After the First World War, there was little development of the machine gun1 by most nations. The decimation of nations on the battlefields of the Western Front, the Eastern campaign against Russia, the Italian Front and the Middle East ensured that there would not be an immediate resumption of hostilities with anyone. For the victors, the existing stocks of war production would last for a long time. For the losers, Germany, most of their automatic weapons, artillery and manpower would be limited under the Treaty of Versailles. Most made do with what they had.
The machine gun was not as great a killer as artillery, but it had a profound effect on morale. Imagine advancing with your comrades towards the enemy, seeing the muzzle flash of machine guns as they open fire at a distance, then the buzz2 of bullets passing close by. Then you hear the thud of bullets hitting bodies and your comrades fall one by one. At this point you may even hear the guns firing, if they are close enough. Artillery was never so personal. The shell could be heard coming and there was usually time to take cover. Artillery is an area weapon, not aimed to hit a point precisely and they are sited well away from the point of impact. A machine gun, however, has a soldier behind it, usually within sight of the target, and aims at you.
The Universal Machine Gun
Germans felt that they had not been defeated in the field and tried all sorts of ways to get around the limitations imposed by Versailles. One clause in the Treaty forbade Germany to develop any type of rapid or sustained-fire weapon. Rheinmetall-Borsig, however, established a shadow firm at Solothurn in Switzerland in the early 1920s. Outwardly independent, it was secretly under the control of its German founder. Here they developed a series of automatic weapons culminating in the Maschinengewehr Model 1934 (MG 34).
The MG 34 was developed to the requirements of the German Army (Reichswehr) for an Einheitsmaschinengewehr (universal machine gun). This would serve as a light machine gun for an infantry section (squad), a medium fire support, light anti-aircraft and an armoured vehicle fixed or flexible weapon. This concept fitted in well with the developing concept of Blitzkrieg. The MG34 was air-cooled which meant no water was required and therefore reduced bulk and weight. As a section weapon, it was fired from a bipod. As a support weapon it had a tripod (Lafette (Mounting) 34). The weight of both was lighter than the Maxim it replaced and the rate of fire was twice that of the Maxim at 900 rounds/min. Training could be standardised on one weapon. This was the standard infantry machine gun of the German Army at the beginning of the Second World War.
Philosophies behind the use of the machine gun were also changing. The French, British, Japanese, American and Russian idea was that the gun supported the rifleman. The Germans, impressed with the capabilities of the machine gun decided that the rifleman supported the gun. The British stuck with the Lewis Gun until 1938 when they adopted a Czech gun, the BREN gun (BR = Brno Armaments Factory, EN = Enfield Arms Factory). The French adopted the Chatalleraut Light Machine Gun in 1924 and from it developed fortress guns for the Maginot Line. In 1927, the USSR introduced the Ruchnoy Pulemyot DP (Degtyaryova pakhotnyi) (literally - 'hand machine gun (designed by) Degtyarev, infantry'). All of these were light, gas-operated, magazine-fed weapons for the infantry section or squad. The USA kept the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) that it had introduced in 1918. The BAR was the only surviving automatic rifle, used by the US Infantry as they had been taught in 1917 by the French, for firing on the move.
For fire support, the British kept the Vickers, but added a dial sight for indirect fire. The French kept the Hotchkiss M1914 and the Japanese copied it, too. The USSR had the Maxim, modified, with wheels for extra mobility (and weight!) The USA had the Browning M1917 water-cooled gun and was producing an air-cooled version, the M1919 A4 from 1934.
Only the Germans had one gun for both roles. It was belt-fed like the old medium guns. Like many of the light machine guns, it had a changeable barrel for sustained fire. The 50-round belt was metal, non-disintegrating link, which avoided climatic problems with canvas belts. These could be joined together for sustained fire. Although some of the light machine guns, notably the Bren, could be fired from a tripod, they could not compete with the volume of fire from the MG34. In the case of the Bren, there were never enough to allow their issue to support units. The older medium guns were better at sustained fire and, arguably, more accurate than the MG34, but it worked.
In the Air
Only the Germans developed new machine guns for aerial combat as they were deprived of war surplus and produced some fast-firing guns. The Americans developed the M1919 Browning and the British adopted a similar model in 1936. Until then, the British had used an air-cooled version of the old Vickers and Lewis Guns. The rifle calibre machine gun as the primary armament lasted until 1941 when it was superseded by automatic cannon or heavy calibre machine guns. It was just not capable of the sort of damage required for air combat. It was retained as secondary armament or as defensive armament on RAF heavy bombers until the end of the Second World War, but by then, the rifle calibre gun was effectively obsolete as an aicraft gun.
During the Second World War, the machine gun lost its crown. Radio allowed the infantry to call up artillery to take out gun posts, or call in ground attack aircraft. It still had its uses. Before the series of battles called Alamein in Egypt, Vickers MMGs were used to maintain a minefield. They fired at intervals to persuade German Pioniere (assault engineers) that lifting mines was a risky business. The range was over 1,500 yards and the bullets did not explode the mines - artillery shells or shrapnel would have. Once again it was used to deny ground to the enemy without damaging the surface. This would allow the use of tanks or armoured cars without undue difficulty.
Machine guns and concrete still formed a formidable obstacle to advance, so most were out-flanked, as the German Army did to the Maginot Line in 1940. The much vaunted Maginot Line was useless against the tank. Most of its forts were surrendered or taken from behind. Nevertheless, a machine gun post remained a formidable obstacle to advance and assault. Much of the valour of infantry combat was recognised as the assault on fortifications or gun posts. For example, North Yorkshire's Infantry Regiment, the Green Howards, won three Victoria Crosses during the War. All were partly or wholly against fortified gun posts. (Lt Col Derek Seagrim, Tunisia 1943; CSM Stan Hollis, Normandy 1944 and Lt Basil Weston, Burma 1945. Only CSM Hollis survived.)
At the end of the Second World War, the value of the machine gun was well recognised, although it was not the potent force it was in the Great War. Lessons were learned. The MG34 was too well made and did not suffer poor maintenance lightly. The MG42 that replaced it was mass-produced, highly reliable and, firing at a rate of 1200 rounds/min, was a devastating weapon. The Blitzkrieg idea took off and all European countries required a 'universal machine gun'. Thus the general purpose machine gun was born. The German MG42 was adopted, in modified form, by the new Bundeswehr (as the MG 3), Italy and Yugoslavia. Barring an error in redrawing plans in the early 1950s, it would probably still be the US Army's gun of choice too.
In 1958, Fabrique Nationale de Armes de Guerre (FN) of Belgium modified the action of the BAR, which they had been making under licence, added the MG42's belt feed, re-engineered the result and produced the Mitrailleuse ´ Gaz (gas-operated machine gun). This is known throughout the world as the MAG, and to the British Army as the general purpose machine gun (GPMG or 'Gimpy') L7A1. Like the German guns before it, it was to be used as a light machine gun, fire support and vehicle armament.
The US Army stuck with its automatic rifle until the adoption of a smaller calibre round3 gave all rifles automatic firepower. This prompted the wider issue of a standard 7.62mm NATO machine gun with the necessary weight of fire and penetration. The US contribution to the universal machine gun was the M60. It served its purpose, but was inaccurate and, initially, unreliable. It was a hybrid that never seemed to fit and in 1977, after competitive trials, the US Army adopted the MAG as the M240B.
The French developed their own gun, the AAT-52 (Arme Automatique Transformable - a multi-purpose automatic weapon). This is a simple gun with an operating system that seems to work close to dangerous limits, but has proved itself a reliable and effective gun. The USSR produced their own Pulemyot Kaslashnikova a reliable GPMG with an action based on the Kalashnikov assault rifles.
The Gatling now reappears. In rifle calibre form, it is used as a helicopter ground attack weapon. Instead of a hand-crank, it uses an electric motor and typically has six barrels firing at a rate of 6,000 rounds/minute. It is not portable, despite its depiction in films, but there is a ground version. The electrical requirements do not give it great mobility as an infantry weapon and ammunition requirements and cooling problems limit its vehicle applications.
The latest development is those machine guns that fire the 5.56mm NATO round, used as light machine guns. The FN Minimi, a smaller lighter version of the MAG (light role only), is a world leader, the US Army adopting it as the M249 SAW (squad automatic weapon). Sadly, the British Army, in a retrograde step, adopted a heavy-barrelled version of the SA 80, the LSW (light support weapon), a concept reminiscent of US Army pre-Vietnam tactics.
The machine gun is, once again, split into two types, the GPMG-types firing 7.62mm NATO or equivalent and the light machine guns firing 5.56mm NATO or equivalent. Whatever happens next, the machine gun is here to stay. It will never have the devastating effect of its First World War predecessors, but it will remain a potent defensive item and a capable assault support weapon.