Weaponry and Wartime Experience


The Machine Gun

Who is not familiar with the famous revolver, the cowboy's companion, a hand gun equipped with a cylinder containing a number of chambers - usually six - revolving around a central axis? Invented in 1836 by the American Samuel Colt, the revolver remains essentially the same today, although some improvements have been made, particularly with respect to the resistance of metals.

In the mid-19th century an American farm machinery manufacturer by the name of Gatling used the revolver principle to develop a new weapon. He grouped several gun barrels around a central axis; a simple, hand-operated crank was used to rotate the whole group around the axis while a cam system opened and closed the gun breeches at each revolution. Though still very rudimentary, the machine gun was born. At the end of the century Hiram Stevens Maxim, a self-taught American electrician, radically modified the Gatling gun: Henceforth, the energy used to rotate the barrels would be derived from the gases released by the explosion, with no further human intervention required. The Maxim automatic machine gun spread rapidly. In 1904 the British developed a lighter and quicker-firing version of the Maxim gun called the Vickers. Finally, in 1911 a U.S. Army colonel introduced the first true light machine gun. Faster and cheaper than the Vickers, the Lewis gun could be operated by one man.

Canadian troops used machine guns for the first time in the North-West Campaign of 1885. At that time they had two Gatlings whose effectiveness left much to be desired. Nicknamed "rababou" (meaning noise-maker) by the Métis, the Gatling seemed capable of accomplishing little more than irritating the eardrums. During the First World War, however, Canadian soldiers used the latest machine guns. Equipped with motor vehicles protected by light armour and fitted with Vickers and Lewis guns, the first Canadian motorized machinegun brigade built an enviable reputation.

Coupled with the power of the rifle, the machine gun played a decisive role from the very beginning of the 1914-18 war - a role most military strategists had not foreseen. With a slightly longer range than the rifle, this weapon provided much greater firepower at as much as 600 rounds a minute. Just a few men with a heavy machine gun entrenched in a "nest" and shielded by barbed wire could keep a large party of soldiers at bay almost indefinitely.