Maxim gun

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An early Maxim gun in operation with the Royal Navy

The Maxim gun was the first self-acting machine gun.

Whilst its predecessors, such as the Gatling and Gardner guns had a manual crank to power the mechanism for loading, firing and ejecting their cartridges, the Maxim gun used energy from its ammunition.

Invented by American-born Briton Hiram Maxim (1840 - 1916) in 1885, it used the energy of each bullet's recoil force to eject the spent cartridge and insert the next one. Trials showed it could fire 500 rounds per minute, equivalent to the firepower of about 100 rifles. Compared to many modern machine guns, the Maxim was bulky and awkward, typically requiring a four to six man team to operate it. However, at the time it was the only alternative to slow firing bolt action rifles, and its extreme lethality was employed to devastating effect against obsolete charging tactics.

It was adopted by the British Army in 1889, and first used by Britain`s colonial forces in the Matabele war in 1893-1894. In one engagement, 50 soldiers fought off 5,000 warriors with just four Maxim guns. The Maxim gun played a major role in the swift European colonization of Africa in the late 19th century. As it was put in a well-known jingle by Hillaire Belloc,

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

The design was purchased by several other European countries, setting off an arms and technology race. The Maxim gun first saw significant action in the Russo-Japanese War, where both sides bought vast numbers of Maxim's guns. Nearly 50 percent of all casualties in the entire conflict were derived from Maxim guns. The German Army's Maschinengewehr 08 and the Russian Pulemyot Maxima were both based on Maxim's invention.

The 1906 version of the book Small Wars [1] notes that the Maxim gun is significantly more reliable than other guns of the period, a key issue with pre-1900 machine guns. On page 440 the author notes: "The older forms are not suitable as a rule.... They jammed at Ulundi, they jammed at Dogali, they jammed at Abu Klea and Tofrek, in some cases with unfortunate results."

A later, lighter model of the five man Maxim was ominously nicknamed the "Devil's Paintbrush" in reference to the sight of whole rows of charging soldiers being cut down in a line.

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Creator, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim

By World War I, many armies had moved on to lighter, even more reliable machine guns. On the Western Front, 90 percent of bullet related casualties were inflicted by Maxim-type guns, including the Vickers machine gun which was an improved and redesigned Maxim introduced into the British Army in 1912 and remained in service until 1968.

Maxim also invented a pneumatic gun, a smokeless gunpowder, a mousetrap, and carbon filaments for light bulbs.


  1. Callwell, Colonel C.E. . Small Wars, a Tactical Textbook for Imperial Soldiers. 1990 Greenhill Books, London, Lionel Leventhal Ltd. ISBN 1-85367-071-5. 559pp. This is a reprint of the 1906

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