The advent of the machine gun massively altered the battlefield and modern battlefield tactics. Modern squad tactics are heavily dependent upon fire support from medium and light machine guns. Military tacticians have been figuring out the optimal balance for a machine gun to have and what technological advancements have been most influential from the rate of fire, weight, reliability, and ease of production. Let’s take a closer look at the most influential machine guns and innovations.
The First Machine Gun
The grandfather of the machine gun is the Gatling Gun. Richard Gatling developed this firearm with the idea of saving lives on the battlefield after watching the slaughter that was the American Civil War. The idea being that needing fewer men on the battlefield would result in fewer casualties. Unfortunately, his theory didn’t pan out as he planned.
The Gatling gun and later machine guns didn’t immediately change battlefield tactics, and it wasn’t until the end of the first World War that military leaders realized that marching men in lines against weapons with high rates of fire was suicidal. His invention spawned all future machine guns, which have heavily influenced battlefield tactics and changed the way countries, armies, and squads fight wars.
The first machine gun was a multi-barrel (6-10 barrels depending on the model) crank-fired weapon that needed its own squad to operate and maintain the weapon. Each barrel had a bolt and firing pin which meant constant supervision.
The Gatling gun was originally purchased privately by Union military commanders and first saw combat in the Siege of Petersburg in 1864 with devastating effects. A nine-month siege that saw trenches heavily used by both sides. It foreshadowed tactics that would be adopted in the first World War. The Gatling gun was formally purchased by Union forces in 1866. It saw action in several conflicts but due to its weight being comparable to the artillery of the day, it was quickly phased out by machine guns in the early 20th century that were lighter weight, gas-operated weapons, with even higher rates of fire.
Recoil Operated Reloading Machine Gun
The Maxim Machine Gun was one of the first recoil-operated firing mechanisms using the energy of the last bullet firing to reload the new bullet. It was adopted in a variety of variants by almost every country that participated in the First World War, each country producing a maxim in their preferred caliber. In fact, several countries developed their own machine guns, that were modeled directly after the maxim machine gun.
It saw heavy use in WWI, WWII, and Korea. It was a single barrel weapon that was water-cooled making it quite distinct from the original Gatling. It essentially had a water tank around the barrel to keep the weapon from overheating. It was so widespread that it was even used by Arab forces under the command and guidance of Lawrence of Arabia. Water was scarce on the Arab Peninsula so they used urine instead of water to cool the weapon, however, this increased the likelihood of the barrel corroding.
The recoil-operated firing mechanism is still used by machine guns and semi-auto firearms today. There has yet to be a system that has surpassed this method of reloading, and it was invented over 100 years ago.
The Maxim machine gun was heavy and needed to be mounted on a tripod in order to fire it effectively. Nevertheless, it has been solidified as one of the most influential firearms in world history.
Rate of Fire
If the rate of fire was what made a machine gun great then look no further than the MG42. The fastest rate of fire single-barrel weapon, the MG42 was probably the least favorite weapon that allied soldiers encountered during the war. Its barrels could quickly be swapped out and the only issue with it was it was difficult to carry enough ammo to properly feed it.
The number of casualties inflicted on allied forces during the D-day landings is a testament to the effectiveness of the MG42. Modern variants that are chambered in 7.62 NATO are still used by many European forces today. Oddly enough, the United States used many features of the MG42 while designing the M60 machine gun. However, they intentionally slowed down the rate of fire and made the weapon easier to handle. There aren’t many weapons that were invented before WWII and are still in use today essentially unchanged. The only one that comes to mind is the 50 cal. M2 machine gun. Later machine guns developed off of the MG42 design would all slow down the rate of fire. Sometimes there is such a thing as too fast.
The FN Mag was developed in the 1950s in Belgium as a multi-purpose machine gun. They have licensing agreements with several nations and have sold the weapons to over 80 countries. This weapon is the definition of a workhorse. It’s still in use today by several nations including the US and for good reason.
This weapon is incredibly sturdy plus it can be used on armored vehicles, tanks, and by infantrymen. Its rate of fire is ideally set so it can lay down a solid wall of fire without burning through ammo unnecessarily. The weight of the Mag is an issue, which some of the new variants such as the M240L by the US military try to fix. This variant cuts down the weight of the M240 machine gun by about 5 pounds. There were some thoughts to replace the M240 with a machine gun chambered in 338 Lapua instead of the 7.62 NATO, but nothing has been finalized and nothing is near ready to be produced. This weapon is used by all the branches of the military and is a reliable firing platform. You can literally throw this weapon down a mountain and it will still shoot. Troops hate carrying it, but in a firefight, it’s beloved by the soldiers who are using it.
Magazine-Fed Light Machine Gun
The Lewis machine gun is synonymous with the British military and air corps, however, it was originally developed in the US. One thing led to another and it wasn’t picked up by the US military and its designer Issac Newton Lewis decided to take his invention abroad. This magazine-fed gas-operated light machine gun first saw service in the first World War and set the groundwork for future magazine-fed light machine guns.
The Lewis machine gun has a very recognizable top feeding round magazine and a large barrel shroud that acts as a heat shield. It was far superior to the French magazine-fed Chauchat machine gun used by US troops at the beginning of the war. The US eventually adopted a variant of the Lewis gun in WWI. Later on, the US military eventually used the BAR Machine Gun (Browning Automatic Rifle). The Lewis gun showed how the effectiveness of the magazine-fed light machine guns and paved the way for the Browning machine gun to take its place. The BAR was put into service at the end of WWI and was arguably a better and more modern version of the Russian RPK. Nowadays, many nations are switching their light machine guns to magazine-fed weapons instead of belt-fed. The idea is that the overall rate of fire will be higher when you take into account not having to clear the inevitable jams that occur with belt-fed weapons.
There have been many innovations surrounding machine guns particularly because wars and conflicts have made it necessary. Nevertheless, machine gun innovation seemed to be prevalent among militaries around the world with multiple countries getting us to where we are today. I’m not sure if this level of global input exists with other types of firearms but I think it makes machine guns that much more interesting. The fact that any modern machine gun has so much history built into its design from across the world makes these weapons special.