Machine Gun — How Hiram Maxim’s Deadly Invention Changed History

The Maxim machine gun, pioneered in 1885, became a powerful symbol of European imperialism. The weapon would later go on to change the very nature of warfare. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Hilaire Belloc summed things up best in 1898’s The Modern Traveller when he wrote: ‘Whatever happens, we have got, the Maxim gun, and they have not.’”

By Sam Bocetta

HIRAM MAXIM WAS a prolific American inventor. During his lifetime, he devised mousetraps, curling irons, steam pumps, bronchitis inhalers, and even an amusement park ride. He also tinkered with powered flight, early radio technology and light bulbs.

It wasn’t until 1882 however that the 42-year-old inventor conceived his most famous creation.

“I was in Vienna, where I met an American whom I had known in the States,” Maxim told the Times of London. “He said: ‘Hang your chemistry and electricity! 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.’ ”

Over the course of the next three years, Maxim toiled in his London workshop and, lo, the Maxim machine gun was born.

Hiram Maxim and his machine gun. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Ironically, Hiram’s creation would not initially be used by Europeans to kill one another, but by the continent’s imperial powers to slaughter their colonial enemies by the thousands. In fact, Maxim’s gun was so effective at keeping the peace in Britain’s sprawling empire, Queen Victoria bestowed a knighthood on the inventor in 1900.

In just one battle during the 1893 Matabele War, Maxim guns cut down more than 1,600 warriors. Tribal leaders were so despondent by the slaughter, they committed suicide en masse by throwing themselves on their spears.

The writer Hilaire Belloc summed things up best in 1898’s The Modern Traveller when he observed: “Whatever happens, we have got, the Maxim gun, and they have not.”

Historians have hotly debated whether or not the Maxim killed more people than any other gun in history. And while it would be hard to prove or disprove that theory, by all accounts, it definitely made a dent to say the very least.

As John Ellis wrote in his masterful work The Social History of the Machine Gun, “without Hiram Maxim, much of subsequent world history might have been different.”

Variations of the Maxim gun would define ground combat during the First World War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

One place the weapon did change history was on the Western Front of the First World War. In fact, it alone was responsible for the conflict’s grim nickname: “the machine gun war.” Of course, there was a veritable plethora of rapid-fire weaponry in use between 1914 and 1918, but none attacked the enemy’s psyche quite like the many variants of the Maxim gun.

It would see action again on battlefields of the Second World War, as well as the Korean conflict, and would be used by no fewer than 29 countries between 1886 to 1959. Yet despite this, it is still perhaps most associated with the British imperial conquest.

Some scholars have debated the actual role the Maxim played in colonial warfare, positing that its true significance was due more to the psychological impact it had on Britain’s adversaries rather than its efficacy as a firearm.

A diagram of the Maxim gun. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Deadly by Design

Although, many 19th Century inventors had experimented with automatic weapons, Maxim’s gun was a game changer.

By employing one of the earliest recoil-operated firing systems, the Maxim was able to quickly excrete a spent cartridge and insert the next one, whereas earlier firearms required manual mechanism. As a result, it was less labor-intensive than other early rapid-fire weapons.

Chambered for the .303 British, a cartridge not dissimilar to the modern day .308 Win in terms of stopping power, the Maxim had approximately 2,000 pounds of force at the 500-yard mark.

And with a 250-round canvas belt feeding system and a rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute, it’s no wonder the weapon inspired terror among those in its way.

By diminishing gas buildup in the barrel, the Maxim was able to fire more loads in extended sessions without the barrel overheating. Whereas most weapons of the time were air-cooled, the Maxim gun was water-cooled to sustain its rate of fire.

The Maxim weighed-in and an unwieldy 60 pounds and had an overall length of 42.5 inches. It typically took a crew of four to six men to load, reload, align, carry and care for the Maxim. At least one man was needed on standby with water and ammo.

Not only was the Maxim more accurate when fired at distant targets, but it was also renowned for being far more reliable than its counterparts.

Bolsheviks use a Russian variant of the Maxim. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Users and Variants

The U.S. Army had heard tell of the awesome power of the Maxim as early as 1887. Eventually, it experimented with 1889 and 1900 models as possible infantry weapons. Testing lasted for some time before the Maxim was adopted in 1904 as the .30 Caliber Model 1904.

Russia was also a major customer. Already in use there at the time of the country’s 1904 to 1905 war with Japan, once hostilities were underway, the Tsar’s generals placed a rush order 450 additional Maxims from overseas manufacturers.

The Maxim enjoyed substantial longevity with the improved Vickers machine gun model being introduced into the British Army in the early 1900s. The redesigned Vickers model possessed a maximum firing range of 4,500 yards and had a 500-round rate of fire. It would remain in service until the late-1960s.

A British Vickers crew in 1916. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Germany adopted its own variant of the Maxim in 1908. The Maschinengewehr 08 or Maxim MG08 became the heavy machine gun of choice among the Kaiser’s soldiers. It would continue to be used by the armies of the Third Reich.

Operating on a short barrel recoil and a toggle lock, the MG08 was an improvement upon previously models in that once it was cocked and discharged, it would continue to fire off rounds until the gunner released the trigger or until all ammo in the 250-round fabric belt was spent.

The MG08 had an impressive range of 3,900 yards. Needless to say, in order to contend with such a weapon, Germany’s enemies turned to their own Maxim variants, including the PM M1910, the Russian version of the Maxim, which would see action on the Eastern Front in 1914 as well as the 1919 to 1922 civil war.

The Maschinengewehr 08 was a German version of the famous machine gun.

The Russian M1910 was mounted on a wheeled chassis with a gun shield and was chambered for 7.62x54mm cartridges. This caliber was and is ideal for extended shooting sessions. The weapon had a firing rate of 700 rounds per minute and an M/v of 2,296 fps, making it was nearly twice as powerful as your everyday small game air rifle or a modern Glock pistol, both of which clock in around 1,200 fps.

Another key variant was the larger-caliber variant known as the “Pom-Pom.” This version of the Maxim fired a one-pound shell and proved devastatingly effective during the Second Boer War in South Africa. This particular variant was said to have much longer ranges than the other British artillery of the time.

UN troops deploy a Maxim-type machine gun in Korea. (Image source: Australian War Memorial)

Maxim’s legacy

Popular Mechanics has called the Maxim “one of the best firearms ever made,” writing about the incredible structural integrity of the weapon.

In its review, the magazine referenced a 1963 test in Yorkshire by a class of British army armorers. The evaluation employed a Vickers that was no longer considered fit for military use. Using no less than 5 million rounds, the team took turns firing the entire stockpile over the course of a week.

After seven days of nearly continuous fire, the Vickers was broken apart for inspection. The results were mind-boggling. The gun was ruled to be within service spec across every dimension.

Throughout the years, the Maxim has been reconsidered and rebuilt several times – just like today’s Maxim Firearms‘ official slogan, which reads: “Back to the drawing board.” In 2017, the Maxim brand produces AR-15 assault rifles, along with replacement parts and accessories.

The AR-15 is and always has been an impressive weapon in its own right, but when it comes to ingenuity and intricacy of design, nothing quite measures up to the classic Maxim. There’s a reason it has long been a mainstay in the modern world of Steampunk.

With its pintle latch lever, cradle clamping handle, traversing dial, water jacket, belt feed slide, drive spring rod, cradle pintle socket, iron sights, elevating arc and traversing handwheel, it looks like the stuff of pure imagination. But it couldn’t get more real if it tried.

Sam Bocetta is a writer at Gun News Daily where he covers US gun news and reviews the latest firearm products and gear.

1 comment for “Machine Gun — How Hiram Maxim’s Deadly Invention Changed History

  1. 1 November, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    Great history. I collect shotguns by one of the inventors that failed at the gun, Sylvester Howard Roper (November 24, 1823 – June 1, 1896). His revolving shotgun 1866-1870 lacked “only” using the recoil or exhaust gases to re-cock the gun. He did however invent the variable shotgun choke, the first pump shotgun, with Spencer and Bannerman and the motorcycle, which he was riding when he died.

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