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, the genius of Hiram Maxim lay in his ability to grasp the complexities of chemistry, electricity and mechanical engineering. He moved to England to continue his inventive genius in a variety of fields.

Hiram Maxim was aware of various failed efforts to produce an entirely automatic weapon. The rapid fire weapons of the day were manually operated, repeating weapons such as the Gatling Gun, Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon, Gardner Gun and the Nordenfelt Rapid Fire Gun. But it wasn’t until 1882, while attending an exhibition in Vienna, that a friend told him, “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.” Thus began his efforts to invent a truly automatic gun feeding and firing using the energy produced by the expanding gases and recoiling forces produced by the fired cartridge in a continuous cycle with a simple pull of the trigger. In 1883, Maxim applied for his first gun patent and subsequently built the first working prototype machine gun in 1884.

The First Model Maxim Automatic Machine Gun differed radically from its successors, the later Maxims we are all so familiar with. It was an unbelievably complicated device, clumsy and far from beautiful, but it was the first genuinely successful automatic weapon.

The weapon apparently functioned completely satisfactorily and was displayed and fired frequently. It was, however, very cumbersome and complicated, and so Maxim designed an entirely different weapon in 1885. This is the gun which is now generally–and incorrectly–considered to be the first automatic gun. Only in principle of operation does it resemble the original weapon.

Maxim’s first guns used black powder ammunition. Over the next 20 years the gun was modified and perfected, and its true performance came about with the advent of smokeless powder and improved ballistics. The Maxim gun became the most feared weapon of its time. The gun was sold world-wide, and the rights to manufacture were also granted to a number of countries.

Maxim’s invention represented the state-of-the-art development of weapon design of the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries and ultimately changed the way warfare was fought for the previous 5,000 years. Though Maxim was a prolific inventor of many things, his name will always be synonymous with the machine gun.

The final chapter of the Maxim gun is when Vickers, Sons & Maxim made further refinements to the Maxim gun with the introduction of its Improved Model 1901 and New Light Model of 1906. In 1908 the “Light Pattern” Model 1908 had further parts machined lighter, and the receiver box was now just 4 inches high. This “Light Pattern” Vickers weighed just 33 pounds or just over half the weight of the original Maxim gun. The improvement in efficiency of operation and significant weight reduction was a tremendous developmental advancement, and formal trials began in 1910. Hiram Maxim retired from his company, and his partner, Albert Vickers, gained full control and changed the name of the company to Vickers Limited (1911-1927) removing Maxim’s name from the enterprise. The British government officially adopted the Model 1908 “Light Pattern” Vickers in November 1912 as the “Gun, Machine, .303 inch, Mark I.” The Vickers Mark I remained basically unchanged for the remainder of its life in service.

John M. Browning

It would be impossible to produce a greater contrast in men than that existing between the two great masters of belt-fed automatic weapons: Hiram Maxim and John Browning. Hiram Maxim was a brilliant opportunist and needed only the incentive of promised wealth to turn from electricity at the age of 44 and, on his first attempt, produce an automatic machine gun and succeed where countless others before him failed. John Browning, on the other hand, was destined to be a gun designer and maker.

In 1889, John Browning made a discovery that ultimately profoundly affected the firearms world. While function firing one of his latest rifles in the salt marshes near Ogden, he noticed something that countless others had observed before but never thought to further investigate. Every time browning fired, the bulrushes parted from the blast for quite a distance from the muzzle. To others, this meant nothing. But to Browning’s mechanical mind it revealed a wasted, perfectly timed power source that could be utilized to operate a weapon’s mechanism and produce sustained fire. Just as Maxim had observed the possibilities of the kick of a gun for harnessing the recoil, Browning likewise realized the potentialities of the muzzle blast–which at the time did no more than make a loud report.

Such was the modest introduction of the world’s first automatic gas-operated weapon. Much more experimentation and hard work produced the first automatic gas-operated machine gun and was offered to Colt in November 1890. A prototype model was made and tested by the US Navy in 1893 and adopted into service as the Model 1895.

These guns are almost always called the “Potato Digger” due to their unusual action. The gas is tapped off just before the muzzle, but instead of driving a piston in a cylinder, it blasts straight down impinging onto the tip of an arm hinged beneath the barrel. This arm then swung down and back in an arc under the barrel of the gun and operated the gun’s mechanism. While this is an unusual system, it is also a very efficient one in that it delivers the force of the gas very gently, absorbing shock and keeping the rate of fire down to a practical level and avoiding a too-violent extraction of the cartridge.

In 1914, Colt modified the design of the M1895 machine gun to incorporate a finned barrel that, unlike the original pattern, was easily removable. This allowed overheated or shot-out barrels to be readily replaced. The design was designated as the Model 1914. This new model was essentially the same as the original M1895 gun.

Not long after John Browning invented the world’s first gas-operated fully automatic machine gun, the Model 1895 Automatic Gun, he realized that there must be a better, simpler, more efficient operating system. He set about to create his version of a short-recoil-operated machine gun that was significantly different from the then current Maxim design.

In 1901, he began working on this new design and continued refining his work through 1910. He presented the gun to the U.S. government, but no one was interested in it. Since there was no market for his new machine gun, he decided to just “sit on it” until an appropriate time that his new invention was needed.

With Europe at war since 1914 and after much delay, procrastination and indecision, in 1917 the U.S. finally put out a call to American inventors to submit designs for consideration. John Browning had been waiting for just such a call and personally traveled to Washington, D.C., to present his guns. That is “guns,” plural, because besides bringing his improved Model of the 1910 water-cooled machine gun, he also brought along another project he had been working on: the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).

In May 1917, the official endurance trial test was held at the Government Proving Ground at Springfield Armory. The Army requested that 20,000 rounds be fired. The 20,000 rounds were fired without a malfunction or broken part. And, to the amazement of all, Browning fired an additional 20,000 rounds—40,000 rounds in total—with just one failure of a component part. The board overseeing the test recommended the immediate adoption of the weapon as the Model of 1917 noting the outstanding reliability and simplicity of design. (The BAR was also accepted as the Model of 1918.)

The Browning M1917 and M1919 series of .30 caliber guns were the epitome of simplicity of design and function. And, the larger brother, the M2 series of .50 caliber guns, developed in 1919, is still in service around the world.

The Maxim and Browning Legacies

It was Maxim and Browning who brought the world the belt-fed machine gun; whether water-cooled or air-cooled. Many other inventors continued to redefine operation, methods, production and reliability, while inventing other operating systems. Famous well-known names such as Schwarzlose, Hotchkiss, Lewis, Revelli and others all made important contributions to the advancement of machine gun development.

The role of the belt-fed machine gun has evolved as have methods of war. Technology has further enhanced production and performance for belt-fed machine guns’ new perceived role, but the basic requirement of the weapon as developed by Maxim and Browning has not changed: to deliver a volume of fire from a reliable weapon to take tactical advantage and control over a battlefield environment.


ST Kinetic’s Land Systems’ 50MG is a 0.5-inch machine gun with a tool-less, quick-change barrel with fixed headspace that can be changed in just seconds. It also has a left- / right-hand feeding system for fast switching of ammunition types, an open-bolt mechanism and semi- and automatic-firing modes.

Multiple mounting options such as the M3 tripod, Pedestal Mount, 40?/50 Cupola Weapon Station, Remote Control Weapon Station and Ring Mount are also available. stengg.com


The U.S. Ordnance M2A2 machine gun is an air-cooled, belt-fed machine gun that fires from a closed bolt and operates on the short recoil principle with fixed headspace and timing. It is capable of both sustained automatic and accurate single-shot fire. It can be mounted on a vehicle, boat, helicopter or other aircraft. Ammunition may be fed from either the left or right side of the gun, making it suitable for use by both infantry and in armored vehicles.The M2A2 weapon system has been tested to well over 50,000 rounds. Its single-breech lock system allows for field rebuild. usord.com


The 7.62mm NATO M60E6 General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) represents the latest improvements to the M60 Series of machine guns. It is a gas-operated, disintegrating link, belt fed, air-cooled machine gun. It fires from an open bolt and features a quick-change barrel. The M60E6 features a machined aluminum feed cover with integrated M1913 Picatinny rail for mounting optics. An aluminum M1913 rail handguard provides for the mounting of infrared laser aiming devices and other sensors, giving the weapon 24-hour capability. usord.com

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


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