Monday, August 11, 2014

Heavy Machine Guns - I

In our last post, we looked at light machine guns. In today's post, we will look at another class of machine guns, the Heavy Machine Gun (often abbreviated as HMG).

In the late 1800s, there arose a need for a firearm that could fire in automatic mode, with good accuracy over longer ranges, for a long amount of time. Such a weapon could be used by a small group of soldiers in a key position to defend against a much larger group of enemies armed with inferior weapons and prevent them from advancing. Unlike light machine guns, these weapons needed to fire in automatic mode for much longer periods. This led to the development of heavy machine guns, weapons that can literally lay down huge volumes of fire, for very long periods of time.

The first heavy machine gun in history was the Maxim gun, invented in 1884 by Sir Hiram Maxim, an American inventor settled in England (he later became a British citizen in 1900). He was a prolific inventor and invented several items including a curling iron, several gas and steam engines, electric light bulbs, automatic sprinklers, motor cars etc. In 1882, he was in Vienna and ran into another fellow American that he knew from his time living in America, who informed him that "Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others' throats with greater facility." As a child, Sir Maxim had fired a large gun and had been knocked down by the recoil. This incident inspired him to invent a recoil operated machine gun (he also patented gas operated and blowback systems between 1883 and 1885). While he was inventing his gun, he announced in the local papers that he was experimenting with a new type of gun in his garden and advised his neighbors to keep their windows closed, in order to avoid getting injured by broken glass!

Maxim's first prototype weighed around 26 pounds (11.8 kg.), but was not capable of firing for long periods of time because of overheating problems. To solve this issue, he put a water jacket around his barrel. He also increased the caliber to fit a .303 British rifle cartridge. This made his rifle design heavier and it weighed around 60 pounds (27.2 kg.)

A Maxim machine gun. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License by Jonathan Cardy at Wikipedia

Such a heavy gun required a team of people to operate: one man to fire the weapon and the others to reload ammunition, refill water, spot targets, help carry the gun and ammunition from one position to another etc. While Maxim tried to sell his invention to various European countries, many of them were suspicious about machine guns in general, because of jamming issues on previous models. Luckily for Maxim, the British had appointed Sir Garnet Wolseley as commander-in-chief in 1888 and he was a big believer in new technologies and placed an order for 120 Maxim machine guns in October, using the same .577/450 cartridges of the Martini-Henry rifle. The Maxim guns proved their worth in 1893/1894, in the First Matabele War in Africa., where a small unit of British soldiers armed with just four Maxim guns held off a force of 3500-5000 African Ndebele warriors. After this and several other encounters, other governments started to take notice and placed orders for heavy machine guns as well.

Early Maxim guns had a problem of heavy smoke obstructing the view of the gunner very quickly, but the invention of smokeless powders solved this issue. Incidentally, Hiram Maxim himself was one of the pioneers of smokeless powders and he and his brother, Hudson Maxim, were granted a patent for a particular type of smokeless powder. However, the patent was issued in the name of "H. Maxim" and his brother took advantage of this to stake a claim for the patent and later moved back to the United States, where he developed several more explosives and sold the rights to the DuPont Chemical Company. Because of this patent dispute, Hiram Maxim stayed in Europe, while his brother moved back to the United States and the brothers never spoke to each other ever again.

Due to years of experimenting with loud guns, Sir Hiram Maxim's hearing was damaged and he began to go deaf later in life. In a twist of fate, a device that could have saved his hearing, the Maxim silencer (suppressor), was invented by his son, Hiram Percy Maxim in 1908.

In our next post, we will look into further developments of heavy machine guns.

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