A machine gun is a firearm that is capable of fully automatic fire. What this means is that as long as the firearm has ammunition available to it and the trigger is pulled, it will continue to load and fire ammunition automatically. Machine guns are capable of firing at high rates of several hundred rounds per minute and are designed to keep firing for considerable periods of time. The capability of maintaining sustained fire for long periods of time is what distinguishes a machine gun from an automatic rifle or an assault rifle (both of which can fire on full-auto only for limited periods of time).
US military doctrine has another interesting way of classifying automatic rifles versus machine guns. If the fully automatic firearm is operated by a crew, then it is a machine gun, but if a fully automatic firearm is operated by a single person, then it is an automatic rifle. In many cases, weapons fall exclusively into one of these two designations, however, we have one major oddball that falls into both categories -- the M249. US Army Field Manual FM 3-22.68 ("Crew-Served Machine Guns") describes the M249 as both an automatic rifle and a machine gun! Quoting from the manual chapter 4, section 5, paragraph 4-207, "Both the M249 automatic rifle and the M249 machine gun are identical, but its employment is different. The M249 automatic rifle is operated by an automatic rifleman, but its ammunition may be carried by other Soldiers within the squad or unit. The M249 machine gun is a crew-served weapon."
Machine guns can be portable as well as mounted and therefore, they are generally classified based upon size.
Before we dig deep into the topic, let us talk about submachine guns, which are portable firearms that are designed to fire pistol-sized ammunition. While they have a high rate of fire, some authorities do not consider these as "true machine guns" as they are not capable of sustained fire for long periods of time. Examples of these would be the Thompson submachine gun (which actually coined the term "submachine gun") also known as the Tommy gun, Chicago typewriter, Trench broom etc., Heckler & Koch MP5, Uzi etc. All these weapons are designed to fire pistol sized ammunition such as .45 ACP, 9 mm Parabellum etc.
Next, we have true machine guns like the Light machine gun, Medium machine gun, Heavy machine gun, General purpose machine gun which all use larger ammunition calibers (rifle calibers or larger). These weapons are generally heavier than other automatic weapons (even the "light" machine gun is heavier than an assault rifle, for instance). Examples of these would be the Lewis gun, the Bren gun, MG-34, Browning M1917, Browning M2, M60 etc.
A Lewis gun. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.
A M60 machine gun. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.
We will study more into these various types of machine guns in the following posts.
Finally, we have weapons in the autocannon category. The difference between an autocannon and a machine gun has largely to do with the type and size of ammunition. If the firearm uses ammunition greater than 16 mm. diameter, or if it uses large caliber explosive rounds, then it is considered an autocannon rather than a machine gun. Examples of an autocannons include the M242 Bushmaster (which we studied briefly, when recently studying about chain guns), Oerlikon 20 mm. autocannon etc.
Since machine guns are designed to fire on automatic for longer periods of time, they tend to overheat quickly. Hence, many of them are either designed to have a built in barrel cooling system or feature a quick-change barrel replacement system. For the same reason, most machine guns are also designed to fire from an open-bolt, so that the breech area can be more efficiently air-cooled when the gun is not firing.
In the next few posts, we will study all about various types of machine guns and their history.