The Maxim Gun Changed Warfare With Devastating Results

Image via Zorro2212/Wikimedia Commons

The Gatling gun, first created in 1861, was used by the Union Army during the Civil War. The powerful weapon also saw use in the Spanish-American War, the Anglo Zulu War, and the Boshin War. An inventor named Hiram Maxim thought that he could improve upon the Gatling gun and his creation soon became a staple of the British Army.

Maxim Gun’s Creator

A portrait of Sir Hiram Maxim Done for Vanity Fair in 1904
A portrait of Sir Hiram Maxim Done for Vanity Fair in 1904 (Vanity Fair/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The Maxim gun is named for its investor, Hiram Stevens Maxim. The inventor created a number of things that weren’t weapons as well. A sufferer from bronchitis, he came up with a pocket methol inhaler to ease suffering. Maxim also created the first known automatic fire sprinkler. The inventor also developed an incandescent lightbulb and long had a patent dispute over the creation with Thomas Edison. Maxim, though, is most well remembered for the automatic gun he created in the late 19th Century.

The inventor grew frustrated over the patent process and being credited for his inventions. He is said to have remarked to a friend, “In 1882 I was in Vienna, where I met an American whom I had known in the States. He said: ‘Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.”

Development and Design of the Maxim Gun

The inspiration for the gun’s action came from Maxim’s memory of being knocked back by the recoil of a gun. He decided to use this memory to improve upon the popular Gatling Gun. According to PBS, “Maxim’s innovation was to harness the recoil power of each bullet, a force strong enough to eject the used cartridge and draw in the next one. Structured in this way, the portable gun needed only one barrel to fire all of its bullets automatically.” In addition to creating the gun, Maxim also invented cordite, smokeless gunpowder.

Maxim worked and tested his gun at home and eventually found a backer in Albert Vickers, whose father Edward was a steel entrepreneur. In 1883, the first patent for the gun was awarded and it was first demonstrated to prospective buyers the next year.

The Colonial Wars

Hiram Maxim demonstrates the machine gun that he invented
Hiram Maxim demonstrates the machine gun that he invented (Photo via Getty Images)

The first important British Army figure to embrace the Maxim gun was Sir Garnet Wolseley who purchased 120 of them. Wolseley was known for his forward-thinking. Many in the British Army were against machine guns due to their propensity to jam. Wolseley was an ardent supporter of machine guns and his embrace of the Maxim gun helped others take notice.

Soon, the Maxim gun was ubiquitous throughout the British Empire. The power of the weapon soon became legend. It was said that during the Battle of Shanghai, 700 British troops were able to fight off  5,000 Matabele warriors due to the presence of their five Maxim guns.

Not only did the Maxim prove to be much more reliable than its predecessors, it also created a psychological advantage. At times the thought of the weapon tearing through an opposing army was enough to stop them in their tracks. Especially when enemy combatants had nothing near as powerful.

World War I use

By the time World War I began, many countries had either purchased Maxim guns or developed machine guns of their own. The weapons became so common during the conflict that some called it, “the machine gun war.” The machine gun used by the British was an updated version of the Maxim called the Vickers Machine gun. The German Maschinengewehr 08 and the Russian Pulemyot Maxim were essentially copies of the original Maxim. The Hotchkiss machine gun, created in France, was used by the French, Americans, and Japanese.

The Legacy of the weapon and Hiram Maxim

A sailor aboard the USS Vixen fires a Maxim machine gun
A sailor aboard the USS Vixen fires a Maxim machine gun (Image Via US Navy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The Maxim had an incredible impact on 20th-century warfare and inspired several copycats. The Vickers company also continued to improve upon Maxim’s original idea as technology improved. The weapons continued to commonly be used in conflicts up until the end of the 1960s.

Hiram Stevens Maxim himself moved to England from the United States and became a naturalized British citizen in 1899. Two years later, in 1901, he was knighted by the British crown. Maxim stopped working on weapons, though, after he created his famous machine gun. The Inventor spent much of his remaining years obsessed with aviation and flight.