History of Machine Guns

The machine gun had its origin in the long search for rapid-fire firearms. Many multiple-barrel ideas were tried out, the first successful one being the invention of Dr. Richard J. Gatling in 1862. The Gatling gun had 5 to 10 barrels arranged in a cylinder revolved by turning a hand crank. It was made in calibers from .42 to one inch (10.67-25.40 mm) and attained a rate of fire of 1,000 shots a minute. It had occasional use in the Civil War and Indian wars and was used effectively in the Spanish-American War.

The French mitrailleuse was an effective multibarrel gun in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71. Sir Hiram Maxim invented the first true machine gun in 1884. It was recoil-operated, water-cooled, and belt-fed. B. B. Hotchkiss invented a revolving cannon patented in 1887.

In the Spanish-American War, the United States used the Colt machine gun, developed by John M. Browning, and the Gatling. The most successful early light machine gun was the Lewis, invented in 1911 by Colonel Isaac N. Lewis of the U.S. Army. The Lewis was used by the British in both World Wars. Machine guns developed by Browning during World War I remained standard weapons for many years.

Machine guns were mounted on airplanes early in World War I. A major problem was how to fire forward without hitting the propeller. This was solved in 1915 by the Germans, who developed the synchronized machine gun; its firing was controlled by the engine crankshaft.

Throughout World War II, machine guns served as a valuable armament for infantry, tanks, ships, and airplanes. During the Korean War, the machine gun was replaced on airplanes by 20-mm and 30-mm automatic cannon. In addition, air-to-air missiles increasingly came into use as the principal weapon in aerial combat. After the Korean War, the machine gun continued to prove valuable and found a new use on helicopters in counterinsurgency warfare.