Maxim Patents His Machine Gun Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hiram Stevens Maxim’s invention of the machine gun, the first true automatic weapon, revolutionized warfare. He invented both of the two systems for automatic guns—gas operation and recoil operation—and extensively developed the latter. Nearly all contemporary machine guns are based on Maxim designs, and the recoil-operated guns are almost identical to his original model.

Summary of Event

Hiram Stevens Maxim was born in a small town in Maine. Largely self-educated, he was an authentic mechanical genius. During his early years he successfully designed or participated in the design of carriages, water mills, mouse traps, gas lighting, automatic fire extinguishers, and electric lamps; indeed, the first electric lights used in New York City were designed and installed by one of Maxim’s companies. Maxim, Hiram Stevens Machine guns Weapons;machine guns Maxim guns Gatling, Richard J. [kw]Maxim Patents His Machine Gun (1884) [kw]Patents His Machine Gun, Maxim (1884) [kw]Machine Gun, Maxim Patents His (1884) [kw]Gun, Maxim Patents His Machine (1884) Maxim, Hiram Stevens Machine guns Weapons;machine guns Maxim guns Gatling, Richard J. [g]Great Britain;1884: Maxim Patents His Machine Gun[5340] [c]Inventions;1884: Maxim Patents His Machine Gun[5340] [c]Manufacturing;1884: Maxim Patents His Machine Gun[5340]

In 1882, Maxim traveled to Europe after a friend advised him to invent “something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” According to his own account, he remembered the great recoil he felt while firing a .45-70 rifle. He hit upon the idea of harnessing that recoil energy to operate the gun’s mechanism. He was able to experimentally convert a Winchester rifle into a semiautomatic rifle by using a recoil-propelled lever to work the rifle’s action. This first invention received great attention in Europe; in 1884, Maxim was granted a patent in England on a recoil-operated breech system.

Although Maxim developed several autoloading rifles and pistols, he concentrated his design efforts on machine guns. A machine gun, or fully automatic gun, continues to fire if its trigger is held back and cartridges continue to be available at the feed mechanism. At the time Maxim began working on machine guns, the most similar working gun was one made by American physician Richard J. Gatling Gatling, Richard J. , who designed and patented his Gatling gun Gatling gun in 1862.

The Gatling gun had ten barrels mounted around a central axis. The barrels were revolved by a crank that had to be turned by hand. Cartridges were fed from a hopper mounted above the rotary mechanism. Later, a drum or rotary feed was devised. As the crank was turned a carrier behind each barrel picked up a fresh cartridge that was then chambered and locked by the breech block. When the loaded barrel reached the five or six o’clock position, the cartridge was fired. Gatling guns used one of the rifle cartridges of their day, a .58 caliber rim-fire black-powder round. With a full crew of skilled operators this gun could achieve a rate of fire of nearly one thousand rounds per minute.

The Gatling gun was not used extensively in the U.S. Civil War because the War Department doubted Gatling’s loyalty to the Union. Gatling contracted with the Colt Arms Factory Colt Arms Factory to build one hundred of the guns in 1867 using a new .50 caliber center-fire cartridge. This weapon proved to be very effective. It was used in a number of colonial wars against a variety of tribesmen. Its most notable success was during the Zulu War Zulu War (1879);machine guns in Machine guns;in Zulu War[Zulu War] of 1879 in which thousands of charging Zulus were killed by British troops.

The Gatling gun Gatling gun had several serious disadvantages. It was large and heavy and usually required a crew of four to operate it, although in a pinch, once the gun was emplaced, it could be worked by firer and loader alone. The gun stood high from the ground and afforded no shelter for the crew from long-range rifle fire. The vertical feed arrangements made it difficult to sight the weapon exactly. These deficiencies, together with a relative lack of reliability in action, ended with the invention of the Maxim machine gun.

Maxim developed what is called a short-recoil weapon. The bolt is locked to the barrel at the moment of firing. The bolt and barrel recoil together for a short distance and are then unlocked by a toggle mechanism. The bolt continues to the rear, extracts and ejects the fired case, picks up a new cartridge that is then is chambered as the bolt moves forward again and re-locks itself. When the barrel and bolt come into battery again the new cartridge is fired and the cycle begins anew. The operator need only hold the trigger back and the gun continues to fire automatically.

Maxim’s achievement was extraordinary. In addition to using recoil operation for the first time, his gun was fed by cartridges loaded into belts, thus avoiding the clumsy vertical feed. Belt feed is universally used today. All the parts of the gun could be removed by hand by the operator for cleaning or replacement. Maxim devised a new and more reliable extractor, a means of adjusting the head space of the gun in the field, and a new ejector system. Finally, the gun could be carried and operated by a smaller crew able to lie closer to the ground. All the mechanical developments were patented by Maxim between 1883 and 1885.

Maxim machine guns were built by Vickers in England, Colt Colt Arms Factory in the United States, and many other manufacturers around the world. These guns, or their successors, are in use in nearly every army of the world with only very minor changes in dimension or design. Maxim did little developmental work on gas-operated machine guns, which he patented, but the famous Browning machine guns, the standard of the U.S. armed forces, owe their inception to John M. Browning’s Browning, John M. development of Maxim’s idea.

The Maxim gun quickly overtook and replaced the Gatling. In colonial or tribal wars it allowed small detachments of troops to prevent and control rebellions against colonial powers. A famous satiric rhyme by Hailar Bello (“The Modern Traveler,” 1898) after Lord Horatio Kitchener’s slaughter of the Dervishes at Omdurman in 1898 expresses the gun’s significance: “Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

By the time of World War I World War I[World War 01];machine guns the machine gun Machine guns;in World War I[World War 01] had become the most fearsome infantry arm. Emplaced machine guns with overlapping fields of fire were the cause of most of the huge battlefield slaughters of that war. Maxim’s design was suitable for modern high-velocity smokeless cartridges as well as for the older black-powder ammunition. With these newer cartridges the effective range of machine gun fire could be as great as 1,800 meters if “plunging” (arched) fire were used or perhaps 1,000 meters for direct fire. The volume of fire compensated for inaccuracies at such great ranges. Until the development of armored vehicles the machine gun prevented offensive wars of movement, at least between roughly equal forces.


As new weapons so often do, the Maxim machine gun changed the face of warfare. In its time it put the defensive into ascendancy. This brought about the dreadful experience of extended trench warfare during World War I and the enormous casualty lists of that conflict. It also—as new weapons so often do—brought about the development of countervailing weapons. Although the most notable example is the tank, which was explicitly designed to be immune from machine gun fire, the development of air bombing and strafing beginning during World War I and coming more fully to fruition in World War II was even more notable.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, David A. Bullets and Bureaucrats: The Machine Gun and the United States Army, 1861-1916. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. Discusses the Army’s refusal to recognize the worth of either the Gatling gun or the Maxim gun, which resulted in the United States entering World War I without a single machine gun in commission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hogg, Ian V. Machine Guns: Fourteenth Century to the Present. ILA, Wis.: Krause, 2002. The author, a former master gunner and now military historian, explores the history of machine guns, including early models from the fourteenth century and Maxim’s and Gatling’s inventions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maxim, Hiram Percy. A Genius in the Family: Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim Through a Small Son’s Eyes. New York: Harper & Bros., 1936. Reminiscences and anecdotes of Maxim’s life by his son.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mottelay, P. Fleury. The Life and Work of Sir Hiram Maxim. New York: John Lane, 1920. Biography with considerable detail of Maxim’s work with the manufacturers Vickers and Vickers-Armstrong.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Anthony. Machine Gun: The Story of the Men and the Weapon That Changed the Face of War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Examines the work of the makers of the first rapid-fire and automatic weapons, including Colt, Gatling, and Maxim, and the military impact of the machine gun.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, W. H. B., and Joseph E. Smith. Small Arms of the World: A Basic Manual of Military Small Arms. 7th ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1962. A good biographical summary of Maxim’s life and work as part of a very extensive discussion of small arms development to the mid-twentieth century. Includes copious photographs and drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willbanks, James, and Spencer Tucker, eds. Machine Guns: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004. Written for the younger reader, this work provides an introduction to the development of machine guns and their role in warfare.

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