By: Peter Suciu
This week, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
When WWI began in August 1914 – some 30 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria – no one predicted a prolonged war that would end the lives of millions of men in the front lines, nor that it would bring down three of the ruling dynasties of Europe.
The First Truly Modern War
The Great War is the first truly modern war resulting in numerous technological advancements.
Today, the Second World War is remembered as the conflict that ushered in the atomic and jet age, but it was the First World War that arguably made those advances possible, as military planners looked to new and more lethal ways to break the deadlock. Their efforts included the use of aircraft, submarines, poisonous gas, and armored vehicles, such as the tank.
WWI is also notable for its numerous innovations in small arms, which is why so many men died on the mud-soaked battlefields of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and beyond.
The deadliest weapon was, of course, the machinegun. To comprehend its devastating firepower, we need to take a step back and remember that Europe had been experiencing an extended period of peace for more than a generation when WWI began.
Recent conflicts between Russia and Japan, however, as well as the two Balkan Wars, should have served as portents to the killing potential of modern firearms.
When the armies of Europe engaged one another in the Napoleonic Wars a century earlier, most professional soldiers were armed with smoothbore muzzle loading muskets, and few could exceed firing four rounds a minute.
By the era of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), though, the armies of each respective side carried far more advanced breech-loading rifles, which offered greater range and accuracy. Nevertheless, these weapons were still single shot – and had to be manually reloaded and rechambered after each shot!
In 1914, the bolt action rifles of Germany, Great Britain, and France could hold anywhere from three to 10 rounds and could be quickly reloaded. More importantly, these weapons used modern gunpowder instead of black powder, which provided even better range and accuracy.
Rapid Fire Killing Machines
Along with modernized artillery, the machinegun took killing to a whole new level. These weapons were already in the arsenals of the great powers well before the outbreak of the First World War, and they had seen use in numerous conflicts. Yet it wasn’t until 1914 that European armies truly discovered the devastating power these relatively new guns possessed.
The concept of rapid fire had been proposed since the earliest days of firearms, but early pioneers were hindered by the fact that muzzle loading guns were slow to load. Designers thus sought multi-barrel weapons, and the earliest attempt at a “machinegun” was born out of such a design when Richard Jordan Gatling patented the first controlled, sequential fire weapon in 1861.
Named for its inventor, the Gatling Gun saw limited use in the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, and the potential for sustained fire was unveiled. It subsequently saw use in various colonial engagements, but it was Sir Hiram Maxim's invention that would truly have an impact on future conflicts.
The Maxim gun, invented in 1884, was the first self-powered machinegun. It utilized the recoil power of the previously fired bullet to reload a new round into the chamber, rather than being hand-powered. This process enabled a much higher rate of fire than was possible using earlier designs, but it came with many shortcomings, including the fact that the single barrel could overheat very quickly. To resolve this issue, Maxim also introduced the use of cooling via a water jacket around the barrel. Maxim’s design proved quite successful and was widely adopted. Derivative designs were used on all sides during the First World War.
The Germans produced the Maxim under license as the Maschinengewehr 08, or MG-08, and it served as the primary heavy machinegun of the German Infantry Divisions. It had an effective range of 2,000 meters and an extreme range of 3,600 meters, which was more than enough to mow down advancing forces in no-man’s land.
While some argue that military planners didn’t foresee the Maschinengewehr’s killing potential, the fact that the Germans had some 12,000 MG-08s available for battlefield operations in August 1914 makes such an assertion hard to believe. German planners, as least, seem to have been aware of what the MG-08 could do!
The Age of the Machinegun
In 1914, in fact, some 200 MG-08s were produced each month; by 1916, however, that number increased to 3,000 a month, and a year later, it reached an astonishing 14,400 per month. Clearly, the age of the machinegun was at hand!
The British and French also saw the potential for the machinegun, and the former had relied on the Maxim in its colonial wars, where it not only proved effective, but inspired the Anglo-French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc to note:
Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.
The British Vickers company purchased the Maxim Company in 1896 and introduced an improved machinegun.
The Vickers design reduced the weight, simplified the action, and introduced components made of high strength alloys. There was one drawback to the improvements, though: they resulted in shortages when the war broke out, and thus many British units were still equipped with older Maxims.
The French Army, which also gets unfair knocks for being a bit behind the times, had been undergoing military reforms when WWI started. This situation explains, at least in part, why French soldiers marched off to the front lines in uniforms that were visually little changed from that of the French Army under the Second Empire that fought the Prussians in 1870.
The baptism of fire in the opening months of the war, however, resulted in numerous changes for the French.
Just as it was looking at uniform and even helmet designs prior to WWI, the French military had also been experimenting with small arms. As a result, at the advent of The Great War, France was relying on a number of machineguns, including the largely forgotten Puteaux Model APX 1905 machinegun, which proved to be a disastrous attempt at changing what wasn’t really broken when it came to Maxim’s proven designs.
The French were also utilizing the St. Étienne Mle 1907, a gas operated, air-cooled machine gun that used the 8mm Lebel round common in French infantry rifles. The design was sturdy and reliable and remained in active service with the French army until the early 1940s, when France was defeated on the battlefield during the Second World War.
The M1917 Browning
Of course, the machinegun design that proved to be a true game changer in WWI was a late arrival to the battlefield: the American-designed M1917 Browning machinegun. This weapon served through both World Wars, Korea, and even saw limited action in Vietnam. The .30 caliber belt-fed, water-cooled machinegun also led to the development of the air-cooled Browning M1919 and the larger .50 caliber M2 machinegun.
In the 100 years since the end of World War I, small arms have advanced, but far less so than during the 100 years that preceded it. The machinegun has been improved, but it was a weapon that truly proved its killing potential a century ago.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.