A machine gun is a fully automatic firearm that is designed to discharge cartridges in rapid, sustained succession from a magazine or ammunition belt. A fully automatic weapon means that the extraction, ejection, chambering, and discharging of successive cartridges is achieved automatically, as long as one’s finger applies pressure to the weapon’s trigger.
Developed in 1884 by Sir Hiram Maxim, the first practical, modern machine gun—the Maxim Gun—used the recoil energy generated by the power of the previously fired bullet to reload the weapon, enabling a higher rate of fire than was possible using earlier automatic designs, such as the Gatling Gun, which had to be reloaded and fired using a hand-powered crank. Maxim introduced a water-cooling mechanism, wherein a water jacket around the barrel of the gun reduced the potential for the gun’s overheating. Derivative designs were used throughout World War One, the most famous of which was the M1917 Browning, designed by John Browning for the US Armed Forces. This water-cooled machine gun had a cyclic rate of 450 rounds per minute, and weighed-in at forty-seven pounds, much lighter than its European competitors, which included the Vickers Gun, the British analog to the M1917. The Vickers Gun had a reputation for great reliability. During the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British 100th Company of the Machine Gun Corps fired their ten Vickers Guns at the Germans, spending almost 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition without a single mechanical failure.
The Vickers Gun weighed somewhere between sixty-five and eighty pounds. It was three feet and eight inches long, with a cyclic fire rate between 450 and 600 rounds per minute, and fired the same .303 inch cartridges that were used in the Lee-Enfield rifle, which had to be hand-loaded into the Gun’s cloth ammunition belts. Typically, the Vickers Gun was operated by a six to eight man team. One man fired, another fed the ammunition, and the rest helped to transport the weapon, ammunition, and spare parts.
Between the World Wars, new machine guns were developed that streamlined and improved upon the designs of the M1917 and Vickers Gun. John Browning created the M1919, an air-cooled machine gun that was much smaller than the M1917, and required only a two to four man operating team: one, the gunner, who fired the weapon and carried the tripod and ammunition when advancing; two, the assistant gunner, who fed the weapon ammunition and carried the body of the weapon; and three, a further one or two carriers of ammunition.
During the interwar years, the first general-purpose machine guns were developed. These air-cooled, fully automatic weapons could be adapted to either light or medium machine gun roles. These guns could be carried and used by an individual soldier, or assigned a squad and used in their more traditional role. The most famous of these general-purpose guns was the MG 34, or Maschinengewehr 34, a German weapon first tested in 1934. At the time of its release, the MG 34 was the most advanced machine gun available in the world, with a fire-rate of up to 900 rounds per minute. The design of the weapon, however, was too complex for mass production, and was supplanted by the simpler MG 42, which became the primary general-purpose machine gun used by the Nazis during World War Two.
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