Machine guns are a vital piece of a modern army arsenals, but at the time of the Great War they were relatively untested on battlefields. Forms of mechanized, rapid-firing weapons existed since the 1860s. Hiram Maxim invented the first true machine gun in 1884. The difference between earlier gatling guns and Maxim’s new design was the firing mechanism: all previous models required external force to discharge spent rounds and reload (e.g. hand cranks), Maxim utilized the gas released from the combustion of powder to power his gun. Though his invention was revolutionary, Maxim’s pitch to the British army was initially rejected.

The Germans, however, realised the potential of the Maxim gun and quickly reverse engineered his design. By the outbreak of the Great War, Germany’s army had decades of experience with machine gun tactics, while Britain did not officially form their Machine Gun Corps until 1915.

Early machine guns were both cumbersome to transport, weighing between 65 and 140 lbs, and prone to mechanical malfunctions. These weapons had a potential rate of fire of between 400 and 600 rounds per minute. While these guns had the capacity to replace between 60 to 80 riflemen, reliability issues, such as overheating, continued to plague machine guns through the early years of the war. Two methods for overcoming this issue emerged: air cooling, through ventilation holes, and water cooling, with water jackets which held approximately a gallon, but quickly needed replenishing when the gun was operating at full capacity. As the war progressed, air cooling technology proved more effective. Therefore, machine guns became more lightweight. By the end of the war, some models weighed in at only 33 pounds. Along with increased mobility, range and rate of fire improved steadily over the course of the war, both essentially doubling by the war’s end. Defensively, machine guns allowed small units to hold strategic positions, which contributed to the importance of entrenched lines that defined the Western Front. Until relatively late in the war, the lack of mobility and unreliable nature of machine guns meant that they had little offensive advantage.

By Micheal Williams

For further reading/Sources:

Bruce, Robert. Machine Guns of World War I. Ramsbury Marlboroug: U.K.,The Crowood Press 1998

Smith, Anthony. Machine Gun: The Story of the Men and the Weapon That Changed the Face of War. New York: New York Saint Martin’s Press, 2002

Cornish, Paul. Machine Guns and the Great War. Brensley: U.K. Pen and Sword Press, 2009

Raach, George. A Withering Fire: American Machine Gun Battalions in World War I, Saint Petersburg: Florida, Inc., 2015