of vogue in the military, as other, more protective vehicles became faster and more maneuverable (though, most still cannot compare with the agility of a motorcycle). The motorcycle saw little action during the rest of the century. It has, however, found some notoriety again, on Iraqi and Afghani soil, where their speed makes them perfect for patrol. Though a motorcycle goes against all of the traditional military dogma, as it lacks armor and stealth, it is still well-loved among those who know how to utilize this vehicle for its tactical strengths.

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