Machine Guns

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Machine Guns are repeating firearms that when triggered will load and fire automatically until their ammunition is exhausted. In 1861, the U.S. Army was offered its first machine gun: Wilson Ager's single‐barrel, hand‐cranked weapon, often called the “coffee mill” gun due to its resemblance to a coffee grinder. At the order of President Lincoln, a few Ager guns were purchased; however, mechanical problems and the opposition of chief of ordnance, Brig. Gen. James W. Ripley, blocked adoption of the gun.

Patented in November 1862 by Dr. Richard J. Gatling, early versions of the Gatling gun were rejected by the conservative Union Ordnance Department. Purchased in 1866, improved .50‐caliber and 1‐inch versions of Gatling's hand‐cranked, multibarred machine gun were intended for use in the close‐in defenses of coastal fortifications, frontier forts, and aboard ship. The .50‐caliber version of the gun weighed 224 pounds and the 1‐inch version 1,008 pounds; later rifle‐caliber Gatlings weighed from 135 to 200 pounds.

Because he feared the weapons might hamper his column's movement through the rugged valley of the Little Bighorn River, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer declined an offer of Gatling guns. Complex, heavy, and difficult to transport and supply, early machine guns saw little use during the Civil War and in the Indian wars. For almost four decades the Ordnance Department procured a small number of Gatlings. Interest in the weapon lagged, however, and doctrine for its use and a unit to use it were neglected.

The perfection of smokeless powder in 1886 and the final development of small‐caliber, high‐velocity rifle ammunition made the development of fully automatic machine guns practical. In 1898, American expeditionary forces in Cuba included an improvised machine‐gun unit with Gatling guns manned by infantrymen. Commanded by Lt. John Henry Parker, the Gatlings provided decisive support for the attack during the Battle of San Juan Hill. In 1900, the army tested replacements for the Gatling gun. Among the competitors were two American designs: a recoil‐operated gun patented by Hiram Maxim in 1885, and the gas‐operated Colt machine gun patented by John M. Browning in 1895. Adopted in 1904, the heavy and complex Maxim gun (gun, tripod, and full water jacket weighed 153.5 pounds) was replaced in 1909 by the French‐designed Benét‐Mercié, an air‐cooled weapon weighing 27 pounds. However, the fragile Benét‐Mercié also failed to meet army needs, and in 1916 it was replaced by a new weapon, the water‐cooled, British Vickers machine gun (gun, tripod, and full water jacket weighed 75.5 pounds).

Despite domination of World War I battlefields by machine guns and artillery, each U.S. infantry regiment in 1917 had only six machine guns, and the army possessed a total of fewer than 1,500. The first twelve American divisions sent to France were equipped with French Hotchkiss machine guns. By July 1918, embarking American units were issued the new water‐cooled, .30‐caliber Browning machine gun (gun, tripod, and full water jacket weighed 74 pounds) and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR; 19.4 pounds), developed to provide an air‐cooled, light machine gun carried and operated by a single infantryman. From 50 machine guns in early 1917, U.S. infantry divisions ended the war with 260 machine guns and 768 BARs per division.

In the 1930s, the army adopted the air‐cooled .30‐caliber Browning M‐1919A4 (gun and tripod weighed 45.5 pounds) and the more powerful, air‐cooled, .50‐caliber Browning M‐2, heavy machine gun (gun and tripod weighed 128 pounds). During World War II, the number of machine guns multiplied in the increasingly mechanized American forces. In 1943, each American infantry division was issued 157.30‐caliber and 236.50‐caliber Browning machine guns. In addition, Browning .50‐caliber guns were standard on most American aircraft; they also saw widespread use as antiaircraft weapons.

In 1957, the .30‐caliber Browning was replaced by the 7.62‐millimeter, air‐cooled M‐60 machine gun, weighing 23 pounds; the BAR was replaced by a version of the M‐14 service rifle. The .50‐caliber M‐2, however, remained the standard American heavy machine gun. During the 1990s, American forces were equipped with a variety of air‐cooled machine guns—the 5.56‐millimeter, M‐249 squad automatic weapon, which performed a function similar to the BAR (gun and 200 rounds of ammunition weigh 22 pounds); the M‐60, and the 7.62‐millimeter, air‐cooled, M‐240C coaxial machine gun mounted in tanks and armored fighting vehicles; as well as the .50‐caliber Browning M‐2.

Adoption and use of machine guns has been affected primarily by mechanical problems such as overheating, by their size and weight, and by problems of transport and ammunition supply. Development of metallic cartridges and smokeless powder and design improvement—recoil and gas‐operated guns and reliable, air‐cooled weapons—gradually produced lightweight machine guns suitable for widespread combat use. Mechanization of American forces overcame logistical constraints and by mid‐twentieth century the machine gun was fully integrated into the armory of the American military.
[See also Caribbean and Latin America, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Cuba, U.S. Military Involvement in; Weaponry, Army; Weaponry, Marine Corps.]


Graham Seton Hutchinson , Machine Guns: Their History and Tactical Employment, 1938.
George M. Chinn , The Machine Gun, Vol. 1, 1951.
Konrad F. Schreier, Jr. , Guide to United States Machine Guns, 1971.
David A. Armstrong , Bullets and Bureaucrats, The Machine Gun and the United States Army, 1861–1961, 1982.

David A. Armstrong

Machine Guns

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MACHINE GUNS. The first machine gun, the mitrailleuse, was designed in 1851 in Belgium, but the weapon is largely a product of American inventors. In 1862 Dr. Richard J. Gatling patented a gun with six barrels that rotated around a central axis by a hand crank. Conservative officers rejected Gatling's invention during the Civil War, but the army purchased 100 improved Gatling guns in 1866. The Gatling gun nevertheless occupied only a minor position as an auxiliary artillery weapon. Hiram S. Maxim, an American engineer, patented the first automatic machine gun in 1884. Maxim's gun—smaller, lighter, and easier to operate than the Gatling—proved to be an excellent infantry weapon. In 1890 John M. Browning introduced the principle of gas operation, the last basic development in machine-gun design.

The Spanish-American War rekindled the army's interest in machine guns, but only in 1916 did the army authorize a regimental machine-gun company. By November 1918 each infantry regiment had a twelve-gun company, and each division included three machine-gun battalions—a total of 168 weapons. Entering World War I equipped with obsolescent machine guns, the army finished the war partially equipped with superb Brownings, which remained standard equipment during World War II and the Korean War. During World War II Browning guns also served as the principal armament for fighter aircraft and as antiaircraft weapons for tanks and other vehicles. During the mid-1950s American ordnance officers replaced the Browning .30 caliber guns with the new M60, which they distributed at the infantry platoon level. Through continued physical and doctrinal development, the machine gun gradually shifted from classification as an artillery weapon to the backbone of infantry firepower.


Armstrong, David. Bullets and Bureaucrats: The Machine Gun and the United States Army, 18611916. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Ellis, John. The Social History of the Machine Gun. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

DavidArmstrong/c. w.

See alsoArtillery ; Munitions ; Rifle .

machine gun

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ma·chine gun • n. an automatic gun that fires bullets in rapid succession for as long as the trigger is pressed.• v. (ma·chine-gun) [tr.] shoot with a machine gun.DERIVATIVES: ma·chine-gun·ner n.

machine gun

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machine gun Weapon that loads and fires automatically and is capable of sustained rapid fire. The firing mechanism is operated by recoil (backward thrust) or by gas from fired ammunition. The gun may be water- or air-cooled. Hiram Maxim invented the first widely used machine gun, the maxim gun, in 1883. See also Gatling gun