When we think of the First World War the weapon that often comes to mind first is the water-cooled Maxim machine gun. The Maxim gun came to dominate the battlefield, rapidly halting the war of movement in 1914 seeing the beginning of a stalemate that would last four bloody years.
As the stalemate dragged on both sides sought new ways to break the deadlock. Everything from colossal artillery bombardments to tanks and chemical weapons were tried but one of the simplest ideas was for a portable, mobile machine gun capable of being operated by one or two men that could use its high rate of fire to pin down enemy troops and machine guns.
The result was the light machine gun, most of the major combatant nations developed their own by 1916, below are five of the most important:
The Lewis light machine gun
Invented by an American, Colonel Isaac Lewis, the Lewis Gun was the most used light machine gun of the war with Belgium, the Russian Empire, the US Marine Corps and most famously by the British & Commonwealth forces all fielding the weapon. Captured examples were even used by the German Army.
At the beginning of the war the British Army equipped its infantry battalions with just two Vickers Machine Guns. However, by 1916 the use of machine guns had evolved rapidly and in October 1915 the Machine Gun Corps was formed with the infantry’s Vickers guns being transferred to their command.
In return the infantry received an ever increasing number of Lewis Light Machine Guns – two guns per company by the summer of 1916 and at least one per platoon by 1917. The Lewis Gun was lighter, weighing 26 lbs, and more mobile and could better support the infantry in attack than the heavier Vickers guns. The Lewis was expensive, costing £165 but it was reliable in the terrible conditions of the Western Front and became well liked by troops.
Fusil mitrailleur modele 1915 CSRG – ‘Chauchat’
Widely vilified as one of the worst machine guns ever designed it was adopted by the French Army in 1915, the weapon had been in experimental development before the war but not adopted. As stalemate gripped the Western Front the ‘Chauchat’ was refined for production and the first weapons reached French troops in 1916.
The main problem with the weapon was the poor quality of its manufacture. Screws holding it together came loose during firing, some of the materials used were inferior and the weapon’s sights were frequently misaligned.
The magazine was also found to have problems with dirt easily getting into its action. The Chauchat’s rate of fire was extremely low, firing just 250 rounds per minute and had just a 20-round magazine. It was intended to be used in the French tactic of ‘walking fire’ where light machine gunners would keep up a continous suppressive fire on the enemy as they crossed No Man’s Land.
In 1917, the arriving US forces, lacking an automatic rifle were issued 16,000 Chauchats. They attempted to re-chamber the Chauchat to fire their .30-06 ammunition but it proved too powerful and strained the guns’ receivers.
The Madsen gun
First developed in 1904, the Danish Madsen is arguably the first light machine gun to be manufactured at a large scale. The Madsen primarily was used by Imperial Russia, Austro-Hungary and the German Army during the First World War – these were primarily bought before the outbreak of war.
The British also manufactured a version chambered in their rimmed .303 cartridge however, because of this it suffered issues with jamming but when chambered in rimless ammunition used by the German Army the Madsen functioned well. While it was produced for over 50 years and purchased in limited numbers by 30 countries it was never widely adopted by any nation.
Maxim MG 08/15
The bulky MG 08/15 represented Germany’s attempt at producing a light machine gun. Taking the standard tripod-mounted MG 08 and lightening by redesigning the receiver. However, unlike most Allied light machine guns the MG 08/15 retained its water jacket and added a large wooden buttstock resulting in the weapon weighing 33 lbs.
Unlike its Allied counterparts which fed from strips or box magazines the MG 08/15 fired from a 50-round belt giving it a more sustained rate of fire. It also had a bipod mounted near the receiver for stable fire. During the latter phases of the war it was frequently used by German stormtrooper teams, some 130,000 MG 08/15s were manufactured by the end of the war.
Browning automatic rifle M1918
Developed by the famous American firearms designer John Browning the M1918 automatic rifle was not originally designed to act as a light machine gun in the strictest sense of the term. Instead like the French ‘Chauchat’ it was intended to be used in a ‘walking fire’ role, suppressing the enemy during the advance.
As such it used a 20-round box magazines and was not initially issued with a bipod instead it had a special sling and belt holster that allowed the operator to fire while walking.
Costing approximately $120 per gun around 60,000 produced by the end of the war however, they saw only limited action. The first B.A.Rs arrived in France in July 1918 and saw action for the first time in September.
The American commander General John Pershing saw them as a valuable secret weapon and was reluctant to deploy the new BARs before he had enough, fearing that if the enemy captured them they might try and copy it.
While the BAR saw limited action during the First World War it was during the Second World War and Korean War that it would see its hardest service as the US’ primary light machine gun.
While light machine guns themselves did not turn the tide of war on their own, they did play a key role in boosting the infantry’s firepower and in conjunction with other new technology like tanks they helped turn the tide of war in 1918.