Schwarzlose MG: The Unusual Austro-Hungarian Machine Gun of World War I

Photo Credit: Unknown Author / bildarchivaustria / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: Unknown Author / bildarchivaustria / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A number of machine guns saw action during the First World War. While the Vickers, Maxim and Lewis guns are likely the ones that come to mind, there’s another that stands out simply because of how unusual its design was: the Schwarzlose MG. Developed for the Austro-Hungarian Army, this machine gun not only saw use by infantrymen, but was adapted to feature aboard ships and on aircraft, and was even installed in military fortifications.

Development of the Schwarzlose MG

Two soldiers manning a Schwarzlose MG
Schwarzlose MG being manned by soldiers stationed in the Ukrainian People’s Republic, 1918. (Photo Credit: FORTEPAN / Urbán Tamás / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Schwarzlose MG, also known as the Maschinengewehr M, was designed in 1904 by Prussian firearms designer Andreas Wilhelm Schwarzlose, who rose to fame for developing a blowback-operated machine gun. The weapon entered production in 1905 as the M1905, and was steadily improved upon as the years went on.

The Schwarzlose used by soldiers during World War I entered production in 1908 and was manufactured by Steyr Arms and Fegyver-és-Gépgyár (FÉG) for a decade. In 1918, active sales of the weapon ended with the close of the conflict.

Schwarzlose MG specs

Schwarzlose MG on display
Schwarzlose MG on display at a museum. (Photo Credit: OlliFoolish / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Schwarzlose MG was a belt-fed, water-cooled machine gun that resembled those within the Maxim family. However, it was given a much simpler design and function, meaning it was inexpensive to manufacture, allowing for the necessary quantities to be produced during the First World War.

While resembling the Maxim, the Schwarzlose was unusual in that it employed a delayed blowback mechanism that utilized a single spring, as well as another that incorporated a device that oiled cartridge cases for easier extraction. The former feature allowed the chamber pressure to drop to a safe level, if the machine gun was operated correctly.

Similar to other machine guns, the Schwarzlose was heavy, weighing in at 41.4 kg. That being said, it was sturdy and reliable. It could fire between 400 and 580 RPM, with its 8 x 50 mmR Mannlicher and 8 x 56 mmR ammunition provided by a 250-round cloth belt.

Use as an infantry weapon

Three soldiers manning a Schwarzlose MG in a trench
Soldiers manning a Schwarzlose MG in a trench, 1916. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / bildarchivaustria / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Schwarzlose MG was developed for use by infantrymen and thus was used heavily throughout the fighting that occurred during the First World War. It served a traditional, tripod-mounted role, with a crew of three typically charged with manning it. One served as the commander, while the others were the gunner and ammunition carrier. The third would also typically act as the loader.

While serving as an infantry weapon, the Schwarzlose could also be deployed with a more-compact “backpack mount,” although it was rarely used in such a way. In this configuration, it was fitted with a backwards folding bipod that was attached to the front of the water jacket, near the muzzle.

Modifying the Schwarzlose MG for aircraft was a challenge

Five soldiers aiming a Schwarzlose MG toward the sky
Soldiers operating a Schwarzlose MG in an anti-aircraft capacity, 1915. (Photo Credit: NIMH / Dutch Ministry of Defence / Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0)

While the Schwarzlose MG was used by infantrymen in an anti-aircraft capacity, it was actually adapted for use by aircraft flown by the Austro-Hungarian k.u.k. Luftfahrtruppe. A lighter version was necessary for this, which was ring-mounted or fixed-wing.

Right away, it was evident the Schwarzlose wasn’t developed for use by aircraft, as synchronizing it proved to be an engineering nightmare, due to the weapon’s delayed blowback mechanism. To bypass this, the fighters were equipped with large tachometers and Kravics indicators, which warned pilots of malfunctions in the synchronization gear. Attached through electrical wiring, they knew something was wrong when the Kravics’ light went out.

When initially equipped by aircraft, the Schwarzlose was largely unmodified, with its flash-hider being the only component that was removed. As WWI continued to rage on, slots were cut into the sheet metal covering the water jacket, allowing for air cooling. This feature was removed altogether in 1916, however, when the machine gun was fitted with a stronger spring and a blowback enhancer that increased its output to 880 RPM.

Additional modifications were made when the machine gun was ring-mounted, with its handles enlarged and a handgun-style trigger added. All ring-mounted Schwarzloses were also equipped with specialized sights and boxes for their ammunition belts, for more effective reloading.

Following the end of the First World War, the Schwarzlose saw limited used as an aircraft gun.

Increasing the defense of military fortifications

Two soldiers manning a Schwarzlose MG while two others stand nearby
Soldiers manning a Schwarzlose MG in the Tyrol Mountains. (Photo Credit: Unknown / Das Ende einer Armee / Fritz Weber / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Outside of its aforementioned roles, the Schwarzlose MG also saw use as a naval gun aboard sea vessels and a fortress weapon. When equipped for the latter, it could be deployed on a host of different fixed mountings.

While its use as a fortress weapon was limited during WWI, the Czechoslovakians used the Schwarzlose in this capacity during the interwar period. The country’s armed forces adapted the machine gun, tasked the Janeček Factory with production and renamed it the těžký kulomet vz. 7/24.

When Germany began to expand its sphere of power during the mid-1930s, Czechoslovakia dedicated a portion of its military budget to the construction of fortifications, some of which were partially armed with the vz. 7/24.

Issues with the Schwarzlose MG

Four soldiers manning a Schwarzlose MG, with four others lying behind them
Soldiers manning a Schwarzlose MG in the field, 1916. (Photo Credit: FORTEPAN / Urbán Tamás / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

While the Schwarzlose MG was effective as an infantry weapon, it did have issues, particularly when used in ways it hadn’t been designed for, such as its aforementioned role as an aircraft gun. Outside of this, its unlocked-breech design required a shorter barrel, which, while helping to alleviate pressure, limited the machine gun’s muzzle velocity and reach. It also created a significant muzzle flash, necessitating the use of a rather large flash suppressor.

Another issue involved the Schwarzlose’s reliance on the weight of its breech block and semi-folded toggle arm. The former would unfold at a severe mechanical disadvantage, thereby slowing down the opening of the former.

Use by other nations

Two groups of soldiers manning Schwarzlose MGs
Soldiers manning Schwarzlose MGs in an anti-aircraft capacity, 1916. (Photo Credit: FORTEPAN / Urbán Tamás / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Outside of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Schwarzlose MG saw use by a number of nations, including Greece, the Ottoman Empire, the Netherlands, Imperial Russia and Sweden, to name a few. During the interwar period, the Polish Air Force equipped its aircraft with the machine guns, using them against the Soviets during the Polish-Soviet War, while Japan equipped the 6.5 mm Arisaka variant on its Fusō-class battleships and Kongō-class battlecruisers.

When World War II broke out, the Schwarzlose was the standard-issue machine gun for the Italian colonial forces stationed in North Africa, where it saw limited action as an anti-aircraft weapon. The German Army also used it during the final stages of the conflict, while the Swedish volunteer unit (SFK) equipped it during the Winter War.

More from us: 37 mm M1916: The French ‘Bunker Buster’ That Became a Hindrance on the Western Front

Before it became obsolete, the Schwarzlose also saw use during the 1932-33 Colombia-Peru War, the Russian Civil War, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Austro-Slovene Conflict, the Balkan Wars, the Spanish Civil War and the Austrian Civil War.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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