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How The Machine Gun Changed Combat During World War 1

Lasting from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918, World War I is perhaps the most notable war in the history of mankind and while this war is so famously known for its great conflict, history buffs credit it for being the beginning of military and civilian technology. Within the very heart of the war, soldiers were expected to fight in harsh, trench conditions, brave wreckage and carnage and do so unwaveringly. By November 1918, the end of the war as we knew it, a staggering 9 million soldiers never came home. 21 million would come home wounded.

In the course of these four long years, one of the most iconic weapons of World War I was responsible for a massive amount of these statistics. The machine gun revolutionized combat efforts and quickly drove out nations with their horse-drawn carriages into submission. From its bare roots beginnings to the evolution of this iconic weapon that is still in use today, Norwich University’s Online Masters in Military History program took a look at how the machine gun came about, how it managed to almost single handedly change the outcome of WWI and subsequently change the art of war as we know it.

HOW THE MACHINE GUN CHANGED COMBAT DURING WORLD WAR I

The Beginnings of the Machine Gun: Invention and Specs

Invented by Hiram S. Maxim in 1884, the first automatic machine gun was birthed in the United States. Maxim’s machine gun was completely self-powered and worked by relying on the energy released in the firing cartridge that would then dislodge multiple bullets with nothing more than the pull of a trigger. This kind of technology was unheard of and it was what prompted this primitive powerhouse to be first demonstrated by the British armed forces. At this time, it released an initial 600 rounds per minute, what would be a detrimental number for the opposition in years to come. The “Maxim” gun had a water-cooled jacket that stretched round the barrel, holding one gallon of water and while this innovative technology was nothing short of epic, especially in its time, it had one peak pitfall… it weighed a whopping 136.5 pounds. It was difficult to move in times when quick thinking was critical but its size and clunky demeanor did not stop it from doing its job and doing it well.

Moving Forward

It did not take long until Maxim sold the gun he had created and watched as it quickly catapulted to even larger stardom on the battlefield. At this time, it became known as the Vickers gun and was then capable of putting out 450.303 rounds of ammunition per minute. While this was good news in many ways, it was also about to be introduced into the wrong hands.

Adopting the Machine Gun: Germany’s History with the Vickers Gun

It was not until 1887 that the machine gun made its way to the German Army and with its mass capacity and devastating blow, it wasn’t any wonder that the Germans wanted to produce the gun in their own right as quickly and effectively as possible at a Spandau arsenal. There were a meager 12,000 guns by the time the war broke out in 1914. That number, however, would explosively grow to become 100,000 guns in a very short time. By 1917, the Germans were reporting that the majority of their small arms ammunition, 90% to be exact, were going into the chambers of their machine guns. This was a sobering thought.

Changing Battle Tactics with the Introduction of the Machine Gun

The earliest, most primitive renditions of the machine gun worked entirely from a hand crank but by the ending of World War I in 1918, the machine gun was entirely automatic and was capable of producing an output of up to 600 rounds per minute. Even still, there were more changes on the horizon. No longer a weapon fired by just anybody, the machine gunnery moved forward as an expertise and by this time were handled by specialists corps. These specialty corps would develop new firing methods that would change the way we see war and how battles are fought from the inside out.

It was in 1916 that the British and Allied Forces created barrage fire. Barrage fire was a method that allowed troops to fire over the heads of their own soldiers. This opened up the way for both planned and unexpected attacks as well as responses to SOS calls from the infantry. By late 1917, the Germans created elite sharpshooter attachments. They would use them in their specialized attack formations that they have become so notorious for.

Machine Guns: The Future and Beyond

As we have seen over the course of this article, warfare is always evolving. Nothing stays the same forever and evolution always wins out to provide us with even more innovative forms of weapons that once seemed like they could grow no more advanced. Ever-changing technology continually influences machine gun designs and they are growing lighter and more accurate year after year, even in countries halfway around the world.

2015 brought us the introduction of the Cased Telescoped Light Machine Gun or the CT LMG. It was introduced at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference of the same year. This impressively designed weapon weighed only 14.5 pounds. This is 8 pounds lighter than the 240… but if you want to get technical — compare it to the almost 200-pound machine gun of first invention and you can truly see how far the machine gun has come in all these years. This new machine gun was produced as a part of the U.S. Army’s Lightweight Small Arms Technologies Program. The program works to lower ammunition weight by 40% and the weight of weapons as a whole by 35%. These changes are by no means small. They will allow soldiers to navigate faster, conserve energy and fight battlefield fatigue… all very important elements of staying safe and effective in high stress situations.

As we move forward in time, weapons like the machine gun are always being altered. This constant evolution will not stop with us. There are always new discoveries just on the horizon and it is these technologies that keep combat marching forward into the future.

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