Machine Gunner 1914-1918

B1924

The author has not confined his excellent account of the deployment of the Machine Gun Corps to the Western trenches. He has covered all of the campaigns of WWI where the Corps was deployed and his inclusion of the words of his comrades provides a unique record in a style that is easy to read and conveys the conditions, spirit and society of the machine gunner in WWI. As the machine gun created the conditions of trench warfare, it is impossible to understand WWI without understanding how the machine gun was employed and this is the finest book yet published on the use of machine guns and of the people who served them.

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NAME: Machine Gunner 1914-1918
CATEGORY: Book Reviews
DATE: 180113
FILE: R1924
AUTHOR: C E Crutchley
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: soft back
PAGES: 238
PRICE: £12.99
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWI, World War One, First World War, Great War, 1914-1918, repeating guns, machine guns, indirect fire, direct fire, heavy machine gun, light machine gun, squad support weapon, assault weapons, anti aircraft
ISBN: 1-78346-178-11
IMAGE: B1924.jpg
BUYNOW: http://tinyurl.com/ou7wwey
LINKS:
DESCRIPTION: The author served as a machine gunner in WWI and this book was written as a tribute to his comrades. This new edition is a welcome insight into the Great War and its major strength is that it includes the words of those who were there.

The British Army has always been composed of established regiments that are created by local recruitment in a geographic area. Each regiment has a high degree of autonomy in recruitment and training even today. The established regiments provide the cavalry and infantry that has long been the backbone of British land forces. When new technology becomes available it does not necessarily fit well into the established regiments and the Army has created new specialist regiments and corps.

The machine gun is much older than is credited. The debate is over what ‘machine’ means. Before the invention of pre-loaded cartridges with bullets included, and a primer in the cartridge base, the difficulty facing gun designers was how to create repeating guns that worked.

The first machine guns were really ripple fire or volley devices. The carriage supported a triangular wooden block that had a set of barrels attached to each of the three faces. The block was rotated to present one bank of barrels and locked in position. The barrels already held a charge of gunpowder and the gunner poured powder along a channel that ran over the touch holes of the barrels. A slow match was then touched to the powder in the channel. If it was touched at one end, the priming powder flashed along the channel and the barrels ripple fired. The delay between each barrel firing could vary considerably, often as a result of the variability of gunpowder at that time. If the match was touched at the centre of the channel, the primer powder flashed in both directions and two or more barrels discharged at a time until all were empty. The gunner then unlocked the wooden block, rotating it to present the next bed of charged barrels. The machine was therefore fairly crude. The gun could be used as field artillery but the small number, believed to have been made, were probably sited at fixed fortifications.

There were then several attempts to produce a revolver system where a single barrel was used by a cylinder carrying a number of pre-loaded chambers. In some weapons, it appears that when a chamber lined up with the barrel a flintlock fired, a lock being fitted to each chamber. These weapons were not very safe, reliable, or effective, very few ever saw action, and, the fact that little was recorded about their use, they probably made very little positive contribution to combat. There were also attempts to build revolving guns with multiple barrels that were rotated by a crank, the lock of each barrel being tripped as it reached a set point in the rotation of the nest of barrels.

The first major step forward was the invention of the percussion cap, which made revolver pistols practical. By the 1830s, several armourers were manufacturing cap and ball revolvers and the Colt Dragoon proved to be a safe and effective pistol for cavalry, if somewhat heavy at almost 4 kilo. By the American Civil War, cap and ball revolvers had been made in the thousands and were in common use around the world. The Remington New Model, Army .44 was even better than the Colt designs and many were later converted to fire cartridges. It was not uncommon for a pistol shooter to carry a number of preloaded cylinders for his Remington 44 and change the cylinders with much the same ease as users of self loading pistols were later to change pre-loaded magazines.

The sudden success with cap and ball revolvers achieved two things. The race began to manufacture metal cased cartridge ammunition that was a complete and ready-to-fire round. Once these rounds started to become widely available the manufacture of repeating rifles and machine guns became practical. It was probably no great surprise that the first effective Gatlin machine guns used the revolver principle. Ammunition was loaded into magazines, box and drum, that were fitted onto the top of the gun. A set of barrels were rotated by the gunner cranking a handle. As the barrels rotated, a set of cams allowed a round to fall into a breech and be inserted into the barrel, a firing pin was released to fire a live round, and, as the barrels rotated further, the spent case was ejected and the cycle began again. The rate of fire was subject to the speed with which the gunner cranked the handle. This proved a rugged, safe and dependable mechanism that is still in use today, but with an electric motor rotating the set of barrels, with a firing rate of thousands of rounds per minute.

Several very different designs emerged but all shared typical mounting systems that dictated how the weapons would be deployed. Most common was a wheeled carriage that was linked to a limber carrying pre-loaded magazines and boxes of cartridges for reloading the magazines. The gun carriage/limber combination was horse drawn and deployed much like any other light field artillery. Fixed fortifications sometimes saw a machine gun mounted on a tripod or post and these mounts were used aboard ship. The result was that the first 40 years of machine gun availability saw these weapons mis-used as light artillery and in small numbers.

On the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the British Army issued only two machine guns to a battalion of 800 men, continuing the practice of regarding the machine gun as a piece of light field artillery. However, as these weapons were used from very early on, it rapidly became apparent that their deployment constituted a terrible new weapon that forced both sides to dig in and begin years of trench warfare, until the first armoured fighting vehicles began to produce a break-through by carrying machine guns and canon to the enemy trenches in armoured vehicles that protected the crews from enemy machine gun fire.

The impact of machine guns led to the British Army responding in its usual custom by creating a new Machine Gun Corps, armed largely with the outstanding Maxim machine gun, produced by all the European protagonists under license in almost exactly the same form. The British Vickers Maxim was a water-cooled, belt-fed machine gun that could fire continuously for long periods. It could be carried by soldiers, but many were issued on sled and wheeled mounts to ease movement. Mounted on a heavy tripod or carriage, a Vickers Maxim could be used for direct and indirect fire and as an anti-aircraft gun. Indirect fire was very useful because it enabled the gunners to drop bullets into trenches and onto reserves being assembled behind the protection of a ridge.

As the Great War developed, all combatants tried alternative designs to make the machine gun really portable. The result was weapons like the Lewis Gun and the BAR, ending with the development of the first sub-machine guns that fired pistol ammunition and were lighter than most military rifles. The production of light machine guns, squad support machine guns and assault rifles steadily increased the proportion of rapid-fire weapons in any army formation, making the use of a specialized corps less important. The heavy machine gun also evolved. The Vickers Maxim was so dependable and effective that it continued in British Army service long after WWII. Its claim to be a heavy machine gun depended on its water cooling and ammunition belt that allowed it to provide sustained fire without the need to change barrels or stand down until the barrel was safely cooled. The penalty was that the weight made it more difficult to move positions quickly unless it was mounted in a vehicle. By comparison, the later Bren Gun had a rapid change system for the barrel to avoid water cooling and used box magazines for easier portability, to the point where a Bren could be fired from the hip while the gunner was moving, but sustained a high rate of fire because it took moments to change to a new barrel, allowing the first barrel to cool down. The Maxim used the standard .303 rifle calibre bullet in common British use. As WWI progressed, heavy machine guns were designed to fire heavier bullets and in due course the heaviest were renamed ‘canon’, firing 20mm, 30mm and even 40mm shells. By WWII there was even an aircraft canon firing 57mm shells with a magazine derived from the design of a cigarette machine.

The author has not confined his excellent account of the deployment of the Machine Gun Corps to the Western trenches. He has covered all of the campaigns of WWI where the Corps was deployed and his inclusion of the words of his comrades provides a unique record in a style that is easy to read and conveys the conditions, spirit and society of the machine gunner in WWI. As the machine gun created the conditions of trench warfare, it is impossible to understand WWI without understanding how the machine gun was employed and this is the finest book yet published on the use of machine guns and of the people who served them.

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