Machine guns have made a significant impact on battle ever since their first introduction. The sustained rate of fire forever changed the way wars were fought. The development of automatic arms started with the Gatling Gun in the Civil War era and progressed with a series of stumbles through the Great Wars and beyond. Here is an abridged history of those early years.
The Gatling gun is arguably the first machine gun, built in 1861 and patented on November 4, 1862. The high rate of fire was made possible by a cyclic multi-barrel design, which synchronized the firing-reloading sequence and prevented the barrels from overheating. The assembly was actuated via a hand-crank mechanism that spun and fired the gun.
As an individual barrel reached a certain point it would fire, eject the spent cartridge, and load a new round. The time between firing gave each barrel time to cool. With a seasoned crew, the Gatling gun could achieve a rate of fire of around 200 rounds per minute. Several calibers were used through the Gatling’s service with the Army, including .42, .45-70, .50 caliber, and 1 inch. Some later models were even converted to .30 Army, .30-03, and .30-06.
The Gatling gun first saw service with Union troops in the Civil War. About a dozen of the guns were personally purchased by Union commanders, and saw combat during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Because of their bulky, heavy nature, a number ended up on gunships. The United States Army officially adopted them in 1866, after a battlefield demonstration. Since that time, machine guns have been firmly entrenched in American military operations.
Despite it’s full auto capabilities, the Gatling Gun can’t truly be considered a machine gun because of the hand-crank mechanism needed to fire. It wasn’t until the Maxim Gun was invented in 1884 by American-born British inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim did the world see a recoil-operated machine gun. While the Maxim is often associated with British Imperialism, the U.S. Army adopted it in 1904, though their interest in the Maxim began as early as 1887.
The most significant achievement of Hiram Stevens Maxim was designing a reliable recoil-operated firing system, one of the first on record. The rearward force created by firing a shell acted on the breech block, ejecting the spent cartridge and loading the next round. Early models used a rotating cam for lock-up, but later versions used a simplified toggle lock.
Another key innovation was using a water jacket to cool the barrel. This meant that only one barrel was necessary to maintain a rapid rate of fire, without worry of heat warping or otherwise destroying it. But whatever weight was lost by ditching the other barrels was regained by the cooling system. This also added some complexity to an otherwise simple design.
The U.S. adopted the Maxim Machine Gun, Caliber .30, Model of 1904 as their first rifle-caliber heavy machine. Initially 50 guns and tripods were purchased from British manufacturer Vickers, Sons & Maxim, though the U.S. would purchase another 40 more by the time Colt’s Manufacturing Company had all the bugs worked out and starting producing the machine gun domestically in 1908. The English-built guns were chambered in .30-03, the standard of the Queen’s army at the time. Colt built the guns in the then-new .30-06 caliber; they also re-chambered the Vickers models.
Before the U.S. moved on to another machine gun, 287 were in circulation. Twenty mules were assigned to each company to move their allotment of four M1904s and the associated support equipment such as tripods and ammo. Detachments in the Philippines, Hawaii, Mexico, as well as Central and South America were provided with the Maxim, though they never saw much combat. During World War I, the gun was relegated to training use.
After John Moses Browning finished building the rifle that won the West, he switched his attention from lever actions to automatic arms, though he couldn’t quite shake the under lever from his drawing board. The first iteration of the M1895, an air-cooled machine gun firing about 450 .44-caliber belt-fed black powder cartridges a minute from a closed bolt, was built by John Moses and Matthew S. Browning in 1889.
The gun was later dubbed “Potato Digger” because of the lever that cycles much like the one on a Winchester 1886, though this one used exhaust gases and not the shooter’s hand to cycle it. When fired off the original tripod, which was too low, the lever would dig into the ground, hence its nickname.
On the first version, the lever was placed near the front of the gun to capture gases escaping through muzzle blast and cycle the action. Later versions, such as the one presented to Colt in 1892, would move the lever back farther. A port was drilled in the bottom of the barrel about six inches from the muzzle; the exhaust gases necessary to fire the gun were captured here.
This port was fitted with a plug that would pop out when the hot gases were encountered, acting on one end of a short lever. The other end of the lever was affixed to a hinge below the barrel. This basically mimicked the action of the Winchester lever guns, albeit in reverse, with the lever moving front to back. This process compressed a spring; it would force the lever forward and reset the action to fire the next round.
Even though the Maxim was developed first, the M1895 was the first machine gun adopted by the U.S. It saw service with the Navy, Marines, and Army. Even though the Army used the Maxim, they never officially adopted it. The Navy was the first to test the gun, a 6mm version in 1893. They found the Potato Digger to be capable of firing bursts of over 1,000 rounds before the barrel overheated. After that, bullets would tumble and lose any semblance of accuracy.
Operators also found that an overheated barrel would cause a few rounds to fire after the trigger had stopped being squeezed. In addition to 6mm Lee Navy, the gun would be built in 7x57mm Mauser, .30-40 Krag, .30-06 Springfield, .303 British, 7.62x54mm, and 6.5x52mm Carcano.
The M1895 was employed in the first known use of machine guns by American forces during an assault, when a Marine battalion enlisted four of them during the 1898 invasion of Guantanamo Bay. Roosevelt’s Rough Riders also used them during the Cuban conflict, with two of the guns chambered in 7x57mm Mauser privately purchased by family members for use by the cavalry troops.
The guns exhibited some success on the battlefield, but Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt wasn’t overwhelmed by the performance of the M1895, though. “These Colt automatic guns were not, on the whole, very successful…they proved more delicate than the Gatlings, and very readily got out of order.”
The Potato Digger also saw service with American troops in the Philippine–American War, and the Boxer Rebellion. Some M1895 in 6mm Lee were used in fixed installations on board ships during the 1914 occupation of Vera Cruz. Though the Army never did adopt the Potato Digger, they purchased two for evaluation. These were ultimately used for training during WWI.
This unreliable piece of battlefield machinery was nicknamed the “Daylight Gun” because it was so complicated that the operators needed light to put it back together when it ultimately broke down, something it did with great regularity, though evidence points to poor training and user error as the cause for most of these hiccups.
Designed by the French arms maker Hotchkiss around 1907, the gas-operated, air-cooled weapon was initially mostly used on aircraft. Unlike the previous machine guns that relied on a belt to keep the tube stuffed, the M1909 utilized 30-round metal stripper clips.
This iteration, dubbed the Hotchkiss Portative, was improved over the first version, the Hotchkiss medium machine gun. It retained the gas-operated action and clips of the original, though the feed system was now opposed horizontally. It was this strip that was responsible for many malfunctions; it was easily inserted upside down, causing jams and rendering the gun useless until the clip was inserted correctly. It was also known to break extractors and firing pins, which had to be replaced to bring the gun back into service—a complicated task.
The gun fired from an open bolt, with an estimated rate of fire of between 400 and 600 rounds per minute. The air-cooled barrel was fitted with a finned radiator to keep operating temperatures down. It was recommended that only 300 rounds be loosed in one volley, or the barrel would warp. In an emergency, the manual stipulates that as many as 1,000 shots could be fired without destroying the weapon. If the barrels did overheat they could be swapped out quickly, an innovation at the time. A bipod was affixed near the muzzle.
Cycling the 30-pound, 48.5-inch long gun was accomplished with a long-stroke piston with a multi-position regulator positioned beneath the 25-inch long barrel. A rotary nut around the breech was used to achieve lock-up. When fired, the gas piston travels rearward, forcing the nut to rotate clockwise and frees the nut’s interrupted threads from their perch on the bolt head threads. Fire control was accomplished via the non-reciprocating cocking lever: rotating it selected semi- or automatic modes of fire.
The version exported to the U.S. was named for the two engineers that perfected the gun, American Laurence Benét and Henri Mercié. The Model of 1909 Benét-Mercié Machine Rifle was manufactured by Hotchkiss in France while the Springfield Armory and Colt built them here in the States. These were built in .30-06 Springfield, as opposed to the 8x50R Lebel models used in France and .303 British in England. In total, only 700 of the guns made their way into the U.S. Armory.
The gun saw limited use in battle, first being utilized against Pancho Villa and his countrymen in 1916, an attempt to halt the raids on border towns. Four guns were employed during a night attack on the Villistas, in which the Benét-Mercié failed in its support role. This revealed the numerous weaknesses described above, and forced our military tacticians to look for another light machine gun. It was fortunate that the M1909 dispatched during World War I were only there to serve as training implements.
An excerpt from an article penned by Edward C. Crossman, a firearm expert contemporary to the first World War, in Illustrated World (Volume 29, 1918) titled The Best Machine Guns In the World, stated: “I remember one cold day how a government inspector and I lugged one of the government Benét-Mercié machine guns out of the great Colt factory where they were made then and set it up in the testing yard. Although the gun was in the hands of a most skilled man, a man there on purpose to inspect machine guns—that gun broke six parts in the first 20 shots.
It broke extractors and firing pins as fast as we could put them in—because the weather was cold, and the chilled parts were brittle. Imagine tumbling out in the chill dawn of a winter’s day with the Huns coming over No Man’s Land, and having your machine gun break apart the first rattle of shots!”
The Doughboys fought their way through the First World War with a mixture of machine guns from a variety of sources. One was the next evolution in the Hotchkiss line up, the M1914. Much more reliable than it’s predecessors, it would become the gun of choice for the American Expeditionary Forces. Approximately 7,000 were purchased for the unit; these saw extensive use in 1917 and 1918.
Adopted as the Hotchkiss Model Of 1914 Heavy Machine Gun, the 8x50R Lebel gun had added a few parts when compared to the M1909, up to 32 from 25. This added considerable weight, clocking in at 111 pounds with its tripod. This tripod was one of the few gripes the Doughboys had with the gun: it was too high. The troops rectified this by modifying them in the field.
The M1914 still used the stripper clips of the earlier model, though they seemed to feed better this time around. But the small capacity, 24- or 30-rounds, made a three-man crew necessary to keep it fed. It was probably just as well, as they could split the load. But for use in installations where they wasn’t a lot of room, such as a tank or anti-aircraft applications, a 250-round metal belt was developed.
One of the other automatic weapons that the Doughboys fought with in the 1917-1918 period was the Chauchat. Unfortunately for those outfitted with it, this machine rifle was all the way on the opposite end of the reliability spectrum from the Hotchkiss M1914. It was such a failure that many refer to the Chauchat as the worst gun ever.
To be fair, the gun itself wasn’t necessarily a poor design. The long recoil action was based on the Remington Model 8, a semi-auto rifle from the mind of John Moses Browning. The ergonomics did leave a bit to be desired, but weren’t the worst ever seen on a firearm. The gun had an in-line stock, pistol grip, detachable magazine, and a selective fire capability in a package significantly smaller than other contemporary machine guns.
The first issue stemmed from the flimsy half-moon magazine that the earliest versions of the gun were fitted with. Mishandling a mag in any way can lead to dents that would create a failure to feed as rounds couldn’t pass the obstruction. The follower would also get stuck if too much pressure was exerted on the side. Another issue was the sub-par springs, which forced soldiers to only load 16 rounds at a time, not using the full 20-round capacity.
The other big flaw came from the environment the gun was used in. Trench warfare involves copious amounts of mud. The Chauchat wasn’t equipped with a cover for the ejection port, so that mud often found its way into the inner workings of the gun. The barrel was also known to overheat to the point that it would expand and get stuck to the barrel shroud after a few hundred rounds. The only positive attribute of the Chauchat was its weight: At 20 pounds, it was less than one-fifth the weight of the M1914.
When the gun was retooled to fire .30-06 things took a turn for the worse. Dubbed the M1918 Chauchat, the production of the newly re-chambered gun was rushed to get the much-needed weapon into our soldiers’ hands. As a result, many left the factory with chambers cut too short. This caused the neck of the cartridge case to jam in the chamber. The case would stick to the chamber when fired, and when the extractor would try to pull it free the rim would get ripped off. Exacerbating this issue was the lack of extractor cuts in the barrel face. Almost none of these made it into battle as they barely functioned.
The Vickers machine gun was based on the Maxim gun, though it had received some improvements. Vickers bought the Maxim company in 1896 and set about refining the already reliable chassis. The weight of the gun was reduced, and the mechanism was inverted, which caused the shells to eject out of the bottom instead the front of the gun.
The British adopted the gun in late 1912. Soon after, in 1913, the gun was fitted on the earliest combat airplanes. It became standard equipment on British and French fighters shortly thereafter, with the addition of a synchronizing belt to keep it from cutting the biplanes propeller in half when fired.
The U.S. held a test of machine guns at the Springfield Armory on September 15, 1913. The field totaled seven guns, including the Vickers. When the tests were completed, Captain John S. Butler, Office of the Chief of Ordnance wrote that the “The Board is of the unanimous opinion that the Vickers rifle caliber gun, light model, stood the most satisfactory test. As to the merits of the Vickers gun there is no question – it stood in a class by itself. Not a single part was broken nor replaced. Nor was there a jam worthy of the name during the entire series of tests. A better performance could not be desired.”
Now designated the Model of 1915, or M1915, an initial order for 125 of the guns was placed with Colt. Another 4,00 were ordered the following year, even though Colt had yet to make good on the first order. It wasn’t until 1917 that Colt started producing the M1915, thanks to an overworked factory and unforeseen glitches. At first, the Colt-built Vickers were made for infantry use, chambered in .30-06, though aircraft models in both .30 caliber and 11mm were added the next year. By the midpoint of 1918, the guns had made way toward the front. All told, around 12,000 Colt M1915s were produced
John Moses Browning took another approach to machine gun design around 1900, when he filed a patent for recoil-operated automatic weapon. This was shelved for various reasons until 1910, at which time he built a water-cooled prototype of the sliding block design.
Subsequent tinkering led to improvements, converting the gun to bottom-eject. A buffer was added for smoother operation, and the hammer was replaced with a two-piece firing pin.
The gun was belt-fed, consuming .30-06 rounds at a rate of about 450 rounds a minute. In testing performed for the Army, the M1917 cooked off 20,000 rounds without a single hiccup. The performance satiated representatives from the Army, but John Moses wasn’t satisfied. He loaded another belt and went through an additional 20,00 rounds, with the only casualty being a broken firing pin. Browning then grabbed another gun and fired it continuously for 48 minutes and 12 seconds, cranking out over 21,000 rounds.
The Army adopted the M1917 as its primary heavy machine, but manufacturing issues would plague the program. In a rush to get the gun to the front, production contracts were issued to Winchester, Colt, Westinghouse, and Remington. Halfway through 1918, only 4,100 were made by Westinghouse and Remington combined. By the time Armistice rolled around, about 42,750 had been made.
By the time the gun made it to the Western Front World War I was nearly over.
Many gun historians will tell you that Jon Moses Browning’s greatest contribution to small arms design was the Browning Automatic Rifle, also known as the BAR. This would be the gun that would introduce the world to the concept of “walking fire,” with the soldier supporting the weapon via a shoulder sling while advancing through a trench. The firearm was relatively light, with the early versions weighing only about 16 pounds, making it easily portable by a single operator.
Debuted at the same February 27, 1917 demonstration that also introduced the M1917 to military leaders, the BAR was awarded a contract on the spot. The gas-operated automatic rifle fired from an open bolt, and was loaded via a 20-round box magazine. The gun ate rounds of .30-06 more reliably than the Chauchat it replaced could ever dream of, making the adoption a no-brainer for the military brass. The BAR was christened the M1918 when it began its service life.
Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company purchased the patent for the rifle, and was awarded a contract for 12,000 of the automatic arms. But due to its production of the Vickers, Colt was unable to build the M1918. They requested a delay, but the need for the weapon was so pressing that the contract was awarded to Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Winchester also fine-tuned the design, notably changing the ejection pattern from straight up to the side.
Unfortunately the harried pace at which the weapons were being churned out led to the first batch of BARs being delivered out of spec, some 1,800 guns. Additionally, many parts wouldn’t interchange between rifles. Assembly was stopped until the bugs were worked out, with full production taking place by June 1918. By July, Winchester was producing 9,000 guns a month toward the 25,000 units stipulated in the contract. Ultimately other factories joined the fray, and 120,000 Browning Automatic Rifles were produced between 1918-1919.
The BAR was famously first used in battle by John Moses’ son, Second Lieutenant Val Allen Browning, in France on September 13, 1918. Even though the gun was introduced so late in the war, the BAR had a major impact. The lightweight automatic rifle helped level the playing field, giving small units a fighting chance against heavy machine gun installations. France was so impressed with the BAR’s performance that they 15,000 of the automatic rifles to replace the Chauchat.