www.PDHonline.com - Your Gateway to Lifelong Learning   |   Email: PDHonline@Gmail.com   
PDH Online Course Description PDH Units/
Learning Units (Hours)

Buy Now

View Course

View or Take Quiz


RAPID-FIRE: The Evolution of the Machine-Gun

Jeffrey Syken



A troika is a group of three things, usually three individuals who work together in a leadership capacity.

They may not have worked together, or even have known one another in their lifetimes, but it was three individuals: Richard J. Gatling (1818-1903), Hiram S. Maxim (1840-1916) and John M. Browning (1855-1926) that would make the “machine-gun” a practical reality. The desire for a weapon that would be a “force multiplier” dates far back in history. In 1382, the army at Ghent put 200 "chars de canon" (several barrels mounted on two-wheeled carriages, garnished with pikes and scythe blades) in the field. In 1411, the Burgundian Army was said to have had 2K of these weapons. Louis XII had a machine-gun which fired 50 shots at one time. However, the "Ribaudequin Chinois" is probably the earliest type of machine-gun known. In the early 19th Century, the Danes developed a nine-barrel gun mounted in sets of three on a two-wheeled carriage (one set of barrels could always be held in reserve, while the other was loaded), proving to be highly effective. In the War of 1812, the British were startled by the Americans’ bronze revolving cannon, capable of firing three charges in quick succession. However, it was not until breech-loading was discovered that a satisfactory machine-gun was developed.

A witness to the carnage that was the American Civil War, Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling believed that, if he could invent a gun that could do the work of 100 soldiers, then that would be 100 less soldiers required to participate in warfare. Motivated by this logic, Gatling produced a gun with ten barrels set around an axis and fired in turn as the revolving mechanism, operated by a crank, brought them into position (cartridges were arranged in a drum and as one drum emptied another was put in its place). Prototype “Gatling guns” were constructed, which could produce up to 1K shots-per-minute. Although the gun had a long range and cooled itself effectively, jams were frequent (its weight and the necessity of operating the breech mechanism by hand were also objectionable). Although it served effectively in the colonial wars of the late 19th Century, it was not a true “automatic” machine-gun, having to be hand-cranked. Ironically, in an effort to better compete with Hiram Maxim’s automatic machine-gun, an electrically driven Gatling gun was developed in the 1880s, but there was not much interest in it and it fell by the wayside. However, that very principle would be the basis for the M-61 Vulcan “Aerial Gatling Gun” and its derivatives, developed in the post-WWII years.

In the same league as Thomas Edison and the Wright Bros. was Hiram Stevens Maxim. With “The Wizard of Menlo Park” garnering all the publicity regarding electric lighting, Maxim went to England in 1880 and brought his own brand of electric lighting with him. Upon the advice of another American, who suggested Maxim direct his considerable talents towards making a more efficient “killing machine” given Europe’s historic propensity for warfare, Maxim took the advice to heart and in his workshop developed a machine-gun that could fire 600 rounds-per-minute using the recoil principle. To cool the barrel, a water jacket was provided. This design proved immensely popular and by 1911, the U.S. Army had declared the Gatling gun obsolete, replaced by variations of the Maxim gun. Indeed, by the beginning of WWI all European armies were armed with Maxim guns (Germany had 50K at the outset of the war), making WWI the “machine-gun war,” contributing greatly to the carnage. Perhaps most versatile, John Moses Browning was considered to be the “Gunfather” and a wizard at designing automatic weapons: from the Colt Model 1895 to the M-2 .50 caliber “Ma Deuce” and everything in between (i.e. Browning Automatic Rifle or B-A-R). There were many others who contributed to the development of the machine-gun (i.e. Col. Isaac Newton Lewis), but it was Gatling, Maxim and Browning who are remembered most for their contributions.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

View Course Content

NY PE & PLS: You must choose courses that are technical in nature or related to matters of laws and ethics contributing to the health and welfare of the public. NY Board does not accept courses related to office management, risk management, leadership, marketing, accounting, financial planning, real estate, and basic CAD. Specific course topics that are on the borderline and are not acceptable by the NY Board have been noted under the course description on our website.