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The Machine Gun: Its History, Development and Use: A Resource Guide

The invention of a military firearm that could produce rapid, repeating fire had been sought for nearly 900 years. This guide comprises digital resources and print materials related to the history of the machine gun.


The invention of a military firearm that could produce rapid, repeating fire to overwhelm and repel an attacking force or act as an offensive or defensive force multiplier had been sought for nearly 900 years. Early attempts to invent what today is known as the machine gun did not produce a fully automatic weapon but resulted in often bulky and semi-reliable guns consisting of single shot barrels gathered together and mounted on a gun carriage or tripod. Some of these multi-barreled weapons were hand-held as a pistol or shoulder-arm, and took a considerable time to reload. Though they could be deadly to an attacker, they could be nearly as dangerous to the gunners themselves. Those hand-held arms evolved into repeating arms such as revolvers, semi-automatic pistols and rifles, and fully automatic sub-machine guns and assault rifles. Those arms are not included in this guide.

So-called organ guns or volley guns of various makes and numbers of barrels came into use as early as 1339 during the Medieval-era reign of English King Edward III (1312-1377) and on into the later 19th Century, when they began to be eclipsed by the modern machine gun. They included examples of the medieval Ribaldequin gun also called the "Infernal Machine," the Billinghurst Requa Battery Gun, the Nock Volley Gun, and the Vandenburg Volley Gun.

Not until the mid-1800s was a weapon invented that was practical, for the most part mechanically reliable, and could be reloaded relatively quickly. The best known example was the Gatling Gun. It was the invention of Richard J. Gatling (1818-1903). Other designs made their appearance as well but did not gain the notoriety the Gatling Gun achieved. These other designs included the Montigny Mitrailleuse, the Nordenfelt Gun, the Agar Gun or Union Repeating Gun (also known as the Coffee Mill Gun), and the Gardner Gun.

First invented in 1884 by Hiram Maxim (1840-1916), the modern machine gun came into use in the late 19th Century in such conflicts as the Boer War and the Spanish American War. It saw use in many other places and became notorious for its use by European nations in their pursuit of colonies. The first combat use of the Maxim occurred on October 25, 1893 in modern-day Zimbabwe when 700 police troops of the British South Africa Company's Police (BSAP) were attacked by 3,500 Matabele warriors as British adventurers invaded their kingdom. Five Maxim guns killed about 1,500 warriors. A week later, another battle saw 2,500 warriors killed out of 6,000 due mostly to the Maxim gun's use. Other machine guns including the Colt M1895 "Potato Digger" in 1889, the Hotchkiss 1897 and the Skoda M1893 were produced with varying levels of mechanical reliability, and were much less popular than the Maxim Gun.

The Maxim Gun became the standard and saw exponential growth in demand and nearly universal use in the first decades of the 20th Century. Russian use of Maxims in the defense of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) caused 6,200 dead among an attacking Japanese infantry force of over 35,000. World War I (1914-1918) saw the use of tens of thousands of Maxim guns of various manufacture. The primary manufacturers were the Vickers, Sons & Maxim Company in Great Britain, the Spandau Company in Germany, Colt-Vickers in the United States, and the Tula Arms Plant in Russia/the Soviet Union. As of 2022, Ukrainian armed forces were using Maxim guns against invading Russian troops.

Other firearms innovators, originating in the United States, including John Moses Browning (1855-1926) produced such famous guns as the M1917 Browning .30 caliber machine gun and an updated version, the M1919. Browning also invented a heavier gun, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun which became known as "Ma Deuce." He also designed a light machine gun for use by soldiers on the move. The Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR. Browning-designed military guns saw service throughout the 20th Century and many serve still well into the 21st Century. Another American, Isaac Newton Lewis (1858-1911) invented the famous Lewis Gun, a light machine gun used on aircraft and by infantry from World War I at least until the end of the Korean War (1950-1953). American Benjamin B. Hotchkiss (1826-1885) who had moved to France in 1867, and was already well-known for his Gatling-type revolving cannons, designed machine guns for the French Army beginning around 1900. Their use continued through World War II (1939-1945).

Innovation and necessity carried the machine gun even further and with a second world war beginning in 1939, new models and improvements to existing guns were widespread. Germany produced the MG-34 and MG-42. Modern versions of the MG-42 are still in use today with many militaries. Hotchkiss machine guns and auto-cannons produced in the United States, France, Japan, Italy and Poland were used by nearly all combatants during World War II and beyond. Other iconic guns of World War II include the British Bren Gun, the American Johnson light machine gun, the German FG-42, and the Soviet Degtyaryov light machine gun (DP series LMGs) and DShK 1938 heavy machine gun. The French FM 24/29 light machine gun replaced the unpopular and unreliable WWI-era Chauchaut light machine gun beginning in 1925.

The technological advances made during World War II and the advent of the Cold War (1947-1991) influenced further machine gun refinements throughout the world. The German MG-42 was the basis for modern-day versions made in Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Yugoslavia and influenced the design of such weapons as the American M-60 and the Belgian FN MAG. In the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, Russian designs predominated. The best known of these were derivatives and copies of Mikhail Kalashnikov's (1919-2013) AK-47 assault rifle developed into modified versions to serve as light machine guns. The DP series of light machine guns were replaced with Kalashnikov's RPD light machine gun and later the RPK light machine gun. Kalashnikov also invented the PK machine gun. Kalashnikov's designs are still in use with the Russian armed forces and many other nations' armed forces, as well as many paramilitary groups.

Above and beyond the call of duty--Dorie Miller received the Navy Cross at Pearl Harbor, May 27, 1942 / David Stone Martin. 1943. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs.

Doris Miller (1919-1943) received the Navy Cross for his actions during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7th, 1941. Serving aboard USS West Virginia, Mess Attendant Second Class Miller helped with wounded men, including the battleship's commanding officer, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion. He also served as gunner on a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun, without prior training. He was officially credited with downing at least two enemy aircraft during the attack.

Nordenfelt, T.. 1901. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs.

Thorsten Nordenfelt (1842-1920) developed the Nordenfelt Gun, an early machine gun in 1887. Designed by Helge Palmcrantz and patented in 1873, this multi-barreled gun looked more like a volley or organ gun, but could fire repeatedly because an ammunition hopper that was gravity-fed. Nordenfelt's company merged with the Maxim Gun Company in 1888, to form the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company (1888-1897).

Sir Hiram Maxim. 1915 and 1916. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs.

Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840-1916), invented the first modern machine gun in 1884. The Maxim Gun became the standard design for the machine gun and dominated in production numbers and use at least into the 1930s. First known for its use by European powers in their rush to acquire colonies, it was used in the tens of thousands by nearly all nations during World War One.