The first recorded combat use of the Maxim was in the British colony of Sierra Leone on 21 November 1888. A small punitive expedition under General Sir Francis de Winton was sent out to deal with a tribe that had been raiding various settlements. The British troops took with them a caliber .45 Maxim gun that de Winton had purchased. Using the Maxim, the British troops rapidly routed their opponents at the fortress of Robari. A contemporary report in London’s Daily Telegraph noted that the “tremendous volley” of fire caused the tribesmen to flee for their lives; it further stated, “Such was the consternation created by the rapid and accurate shooting of the gun that the chief war town was evacuated, as well as the other villages of the same nature, and the chiefs surrendered, and are now in prison.”
The British Army adopted the Maxim in 1889, originally in caliber .45 but later in caliber .303. The Maxim changed the equation in colonial battles, giving the Europeans a decisive advantage. One of the first uses of the new weapon after its official adoption by the British Army was by colonial forces in the Matabele War of 1893-1894 in the Northern Transvaal of South Africa. A detachment of 50 British infantrymen with four Maxims defended them- selves against 5,000 native warriors who charged them five times over 90 minutes. Each time, the charges were stopped about 100 paces in front of the English lines by the devastating Maxims. It was recorded that 5,000 dead lay in front of the English position after the battle.
Maxims were also used effectively by British colonial troops on the Afghan frontier during the Chitral campaign of 1895 against the mountain tribesmen of the Hindu Kush. Elsewhere, the Maxim continued to make a name for itself. In 1898, at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, the disciples of the Mahdi, the fabled Dervishes, repeatedly hurled themselves against British lines, only to be re- pulsed each time by six Maxim guns firing 600 shots per minute. “It was not a battle, but an execution,” reported G. W. Steevens. “The bodies were not in heaps … but … [were] spread evenly over acres and acres.” Another British observer proclaimed, “To the Maxim primarily belongs the victory which stamped out Dervish rule in the Sudan.” It is doubtful that Lord Kitchener and his troops could have prevailed without the Maxim guns.
Still, the weapon was not without its limitations. The Maxims were not well-suited for mobile warfare in mountains and jungles, where the enemy could fight dispersed or become invisible. There were also difficulties in effectively employing the weapons; pushed too far forward, they might become isolated and their crews overwhelmed. Also, the Maxim, at this point in its development, was not free of mechanical problems and had a tendency to jam at the most inopportune times. Nevertheless, the Maxim in the hands of British troops proved successful in colonial campaigns on the Indian frontier, in the Sudan, and in Africa. Still, progress in selling the army at home in Britain on the utility of the machine gun was very slow. This suggested that military authorities were not yet convinced of its applicability to more traditional concepts of warfare due to the limitations of the weapons. The British War Office exhibited little interest, regarding it as useful in warfare against colonials but having little utility on the civilized European battlefield. Such an attitude would inhibit the consideration of new tactics and doctrines to make the most efficient use of these deadly weapons.
IMPROVEMENTS IN DESIGN AND PERFORMANCE
Maxim went back to his workshop and dedicated himself to improving the weapon and making it lighter, simpler, and more reliable. Within three months, he completed a major overhaul of the original design. The weapon, reduced to just over 40 pounds in weight, still used recoil as the driving force, but Maxim replaced the flywheel crank with a toggle-type lock that greatly simplified the extraction, feeding, and firing cycle. This improved design was so effective that it was to serve largely unchanged in some armies until World War II.
In another major innovation, Maxim improved the feeding mechanism by devising a cloth belt stitched into pockets, each pocket carrying a cartridge. The movement of the block extracted a cartridge from the belt, fed it down in front of the chamber, and moved the belt one cartridge at a time. As long as the gunner pressed the trigger and the belt was long enough, the Maxim gun could fire indefinitely, deriving its energy anew from every shot it fired.
Even though Maxim made the modifications requested by the British Army, something that resulted in a much better weapon, he still met resistance. In European armies, most officers came from the landowning classes; left behind by the Industrial Revolution, they still thought of war in terms of the bayonet and the cavalry charge. They clung to their belief in the centrality of human power and the decisiveness of personal courage and individual endeavor; after all, one did not pin a medal on any gun. Additionally, they thought that the machine gun was an uncivil weapon to use against European opponents. Thus Maxim changed his approach and began to market the weapon for use in the colonies to pacify native colonial populations. Inevitably, cases of slaughter by machine gun among the major powers’ far-flung colonies tainted the weapon, making it even less palatable for European warfare in the eyes of many officers holding traditional ideas toward combat and warfare.
MAKING THE ROUNDS
Undaunted by squeamishness among potential customers, Maxim traveled Europe while demonstrating his weapon. He was accompanied by Albert Vickers, a steel producer from South Kensington who had become intensely interested in Maxim and his invention. In 1887, Maxim took one of his guns to Switzerland for a competition with the Gatling, the Gardner, and the Nordenfelt. It easily out-shot all competitors. The next trials were in Italy at Spezzia. There the Italian officer in charge of the competition requested Maxim to sub- merge his gun in the sea and allow it to be immersed for three days. At the end of that time, without cleaning, the gun performed as well as it had before being subjected to this officer’s unusual demand. The next trial was in Vienna, where an impressed Archduke William, the field marshal of the Austrian Army, observed that the Maxim gun was “the most dreadful instrument” that he had ever seen or imagined. History would prove the archduke’s observation to be only too true.
Many observers were first skeptical toward Maxim’s claim that his weapon could fire 10 shots per second and maintain that rate of fire for any extended length of time. At the Swiss, Italian, and Austrian trials and those that followed, Maxim made believers out of all who saw the weapon in action. One exception was the king of Denmark, who was dismayed at the expenditure of ammunition and decided that such a weapon was far too expensive to operate, saying that it would bankrupt his kingdom.
In 1888, Maxim formed a partnership with Vickers, an association that would last until Maxim’s seventy-first birthday. Having successfully demonstrated his weapon in Europe, Maxim and his new partner began producing the machine gun. The first production model was capable of firing 2,000 rounds in 3 minutes. It was very well built, easy to maintain, and virtually indestructible. By 1890, Maxim and Vickers were supplying machine guns to Britain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Russia.
LATER MODELS AND DERIVATIVES
Maxim continued to perfect his weapon. In 1904, he produced a new model that was the first gun to bear the name Vickers along with Maxim. The Vickers was stronger and more reliable than its predecessors. Maxim’s weapons were adopted by every major power in the world at one time or another between 1900 and World War I.
The success of the Maxim gun inspired other inventors, and guns based on its principles appeared in armies in Germany, Russia, the United States, and other nations. The weapons that would have such a devastating impact on the battlefields of World War I were, largely, direct descendants of the first Maxim design.