Object Title

Maxim MG 08 machine gun

Maxim MG 08 machine gun

Development

In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm II fired a Maxim gun. He was so impressed that he ordered that his Dragoon Guards to be equipped with a number of these early guns. By 1892 a formal contract had been signed with the British-based Maxim Nordenfelt Company for the first German Maxim guns. Standing on the sidelines of the Russo-Japanese War in 1902, Germany was among the first countries to recognise the potential of the machine gun in modern warfare. The firm Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) was commissioned to develop an improved gun. As with the Vickers gun, the British equivalent, the biggest concern was weight and all efforts went into reducing this by using lightweight materials. This resulted in the MG 08, which despite some claims to the contrary, was only 3 kilograms heavier than the more comprehensively redesigned British Vickers. However, it did retain the bigger boxier receiver of the original Maxim gun as well as its mechanical complexity. The MG 08 comprised of 235 individual parts compared to the 144 of the Vickers. What drastically increased the total weight of the package was the gun's mount. Instead of the typical tripod a four-legged collapsible sledge mount (the 'Schlitten' 08) was developed. This was extremely stable but was even larger and heavier than the solid brass tripod of the Vickers. It was designed to be dragged into position, but the churned muddy ground of the Western Front made this difficult. Finally, a veritable suit of armour was produced for the MG 08, including shields shaped to fit the water jacket. Gun crews were sometimes also issued the 'Sappenpanzer' steel body armour and 'Stirnpanzer' brow plate for their helmets adding yet more weight to carry.

Use and effect

The fact that Germany was content to persist with a more complex and heavier system reflects adherence to tactics developed prior to the First World War. These emphasised the strength of the machine gun as a short range, defensive weapon. Over two thirds of German small arms ammunition was expended by their machine guns which primarily operated in this defensive role. Even where guns were supplied with optical sights and men trained in offensive tactics they were taught to use direct fire when the enemy was visible. Little effort was expended developing the advanced long-range firing techniques that would later help to win the war for the Allies. Historians have tended to blame the high number of Allied casualties in the Allied counter-attack of August 1914 upon the numerical superiorty of German machine guns. In fact, many of those guns were not deployed at the front line, and the successful use of the MG 08 in the defence was much more important. The more complicated MG 08 and its heavier mount did give a slight edge to the more portable and easier to produce Vickers gun as the war came down to a duel between machine guns. Britain was able to catch up with Germany in production rates and pioneered the development of more dynamic machine gun tactics from 1915. In response lightweight trench mounts were invented for the MG 08. These amounted to a simple block of wood which seriously compromised the gun's effective range. The introduction of the MG 08/15 light variant gave the infantry mobile firepower but was also inaccurate at long distances. The MG 08 and 'Schlitten' 08 remained essential therefore. Nonetheless, it is easy to overstate these minor technical disadvantages. Any edge that the British Vickers had over the MG 08 seems to have been overcome by effective training. The MG 08 deployed with only a four man crew, two less than the Vickers. All told there was little between the two guns and differences in tactics proved far more important. Improved German tactics and new guns were in development by 1917. In that year the United States entered the war bringing decisive industrial resources and manpower with her.

Statistics

Action / Operating system Recoil
Barrel length 72 cm (28 in)
Calibre / Bore 7.92x57mm (.31 in)
Capacity (rounds) 250
Country of manufacture Germany
Crew 4
Date entered service 1908
Effective range 2286 m (2500 yd)
Feed Belt
Manufacturer Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken
Manufacturer Erfurt arsenal
Manufacturer Spandau arsenal
Maximum range 3658 m (4000 yd)
Muzzle velocity 900 m/s (2953 fps)
Other operators Austria-Hungary
Other operators Britain (captured)
Other operators China
Other operators Ottoman Empire
Overall length 1.175 m (46 in)
Primary operator Germany
Rate of fire (rounds per minute) 450
Weight 62.2 kg (137 lb) (with water & mount; another 6 kg with armour shields)

Author

Jonathan Ferguson