Heavy Machine Guns

Perhaps the most potent image of World War One is that of young soldiers emerging from their trenches and advancing across no-man's land, only to be cut down by raking volleys of heavy machine gun fire.  With just one notable exception, the weapons which proved so murderous in the first war were to see combat again in the second.

The heavy machine guns of Great War vintage shared the same general characteristics.  They were belt fed weapons which harnessed the recoil energy of the discharge of a single round to propel the bolt group backwards against the tension of a return spring, stripping a belted round in the process.  The spring then forced the bolt group forward again to chamber and fire the round, which began the cycle anew.  Because of its appetite, the weapon was fed by belts of ammunition rather than magazines which enabled hundreds of rounds to be fired from a single gun.  This of course meant the barrel would soon become extremely hot.  A water filled jacket surrounded the barrel to cool it, though inevitably the barrel would have to be changed as sustained fire simply wore away the rifling.

Another common feature was weight.  Early designs consisted of a large gun mounted on a heavy tripod.  This was partly necessary to give stability while firing, but also impeded mobility.  This was of little consequence in the static war of 1914-1918, but a sizeable handicap to the coming mobile conflict envisioned by some.  The German Army had developed the principle of the General Purpose Machine Gun in the early 1930s and it proved highly suited to the tactics of Blitzkrieg.  The GPMG was still a heavy item when used with its tripod, but was decidedly lighter than its allied equivalents.  The mass of equipment comprised by gun, mount, spares and ammunition ensured a sizeable amount of manpower was needed to maintain a single gun.  Motorisation bore a good deal of the load, but in many terrains vehicles were impractical and the burden then fell to man and sometimes beast.

The tactics of Infantry advance during World War Two bear a remarkable similarity to World War One.  Despite the embracing of all arms combat and massive pre-emptory barrages, time and again men were thrown against machine gun posts with abandon and suffered cruelly for it.  The perceived fluidity of movement can, I think at least, often disguise the fact some actions would not have been out of place in 1916.

Below are detailed the major types of heavy machine gun which saw service during World War Two.

The British Army

The Medium Machine Gun (The Vickers)

Length (gun) 109 cm                            
Weight 15 kg (gun) 23 kg (tripod) 3kg (water)
Calibre 0.303 in (7.7 mm)
Feed 250 round belt
Muzzle Velocity 745 metres per second
Rate of Fire 500 rpm

An excellent study of the Vickers, displaying the condenser pipe which recycled steam back into water and the belted ammunition.  Odd choice of headgear for the 3rd Division gunners

The Vickers first entered British Army service at the end of 1912, and remained in service until the late 1960s.  It earned its reputation for reliability during the Great War, typified by an action on the Somme where 10 guns fired just shy of one million rounds during a twelve hour action.

It was quickly found that, if left unattended, the water in the cooling jacket, which vaporized as the barrel grew hotter, would emit a cloud of telltale steam.  If this steam were vented into a partially filled water can via a hose, it would turn back to liquid again and could be recycled.  

The firing crew consisted of commander, gunner and loader.  Transportation was initially by 15 cwt truck, but as shortages eased the Universal Carrier took on the role.  This had the added advantage that the gun could be mounted and fired from the vehicle if required.  The British Army deployed far fewer heavy machine guns in support of its battalions than the Germans or Americans.  During the Western Front campaign, Divisional MG Battalions would join in 'pepper pot' shoots, dousing selected areas of enemy territory prior to infantry assault - very much in the style of the Machine Gun Corps some quarter century earlier. 

The United States Army

M1917A1 (Browning Heavy Machine Gun)

Length (gun) 98 cm                            
Weight 15 kg (gun) 24 kg (tripod) 4kg (water)
Calibre 0.30 in (7.62 mm)
Feed 250 round belt
Muzzle Velocity 855 metres per second
Rate of Fire 500 to 600 rpm

An M1917A1 team assessing their field of fire.  The similarities between the Browning and the Vickers are obvious, both clearly showing their Maxim heritage

The M1917 had made its debut in the closing stages of World War One.  It remained in US service and was slightly modified as the M1917A1 described above prior to America joining the war in 1941.

In general appearance it was similar to the Vickers, and was to prove itself equally as reliable in action.  It had the same three man crew combination described above, plus the usual assortment of ammunition bearers, spotters and headquarters personnel.  In the Infantry it was transported by Jeep, while the Marine Corps lugged theirs on handcarts.  It was also mounted on many halftracks in Armored Infantry units while others fitted the M2 HB described in Light Anti Aircraft Weapons.

The Red Army

The M1910 (Pulemet Maksima obrazets 1910)

Length (gun) 111 cm                            
Weight 24 kg (gun) 45 kg (mount) 5kg (water) ?
Calibre 7.62 mm
Feed 250 round belt
Muzzle Velocity 865 metres per second
Rate of Fire 500 to 600 rpm

An M1910 team under fire (hostile or training?) displaying the wheeled carriage and splinter shield of the mount

The M1910 was a copy of the original 'Maxim' gun produced under licence in Tsarist Russia.  It was slightly modified, but the most obvious difference was the unique two wheeled carriage it was mounted on.  The complete weapon weighed over 70 kg, a tremendous amount to haul around the battlefield.

The M1910 was still in widespread use in 1941.  It was as effective then as it had shown itself on the Great War Eastern Front, able to absorb tremendous punishment and still operate under all conditions.  But it could not be churned out as quickly as was needed, so a replacement was sought.

The SG43 (Stankovii Pulemet Goryunova obrazets 1943)

Length (gun) 112 cm                            
Weight 13.5 kg (gun) 26.5 kg (mount) 
Calibre 7.62 mm
Feed 250 round belt
Muzzle Velocity 825 metres per second
Rate of Fire 500 to 650 rpm

The replacement SG43 in which the size of the carriage can be better appreciated.  In both the M1910 and the SG43 the mount could be adapted for anti aircraft use

The SG43 appeared mid-war, and while intended to replace the M1910 could only ever hope to supplement it.  In appearance it looked remarkably similar, transported on a lighter two wheeled mount.  It substituted a gas operation for recoil, and deleted the water jacket for a heavy air cooled barrel.  The SG43 proved as reliable as its predecessor, and served alongside the M1910 for the remainder of the war.

Russian machine gun units were notably smaller than their allied counterparts, despite the fact they had a much heavier weapon in the M1910 to serve.  A three man crew with two ammunition bearers, cut from an original four, transport being nothing more complicated than a horse and cart in Rifle units.

The German Army

Maschinengewehr 34 (MG34) 

Length 122 cm                          
Weight 12.1 kg (gun) 19.2 kg (tripod)
Calibre 7.92 mm
Feed 250 round belt
Muzzle Velocity 755 metres per second
Rate of Fire 800 to 900 rpm

The MG34 in its 'schwere' or heavy role.  The pads were designed to stop the metal mount pressing against the back when being carried manually 

Maschinengewehr 42 (MG42) 

Length 122 cm                          
Weight 11.6 kg (gun) 18.1 kg (tripod)
Calibre 7.92 mm
Feed 250 round belt
Muzzle Velocity 755 metres per second
Rate of Fire 1200 to 1300 rpm 

The MG42 on its mount.  Ironically, the lightness of the weapon and mount caused enough vibration during firing to necessitate the tripod being secured with sandbags on occasion 

The MG34 and MG42 are both detailed in the Light Machine Guns section, but as both served in the heavy role need to be mentioned here again.

German use of the HMG was far more widespread than in allied units, a dozen being the number found in a standard Infantry Battalion for much of the war.  It was in the heavy role that the exceptionally high rate of fire proved its most lethal.  The MG34 had the option to fire single shots if the upper part of the trigger was squeezed, automatic for the lower.  On the MG42 this was dispensed with and automatic fire was the only option.

The cyclic rate of the MG42 is quoted anywhere between 1100 and 1500 rounds per minute, dependent upon the author.  What is agreed on is the startling report this produced, described as akin to a band saw.  It left attacking troops in no doubt as to what they were facing.  It was a brave man indeed who dared to assail such a weapon, yet there never seemed to be any shortage of volunteers.

The original complement for a two gun MG34 section seems to have been eleven men.  By 1944 this had increased to eighteen men for the same two guns.  It is a clear indication of just how important the weapon had become that, as Rifle Squads were being trimmed again, support units were being reinforced.  Not that surprising as the German Army was forced increasingly on the defensive, a role in which the MG42 particularly excelled.  In Infantry formations horse and cart provided the transportation for weapons and ammunition.  Both weapons provided the machine gun armament of every armoured vehicle from halftracks to Panzers.

The Japanese Army

Type 92

Length 120 cm                          
Weight 29 kg (gun) 27 kg (tripod)
Calibre 7.7 mm
Feed 30 round metal strip
Muzzle Velocity 730 metres per second
Rate of Fire 500 rpm 

This was the only image of the Type 92 I could find that would scan, and it is actually the later Type 99.  The two were mostly similar, except for the grip which was a pistol version on the Type 92.  The cooling fins were also more pronounced around the barrel

The Type 92 was a modified version of the Taisho 14, itself a version of the Hotchkiss machine gun of World War One fame.

The Type 92 was re-barrelled to accommodate the heavier 7.7 mm round and added a flash hider.  It retained the unusual feed system, which substituted the more common belt for a metal strip.  Each strip held thirty rounds and was fed independently into the gun.  This must have reduced the rate of sustained fire possible, but as the gun had no facility to change an overheated barrel perhaps it was no great disadvantage.  The tripod mount had a hole at the base of each leg.  This was to enable poles to be fitted to allow the whole mass to be picked up and carried by three or four men without need for disassembly.  

The Italian Army

The Fiat-Revelli Modello 35

Length 127 cm                          
Weight 18.1 kg (gun) 18.8 kg (tripod?)
Calibre 8 mm
Feed ? round belt
Muzzle Velocity 790 metres per second (?)
Rate of Fire 500 rpm 

A good few people identified the above weapon as the Fiat Modello 35, which explains the spent shell casings flying around in the shot.  The technical stats were kindly supplied by Shane Rogers, those with questions marks refer to points I am still unsure of

The Breda Modello 37

Length 170 cm                          
Weight 19.3 kg (gun) 18.8 kg (tripod)
Calibre 8 mm
Feed 20 round tray
Muzzle Velocity 790 metres per second
Rate of Fire 500 rpm 

Far better shot of the Breda kindly donated by Lee.  Note the 20 round tray protruding from the left hand side of the weapon.  Thanks Lee

The Fiat-Revelli 35 was a revised version of the Modello 1914, which had equipped the Italian Army of the Great War.  The Modello 14 seems to have begun the Italian fascination with over-complicated loading systems and the need for lubricating rounds to prevent jamming, which often had the opposite effect.  The Modello 35 attempted to remove some of these flaws by opting for a more conventional belt feed and eliminating the oil pump.  The opportunity was also taken to adopt the 8 mm round also found in the Breda.  These modifications seemingly failed to improve the weapon to a great degree though; it was found that lubrication was still required, needing individual rounds to be greased or the oil pump to be re-fitted, which notably impaired reliability.

Alongside the Modello 35 was the Breda 37, which represented perhaps the best of the various smallarms available to the Italian Army outside of their excellent submachine guns.  The Breda still had its limitations however, key among which was the use of lubricated ammunition which invited stoppages when mixed with the desert environment of North Africa.  Another problem lay in the feed.  The Breda used a tray which was pulled through the mechanism akin to the Hotchkiss strip feed.  Unlike the strip feed though, the spent cartridge cases were replaced in the tray after firing, for no apparent reason whatsoever.  

The Breda 37 typified the overall lack of effective smallarms in the Italian Army.  Every weapon outside of the submachine gun class included several unnecessary and unwelcome features.  The 37 was at least reliant upon a more credible 8 mm round than the underpowered 6.5 mm version found elsewhere. 

Index

Infantry Weapons of World War Two

Published works and Websites

Site Map