A Brief History
On May 15, 1718, James Puckle of England patented the first machine gun. This English lawyer reflected his times by designating that the ammunition for his flintlock fired 11 shot machine gun to be loaded with normal musket balls for use against Christians and with fiendish cubical bullets for use against Muslims!
Here we list 10 of the greatest machine guns throughout history, with consideration of innovation, historical impact, effectiveness, longevity, reliability and perhaps even “coolness” as criteria. With so many different makes and models to choose from, many of which are worthy competitors, you might not find your favorite listed, so please share your thoughts about guns that should be added to the list.
Question for Students (and others): What do you think is the greatest machine gun of all time? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
10. Puckle Gun, 1718.
At only 9 rounds per minute (rpm), this gun cannot claim much effectiveness, but as the grand daddy of all the rest, it deserves at least this spot on the list. This gun was to be fed by a removable cylinder.
9. Uzi, 1950.
Available in a compact configuration, these 9mm Luger caliber submachine guns became the darling of spy and gangster wannabes during the 1970’s. Smaller and more versatile than the larger sub-guns such as the Thompson or PPSh, the Uzi had its stick magazine nestled in its pistol grip and a collapsible stock. Over 10 million of these guns have been built and serve in over 90 countries. Used by front line combat troops, vehicle crew members, rear echelon types, as well as police and secret service types, these guns are famous for their reliability. They are blowback operated and fire at a rate of 600 rpm. A “Micro Uzi” version is used by undercover operatives for concealment.
8. M-60, 1957.
The first US machine gun to use the 7.62mm Nato caliber cartridge, it benefited greatly in design from the German MG 42. With a service life of over 50 years and counting, it has been superseded by the newer M240 (a version of the Belgian MAG, also a sort of MG 42 copy) but is still in service all over the world. Adapted for use on aircraft (fixed and flexible mounts), trucks, jeeps, armored vehicles and used with a tripod for precision defensive fire, the M-60 is a far lighter and more mobile machine gun than the old Browning Model 1919 .30 caliber gun it replaced. Using a disintegrating link ammunition belt, this gun was a huge improvement over cloth belt fed guns or non-disintegrating link belts. Only 23 pounds with a bi-pod, a single soldier could easily carry and employ this gun in the attack, although ammo humpers better be nearby!
7. Soviet PPSh-41, 1941.
Phased out of Soviet service around 1969, this submachine gun firing the Soviet 7.62 X 25 mm Tokarev pistol caliber round was used to tremendous effect during World War II. Like many successful machine guns, this drum fed weapon contained many stamped steel parts and was designed for easy and cheap manufacture, reliable service and a rugged nature. It fired about 900 rpm at a muzzle velocity of 1600 feet per second. Usually seen with a 71 round drum magazine, it also could employ a 35 round “box” or “stick” type magazine. Many are still in use around the world, though mostly in irregular units. An amazing 6 million were built!
6. StG 44, 1943.
With only less than half a million built during World War II, this gun had more impact on future “assault rifles” than it did on the battlefield. Designed by the famous Hugo Schmeisser, this was the first successful assault rifle, firing a cartridge above pistol caliber (not quite as powerful as the rifles of the day, but similar to what today’s assault rifles fire) in either semi-automatic or full automatic mode. Using a 30 round detachable box magazine, the StG 44 (also known as MP 43 or MP 44) could perform the mission of a light machine gun that was highly portable and was unmatched in firepower during its short (but hectic!) service life. The AK-47 and its variants as well as the US M-14 and M-16 type assault rifles can call this gun “Pa.”
5. Thompson Submachine Gun, 1921.
Designed in 1918 as a “trench sweeper” this iconic “Tommy Gun” was made to provide close range firepower to mobile soldiers who could not carry the heavy crew served machine guns of the day. Using the large, relatively slow .45 ACP caliber round in a drum magazine holding 100 or 50 rounds, or a stick magazine holding 20 rounds, the 230 grain bullets moving along at 935 feet per second had devastating effect on close range targets. Originally made to fire at a cyclic rate of 1500 rpm (M1919), this was later modified down to 600-725 rpm to enhance control-ability and save ammunition. Rugged, easy to use, reliable and quite accurate in automatic fire, this gun could also be fired at an economical semi-automatic rate (unlike the PPSh which was full auto only). Heavy and expensive to manufacture, the Tommy Gun was doomed to be replaced by cheaper guns costing a fraction as much. A decent production run of over 2.7 million guns were made, and semi-automatic versions are for sale in the US today of new manufacture.
4. Gatling Gun, 1862.
An American invention, this multi-barreled gun is not a truly automatic machine gun in that power must be supplied by the gunner turning a crank. It was, however, the first successful rapid fire gun that could lay a massive (for the time) volume of fire, around 200 rpm. In front line service until 1911, modern versions of the multi-barrel rotating principle are found in the 7.62 X 51mm M134 “Mini-gun” that can spit out .30 caliber rounds at an incredible 2000 to 6000 rpm, and larger versions such as the 20mm M61 “Vulcan” (also 6000 rpm) which has armed most US fighter planes for decades. The ugly but fearsome A-10 Thunderbolt II (aka, “Warthog”) chews up tanks for lunch with its enormous 30mm GAU 8 “Avenger” Gatling gun cannon, a 7 barrel (each over 90 inches long) monster that fires depleted uranium rounds at a 4200 rpm clip.
3. MG-42, 1942.
Designed to replace the effective, but expensive to build MG-34, the MG-42 used easy to manufacture stamped metal parts and even plastic. Able to quickly and easily change barrels, the German machine gunners could use this light weight gun longer than other air cooled guns that did not have the barrel change feature. Its high rate of cyclic fire, about 1200 rpm (with different bolts the rate of fire could be changed from 900 to 1500 rpm) was around double that of competitors’ guns, earning it the nickname “Hitler’s Buzzsaw.” Over 400,000 were built during World War II and many remain in use. Many modern machine guns such as the US M-60, Austrian MG 74, Swiss MG 51 and the Belgian MAG are based largely on this design.
2. Maxim Gun, 1883.
Invented by American Hiram Maxim who had moved to England at age 41 where his design reached a better reception, this is the first recoil operated truly automatic gun. (Maxim also patented blowback and gas operated designs, both of which have been used for many machine guns.) Its design influenced almost all medium and heavy machine guns to follow (except for electrically operated “chain guns” and modern “Gatling guns.”) Maxim type guns were used by both sides in World War I to devastating effect. These guns are normally found chambered in rifle calibers such as British .303, German 8mm, or US .30-06., although larger caliber guns were also made. The “heavy” versions complete with a water jacket for barrel cooling could be fired virtually continuously for hours and sometimes were. In 1916 a British unit fired their 10 Vickers machine guns steadily for 12 hours, firing over a million rounds without a stoppage! Tripods with traversing and elevating mechanisms made for super accurate fire and allowed for reliable “beaten zones” or “kill zones.” (Production numbers of all the various versions are hard to come by.)
1. M2 Browning .50 Caliber Heavy Machine Gun, 1933.
The “Ma Deuce” of legend, this incredible piece of gear designed by perhaps the most famous gun designer in history (John M. Browning) has been used to devastating effect against men, armored vehicles, other vehicles, airplanes, fortifications, and every other target imaginable. The primary weapon of US fighter planes and bombers of World War II and Korea, the guns still find modern use mounted on vehicles and armored vehicles all over the world. Firing a 650 to 800 grain bullet (compared to 150 grains for a typical .30 or 7.62mm caliber gun) at around 2900-3000 feet per second, the M2 is effective out to a mile. In various guises the M2 can spit out bullets at the rate of 485 to 635 rounds per minute (normal) or up to 800-1200 rpm in special purpose and aircraft configurations. No other heavy machine gun in history even comes close to the M2 in pervasiveness and effectiveness. Over 3 million have been built and they are still in front line service since 1933 and will likely remain in service for decades to come.
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For more information, please see…
Ellis, John. The Social History of the Machine Gun. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
Fowler, Will and Anthony North. The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Guns: Pistols, Rifles, Revolvers, Machine And Submachine Guns Through History In 1100 Clear Photographs. Lorenz Books, 2016.
Kravetsky, Vadim and Alex Trost. Greatest Machine Guns of All Time: Top 100. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.