Firearms have existed since the mid 1300s, and with each passing century manufacturers have found new principles and designs that have only increased the functionality of those weapons. One of the most consequential developments in firearms was the invention of the fully automatic machine gun in 1882. With that, world history was changed forever.
For most of their existence, firearms have been single-shot weapons where the user had to manually load powder and bullet into their gun to fire it. That changed with the invention of the cartridge in the 1840s, where the bullet, powder, and primer were all included in one package. That enabled users to fire more rounds in a less amount of time.
According to PBS, cartridge-fired guns became standard issue for more armies as time went on. The Crimean War in the 1850s was the last war where only muzzle-loaded firearms were used.
Repeating guns were introduced, such as lever action rifles, that enabled a user to fire a round, pull the lever, and load another cartridge into the chamber within seconds of each other. However, rate of fire would only increase thanks to Hiram Maxim.
According to Military History Now, Maxim was a high-profile American inventor, who worked on projects that led to the production of mousetraps, curling irons, steam pumps, bronchitis inhalers, and even the amusement park ride.
In 1882, he conceived his most famous invention: the machine gun.
When the 42 year old was in Vienna, he met an American whom he had met in the states. According to Maxim’s account of the encounter to 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.’”
Indeed, Europeans had, for centuries, loved to gore each other in bloody conflict. Ever since written history existed in the continent, tales of long and bloody wars defined the European continent’s history. It is only recently, after World War II, that the nations of Europe have largely stopped their genocidal campaigns.
With Europe’s bloody history in mind, Maxim took to his machine shop in London, and spent the next three years developing one of the most destructive weapons ever devised: the fully automatic machine gun.
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.
Others had experimented with fully automatic ideas, but Maxim’s was the one that broke through. One of the key features of Maxim’s machine gun was the use of a recoil-operated firing system, where the firearm’s recoil was harnessed to automatically bring another cartridge into the firing chamber, rather than requiring an external mechanism.
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.
Even the Bolsheviks in Russia adopted their own version of the machine gun.
The gun was used in both world wars with devastating consequences. Military tactics had not yet caught up to the technology, and unprecedented numbers of troops were mowed down by the automatic gunfire.
In the United States, a civilian could purchase a fully automatic machine gun by mail order and have it delivered to their front door. However, the National Firearms Act of 1934 put a halt to that, thanks to the insane amounts of mass shootings during the Prohibition era.
For militaries, the machine gun still remains a core part of their soldiers’ weaponry (despite the fact that firing in fully automatic mode decreases accuracy and wastes ammunition, but all you gun owners out there probably already know that).
The invention of the machine gun was an immensely consequential breakthrough in weapons technology, and this technology is not becoming outdated any time soon.