Maxims in Korea

By Bob Naess

“Floyd Pope and the rest of the squad stayed off the ridgeline, but Firebug walked on top of it. The entire 3rd Battalion was strung out behind us like a long snake slowly moving up the ridgeline. As we neared a right angle turn in the ridge, the Chinese opened up on Firebug with a machine gun at close range but missed. He hit the ground but started sliding backwards to get off the ridgeline. Unfortunately he straddled a tree and they fired at him again. I ran forward to Pope to see if he knew where the Chinese were located. He said they were right in front of us. We both popped up hoping to get a shot at them. Then we charged their emplacement. They were gone when we reached their position. We could hear their wheeled Maxim machine gun bouncing off rocks as they retreated down a brushy draw.” - From “Misfit Squad” by Sergeant Jack Dean; 17th Regiment, the Buffaloes, Korea, 1951

Only a few years from the end of WWII in 1945, the obsolescent water-cooled 1910 Russian Maxim was back in front line action as a mainstay HMG of the Chinese and North Korean Communist forces in their effort to unite Korea under Communist control. The Yalta Conference in 1945 prescribed that, north of the 38th parallel in Korea, the Communist Soviet Union accept the surrender of the Japanese, who had occupied Korea since 1905, and the US accept their surrender south of that demarcation. From 1946 to 1949, more than 10,000 North Koreans undertook military training in Russia, while North Korea obtained large quantities of Russian small arms and equipment.

The former Korean Volunteer Army, which had fought with the Communist Chinese in their civil war from 1945 to 1949, returned to North Korea as trained, war hardened infantry veterans. Well trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, and with unconditional support from the Chinese, North Korea stepped up its guerilla insurgency into South Korea with a major invasion across the 38th parallel in June of 1950. Once again, the 1910 Russian Maxim was dragged into combat by infantry on foot, tugged along on its wheeled Sokolov mount.

At the close of WWII, the Soviet Union was well supplied with 1910 Maxims. Starting in 1905 and continuing through 1945, Russian arsenals, the only producer of the 1910 Maxim, manufactured close to 600,000 of both the 1905 and 1910 patterns, with only very minor changes in the overall design of gun and mount. Although many of these weapons were destroyed or left Russia during and between the World Wars, the majority of serviceable 1910s remained there after WWII, and they were readily provided by the Soviet government to the North Koreans and newly Communist Chinese military. The successor to the 1910, the Goryunov designed, aircooled SG43 HMG, produced and fielded by the Soviet Union during the latter part of WWII, was also available to North Korea, but the mainstay HMG of the North Korean forces was the 1910 Maxim.

The water-cooled 1910 Russian Maxim, or SPM, embodied the characteristics common to Russian small arms; simplicity, ruggedness and ease of maintenance. The principal virtue of these characteristics was the ease with which unskilled soldiers could learn the use and maintenance of the weapon. The initial production of the 1905 Maxim and its successor, the 1910, incorporated the best features of several earlier Maxim HMGs. The most efficient improvements were the simplified ‘S’ shaped charging handle, a simplified lock that could be easily disassembled without special tools and easily headspaced using shims, and a very simple muzzle booster. The ‘S” shaped handle was much sturdier, involved fewer parts and one less spring, which reduced breakage and helped reduce manufacturing time and materials. The lock was robust, of simpler design, and the mainspring of very high quality and strength. Quick disassembly of the simplified lock was facilitated by the use of split pins to hold pivoting parts. A small cup cut into the end of the ‘T’ handle of the backplate retaining crosspin could be used to compress the split pin ends for their removal and quick disassembly of the components. Adding or removing shims in increments of .002” or .003” under a nut at the point of attachment on the crank spigot greatly aided in maintaining headspace tolerances through changes of locks or barrels. The efficiency and reliability of the piston effect on the muzzle of the barrel in the booster was increased by using a barrel with the muzzle flared to 3/4”.

Among the small number of tools and accoutrements provided for maintenance and cleaning was a reamer on a combination headspace/booster wrench to clean combustion reside from the inside of the booster body. The removable orifice in the front of the booster allowed use of orifices of different diameters to vary the rate of fire of the gun through a range of approximately 450 to over 700 rpm. The box receiver was rigidly held to the trunion/ waterjacket by tapered dovetails, as was the backplate/grip assembly, and a heavy riveted bottom plate unified and strengthened the structure. The waterjacket , fabricated from light gauge steel, was fluted to enhance rigidity and increase surface area for heat dissipation, and these were often “tinned” on the interior surface to reduce corrosion. From early 1943 through the end of production in 1945, rapid filling of the waterjacket was achieved by the addition of a 3” diameter port capped and latched with a stamped hinged tractor radiator cap. This adaptation, copied from the Finnish Maxims, allowed the fast injection of snow and ice into the jacket during winter use, a very practical feature in Korea’s severe winter weather. A sled apparatus could be affixed to the wheels in snowy conditions, and anti-freeze mixed with the water in the jacket prevented the guns from freezing up solid. Use of a hose fitted to a port on the waterjacket delivered steam to a condensing can, eliminating the potential signal of the guns location due to the steam plume from boiling water during continuous fire.

The 1910 Maxim, firing the Russian issue7.62X54R (rimmed) rifle cartridge, used a fabric belt that was identical to that used in the German MG08, with extended fingers every three rounds to align the belt in the feedway. The reliability of fabric belts is compromised when they are wet, or wet and then frozen, and the Korean climate, often foggy and wet in the warm months and alternately wet and severely frozen in the winter, no doubt tested the patience of the gunners. However, although it is speculation, the continuous 200 round steel link belts used in the Goryunov air-cooled SG43 HMG, also widely used in Korea, would function well in the Maxims and may have been used, eliminating the problems with the fabric belts.

The Russians found during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 that HMGs on high mounts exposed the gunners to enemy fire, but they did not abandon the practical wheeled mounts. The 1905 Maxim was prepared with a low wheeled mount, designed by A. E. Sokolov, that was continued with the 1910 version. The heavy, wide turntable on which the gun cradle rode, combined with the weight of the gun, wheeled mount, and heavy steel shield made an excellent, very sturdy platform for the 1910. The stability of the mount enhanced the long range accuracy of the gun, which was used effectively by the well trained North Korean infantry.

Early in the war, due to the weight of the guns, mounts and ammo and the necessity of moving them long distances and over mountainous terrain by foot, they were used rather sparingly in defensive positions. Often the guns were used at great ranges, over a mile or more from their targets, to aid in concealment. Using the MGs from long distance to rake the forward slopes against advancing US troops, the North Koreans registered their mortars behind the US soldiers who would fall back when they took too many casualties from the long range MG fire, only to discover they were under mortar fire. As the war continued, it developed into a contest of many fixed positions in mountainous areas which were traded back and forth between the combatants. As with the static trench warfare of WWI, the thoroughly dug-in emplacements of 1910s in defensive positions were very effective in retaining ground gained by the North Koreans.

The Korean War was not the last theater of combat in which the 1910 was fielded, as reports of their use in Vietnam attests to their practical value despite their age and the shortcomings of their weight and rather cumbersome mount. There are still many 1910s in the arsenals of countries scattered worldwide which could well be used long into the future.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N12 (September 2001)
and was posted online on April 18, 2014


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