An MG 08 at the Canadian War Museum.

The Maxim Machine Gun: Killing for Maximum Effect

The wars of the twentieth century were in many ways defined by the weapons that were used to fight them, and World War One, groundbreaking in so many aspects, was a cutting-edge killing field for armaments manufacturers. Certainly guns had evolved over the years and the Gatling gun, which was used during the American Civil War, was a hand-cranked, spring-loaded weapon that fired rapidly. But the pace of military mortality was about to change.

The advantages to a rapid-firing gun were obvious. Or should have been, and when Hiram Maxim presented his design for a machine gun, one of which was the equal to firing eighty rifles, he assumed that his invention would be greeted with enthusiasm by the British military leaders. Maxim, who had been born in the United States, moved to Great Britain, where his innovative talents began to focus on the manufacturing of automatic weapons.

Maxim Machine Gun
Hiram Maxim poses with one of his revolutionary auto-loading machine guns, 1884

It was in 1884 that he presented the Maxim Machine Gun. The Great War was still decades away, although the powers of Europe all knew that Germany’s imperial ambitions and military build-up were luring the neighboring nations ever closer into conflict. The British army purchased the Maxim Machine Gun, but the High Command lacked enthusiasm. They thought the machine gun was of dubious merit at best; in addition, it seemed to violate the gentlemen’s code by which the officers conducted their war. It wasn’t sporting to kill the enemy en masse.

The Germans were not so fastidious. By the time World War One began, the Germans had produced 12,000 machine guns and would have 100,000 by war’s end in 1918. The British, on the other hand, didn’t even create a Machine Gun Corp until 1915, when the conflict was in its second year.

The machine gun was a formidable defensive weapon. It could be positioned at specific locations in order to cover planned attack routes while delivering devastating casualties to infantry assaults conduct by the enemy. All the Germans had to do was place their machine guns where they wanted them, then fire them at the advancing troops who were heading into a holocaust of gunfire. The Germans would eventually refine the set-up by mounting the machine guns on tripods, as they did at Passchendaele, where their securely entrenched machine guns withstood weeks of artillery bombardment.

The German MG 08, which weighed 60 pounds, along with the additional 100 pounds from the carriage and accessories, was undeniably clumsy. But how much was clumsiness a factor for a weapon capable of firing 500 rounds per minute?

An MG 08 at the Canadian War Museum.
An MG 08 at the Canadian War Museum.

The machine guns were powerful but not perfect. They had a proclivity for overheating and for a time, until cooling mechanisms were developed, they were fired in short, rather than long, sustained periods. Overheating caused jamming, which could sometimes be alleviated by an experienced machine gun crew that knew the idiosyncrasies of its temperamental weapon. Vents were built into the machine guns so that they could be cooled by air, and water jackets which contained a gallon of water were one solution. But cooling by water required a great deal of water, which wasn’t always available in the amounts needed. However, the soldiers were resourceful and used a liquid which was always in plentiful supply; namely, their own urine.

For the British and French, adjusting to the new style of warfare was a challenge. France’s General Charles Lanrezac was relieved of his command in 1914 because the prevailing thought was that he had failed to follow the French war plan which was based upon offensive strategy; historians would later realize that it was the French who had failed because of their inability to recognize the advantage of the defensive approach. It seems inexplicable now, but even when Great Britain suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the military experts failed to realize that German machine guns had been viciously effective in bringing the Tommies to their bloody doom.

The machine gun did have an offensive role in the war as weapons manufacturers attempted to produce lighter versions for the infantry, but transporting these machine guns by wheeled carriage or pack animals was generally unsuccessful as they couldn’t travel as fast as the infantry.

By 1918, the Germans had the Bergmann Maschinenpistole 18/1 or MP18, which had 9mm ammunition rounds loaded via a 32-round magazine and proved to be an effective weapon for infantry. It was portable and easier to carry, but keeping an adequate supply of ammunition on hand continued to pose a problem. But 1918, the final year of the war, saw Germany on the losing side, which meant that the MP18 would not play a dominant role in the outcome. However, it was enough of a threat that, when the Treaty of Versailles which ended the war was written, the Germans were not permitted to own the MP18.

Bergmann MP 18.1 First submachine gun used in combat during WW1

The First World War was in many ways a brutal apprenticeship for its successor, the Second World War, which would build upon the deadly lessons of the past, as the land, sea and air became even more lethal fields of battle for the weapons which would be refined to kill a new generation of soldiers.