In this article Hiram Maxim descibes the history and development of the automatic machine gun, which he invented in 1884. The article was published in the 'Engineering' journal, Volume 62, December 18 1896, pages 776 and 777. It was transcribed by rob.b1904 (March 2011).
World Standard 1888
THE ORIGIN OF AUTOMATIC FIREARMS.
Engineering, Vol. 62, December 18 1896, Pages 776 and 777
There are few things more entertaining to an engineer than to hear from the lips of a successful inventor the narrative of his early struggles, the storms and dangers his invention has weathered before being moored in the safe haven of an established company with extensive works. Inventors nearly always talk well - and often – excepting a few who are of the taciturn sort. There is always a distinctive character about them, too; they are never machine-moulded men. No two we ever knew were exactly alike, as are Government clerks, solicitors, bank managers, city merchants, shop assistants, many doctors, most parsons, and all the rest of the template-formed classes turned out, like boxes of pens, by the great automatic copying machine, modern civilisation.
Last Friday, at a meeting of the Royal United Service Institution, presided over by Lieut.-General C. B. Ewart, late R.E., we had the pleasure of hearing one of the most original of inventors, Mr. Hiram S. Maxim, read a paper, in which he gave a sketch of the history and development of the automatic system of firearms. The matter was necessarily, from the nature of the subject, largely personal to the author, and it possessed in an eminent degree that interest to which we have already alluded. Mr. Maxim began his lecture in characteristic fashion. "In 1854 I was living with my parents in a little place known as Orneville, in the State of Maine. Orneville is one of the poorest townships to be found in the States, but there is an excellent water-power, where my father had a grist mill, and a wood-working shop provided with circular saws, lathes, and other wood-working machinery." What a Paradise for an average British or American boy ! A poor little place ("lots of waste land without fences," and no "beastly prosperity" which leads to best clothes with restrictions); water-power; a grist mill; and – summit of boyish delight - "circular saws, lathes, and other wood-working machinery." No wonder, with such a send-off of joyous days, Mr. Maxim has arrived at middle age with the impetuosity - the exuberant vitality and overflowing enthusiasm of youth all unimpaired.
But, as if Fortune had not lavished gifts enough on her favoured child, the elder Maxim actually " conceived the idea of making a machine gun," and took his young son into his confidence. žAs metallic cartridges had no existence, he proposed to load short sections of steel tubes, each provided with a common percussion cap, and to connect them together in the form of a chain.Ó There were levers " something after the manner of a Nordenfelt gun" - a hammer, a star-shaped feed wheel, a toggle joint : and all this bundle of delightful conceptions was handed over to the youthful Hiram to translate into the reality of a wooden model; for, says Mr. Maxim, "at that time I had already become somewhat skilful as a wood-worker.
The model made, it was žsubmitted to one Ramsay, a gunmaker," who said " it would cost a lot of money." Two years elapsed. With them " Numerous drawings of various improvements; " and then, "at sixteen, another wooden model, in which the loaded sections could be secured together with a hinged catch and spring." This was sent to " my uncle," who, we were relieved to hear, "had engineering works at Fitchburg, Mass." He was, however, in spite of his profession, his nationality, and his great relationship, rather more of a wet blanket than even poor Ramsay. He reported that the gun would cost 100 dols. to make – which sounds moderate enough - but "when made would not be worth 100 cents;" which is just the sort of thing relations always do say of one's inventions. "This," tersely adds Mr. Maxim, " was my first experience in machine guns."
Time passed, but nothing effective was done - possibly the grist mill asserted its supremacy, after the manner of inventors' grist mills - but others brought in metallic cartridges, which gave renewed hope. In the meantime the war had passed, and Mr. Maxim - our Mr. Maxim, not the elder - found himself at Savannah, Georgia, where a company of ex-rebels were firing at a target with Springfield muskets. " They asked me to try my skill at shooting. I did so, and was able to shoot quite as well as the best of them, but I found that the musket gave me a very powerful kick." The kick is historic. It left its impress not only on Mr. Maxim's shoulder, although that "felt lame, and was very much discoloured," but on his fruitful inventor's brain. It was the germ of the automatic firing gun.
On his return to Maine, Mr. Maxim related his experience to his father, saying he believed "the energy in the kick of a military gun would be amply sufficient to perform all the functions of loading and firing; so that if the cartridges were strung together in a belt, a machine gun might be made in which it would only be necessary to pull the trigger, when the recoil would feed the cartridges into position, close to the breech, release the sear, extract the empty case, expel it from the arm, and bring the next loaded cartridge into position." But even one's own father has it in common with other relations to be seldom sanguine about one's inventions when they are in the germ state. The elder Maxim pointed out to his son that it was only necessary to work a lever backwards and forwards to do all that could be done automatically; whilst to harness the recoil would require an apparatus complicated and expensive, so much so that " it would not be employed as a military weapon, though it might be a mechanical curiosity;" a very natural view to be taken by a father with a grist mill and a family, especially if we remember he had an invention of his own on the same subject. We are all apt at times to lean more towards our mental than our material offspring. ž He advised me strongly," continues Mr. Maxim, speaking of his parent, "if I wished to make a machine gun, to make it on his own plan."
Indeed, we cannot but agree with the elder Maxim, even now, in face of the factories at Erith and elsewhere, the thousands of Maxim guns in all parts of the world, and the feats of arms that have been performed by their aid. When we think of the complicated nerve-controlled mechanism it was proposed to supersede in the automatic gun, we must admire Mr. Maxim's brilliant courage and untiring perseverance - to say nothing of his exceptional mechanical ingenuity - but we need have no high opinion of the prudential side of his character. Fortune does not always justify her children, even though she reward them.
For a time, however, Mr. Maxim had perforce to follow the parental advice, at any rate the first part of it, and leave automatic gun design alone, presumably from "gristmill" considerations. In the interval hand-worked machine guns had been made, notably the Gatling. It must have been a sad trial to this impetuous spirit to see others pressing on in the race in which he must have felt himself so well equipped to take a foremost place. However, his time came at last, for he says : " In 1881 I was sent to France by the United States Electric Lighting Company. But my duties did not take up the whole time. I found myself in Paris, and for the first time in my life without sufficient work to keep me constantly employed."
What sometimes happens when people find themselves in Paris without sufficient work to keep them constantly employed, we may learn from the writings of moralists and from oral tradition; but the wholesome New England life, the vigorous habit bred of "one of the poorest townships in the State of Maine," and the early influence of the honest old grist mill, all conspired to turn this unaccustomed leisure to an end not in accordance with the conventions of the Parisian visitor: "I determined," says Mr. Maxim, " to use my spare time in working out my new idea of an automatic gun." The result was a drawing, shown on the screen at the lecture, made in Paris in 1883. The barrel did not participate in the recoil, the recoil action being confined altogether to the breech mechanism and the cartridge-case, the barrel remaining stationary. Mr. Maxim next came to England to follow up his experiments. "I hired a room in Bankside, where I made a small apparatus, and conducted experiments with a view to making a machine gun operated by the backward action of the cartridge." The breaking of the case and the blowing out of the primers were found to be difficulties, so the cartridge was made in two pieces; but as this required a special cartridge, it was determined to let the barrel recoil with the mechanism.
In the meantime the work had outgrown the Bankside premises, so a place was found in Hatton Garden; it was about this period, or somewhat later, perhaps, that a large number of those who now know Mr. Maxim so well, first made his acquaintance. These works - for such they may be called - were fitted with the necessary tools and appliances to enable the experimental work to be carried on in something like proper order. But the first step he took was not to make an actual machine-gun, but to construct "an apparatus which might be considered as a dynamometer," in which everything was made adjustable. With this he was able to put seven cartridges in the magazine, and the whole of them went off in less then a second, or at the rate of 600 rounds in a minute. An illustration of this apparatus was shown on the screen, and was, as Mr. Maxim put it with all due emphasis, " the first apparatus ever made on this planet which would successfully load and fire itself."
We do not think it necessary to follow Mr. Maxim in the mechanical details given in his lecture at the Royal United Service Institution; in fact, it would be impossible to do so without the aid of the numerous illustrations which were shown by the aid of the lantern. The later history of the Maxim gun is well known to our readers. It has not always been smooth sailing, the wrestle with natural phenomena, however, being, as is mostly the case, but a pleasing exercise compared to the struggle with difficulties of another kind. Neither do we propose reproducing the record of all the various devices which Mr. Maxim patented in order to block those who might sail in unpleasantly close company. He determined, as he says, ž to take out a series of patents all over the world, and to show in these patents every conceivable means of working machine guns by energy derived from the burning powder. . . . No one had ever made an automatic gun before; the coast was clear. Consequently I was able to take out any number of master patents, to show every conceivable way of working an automatic gun, and to get very broad claims."
In regard to the prospect of the automatic gun, Mr. Maxim is characteristically sanguine. He believes that in the immediate future the automatic system will be applied to all firearms. In England, with the appliances now available, where single steel forgings weighing 150 tons may be made if required, and in the United States, where he believed perfect steel forgings weighing 200 tons may be obtained, it would be possible to make very large automatic guns with barrels all in one piece, which would require half the time, half the steel, and half the expense of a built-up gun of the same size. Moreover, as a large gun made all in one piece would have great longitudinal strength, there would be no danger of its bending, as is the case with the large built-up guns now in use. In fact, it would now be possible, with a slight alteration in present appliances, to make an automatic gun weighing 150 tons, having a bore of from 17 in. to 18 in., that would give a muzzle velocity to its projectiles of over 2500 ft. a second, and would fire from two to three rounds in a minute. Of course, very long cartridges would have to be employed, but such a gun, he said, would certainly be very effective on a large floating battery for harbour defences or for fortifications. In regard to erosion, which, without doubt, was due to the passage of the gases between the driving band and the bore of the gun, it was only necessary to stop this in order to prevent erosion almost entirely. This, Mr. Maxim said, can be effectually done with a species of obturator, constructed and attached to the base of the projectile in such a manner that at the instant of firing a considerably higher pressure per square inch is set up on the semi-plastic material which is imprisoned between the projectile and the bore, than the pressure in the gun, the material being fixed in an annular space between the projectile and the bore of the gun.
By this system the metallic cartridge cases protect the chamber of the gun, while the obturating band which forms a part of the projectile prevents erosion of the bore. The cost of the projectiles is only slightly increased by this arrangement, while the wear and tear is diminished about 95 per cent.
When the automatic system is applied to guns of 6-in. calibre and above, the mechanism will have to be operated on a different plan to that employed in our ordinary automatic guns. It will be necessary to test the apparatus without firing, in order to give practice to the gun's crew. Therefore, the gun must be quite independent of any energy derived from the burning powder, although it will have to be constructed so as to utilise a portion of this energy when it is actually fired with loaded cartridges. Of course, a gun of this kind would be long and cumbersome, but the rapidity of the fire would be so great that it would more than make up for its additional weight and length.
We propose before long to deal with some of the features of the automatic firing gun, when we shall illustrate a number of the chief applications.