The machine gun defined the First World War more than any other single form of technology. In the first months of the war, the infantry’s machine guns rendered cavalry charges obsolete and turned infantry assaults into nearly fruitless gestures. Later in the war, mounted to armored vehicles and airplanes, they were used in further efforts to break the stalemate that their stationary versions had helped to cause. Rapid-fire guns became viable during the time of the American Civil War, but armies were slow to adopt them and even slower to appreciate the ways that they might change combat. It took Hiram Maxim’s design, as typified by the German Maschinengewehr 08, to alter the course of the next major European war.
Earlier efforts had failed to earn the attention that they deserved. Custer famously left his Gatling guns behind as he rode to Little Big Horn, considering them heavy and cumbersome, ill-suited to the rapid campaign that he had envisioned. The French Mitrailleuse, another multi-barreled design like the Gatling, was kept too far back from the action in the Franco-Prussian War for the same reasons; they were transported, deployed and fired much like artillery, and so they were also arrayed with the guns, although their operative range did not justify such a distance from the fighting. Considering these false starts, it is perhaps unsurprising that armies hesitated to embrace the Maxim gun.
Hiram Maxim, a British inventor who had been born in the United States, registered his new design in 1883. Earlier repeater designs had employed muscular power, such as through a crankshaft assembly, to load and fire the gun. Maxim’s design dispensed with that component, utilizing the gas explosion of one cartridge to feed the next cartridge into the receiver and fire it in a fluid motion. This original gun could fire up to 550 rounds per minute. Such rates of fire generated extremely high temperatures in the barrel, so the Maxim gun was encased in a water-filled outer shell. This slowed the overheating of the barrel, but it also added substantially to the weight of the gun. This encouraged early adopters of the Maxim, such as the British Army, to continue the practice of employing the gun in artillery positions for a while, although this proved unsatisfactory in the small conflicts of the late nineteenth century.
In one of his more farsighted observations, Kaiser Wilhelm identified the Maxim as the design that would best serve the German Army in 1890, personally equipping the Guards regiments with these guns. In characteristic fashion, the General Staff did not embrace the notion until it had the opportunity to observe the gun’s performance in actual combat. When at last Germany’s key planners were prepared to accept the weapon, a license was purchased and the first German-manufactured Maxims were made in 1901.
These first German Maxims were straightforward copies of Maxim’s design, although chambered for German rifle rounds, the famous 7.92 mm Mauser. These early versions were still rather heavy, and they were organized as horse artillery, but the General Staff began in earnest to devise a body of tactical doctrine for the effective use of these weapons. Concluding that the existing configuration was too heavy and cumbersome, and recognizing with clearer than average vision that these weapons would be most effective in the hands of infantry units, the Staff ordered a lighter version, which was adopted in 1908 as the Maschinengewehr 08. The German term “Maschinengewehr” literally means “machine gun,” but without the ambiguity of the English term, for a “gun” can in popular use be any firearm from a Derringer to train artillery. It can better be understood as “machine rifle,” which marks it as using rifle ammunition, and distinguishes it from the later submachine guns, or “machine pistols” in German terminology.
The MG 08 differs from the original MG 01 only in the sled on which it was mounted, which was made lighter for infantry use. The gun itself was hardly altered, in contrast to the British Vickers, which was also derived from Maxim’s work but involved changes in the locking mechanism that allowed for a lighter receiver. For this reason, the MG 08 can be considered the “classic” Maxim gun, and its performance can therefore be considered typical, although nearly every country that joined the war in 1914 used some version of it; France, Belgium, Austria-Hungary and Japan are the exceptions.
In German use, the biggest distinction came in the manner of deployment. In 1914, there was a machine gun company with six pieces in every infantry regiment; the Jaegers, or light infantry, had one such company in each battalion. Total numbers are estimated between 1600 and 2000 at the start of the war, which exceeded the numbers available in any other army. Allied estimates further magnified the difference in numbers, sometimes to a silly extent, because of the aggressive way that the machine guns were deployed. By German reckoning, a machine gun could perform the work of 80 soldiers, and with this in mind, the machine gun companies were all utilized in the early action, rather than keeping them in the reserve. Thus, the proportion of machine guns in the front was higher than the nominal six per regiment. By the end of 1916, the numbers were increased to one machine gun company in each battalion.
While a single gunner could fire a machine gun under extreme circumstances, and without doubt this must have happened many times in the engagements of the First World War, it took several men to carry the machine gun and its supplies; German tactical doctrine called for seven men in each machine gun team. Remembering that each gun was held to do the work of 80 soldiers, this was not considered a waste of manpower. It should also be noted that the Maxim gun was a fairly complicated piece of equipment to fire and maintain, and the machine gun companies consisted of well-trained specialists. Furthermore, each gun was fired under the command of its own noncommissioned officer who directed fire for maximum effect. In consideration of the generally high level of training in the German Army, the average machine gun team must have been a very effective opponent.
When handled properly, the MG 08 was truly a devastating tool. It could fire 600 rounds in a single minute, although in practice this was never sustained because each ammunition belt carried only 250 rounds. The belt needed to be replaced twice before 600 rounds could be fired. Still, in the midst of an enemy assault, 600 rounds could easily be fired within a couple of minutes, and it is around that same threshold that the water in the cooling jacket began to boil. It is estimated that one and a half pints of water escaped as steam during the fire of each thousand rounds after this point; with only 7 1/2 pints in the jacket, the MG 08 needed a steady source of water for sustained fire. Soon ventilation attachments were made to direct the steam into containers where it could again condense into water for re-use. The effective range could exceed 4000 yards, but of course, accuracy improved substantially at closer ranges, especially when the gun was intended to cover an area of effect.
In broad terms, the other Maxim machine guns offered comparable performance, and the alternative heavy machine guns had similar effects on the battlefield. Too heavy to be carried on the offense, the machine guns of the early First World War did much to solidify the battle lines into hardened trench positions. Until the development of tanks and the employment of aircraft in ground support missions, artillery was the only viable tool to counter machine gun positions. As planners struggled to break the impasse, lighter machine guns were built with an eye toward participation in offensive action; for the Germans, this effort resulted in a variant of the MG 08, the MG 08/15. At less than half the weight of the MG 08, with a bipod instead of a sled, it could be carried by one man, which was crucial for the attack. It also possessed a buttstock and a conventional rifle’s trigger, which facilitated fire from the ground and the maintenance of a low profile. This variant played a substantial role in the creation of the first true general-purpose machine gun, the MG 34 of fame in World War II, but during World War I it was still too small an improvement to change the dynamics of the war.
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