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The Great War and WWII

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 Home: Military: Hiram Maxim


Before Maxim

Gardner Machine Gun
Gardner Machine Gun showing the crank handle

Hiram Maxim was undoubtedly the father of the Automatic Machine Gun, the Machine Gun that we know today. Prior to Maxim the word machine gun was already in use, such as the Gardiner (1863) and the Gatling gun (1861), however these were not truly automatic as they required cranking by the operator. Maxim’s weapon was much more efficient and reliable as it used the recoil from firing a bullet to load the next.

Early Life

Born in America in 1853, Maxim became a prolific inventor (not weapons). He produced so many patents that the office tried to make him stop so that they could reduce their paper work. One such invention was the light bulb, which caused conflict with Edison, as Maxim claimed he had produced light bulbs in 1879; Edison's  patent is dated 1880. 

Whilst visiting Paris at the age of fourteen Maxim was advised that, to make a lot of money he would need to invent

 “Something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others throats with greater facility”

 The idea for an automatic weapon had been sown.

Maxim moved to London and set up offices in Hatton Garden and, in 1884, he filed his first patent for an automatic weapon, joining forces with Vickers at Crayford to manufacture the weapon. The British Government was not impressed, they stated that "it needed perfecting before they would consider adopting it", and, "why use fifty bullets when one would do". They also confused the weapon with a Field Gun, as did the Germans. Not to be defeated Maxim toured the world to find a buyer. One possible purchaser, the Chinese, remarked that expending so many bullets was too expensive and rejected it.


Gardner Maine Gun
1884 Metralhadora gun demonstrated by  Maxim

In 1887 Kaiser Wilhelm II visited London. While he was visiting the 10th Hussars headquarters in Hounslow he was shown the Nordenfeld Gun. Being very impressed he ordered guns of the same kind to be demonstrated in Berlin. The Maxim gun proved to be more stable than the other competing manual weapons leading the Kaiser to remark "this is the only machine gun". Germany started to manufacture the weapons under license and officially adopted the Maxim in 1899.

Machine Guns of all types were used by armies in this period, although not officially adopted. In 1891 the British adopted a Maxim, firing 0.45 inch Martini Henry rounds, and the Maxim Nordenfeld variant. It took nearly twenty years from the first demonstrations to the adoption of the weapon by all armies around the world.

From Maxim to Vickers

Belgian machine gunner in 1918 guarding trench
Belgian machine gunner in 1918 guarding a trench

In 1896 Vickers purchased Maxim's company outright then, in 1898, Vickers and Maxim amalgamated and developed the Vickers variant which was adopted in 1912.

Maxims original patent expired in 1900 leading to more improvements, the Germans developed the MG 01 and the British developed the Vickers.

Machine Guns at the Museum of Technology

MG 08 Maschenin Gewehr
MG 08/15 Maschenin Gewehr

The Museum of Technoloy, the Great War and WWII, 2009