The World’s First Automatic Machine Gun

Aug 11, 2021 2 comments

In an article in Nature in 1885, the renowned science journal published a description of a new type of gun developed by the well-known American inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim.

“This gun is a completely new departure,” the article states. “It takes the cartridges out of the box in which they were originally packed, puts them into the barrel, fires them, and expels the empty cartridges, using, for this purpose, energy derived from the recoil of the barrel. Of course it is necessary to put the first cartridge into the barrel by hand. When, however, this is done, and the trigger pulled, the gun will go on and fire as long as there are any cartridges in the box.”

maxim gun

A variant of the Maxim gun in Łódź, Poland. Photo: Zorro2212/Wikimedia Commons

Hiram Maxim had invented the world’s first fully automatic machine gun, the Maxim gun, and revolutionized warfare in the process.

Maxim was born in Maine in 1840. He became an apprentice to a coachbuilder at the age of 14 and ten years later, took up a job at the machine works of his uncle, at Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Maxim was drawn to invention early in life. He designed a mousetrap that automatically reset and helped mill owners get rid of rodents. When a large furniture factory burned down, Maxim invented the first automatic fire sprinkler that would also notify the fire department via telegraph. At the age of 26 he received his first patent for a curling iron. Hiram filed a total of 271 patents during his long and illustrious career. This included an apparatus for demagnetising watches, magno-electric machines, devices to prevent the rolling of ships, eyelet and riveting machines, aircraft artillery, an aerial torpedo gun, coffee substitutes, and various oil, steam, and gas engines. Maxim developed and installed the first electric lights in a New York City building. He also claimed to have invented the lightbulb and got involved in several lengthy patent disputes with Thomas Edison over this claim.

In 1882, while in Vienna, Maxim met an American who told him: “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.'”

Hiram Maxim

Hiram Maxim

Maxim took the advice seriously, set up a workshop in London, and within three years, built the world's first practical machine gun. Early machine guns, such as the Gatling gun, required cranking by hand to achieve a high speed of firing. Maxim's innovation was to harness the recoil power of each bullet to reload the next bullet enabling a much higher rate of fire than was possible using earlier designs—up to 600 rounds per minute from a single barrel. Maxim also introduced other innovations such the use of water cooling, via a water jacket around the barrel, giving it the ability to maintain its rate of fire for far longer than air-cooled guns. To maximize the gun's effectiveness, Maxim also developed his own smokeless powder.

When Maxim presented his invention to his friend Francis Pratt, a mechanical engineer and the co-founder of the gun manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, Pratt remarked:

If anyone had told me that it would be possible to make a gun that would pull a cartridge belt into position, pull a loaded cartridge out of it, move it in front of the barrel, thrust it into the barrel, close the breech in a proper manner, cock the hammer, pull the trigger, fire off the cartridge, extract the empty shell and throw it out of the mechanism, feed a new cartridge into position, and do all these things in the tenth of a second, I would not have believed it ... But now I have seen it done with my own eyes.

Hiram Maxim

Hiram Maxim and the Maxim gun, along with Louis Cassier and J. Bucknall Smith. Photo: Cassier's Magazine

With the financial backing from steel entrepreneur Edward Vickers, Maxim established the Maxim Gun Company to manufacture his machine gun in Crayford, Kent. In 1897, Maxim’s company was absorbed by Vickers Corporation to become 'Vickers, Son & Maxim'.

Machine guns proved to be catastrophic in war. During the First Matabele War in 1893-94 in Rhodesia, 700 soldiers fought off 5,000 Matabele warriors with just five Maxim guns. In the first World War, machine guns were used extensively on both sides. An improved development of the Maxim gun design, the Vickers machine gun was the standard British machine gun during the war and for many more years.

British Vickers machine gun

British Vickers machine gun crew during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One of Maxim's last inventions was an effective bronchial inhaler. A longtime sufferer of bronchitis, Maxim invented a pocket menthol inhaler and a larger steam inhaler using pine vapor, that he claimed could relieve asthma, tinnitus, hay fever and catarrh. But his acquaintance criticized him for applying his talents to quackery, to which he responded:

This is indeed a very curious world. I was the first man in the world to make an automatic gun. It is astonishing to note how quickly this invention put me on the very pinnacle of fame. Had it been anything else but a killing machine, very little would have been said of it.

From the foregoing it will be seen that it is a very creditable thing to invent a killing machine, and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering.


  1. He also invented the firearms silencer, and it's first cousin, the automobile muffler.

  2. We’re still talking about history in the same propaganda type tone used then?

    No acknowledgement of the fact that weapons like this were used to mow down native peoples like some kind of vermin?

    Native peoples whose descendants still live and can now read?

    Sorry but I just don’t understand it.


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