An early Maxim gun in operation with the Royal Navy

1895 .303 tripod mounted Maxim machine gun.

The Maxim gun was the first self-powered Machine Gun, created by American-born British inventor Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884. It is generally regarded as the first true machine gun, and is certainly the first to function reliably.

Invention[edit | edit source]

Maxim's attention was drawn to guns in 1881, when a friend is said to have told him "If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable those fool Europeans to cut each other's throats with greater facility."

Maxim's first patents related to the development of the Maxim were registered in June and July 1883.[1] The first prototype was demonstrated to invited guests in October 1884.[2] The weapon was first revealed to the public at an international Inventions Exhibition at Kensington in the spring of 1885.

This first model was very different to Maxim's production weapon: the heart of the mechanism was a crank resembling that of a piston engine in the rear of the weapon that rotated completely as the bolt cycled, requiring a very distinctive bulge to contain it. This version also had a pointer-operated fire regulator which allowed it to fire at any rate from 1 rpm to 600 rpm.

Maxim quickly took this design back to the drawing board, eliminating the rate of fire regulator entirely and reworking the action to be based around a toggle-lock, the forerunner of the mechanism used by the Borchardt C93 and Luger pistol. It was this variant that would see mass production and ensure Maxim's name went down in history.

Functionality[edit | edit source]

The mechanism of the Maxim gun used the energy from the recoil force to eject each spent cartridge and insert the next one. This made it vastly more efficient and less manpower-demanding than previous machine guns, like the Gatling and Gardner guns, which were built on an entirely different principle, using crank handles and a multibarreled approach.

Trials showed that the Maxim could fire 500 rounds per minute, equivalent to the firepower of about 30 contemporary breech-loading bolt-action rifles. Compared to modern machine guns, the Maxim was heavy, bulky and awkward. Even though one person could fire the gun, it was usually operated by a team of men. The cooling mechanism of the weapon needed a constant supply of water in order to produce a continuous stream of fire, and several men were needed to move or shift its position.

Company[edit | edit source]

Maxim's first established the Maxim Gun Company, mainly financed by Albert Vickers, son of steel entrepreneur Edward Vickers. Albert Vickers became the company's chairman. Later the company joined hands with the swedish-originated competitor Nordenfelt, and became Maxim-Nordenfeldt. The Post Office Directory of trades in London of 1895 lists the Maxim-Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company Limited office at 32 Victoria Street SW (London) on page 1579.

Finally the company was absorbed into the mother Vickers company, leading first to the Maxim-Vickers gun and then, after Vickers' redesign, the Vickers machine gun.

Use in colonial warfare[edit | edit source]

A prototype of the Maxim gun was given by Hiram Maxim to and employed by the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1886-1890, under the leadership of Henry Morton Stanley. This was as much a PR stunt as a military consideration.

The Maxim gun was first used by Britain's colonial forces in the First Matabele War in 1893-1894. In one engagement, 50 soldiers fought off 5,000 warriors with just four Maxim guns. The gun played an important role in the swift European colonization of Africa in the late 19th century. The extreme lethality was employed to devastating effect against obsolete charging tactics, when native opponents could be lured into pitched battles in open terrain. As it was put in a well-known jingle by Hilaire Belloc,

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not. .[3]

However, the importance and destructive power of the Maxim gun in colonial warfare has often been overplayed by popular myth. Modern historical accounts suggest that, while the weapon was effective in pitched-battle situations such as the Matabele war or the Battle of Omdurman (1898), its significance was as much due to its psychological rather than physical impact, used in a number of less optimal situations, such as hilly or mountainous terrain or dense vegetation, with poor line of sight.

A larger calibre version of the Maxim, firing a one-pound shell, was built by Maxim-Nordenfeldt. This was known in the Second Boer War as the "Pom-Pom" from the sound and was used on both sides.

Adoption by European armies and navies[edit | edit source]

Maxim's company initially had some trouble convincing European governments of the weapon's efficiency. The Tsar of Russia is said to have listened to an explanation of the 1885's mechanism, laughed, and said no man alive could operate that tiny crank 600 times in one minute, while the King of Denmark, on being told how much each round cost, told Maxim one of his guns would bankrupt Denmark in half a day. Soldiers generally held a great mistrust of machine guns, due to their tendency to jam in the midst of battle when needed the most, often resulting in casualties.

The 1906 version of the book Small Wars[4] notes that the Maxim gun is significantly more reliable than other guns of the period, a key issue with pre-1900 machine guns. On page 440 the author notes: "The older forms are not suitable as a rule.... They jammed at Ulundi, they jammed at Dogali, they jammed at Abu Klea and Tofrek, in some cases with unfortunate results."

The Maxim Gun was much more reliable than previous crank-operated weapons, but the mistrust for machine guns was deep-seated, and the reliability of the weapon had to be proven and tested thoroughly before being put to use.

Another more practical problem was that, initially, the position of the Maxim was easily given away by the black clouds of smoke produced by the constant firing of the gun. National and military authorities were therefore reluctant to adopt the weapon. The advent of smokeless powder (developed by, among others, Hiram's brother Hudson Maxim), helped change this.

The weapon was adopted by the British army under the guidance of Sir Garnet Wolseley, who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in 1888. In October that year he placed an order of 120 rifle calibre Maxims[5] - using the same .577/450 Martini-Henry ammunition as their Martini-Henry rifles.

Wolseley had previously led military excursions in Africa (the Ashanti war and the Gordon Relief Expedition in 1884-85), and had a reputation for being a strong subscriber to military innovation and reform, which he demonstrated in Africa, where he, apart from using machine guns and explored other unconventional ideas, founded the Egyptian Camel Corps.

The design was purchased by several other European countries, setting off an arms and technology race. The Maxim gun first saw significant action in the Russo-Japanese War, where both sides employed vast numbers of Maxim's guns. Nearly half of all casualties in the entire conflict were derived from Maxim guns.

World War I[edit | edit source]

By World War I, many armies had moved on to improved machine guns. The British Vickers machine gun was an improved and redesigned Maxim, introduced into the British Army in 1912 and remaining in service until 1968. Production took place at Crayford in Kent and some models were fitted to early biplanes also fabricated there. The German Army's Maschinengewehr 08 and the Russian Pulemyot Maxima were both more or less direct copies of the Maxim. On the European Front, 90 percent of bullet-related casualties were inflicted by Maxim-type guns.

The gun also saw use during the Russian Civil War which followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. A picture of the period depicts a Maxim gun mounted on tachanka, a horse-drawn carriage along with the gunner, firing backwards at a pursuing White Army regiment. Some propaganda Socialist realist art even features Lenin as manning the gun himself, however it is very unlikely that he ever did so. Anarchists attribute this mobile setup to Nestor Makhno.

Maxim Guns, Maxim Clones, and Maxim Derivatives[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Literature[edit | edit source]

  • Anon, Vickers, Sons and Maxim Limited: Their Works and Manufactures. (Reprinted from 'Engineering') London (1898). It gives plates showing the mechanism of the Vickers Maxim gun and numerous plates showing the variety of mounts available at the end of the nineteenth century. It also includes numerous plates of the factories in which they were made.
  • Callwell, Colonel C.E. : Small Wars, a Tactical Textbook for Imperial Soldiers. 1990 Greenhill Books, London, Lionel Leventhal Ltd. ISBN 1-85367-071-5. This is a reprint of the 1906 version.
  • Goldsmith, Dolf F. : The Devil's Paintbrush. Sir Hiram Maxim's Gun, Collector Grade Publications, Toronto, 1989ISBN 0-88935-056-6
  • McCallum, Iain : Blood Brothers. Hiram and Hudson Maxim : Pioneers of Modern Warfare, Chatham Publishing, London, 1999
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.