There are very few machines in the world, today, that can claim to have been designed over a hundred years ago. There are some railroad engines, for example, that are still run as “living museums”, ferrying the curious around closed rail circuits, allowing modern riders to experience some of the feels and smells of bygone eras. In other places, there are hydroelectric dams that have changed little in the near-century since they were built; Hoover Dam comes to mind, as it nears its own century mark, with only minimal updates to its internal design.
This is equally true of firearms. The Browning Machine Gun, in both .30 and .50 calibers, and the Colt 1911 (also designed by John Moses Browning) all date from over a century ago, yet remain in both first- or second-line service around the world. The Mosin-Nagant rifle, and its 7.62x54mmR cartridge, in contrast, date all the way back to 1891, and while the Mosin rifle may no longer be in common service (aside from a few WW2-era examples turning up in Ukraine), the 7.62x54mmR remains the cartridge of choice for the PKM GPMG, one of the most widely deployed machine guns of the early 21st Century.
But one weapon stands apart from all of these: the Maxim Machine Gun.
First invented in 1884 by an American inventory, Hiram Stevens Maxim, and first offered for sale in 1886, the Maxim Gun has been used in every part of the world, in virtually every conflict of note since that time. The Maxim was the first true “machine gun”, in the mechanical sense that we understand the term today. Unlike most machine guns of today, the Maxim is recoil-operated, meaning that it only uses the recoil impulse of the cartridge firing, to retract, extract, and eject spent cartridges, then chamber and fire a new cartridge. In contrast, most modern automatic weapons use some form of gas-operated piston – very similar to the piston in a car engine – to operate their cycle.
Similarly, the Maxim typically use a large, cylindrical water jacket to cool and protect the barrel from the heat of firing, unlike modern weapons which rely on the flow of air and “quick-change” barrels to accomplish the same task. While very good at cooling barrels, the water jackets were very cumbersome, and prone to damage, both in and out of combat, which could cause catastrophic damage to the weapon if no immediately repaired.
With a cyclic rate of about 600 rounds per minute, the Maxim is – by modern standards – heavy, clunky, and awkward. As well, it is certainly nowhere near to modern standards of reliability in the field…and yet, the gun refuses to quietly disappear into a museum, because it continues to soldier on in the 21st Century.
The Maxim was tweaked and fiddled with by every state operator who bought copies. But Maxim wasn’t done with his design: in the early 1890’s, he released a much larger version of his machine gun (YouTube link) that fired 37mm explosive shells, at a rate of c.300 rounds per minute, to about 4,500 yards. Versions of this “pom-pom gun” (so-called, because the sound it made while firing) would be used as secondary and tertiary armament on ships, as well as early anti-aircraft weapons, until the end of WW1.
The Maxim would be used as a frontline weapon through the war in Korea. By then, though, it was showing its age, as better materials and designs produced lighter, more reliable and more portable weapons. The surviving weapons, around the world, were mostly placed in storage…but the Maxim’s legacy continued: the PKM and its successor, the Pecheneg GPMG, both use ammunition belts that are backwards-compatible with the PM1910, the Imperial Russian version of Maxim’s design, dating from before WW1.
But again – Maxim’s design refuses to gently go into that good night.
As the world exploded in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring”, many citizen rebels and resistance fighters overran government armories, and found Maxim’s old guns in storage crates. Those guns were broken out and cleaned, training and maintenance manuals were sourced from online repositories, and the century-old weapons went back into action. They may no longer be the best guns available, but old and creaky guns are better that harsh words and rocks.
Firearms – of all categories – are very recent additions to Mankind’s arsenal, as they have been effective combat tools for considerably less than 1,000 years. They are one of the most – if not the most – decisive “force multiplers” in human history. Learning about firearms makes no one “evil”, nor is it “glorifying” weapons – it makes them well informed and productive members of the societies…who should REALLY be wondering just whose side they are really on.
Don’t go gently into the night – because it may not be as gentle of a night as you think it to be.