The Guns of World War I
A look at the small arms and machine guns used during the Great War on the 100th anniversary of its end.
June 28, 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles – officially ending the Great War (later known as the First World War) in Europe. It was five years to the day that Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that kickstarted the worst conflict the world had seen to date with a terrifying new host of industrial age weapons at man’s disposal.
However, even when World War I broke out in August, 1914 the nations of Europe expected it to be over quickly. No one expected that the horrors to come—from trench warfare on the Western Front to use of poison gas and even artillery shot over mountains to cause avalanches, it was a war like no other. The total number of military and civilian casualties in the war were about 40 million people—estimates range from 15 to 19 million dead and about 23 million wounded military personnel.
Moreover, while many 19th century tactics were still employed, including cavalry charges, at the start of the conflict this was the first truly modern war in terms of the use of early tanks as well as airplanes, to some degree.
Small arms also saw a significant improvement throughout the conflict.
“That was true of the French and German armies, especially when it came to the machine gun,” said Doran Cart, senior curator for the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.
An interesting facet of machine gun use in WWI: While America didn’t enter the war until 1917, it had a presence on the battlefield throughout the war thanks to American inventors such as a Hiram Maxim.
“If you look at the machine guns of World War I, almost all were invented by Americans,” Cart said in an interview. “We didn’t use the (British) Lewis Gun, for example, but it was well liked by the British and the Belgians, and when the Germans used captured ones they liked it as well.”
Here is a look at the weapons carried into action in 1914 compared to what was utilized at the final stages of the war in late 1918.
Main Battle Rifles
Each of the major combatant nations utilized a range of rifles, including carbine models. However, each army did primarily rely on one rifle as its main infantry weapon.
The technology might seem primitive compared to today’s weapon systems, but compared to the rifles in common use just 50 years earlier during the American Civil War, these arms were quite advanced. And thanks to the industrial revolution, they could be made in numbers never possible before.
“The other significant part of this is the advancement in production. That enabled the major powers to arm million of men with rifles,” Cart said.
GERMANY 1914 – Gewehr 98
Anyone who knows a thing or two about German military rifles knows the name “Mauser,” and Mauser’s Gewehr 98 was considered among the best bolt action military rifles of its day. It fired the 7.92x57mm cartridge from a five-round fixed internal clip-loaded magazine.
It first saw use in combat in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion and even after the end of the First World War remained in use until 1935 when it was replaced by the Karabiner 98k, a shorter version that utilized the same basic design.
The Gewehr 98 featured a controlled-feed bolt-action, which is considered among the best bolt-action systems that has been duplicated by many bolt guns since.
The rifle had an effective firing range of 500 meters with iron sights, and a rate of fire around 15 rounds per minute. As with most of the rifles designed in the 19th century, it offered the range and stopping power but lacked the necessary rate of fire for this new modern warfare.
FRANCE 1914 – Lebel Model 1886
When WWI broke out, the French were wearing a uniform that consisted of red trousers and a heavy dark blue coat, and as such, they looked they looked pretty much the same as the soldiers who marched off to fight in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
The main service rifle was the Lebel Model 1886 or “Fusil Mle 1886 M93” – it had undergone a bolt modification in 1893, but the design was still over 20 years old at the beginning of the war.
The big advantage of the Lebel design was that it had a 10-round capacity that included eight rounds in a tube magazine, along with a round in the transporter and one in the chamber. However, as with other French rifles of the era, it had no manual safety – so except when going into combat, it was carried with just nine rounds. The other downside was that it was slower to reload as each round had to be loaded one at time and wouldn’t work with stripper clips.
The Lebel had an effective range of 400 meters, and a maximum firing range of 1,800 meters making it a good but slow weapon in the trenches.
GREAT BRITAIN 1914 – Short Magazine Lee–Enfield Mk III
After the ubiquitous AK-47, no rifle has seen as much use as the British Lee-Enfield.
The gun was a redesign of the Lee-Metford, which was first adopted by the British in 1888. Just seven years later, the Lee-Enfield—which took its name from the designer of the bolt system, James Paris Lee, and the factory where it was designed, the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield—became the main firearm of the military forces of the British Empire and Commonwealth. It was refined in 1904 as the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) – the short being the size of the rifle not the magazine.
The SMLE MkIII was introduced in 1907, along with the Pattern 1907 bayonet, and it featured a simplified rear sight.
The rifle’s main advantage was its 10-round removable magazine, which offered a rate of fire of 20 to 30 aimed shots per minute. The effective range was 500 meters and its maximum range was 2,700 meters.
The SMLE was still in service at the outbreak of World War II, and a simplified version, the No. 4 MkI, remained in use during the Cold War as well.
“One interesting point about the SMLE was that the British were trained to a rapid fire,” explained Cart. “At the start of the war, there are reports by the Germans that they thought the British had a semi-automatic rifle due to the rate of fire they were receiving.”
RUSSIA 1914 – Mosin-Nagant Model 1891
The British weren’t the only ones to see longevity with their main service rifle. The Russian Empire adopted the Mosin-Nagant in 1891. The original M91 version saw use throughout WWI, and was later modified by the Soviets as the M91-30, which saw service in World War II and into the Cold War.
In total, more than 37 million Mosin-Nagant rifles were produced.
The M91 version first saw use in the Russo-Japanese War, and despite the eventual proliferation of the rifle, it was actually in short supply during the First World War – to the point that Remington was contracted to produce the rifle in the United States.
While some 470,000 rifles were delivered, the October Revolution resulted in the downfall of the Russian government and the new Bolshevik regime under Vladimir Lenin refused to pay for the weapons. Some 280,000 were subsequently sold to the United States Army and ironically used by those American and British troops that were part of the expeditionary force of the North Russia Campaign to support the anti-Bolshevik forces.
The original Russian versions were chambered in the 7.62x54mmR cartridge that was later used by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations in subsequent rifles and machine guns. The Mosin-Nagant utilized a five-round non-detachable magazine and it had an effective range of 500 meters.
UNITED STATES 1914 – Springfield Model 1903
During the Spanish-American War the U.S. Army was equipped with the Springfield Model 1892–99 Krag–Jørgensen, a rifle that did the job but was clearly outclassed by the Spanish M1893 Mauser. Seeing the advantages that the Mauser offered, the American military copied the basic design, and the result was the M1903 Springfield, chambered in .30-06 Springfield.
The Springfield ’03 was the standard infantry rifle at the time of America’s entry into WWI, and it stayed in that role until it was replaced by the M1 Garand in the late 1930s.
The Army did see the benefits of a semi-automatic firearm much earlier, however, and during World War I developed the Pedersen Device, a specialized semi-automatic insert that replaced the bolt on the M1903 and allowed the rifle to fire .30 caliber pistol rounds from a 40-round detachable magazine.
The Springfield M1903 had a rate of fire of 10-15 rounds per minute, and it held five rounds in an internal box magazine. Its effective range was around 900 meters while its maximum range was 5,000 meters.
Despite some misconceptions, machine guns had seen use in combat prior to the First World War. While technically not a “machine gun” in the true sense, the multi-barreled Gatling Gun did see use during the American Civil War, and early machine guns did see use in the Franco-Prussian War. Though primitive by today’s standards, the machine guns from WWI were deadly serious.
One of the most notable lessons of the early half of WWI was how effective the machine gun was as a defensive weapon. But because the weight of the guns of the era made them difficult to transport (plus many required large water tanks and hoses for cooling), it was impractical to use them in an offensive role. Military planners continually considered ways to provide mobility along with sustained fire. Here is a recap of some of the solutions.
GERMANY 1914 – Maschinengewehr 08
The German Army’s standard machine gun from the war, the Maschinengewehr 08, was an adaptation of the Maxim Gun, which was designed in 1884 by Hiram S. Maxim. The American-born British inventor was reportedly told if he wanted to get rich “invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.” Instead of a blade, it was the machine gun.
The water-cooled automatic firearm had a practical range of 2,000 meters and an extreme range of 3,600. With a rate of fire of 450-500 rounds per minute, it could literally spray death across an open field and was one of the factors that led to armies digging in and settling into trench warfare.
As with most nations at the time, Germany’s military planners didn’t foresee the weapon’s potential, and in 1914 there were only 4,411 machine guns available to battlefield units. Moreover, only some 200 MG08s were produced each month when the war broke out, but by 1917 that number was up to 14,400 per month!
GERMANY 1918 – MG08/15 Machine Gun
The Germans saw the effectiveness of the MG08 and in 1915 created a version for assault troops. The MG08/15 replaced the rear spade grips with a pistol grip and wooden buttstock. Introduced in the 1917 offensive, it was lighter than the MG08, but at nearly 40 pounds – without water in the jacket or ammunition – it couldn’t be considered “lightweight.”
Despite its shortcomings, it was the most common German machine gun deployed during the war with more than four times the number of MG08/15s than the original MG08. An air-cooled version was tested during the final months of the war, but because the barrel couldn’t be quick-changed, it overheated quickly.
FRANCE 1914 – Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié Machine Gun
The French were one of the European powers that opted not to adopt a Maxim-style gun. Instead, a different line of machine guns was developed by the Hotchkiss et Cie company. Like Maxim, the Hotchkiss firm founded by an American—in this case gunsmith Benjamin B. Hotchkiss. And ironically, the firm bought the rights to a machine gun design from Austrian nobleman Adolf Odkolek von Újezd, and this became the Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié Machine Gun.
The gas-operated weapon had a rate of fire of 400-600 rounds per minute, and was originally fed by a 30-round feed strip. Later models were belt fed. During World War I, the British also produced a model that was used with tanks, while a portable version—the Hotchkiss Portative—was used in the Palestine Campaign by various British units, most notably the Imperial Camel Corps.
FRANCE 1918 – SAME
GREAT BRITAIN 1914: Vickers Machine Gun
Like the Germans the British also utilized a machine gun based on the Maxim design. This was the Vickers machine gun, and it was made by the Vickers firm, which bought Maxim outright in 1896. This version of the first successful machine gun design inverted the main firing mechanism and reduced the weight. It was the standard British machine gun throughout World War I and it remained in use in parts of the world until the 1970s.
While it could fire 450-500 rounds per minute and had an effective range of 2,000 meters, it was anything but portable. Again, like the German Maxim, it was truly a crew-served firearm and took several men to move and is a perfect example of why water-cooled guns like these were primarily used in a defensive role throughout the war.
GREAT BRITAIN 1918 – Lewis Gun
The Lewis Gun has become an almost iconic British machine gun, which is ironic as it was designed in the United States before the war broke out, but not actually adopted by the U.S. Army when America entered the war. The U.S. Army’s loss was a gain for the British, which saw the potential with the portable gun.
The gas operated machine gun features the unique “pan” magazine mounted on the top and offered a sustained rate of fire of 500-600 rounds per minute. It had an effective range of up to 800 meters and a maximum range of 3,200 meters.
At 28 pounds, it was a bit lighter than the German MG08/15, and despite a common misconception, it didn’t actually feature a water jacket – the barrel-shroud was designed to draw in air while radial fins acted as a heat sink.
RUSSIA 1914 – Maxim M1910 Machine Gun
In 1910 the Imperial Russian Army adopted the Maxim gun, chambered in 7.62x54mmR. Where the Germans and British utilized tripods or sled, the Russians utilized a wheel mount with gun shield. The early versions of the M1910 also featured a radiator cap on the top of the water jacket so that ice or even a snowball could be placed inside.
The short recoil design allowed for a 600 round per minute rate of fire, and while the Sokolov mount in essence doubled the weight of the gun, it also made transport much easier. The machine gun saw use in the Russian Civil War, World War II, and was still in use by the Chinese during the Korean War.
RUSSIA 1918 – SAME
UNITED STATES pre-1918: Colt-Browning M1895 Machine Gun
Known as the “potato digger” due to its unique operating mechanism, the M1895 machine gun fired from a closed bolt and had a rate of fire of 450 rounds per minute. Its mechanism can be thought of as an oversized gas operated version of a lever action rifle, and its that “lever” which dug into the ground underneath the gun as it was fired, giving it its nickname.
It was based on John and Matthew S. Browning’s design and was the first successful gas-operated machine gun to be adopted by the military.
This machine gun had seen use in the Spanish-American War and subsequent Philippine-American War, but was considered obsolete by the time the United States entered World War I. It was then used in training, while some were used in combat by Canadian units prior to America’s entry into the war.
UNITED STATES 1918 – Browning M1917
When the United States entered the war in 1917 it was woefully unprepared, as military planners showed little interest in a machine gun. However, American ingenuity stepped up to the task and that included the prolific gun designer John Browning who refined the Maxim style design in the M1917 Browning machine gun. The recoil-operated firearm had a rate of fire of 450 rounds per minute, which was improved upon to 600 rounds per minute with the M1917A1 version.
Browning again improved on this design with the M1919 air-cooled machine gun – a gun still in use to this day. Had World War I continued, there is little doubt these guns would have been at the front lines with the American Doughboys.
AUTOMATIC RIFLES and SUBMACHINE GUNS: 1918
Weapons such as the MG08/15 and Lewis Gun provided some mobility, but it was clear these weren’t going to deliver the mobile rapid fire the latter stages of WWI required.
“There were some notable advances that came later in the war,” Cart says. “As they say, ‘necessity is the mother of an invention’ and weapons were needed for a war of movement. That is when these weapons came in use.”
GERMANY: Bergmann MP18
Throughout much of the war, the German goal was to hold the line and force the French to bleed white, but by 1917, it became apparent that the Germans were going to have to break the Allies’ lines instead and the German Army adopted a new strategy that called for “Storm Troopers” formed in companies of “Sturmtruppen” to smash an enemy position that would allow the infantry to overwhelm the defenders.
In the final months of the war, these troops were armed with a new weapon, the “submachine gun.” Designed by Theodor Bergmann the Maschinenpistole 18/I fired the 9x19mm Parabellum pistol round, originally from a 32 round Luger drum magazine. It had a rate of fire from 350-500 round per minute, making it an ideal weapon for trench assaults.
“This was the first true submachine used in the war,” Cart says. “This was used to great effect by the Storm Troopers in the spring of 1918. Someone who was proficient with it could fire 350 rounds a minute. The problem was the production, and the Germans couldn’t make enough of them. If it had been developed a year earlier, we can only think what this might have accomplished.”
FRANCE: Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG – Chauchat
This gun has earned the reputation of being “the worst machine gun ever made,” but its critics typically highlight its shortcomings and overlook its innovative features.
While it’s true the open magazine allowed dirt and grime to foul the action, this was common with many belt-fed guns of the time. The American military was the biggest critic of the Chauchat, but this was due, in part, to the fact that the version adopted by the U.S. military was chambered for the.30-06 cartridge, which caused performance issues.
Many overlook the fact that when the weapon was introduced in 1915, it was the first squad automatic rifle, offering a rate of fire of 240 rounds per minute and weighing just over 20 pounds.
It featured a pistol grip and forward grip—features now common in modern assault rifles. If anything the Chauchat was a bit ahead of its time, and a gun that needed a bit more refinement.
UNITED STATES: M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle
In addition to designing the M1917 machine gun, John Browning also created what was arguably the best automatic rifle of the era, the BAR. It was designed to be carried by an infantryman during an assault and it was considered so revolutionary that the American military actually held back its use because of fears that the Germans might capture one and copy it. In fact, the BAR didn’t become standard issue until 1938 when it was issued as a portable light machine gun.
The gas operated automatic rifle could provide a rate of fire of 500-600 rounds per minute and had an effective range of 1,300 meters. Had the First World War dragged out into 1919 and beyond, there is little doubt the U.S. military would have deemed it necessary to bring the BAR to the front in mass.
According to Cart there were almost 52,000 BARs on hand for the Spring Offensive that never came.
“The BAR provided mobile rapid fire for infantry in an attack, which was something the troops didn’t really have before,” added Cart. “It had an incredible advantage that troops could move forward while firing. An American officer reported that these guns received hard use for weeks at a time but invariably continued to work. It was a true American designed weapon that was developed for the war.”