The term ‘machine gun’ is thrown around a lot in the world and in this instance; we’re talking about automatic weapons – firearms that will fire with every pull of the trigger (or continuous press) without having to manually re-chamber a round.
Before automatic firearms were introduced, forces used firearms such as muskets and flintlocks which required a lengthy re-load process before being able to fire another round. This would leave soldiers vulnerable to attack as they reloaded, having to rely on traditional weaponry (swords, knifes, bayonets) in combat, or staggering their shots in volleys.
Warfare didn’t evolve from this style for many years, with advancements mainly happening in how the gunpowder was ignited. This is until the 1830s, when ignition, powder and bullet were combined into a single cartridge. This paved the way for faster firing pistols and rifles, such as the colt revolver.
The first recoil operated automatic gun to see substantial warfare was the “Maxim Gun”, invented in 1884 by Sir Hiram Maxim. It was one of the first guns to use the recoil of the previously fired bullet to reload, rather than reloading manually or by hand crank. The maxim could fire 550rounds/minute and was the first firearm to use a water jacket around the barrel to keep the barrel cool.
Just 8 years later, the technology was scaled down to fit in your hand, with the first automatic pistol and by 1899 automatic weapons were in regular use.
As firearms became automatic and widely available, warfare changed entirely. The invention of the automatic gun is attributed to why WWI is called ‘the deadliest war’. Warfare, when no or single shot weapons were concerned, used to consist of 2 forces colliding before enough shots could be done to cause substantial damage. With the invention of fully automatic weapons, there was no rest in fire as forces reload – forces learnt the hard way that fortified possessions with mounted machine guns would win over charging forces, every time.
Warfare became much slower paced, trenches became commonplace due to their excellent cover and concealment and cavalry became much less prolific. Warfare began to stagnate as neither force wishes to advance forward into automatic fire.
This prompted advances in other technology and warfare strategies. Armoured vehicles were assembled to provide mobile cover and provide protective transport. Countries began to advance warfare when using technologies that remove forces without endangering their own such as aerial, chemical and artillery warfare.