The Machine Gun 1718 - 1914 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Machine Gun 1718 - 1914

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Since the 14th Century, there had been many attempts to produce a small calibre, rapid-fire weapon. The advantages were controllable recoil together with many projectiles which together seemed a good formula to cause maximum casualties to the opposition. Many devices were tried, few actually saw action. Leonardo da Vinci designed one, although it probably never left the drawing board.

James Puckle's 'Defence Gun' 1718

This was the first well-documented rapid-fire gun, patented to new patent regulations in 1718. It was, in effect, a flintlock revolver with a barrel 3 feet long and a bore of 1.25 inches. The pre-loaded 'cylinder' held 11 charges and could fire 63 shots in 7 minutes. This rate of 9 shots/min was three times quicker than the fastest infantryman.

It was designed for ship-board use, to prevent boarding, but never really took off. A quirk of the original patent was that it was designed to fire ball at 'civilised' enemies and square shot at Turks. Square shot was considered more damaging and would convince the Turks of the 'benefits of Christian civilisation'.

While this seems rather racist today, it should be seen in the context of the time. The Turks were pushing into Eastern Europe, one of the cradles of Christianity, converting the conquered to Islam. They occupied much of the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and raided any ships sailing these coasts, as they did by habit. The method of attack was by small, fast sailing craft, which were hard to hit with broadside cannon. They came alongside, boarded the vessel and killed or enslaved the crew. Puckle and his contemporaries must have considered this behaviour most barbaric.

1860 - 1880 - the Beginning

All the next group were hand-operated and mounted on light artillery carriages due to their weight and because they needed a limber to carry the large quantities of ammunition required. Most were used by the artillery as artillery pieces or as point defence weapons. All were developed during the growth of mass production facilities, using the most up-to-date technology.

The US Gatling, 1862

Patented in 1862 by Richard Jordan Gatling, it was a variation on the revolver principle in that the 6-10 barrels revolved around a central axis, firing one barrel at a time. The main advantage of many barrels was that they cooled in between shots maintaining their accuracy and preventing 'cook-off' - the premature ignition of a charge. The US Army bought them in 1865. The early models used paper cartridges, but in 1866, metallic cartridges were used. There were other types of rapid-fire weapons, but the Gatling was the only one in service to survive the American Civil War.

Montigny Mitrailleuse, 1869

This Belgian gun was one of the first secret weapons and it was adopted by the French Army in 1869. It resembled a modern machine gun but was more properly called a volley-fire gun. It had 26 barrels encased in a brass tube. A pre-loaded plate was inserted in the breech. Using a hand-crank, it could fire all barrels at once or in turn. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 - 71, on one occasion, used as an artillery battery, it mowed down 500 horses in 90 seconds. It was one of the few successes, as the deployment of the mitrailleuse as artillery proved disastrous for the French.

The British Gatling, 1870

In 1870, comparative trials for the War Office in Great Britain identified the Gatling as a powerful weapon. Two calibres were proposed, .65 inch for the Royal Navy and .45 for the Army. These were ordered from WG Armstrong and Co who produced them under license. The first documented use was by a Royal Navy Gatling Detachment against the Zulus at Ulundi. A reporter wrote:

... there lay, within a radius of five hundred yards, 473 Zulus. They lay in groups, in some places, of 14 to 30 dead, mowed down by the fire of the Gatlings...

This was accomplished in five minutes and the battle was won in half-an-hour.

The early Boxer cartridge made of coiled brass sheet used by the British caused jams and misfeeds, but with the introduction of solid drawn cases, reliability improved. The rate of fire was about 300 rounds a minute, with the possibility of a short burst of 800 rounds a minute. This was difficult to achieve because of cooling problems and the stamina of the operator; after all, he had to turn the handle! Later versions were geared better to achieve higher rates of fire.

Nordenfeldt and Gardner

These two systems were contemporary with the Gatling in British service. The Nordenfeldt was a European favourite adopted in 1880 and in British service had ten barrels. Operation was by side lever. The Gardner had only two barrels but impressed by its rate of fire - 10,000 rounds in 27 minutes. Larger calibre guns of both types were used as anti-torpedo boat weapons by the Royal Navy. Neither lasted long, as technical advance caught up with the hand-operated volley gun.

With the exception of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, it was mainly native peoples who felt the weight of fire of these early guns. The British, in particular, had felt the power of African military civilisations and, in protecting their trading interests and allies, felt compelled to show them who ruled the land. While it is current practice to criticise this policy, many Britons at the time did not like the idea of any 'uncivilised' peoples killing British nationals, clerics or soldiers. British soldiers, of course, felt the same.

Any increase in firepower was welcomed. Even the traditional British Square, an effective defensive formation in European wars, was vulnerable to warriors who did not follow the same martial code. The Gatling offered protection to the weakest part of the Square, the corner. It also offered a way to defeat armies that relied on manpower by removing the men, quickly.

The Maxim 1885

While visiting a Paris exhibition in 1881, the American inventor Hiram Maxim, who was living in England, was told:

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.

So he did, developing the first 'automatic' man-portable machine gun, which he demonstrated to the British Army in 1885. This used the recoil of discharge to unlock, reload and fire. This meant as long as the trigger remained pressed, it would fire until the ammunition was exhausted. The rate of fire was 500 rounds a minute, the equivalent of 100 rifles. The British Army adopted it in 1889 and in 1890 was also acquired by Germany, Russia, Austria, Italy and Switzerland.

In the British Army, it was mounted, as before, on a light artillery carriage with built-in ammunition storage, but it could be dismounted when required. It was still heavy, but was essentially man-portable. Its first success was in 1893 with South African Colonial forces against the Matabele of what is now Zimbabwe. Fifty soldiers with four Maxims held off 5000 Matabele warriors. Despite this, there were those in the War Office who did not see a real use for the machine gun.

If any weapon can be described as the one that changed history, it was the Maxim. It automated defence and, in quantity, was destined to make attack without severe loss almost impossible.

1900 - 1914

The Germans and Russians, in particular, stuck with it and developed the Maxim into the Maschinengewehr M1905 and Pulemyot Maksima, respectively. More inventors used different ideas to produce similar weapons. John Moses Browning designed a gas-operated machine gun for the Colt firearms company which, despite a rather strange method of operation was adopted by the US Navy in 1895.

Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss was an American who set up an armaments and explosive industry in France. Although he died in 1885, his company continued to develop his idea for a machine gun, producing the first working example in 1892 which, after development, was procured by the French Army in 1897. There was a portable version produced in 1909, which was used by the French and British cavalry. The definitive Hotchkiss gun was brought into service with the French Army in 1914.

The Fiat-Revelli was produced in Italy, the country's first mass produced machine gun designed in 1908. It had a calibre of 6.5mm and was operated on a delayed blowback system. It was bought for use by the Italian army in 1914, as the Italian army was prepared for war, Italy having started the conflict as a neutral power.

The Austro-Hungarian machine gun was the Schwarzlose 8mm used by the Army from 1905. It possessed a relatively short barrel, was fed via a 250-round magazine fabric belt and fired at a rate of 400 rounds per minute.

The Vickers 0.303-inch, water-cooled machine gun was a derivative of the Maxim gun. It was less bulky, lighter and designed to be man-portable. It was adopted as the standard British Army machine gun in 1912. It served alongside the Maxim in growing numbers as the rate of production increased. As it is a typical example of the guns at that time, its characteristics are worth noting.

It had a cyclic rate of fire of 600 rounds a minute, but the practical rate of fire was nearer to 250 rounds a minute. It used a 250-round fabric belt and had a reputation for reliability when its contemporaries had a tendency to jam. Its maximum range was 4500 yards, but the maximum effective range was 2000 yards. Gun and water (for cooling) weighed 40lbs and the tripod 51lbs. It was capable of indirect fire (target unseen) at long range, rather like an artillery piece.

The Future

It can be seen that the technology was developing fast. There was a growing atmosphere of conflict in Europe from 1900 to 1914 and each army and each country sensed the need to modernise. The machine gun was the principle player in this scramble for modernisation. The effect, as mentioned earlier, was to automate defence but attack was not. From August 1914, the flower of European manhood fell advancing towards the machine guns of the opposition's front line in tactics better suited to 19th Century warfare. The equipment was modern, but minds were not.

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