The Machine-Gun

The idea of a gun that would keep up a continuous stream of fire attracted inventors early in the development of firearms. In 1718 James Puckle invented what he called his Defence Gun. Placed on a tripod it was a large revolver with a cylinder behind its single barrel. Although the cylinder had to be turned manually it could fire 63 shots in seven minutes.

The American Civil War provided an incentive to inventors and Wilson Agar was able to sell 54 of his Coffee Mill guns to the Union Army. The Billinghurst-Requa was also used by Union forces in the war. The gun comprised a wheeled frame carrying 24 rifle barrels. Once the gun was loaded a single percussion cap was placed on a nipple on the iron frame and fired by a hammer, the flash passing through the frame to ignite all 24 cartridges.

In 1861 Richard Jordan Gatling, a trained dentist from North Carolina, produced an effective mechanical gun. The Gatling Gun consisted of six barrels mounted in a revolving frame. The United States Army purchased these guns in 1865 and over the next few years most major armies in Europe purchased the gun. The British Army tested it at Woolwich in 1870, and found that the 0.42 Gatling Gun fired 616 shots in two minutes. Of these, 369 hit their intended targets.

In 1879 the Gardner Machine Gun was demonstrated for the first time. The gun fired 10,000 rounds in 27 minutes. This impressed military leaders from Britain and the following year the British Army purchased the gun. It also adopted the ten-barrel Nordenfelt Machine Gun.

In 1881 the American inventor, Hiram Maxim, visited the Paris Electrical Exhibition. While he was at the exhibition he met a man who told him: "If you wanted to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other's throats with greater facility."

Maxim moved to London and over the next few years worked on producing an effective machine-gun. In 1885 he demonstrated the world's first automatic portable machine-gun to the British Army. Maxim used the energy of each bullet's recoil force to eject the spent cartridge and insert the next bullet. The Maxim Machine-Gun would therefore fire until the entire belt of bullets was used up. Trials showed that the machine-gun could fire 500 rounds per minute and therefore had the firepower of about 100 rifles.

The Maxim Machine-Gun was adopted by the British Army in 1889. The following year the Austrian, German, Italian, Swiss and Russian armies also purchased Maxim's gun. The gun was first used by Britain`s colonial forces in the Matabele war in 1893-94. In one engagement, fifty soldiers fought off 5,000 Matabele warriors with just four Maxim guns.

The King's Royal Rifles in 1895. The men have a Maxim Machine Gun and Lee-Enfield rifles.
The King's Royal Rifles in 1895. The men have
a Maxim Machine Gun and Lee-Enfield rifles.

The success of the Maxim Machine-Gun inspired other inventors. The German Army's Maschinengewehr and the Russian Pulemyot Maxima were both based on Maxim's invention. John Moses Browning produced his first machine-gun in 1890 and five years it was adopted by the US Navy. An Austrian, Count Odkolek, worked with the French company, Hotchkiss, to produce an effective gun that was adopted by the French Army in 1897.

By the outbreak of the First World War, the British Army had adopted the Vickers Machine-Gun. Fitted with interrupter gear, the Vickers was also standard armament on all British and French aircraft after 1916. During the war the British also used the Lewis Gun. Easier to produce and far lighter than the Vickers, it was used by soldiers on the Western Front and on armoured cars and aircraft.

In his book, A Private in the Guards (1919) Stephen Graham explained the impact that the machine-gun had on First World War battles: "The story of each man's death was plainly shown in the circumstances in which he lay. The brave machine-gunners, with resolute look in shoulders and face, lay scarcely relaxed beside the oiled machines, which if you understood you could still use, and besides piles of littered brass, the empty cartridge-cases of hundreds of rounds which they had fired away before being bayoneted at their posts. On the other hand, facing those machine-gunners one saw how our men, rushing forward in extended formation, each man a good distance from his neighbour, had fallen, one here, another there, one directly he had started forward to the attack, and then others, one, two, three, four, five, all in a sort of sequence, here, here, here, here, here, one poor wretch had got far, but had got tangled in the wire, had pulled and pulled and at last been shot to rags; another had got near enough to strike the foe and been shot with a revolver."

Primary Sources

(1) Soon after arriving on the Western Front in 1918, Stephen Graham came across a place that had been involved in a major battle. He described what he saw in his book, A Private in the Guards (1919)

The fascination of going from dead to dead and looking at each, and of going to every derelict tank, abandoned gun, and shattered aeroplane was so great that inevitably one went on further and further from home, seeking and looking with a strange intensity in the heart. I saw a great number of the dead, those blue bundles and green bundles strewn far and wide over the autumn fields.

The story of each man's death was plainly shown in the circumstances in which he lay. The brave machine-gunners, with resolute look in shoulders and face, lay scarcely relaxed beside the oiled machines, which if you understood you could still use, and besides piles of littered brass, the empty cartridge-cases of hundreds of rounds which they had fired away before being bayoneted at their posts.

On the other hand, facing those machine-gunners one saw how our men, rushing forward in extended formation, each man a good distance from his neighbour, had fallen, one here, another there, one directly he had started forward to the attack, and then others, one, two, three, four, five, all in a sort of sequence, here, here, here, here, here, one poor wretch had got far, but had got tangled in the wire, had pulled and pulled and at last been shot to rags; another had got near enough to strike the foe and been shot with a revolver.

In other parts of the field one saw the balance of battle and the Germans evidently attacking, not extended, but in groups, and now in groups together dead. One saw Germans taking cover and British taking cover in shell-holes inadequately deep, and now the men stiff as they crouched. I remember especially two of the fellows in a shell-hole, fear was in their faces, they were crouching unnaturally, and one had evidently been saying to the other, "Keep your head down!" Now in both men's heads was a dent, the sort of dent that appears in the side of a rubber ball when not fully expanded by air.

(2) David Lloyd George, War Memoirs (1938)

Modern warfare, we discovered, was to a far greater extent than ever before a conflict of chemists and manufacturers. Manpower, it is true, was indispensable, and generalship will always, whatever the conditions, have a vital part to play. But troops, however brave and well led, were powerless under modern conditions unless equipped with adequate and up-to-date artillery (with masses of explosive shell), machine-guns, aircraft and other supplies. Against enemy machine-gun posts and wire entanglements the most gallant and best-led men could only throw away their precious lives in successive waves of heroic martydom. Their costly sacrifice could avail nothing for the winning of victory.

British soldiers with the Gardner Gun, the Maxim Gun and the Nordenfeldt
British soldiers with the Gardner Gun, the Maxim Gun and the Nordenfeldt