A Brief History
On November 1, 1893, a small force of British soldiers defeated a much larger force of African warriors at the Battle of Bembezi in the South of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the First Matabele War. The British force carried the day mainly because of the addition of the Maxim machine gun to their arsenal, a weapon that was the brainchild of American inventor Hiram Maxim.
At Bembezi only 700 British soldiers faced 10,000 Matabele (various spellings) warriors, of which 2000 were armed with rifles and the other 8000 armed with spears and more primitive weapons. The British killed about 2500 of the Native Africans, routing the forces of King Lobengula, the man who would be the last King of the Matabele people. In addition to their modern (for the time) rifles, the British were also equipped with cannons and most notably 5 Maxim machine guns, weapons first introduced in 1886, that served around the world until 1959 (or perhaps the present!). In 1889, the British Army had introduced the .303 caliber smokeless powder cartridge, an enormous leap forward in lethality on the battlefield and more amenable to use in automatic weapons than the older .577/450 Martini–Henry black powder cartridge that had preceded it, although we do not know if the Maxim guns used at Bembezi were chambered in .303 or the older .577/450 cartridge. Either way, the effects were devastating against the enemy, both physically and psychologically. When faced with the overwhelming firepower of automatic machine guns, troops that had never faced such a weapon are generally terrified and prone to panic.
The man responsible for putting such a deadly weapon in the hands of the British soldiers was Hiram Maxim (1840-1916), born in Sangerville, Maine. Maxim was a dedicated inventor and delved into many areas of engineering, including repeated unsuccessful efforts to invent an airplane. He did come up with nifty ideas for mousetraps, hair curling devices, steam powered pumps, and was one of many inventors working on inventing a practical electric light bulb, to the point of engaging Thomas Edison in a battle over who had actually invented the light bulb, with Maxim alleging that Edison had stolen Maxim’s design. Maxim traveled to England in 1881, where he sought more lucrative markets for his inventions. Famously given the advice that if he wanted to make money from Europeans, he should invent something to help them kill each other (this is paraphrased, the supposed quote is, “Hang your electricity. If you want to make your fortune, invent something to help these fool Europeans kill each other more quickly!”). Maxim took this advice to heart and went about inventing his famous/infamous machine gun, the type of which was copied by countries throughout the world.
Other inventors were hard at work to create rapid fire guns, with early efforts being hand cranked rather than harnessing the force of the recoil or expanding gasses to operate the mechanism. (See our previous article, “10 Greatest Machine Guns”) The Maxim recoil operated product was the winner in the race for the first truly practical and efficient self-powered automatic firearm. (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! A 1963 test made by Popular Mechanics Magazine had a team fire 5 million rounds through a Vickers version of a Maxim, a gun retired from military use. The venerable machine gun shot up all the ammo without a problem, and after the test it still met military specs! 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.)
In England Maxim found financial backing from Edward Vickers and became a business associate of the man the Vickers Corporation is named after. In 1897, Vickers, Son & Maxim was formed. The improved Maxim design often just called “the Vickers,” became the standard British machine gun for many decades. Maxim resigned from Vickers in 1911, becoming part of a new operation called Grahame-White, Blériot, and Maxim Company with the aim of designing and producing practical military airplanes that could drop a much heavier bomb load (500 pounds) than the string bag aircraft of the time. By this time, Maxim was nearly deaf and in his old age his health started to fail, perhaps adversely affecting his ability to contribute to the invention of a practical bomber aircraft.
Maxim had become a naturalized British citizen in 1899, and was knighted in 1901. (He would have been knighted in 1900, but Queen Victoria died, which delayed his knighthood for a year.) He died at the age of 76 in his adopted home city of London. There must have been an inherited “invention” gene carried by the Maxim family, because Hiram’s brother Hudson was also an inventor. The 2 brothers had worked together on developing explosives and smokeless powder but had a falling out over a patent dispute. Hiram Maxim’s son, Hiram Percy Maxim (1869-1936) was another inventor in the Maxim family and is famous for having invented the internal combustion engine muffler as well as the sound suppressor (often called “silencer”) for firearms, as well as devices used in radio transmission.
Hiram Maxim was a lifelong atheist, so if you are wondering if he had reservations about his invention eventually taking millions of lives you can rest easy. He apparently did not lose any sleep over it! Hiram Maxim, his wife and his grandson, lie resting at West Norwood Cemetery in London. We remember Hiram Maxim for the machine gun that bears his name, but should we really remember his for inventing the light bulb?
Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you believe is the most important firearms inventor? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hutchinson, Graham. MACHINE GUNS: Their history and tactical employment. Naval & Military Press, 2006.
Maxim, Hiram Percy. A Genius in the Family. Benediction Classics, 2010.
McCallum, Iain. Blood Brothers: Hiram and Hudson Maxim: Pioneers of Modern Warfare. Greenhill Books.2006.
Pegler, Martin. Vickers-Maxim Machine Guns Enthusiasts’ Manual: 1886 to 1968 (all models): An insight into the development, manufacture and operation of the Vickers-Maxim medium machine-guns. Haynes Publishing, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Hiram Maxim sitting with the first portable, fully automatic machine gun, which he invented, and a Dundonald gun carriage, is photograph Q 81725 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. This image is in the public domain because it is a mere mechanical scan or photocopy of a public domain original, or – from the available evidence – is so similar to such a scan or photocopy that no copyright protection can be expected to arise. The original itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain. This is because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1969; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1969.