This week in 1884: Maxim’s self-firing machine gun

Invented by Sir Hiram Maxim, this brutal weapon was the world’s first self-powered machine gun. ‘When loaded and fired it continues the process of loading and firing and feeding itself as long as a supply of cartridges is presented to it,’ wrote The Engineer.

What set the gun apart from existing machine guns, such as the Gatling, was an innovative mechanism that used the energy from the recoil force to eject the spent cartridge and insert the next one.

In what may be one of the longest sentences ever committed to the page of a business magazine, The Engineer wrote that ‘on firing, the barrel and breech bolt recoil firmly held together by the locking hook for about 0.44in, then the counter lever of the latter comes in contact with the block, causing the hook to rise and release the breech bolt which, at the same time, receives a sudden impetus from the lever whose counter lever is brought in contact with the point of resistance on the piece causing the lever to… drive back the breech bolt and its attachments… thus the momentum of the barrel is suddenly transferred to the breech bolt and its attachments, which fly back with sufficient force to complete a revolution of the crank and connecting rod, bringing the breech block back to the barrel and forcing both home into the firing position.’

The report continued: ‘In the meantime, the extractor is made to eject the empty case of the fired cartridge. The transferer at the same time draws a filled cartridge back from the feed wheel, which is carrying round the full belt of cartridges and leaves it in the feeder. The feeder is made to revolve, bringing a filled cartridge round in place of the empty one in time to be carried forward by the advance of the breech bolt.’

The article added that an arrangement of levers that could be adjusted to vary the speed of the weapon up to 600 rounds per minute was perhaps ‘the neatest part of the design’.

The gun was first used in anger by British colonial forces fighting in the Matabele War (1893-1894) and evolved into the Vickers machine gun, which was a staple of the British army from 1912 until 1968.

Jon Excell