Disillusioned by his bitter rivalry with Thomas Edison over the invention of the incandescent lightbulb, 41-year-old Maine-born inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim sailed for England in 1881, never to return to the United States. Aware that his career in electrical engineering had ended, Maxim became consumed with creating an automatic gun, inspired by the casual remark of an American friend, who said, “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.”
Maxim’s key insight centered on the waste of energy created by the recoil of heavy guns. Why not put that energy to profitable use? In London Maxim finished the drawings of his new gun in the fall of 1882 and built the first working model in 13 months. Likening the gun to a steam engine, Maxim saw that the gunpowder served as the steam, the trigger as a valve gear, and the breechblock as a piston. The entire breechblock recoiled, thereby ejecting the spent shell and advancing the next cartridge. A spring stored the energy of the recoil not used for those movements and snapped the block back into place, locking the breech and firing the inserted round. A toggle both hinged and pivoted to lock and unlock the bolt. Maxim also designed a lever, called an accelerator, that transferred the energy of the recoiling breech to the bolt, slamming it back against the spring.
The gun contained 280 interchangeable parts. Machining the toggle and accelerator to precision proved beyond the capabilities of British workmen at first. Maxim asked his brother Hudson in America to hire several Yankee mechanics and come overseas. In the meantime, he took out his first patents and formed the Maxim Gun Company, which consisted of five partners, including two of the Vickers brothers, Albert and Thomas. Hudson Maxim tooled up the assembly line at Crayford, in Kent.
In subsequent refinements Maxim rifled the barrel and chambered it for .303 ammunition, added the water jacket, reduced the weight by using nickel steel, and perfected a universal mounting joint that was admired almost as much as the gun itself. The field manual claimed that the gun could be mounted on virtually anything from a boat to a bicycle.
To improve the gun further, the Maxim brothers collaborated on the compounding of a smokeless powder. Black powder not only threw off clouds of smoke that gave away the machine gun’s position but left a residue that clogged the barrel; it also ignited too slowly to provide necessary velocities. Using castor oil as a binder, the brothers combined nitroglycerin and guncotton, then rolled the pulp into thin, hollow tubes that when pulverized would be “perforated” with air spaces for rapid combustion, a mixture that became the first cordite.
Maxim’s device was the first true machine gun. Rival weapons such as the American Gatling (1862), the French mitrailleuse (1867), and the Anglo-Swedish Nordenfeldt (1877) were crank-driven, their ammunition gravity-fed from a magazine set atop the rotating barrels. Their relatively meager rates of fire didn’t offset their extreme weights or the number of men required to operate them. And they jammed easily for a number of reasons: a gunner cranking too fast (a common reaction to a rush by the enemy); the cartridges not falling uniformly into place; or damp or old cartridges hanging fire, exploding just as the crank opened the breech. These guns also overheated so frequently that the gunner had to wait periodically for his weapon to cool. By contrast, a belt of ammunition delivered shells smoothly to Maxim’s gun for as long as the single operator depressed the trigger. To change belts, the gunner need only thread the end of a new one into a slot. Even a delayed explosion would not jam the mechanism, because one cartridge had to fire before the next would advance. Water circulating in the casing around the barrel cooled it continuously but added little weight to the gun and tripod’s 60 pounds.
The British army officially adopted the Maxim in 1891; the U.S. Army waited until 1915. While Maxim’s gun industrialized killing and proved superior to every weapon of the time, most Europeans did not immediately understand the automatic gun’s destructive power. The weapon’s terror became real only when British troops faced multiple gun emplacements in war, notably at Gallipoli, part of present-day Turkey, in 1915. The commanding general called Maxim’s gun “an instrument of the devil.” After the troops went ashore in the Dardanelles, the Turks used machine guns to cut them down in swathes. Half a million soldiers perished during the nine-month campaign, one of the worst military blunders of the 20th century.
To Maxim’s credit, he never tried to justify his gun and only referred to it as a killing machine. When he died in 1916, only a few British and American newspapers carried his obituary. There were millions of other deaths to report, most of them caused by his invention.