Machine Guns of WWI: SADJ Commemorates the 100th Anniversary of World War I

Machine Guns of WWI: SADJ Commemorates the 100th Anniversary of World War I

ABOVE: Germans with Maxim MG08. Judging from their cloth-covered spiked helmets, this apparently posed photo was taken early in the war when quantities of their Maxims on the front lines greatly exceeded comparable machine guns on the allied side. The water cooled MG08 weighed a formidable 126 pounds on its distinctive sled mount and was normally served by a crew of seven including gunner, assistant and protective riflemen who doubled as ammunition carriers. Note the gun’s Z.F. 12 prismatic telescopic sight and the double compartment ammunition box holding two 250-round of cloth belted 7.92mm Mauser cartridges.

marks the beginning of what would soon become known as The Great War and what historians would later label World War One. Combat on a heretofore unimagined scale of savagery, size and horrifying invention followed on killing fields, seas and skies across the globe.

From this point until the armistice on November 11, 1918, more than thirty million combatants were killed or wounded.

Science and technology advanced at a wildly accelerated rate, producing weapons with exponentially increasing lethality. These included artillery, flamethrowers, poison gas, aeroplanes and dirigibles, bombs, tanks, submarines, grenades, small arms, and ammunition.

The Bergmann MP18,1 Maschinen Pistole. Seen here in a historical re-creation set in October, 1918 on the Western Front, this elite German Stosstrupp (shock troop) appears like a ghost amid swirling clouds of poison gas to rout French enemies from their protective trench with bursts of 9mm rounds from his kugelspritz (bullet squirter). Hugo Schmeisser’s innovative submachine gun, fed by a Luger pistol’s distinctive “snail drum” magazine, fires 32 rounds at a cyclic rate 400 rounds per minute. (Robert Bruce)


As to the number of these guns available at the beginning of the war, it is said that besides those allocated to the fortresses, the German Army possessed in August, 1914, some 50,000 machine guns. It is not possible to verify the statement, but the lavish use made of the gun during the war, the numbers that have been brought into action in every engagement, make the statement highly probable.” From The Book of the Machine Gun by Major F.V. Longstaff and Captain A. Hilliard Atteridge. 1917

Having personally experienced the first two years of The Great War with its horrific daily casualty reports – often in the tens of thousands – British Army officers Longstaff and Atteridge “knew whereof they spoke,” in assessing the numbers and the grisly effectiveness of automatic machine guns serving in Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II’s Imperial German Army. “Kaiser Bill” had early on and eagerly embraced these horribly efficient killing machines in general and American inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim’s weapons in particular.

That is not to say the armies of Great Britain and France were without Maxims and similarly effective rifle caliber machine guns at the onset of hostilities in 1914. There had been quite satisfactory service and often spectacular success with these in numerous colonial campaigns as well as closely observed and widely reported use of Maxim and Hotchkiss guns on opposing sides of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

Uncle Sam’s machine guns on the training range. Camp Wheeler, Georgia, 4 Feb. 1918. Soldiers of the Army’s 31st Division live firing an obviously staged lineup of the most common machine guns in the inventory (l to r): .30-06 caliber U.S. Colt Vickers Model of 1915, .30-06 caliber U.S. Colt Automatic Gun Model 1914 (“Potato Digger”), .30-06 caliber U.S. Benet-Mercie Model of 1909, 8mm French Mle 1915 Chauchat, .30-06 caliber U.S. Lewis Gun. These men and their machine guns would soon find themselves in the trenches of France providing much-needed reinforcement to French and British allies fighting the Germans. (U.S. Army Signal Corps, National Archives)


Indeed, following the grudgingly slow introduction of the Gatling Gun of the American Civil War in the 1860’s, a parade of others moved out smartly to battle fronts. These were initially hand-cranked but inevitably self-powered by the very cartridges they ingested and spat out at the rate of hundreds per minute. Thus, it was often claimed by proponents that a single automatic machine gun could equal or surpass the firepower of as many as a hundred infantrymen with their bolt action rifles.

The Industrial Revolution on both sides of the turn of the century produced dizzying advances in machines of all types. And killing machines were prominent among them.

Widely quoted is a friend’s sage advice to Hiram Maxim, “If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.”

A standard pairing of magazine-fed Vilar-Perosa machine guns mounted on a bicycle. Patented by Italian engineer Bethel A. Revelli in April 1914, this twin combination of woefully underpowered 9mm Glisenti pistol caliber machine guns was improbably intended for use by mountain troops and as aircraft armament. Instead, it’s primary claim to fame is apparently inspiring parallel development of the Italian Beretta 1918 and the German Bergmann MP18,1 machine pistols. (U.S. Army Ordnance Museum)


Carrying the names of their inventors or the often ruthless industrialists who acquired their patents, fast-firing guns from Nordenfeldt, Gardner, Lewis, Hotchkiss, and others were fielded by European armies and many elsewhere in the decades leading up to global conflagration.

But, unlike Germany’s canny Kaiser, hidebound traditionalists commanding armies and navies of the British Crown and French Republic relegated machine guns mostly to specialist roles such as use in forts and other fixed defenses, providing emergency firepower to horse cavalry units, and fighting off maritime boarding parties. Their numbers were far fewer at the outset of war, giving “The Hun” a distinct advantage.

The 1908 “Light Model” Vickers seen in 1911. By inverting the Maxim lock, thinning the receiver components and making extensive use of aluminum and steel alloy in place of brass, Vickers cut the previous gun’s weight to 32 lbs. The Vickers Adjustable Tripod seen here was also a lighter but still sufficiently sturdy and stable platform. (National Archives)


Trench Warfare
In addition to massed artillery employed by opposing armies in the slaughter that immediately followed, direct fire by automatic machine guns mowed down waves of bravely charging infantrymen and cavalrymen, forcing both sides to seek refuge in trenches. These somewhat parallel tactical ditch lines would eventually stretch over four hundred miles across France, from the North Sea to the Swiss border. They were taken and retaken over the next four years by savage skirmishes and human wave assaults of almost incomprehensible carnage.

Outside of Europe, armies and navies of the major combatants, most often reinforced by colonial troops, would usually clash in more fluid engagements. The contested terrain was vast in Africa and the Middle East, as well as naval engagements on far-flung oceans.

But even these relatively fleeting encounters sometimes produced genuine trench warfare. One such example is the infamous campaign at Gallipoli, fought between German-aligned Turks and British, Australian and New Zealand troops.

Hotchkiss Portatable Mk1 in service with the British Army’s Indian Sepoy troops. Photographed on the Somme battlefield of France, circa 1916. Designed at the French Hotchkiss works by American Laurence Benet and his French counterpart Henri Mercie, this light, portable rework of the Hotchkiss Mle 1909 was widely adopted. Its U.S. Army designation was Benet-Mercie Machine Rifle Model of 1909, manufactured at Springfield Armory and Colt. (National Archives)


Static, fluid and flying combat
As tactics evolved to deal with challenges posed by warfare in the trenches, attempts to break out of the stalemate, the need to operate over vast land masses far away from logistical support, and the brand new development of combat in the clouds, the machine gun necessarily evolved as well.

Heavy, crew-served examples like the Maxim MG08, Hotchkiss Mle 1914 and Vickers Mk 1 were most prominent in defensive actions. Remarkably reliable when properly cared for and sturdily affixed atop substantial mounts, they were capable of sustained, accurate fire at long ranges.

While we most often think of them shooting straight on against lines of attackers, they were more efficiently employed on the flanks with interlocking fields of fire. Also, they proved devilishly effective in “indirect fire barrages” – meticulously aimed using geometry with detailed maps and ballistic tables to rain bullets on unseen targets far in the enemy’s rear areas.

“A French Mitrailleuse in Action.” A month after the eruption of hostilities in Europe the cover shot for the 12 September 1914 issue of Scientific American magazine shows a French crew with the problematic St. Etienne Model 1907 atop an Omnibus mount with its distinctive elevating handwheel. Noting the blank adapter on the muzzle and the unusually short cartridges in the feed strips, the photo must have been taken on training maneuvers. (Robert Bruce collection)


Raiding parties needed lighter and more portable machine guns that could ideally be carried and fired by one man. Among the best of these was the Lewis Gun, an American air cooled light machine gun that was license-built in Belgium and in England and extensively used by the British. Additionally, the British Mk I Portable machine rifle, made under license in England from the French firm of Hotchkiss based upon their Mle 1909 Portative served the Crown in infantry, cavalry and light armoured vehicles.

The French, decidedly enamored with air cooling vs. heavy and troublesome water jackets, fielded the crudely configured but often surprisingly effective Chauchat Mle 1915. However, American “Doughboys,” assigned alongside French divisions and issued French weapons because of the critical need for ammunition compatibility, were understandably unhappy with having to swap their Lewis Guns for ugly Chauchats.

While the Germans adopted the easily carried, air cooled, magazine fed Danish Madsen Muskete machine rifle in limited numbers for elite mountain units and infantry shock troops, their primary assault machine gun was the heavy, unwieldy and long-belt-trailing MG08/15. This water cooled anvil of a gun was made a bit more bearable in its air cooled version, known as the MG08/18.

Firing the Italian FIAT-Rivelli Model 1914. Designed in 1908 by Bethel Abiel Revelli and built by automaker FIAT, this 38 pound, 6.5mm, water cooled, retarded blowback action weapon was the standard machine gun of the Italian Army in action with allied forces against the German-aligned Central Powers. Most notable is its odd “mouse trap” magazine, holding cartridges in ten lines of five rounds each, theoretically so nearby riflemen could replenish it if needed in the heat of battle. (National Archives)


Perhaps the most interesting cartridge weapon given to the Kaiser’s soldiers was the Bergmann MP18i machine pistol in 9mm parabellum caliber. Positioned somewhere between the little Luger and Mauser pistols and the very handy Madsen Muskete, it was well suited along with stick grenades and flamethrowers for the nasty, close range business of clearing trenches.

And, while the Italian Villar-Perosa is often cited as the first of a new breed of pistol caliber automatic weapons, Theodor Bergmann’s Maschinen Pistole deserves distinction as the first practical example of the breed that proliferates even today. His MP18i is the first practical shoulder arm in a new class eventually identified as the “submachine gun.”

Parabellum Aircraft Machine Gun Model 1914/17. Pictured here arming the observer for a German combat aircraft, this clever refinement/redesign of the MG08, designed at D.W.M. by Karl Heinemann, features a slim, air cooled barrel, telescopic sight and attached reel for the fast-firing gun’s belted 7.92mm ammunition. Note the handy rack of stick grenades for harassment “bombing” of enemy trenches. (National Archives)


Aeroplanes and airships
From the outbreak of war all major combatants flew observation aircraft. Unarmed at first, it wasn’t long before shots were being exchanged, setting in motion an aerial arms race. While early installations naturally featured machine guns for rear cockpit observers and other guns in awkward over-wing mounts to fire forward over the propeller, Dutchman Anthony Fokker’s brilliant synchronizing device changed the game fully and forever.

The Fokker system allowed the ever-clever Germans to mount a pair of lightly modified, belt-fed Maxim guns right in front of the pilot, who could point the nose of his fighter plane to aim and fire on enemy aircraft or to strafe the poor blighters in trenches. To keep from sawing off the plane’s two-bladed wooden propeller, an interrupter mechanism ensured that neither gun would fire when the prop crossed the bullet stream.

The Hun’s advantage was short lived, however, as his opponents learned the secret and applied it to their own crates. The British Vickers, itself a modified Maxim, was ideally suited.

While not having to shoot through propellers, air to air defensive machine guns on Germany’s rigid skinned, hydrogen lofted “dirigibles” used for the long range bombing missions over London were necessarily lightened versions of those mired in the mud of the trenches. The same lightened Maxims and newer Parabellums served well on both airships and airplanes.

Demonstrating the Browning Model of 1917 machine gun. Meuse, France, 5 October 1918. U.S. Army Lieutenant Val A. Browning adjusts the rear sight on his famous father’s new Model of 1917 at the start of another live fire demonstration for U.S. and allied observers. A development based on John M. Browning’s 1901 design, this short recoil, water cooled, belt fed .30-06 caliber weapon is widely considered superior to all others of its class, serving the U.S. military and many others well into the 1960s. (National Archives)


Late breaking developments
As previously noted, American machine gun designs were prominent in The Great War long before Uncle Sam’s troops declared to their French allies, “Lafayette, we are here,” and entered the trenches of the Western Front in late 1917. But the best were yet to come.

John Moses Browning was busily at work back in the United States on a lighter, simpler and more efficient alternative to the Maxim and Vickers guns. Officially adopted by the army of his homeland as the Model of 1917, his .30-06 caliber water cooled, recoil operated, belt fed gun was clearly superior to previous types.

Similarly, his Browning Automatic Rifle, Model of 1918, offered tremendous advantages in portability, simplicity and reliability, over its rivals.

Also, spurred on by German introduction of a massive and powerful new 12.7mm cartridge for a shoulder fired antitank rifle, Browning was well along in beefing up his .30 cal. Model of 1917 to fire a version of this when Germany capitulated in November 1918. This remarkable new weapon, still in first line service even today in the U.S. Armed Forces and many others, became the classic .50 caliber M2HB “Ma Deuce.”

Another American, retired Brigadier General John Taliaferro Thompson, had also neared fielding a unique automatic machine gun when the war ended. His “Trench Broom,” known to us as the .45 ACP caliber Thompson Submachine Gun, would have clearly outgunned its 9mm German rival.

In the smoldering, rubble-strewn aftermath of what was so naively termed “The War to End All Wars,” the major powers immediately began disarming and demobilizing. There was little official enthusiasm and no budget for building on new concepts.

Except for, as it would eventually be revealed, in only temporarily vanquished Germany. Stung by harsh terms of surrender imposed by Britain, France and America, seething Germans began rearming in secret. But that is another story.