army  machine gun

A group of U.S. Army soldiers clear an abandoned building using machine guns. Fully automatic machine guns are seen mainly in the military.

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The History of Machine Guns and Semi-automatic Weapons

Crude versions of the machine gun, including the hand-crank-operated Gatling gun, first came into use during the American Civil War. Invented by Richard J. Gatling in 1862 and an integral part of the U.S. military arsenal until 1911, the Gatling gun used multiple barrels in a cylinder position to fire up to 600 shots per minute. The gun was not fully automatic, however, because it required users to continuously turn the crank in order to keep firing. The first fully automatic weapon was created by Hiram Maxim in 1885; his Maxim machine gun used a recoil system to fire up to 500 rounds per minute [sources: LSU Civil War Center, Spartacus Educational].

It wasn't until World War I, however, when machine guns similar to those seen today came into regular use on the battlefield. As the guns became lighter, including those added to planes, forces on both sides also more regularly used the weapons in place of single-shot bolt action rifles [source: Duffy].

The first widely seen semi-automatic pistol, meanwhile, was created by John M. Browning in 1910 and originally used by U.S. soldiers the following year. Browning and company produced nearly 2 million of its Long Colt pistols during World War II and the .45-caliber weapon was the official sidearm for U.S. Army soldiers for nearly 75 years. In 1914, Browning also introduced the first semi-automatic rifle, a .22-caliber weapon that saw heavy action in World War II [sources: Browning, Johnston, Smithsonian].

With the advance of gun technology came the dawn of gun control. Fully automatic machine gun-type weapons have been tightly regulated since Congress passed the National Firearms Act of 1934, largely in response to the growing prevalence of weapons like the Thompson submachine gun ("Tommy gun"), a machine gun with the cartridge of a pistol. Originally developed for use in World War I, the Tommy gun later became popular among Prohibition-era bootleggers and gangsters before the ban [source: Higginbotham].

From there, the story of gun control in the United States has been a cat-and-mouse game of sorts with gun control activists pushing for laws reflecting ever-developing firearm technology, while gun owners and Second Amendment buffs resist further regulation of their constitutional right to bear arms.