21 Apr 20
“No matter how many people you kill in battle, using a machine gun, is not a war crime, because it does not cause unnecessary suffering. It simply performs its job horrifyingly well!”
Sebastian Junger
The rotating Gatling Gun, invented by an American (Richard Gatling), saw some service during the Spanish-American War. In addition, it caught the attention of a team of Russian officers who had been sent to America in the late 1800s to update themselves of Western weapons technology. The head of the Russian delegation, Gorlov, was fascinated by the Gatling Gun and brought the technical package back to Russia. It was subsequently manufactured there and saw significant service with Russian units, where it was called “The Gorlov Gun”
In the year 1900, Hiram Maxim, an American design genius, was already sixty years old. Hiram was an annoying competitor with Thomas Edison in the new and exciting field of electricity. So annoying in fact that he was paid by Edison’s financial backers to depart for the UK and stay there for ten years, mostly just to get him out of the way!
While there, and well before the outbreak of WWI, Maxim perfected his famous recoil-operated, water-cooled, belt-fed machinegun. Belt-feeding and water-cooling were both Maxim inventions. Cloth belts had to be kept dry and clean When wet, they shrunk, and prevented feeding!
Disintegrating (metallic) machinegun belts came about later, mostly as a result of employment of machineguns on aircraft. Dangling cloth belts (with cartridges removed) got in the way.
Curiously, water cooling received an aloof reception with the French. They preferred the Hotchkiss gun, owing to their fighting experience within their colonies in North Africa, where water was a scarce battlefield commodity. Heavy-barreled French Hotchkiss machineguns (not water-cooled) used rigid 30-round metallic “feed-strips” instead of belts.
True effectiveness of machineguns was not universally appreciated until half-way through WWI (even though they had been around since 1900), because prior to WWI machineguns had seen service mostly with isolated colonial forces (particularly British and French). Officers assigned to colonial forces were usually not considered “top drawer.” Hence, when returning from colonial assignments with rave reviews about machinegun effectiveness, their opinions carried little weight. Thus, the true effectiveness of machineguns as battlefield weapons was an “accidental secret” until half-way through WWI!
Germans were the first to “get it,” and integrate machineguns into main, battle tactics.
Maxims were adopted by the British, Germans, Russians, and most of the rest of Europe. Maxim designed his gun so that it could be easily manufactured in all popular military calibers in use at the time.
Vickers was a huge British arms company who immediately saw the potential of Maxim’s system.
Vickers engineers took the original Maxim design and flipped it upside-down, making the Vickers lighter and more compact than the Maxim. The resulting Vickers water-cooled, adopted by the UK in 1912, continued in active service until 1968. It acquired an excellent reputation for both reliability and durability. 75k Vickers guns were manufactured in the UK during the course of WWI. Both the Vickers and Maxim machineguns fired from a closed bolt, and both required a bulky “recoil booster” at the muzzle. Going into WWI, the UK had both Vickers and Maxim guns in their System, mostly Maxims
The Dutch Madsen Company was another Western European arms manufacturer who, as early as 1902, understood the need and potential for machineguns. The Madsen open-bolt, short-recoil LMG (fed via a top-loaded magazine, like the later British BREN, French Chatellerault, Czech ZB-26, Japanese Type 96/99), in fact, saw its first active service with Russians during the Russo/Japanese War of 1904/05. Russians used it to great effect on Japanese formations, a phenomenon not lost on a few European “observers,” whose opinions were subsequently discounted back in Europe, as the far-away Manchurian fighting was just a another “little war!” Madsen LMGs were probably the first LMGs to see active service in combat, and it remained in service well into the 1950s.
John Browning’s first machinegun, the gas-operated, tilting-bolt 1895 Colt/Browning “Potato Digger” enjoyed only a luke-warm reception. The US War Department showed scant interest, but the Navy acquired several (chambered for 6mm Lee/Navy), and US Marines employed at least four during the 1898 invasion of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, part of the Spanish-American War. The 1895 Browning quickly overheated, so it was not suitable for prolonged use in static positions, but it was lighter and much more mobile than the Gatling Gun!
The Potato-Digger (in various calibers) was exported to Europe, the UK, Russia, and Mexico, seeing active employment in many far-flung places, including South Africa. It saw use with Canadian troops during WWI, but was quickly swept aside by the Vickers. None saw use with American Troops during WWI
Browning’s 1917 water-cooled, recoil-operated machine gun, firing from a closed bolt, was much better (better even than the Maxim and Vickers), but not in production (at Colt) until WWI was nearly over. Browning’s 1917 machinegun did not require a muzzle-mounted “recoil booster,” as did the Maxim and Vickers guns
The US War Department actually adopted, and started manufacturing (at Colt), the Vickers Gun, but during a trial in 1917, the Browning showed itself to be vastly superior to both the Vickers and the Maxim! Colt, Remington, and Westinghouse all manufactured 1917 Browning machineguns.
However, Browning’s 1917 Machineguns were not actually fielded in WWI combat until September of 1918, just two months before the end of the War. Val Browning, John Browning’s son, went to France and instructed troops in the operation of this new machinegun, also the new BAR!
The subsequent M1919 Browning Machinegun was air-cooled. and the recoil-booster was re-added.
A short twenty years later, and WWII is going hot! WWI didn’t “end all wars” after all, as President Wilson naively assured us all that it would! During the “interwar years,” the Allies slumbered, foolishly believing our own propaganda.
Germans did not!
By 1939, Germans had the advanced MG34 (later, the MG42) LMG in full production, and tactics to take maximum advantage. The MG34 was heads and shoulders ahead the Browning M17 and 19, which American forces still had.
Americans had the best rifle (Garand), but Germans had the best machineguns.
No doubt!
“Amid a hail of machinegun fire, you suddenly notice the existence of your skin!”
Marguerite Duras