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Legacy Belt-Fed Machine Guns

By Robert G. Segel

Machine guns today are generally defined as firearms that shoot automatically more than one shot without manual reloading by a single function of the trigger. This modern definition has come about due to the development of such a weapon as pioneered by Hiram Maxim and John Browning and is subsequently used for all weapons that employ this mechanical means in firearms today.

Before Maxim invented the truly automatic system of feeding, loading, firing and ejecting continuously with just a single function of the trigger, “machine gun” was a term applied to a weapon that provided these functions albeit in a manual mode of operation. In reality, the evolution of automatic weapons really began before the introduction of gun powder. From earliest times, there has been a continual attempt to augment firepower by mechanical means.

These early machines included trebuchets, catapults, ballistas and siege engines. These machines threw projectiles ranging from rocks and stones, dead animals and putrid corpses to convey pestilence, flaming projectiles, to a fusillade of javelins and arrows.

While these were large crew-served weapons, there was mechanical development in the individual combatant’s weapons to increase firepower, range and lethality with the crossbow being a good example that evolved into a weapon firing a number of arrows. One could say that a general definition of an automatic weapon in these early days would be a weapon capable of discharging a number of projectiles in a short space of time, either simultaneously or in rapid sequence.

The height of the manually operated rapid fire weapon culminated in the mid-19th century with the Gatling, Gardner and Nordenfelt guns. These “Machine Guns” were operated by hand power applied to a suitable mechanism by which cartridges are loaded, fired, extracted and ejected: the cycle continuing as long as the mechanism worked, and there are cartridges to feed the gun.

Hiram S. Maxim

The Maxim machine gun was the first truly automatic gun that used the forces of recoil and expanding gases to operate the gun continuously and was invented by Hiram S. Maxim. Maxim was born in the United States in 1840. Self-educated,...

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N6 (June 2018)
and was posted online on April 20, 2018

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