Object Title

Vickers-Maxim machine gun, Mark I

Vickers-Maxim machine gun, Mark I


The British Vickers gun was developed from the original automatic machine gun designed by Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884. Though an American by birth, Maxim came to Britain to build and sell his new gun. He was knighted for his services to the Empire in 1901. Britain had been an early adopter of the Maxim gun, with the first examples entering service in 1887 on artillery-style wheeled carriages, though significant numbers did not arrive until the 1890s. These guns actually remained in service, alongside the Vickers, right through the First World War, as the War Office realised that Germany had taken a lead in machine gun production. Even captured German examples were converted to take British .303 ammunition. The Maxim proved itself useful in colonial warfare against superior numbers of enemies not themselves equipped with firearms. It was estimated to have the firepower of up to 70 riflemen, and so early tactics focused upon devastating close-range defensive fire. In essence, the machine gun was treated as a form of automated infantry, exemplified by Maxim's original concept of a variable rate of fire; from 'Slow' (two rounds per minute) to 'Fast' (500 rounds per minute). As long as machine guns were fired from static, defensive positions, or heavy, wheeled carriages, their weight was not crucial. However, whereas other countries retained close copies of the Maxim, the British War Office demanded an improved version. Sheffield-based company Vickers were asked to redesign the gun. By flipping the gun's mechanism upside down, they were able to make it both smaller and lighter. In doing so, in 1912 they produced the Vickers gun, perhaps the definitive Maxim type machine gun, and much simpler to produce and maintain than Germany's own Maxim, the MG08.

Use and effect

This lightened design, alongside the Lewis light machine gun, formed the basis of new, offensive tactics used to help break the stalemate later in the war. British machine guns were originally allocated at division level. It took two expert gunners, Majors Baker-Carr and Lindsay, to advocate for the formation of a dedicated elite unit. The Machine Gun Corps was formed in 1915 and provided small teams who could operate and deploy these guns where they were needed most on the battlefield. The tactics developed by the new MGC allowed British forces to take the fight to the enemy, and are still used today. 'Traversing fire', in which the gun was fired and pivoted left-to-right, was a relatively rare, defensive tactic. Much more common were accurate long-range fire and 'indirect' fire where the gunner used scientific techniques and tools to fire at targets that they could not actually see. Thousands of bullets would create a 'beaten zone' that would destroy any enemy that entered it. Barrage fire allowed machine guns to directly support infantry as they advanced, and overhead fire meant that guns would actually fire over their own soldiers heads. The Vickers, properly maintained and supplied with water in its cooling jacket, was very reliable. It was claimed that in Savoy Trench on the Somme in 1916, ten guns fired one million rounds in a twelve hour period. However, the Maxim and Vickers were far more complicated than traditional infantry weapons. A soldier lacking the necessary specialist training could no more become a Vickers gunner than he could a fighter pilot. The role became a specialist one, involving ten weeks of intensive training at the Machine Gun Training Centre at Grantham. The Vickers itself was not withdrawn from British service until 1968. By this time it had been replaced in front-line service by the gas-operated, air-cooled Belgian-designed L7 General Purpose Machine Gun. This replaced water-cooling with a replaceable barrel system, and is still in service today.

"…the deadliest of all the deadly machines which are now destroying the populations of Europe." Havelock Ellis, 'Impressions and Comments' (1921) p.109


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Vickers-Maxim machine gun, Mark I being loaded and fired into ballistic soap target and on the range.


Action / Operating system Recoil
Barrel length 72.3 cm (28.4 in)
Calibre / Bore 7.7x56mmR (.303 in)
Capacity (rounds) 250
Country of manufacture Britain
Crew 6
Date entered service 1912
Effective range 2286 m (2500 yd)
Feed Belt
Manufacturer Lithgow Australia
Manufacturer Vickers Crayford
Manufacturer Vickers Erith
Maximum range 3658 m (4000 yd)
Muzzle velocity 744 m/s (2440 fps)
Other operators Australia
Other operators Canada
Other operators Germany
Other operators New Zealand
Other operators USA
Overall length 1.155 m (43.5 in)
Primary operator Britain
Rate of fire (rounds per minute) 550
Weight 40.1 kg (88.5 lb) (with water & mount)


Jonathan Ferguson