How the Machine Gun Revolutionized Warfare

By: Stephanie Watson & Tom Harris  | 
Machine guns changed warfare forever, but they run on basic concepts.
Tim Ridley/Getty Images

Historians count the machine gun among the most important technologies of the past 100 years. As much as any other factor, it set the brutal, unrelenting tone of World War I and World War II, as well as most of the wars since that time.

Unlike earlier guns, which had to be manually loaded and fired, with this machine, one soldier could shoot hundreds of bullets every minute, mowing down an entire platoon with sustained fire. The gun would continue this rapid fire until the operator stopped pressing the trigger or the gun finally ran out of ammunition.


Military forces had to develop heavy battle equipment like tanks just to withstand this rate of fire. This single weapon had a profound effect on the way we wage war. The machine gun gave small numbers of troops the fighting capabilities of large battalions. It also increased the potential for mass casualties.

In light of their monumental role in history, it's somewhat surprising how simple machine guns really are. These weapons are remarkable feats of precision engineering, but they work on some very basic concepts. In this article, we'll look at the standard mechanisms machine guns use to spit out bullets at such a furious rate.


Ballistic Background: Barrel

U.S. Marines fire a M-240G machine gun during training exercises at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina. Medium machine guns such as this one are an essential element in the modern arsenal.
Photo courtesy Department of Defense

To understand how machine guns work, it helps to know something about firearms in general. Almost any gun is based on one simple concept: You apply explosive pressure behind a projectile to launch it down a barrel. The earliest and simplest application of this idea is the cannon.

The Anatomy of a Cannon

A cannon is just a metal tube with a closed end and an open end. The closed end has a small fuse hole. To load the cannon, you pour in gunpowder — a mixture of charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate — and then drop in a cannonball.


The gunpowder and cannonball sit in the breech, or rear part of the bore, which is the open end of the cannon. To prepare the gun for a shot, you run a fuse (a length of flammable material) through the hole, so it reaches down to the gunpowder.

To fire the cannon, all you have to do is light the fuse. The flame travels along the fuse and finally reaches the gunpowder.

The Power of Gunpowder

Gunpowder burns rapidly when it ignites, producing a lot of hot gas in the process. The hot gas applies much greater pressure on the powder side of the cannonball than the air in the atmosphere applies on the other side. This propels the cannonball out of the gun at high speed.


The First Guns

A percussion cap gun (left) and a flintlock gun (right), two important steps on the way to modern firearms.

The first handheld guns were essentially miniature cannons that couldn't fire more than one shot at a time; you loaded some gunpowder and a steel ball, then lit a fuse. Eventually, this technology gave way to trigger-activated weapons, such as the flintlock and percussion cap guns.

Flintlock vs. Percussion Cap Mechanisms

Flintlock guns ignited gunpowder by producing a tiny spark, while percussion caps used mercuric fulminate, an explosive compound you could ignite with a sharp blow. To load a percussion cap gun, you pour gunpowder into the breech, stuff the projectile in on top of it, and place a mercuric fulminate cap on top of a small nipple.


To fire the gun, you cock the hammer all the way back and pull the gun's trigger. The trigger releases the hammer, which swings forward onto the explosive cap. The cap ignites, shooting a small flame down a tube to the gunpowder. The gunpowder then explodes, launching the projectile out of the barrel.

Introduction to Bullet Cartridges

The next major innovation in the history of firearms was the bullet cartridge. Simply put, cartridges are a combination of a projectile (the bullet), a propellant (gunpowder, for example) and a primer (the explosive cap), all contained in one metal package. Cartridges form the basis for most modern firearms. The backward motion of the gun's bolt also activates its ejection system, which removes the spent shell from the extractor and drives it out of an ejection port.



In the last section, we saw that a cartridge consists of a primer, a propellant and a projectile, all in one metal package. This simple device is the foundation of most modern firearms. To see how this works, let's look at a standard double-action revolver.

Structure and Mechanism

This gun has a revolving cylinder, with six breeches for six cartridges. When you pull the trigger on a revolver, several things happen:


  • Initially, the trigger lever pushes the hammer backward. As it moves backward, the hammer compresses a metal spring in the gun stock (the handle). At the same time, the trigger rotates the cylinder so the next breech chamber is positioned in front of the gun barrel.
  • When you pull the trigger all the way back, the lever releases the hammer.
  • The compressed spring drives the hammer forward.
  • The hammer slams into the primer at the back of the cartridge, igniting the primer.
  • The primer sets off the propellant.
  • The exploding propellant drives the bullet out of the gun at high speed.
  • The inside of the barrel has a spiral groove cut into it, which helps spin the bullet as it exits the gun. This gives the bullet better stability as it flies through the air and increases its accuracy.
  • When the propellant explodes, the cartridge case expands. The case temporarily seals the breech, so all the expanding gas pushes forward rather than backward.

Advantages and Limitations of Revolvers

Obviously, this sort of gun is easier to use than a flintlock or a percussion cap weapon. You can load six shots at a time and you only have to pull the trigger to fire.

But you're still fairly limited: You have to pull the trigger for every shot, and you need to reload after six shots (although some modern revolvers can hold 10 rounds of ammunition). You also have to eject the empty shells from the cylinders manually.

Now let's take a look at how gun manufacturers addressed the disadvantages of using revolvers.


Machine Guns and Gun Systems

Hiram Maxim and one of his early machine gun designs. When Maxim introduced his weapon to the British army in 1885, he changed the battlefield forever.

In the 1800s, gun manufacturers designed a number of mechanisms to address the problems associated with limited firing ability. A lot of these early machine guns combined several barrels and firing hammers into a single unit.

The Gatling Gun: A Revolution in Firepower

Among the most popular designs was the Gatling gun, named after its inventor Richard Jordan Gatling. This weapon — the first machine gun to gain widespread popularity — consists of six to 10 gun barrels positioned in a cylinder. Each barrel has its own breech and firing pin system.


To operate the gun, you turn a crank, which revolves the barrels inside the cylinder. Each barrel passes under an ammunition hopper, or carousel magazine, as it reaches the top of the cylinder. A new cartridge falls into the breech and the barrel is loaded.

Each firing pin has a small cam head that catches hold of a slanted groove in the gun's body. As each barrel revolves around the cylinder, the groove pulls the pin backward, pushing in on a tight spring. Just after a new cartridge is loaded into the breech, the firing-pin cam slides out of the groove and the spring propels it forward. The pin hits the cartridge, firing the bullet down the barrel. When each barrel revolves around to the bottom of the cylinder, the spent cartridge shell falls out of an ejection port.

The Gatling gun played an important role in several 19th century battles, but it wasn't until the early 20th century that the machine gun really established itself as a weapon to be reckoned with.

The Gatling gun is often considered a machine gun because it shoots a large number of bullets in a short amount of time. But unlike the modern, general purpose machine gun, it isn't a fully automatic weapon: You have to keep cranking if you want to keep shooting.

The First Fully Automatic Machine Gun

The first fully automatic machine gun is actually credited to an American named Hiram Maxim. Maxim guns could shoot more than 500 rounds per minute, giving it the firepower of about 100 rifles.

The basic idea behind Maxim's gun, as well as the hundreds of machine gun designs that followed, was to use the power of the cartridge explosion to reload and re-cock the gun after each shot. There are three basic mechanisms for harnessing this power:

  • Recoil systems
  • Blowback systems
  • Gas mechanisms

In the next couple of sections, we'll discuss each of these systems.


Machine Gun Recoil Systems

The first automatic machine guns had recoil-based systems. When you propel a bullet down the barrel, the forward force of the bullet has an opposite force that pushes the gun backward.

In a gun built like a revolver, this recoil force just pushes the gun back at the shooter. But in a recoil-based machine gun, moving mechanisms inside the gun absorb some of this recoil force.


Firing Mechanism and Bullet Propulsion

Here's the process: To prepare this gun to fire, you pull the breech bolt back, so it pushes in the rear spring. The trigger sear catches onto the bolt and holds it in place. The feed system runs an ammunition belt through the gun, loading a cartridge into the breech (more on this later).

When you pull the trigger, it releases the bolt, and the spring drives the bolt forward. The bolt pushes the cartridge from the breech into the chamber.

The impact of the bolt firing pin on the cartridge ignites the primer, which explodes the propellant, which drives the bullet down the barrel. The barrel and the bolt have a locking mechanism that fastens them together on impact.

Recoil Action, Shell Ejection and Continuous Firing

In this gun, both the bolt and the barrel can move freely in the gun housing. The force of the moving bullet applies an opposite force on the barrel, pushing it and the bolt backward. As the bolt and barrel slide backward, they move past a metal piece that unlocks them.

When the pieces separate, the barrel spring pushes the barrel forward, while the bolt keeps moving backward. The bolt is connected to an extractor, which removes the spent shell from the barrel. In a typical system, the extractor has a small lip that grips onto a narrow rim at the base of the shell.

As the bolt recoils, the extractor slides with it, pulling the empty shell backward.

The backward motion of the bolt also activates the ejection system. The ejector's job is to remove the spent shell from the extractor and drive it out of an ejection port.

When the spent shell is extracted, the feeding system can load a new cartridge into the breech. If you keep the trigger depressed, the rear spring will drive the bolt against the new cartridge, starting the whole cycle over again. If you release the trigger, the sear will catch hold of the bolt and keep it from swinging forward.


Machine Gun Blowback Systems

A blowback system is something like a recoil system, except that the barrel is fixed in the gun housing, and the barrel and bolt don't lock together.

This gun has a sliding bolt held in place by a spring-driven cartridge magazine, as well as a trigger mechanism. When you slide the bolt back, the trigger sear holds it in place. When you pull the trigger, the sear releases the bolt, and the spring drives it forward. After the bolt chambers the cartridge, the firing pin sets off the primer, which ignites the propellant.


The explosive gas from the cartridge drives the bullet down the barrel. At the same time, the gas pressure pushes in the opposite direction, forcing the bolt backward.

As in the recoil system, an extractor pulls the shell out of the barrel, and the ejector forces it out of the gun. A new cartridge lines up in front of the bolt just before the spring pushes the bolt forward, starting the process all over again.

This continues as long as you hold the trigger down and there's ammunition feeding into the system.


Machine Gun Gas Systems

The gas system is similar to the blowback system, but it has some additional pieces. The main addition is a narrow piston attached to the bolt, which slides back and forth in a cylinder positioned above the gun barrel.

In this scenario, the gun is basically the same as one using the blowback system, but the rear force of the explosion doesn't propel the bolt backward. Instead, the forward gas pressure pushes the bolt back.


When the bolt swings forward to fire a cartridge, it locks onto the barrel. Once the bullet makes its way down the barrel, the expanding gases can bleed into the cylinder above the barrel. This gas pressure pushes the piston backward, moving it along the bottom of the bolt. The sliding piston first unlocks the bolt from the barrel, and then pushes the bolt back so a new cartridge can enter the breech.

The diagrams we've presented only depict particular examples of how these systems work. There are hundreds of machine gun models in existence, each with its own specific firing mechanism. These guns differ in a number of other ways as well. In the next two sections, we'll look at some of the key differences between various machine gun models.


Machine Gun Feeding: Spring and Hopper System

One of the main differences between different machine gun models is the loading mechanism.

The Ammunition Hopper System

The early manual machine guns, such as the Gatling gun, used a device called the ammunition hopper. Hoppers are just metal boxes containing loose individual cartridges that fit on top of the machine gun mechanism. One by one, the cartridges fall out of the hopper and into the breech.


Hoppers can hold a good amount of ammunition, and they're easy to reload even while the gun is firing, but they are fairly cumbersome and only work if the gun is positioned right side up.

Transition to the Belt-fed System

The hopper system was replaced by the belt-fed system, which helps control the ammunition's movement into the gun. Ammunition is contained on a long belt, which the operator holds, or is contained in a bag or box. After a round is fired, it moves out of the way, and a new round slips into place.

The Spring-operated Magazine System

Another system is the spring-operated magazine. In this system, a spring pushes cartridges in a magazine casing up into the breech. The main advantages of this mechanism are that it's reliable, lightweight and easy to use.

The main disadvantage is that it can only hold a relatively small amount of ammunition.

Mounted Machine Guns

Heavy, belt-fed machine guns, usually mounted on a tripod or a vehicle, may need more than one operator. Individual troops usually carry light machine guns, with extendible bipods or tripods for stability in the firing position.

Smaller automatic guns that use cartridge magazines are classified as automatic rifles, assault rifles or submachine guns. In a general sense, the term "machine gun" describes all automatic weapons, including these smaller weapons, but it's also used to describe heavy belt-fed guns specifically.


Machine Gun Feeding: Belt System

For sheer volume of ammunition, the belt system is usually the best option. Ammunition belts consist of a long string of cartridges fastened together with pieces of canvas or, more often, attached by small metal links. Guns that use this sort of ammo have a feed mechanism driven by the recoil motion of the bolt.

Mechanics of the Belt Feed System

The bolt in a belt-fed gun has a small cam roller on top of it. As the bolt moves, the cam roller slides back and forth in a long, grooved feed cam piece.


When the cam roller slides forward, it pushes the feed cam to the right against a return spring. When the cam roller slides backward, the spring pushes the cam back to the left. The feed cam lever is attached to a spring-loaded pawl, a curved gripper that rests on top of the ammunition belt.

As the cam and lever move, the pawl moves out, grabs onto a cartridge and pulls the belt through the gun. When the bolt moves forward, it pushes the next cartridge into the chamber.

The feed system drives the ammunition belt through cartridge guides just above the breech. As the bolt slides forward, the top of it pushes on the next cartridge in line. This drives the cartridge out of the belt, against the chambering ramp.

The chambering ramp forces the cartridge down in front of the bolt. The bolt has a small extractor, which grips the base of the cartridge shell when the cartridge slides into place. As the cartridge slides in front of the bolt, it depresses the spring-loaded ejector.

When the firing pin hits the primer, propelling the bullet down the barrel, the explosive force drives the operating rod and attached bolt backward. When the shell clears the chamber wall, the ejector springs forward, popping the shell out of the gun through the ejection port. This system lets you fire continuously without reloading.

Evolution and Impact of Machine Guns

The basic mechanism of the machine gun has remained the same for more than a hundred years, but gun manufacturers are continually adding new modifications. One modern design transforms from a box to a gun with the single push of a button [source: Sofge]. In addition, new lightweight small arms technologies (LSAT) are made of lighter materials that could reduce the weight of machine guns and their ammunition by 40 percent.

Whether or not you've ever held a machine gun or even seen one, this powerful device has had a profound effect on your life. Machine guns have had a hand in dissolving nations, repressing revolutions, overthrowing governments and ending wars (and, in the hands of certain individuals, resulted in immense tragedies). In no uncertain terms, the machine gun is one of the most important military developments in the history of man.


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More Great Links

  • AAI. "Lightweight Small Arms Technologies."
  • Popular Mechanics. "Top 5 High-Tech Guns for Next-Gen Infantry."
  • Spiegel, Kori. "Lightweight Small Arms Technologies."