Model 1909 Benet-Mercie Machine Rifle: U.S. Army's First Light Machine Gun | Part 1
January 07, 2019
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were times of great angst for the U.S. Army. They were handicapped by limited budgets, an antiquated general staff, an ordnance department that looked askance upon anything that was not designed at government arsenals and who insisted upon drawn-out field trials before new firearms were grudgingly approved for issue.
Unlike many of their European counterparts, the U.S. Army had lagged behind when it came to replacing their single-shot, large-caliber, black powder “Trapdoor” Springfield rifles with modern small-bore, smokeless, repeating rifles. In fact, it wasn’t until 1894, that the small, regular Army began receiving the Model 1892 Krag-Jorgensen rifle, and it was two more years before the cavalry received their Model 1896 carbines.
In fact, when we became involved in the short-lived Spanish-American War (1898), only the 25,000 man regular army was equipped with Krag-Jorgensens while most of the U.S. forces, who consisted of national guard and volunteer units, who were armed with slow-firing, smoke-belching Trapdoor Springfields.
In the area of rapid-fire weapons, the situation was even worse. It is true that the Army adopted the multi-barrel Gatling Gun in the 1870s, but these manually operated weapons were long, heavy (approx. 170 lbs.), and were usually mounted on wheeled artillery-style carriages for Army use or on pedestal mounts when used onboard Navy ships.
The first mechanically operated machine gun was invented in 1884, by an American expatriate living in England, Hiram S. Maxim. Maxim’s gun was a recoil-operated, belt-fed weapon, and upon firing, the rearward thrust of the cartridge against the breechblock pushed the barrel, frame, and breechblock to the rear about 3/4 of an inch, causing a toggle on the rear of the breechblock to fold, unlocking the breechblock, pulling it down and to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case. The barrel, frame, and breechblock were then pulled forward by a spring, pulling the next cartridge from a belt, chambering and firing it as it went into battery. The gun fired from an open bolt which, along with a water jacket surrounding the barrel, helped cool the barrel, allowing extended firing.
Maxim’s gun proved utterly reliable and was adopted by the British, with whom it first saw action during the 1893 First Matabele War in South Africa.
Over the next decade and a half, the Maxim gun was adopted by the dozens of armies around the world.The Maxim proved so effective against the primitive foes England was used to fighting in her colonies that the British writer and poet Hilaire Belloc coined a succinct little jingle, “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun and they have not!”
On this side of the Atlantic, John Moses Browning was devoting his not inconsiderable talents to the development of semi- and full-auto firearms. Browning conceived of the idea of using propellant gases from a fired cartridge to extract, eject, load, cock, lock, and fire a gun continuously, as long as the trigger was held back. He further refined the concept, and in March of 1892, received patent #471,783 for the world’s first successful gas-operated machine gun. It fired the .45-70 black-powder cartridge at a rate of six rounds per second and was considerably lighter than Maxim’s gun.
Like Maxim’s gun, the Browning was belt fed, but it fired from a closed bolt and used a very heavy barrel to absorb the heat of repeated firing.
To chamber the first round, an operating lever under the barrel is pulled down and rearward and released. Upon firing, the bullet traveled down the barrel, passing a gas port about eight inches from the muzzle, where a small part of the powder gases are forced through the port, impinging against the head the lever causing it to rotate downward and backward about 160 degrees, which cammed the bolt up and pushed it backward, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge case and cocking the hammer.
AUTOMATIC MACHINE RIFLE, CALIBER .30, MODEL OF 1909
Caliber: Cartridge, Caliber .30, Model of 1906
Overall Length: 48 in.
Barrel Length: 25 in.
Weight (unloaded): 26.5 lbs.
Feed Device: 30-rd. metal strip
Sights: Front: Protected blade
Rear: U-notch battle sight set for 300 yds. & aperture adj. by leaf from 100 to 2,800 yds. & for windage.
ROF: 400 rpm
Springs then rotated the lever forward and up, raising the carrier, placing the next cartridge where the forward-moving bolt chambers it. As the bolt went into battery, it was cammed down, locking it behind the shoulders in the receiver.
Browning sold rights to the gun to Colt, who offered them chambered for the new .30 Army (.30-40 Krag) cartridge and sought to interest the U.S. Army in the “Colt Model 1895 Automatic Gun”, but the hidebound Ordnance Department felt it provided little advantage over their manually operated Gatling guns.
In 1896, the U.S. Navy tested it against the Gatling gun and several European machine guns and it was so impressed that they purchased several hundred guns chambered for the 6mm Navy (6mm Lee) cartridge for use as pedestal-mounted anti-torpedo boat guns on major ships and to equip landing parties. These saw service with naval and USMC landing parties during the Spanish-American War (1898), Philippine Insurrection (1899 – 1902), Boxer Rebellion (1900) and the many military interventions in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific islands.
Between 1902 and 1904, the U.S. Army purchased 140 Model 1895s for extended field trials. While never officially adopted, they were used for training purposes by the Army and National Guard. Small numbers saw service during the Navy’s occupation of the Mexican port of Vera Cruz (1914) and General Pershing’s pursuit of Poncho Villa (1916 – 1917).
During their service lives, the Model 1895s used by the Navy and Army were re-barreled for the .30 Model 1903 and .30 Model 1906 cartridges. The United States also purchased numbers of Colt M1895/14 machine guns, which featured finned, interchangeable barrels for enhanced cooling.
Not happy with the Model 1895, after extensive trials, the Army adopted the Maxim machine gun in 1904. The Army insisted on several modifications (over engineering?), which increased its weight above those of similar guns used by the German and British armies. The first 90 guns were built by Vickers in England, while Colt manufactured an additional 197 pieces.
Realizing the Model 1904 was too heavy to accompany cavalry and rapidly moving infantry, the Army began trials to find a more portable weapon. Known in U.S. military parlance as a “Machine Rifle” it was easily designed to be transportable and would fill the void between the effective — but heavy and cumbersome — belt-fed machine guns and the bolt-action service rifle.
After a series of trials, a light machine gun designed by the French firm Société de la Fabrication des Armes á Feu Portatives Hotchiss et Companie was adopted as the Automatic Machine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1909.
GUN, MACHINE, HOTCHKISS, .303 IN. MARK I
Caliber: .303 Mark VII
Overall Length: 46.75 in. (with stock)
Barrel Length: 23.5 in.
Weight (unloaded): 27 lbs.
Feed Device: 30-rd. metal strip & 50-rd. articulated metal belt
Sights: Front: Blade
Rear: U-notch adj. by tangent from 100 to 2,000 yds.
Stock: Tubular metal stock or pistol grip only
ROF: 500 rpm
The Hotchkiss firm had been established in France by an American engineer, Benjamin Hotchkiss, who had developed a multi-barreled, revolving cannon similar in concept to the Gatling Gun in the 1870s. It proved a success, and 37mm and 47mm guns were taken into service by the United States, France, Russia, Brazil, Denmark, Great Britain, China, Spain, Greece, Argentina, Chile, and Germany. There are numerous photos from WWI of German troops using Hotchkiss revolving cannons as anti-aircraft guns.
After Hotchkiss’ death, the company continued to prosper, and in the 1890s, began production of a machine gun (in French: Mitrailleuse), based upon the designs of an Austrian army officer, Captain Adolph Odkolek von Újezd, as improved by Hotchkiss’ head engineer, the American Laurence Vincent Benét, with the assistance of Henri Albert Mercié.
As modified by Benét and Mercié, the gun was a gas-operated weapon that was fed by metal strips holding 30 cartridges. Upon firing, as the bullet passed a port about half way down the barrel, gases were vented into a tubular gas tube beneath the barrel, driving the gas piston to the rear. An unlocking cam on the piston operating rod raised a locking link out of a recess in the receiver, unlocking the bolt, which traveled to the rear with the operating rod, extracting the spent cartridge from the chamber and ejecting it out of the receiver. Cams on the piston rod rotated the feed sprocket through 1/6 of turn, advancing the feed strip and placing the next cartridge in position to be chambered as the bolt moves forward.
It was air cooled and the barrel had several large brass (later steel) cooling rings that increased the heat-radiating surface, permitting extended firing.
L’armée française purchased some Hotchkiss Mitrailleuse Modéle 1897 for trial purposes and later adopted the improved Mitrailleuse Modéle 1900 for issue to colonial troops in North Africa, where obtaining cooling water could be a problem, and to mountain troops, as it was lighter than contemporary water-cooled machine guns.
Between 1901 and 1907, Messieurs Benét and Mercié began work on an automatic weapon that was lighter and handier than the Modéle 1900 (which weighed 52 lbs. without a tripod) and could be carried, handled, and fired by a single soldier.
Like the Modéle 1900, it utilized a long-stroke gas system with a gas block below the barrel with a multi-position gas regulator, which could be adjusted for different ammunition or for improving functioning of a dirty gun. Bolt locking was achieved by rotary nut (called a “fermeture nut” in contemporary literature). This nut is placed around the breech and has an interrupted thread on its inner surface. Rotation of the nut is controlled by a lug, which projects below and engages the cam slot cut in the gas-piston rod. Upon discharge, the gas piston travels back, and the cam slot rotates the nut clockwise, to disengage its interrupted threads from the respective threads cut into the bolt head. Once the unlocking rotation is completed, the gas piston retracts the bolt to complete the firing cycle.
To reduce weight, they turned the feed mechanism upside down, utilized a shorter barrel with cooling fins rather than rings, a small tripod, and cut away metal wherever possible to reduce the length and weight of the gun. It could be fitted with a tubular metal or wooden shoulder stock or just a pistol grip.
The gun featured interchangeable barrels so as to allow extended full-auto fire, although changing barrels was more complicated than on later guns such as the MG42. According to the manual for the gun, no more than 300 continuous rounds should be fired before letting the barrel cool down or changing it out, although in “emergency situations” up to 1,000 rounds could be fired through a single barrel without causing significant harm to the gun.
It used the same 30-round, metal feed strip as the Modéle 1900 gun. In late 1907, the new gun was released on the international market as the Hotchkiss Mitrailleuse Légére Modéle 1909 (Light Machine Gun Model 1909). It was also advertised as the Portative (Portable — or light weight) Hotchkiss.
FUSIL MITRAILLEUSE LÉGÉRE MODÉLE 1909
Caliber: 8mm Balle D
Overall Length: 46.9 in. (with stock)
Barrel Length: 23.6 in.
Weight (unloaded): 25.8 lbs.
Feed Device: 30-rd. metal strip & 50-rd. articulated metal belt
Sights: Front: Inverted V-blade
Rear: V-notch adj. by tangent from 200 to 2,000 meters
Stock: Wood or pistol grip only
ROF: 500 rpm
According to French arms researcher Jean Huon, between 1912 and 1914, the French army obtained 110 guns, known as the Fusil Mitrailleuse Modéle 1909, for trial purposes by cavalry and infantry units, after which many were used to equip fortresses near the city of Verdun. During WWII, additional guns, known as Aéromitrailleuses, were purchased to equip bomber aircraft.
The U.S. Army purchased 29 Modéle 1909s for trial purposes, found the Hotchkiss suitable, and adopted it as the Automatic Machine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1909. A license was obtained to manufacture the Model 1909 — usually referred to as the “Benét-Mercié” — in the United States by both Colt and the Springfield Armory.
The numbers produced vary according to which source you have read (or believed?), but the best estimates I have seen were Colt and Springfield produced about 670 for the Army and 400 for the Navy and USMC.
The American Model 1909 differed from its French cousin in several ways. First of all, while the former utilized a simple tangent rear sight, like our Model 1903 Springfield rifle, the Model 1909’s rear sight was a complicated affair with a fixed U-notch battle sight set for 300 yards and a fold-up leaf with an aperture that could be finely adjusted from 100 to 2,800 yards and for windage.
Instead of a tubular metal shoulder stock, the American gun had an oddly shaped walnut stock with a folding buttplate that could be placed over the shooter’s shoulder to provide improved stability and recoil control. In place of the small tripod a rather flimsy bipod was fitted, while early guns had a monopod on the shoulder stock which, theoretically, allowed the shooter to position the gun for extended firing.
The Model 1909 had a cocking handle on the rear of the receiver which was lifted up 90° and pulled to the rear and released to chamber a round. Turning the handle all the way down made the gun “safe,” lifting it to the first position allowed the gunner to fire it in semiauto mode, and lifting it to the next provided full-auto fire. The feed strip was inserted from the right side of the gun, came out the left as rounds were fired, and fell out when empty.
Besides cooling fins, the barrels on some guns made at Springfield Armory were knurled to increase surface area in the belief that this would improve cooling. While the gun used interchangeable barrels to allow sustained fire, removing and reinstalling a barrel required use of asbestos gloves.5 Despite seeming complicated, the Model 1909 consisted of only twenty-five parts.
While the Model 1909 could be carried and fired by one soldier, the normal crew consisted of three soldiers: the gunner, a gunner’s assistant who loaded the gun, and an ammo carrier. The Model 1909 was normally transported by a pack horse/mule wearing a special harness that included scabbards for the gun and a spare barrel, pouches for tools, spare parts and two wooden boxes each containing ten 30-round metal strip magazines.6 I wonder if the horse considered it a “light” machine gun?
The Army also experimented with guns mounted on motorcycle sidecars with fold-up shields to protect the gunner (what about the poor driver?).
The second part of this report will examine the American Army’s use of the Model 1909s and how it earned its unfair nickname — The Daylight Gun. We will also discuss the use of the Fusil Mitrailleuse Légére Modéle 1909 by the French, Belgian, and English during the Great War and afterwards.
I would like to thank the following for providing materials used to prepare this report: Bruce Canfield, Sarah Stoltzfus, Joel Kolander, Jean Huon, Peter Kokalis (dec.), my friends on the Machine Gun/Automatic Weapons Forum at Gunboards.com, Morphy Auctions (www.morphyauctions.com) and Rock Island Auction Company (www.rockislandauction.com).