Ever since humankind realised that certain ideologies were better than others, and that oneself and one's peers were more worthy of preservation than one's lessers, whether human or animal, it has been the goal of man to produce a device which could kill
as many living things in as short a time with as little effort as possible. In this respect the machine gun is one of the fundamental goals towards which human development has striven, and it is interesting to note that the perfection of the concept during the 1940s has been followed by the subsequent decline of western society. One cannot understand the twentieth century, the best century ever
, without at least a passing knowledge of its most representative totem.
A machine gun is a firearm which uses a mechanism to load and fire successive rounds of ammunition in a continuous stream, although there are many variations on this general theme, and the things which once made a machine gun distinctive have became blurred with time. Nowadays, for example, most soldiers are armed with a weapon capable of rattling off short bursts of automatic fire, but these are called 'assault rifles' as they are too small and light to provide sustained, lengthy fire with full-powered ammunition. Yet some 'machine guns' fire intermediate rounds, and do not have quick-change barrels or tripod mounts.
Essentially, a machine gun is defined by the use to which it is put; typically for supporting or defensive fire, not necessarily aimed, but designed to cause enemy troops to stay in place whilst friendly soldiers close with and destroy them. Some machine guns can be carried and fired by one man, from the hip or the shoulder, although the necessity of providing at least a heavy, heatproof barrel causes such guns to be heavier and clumsier than assault rifles.
All firearms are machines, and thus a more accurate term would be 'repeating rifle', or 'self-loading rifle', although these became used to define magazine-fed manual loaders and battle rifles respectively. The term 'machine gun' coalesced in the last decade of the 1890s, and is nowadays used to describe firearms possessing the aforementioned characteristics with a single barrel, firing rifle ammunition, with a calibre of less than 15mm. Larger-calibre weapons are cannon, multi-barreled weapons are either multi-barrelled cannon, rotary cannon or Gatling Guns, small-calibre weapons are sub-machineguns.
Developments to 1914
Although the machine gun itself did not come into being until the 1880s there were a number of interesting developments prior to this. What could dubiously be called the first machine gun was patented in 1718 by a man called James Puckle. His eponymous gun was fed with a removable nine-shot revolving cylinder, and was therefore more accurately a prototype of the revolver; in typically British style the idea was a good one left to rot. During the century that followed many multi-barrelled 'volley fire' weapons were produced, each performing the function of several rifles ganged together, but it was not until the American Civil War that real progress was made towards an automatic weapon capable of indefinite fire, the Gatling Gun. Invented by a man called Richard Gatling, at a time when it was normal for a product to carry the name of its inventor, the Gatling Gun was a multi-barrelled weapon fed from a hopper, firing rounds of a calibre extraordinary today; .58. In common with other, similar designs (such as Wilson Agar's single-barrelled 'Coffee Mill' gun or the British 'Gardner'), the Gatling Gun required that an operator turn a crank in order for the gun to function, and could thus be described as a 'semi-automatic machine gun'. The use of 'hopper feed' died out with the Gatling Gun, with the exception of the Japanese Type 11 of WW2. For 1861 it was a formidable weapon, nonetheless, and performed sterling service against white and red-skinned opponents alike.
In 1885, however, Hiram Maxim's Maxim Gun would truly became the first fully-automatic machine-gun, using the recoil of each round to eject its spent casing, and chamber and fire the next. Furthermore it was fed from a canvas belt which could be replenished indefinitely, or at least until the barrel - cooled by a water-filled jacket - melted or the mechanism shattered. Many other guns were based on the Maxim's design; the British Vickers and German MG08 being the most famous examples. The Maxim's fortunes rose and fell between the American Civil War and WW1, although it was put to good use quelling troublesome natives in many colonial backwaters; the rifle alone was no longer sufficiently intimidating. The Gatling Gun itself was too large and unwieldy to persist into the twentieth century, although the concept of a multi-barrelled rotary cannon would be revived during the tail-end of WW2, such devices remaining potent aerial weapons today.
In 1911 a breath of the future emerged in the form of the Lewis Gun. Designed and developed by two Americans, Samuel MacLean and Isaac Newton Lewis. At a little over ten kilograms the Lewis Gun was less than half the weight of previous machine guns, and it was feasible for one man to carry it into battle. Fitted with a pistol grip and shoulder stock the Lewis Gun was fed from drum magazines, and was the ancestor of today's 'squad automatic weapons'. The American army was uninterested in it, but Lewis and MacLean would find a more receptive audience in Europe, the gun's light weight serving to deflect some of the British Army's prejudices against machine guns.
World War One was made for the machine gun. Four years sent from heaven to test the will and ingenuity of mankind, the war saw the advent of tanks and air power, the first widespread use of poison gas and high explosive, and the advent of 'total war'. The machine gun remains one of the most potent symbols of the period. The awesome spectacle of trench warfare would not have been possible without it. In the face of rapid fire and barbed wire the finest sons of the finest empires were shot, pinned down, and exterminated. Combined with artillery, the machine-gun rendered individual heroism irrelevant; no matter how well-trained or talented, every soldier operated equally at the same low level from the point of view of a machine gun.
Just as the repeating revolver before it, and the crossbow before that, the machine-gun was an equaliser. It gave a handful of conscripted soldiers firepower equivalent to that of several platoons of trained, veteran infantrymen. This was not a popular concept amongst the British Army's top brass, the Army being a fully-professional force up until 1916, which placed great store in rapid, aimed fire (the so-called 'mad minute' of training kept this skill sharp). Against an attacker it was felt that rifle fire would be enough, and that on the offence, the British Army's preferred mode of combat, a machine-gun would be a needless burden, impossible to keep supplied with sufficient ammunition to make a difference. Both theories were valid; but they were the wrong theories. All theories of warfare were wrong in the face of the machine-gun and heavy artillery, for the solution to the problem of advancing against 600 rounds a minute had not yet been invented, and would not be so until 1916. In contrast the German army was enamoured of the machine gun, and tens of thousands of Maxim-derived weapons poured from the arsenals at Spandau (indeed, even during WW2 German machine-guns were often called 'Spandaus'). Thus the western front proceeded to obliterate the self-confidence of an entire continent.
During the war the machine gun spurred innovations in manufacturing technology but changed hardly at all on the ground, although the need for light-weight machine guns to arm aeroplanes led to smaller, lighter devices with higher rates of fire and larger magazines. The most influential development was again American, this time in the form of John Browning's 'Browning Automatic Rifle' of 1917, or BAR (always pronounced 'Bee-Aye-Are'). The BAR was similar to the Lewis Gun in conception, or the French Chauchat - a one-man light machine gun - but it was lighter than the former and more reliable than the latter, and fed from simple box magazines, albeit only of twenty-round capacity. Gas-operated - tapping the gas pressure of each round's explosive charge via a vent in the barrel, and using this instead of recoil to cycle the gun's action - and fitted with an integral bipod, the BAR's mechanism continues in use today as the FN MAG, and the gun itself was, except for its great weight, the first automatic battle rifle.
In 1918 another kind of machine-gun was developed, the sub-machinegun, or 'machine-pistol', a more descriptive term. The sub-machinegun fired pistol calibre ammunition and was intended as a portable mini-machine gun for trench warfare. Pioneered by the German MP18 'Bergmann', the sub-machinegun reached its peak of fame in WW2, as the Sten, Thompson, MP40 and PPSh, before becoming in the post-war years chiefly a police and paramilitary weapon.
During the refractory period firearms development continued at a much slower pace than before; there were plenty of prototypes and theoretical designs, but little money with which to pursue production. Nonetheless the majority of today's machine gun designs originated during the twenty years between the wars, either as actions or actual guns.
The field into which the most effort was put was that of the light machine gun. The politicians and military men who had lived through the First World War did not want to go back to static trench warfare, and with the increasing potency of mechanised warfare a one or two-man light machine gun was clearly the future. Three conflicting impulses caused this problem to be particularly hard to solve. In lieu of bulky cooling systems a light machine gun must have a heavy barrel, otherwise the barrel would melt or warp, causing inaccuracy and possibly catastrophic failure. Additionally, even the heaviest barrel is not indestructible, and thus there must be provision for it to be replaced as quickly as possible. The gun must be stable, which usually means that it must be equipped with a bipod or tripod, and be heavy enough to absorb recoil, but not so heavy as to become impossible to carry. These problems were solved in a variety of pragmatic ways, most obviously by realising that one man would not be sufficient to carry a gun and ammunition into battle. Typically a machine gunner would be accompanied by an assistant who would carry spare barrels and, if necessary, the tripod (or 'sustained fire kit' in modern parlance). Usually all the members of a platoon would also carry spare ammunition, in the form of magazines or linked belts.
America's Browning M1919, Germany's MG13 and Russia's DP were amongst the most successful takes on the concept, the former two mainly being mounted on jeeps and light armoured cars, the latter a successful LMG bar its heavy and fragile drum magazine. More successful still was the Czech ZB-26, which formed the basis of Britain's Bren Gun. The Bren was similar to the BAR but fired from thirty-round magazines which fitted into the top of the gun; it could thus be held closer to the ground. With ten more rounds than the BAR and a quick-change barrel (one, moreover, that could be changed without asbestos gloves), the Bren continued in British service until the mid-1990s, in slightly modified form as the LMG. It is and was widely regarded as the finest magazine-fed LMG of its day, so fine that, upon annexing Czechoslovakia, Germany spared no delay in adopting the original Czech design to bolster the Wehrmacht's arsenal (Germany would also use a Polish-built version of the BAR).
At the same time progress was also made in the field of heavy machine guns. The guns of WW1 were certainly weighty, but fired rifle-calibre ammunition, lethal out to over a mile but incapable of punching through light armour. John Browning's .50 M2 of 1921 and the Russian 12.7mm DShK of a decade later both fired ammunition derived from WW1-era anti-tank rifles (large calibre rifles design to fire through armour). Although tank armour quickly outclassed the .50 bullets, the weapons took the role of the previous war's static machine guns, defending forts and emplacements against aircraft, armoured personnel carriers, or indeed personnel. The M2 remains in service today. In 1944 Audie Murphy won his Congressional Medal of Honour with an M2, blasting dozens of German infantrymen to death from the back of a burning tank destroyer.
However, of all the guns produced or proposed during the inter-war years, by far the best was the German MG34 and the MG42, its close relative. This latter was to be the pinnacle of machine gun development, and thus one of the pinnacles of industrial achievement; it is significant to note that previous designs were identified with their designers, whilst the German MGs were merely numbered, clearly the product of a corporation, the most advanced form of human organisation. The MG34 was envisaged as a 'universal machine gun', suitable for use by a squad of infantry, mounted on a tank, in aircraft, on ships, everywhere a machine-gun was required. It had a quick-change barrel, was fed from either a belt or a drum magazine, and could be mounted on either its attached bipod (in two positions; near the muzzle or half-way down the gun) or a special and complex tripod, which contained recoil damping springs and a mechanism to traverse the gun automatically. Whilst previous machine guns had fired at 400-600 rpm, the MG34 fired at almost a thousand rounds per minute, its retort sounding more like a chainsaw than a gun. However, despite the ready availability of cheap labour, the gun was too complex and expensive to be economical, and as the German army's stocks were being depleted in the early stages of WW2 the MG34's successor was developed, the MG42.
Fielded in 1942, the MG42 was a simpler, cheaper and more robust design than the MG34. It eliminated the former's curious double-lever trigger (top for single shots, bottom for full-auto) and was constructed of stamped steel rather than castings. Half the price of its forebear, requiring half the resources and half the man-hours, the MG42 fired at over 1,500 rpm, sounding less like a chainsaw than a dentist's drill; it was nicknamed 'Hitler's Zipper' or 'burp gun' by the newspapers of the day.
The MG42 was essentially perfect, so much so that it continues today as the Rheinmetall MG3, updated for standard NATO 7.62 ammunition from the original 7.92 Mauser. Whilst Germany's WW2 arsenal was extremely influential, the MG42 was one of a very few actual designs to persist after WW2 (elsewhere, the V2 rocket formed the backbone of America's early space programme, the Me 262 'Swallow' jet fighter continued in service in Yugoslavia, and the FG42 light machine gun provided the basis for America's M60, a weapon beset by design and development problems).
With the MG42, machine gun development reached a peak, and but for its heavy, all-metal construction the MG3 remains state-of-the-art. The Cold War era machine guns were either developed from earlier designs (the FN MAG was updated from the BAR and the aforementioned M60 was a redesigned cross between the FG42 and the MG42, the former of which was further derived from the Lewis Gun of 1912), or simply carried on, such as the British Bren Gun, which remained in service until the late 1990s. America's Browning M2 .50 remains essentially the same design as that fielded in .30 calibre in 1918. Machine guns are purely functional devices, not sold to civilians, not subject to the whims of fashion. Whilst the American consumer firearms industry has constantly spat out new and more fashionable pistol designs, giving the illusion, if not the substance, of progress, machine guns are not sold over the counter at KMart, at least not in automatic form (semi-automatic conversions are however available at great cost).
There were nonetheless a few advances during the Cold War, first of which was the concerted attempt to convert existing battle and assault rifles into one-man light machine guns. The FN FAL, M16, Steyr Aug, SA80 and others were and are available with heavy barrels and extended magazines, although these designs have never really taken off, as the stresses and temperatures to which machine guns are subject often overwhelm the design capacity of light arms. The only such design to persist with some tenacity was the Russian RPK-47/74, both slightly modified versions of the AK-47 and its successor, although the continued existence of such weapons is probably more due to Communist and post-Communist procurement policies than any outstanding qualities possessed by the weapons themselves. The one unqualified success in the LMG field, the FN Minimi, was an entirely new design, one that could feed belts or magazines, chambered for the same 5.56mm round as the M16 assault rifle. In service with Britain's regular army and SAS, and America, latterly as the M249 SAW ('Squad Automatic Weapon'), the Minimi is perhaps the ideal lightweight suppressive assault weapon and is the modern heir of the Bren gun.
Firearms development in general has slowed down greatly since the halcyon days of yore, of total war; the world's three most powerful nations are armed with rifles designed in the late 1940s, updated with polymer furniture, whilst the bullpup configurations preferred in the shattered remains of Europe are barely a decade younger. The hot new field of weapons research is that of smart, electronic aerial munitions, whilst the guerrilla and anti-terrorist confrontations of the near future will require light-weight, accurate assault rifles. The machine gun's role as a reaper of large quantities of cannon fodder is out of step with current public opinion, as Western society no longer relishes mass killing as it once did; whether this state of affairs will persist or not is out of our hands, but the machine gun will remain, it cannot be put back into the box.
Apart from every book I own, except for 'Swallows and Amazons' which still makes me cry, and my own personal fascination for mass death, the following and many more: