As a last-ditch measure in the nearly lost war, on 18 October 1944 the Deutscher Volkssturm was mobilized – a German national militia. To arm them under conditions of depleted manpower and limited available production capacities the Primitiv-Waffen-Programm (“primitive weapons program”) was initiated. It called for weapons that were as easy as possible to produce. Walther designed the Volkssturmgewehr VG 1 rifle, Spreewerk Berlin the VG 2, Rheinmetall the VG 3, Mauser the VG 4 and Steyr the VG 5 (a.k.a. VK 98). Best known is the Volkssturmgewehr by Gustloff which was a gas-delayed blowback semi-automatic rifle.
In 1944 and 1945 Nazi Germany’s declining fortunes necessitated the formation of the Volkssturm (People’s Army), composed of men too old, young, or infirm to serve in the traditional armed services. The Nazi military intended the Volkssturm as a rearguard or even as disposable buffer troops to protect its better-trained front-line troops in desperate situations. To arm the Volkssturm, the government set up a program to develop and manufacture appropriate and equally disposable weapons-the Volksgewehr (People’s Rifle) and the Volkspistole (People’s Pistol). Although cheaply made, Volkssturm weapons exhibited considerable ingenuity in design. The Volksgewehr program saw limited success in that a small number of rifles were manufactured and saw some degree of combat, whereas the Volkspistole project produced only a few prototypes before the war’s end.
This was another development of the Primitiv-Waffen-Programm (Primitive Weapons Programme). It was developed early in 1945 for arming the VoIkssturm, but got no further man the prototype model. Due to the fragmentary record-keeping in Germany in early 1945, the actual makers of this pistol are not known. The Volkspistole uses a similar system of delayed blowback to that of the Volksgewehr (see below). The barrel is freed to the frame and surrounded by a slide which forms an annular chamber around the barrel. Vents lead into this from the gun barrel so that high-pressure gas will serve to hold the slide, and thus the breech, from moving back for a short time after firing. The barrel is extended by a smoothbore tube; the purpose of this has never been officially explained, but it is possible that it would sustain chamber pressure so as to improve the delayed blowback action. The pistol is chambered for the standard 9mm (0.354″) Parabellum cartridge and uses a Walther 8-round P-38 magazine. Its estimated muzzle velocity is 380m/sec(1250ft/see)
Although the Volkspistole never achieved production, its various designers did explore new techniques and concepts that were put into practice following the war and helped set the stage for a new generation of handguns. Most records and prototypes were destroyed with Nazi Germany’s fall, but apparently three firms were involved in the project: Walther, Mauser, and Gustloff Werk of Suhl. The main criteria set by the government were that the pistol could be assembled by minimally skilled workers, was to be chambered for the standard 9mm Parabellum service cartridge, and that its construction consist of as little high-quality materials as possible. As in the case of the American Liberator, the Volkspistole was fabricated primarily with stamped, brazed, and welded sheet metal. Although the designers explored blowback, locked-breech, and gas-operating systems, their lasting contribution lay in the use of more easily and economically fabricated materials and holding expensively machined components to a minimum.
The VK 98’s action was that of a Kar 98k, but the finish was extremely crude and the sights were simply stamped from sheet metal. Some used parts salvaged from damaged weapons or previously rejected for not meeting quality standards.
Volksturm VG-5, aka VK-98
By 1945, with the Nazi Reich tottering under assaults from both East and West, desperate attempts to produce more weapons for the Volkssturm militia saw a number of designs for new weapons, many of them simple to the point of crudity. The VK 98 (Volks-Karabiner, or ‘people’s carbine’) was based on the Kar 98k, but stripped of everything but the absolute essentials. Examples vary, but most have simple half-stocks that provide a minimal handgrip while leaving most of the barrel exposed, and very simple stamped sights. All have very crude machining and stocks roughed out of wood blanks.
Volksgewehr VG 1-5
The creation of the last-ditch Volkssturm forces in October 1944 generated an additional need for weaponry. The Volkssturm were recipients of anything the Heer or Waffen-SS could dispense with, plus large quantities of innovative weaponry such as the Panzerfaust shoulder-launched anti-tank weapon. With a now-characteristic disregard for production realities, the German authorities also sought to develop a new single-shot or semi-automatic rifle specifically for the Volkssturm, and to be known, appropriately enough, as the Volksgewehr (People’s Rifle). This programme was to be known as the Primitiv-Waffen-Programm (Primitive Weapons Programme), the title giving a full sense of the exigency of the situation.
Despite the late stage of the war, numerous different German arms manufacturers actually attempted to develop the weapon, although Hitler quickly rejected all the single-shot versions in favour of magazine rifles firing the Kurzpatrone (short cartridge).
One of the frontrunners was the Gustloff VG 1-5, a boxy-looking semi-automatic rifle. On every level, the VG 1-5 was a tribute to emergency manufacturing processes, it being made from various accumulations of steel tubing, welding and pressed-steel parts. It was notable, however, for its use of a delayed-blowback operating system. A reciprocating hollow sleeve was fitted around the barrel, the sleeve also operating the gun’s bolt. When the gun was fired, gas vented through gas ports 65mm from the muzzle and pushed against the sleeve, holding it forward until the pressure had dropped to safe levels, at which point the bolt would open and the gun would reload. The principle was promising, and upwards of 10,000 VG 1-5s were manufactured. Yet the gun also had problems that the wartime situation did not allow time to resolve. It was prone to jamming from fouling, and when the gun became hot barrel expansion could jam the reciprocating sleeve. It stands as one among many acts of futile German inventiveness in the final months of the war.
Gustloff VG 1-5
The Gustloff Werk of Suhl were given the task of developing an automatic rifle. The weapon which they produced was based on a 1943 design by Barnetske, their chief engineer, and it consisted of a rifle barrel surrounded by a tubular sleeve which carried the bolt at its rear end. This was carried in a casing in which the bolt sleeve unit could recoil against a spring and in which was the trigger and firing mechanism. The tubular sleeve maintained an annular space around the barrel; in this space was the recoil spring and, just behind the muzzle,, four gasports which led from the barrel into the annular space. On firing, some of the propelling gas passed through these vents and acted on the forward end of the sleeve, resisting the rearward force being generated at the other end of the sleeve by the cartridge case forcing back the bolt. The balance of these two forces gave a delayed action to what would otherwise have been a simple blowback weapon. Feed was by a 30- round box magazine, that of the Stug44 assault rifle, and it was chambered for the short 7.92mm (0.312″) M1943 cartridge. Its weight is 4.52 kgs (10 lbs, 2 oz); length 885mm (34.8″); barrel length 378mm (14.9″); and muzzle velocity 655m/sec(2150ft/see)
1945. Semi-automatic, delayed blowback. Few made.
Cartridge: 7.92 x 33M Kurz.
Length: 34.9in (885mm).
Weight: 10lb 2oz (4.62kg).
Barrel: 14.9in (378mm), 4 grooves, rh.
Magazine: 30-round box.
Muzzle Velocity: 2150 fps (655 m/s).
The Spreewerk Berlin Volkssturmgewehr VG 2 is also a manually operated bolt-action rifle with a similar rotating bolt and crude manual safety. Locking is provided by two frontal lugs which lock into the steel insert pinned inside the stamped steel receiver. The VG 2 rifle is fed from detachable box magazines, originally developed for Gewehr 43. The stock is crudely made from wood and consists of two separate parts: shoulder stock with semi-pistol grip and fore-end. Wood parts are permanently pinned to the receiver. Non-adjustable iron sights are provided for close-range shooting only, and zeroed for 100 metres (110 yd).
The Prussian military system had been thoroughly reformed after Napoleon had crushed it at Jena in 1806. The crucial development was the growth of a Great General Staff, embodied in law in 1814. Bright officers were selected to what was effectively a military brotherhood, charged with continuous study of the art of war and the drawing up and review of plans. Essentially a managerial system, in the long run it proved brilliantly suited to control large complex armies. Because it was successful in the wars of 1866 and 1870–1 the General Staff developed enormous prestige and decisive influence in military affairs. General Staff officers formed specialised groups, such as that dealing with railways, and were skilful at spotting ways in which new technology could be adapted for military use. Ultimately every general in command of an army had a chief of staff who had a right of appeal if he did not like his superior’s plans. To prevent these officers losing touch with military reality they were rotated through regular periods of service in line regiments. The Prussian General Staff presided over an army of 300,000 raised by a highly selective form of conscription. These were backed up by 800,000 reserves, each of whom at the age of 32 passed into the militia or Landwehr which would only be called up in emergency. In 1859 Prussia had tried to move to support Austria against France, but mobilisation had been a fiasco. As a result the General Staff paid careful attention to the use of railways to get troops quickly to the front. At the same time reserve and regular battalions were firmly attached to local military districts so each got to know the other.
In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria over the leadership of Germany led to war. Prussia had only half the population of its adversary and the Austrians had a long-service conscript army of 400,000 which, in theory, could strike first into enemy territory. But the Austrian army could not concentrate quickly because its units were used for internal security, scattered in such a way that the men were always strangers to the people whom they garrisoned. Prussia thus had time to summon its reserves and to take the initiative under Helmuth von Moltke. Moreover, the Austrian advantage in numbers was partially nullified because Prussia allied with Italy, forcing Austria to dispatch an army there. In Italy in 1859 Austrian forces had failed to implement firepower tactics, and had been overwhelmed by direct (and very costly) French attacks. They were now armed with a good muzzle-loading Lorenz rifle, but thought that they should hold their troops together in large units that were trained to deliver bayonet charges. Also, aware of the inadequacy of their cannon in Italy, the Austrians had bought excellent rifled breech-loading artillery.
Moltke sent three armies along five railways to attack Austria through Bohemia, with the intention of concentrating them against the enemy’s main force. In the event, two of these armies confronted the Austrians in their strong and partly fortified position at Königgrätz/Sadowa/ on 3 July 1866. Each side had about 220,000 men. Fighting was ferocious but the Prussians held on until their third army arrived to bring victory. Prussian infantry tactics were the revelation of Königgrätz. In 1846 the Prussian army had adopted a breech-loading rifle, the Dreyse needle-gun. This had a potential firing rate of about five shots per minute and it could be loaded and fired from the prone position. The Dreyse was scorned by other armies: it lacked range because the gas seal on the breech was inadequate and it was feared that such a high rate of fire would encourage soldiers to waste their ammunition before charging the enemy, so overburdening supply lines.
At Königgrätz the Austrian artillery did much damage, but the rapid fire of the Dreyse at close range cut down the Austrians whose forces were gathered in large close-order units highly vulnerable to this kind of firestorm. The British Colonel G.F.R. Henderson commented that the Prussians did not charge with the bayonet until the enemy had been destroyed by musketry: ‘The Germans relied on fire, and on fire alone, to beat down the enemy’s resistance: the final charge was a secondary consideration altogether.‘
Important as the Dreyse was, the real key to victory was tactical and organisational. Moltke, like Clausewitz, understood the fluidity of battle and the problem of control:
Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander’s intent.
He developed what would later be called the doctrine of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik), under which subordinate officers, even down to platoon level, were instructed in the intentions of the overall commander, but left to find their own way of achieving this end. At Königgrätz the Prussians made their infantry firepower count by closing with the enemy in forest land where the strong Austrian artillery could not bear upon them. This enabled them to shoot into the packed Austrian ranks as their junior officers led them around the enemy flanks. Fire and movement was the solution to the conundrum so ably propounded by du Picq.
This was possible because junior officers in the Prussian army were thoroughly trained, and understood the need to accept responsibility for the progress of their soldiers, and staff officers rotated through the fighting units communicated what senior commanders wanted. In addition, at the core of the Prussian army was an excellent corps of long-term NCOs well able to support their officers. At Königgrätz the Austrians suffered 6,000 dead, over 8,000 wounded and about the same number missing, and conceded 22,000 prisoners. The Prussians lost 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Austria made peace almost immediately and Prussia took over all the north German states, enormously enhancing her military capability. The obvious lesson of Königgrätz was firepower. The Austrian Field Marshal Hess articulated another very clearly: ‘Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time … and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.‘ Strike first would become an article of faith amongst the general staffs of Europe in the years down to 1914.
The victory of Sadowa made General von Moltke a celebrity, though an unlikely one. Intellectual, thin, clean-shaven, crisp and dry in speech and writing, he had the air more of an ascetic than a warrior. Although a gifted translator, he was so taciturn that the joke went that he could be silent in seven different languages. In 1867 he accompanied the king to the Paris Exhibition, was presented with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, and had conversations with French marshals Niel and Canrobert. The social niceties over, he returned to his office in Berlin to devote his thought to the problems of waging war against France. As professional military men, both he and Niel privately believed that a war between France and the North German Confederation was inevitable. As Niel once put it, the two countries were not so much at peace as in a state of armistice.
It was Moltke’s job, as it was Niel’s, to ensure that his country was ready when the test came, and he went about his task diligently. As a conservative Prussian, he saw France as the principal source of the dangerous infections of democracy, radicalism and anarchy. As a German, he shared the nationalist belief that Germany could become secure only by neutralizing the French threat once and for all.
Following the war of 1866, the Prussian army became the core of the Army of the North German Confederation. Under War Minister Roon’s direction, integration of the contingents of the annexed states into the Prussian military system proceeded without delay. As Prussian units were regionally based, other states’ forces were readily accommodated into the order of battle while respecting state loyalties. Thus troops from Schleswig-Holstein became IX Corps of the Confederation Army, those of Hanover X Corps, those of Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt XI Corps and the forces of Saxony XII Corps. In addition to the manpower provided by this regional expansion, the new army could call upon the enlarged pool of trained reserves produced by Roon’s earlier reforms. While maintaining an active army of 312,000 men in 1867, the Confederation could call on 500,000 more fully trained reservists on mobilization, plus the Landwehr for home defence. Once the southern states’ forces were included following the signing of military alliances, the numbers available swelled still further. By 1870 Germany would be able to mobilize over a million men.
The world had hardly seen such a large and well-disciplined force. Its backbone was the Prussian army, combat-hardened and commanded by experienced leaders, which had won the 1866 campaign. The post-war period allowed time to make promotions, weed out unsuitable commanders, and learn lessons of what could have been done better. The time was well used.
For instance, Prussian artillery had not performed as effectively as hoped against the Austrians for several reasons: faulty deployment, lack of coordination with other arms, technical failures, and want of tactical experience in handling a mixture of muzzle-loading smoothbores and the new breech-loading steel rifled cannons. All these deficiencies were addressed. At the king’s insistence, Krupp’s steel breech-loaders became standard, this time with Krupp’s own more reliable breech blocks. From 1867 General von Hindersin required gunners to train hard at a practice range in Berlin until firing rapidly and accurately at distant targets became second nature. Batteries also practised rushing forward together in mass, even ahead of their infantry, to bring enemy infantry quickly under converging fire. Time and again, this would prove a devastating tactic. If the Battle of Waterloo proverbially was won on the playing fields of Eton, it is small exaggeration to say that Sedan was won on Germany’s artillery ranges. The proficiency of German gunnery was to astound the French in 1870.
Less spectacular but equally important in conserving the lives of German troops were improvements to the medical service. The huge numbers of wounded after Königgrätz had swamped the medical services. Disease and infection had spread rapidly in overcrowded field hospitals. In 1867 the best civilian and military doctors were called to Berlin, and their recommendations for reform were implemented over the next two years. The medical service was put in charge of a Surgeon General and army doctors were given enhanced authority and rank. Sanitary arrangements for the health of troops in the field were revised and their enforcement became part of the regular duties of troop commanders, who were also issued with pamphlets explaining their responsibilities under the 1864 Geneva Convention. Troops were issued with individual field-dressings to staunch bleeding. Medical units were created and all their personnel issued with Red Cross armbands. The units included stretcher-bearers trained in first aid who would be responsible for evacuating the wounded from the front to field hospitals. From there evacuation to base hospitals would be by rail using specially fitted out hospital trains. Once back in Germany, where the new Red Cross movement was taken very seriously, the wounded would be cared for with the help of civilian doctors assisted by volunteer nurses recruited and trained under the active patronage of Queen Augusta. Yet there would be no conflict of authorities in wartime, nor any room for civilian volunteers wandering about the combat zone under their own devices. The work of civilian doctors and nurses would be directed by a central military authority in Berlin. Like the artillery, the medical service was transformed between 1866 and 1870 by a systematic approach to overcoming the problems experienced in modern war.
This approach was epitomized by the General Staff itself under Moltke’s direction. In 1866 the General Staff had established itself as the controlling brain of the army and had won confidence by its success. It recruited only the very best graduates from the Army War College, and had expanded to over one hundred officers, who were assigned either to specialist sections or to field commands. Its task was to ensure that the army in wartime operated like a well-oiled machine to a common plan. It worked effectively because it was well integrated with the command chain and avoided unnecessary centralization. Army corps were responsible for carrying out their part of the plan. The commander of every major unit had a chief of staff who was in effect Moltke’s representative. Many senior commanders had themselves done staff duties, just as General Staff officers were required periodically to move to operational duties so that they understood the problems of field commanders. Germany’s 15,000 officers were expected to show initiative in achieving objectives laid out in a general plan, and to understand their duty to support other units in pursuit of it. Moltke organized regular staff rides and war games to provide his officers with experience in solving command problems, together with related skills like map reading in the field. Intelligence on French forces and plans was continuously gathered and updated.
South African DENEL 20X110HS NTW-20 Rifle procured for evaluation in the United States
The antimaterial (antimateriél or equipment) rifle is the successor to the antitank rifle of World War I and early World War II. Essentially a large-caliber, high-velocity rifle firing special armor-piercing ammunition, it is designed to operate against enemy equipment, such as thin-skinned and lightly armored vehicles. The weapon can also be used for long-range sniping. Antimaterial rifles are often favored by special operations military units.
The offensive use of anti-materiel rifles or special application scoped rifles (SASR) is termed hard target interdiction (HTI) by the United States military.
Anti-materiel rifles can also be used in non-offensive roles – for example, for safely destroying unexploded ordnance
The U. S. Army Browning M2 .50-caliber machine gun, which can be fired single shot as a sniper rifle, fits in this category. The Austrian Steyr 25mm antimaterial rifle, with a claimed effective range of 1.2 miles, features both a muzzle brake and a hydropneumatic sleeve to lessen recoil. The weapon has a bipod and can be broken down for ease of transport by its crew. Among other such weapons is the South African Denel NTW-20. This 20mm bolt-action rifle features a 3-round side-mounted box magazine. There is also a 14.5mm model. To reduce recoil, the NTW-20 utilizes a hydraulic double-action damper along with a double baffle muzzle brake.
The British will tell you to beware wily, Dutch-African farmers with rifles.
Among other such weapons are the U. S. Armalite AR50 and Barrett M82A1, both of which fire the 12.7mm NATO (.50-caliber) round; the British Accuracy International AW50F, firing the 12.7mm NATO (.50-caliber) round; the Hungarian Gerpard M1(B) and M2(B) 12.7mm rifles, which with changed barrel can also fire the .50-caliber round; and the Russian KSVK 12.7mm rifle.
Further Reading Gander, Terry J. Anti-Tank Weapons. Marlborough, UK: Crowood, 2000. Hogg, I. V., and J. Weeks. Browning M2 Heavy Machine Gun. London: PRC Publishing, 1999. Hogg, I. V., and J. Weeks. Military Small Arms of the Twentieth Century. New York: Hippocrene, 1994.
The Vickers was used for indirect fire against enemy positions at ranges up to 4,500 yards (4,115 m) with Mark VIIIz ammunition. This plunging fire was used to great effect against road junctions, trench systems, forming up points, and other locations that might be observed by a forward observer, or zeroed in at one time for future attacks, or guessed at by men using maps and experience. Sometimes a location might be zeroed in during the day, and then attacked at night, much to the surprise and confusion of the enemy. New Zealand units were especially fond of this use. A white disc would be set up on a pole near the MMG, and the gunner would aim at a mark on it, knowing that this corresponded to aiming at the distant target. There was a special back-sight with a tall extension on it for this purpose. The only similar weapon of the time to use indirect fire was the German MG 08, which had a separate attachment sight with range calculator.
As the Armistice of 11 November 1918 brought an end to the most destructive war that the world had yet known, all parties had come to accept that machine guns constituted the indispensable core of infantry firepower. Nevertheless, in the British and Dominion armies controversy reigned with regard to the correct methods by which to apply it. The infantry had never quite become reconciled to their loss of control of the Vickers gun and, while many officers appreciated the support of machine gun barrages, others felt that the firepower was more effective if aimed directly by guns in close support of their own men. Meanwhile there were some in the artillery – the arm which had risen to a position of vast power and influence during the course of the war – who resented the activities of the ‘Little Gunners’ and went out of their way to dismiss them as ineffective.
The apparent difficulty of assessing the effects of indirect machine gun fire formed a major element of this inter-corps controversy. Unlike artillery fire, it could not be observed from the air, nor did it send plumes of earth and smoke into the air when it struck home. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, it was frequently possible to observe the strike of machine gun fire, even in the thick of battle. Early in the war the German expert von Merkatz had written that:
While before the war, I was of the opinion that the machine-gun sheaf [i.e. cone of fire] would often disappear in the volume of the infantry sheaf and of striking shrapnel so that it could not be observed, this was not substantiated in the war. The machinegun sheaves could generally be recognized even in the most intense firing of our own troops. In battle, the difficulty of observation lies not so much in the visibility of the striking projectiles as in the invisibility of the targets.
The British pamphlet SS201 made specific reference to the fact that the bullet strikes of a machine gun barrage fired at Shrewsbury Forest in the Ypres Salient on 20 September 1917 were clearly visible. This event occurred during a dry period; mud obviously made observation more difficult.
This fact did nothing to quiet the debate which raged about indirect fire. The reluctance of many regimental officers to acknowledge the effectiveness of barrages is clear from Dunn’s comments regarding bullets being wasted on patches of ground and his jibe about ‘the jawbone of an ass’. Nonetheless, his diary is actually unusual in alluding to the support provided machine gun barrages at all – they seldom receive a mention in regimental histories or infantry battalion war diaries. Even among the advanced thinkers of the Canadian Corps a simmering row persisted regarding the effectiveness of unobserved machine gun fire: the chief antagonists being Brutinel and the Corps artillery commander Andrew McNaughton.
The proponents of the machine gun barrage were swift to counter this scepticism with reports from prisoners regarding the effectiveness of the barrages which they had to endure. These reports were evidently plentiful, although it should be remembered that newly captured men are generally inclined to tell their captors whatever they think they wish to hear. It is interesting to note that, in the wake of the Canadian barrage fired at Mont Huoy, near Valenciennes on 2 November 1918, McNaughton compiled his own report from prisoner interviews, which suggested that the artillery, rather than the machine guns, had provided the most effective element ofthe barrage. This survey is however put into perspective if we take into account the fact that, such were the material resources of the Allies at this time, McNaughton was able to deluge the German positions with over 2,000 tons of shells – roughly equivalent to the quantity expended during the entire Boer War!
Another brilliant artillerist, Sir Herbert Uniacke, gave a very curious appraisal of British machine-gunnery, which is quoted by his fellow gunners Bidwell and Graham:
In the first place the Germans in 1918 provided their own machine gun barrage from their forward troops which was successful. Yet our own counterattacks were very often stopped by counter machine-gun fire. The whole machine gun question needs to be closely examined to discover wherein our inferiority lies, whether in the number of guns employed, the training of the companies, the technical and tactical training of the officers, or any other cause. The matter is very important; it has been our chief weakness throughout the war.
This outburst is of interest less for the quality of its forensic rhetoric than for what it tells us of writer’s perception of his subject matter. Nobody would dispute the effectiveness of German machine gun fire. However, Uniacke might have reflected that the neutralization of this fire was not the chief role of the MGC, but rather the preserve of Lewis gun and rifle grenade teams, trench mortars and, ultimately, the field-gunners of his own corps. His complaint also betrays an ignorance of barrage fire in the sense that officers of the MGC would have understood it. Unfortunately this is a typical example of the compartmentalized thinking which, despite all the technical and tactical progress, still prevailed in the British Army at the close of the war. Reference has already been made to a contrasting parallel, in the form of Hutchinson’s ignorance of tactical training for Lewis guns. This compartmentalization was a symptom of unfortunate traits which lay deeply embedded in the psyche of the British Army. Tim Travers has alluded to the ‘Hidden internal war’, which ‘pitted the power of prewar ideas and the power of the prewar army structure [emphasis added], against the encroaching reality of a ‘‘modern’’ technological war’. A French interpreter who worked with the BEF for three years gave an interesting outsider’s view: ‘The British army has improved a lot, but yet there is still much to improve. An Englishman is not prepared to learn from another, and only wants to learn through his own experience, and hence many thousands of lives and lots of money are wasted and precious time is lost.’
Any impartial reading of the available evidence must surely lead to an acceptance of the effectiveness of the techniques developed by the MGC – although we might stop short of Colonel Luxford’s opinion that ‘The British machine gun, its uses and its tactics developed wonderfully, and completely overshadowed the German machine guns from June, 1917, until the end of the war.’ Whether in grand set-piece battles or in the course of the victorious advances of the ‘Hundred Days’ the MG barrage reigned supreme, and it was generally fired with considerable effect. However this assessment is the result of ex post facto analysis. In the heat of battle the contribution of the MGC must have been difficult for others to perceive – be they the eighteen-year-old conscript advancing into the attack, or the Brigadier General Royal Artillery at divisional HQ. In 1918 British infantry might expect to have the support of an artillery creeping barrage, smoke shells and, possibly, tanks and ground-attack aircraft. All of these are far more noticeable on the battlefield than a machine gun barrage. Herein might lie another key to failure of the Army as a whole to embrace the concept of a specialist corps of machine-gunners. The inability of the MGC to gain universal acceptance of its techniques and their efficacy was to cost it dear.
In 1918, the future of the MGC and the continued organization of machine guns into battalion-sized formations were by no means taken for granted. A survey was conducted by the committee charged with planning the post-bellum army, which asked a number of questions regarding machine gun organization. Copies of George Lindsay’s answers to Papers ‘E: Machine Guns with a Division’ and ‘K: Corps and Army Machine Guns’, are preserved. Not surprisingly this most enthusiastic of machine-gunners took the opportunity to go further than the contemporary status quo, and recommend that MG battalions be expanded to comprise ninety-six guns, and that extra battalions should be available at Corps and Army level. Evidently the majority of officers did not share his vision and, most importantly, neither did those in charge at the War Office for, in 1922, the MGC was disbanded. The Corps’ memorial to its 12,498 wartime dead stands at Hyde Park Corner. It is a statue of the Boy David, and the biblical quotation on its plinth makes not only grim reference to the wartime effectiveness of the MGC, but also hints at how members of the Corps envisaged themselves within the hierarchy of the Army: ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.’
The circumstances of the MGC’s disappearance from the British Army’s order of battle are curious, particularly when compared with the anguish which has invariably accompanied the disbandment or amalgamation of county regiments (themselves, as Gary She field likes to point out, akin to the ‘traditional’ Christmas – merely an invention of the late nineteenth century). The dispersal of the MGC’s officers to other units meant that no proper history of the corps was ever written. The Corps’ mess silver was melted down to make a font for the Royal Memorial Chapel at Sandhurst. The fact that the MGC’s history was erased in this manner has caused dark suggestions to be made about the role which inter-corps rivalry might have played in the decision. The main impetus behind the disbandment of the MGC was undoubtedly financial, but was there malice in the decision to let the axe fall on this new Corps? This might be difficult to prove and circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise. It was hardly unknown in the inter-war British Army for decisions on organization and equipment to default back to the status quo ante bellum. Furthermore, with the Army returning to its pre-war role as a sort of colonial gendarmerie, and with no European war imminent, the War Office can perhaps be forgiven for seeing no vital role for a separate corps of machine-gunners. When the time came for massed Vickers guns to open fire once more, the face of warfare itself had changed.
One weapon of close combat that has been associated with German assault troops is the MP18 submachine-gun. The German Army had been swift to perceive the potential for highly portable, short-range, automatic weapons and had begun experimenting with various concepts from 1915 onwards. In 1916 they had tested a fully automatic version of their 9mm Pistole 08 Lange (the long barrelled Luger pistol). However, it was found to be uncontrollable and to have too fast a rate of fire. Similar problems were found with a fully automatic ‘carbine’ version of the Mauser C96 pistol. Unlike the Austrians and the Italians, the Germans were not prepared to live with such faults. Finally, in 1917, the designer Hugo Schmeisser developed a promising machine pistol for the consideration of the military, and his design was taken up by the Theodor Bergmann Waffenbau. The history of this weapon, commonly known as the MP18, I (or, less regularly, as the Bergmann Muskete) is shrouded in mystery and has become the basis of not a little myth-making.
Schmeisser’s design took the barrel of the long-barrelled Luger and combined it with a blowback action comprising a firing-pin riding inside a heavy bolt, which were driven into battery by a return spring. The weapon had a wooden stock and used the 32-round ‘snail-drum’ magazine already in production for use with P08 Lange. The peculiar magazine was the weak link in an otherwise workmanlike design. Nonetheless, if the weapon was going to be adopted, the use of existing components like the magazine and barrel was very much in its favour. However, the question of official adoption is one of the mysteries that dog the MP18. At least one expert has suggested that Schmeisser’s gun was never officially taken into service.6 The designation ‘18, I’ may in fact relate to the Treasury budget which governed expenditure on such items.
In most armies however, Official adoption was frequently only a rationalization of an issue that had already taken place. The MP18 certainly did see use in the field, whether adopted or not, but further mystery lies in the timing and scale of this use. The MP18 has frequently been seen as the very acme of the various weapons associated with the German stormtrooper – particularly in the context of the spring offensives of 1918. Sadly for this myth, the instruction manual for the MP18 was only produced in April 1918 and, while ‘adoption’ might follow issue, dissemination of instruction manuals invariably precedes it! It appears clear that the MP18 only began to appear in the field from the summer of 1918 onwards. Examples with surviving provenance tend to have been captured in the last two months of the war. A rare reference to their issue appears in the history of the 104th Infantry Regiment, which describes them as a valuable supplement to automatic fire against enemy assaults (Sturmabwehr)in the ‘last months’.
The numbers of MP18s which saw combat were probably very limited. Much discussion has been devoted to the scale of this weapon’s production – with figures of over 30,000 being quoted by some authorities. In fact, the serial numbers of surviving examples of this weapon known to have been captured at the Front do not appear to go beyond the 5,000 mark. The picture has been obscured by the fact that those MP18s issued after the war, to the police forces of the Weimar Republic, were either renumbered, or used a new range of numbers after being assembled from wartime parts. In at least some cases renumbering appears to have been achieved by the simple expedient of adding a digit in front of the original serial number – hence the existence of MP18s with numbers in the 30,000 range.
While it is certainly very likely that assault battalions got their hands on the new weapon, the Official intention was to make a general issue of the MP18 to the infantry. Each infantry company was to have a seven-man Maschinenpistole team (one gunner and six ammunition carriers). As the meagre production figures imply, it did not prove possible to implement this plan before the Armistice. The terms of the subsequent peace treaty have been at the root of one further myth regarding the MP18. It is frequently repeated as fact that the Bergmann Muskete had so impressed the Allies during the 1918 campaign that they specifically banned its production and military issue. In fact no such prohibition appears in the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Strict controls were placed on the production of fire arms – principally by means of severely limiting the number of companies permitted to manufacture war materials – Bergmann was not among them. With regard to military issue, the numbers and types of weapons permitted to the 100,000-man German Army were carefully stipulated. There is no mention whatsoever made of machine pistols, although every other weapon type (apart from pistols) is listed – from cavalry carbines to 105mm Howitzers. Given the care that was taken to lay down such specific restrictions, it would appear that, far from having impressed the Allies, the MP18 had not really registered on their consciousness at all. The fact that they were still unconvinced of the utility of such weapons on the eve of the Second World War would also suggest that the impact of the MP18 on the fighting of 1918 was marginal.
Bolt-action rifles were standard during the whole period of World War I, and some served until after World War II, particularly the Lee-Enfield; the Springfield 1903, which was first issued as an infantry rifle and then later as a sniper rifle; the Mauser, although shortened from the Gew 98 to the Kar 98k; and others. Bolt-action magazine rifles were an important type of weapon and represented the high point of manually operated arms, but the effort required to use them over long periods of action was tiring and often meant that after every shot, while reloading, the rifleman came out of the aim, resulting in a reduction of firepower for nations using these rifles. The United States led the way in introducing the first general-issue SLR, the Garand M1, and after World War II all other nations followed the trend, especially as Germany had also introduced the concept of the assault rifle.
LEE AND THE BRITISH
Lee’s Rifle Designs.
The British Army in 1860 was equipped with the Martini-Henry, lever-action, single-shot rifle in .443-inch caliber, but events in the firearms field in Europe led to the establishment of the British Small Arms Committee under General Philip Smith in 1863. Its task was to examine the new bolt-action and other rifles with a view to reequipping British infantry with a bolt-operated magazine rifle.
The committee remit stated that it was to consider “the desirability or otherwise of introducing a magazine rifle for naval or military use, or both.” A large number of rifles were presented for examination, some of them from abroad, but only three weapons were chosen for extensive trials. The three were the Lee magazine rifle, an improved Lee with a Bethel Burton magazine, and the Owen Jones magazine rifle. The Bethel Burton magazine varied from the magazine system of the other two by being mounted high on the upper right side of the receiver.
All rifles were in caliber .45 in the 1855 trials, and the Owen Jones fell at this hurdle. By the time the 1887 trials took place the Lee rifles were both recalibered to .402 inch, in barrels designed by William E. Metford, who had invented the polygonal rifling method. The result was the choice of Lee’s rifle with his own magazine.
On the Continent, however, the Swiss had just reduced the caliber of their service rifle to .295 inch, and suddenly the British caliber looked too big for modern weapons. This led to the decision to reduce the caliber to .303 inch, which was a momentous decision. The problem persisted, however, in the powder used, for the British had no smokeless powder available for the new caliber. Metford came to the rescue and drew up a specification for the rifling and the chamber of the new weapon.
This rifle was to be known as the Lee Metford, and 350 examples were made in 1888 and issued for troop trials. At this time Joseph J. Speed was working at the Royal Small Arms Fa c t o r y, and he designed some magazine refinements that were incorporated into this rifle. (His designs were also marketed commercially as Lee-Speed rifles, made by the Birmingham Small Arms Company.) The trial weapons had a muzzle velocity of 1,850 feet per second (fps), produced by a cartridge charge of 70 grains of compressed black powder, developing a chamber pressure of 18 tons per square inch.
In anticipation perhaps of developments soon to come, the rifle was sighted to 2,000 yards, but with the cartridge powder initially used the accuracy of the weapon was unsatisfactory. Despite this problem the rifle underwent various modifications and after 1891 had a 10-round magazine (approved by the new Small Arms Committee in December 1891); other, less significant changes were made until, in 1899, the Lee-Enfield Mark I appeared. There was little of significant change except for the removal of the cleaning rod, which had been fitted under the barrel in the ramrod style up to that time.
The cartridge propellant problem had persisted for a short time, but by 1891 Hiram S. Maxim, Sir Frederick Abel, and the Nobel firm all and separately arrived at the solution, which was cordite (a compound of 58 percent nitroglycerine, 37 percent guncotton, and 5 percent mineral jelly). The resulting compound was smokeless and left almost no fouling deposits in the weapons firing the new cartridges. The important factor for the soldier was that with the increased power of the cartridge the trajectory of the bullet was flatter, meaning that lower standards of marksmanship would still produce better results than in the black-powder days. Further, increased ranges could be covered, and the concept of rifle fire used against groups of men, horses, and, later, vehicles, was born.
One more improvement was made to produce what was now called the Cartridge SA Ball Magazine Rifle Mark I. In the blackpowder era, lead was quite sufficient for ball ammunition, as it was not subjected to stresses that it was incapable of handling. Lead when fired with cordite propellant, however, was subject to pressures in the rifling that it was incapable of withstanding, and rounds were either “stripping” (going through the barrel without being gripped by the rifling) or deforming when gripped by the rifling.
In 1875 Major Bode of the Swiss Army had invented a design for a jacketed bullet that could cope with the higher pressures, and this was supplemented by another Swiss, Major Eduard Rubin, who designed a copper-jacketed bullet that could not only cope with the pressures in the new rifles but also could withstand the effect of the torque produced in the barrel by the rifling.
As noted above, the British and the Swiss had made drastic reductions in the caliber of their service weapons. As a result of this caliber reduction, to ensure that the round had military efficiency (that is, it would be capable of wounding or killing the target), the bullet had to take on a long profile, with the jacket surrounding a core of lead or other similar heavy filling. Further, bullets had to have ballistic weight, otherwise the long-range performance would be adversely affected by the fact that the velocity of a light bullet falls off very rapidly due to air resistance.
So between 1889 and 1891 the British changed from black powder to cordite in their new .303-inch service rifle. It was with slightly modified versions of the 1899 rifle that the British went to war in 1914, when, during the retreat to the Marne, German troops assumed the British had a lot of machine guns because British infantry rifle fire was so rapid and accurate. The British Army continued to use bolt-action rifles until the late 1950s, when the self-loading rifle (SLR) was issued. British bolt actions were extremely smooth to operate and, despite the fact that they were often criticized for being rear-locking, maintained a reliability for service second to none. In World War I the Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 1 and its variants did sterling service, not being superseded until the latter half of World War II by the Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 4. The bolt, which was the heart of the system, was, with very minor modifications, the same throughout.
THE UNITED STATES AND THE BOLT-ACTION RIFLE
It is interesting to note that in its history, the U. S. Army has issued only two bolt-action rifles to U. S. troops, the Krag-Jorgenson 8mm and the Springfield Model 1903 caliber .30. The first was an abject failure, the second being a copy of another famous weapon-the German Mauser Gew 98. It is also interesting to note that whereas in Europe the bolt action appeared in the 1840s, the United States persisted in the use of single-shot breech loaders such as the Springfield and the Sharps carbine.
The weapon was issued in small numbers and was spectacularly successful. At Hoover’s Gap on 24 June 1863 during the U. S. Civil War, a mounted brigade of Union infantry was moving toward the gap to clear the area of advanced Confederate pickets. That these infantry were mounted was one fundamental change in tactics; that they were armed with Spencer’s rifle was another. The weapons, however, had been bought by the soldiers themselves, because General James Wolfe Ripley refused to supply Spencer rifles. The troops had each spent $35 on their own rifles, 12 and the effect of this was terrible as far as the Confederate soldiers were concerned.
Both sides in the U. S. Civil War were armed overwhelmingly with breech-loading single-shot muskets or rifles. The refusal by General Ripley to consider Spencer and other similar-action rifles was utterly negligent, causing the deaths of thousands of men whose lives would have been spared by the issue of the decisive repeating rifles. There can be little doubt that if the North had had Spencer rifles and carbines, the South would have surrendered far earlier than it did.
Why the Spencer’s repeating rifle was essentially sidelined is detailed above, but the mind-set toward procurement and that at the Springfield Armory seem to have been almost traitorous as far as the well-being of U. S. infantry was concerned. One can only wonder what would have been the effect had Custer’s troops been armed with the Spencer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The decision was made, albeit delayed, to examine the European fascination with bolt-action rifles, and in 1891 General Daniel W. Flagler was appointed the new chief of ordnance for the U. S. government. Although considered by the conservative General Stephen V. Benét (his predecessor) to be even more conservative, Flagler was looking to the future and to the replacement of the old trapdoor black-powder single-shot rifle then on issue to the U. S. Army. In his first annual report he wrote unequivocally that the United States was years behind the rest of the developed world in that it had not adopted a modern, small-caliber, high-velocity magazine-type rifle, and he added that what remained of the army was seen as underarmed.
General Benét had been obdurate in his refusal to consider rearming the infantry, even though the Hotchkiss, Lee, and Mauser designs were all superior to the trapdoor Springfield in every respect. General Flagler was determined to change this, but he had two problems. One was a Springfield Armory staff totally unwilling to consider new ideas; the other was that he had none of the new smokeless powder, which was only available outside the U. S., to make cartridges for any new weapon. Luckily the second problem was solved by Hiram Maxim, who made his own, and 500 pounds of Wetteren powder was obtained from Belgium.
The designers at Frankford Arsenal were now equipped to design the new caliber .30 cartridge as soon as the rifle and its magazine were decided upon. General Flagler now reassembled the Rifle Board, under Captain Stanhope E. Blunt, to examine all submitted weapons. Fifty-three weapons were submitted, including some of the very best from Europe. There were no U. S. designs for the simple reason that U. S. rifle makers were unable to cope with the new powder.
The board and General Flagler decided it was important that U. S. inventors participate and to this end issued a supply of the new cartridge and some new caliber .30 barrels. By doing this, less financially well-off manufacturers could also participate, and no one could manufacture nonstandard barrels or ammunition for the tests. Having said that the general was a man who looked to the future, it is important to realize the philosophy driving the search for a magazine rifle. The magazine was seen not as a supply of replaceable ammunition but as a safety device, only for use in extremes, when single loading was dangerous. In other words, the army was looking for a rifle that had a reserve of ammunition in the magazine, but this was not to be used while there was time to load each cartridge singly, just as the old Springfield had been operated. The magazine contents were to be used only in the last stages of an operation, when loading single rounds would be too slow. The old principle of accurate long-range shooting was still alive.
The Mauser rifle was the first to run afoul of this particularly arcane train of thought, because it could not be loaded with single cartridges. The German Army wanted rapid-fire weapons, so the weapon was loaded with five rounds in a clip, and German soldiers were issued all their ammunition prepacked in clips. At the time much opinion was against the magazine rifle in principle, and the New York Times reported that an unidentified source claimed that he had
repeatedly put twenty-three shots in one minute from a Springfield rifle into a target two feet square at 200 yards . . . the only gain in labour one obtains with a magazine gun over a single-loader is the handling of cartridges and the time gained in the handling is practically far more than offset by the time lost in shifting magazines and misfires when magazines are emptied.
The Krag Rifle
Despite efforts to encourage U. S. inventors, no weapons were forthcoming, and the board reported in September 1892 that it had made its choice: the Krag-Jorgenson. This rifle was the brainchild of Norwegians Captain Ole Krag and Erik Jorgenson. (Krag was a captain in the Norwegian artillery and superintendent of the Konigsberg Armory; Jorgenson was an engineer.) The rifle was already in service with the Danish Army. The weapons were designed for U. S. use to fire the .30/40 rimmed cartridge, and the first issue was made to troops in October 1894. The weapon weighed 9.35 pounds, was 49.14 inches long, with a 30-inch barrel. Subsequent modifications were introduced as the Models 1896 and 1898, but all suffered in comparison with European magazine rifles from one glaring defect: they were intended to be loaded singly, with the magazine serving as an emergency reservoir only.
U. S. reaction to the choice was predictably one of outrage, and the board was accused of predetermining the outcome. Certainly the Krag failed the Rifle Board tests on a number of occasions, and the weapon was nevertheless reworked at Springfield Armory, sometimes by the inventor himself. Efforts to have U. S. designs considered after the event were determined, but no U. S. design managed to get consideration, in part due to the fact that the same board members sat in judgment of these late entries.
Not only was the Krag doubtful as far as its magazine and loading system was concerned; in comparison with other infantry rifles of the time, it was the longest and heaviest. Interestingly, although the feed mechanism was not really suited to the modern maneuver style of warfare, it did turn out to be quite accurate. The Danish Army used it for some years, and a modified version was bought by the Norwegian Army.
The U. S. Army thus had its first magazine rifle, and it soon appeared that it was not an altogether felicitous choice from the point of view of the troops. Despite some claims to the contrary, the accuracy of the weapon was found wanting and was not as accurate at 600 yards as the old Springfield. Experience in general pointed to the fact that the weapon was not performing well, and accuracy altered as the weapon heated up. Again, parts were prone to fall off (particularly the magazine cutoff, which when in operation forced the rifleman to load single cartridges), weaknesses in metallurgy produced a bolt that jammed, the ramrod head was too big to fit the barrel, and there had been some cartridge accidents as well. The problems were confronted to an extent, but a real test was soon to face the rifle in Cuba.
Spanish rule in Cuba had been a sore point with the U. S. Congress for some time, and in 1898, following a revolt by revolutionaries, Congress recognized the independence of Cuba; an army was raised, to be commanded by U. S. General Nelson A. Miles. Spain then declared war on the United States, and General Miles asked that his troops be armed with Winchester rifles, which had been turned down by the Rifle Board in favour of the Krag. Although Miles got approval to test the Winchester, General Flagler failed the rifle for not meeting the (unspecified) standards of performance of the army, and the United States went to war. The National Guardsmen who formed the main body of General Miles’s army were armed not with the Krag-Jorgenson but with the old black-powder trapdoor Springfield. The number of Krag-Jorgenson rifles available was insufficient for an army of 200,000 men, and production at Springfield Armory could never hope to equip all the men with the new rifle.
The army that finally went to Cuba was a sorry sight; some 150,000 men were still wearing heavy wool uniforms, armed with antiquated rifles, and supported by artillery that also used blackpowder propellant. Furthermore, these ill-equipped troops were to come face-to-face with the Spanish service rifle: the Mauser. One description of the first encounter with this rifle and its effect is very telling. William Hallahan writes in Misfire:
On July 1, 1898, at the Battle of San Juan Hill, ordnance people expected to get their questions about the Krag answered. True, there were too few Krags, only enough for the Regular Army and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, but enough to give measure. As they proceeded through the Cuban countryside, U. S. troops soon encountered a terrifying sound-a terrible buzz that turned into a high shriek as it went whizzing past their heads into tree trunks and branches. A man hit in the arm by the force of it would spin on his heels and be slammed down on the ground. . . . The deadly accuracy of the Mauser stopped the Americans’ advance more than once with a seemingly incredible volume of fire from such a small force of Spaniards.
The Krag could not hack the fighting; its muzzle velocity was too low and thus its range was limited, and the problems of loading single cartridges into a rifle while on the move do not need to be stressed. The Mauser, by contrast, was providing what the Spanish defenders needed against superior numbers: firepower. Although Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Rough Rider charge against the Spanish position on San Juan Hill ended in victory, it was at the cost of 1,300 U. S. casualties out of an attacking force of 5,000. The Krag-Jorgenson was tested against the Mauser after the war ended, and the Mauser penetrated 9 inches farther into a wood block than did the Krag. It was obvious that the Krag rifle was not up to European standards and would have to be rapidly replaced.
General Flagler died in 1899, not the most popular of men with those riflemen who had gone to Cuba armed with the Krag. After his death, certain other disturbing facts emerged about the tests in 1892, one of which was that the Krag had been tested to 30,000 pounds of breech pressure, whereas all other entries were subjected to tests of 40,000 pounds. This indicated once more that the Rifle Board had not been entirely professional in its deliberations.
The Springfield ’03 Rifle.
A new appointment was needed, and the chosen officer was General Adelbert Buffington. This was another passed-over officer for whom the post at Springfield was simply a bookmark until his retirement. He ordered that the Krag be redesigned to take the higher-power powder and cartridge that were needed, and it seems that performance was enhanced so that the rifle was capable of safely firing a 200-grain bullet at 2,300 fps. However, General Buffington was soon to retire, and in his place was appointed Captain William Crozier, inventor of the Springfield M1901 rifle.
It seems rather strange that the inventor of a rifle that was to be considered for service should be put in charge of the very institution that would further his prospects, but that is the system that appointed Crozier. Like many others whose jobs have been the result of favor or even fraud, Crozier stayed put. However, his term of office would only be four years, so like U. S. presidents, his deeds would be limited to a certain extent.
General Crozier, as he had instantly become, had a very senior backer. This was President Teddy Roosevelt, who had succeeded President William McKinley after the latter’s assassination in September 1901. So on 7 April 1902 Crozier authorized the first production of the new Springfield 1901 rifles. By 16 February 1903 the work was finished and the rifles were ready for testing. In no time at all the rifles were tested and reported to have been successful, and the rifle became the Springfield Model M1903 rifle.
Once the rifle was issued, a few modifications were needed. The cartridge clip was faulty, and so a changed version was issued. The rod bayonet of the original was, at the president’s request, changed to a knife bayonet. The cartridge was also altered and the rifle rechambered to fire it. The new DuPont powder, a cooler-burning mix, was used as propellant in the cartridge, and, once altered to fire this cartridge, the weapon was regarded as nearly perfect. The .30- 06 round was to see service for a long time and eventually caused singular problems for weapons designers.
There were those at the time, however, who thought that the Springfield M1903 was very similar to the German Mauser design. On 15 March 1904 the first rumors surfaced that Springfield was in breach of a Mauser patent on the ammunition clip. Then other similarities began to surface, and in no time Crozier was forced into offering royalties to Mauser for two patent infringements on the clip and a further five on the rifle. Then came news that the U. S.-made Krag also infringed Mauser patents. The matter was one of utter embarrassment for the United States, which had no alternative but to pay Mauser what it was owed. This totaled some $200,000 by the time it was all over.
General Crozier was duly appointed by President Roosevelt to a second term, and as soon as this was done, another round of patent infringement talks had to take place. The injured party on this occasion was the Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabrik (DWM) firm in Berlin. It announced that its patent covered the U. S. .30-06 cartridge and sought recompense. This matter dragged on until 1920, when DWM brought suit for royalties owed. The U. S. government arrogantly told DWM it had no case, as the patent had been seized in 1917 as enemy alien property during World War I. The government failed to convince the judge and was ordered to pay DWM $300,000. It appealed but was finally required in December 1928 to pay the original sum plus interest, a total of over $412,000.
It is interesting to note that when the United States entered World War I, in 1917, there was a severe shortage of rifles for the American Expeditionary Force. A history of the 37th Division of the U. S. Army describes the problem in some detail:
The Springfield rifle had superseded in our army the Krag, which we had used in the Spanish American War. In that conflict, the Spanish Army had a rifle of German design, the Mauser. Our ordnance officers at that time considered the Krag to be a more accurate weapon than the Mauser. Still, we were not satisfied with the Krag, and after years of development in 1903 we brought out the Springfield, the most accurate and quickest firing rifle that had ever come from an arsenal. . . . But as war became inevitable for us and we began to have a realisation of the scale on which we must prosecute it, our ordnance officers studying the rifle problem became persuaded that our army could not hope to carry this magnificent weapon to Europe as its chief small-arms reliance. A brief examination of the industrial problem presented by the rifle situation in 1917 should make it clear even to a man unacquainted with machinery and manufacturing why it would be humanly impossible to equip our troops with the rifle in developing which our ordnance experts had spent so many years.
The Model 1903 rifle had been built in two factories and only two-the Springfield Armoury, Springfield, Mass., and the Rock Island Arsenal at Rock Island, Ill. Our Government for several years prior to 1917 had cut down its expenditures for the manufacture of small arms and ammunition. The result was that the Rock Island Arsenal had ceased its production of Springfields altogether, while the output of rifles from the Springfield Armoury had been greatly reduced.
This meant that the skilled artisans once employed in the manufacture of Springfield rifles had been scattered to the four winds. When in early 1917 it became necessary to speed up the production of rifles to the limit in these two establishments those in charge of the undertaking found that they could recover only a few of the old, trained employees. Yet even when we had restaffed these two factories with skilled men their combined production at top speed could not begin to supply the quantity of rifles which our impending army would need. Therefore, it was obviously necessary that we procure rifles from private factories.
Why, then, was not the manufacture of Springfields extended to the private plants? Some ante helium effort, indeed, had been made looking to the production of Springfields in commercial plants, but lack of funds had prevented more than the outlining of the scheme.
Any high-powered rifle is an intricate production. The 1917 Enfield is relatively simple in construction, yet the soldier can dismount his Enfield into 86 parts, and some of these parts are made up of several component pieces. Many of these parts must be made with great precision, gauged with microscopic nicety, and finished with unusual accuracy. To produce Springfields on a grand scale in private plants would imply the use of thousands of gauges, jigs, dies, and other small tools necessary for such a manufacture, as well as that of great quantities of special machines. None of this equipment for Springfield rifle manufacture had been provided, yet all of it must be supplied to the commercial plants before they could turn out rifles.
We should have had to spend preliminary months or even years in building up an adequate manufacturing equipment for Springfields, the while our boys in France were using what odds and ends of rifle equipment the Government might be able to purchase for them, except for a condition in our small-arms industry in early 1917 that now seems to have been well-nigh providential.
Among others, both the British and the Russian Governments in the emergency of 1914 and 1915 had turned to the United States to supplement their sources of rifle supply while they, particularly the British, were building up their home manufacturing capacity. There were five American concerns engaged in the production of rifles on these large foreign orders when we entered the war. Three of them were the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., of New Haven, Conn.; the Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Co., of Ilion, N. Y.; and the Remington Arms Co. of Delaware at its enormous war-contract factory at Eddystone, Pa., later a part of the Midvale Steel and Ordnance Co. These concerns had developed their manufacturing facilities on a huge scale to turn out rifles for the British Government. By the spring of 1917 England had built up her own manufacturing facilities at home, and the last of her American contracts were nearing completion.
Here, then, was at hand a huge capacity which, added to our government arsenals, could turn out every rifle the American Army would require, regardless of how many troops we were to put in the field.
As soon as war became a certainty for us, the Ordnance department sent its best rifle experts to study the British Enfield in detail. They returned to headquarters without enthusiasm for it; in fact, regarding it as a weapon not good enough for an American soldier. A glance at the history of the British Enfield will make clear some of our objections to it. Until the advent of the 1903 Springfield the German Mauser had occupied the summit of military rifle supremacy. From 1903 until the advent of the great war, these two rifles, the Mauser and the Springfield, were easily the two leaders. The British Army had been equipped with the Lee-Enfield for some years prior to the outbreak of the great war, hut the British ordnance authorities had been making vigourous efforts to improve this weapon. The Enfield was at a disadvantage principally in its ammunition. It fired a .303 calibre cartridge with a rimmed head. From a ballistic standpoint this cartridge was virtually obsolete.
In 1914, a new, improved Enfield, known as the Pattern 14 was brought out in England and the British government was on the point of adopting it when the great war broke out. This was to be a gun of .276 calibre and was to shoot rimless, or cannelured, cartridges similar to the standard United States ammunition. The war threw the whole British improved Enfield on the scrap heap. England was no more equipped to build the improved Enfields than we were to produce Springfields in our private plants. The British arsenals and industrial plants and her ammunition factories were equipped to turn out the old “short Enfield and its antiquated .303 rimmed cartridges. Now England was obliged to turn to outside sources for an additional rifle supply and in the United States she found the three firms . . . willing to undertake large rifle contracts. Having to build up factory equipment anew in the United States for this work, England found that she might as well have the American plants manufacture the improved Enfield. . . . Accordingly, the British selected the improved Enfield for the American manufacturer, but modified it to receive the .303 rimmed cartridges. This was the gun that we found being produced at New Haven, Ilion and Eddystone in the spring of 1917. The rifle had many of the characteristics of the 1903 Springfield but it was not so good as the Springfield in its proportions and its sights lacked some of the refinements to which Americans were accustomed. . . . The ammunition it fired was out of the question for us. Not only was it inferior but since we expected to continue to build the Springfields at the Government arsenals we should, if we adopted the Enfield as it was, be forced to produce two sizes of rifle ammunition
The rifle had been designed originally for rimless ammunition and later modified; so it could be modified readily back again to shoot our standard .30 calibre Springfield cartridges.
It may be seen that the Ordnance Department had before it three courses open, any one of which it might take. It could spend the time to equip private plants to manufacture Springfields, in which case the American rifle program would be hopelessly delayed. It could get guns immediately by contracting for the production of British .303 Enfields, in which case the American troops would carry inferior rifles with them to France. Or, it could take a relatively brief time, accept the criticism bound to come from any delay, however brief such delay might be and however justified by the practical conditions, and modify the Enfield to take our ammunition, in which case the American troops would be adequately equipped with a good weapon.
The decision to modify the Enfield was one of the great decisions of the executive prosecution of the war-all honour to the men who made it.
The three concerns which had been manufacturing the British weapons conceded that it should be changed to take the American ammunition.
The Eddystone plant finished its British contracts on June 1, Winchester produced its last British rifle on June 28, and Ilion on July 21, 1917. Winchester delivered the first modified Enfields to us on August 18, Eddystone on September 10 and Ilion about October 28.
The progress in the manufacture was thereafter steadily upward. During the week ending February 2, 1918, the daily production of military rifles in the United States was 9,247 of which 7,805 were modified Enfields produced in the three private plants and 1,442 were Springfields built in the two arsenals. The total production for that week was 50,873 guns of both types, or nearly enough for three army divisions. . . . All troops leaving the United States were armed with American weapons at the ports of embarkation.
Ten months after the U. S. declared war against Germany we were producing in a week four times as many rifles as Great Britain had turned out in a similar period after 10 months of war, and U. S. production was then twice as large in volume as Great Britain had attained in the war up to that time. By the middle of June, 1918, we had passed the million and one-half mark in the production of rifles of all sorts, this figure including over 250,000 rifles which had been built upon original contracts placed by the former Russian government.
The production of Enfields and Springfields during the war up to November 9, 1918, amounted to a total of 2,506,307 guns.
The Enfield thus became the dominant rifle of our military effort. With its modified firing mechanism it could use the superior Springfield cartridges with their great accuracy. The Enfield sights, by having the peep sight close to the eye of the firer, gave even greater quickness of aim than the Springfield sights afforded. In this respect the weapon was far superior to the Mauser, which was the main dependence of the German Army. All in all to a weapon that made scant appeal to our ordnance officers in a few weeks we added improvements and modifications that made the 1917 Enfield a gun that for the short-range fighting in Europe compared favourably with the Springfield and was to the allied cause a distinct contribution which America substantially could claim to be her own.
The fundamental changes, including manufacturing and financial practices, that came about during the Industrial Revolution greatly speeded machine-gun development. The first patent using the term “machine gun” was issued in the United States in 1829 to Samuel L. Farries of Middletown, Ohio. This grant seems to imply that the term was to be assigned to any mechanically operated weapon of rifle caliber and above, regardless of whether the energy necessary for sustained fire was derived mechanically or from some other source of power. As it turned out, however, the weapons of the nineteenth century would all be manually operated. Because it was always necessary for a gunner to aim the weapon, there seemed to be no reason why he should not also furnish the power to feed and fire the gun. The challenge for inventors was how to devise a mechanism to make that possible.
In the 1850s, Sir James S. Lillie of London attempted to combine both the multibarrel and the revolving chamber systems. He arranged 12 barrels in two rows. Each had a cylinder, as with a revolver, behind it. A hand crank tripped the hammers of each unit, either simultaneously to produce a 12-barrel barrage of fire, or consecutively to produce a continuous ripple of fire from each barrel in turn. The problem with Lillie’s gun was that it took a long time to reload. Thus it had little appeal for the military and the only specimen ever made now resides in the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich in London.
In the United States, other inventors continued to work on perfecting a multifire weapon. Improvements to percussion caps and subsequent developments in the evolution of the cartridge paved the way for new advances. Ezra Ripley, of Troy, New York, took advantage of the paper cartridge developed by Samuel Colt and the Ely brothers of England to patent a hand-cranked machine gun. Ripley achieved sustained volley fire by a compact firing mechanism that allows the gunner to fire one shot, or the whole volley, with a quick turn of the handle. The weapon consisted of a series of barrels grouped around a central axis. The breech lock, made in the shape of a revolving cylinder, was loaded with the conventional paper cartridges of the time. The breech was then locked into place by securing the operating handle. This aligned the chambers containing the cartridges with the rear of the barrels. With a turn of the handle, the firing pin was cocked and released, firing the weapon. Once the weapon was fired, the gunner then pulled the firing assembly rearward, removed the empty cartridges and reloaded the empty chambers. As preloaded cylinders were made available, a single operator was able to produce more sustained fire than a company of men using the standard muzzle-loading musket of the day. However, U. S. military observers evaluating Ripley’s prototype expressed serious doubts about overheating of the barrels and ammunition resupply. In the end, the U. S. Army, which ordered little more than conventional arms like muskets and cannons during this period, was not interested in Ripley’s invention. Nevertheless, it was a promising weapon that had many features that greatly influenced machine-gun design for years.
Some of the difficulties incurred by arms inventors in marketing their ideas were reduced with the onset of the U. S. Civil War; the needs of industrialized warfare spurred weapons inventors and added new impetus to the development of volley-fire weapons and ultimately the mechanical machine gun. One of the most effective of the volley-fire weapons during the Civil War was the Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, built in late 1861 by the Billinghurst Company of Rochester, New York. Designed by Joseph Requa of Rochester, this weapon was yet another revival of the fourteenth-century ribauldequin brought up to date. The weapon consisted of 25 rifle barrels mounted side-by-side on a light wheeled carriage. The barrels were each loaded with a brass cartridge containing gunpowder and a bullet and having a hole in the base. A steel block closed all 25 breeches and was perforated to allow the flash from a single cap, which was placed on a nipple on the iron frame and fired by a hammer, to pass through and ignite the 25 cartridges in a ragged volley, after which the 25 barrels had to be emptied of the spent cartridges by hand and reloaded before the gun could fire again. It produced a blast of fire that could cut down a charging enemy.
The Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, although primitive by later standards, had a few unusual features that merit mention. Requa had solved the inevitable long pause for reloading by making his weapon a breechloader. The clip-loading feature and quick means of locking and unlocking the bolt allowed for a decent rate of fire. The gun was demonstrated in New York shortly before the Civil War broke out, and several were purchased by the Union and the Confederacy. They were used to protect vulnerable points, notably bridges and similar places where an enemy attack could be channeled into a narrow space and a sudden blast of fire delivered. As a result, these weapons became known as bridge guns. Despite its potential, the battery gun had its limitations and did not represent a great leap forward in rapid-fire technology. Additionally, there were questions about how such guns would best be used on the battlefield. The gun was demonstrated for the Ordnance Select Committee in London in 1863, and the observers attending were less than impressed. The committee thought that the gun could not be a substitute for any existing field guns and questioned its utility for the infantry. Ian V. Hogg, a modern expert on weapons and their development, maintains that “this short report pinpoints the greatest problem facing the early development of machine guns: how were they to be used?”1 Most military observers saw them as some sort of artillery weapon and contended that they should be handled in the field in the same manner, that is, setting up some distance from the enemy to take him under fire. According to Hogg, “It was this ques tion of method of employment that was to be the greatest brake on the early development” of the machine gun. Very few observers realized the potential of these weapons and how they would change the nature of armed combat.
A different approach during the Civil War was taken by Wilson Ager (sometimes spelled Agar). His invention was called the Coffee Mill because the ammunition was fed into the top through a funnel-shaped hopper resembling an old-time coffee grinder. Ager’s gun, also known as the Union Repeating Gun, was unique in that it had only one barrel. A number of steel tubes, into which powder and a bullet were loaded, provided the firepower; on the end of each tube was a nipple on to which a percussion cap was placed. The tubes were then dropped into the hopper and gravity-fed one at a time by rotating the crank. This pushed the first tube from the hopper into the chamber of the barrel, locked the breech block behind it, and then dropped a hammer onto the cap and fired the caliber .58 Minié-type bullet out of the barrel. Continuous rotation of the crank withdrew the empty tube and ejected it, then fed the next tube in, and so on. The gunner’s mate had the job of picking up the empty tubes and reloading them as fast as he could, dropping them back into the hopper.
The gun, which Ager described as “An Army in Six Feet Square,” worked reasonably well, particularly for its day. The inventor claimed that the weapon could fire 100 shots per minute. This was probably an exaggeration, and that claim was no doubt received with great skepticism. This response was probably well-founded, because 100 shots per minute meant exploding a pound or so of gunpowder every minute. In truth, the gun probably could not have withstood the heat generated. (The problem of heat buildup in the barrel would be one of the recurring difficulties that had to be overcome in the development of an effective machine gun.) Nevertheless, Ager conducted a demonstration firing for President Abraham Lincoln, who was so impressed with the weapon that he authorized the purchase of 10 units on the spot. Eventually Ager sold more than fifty Coffee Mills to the Union Army. Generally, they proved to be unreliable in combat and were never employed en masse. According to one reference, they were incorporated into the defenses of Washington and were only occasionally fired at Confederate positions along the Potomac River. 3 They were usually relegated to bridge duty, like the Requa. In the end, the Coffee Mill was not adopted in great numbers because contemporary authorities, failing to see its great potential, condemned it as requiring too much ammunition ever to be practical.
Captain D. R. Williams of the Confederate Army invented a mechanical gun that was also used during the Civil War. This weapon, a 1-pounder with a bore of 1.57 inches and a 4-foot barrel, was mounted on a mountain howitzer-style horse-drawn limber. This weapon was really a cross between a machine gun and a light repeating cannon. The firing mechanism was operated by a hand crank located on the right side. The weapon used a self-consuming paper cartridge and was capable of 65 shots per minute. It was fairly reliable but had a tendency to overheat when fired for extended periods. The Williams gun was first employed on 3 May 1862 at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. Some historians maintain that this was the first machine gun to be used in battle, but weapons historian Ian V. Hogg disputes this claim, arguing that the Williams gun cannot be classed as a true machine gun, since it was necessary to put each round into the feedway by hand. The Williams, according to Hogg, “was simply a quick-firing breech-loader, operated by a hand crank.” Nevertheless, these weapons were used by the Confederacy for the rest of the Civil War with some success.
Another American, General O. Vandenberg, also invented a new weapon, a volley gun designed for “projecting a group or cluster of shot.” This weapon employed 85 to 451 barrels, depending on the size of the projectile for which it was designed. Each barrel was loaded with a bullet and then the breech was closed. When the operator manipulated a lever, measured charges of powder were dropped simultaneously into each chamber. The method of ignition was percussion: a centrally located charge ignited the whole volley simultaneously. With so many barrels, the weapon was extremely heavy. Vandenberg built the first guns in England and tried to market them there. The British showed some interest in it for use aboard ships but believed that it had little potential as a land weapon due to its weight. Vandenberg, at the outbreak of the Civil War, made many attempts to sell the weapon to the U. S. government. He even gave three weapons to the secretary of war for testing. After very comprehensive field trials, it was found that it took nine hours for one man to clean the bore and chambers of the weapon adequately after firing. This maintenance problem and the weight issue doomed the weapon, and it was deemed unacceptable for Union service. Several of these guns were used by Confederate forces, but they were stamped with the name of the British manu facturing company, Robinson and Cottam. There is a record of one being used in the defense of Petersburg, Virginia.
The Gatling Gun
The most famous and successful of the mechanical machine guns was invented by Richard Jordan Gatling. Rather than practice medicine after completing medical school, Gatling spent his life inventing things, including a steam plow, a mechanical rice planter, and a hemp breaker. However, it was in the area of repeating arms that Gatling made his name. In 1861, taking advantage of the progress that had been made in machine tooling, he combined the best principles of the Ager and Ripley guns (although he denied that he had been influenced by either weapon), overcoming their more objectionable features. Because of his successful designs, Gatling has generally been credited with being the progenitor of the modern mechanical machine gun.
Gatling was fully aware of the problems with heat buildup from multiple explosions in a rapidly firing weapon. To overcome this, he designed the weapon with six barrels that would be fired in turn. This ensured that with a total potential fire rate of 600 rounds per minute, each barrel would only fire 100, allowing them to cool down.
The first Gatling gun, patented in November 1862, consisted of six barrels mounted around a central axis in a revolving frame with a hopper-shaped steel container similar to the Ager. The barrels were cranked by hand. The weapon used small steel cylinders that contained a percussion cap on the end, the bullet, and paper cartridges for the charge. It was loaded by placing the steel cylinders into the hopper above the gun, which fed the rounds into the breech by gravity. As the handle was turned, the six barrels and the breech mechanism revolve, each barrel having a bolt and a firing pin controlled by a shaped groove in the casing around the breech. As the breech revolved, the bolts were opened and closed and the firing pin released from the action of studs running in the groove. When any barrel was at the topmost point of revolution, the breech bolt was fully open and as it passed beneath the hopper a loaded cylinder was dropped into the feeder. As the barrel continued to revolve, the bolt was closed, leaving the firing pin cocked; as the barrel revolved to the bottommost point, the firing pin was released and the barrel fired. Further revolution caused the bolt to open and the empty case to be ejected, just in time for the barrel to reach the top again with the bolt open, ready to collect its next cartridge and casing.
Gatling made arrangements for six weapons to be manufactured for an official test by the Union Army. Unfortunately, the factory in which the guns were being made was destroyed by fire, and the guns and all his drawings were lost. The inventor was not deterred, however, and he was able to raise enough money to manufacture 12 new guns. This time he did away with the metal cylinders, using rim-fire cartridges instead. This made the newer weapon easier to load and more reliable. Gatling boasted that the gun could be fired at the rate of 200 shots per minute.
Despite Gatling’s claims, which were to be borne out by subsequent events, the Union Army failed to adopt the gun for two reasons. First, the army’s chief of ordnance, Colonel John W. Ripley (later brigadier general), strongly resisted any move away from standard-issue weapons. The other reason was suspicion that Gatling’s sympathies lay with the South. Although he had located his factory in Cincinnati, Ohio, Gatling had been born in North Carolina, which had joined the Confederacy. Therefore, to many among the Union leadership, his politics and sympathies were suspect. Gatling even appealed directly to President Lincoln, pointing out that his deadly invention was “providential, to be used as a means in crushing the rebellion.” Despite Gatling’s offer to help the North win the war, many in the Union high command felt there was something odd about a Southerner offering a new gun to the Union and thus refused to even consider Gatling’s invention. The only use of the Gatling gun during the Civil War occurred when General Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts personally purchased 12 guns for $1,000 each and later put them to good use against Confederate troops besieged at Petersburg, Virginia.
In 1864, Gatling completely redesigned the gun so that each barrel was formed with its own chamber, thus doing away with the separate cylinder and its attendant gas-leak problem. The gun now fed center-fire cartridges from a magazine on top. The cartridges were gradually fed into the chamber by cams as the barrels revolved, then fired at the bottom position, and were extracted and ejected during the upward movement. As the barrel reached the top it was empty and ready to take in the next round. The great advantage of this system was that it divided the mechanical work among six barrels so that all the machinery operated at a sensible speed. By this time, Gatling had refined the gun’s design considerably, increasing the rate of fire to 300 rounds per minute and improving reliability.
Gatling intensified efforts to sell the gun to the U. S. government. He published a publicity broadsheet in 1865 that informed the world that his gun bore “the same relationship to other firearms that McCormack’s Reaper does to the sickle, or the sewing machine to the common needle. It will no doubt be the means of producing a great revolution in the art of warfare from the fact that a few men can perform the work of a regiment.” At Gatling’s urging, the U. S. Army finally agreed later that year to conduct a test. Pleased with the results, the Army formally adopted the Gatling gun in 1866, ordering 50 of 1-inch caliber (with six barrels) and 50 of 0.50-inch caliber (with 10 barrels). Gatling entered a contract with Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Company of Hartford, Connecticut, to manufacture the guns for delivery in 1867. Gatling was so pleased with this arrangement that for as long as the U. S. government used the Gatling gun, it was manufactured by Colt.
Even though the U. S. Army had adopted the Gatling gun, there were two schools of thought among military men, both in the United States and elsewhere, about the best way to use it. One believed they should be used as artillery fire support; the other advocated its use for defending bridges and for street defense. Neither side recognized its true potential was as an infantry support weapon. This would be a recurring theme within the world’s armies regarding the Gatling gun and subsequent machine guns, as doctrine and tactics failed to keep pace with technological advances.
With the Civil War over and the arms embargo enacted during the war lifted, Gatling and the Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Company began marketing the weapon overseas, aggressively entering arms competitions throughout Europe. In each case, when a properly designed cartridge was used, the Gatling gun out-shot every competing design. In Great Britain, some military leaders had recommended the adoption of the machine gun, but cost considerations led Parliament to refuse to appropriate funding to develop such weapons. Nevertheless, the British Army tested Gatling’s weapon at Woolwich in 1870 in competition with the Montigny Mitrailleuse, a 12- pounder breechloader firing shrapnel, a 9-pounder muzzleloader firing shrapnel, six soldiers firing Martini-Henry rifles, and six soldiers firing Snider rifles. The Gatling fired 492 pounds of ammunition and obtained 2,803 hits on various targets; the Montigny 472 pounds for 708 hits; the 12-pounder 1,232 for 2,286 hits; and the 9-pounder 1,013 pounds for 2,207 hits. The British were impressed with the Gatling’s accuracy, its economy, and the fact that in timed fire it got off 1,925 rounds in 2.5 minutes. The test went so well that the British adopted the Gatling in caliber .42 for the Army and caliber .65 for the Royal Navy.
Great Britain became one of the first countries not only to recognize the utility of the Gatling gun but also to put it into action. After some initial difficulties with the new weapon during the Ashanti campaign of 1873 in the territory that is now Ghana, West Africa, the British Army wholeheartedly endorsed it. Events elsewhere in Africa contributed toward the acceptance of the Gatling gun. In South Africa on 22-23 January 1879, the British had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Zulus under Cetshwayo at Isandlwana. In retribution for this defeat, a force of 4,000 infantrymen and 1,000 cavalry under the command of Lord Chelmsford set out to punish the Zulus. On July 4, the British, armed with two Gatling guns, engaged the Zulu warriors at Ulundi. The Gatlings wrought havoc among the Zulus, who had never gone up against such devastating fire. When the battle was over, more than 1,500 Zulus lay dead, most due to fire from the Gatlings. From then on the Gatling gun became a mainstay of British expeditionary forces in places like Egypt and the Sudan. Modern-day historian Robert L. O’Connell maintains that the Gatling and subsequently the Maxim machine gun were so popular with British colonial forces because “from an imperialist standpoint, the machine gun was nearly the perfect laborsaving device, enabling tiny forces of whites to mow down multitudes of brave but thoroughly outgunned native warriors.”
Over the next few years, most major armies in Europe, as well as those in Egypt, China, and much of South America, purchased Gatling’s weapon. The Russian government, preparing for war with Turkey, ordered 400 Gatlings. A Russian general was sent to the United States to oversee their manufacture and inspect the units before acceptance and shipping. With considerable cunning, he replaced the original Gatling nameplates with his own before the guns were shipped to Russia. Not surprisingly, some Russians claimed that Gatling had stolen important elements of the Gorloff model, which was called the Russian Mitrailleuse.
Despite Russian claims of originality, the Gatling was popular and saw use in many theaters. The inventor continued to work for 30 years on improvements and conducted many exhibitions throughout Europe and South America. Various models of varying calibers were introduced. By 1876, a five-barreled caliber .45 model was firing 700 rounds per minute and even up to 1,000 rounds in a short burst. By the mid-1880s, the armed forces of almost every nation in the world included Gatling guns among their inventories.
The Gatling was an effective design and remained in use until technology evolved such that a single barrel could be manufactured to withstand the heat and wear of multiple firings. After that advance, the Gatling disappeared. Before then, however, the Gatling saw long war service in countries, primarily as a instrument of colonialism, whereby small numbers of European soldiers could defeat large masses of native troops in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.
Despite the increased firepower of the Gatling, it had some limitations technically and tactically. The multiple barrels prevented excess heat buildup, but they were also a liability due to their weight. The weapon was best used in defensive situations because it was too heavy and unwieldy to use on the attack. For that reason, Gatlings were usually relegated to the artillery to be used in batteries, rather than distributed to infantry and cavalry units. There were a few instances where this was not the case. The Americans first used the Gatling against a foreign enemy during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Under the leadership of Captain John H. “Gatling Gun” Parker, a Gatling unit was organized and employed against the Spaniards at Santiago, Cuba. Parker took it upon himself to push the guns, mounted on carriages, forward on the flanks of the attacking force, keeping up with the advancing infantry and effectively clearing a path for them. This was the first use of the machine gun for mobile fire support in offensive combat. Parker quickly became one of the pioneers in the development of a tactical doctrine built around the use of the machine gun in support of the infantry.
The Gatling gun and its inventor were way ahead of their times. It was the only weapon in history to progress from black powder to smokeless powder, from hand power to fully automatic, and eventually to an electric-drive system that allowed 3,000 rounds per minute. All this was accomplished without any change to its basic operating principle before being abandoned as obsolete in 1911. It was also a design that would have applications in the modern era.