August 31, 2021
By David M. Fortier, Senior Field Editor
Very few inventions have had the impact on warfare as the Maxim gun. In a relatively short amount of time Hiram Maxim’s famous machine gun design not only became a staple of armies around the world but it helped change the face of modern warfare. Its distinctive tat-tat-tat-tat-tat brought an end to 19th Century tactics, and proved time and time again out-of-touch staff officers, ineptly led conscripts, courage and élan were no match for interlocking machine gun fire. Perhaps the greatest cinematic tribute to the effectiveness of the Maxim machine gun is the 37-second scene in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film “All Quiet on the Western Front”. For 37 seconds the viewer is given a barbed wire view as multiple German MG 08 machine guns, with their distinctive staccato chattering on without end, effortlessly cuts down an endless stream of courageous French infantry. In reality, the carnage was much worse than what could be shown on the silver screen. The Maxim gun, and quick-firing field artillery, forced even the bravest of the brave to burrow deep into the earth to escape their wrath.
Maxim guns were fielded by both sides during the Great War and one notable early adopter was Imperial Russia. By the time the Guns of August sounded, Russia had considerable practical experience with the Maxim, and perhaps some of the best gun crews in the world. Russian gun crews had been stacking bodies ten years earlier while most of Europe was still trying to figure out what exactly to do with the new contraption. The Maxim gun would go on to live a long life in Russia, and served through many wars both large and small. To begin our look at this famous design’s life in Russia though, we must begin our journey on the other side of the Atlantic, in rural Maine, the home of its inventor, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim.
Hiram Maxim was born in Sangerville, Maine on the 5th of February 1840. Sangerville is about 80 miles due North of where I grew up on the coast, and can best be described as very rural Maine. A small town in the center of the heavily forested state, Sangerville’s population has barely changed since Maxim was born, being 1,197 in 1840 and only 1,343 in 2010. At the young age of 14 he was apprenticed to a coach builder before moving South to Fitchburg, Massachusetts 10 years later. Gifted with a wide ranging inventive faculty which embraced such things as electric lights, gas generating plants, steam and vacuum pumps, and engine governors he was one of the great minds of his time. While little remembered for much of his work today, Maxim was the first person to develop and actually install electric lights in a building in New York City. He accomplished this in the late 1870s and his US Electric Lighting Company installed lights of his design for several years before being purchased by Westinghouse. Due to his claim for inventing the light bulb Maxim ended up in a lengthy legal dispute with Thomas Edison.
Maxim eventually left the U.S. though, like some of his peers, to seek fortune and adventure in the “Old World”. After arriving in England he set up shop in Hatton Garden, one of the more exclusive market areas in London. Lore says a friend had commented to him, “Hang your electricity. If you want to make your fortune, invent something to help these fool Europeans kill each other more quickly!” He heeded the advice and turned his attention to modern firearms design work. Having learned a hard lesson from Edison, he spent considerable time contemplating and then patenting a variety of ways to use a weapon’s own energy to operate it. On 3 January 1884, he filed for patent rights covering 12 different methods regarding automatic weapons. His goal was to lock-out any future competitors. Now, keep in mind, in the early 1880s all mechanically repeating arms were manually operated. Repeating or multi-firing weapons like the Gatling, Nordenfelt, and Hotchkiss gun were all dependent on the muscle power of their operators. While having their place, each of these early manually operated designs had certain weaknesses and drawbacks. Maxim felt he could do better, and so he set out to design and construct a firearm which operated solely on its own power when fired.
After much work and many calculations Hiram successfully harnessed a weapon’s own energy allowing it to operate itself. His prototype design was developed and demonstrated to the public in 1884. It not only worked, but worked surprisingly well with the black powder cartridges of the day. His prototypes eventually fired approximately 200,000 .45 Gardner-Gatling cartridges, proving the concept was sound. He then refined the design from a prototype into a practical weapon. His operating system used what became known as the Recoil Principle. The key to his design was a rather simple seeming toggle lock. A basic way to describe it is by comparing it to your knee joint. With your knee locked, upward pressure against the sole of your foot is easily checked. However, a sharp rap to the back of the knee while applying pressure on the sole of the foot will unlock the joint allowing the leg to fold. Today it seems rather simple, but it was revolutionary at the time.
Maxim also solved two other important technical problems with novel solutions, feeding and cooling the gun. Previous feed systems on early mechanical guns had proven to be overly complicated, unreliable or both. While he considered drum magazines, he went a different route. His solution was to feed cartridges into the weapon using a fabric belt. Such a belt would be very simple, inexpensive to manufacture while holding a large quantity (250 rounds) of ammunition allowing continuous fire without the need for constant reloading. Firing a large quantity of rifle cartridges in rapid succession though would generate an excessive amount of heat. This had been an issue designers of mechanical repeating guns had grappled with. Gatling had addressed this problem by using multiple revolving barrels. But this added complexity, cost and unnecessary weight to his design. Maxim instead came upon the idea of using water as a coolant. A large jacket surrounding the barrel acted as a water container. As the barrel heated, heat was transferred to the water. When the water boiled it turned to steam, and a hose on the jacket fed it to a container where it would condensate back to water. Maxim’s gun was capable of firing automatically for as long as there was ammunition and water. Not only that, but it would do it at up to 600 rounds per minute.
Two years after Maxim first demonstrated his prototype the world experienced an arms race sparked by the French fielding the first smokeless powder rifle cartridge, the 8mm Lebel. This led to the armies of Europe, and most of the world, searching for not only modern rifle cartridges, but also modern arms to fire them. Far to the East of Maxim’s London abode was Imperial Russia. A vast sprawling empire, it stretched from Europe to Asia. It was ruled by a Tsar (King/Emperor), the common Russian serf lived an extremely hard life, and the country had yet to industrialize. But the Tsar had a huge standing army, equipped with rifles rapidly growing obsolete. There was money to be made. So, Hiram made the long journey from the comfort of London to wild and mysterious Eastern Europe, finally arriving at the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg.
The Russians had been using the manually operated Gatling gun since 1865. So they were well acquainted with what the Gatling was capable of. However, Maxim’s gun was a horse of a different color. On March 8, 1888, Tsar Alexander III himself sat behind a Maxim gun in the arena of the Anichkov Palace. When Hiram first introduced his machine gun to Imperial Russian officers, they had not been impressed. A simple firing demonstration not only changed their attitudes but also impressed the Tsar himself. Hiram fired 333 rounds in 30 seconds. After seeing this Hiram said, "…they became enthusiastic". The initial Russian order was for 12 guns chambered for the standard Russian rifle cartridge of the time, the 10.75.58mmR Russian Berdan. These were slated for military testing and evaluation.
The guns were tested in May and the Russian Artillery Committee issued a positive report on their performance. Advantages over all of the mechanical types then in use were:
- Revolving the firing handle of a mechanical gun had required considerable physical strength and quickly tired the gunner so crews had to be constantly changed. The Maxim eliminated this.
- The single barrel of the Maxim greatly reduced weight compared to the multi-barrel weapons.
- A hang fire in a multi-barrel mechanical gun could damage the weapon and injure the crew if it fired after the breach was opened. This was eliminated.
- The Maxim’s cloth feed belts were judged much more convenient than the magazine and cartridge assemblies then in use.
In 1899 DWM of Berlin shipped a quantity of Maxim machine guns to the Imperial Russian Army for service. These were 1894 Ludwig Loewe commercial models which was an exact copy of the British 1889 Smokeless Powder Model. The guns were outfitted with a heavy brass jacket, early crank handle and 1889 style lock. Rather than being mounted on tripods, they were fitted to large wheeled carriage mounts with gun shields. The wheeled mounts were to improve their maneuverability on the battlefield. They were chambered for Russia’s new smokeless powder rifle cartridge, the "Three-Line" 7.62x54mmR. The guns were then issued to the artillery in batteries of eight. Machine guns were new to the Imperial Russian Army, and their initial thoughts were to deploy them from fortifications and fixed positions to repulse mass attacks.
The Imperial Russian Army ordered additional gun from the British company Vickers, Sons & Maxim in 1895, receiving 58 in 1899. While the guns were of excellent quality, being reliant on a foreign manufacturer was not desirable. So, in 1902 the decision was made by the Artillery Committee to undertake production of Maxim machine guns at the Tula Arms Factory south of Moscow in the famous city of Tula. A contract was negotiated with Vickers, Sons & Maxim which would facilitate production within Russia. Producing the gun in Russia would also greatly reduce the cost, by 500 rubles per gun. However, actually getting the gun into production would take time.
The Maxim gun would see extensive combat following the 9 February 1904 Japanese attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur which sparked the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. While this short conflict is known as an embarrassing defeat for Imperial Russia, and especially the Russian Navy, the Maxim guns performed very well. There was only a relatively small number of foreign-built Maxim guns on-hand when war broke out in the Far East. In response the Russian war ministry placed a rush order abroad for an additional 450 guns. Most of these arrived towards the end of the conflict. Even so, the small number of Maxim guns on hand played an important role, especially during the defense of Port Arthur. It was estimated that 50% of all Japanese casualties were inflicted by Russian Maxim gun fire.
An example of the performance of these early Maxim guns can be seen by their impact during the Battle of Nashan on 26 May 1904. The Russian fortified position on Nashan Hill was North of Port Arthur and important to its defense. Colonel Nikolai Aleksandrovich Tretyakov had approximately 3,500 men under his command, with 3,000 of them from the 5th East Siberian Rifles. They had dug trenches, laid barbed wire and dug in their Maxim guns and what little field artillery they had. Their job was to block the 35,500 Japanese soldiers storming towards them. The Japanese opened fire with an intense and prolonged artillery bombardment, supported by additional naval gunfire. Then three Japanese divisions came at the 5th East Siberian Rifles all at once in waves.
As the Japanese infantry surged forward and bunched up at the barbed wire they ran into withering fire from the Russian Maxim guns. Raking back and forth the Russian gunners cut the Japanese down in droves. Despite 34,000 Japanese artillery shells hitting their positions and 2.19 million rifle rounds being fired at them, the Russians doggedly held their line through nine successive wave attacks. Throughout the battle for Nashan Hill the Russians lost 182 killed compared to the almost 6,200 lost by their foe. It wasn’t until Colonel Nikolai Tretyakov realized his superior, General Fok, in the rear had blown up the rest of his ammunition and fled taking the reserve forces with him did the Siberians finally give up ground. The work of the Maxim guns that day foreshadowed things to come.
Wherever they saw action, these early Imperial Russian Maxim guns proved their worth. The Russians did find out as the war progressed that the heavy cumbersome artillery-style gun carriages did not allow sufficient maneuverability. This posed the possibility of the guns being outflanked and overrun. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Russian gunners took it upon them to improvise expedient mounts out of materials on hand to increase their maneuverability and effectiveness. Years later, during World War I the Germans would also make expedient trench mounts for their MG 08s in a similar attempt to increase their portability. This lack of maneuverability would pose problems for Maxim gun crews throughout its service life.
While the war ended in defeat for Imperial Russia, it was of no fault of their Maxim guns. Over half of the casualties sustained by the Japanese were officially credited to Maxim gun fire! Satisfied it was superior to the French Hotchkiss machineguns fielded by the Japanese, the Russians worked at getting production underway at Tula. The first Russian manufactured Maxim was called the Pulemyot Maxima M1905. While closely resembling the previous 1894 Ludwig Loewe Model (Bolotin refers to this gun as the Russian M1895, this may be when the Russians officially adopted it, Goldsmith refers to it as the Russian M1899 as this was the year the Russians actually received them) they incorporated two major improvements. These were a new easily field-stripped lock (as introduced on the 1901 "New Pattern" commercial Vickers-Maxim), and an "S" shaped crank handle.
It was mounted on a distinctive looking and sturdy wheeled mount that had been designed by Aleksandr Alexeevich Sokolov. The Sokolov mount was an extremely stable firing platform, and could be towed by the gun crew via a rope while traveling on a road. During the winter the wheels could be removed and replaced with skis. The Sokolov mount though does show a striking similarity to the Vickers commercial combination tripod/wheelmount. While a stable firing platform, the Sokolov mount did have one serious drawback, weight. The early mounts were largely made of brass with wooden wheels and incorporated a set of folding legs to allow firing over parapets. Unfortunately, they tipped the scales at a whopping 110 pounds! Later simplified mounts, which did away with the extra legs, still weighed in at a hefty 80 pounds. A simpler and lighter mount designed by Ivan Kolesnikov was adopted in 1915. However, it did not replace the Sokolov mount and merely served alongside it in smaller quantities. Our story will continue when we turn out attention to the next Maxim gun in the series the 7.62mm Pulemyot Maxima M1910.
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About the Author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.