Sunday, July 3, 2011

Machine guns

Without the percussion cap and the self-contained round, the machine gun would never have been developed. As a minister, the Reverend Alexander Forsyth would perhaps have been horrified to discover his major part in this innovation. It was the method of ignition he invented to make wild fowling less vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather that became a key element of the machine gun. Rounds - the bullet and cartridge with its percussion cap and powder - could be fed on a belt or from a spring-loaded magazine into a rapid-firing and brutally effective weapon of war.

The Somme
World War I seems almost synonymous with the machine gun. On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, German artillery and machine-gun crews hunched behind their Maxim '08s killed or wounded about 60,000 British soldiers as they advanced across no-man's-land.
However rapid-fire weapons in the shape of multiple-firing flintlocks and muzzle-loaders had existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Puckle gun - a sort of large mounted revolver — was introduced in 1718 and was said to have fired 63 shots in seven minutes. In the American Civil War (1861-5), the .50/12mm-calibre Gatling gun (1862) with a reported rate of up to 1,000 rounds per minute (rpm), and the Agar "Coffee Mill" (1860), with a rate of 120 rpm, were used in some numbers. These guns were followed by other hand-cranked multi-barrelled models such as the Gardner, the Lowell and the Nordenfelt. In the period 1870-90 the British and Russian armies adopted the Gading gun, while the Royal Navy used three makes - the Gatling, the Gardner and the Nordenfelt.
The Gardner machine gun looks like a conventional weapon but it was operated by the crank handle on the right-hand side. Ammunition feed was by single rounds fed in from the top.

But none of these weapons was a truly automatic machine gun. All required some form of cranking and/or manipulation; a later model of the Gatiing had its barrels rotated by an electric motor. This manipulation, combined with the effect of the recoil, meant that the accuracy of these rapid-firing guns was generally unpredictable. The French and Belgians developed similar weapons - les mitrailleuses, the principal product being a 37-barrelled weapon invented in 1870 by Joseph Montigny.

Fully automatic
At the close of the 19th century an American, Hiram Maxim, demonstrated a fully automatic weapon T- a machine gun. This weapon would change the character of land warfare and dominate the skies when the first combat aircraft took off in World War I. The machine gun would heavily influence infantry tactics, requiring men to move in short dashes and employ "fire and movement", with the machine gun giving covering fire as rifle-armed soldiers closed with the enemy. As rates of fire increased the infantry would almost become ammunition carriers for the machine gun, advancing with belts or boxes of ammunition.

The inter-war years saw German arms designers learn the lessons of World War I and produce a machine gun that fulfilled the functions of both the long-range Medium Machine Gun (MMG) and the Light Machine Gun (LMG). In the MG34 they created the General-Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG). The United States, Great Britain and the USSR fought World War II with both MMGs and LMGs. The British used the superb Bren LMG, a weapon that was still in service with second-line troops in 1990-91 during the First Gulf War. The staggering volume of fire from the MG34 and 42, respectively 900 and 1,500 rpm, was intimidating but could also be inaccurate. A machine gunner would often aim at an area target and produce a lethal "beaten zone" where falling rounds would make movement very risky.
A German MG34 in use in World War II on its sustained fire mount. This turned it from a light machine gun (LMG) into a medium machine gun (MMG), creating the general purpose machine gun (GPMG).

Modern machine guns, such as the Belgian FN 5.56mm Minimi have become lighter and faster firing. Interestingly, the US electrically powered multi-barrelled Ml34 Minigun and GAU-19/A Gatling-type weapons incorporate technology first used in the designs of the 1860s. However, this development of a proven technology is not new. The Belgian FN MAG -in service with more than eighty armies across the world - uses the double-feed pawl system and the quick-change barrel that replaced the water jackets and cooling fins developed by the Germans for their superb MG42 machine gun in World War II.
The Belgian FN MAG is the most successful GPMG in service in NATO. It has a rate of fire of around 850 rounds per minute.

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