Machine Gun

   A generic term for an automatic weapon capable of firing small-arms ammunition continuously and rapidly. The first cyclic firing weapon constructed was probably James Puckle’s Defence gun from 1718. The Gatling gun, constructed by Richard Jordan Gatling in 1861, was the first to see action, notably in the American Civil War at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. It fired 300 rounds per minute. British troops used Gatling guns against the Ashanti in 1874 and the Zulu in 1879. Another early type was the Gardner Gun, adopted by the British Army in 1879. These were not true machine guns, however, as their feeding mechanism had to be operated manually, but most European armies acquired them. Early cyclic firing weapons were regarded as artillery, being large, bulky, and wheel mounted. Consequently, they were deployed as such, in clusters far behind the front firing lines. This rendered them almost useless, a lesson learned particularly by the French in the Franco-Prussian War.
   Sir Hiram Maxim, an American settling in Britain in 1881, constructed the first true machine gun. The Maxim gun was presented to the British Army in 1884. It had a recoil driven feeding mechanism and water-cooled barrel, could fire six hundred .45-caliber rounds per minute, and was effective against area targets at a range up to 2,000 meters. It proved indispensable in Britain’s colonial wars in the late nineteenth century. It first saw action in 1885 in the Red River Rebellion in Canada and was especially devastating against the human wave assaults in the Matabele War of 1893 in South Africa. By 1900, the colonial troops of all the Great Powers were equipped with machine guns.
   The Russo-Japanese War was the first to witness battles between large forces equipped entirely with breech-loading and rapid-fire weapons. By World War I, most machine guns were based on the Maxim concept, like the German Machingewehr 08, although shorter, lighter, and mounted on a tripod or bipod. One notable exception was the unreliable French Saint-Etienne M1907. On the eve of the war, however, the French developed the excellent Hotchkiss Modèle 1914, with a gasdriven loading mechanism.
    Headrick, Daniel R. The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981;
    Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. London: Jonathan Cape, 1976.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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