The static fighting of World War I proved a catalyst for the development of an integral component of the modern mobile battlefield: the light machine gun.
For nearly a century, the infantryman has been linked in the popular mind and battle doctrine with the sustained-fire machine gun. Whether it is a Wehrmacht soldier spraying Omaha Beach with an MG 42 or a U.S. Army Ranger raking a Taliban position with his M2 49, infantry doctrine since 1914 has always included–and frequently has been based upon-the so-called squad automatic weapon, a relatively light machine gun capable of firing rifle-caliber ammunition in long, withering bursts. This weapon is valued for its portability and firepower and has served on battlefields from the trenches of France to the deserts of Iraq. The light, sophisticated, Rambolike weapons of the late-20th century were not born in a mobile war. Rather, they–along with the tank and the light mortar–were adopted to break the most immobile bloodbath in world history: World War I.
The deadly combination of Sir Hiram Maxim’s heavy machine gun and the bolt action, magazine-fed rifle in the late 19th century set the stage for a bloody deadlock of trench warfare between Germany, France, and Britain from late 1914 to the middle of 1918. Britain’s Vickers machine gun and Germany’s MG 08, both essentially Maxim designs, could lay down thousands of rounds over long periods of time when adequately supplied with cooling water, spare barrels, and ammunition. During those early cataclysmic years, defense reigned supreme. Hundreds of thousands of Tommies and poilus threw themselves at German trenches, only to be cut down to the sickening chatter of the MG 08 and the ubiquitous Model 1898 Mauser rifle. On the other side of the battlefield, Kaiser Wilhelm’s soldiers died by the thousands, shot to pieces by Britain’s Vickers guns and Lee-Enfield rifles or by France’s Lebel rifles and Hotchkiss machine guns.
The reason the heavy machine gun conferred such an advantage upon the defense was that, when well sited on flat ground, an eight-man machine gun team could replace the firepower of a hundred riflemen. But the machine gun was not a portable weapon. An MG 08, with its heavy, four legged mount, weighed more than 126 pounds, while the lighter Vickers with its Mark IV tripod tipped the scales at 90 pounds. The air-cooled Model 1914 Hotchkiss and its tripod weighed in at nearly 112 pounds without ammunition. These weapons had to be transported by at least two men–one to carry the gun, the other the mounting. Each of the guns required many boxes of heavy ammunition to keep it firing, and the Vickers and the Maxim had an Achilles’ heel: the thin metal water jacket that held the gun’s coolant. In short, the heavy machine gun proved too immobile to make a good offensive weapon. As the full implications of trench warfare crashed down upon formerly optimistic commanders on both sides, the Central Powers and the Allies each searched desperately for a way to break Sir Hiram’s death grip on the battlefield.
By late 1914, there were no obvious solutions outside those carried by the common infantryman. Aerial bombardment, poison gas, the flamethrower, and the tank were all either nonexistent or in their in fancies, so both sides turned to the machine gun to break the stalemate that the very same weapon had created. The first widespread effort to find a portable ma chine gun for use in trench warfare came with the British army’s adoption of the Lewis gun in 1914. Like many other early machine guns, it was the brainchild of an inventive Yankee who was unable to interest the U.S. government in his new weapon. Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis spent several years designing a light, air-cooled “automatic rifle” to compete with the Benet-Mercie automatic rifle adopted in small numbers by the U.S. Army. The Lewis employed a system of aluminum fins to draw heat out of the weapon’s barrel, and an ingenious muzzle design that created an airflow over the radiator fins to keep the barrel cool. The gun became the world’s first aerial machine gun when it was tested on a Wright pusher biplane outside College Park, Maryland, in 1912. By 1913 Lewis’ company, Armes Automatique Lewis, S.A., had licensed production of the gun in Liege, Belgium, and Birmingham, England. In late 1913, the British army placed its first order for small numbers of Lewis guns, and the Belgian army used the guns effectively against the invading Germans, earning the weapon the nickname the “Belgian Rattlesnake.”
The British Lewis fired the same .303 round used in the Enfield and the Vickers but weighed a “mere” 32.75 pounds loaded. Equipped with a wide canvas strap, it could be fired from the hip and, in strong hands, even fired from the shoulder. Its pan magazine held 47 rounds and sat flat atop the receiver so it could be quickly changed without excessively exposing the user to enemy fire. It could also rapidly lay down several hundred rounds of rifle fire without overheating.
With the German sweep through Belgium in August 1914, only the Birmingham Small Arms Company maintained European production of the Lewis gun. But by the spring of 1915, it was able to turn out 150 Lewis guns per week, and by December 1916, weekly production had in creased to one thousand guns. With these numbers, the British army increased the frontline issue of Lewis guns to two guns per 36-man platoon (32 per battalion) by war’s end.
According to official doctrine, the gun was, in part, intended to serve as a stand in for the Vickers, a role for which the Lewis gun was not particularly well suited. Rather, the Lewis gun’s real advantage was that its gunner could keep up with rifle men. This fact alone made it so different from the Vickers that it was ultimately given an entirely different battlefield task and was handled by specially trained infantrymen. “Lewis gunners,” not machine gunners, were assigned support roles for advancing infantry, providing covering fire and hosing down gun emplacements, or drawing the attention of enemy machine gunners in order to allow the riflemen to work their way around and silence an enemy nest with rifle fire, Mills bombs, and rifle grenades.
By the summer 1916 Battle of the Somme, British tactical instructions called for Lewis gunners to go “over the top” ahead of zero hour and rake German strongpoints during the lull between the lifting of the Allied artillery bombardment and the advance of the infantry. According to one British army publication, a Lewis gun could take the place of 20 to 25 riflemen, or on a bridge over a narrow defile, 80 to 100 men. The British valued the Lewis gun so much that one brigadier later recalled he would never send a pair of Lewis guns into no man’s land at night unless they were tethered to ropes so that they could be pulled back to the trenches if their gunners were killed. Soon rifle-and-grenade squads were working in tandem with Lewis gunners within the British army, the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in a very successful squad-level partnership.
The French experience to some degree mirrored that of the British Common wealth’s. At the war’s outbreak, the French army’s main machine gun was the Model 1914 Hotchkiss. The decimation of its army early in the war made the French high command painfully aware of the need for a light machine gun that could be carried by ordinary infantrymen operating in open order. In 1915 Marshal Joseph Joffre ordered 50,000 light automatic rifles that had been developed by Colonel Louis Chauchat and a team of French weapons experts, although early production problems prevented the weapons from being deployed in large numbers until the fall of 1916.
The Model 1915 Chauchat Sutter Ribeyrolles Gladiator (CSRG), or Chauchat, as it became known, was a long, ungainly weapon that held a 20-round, half moon-shaped magazine with large openings on one side to permit the gunner to check the number of unspent rounds. In the field, however, the opening allowed dirt, mud, and other gun-stopping impediments to freely enter and clog the magazine. The French intended to use the weapon for “walking fire,” that is, firing from the hip while advancing and reloading without the gunners breaking stride. This was hard enough for a gunner wielding any 21-pound gun, but it was made more difficult by the awkward placement of the CSRG’s front grip. Located just a few inches in front of the trigger guard, the bulbous handle was a long way from the rifle’s heavy muzzle. When the gun was fired from a prone position, its long recoil mechanism tended to hit the average gunner in the cheekbone, forcing him to shoot from unnatural positions to avoid being pummeled. The Chauchat also tended to overheat after firing about 300 rounds on full automatic at its stately 250 rounds-per minute pace. Finally, the weapon’s principal advantage–ease of manufacture due to the use of stamped sheet metal parts–was offset by production problems that gave the Chauchat the reputation, fair or not, of being one of the worst mass-produced automatic rifles in history.
The walking-fire tactics espoused by the French high command originally called for a two-man team, but this configuration proved unworkable. By the fall of 1917, French infantry companies included Chauchat “demi-platoon” teams of four men–one gunner, one assistant, and two ammunition carriers–supported by grenadiers and riflemen. The function of these teams was primarily to eliminate German machine gun nests, using fire from the Chauchat to keep enemy heads down while rifle grenadiers permanently silenced the nest.
German doctrine since the end of the Franco-Prussian War dictated that its army could win a war against a rival power only by offense, not defense, and as the fast moving Schliefflen Plan gave way to static lines and trench warfare in the autumn of 1914, the kaiser’s commanders began feeling an acute need for a light machine gun to break the stalemate. On the front lines, German infantrymen found that the Belgian Rattlesnake was a formidable foe, and numerous war photographs testify to the Germans’ program of capturing Lewis guns and rechambering them for Germany’s 7.9mm cartridge (nearly 10,000 in all by war’s end).
Realizing that it could not win a world war with captured weapons, Germany sought to produce its own light machine guns. After trials in 1915, German ordnance officers rejected the wide-scale adoption of Bergmann, Parabellum, and Madsen machine guns and began modifying the heavy MG 08 for portable use. The new weapon, designated MG 08/15, had a small bipod and a smaller water jacket and lock and receiver, reducing its loaded weight to a svelte 49 pounds. Equipped with a 100-round side-mounted drum magazine, an infantryman could lay down twice the sustained firepower of the Lewis gun, and the weapon’s similarity to the MG 08 eased the strain on production. The 08/15 debuted in early 1917 and became the most common German machine gun of World War I, totaling approximately 200,000 guns by the war’s end. By 1917 German Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff had recognized the potential of the light machine gun, and the high rates of production allowed Germany to issue six MG 08/15s per company.
As with the Allies, the adoption of the “light” machine gun gave rifle company commanders their own automatic fire for the first time. German tactical doctrine be ginning in 1916 called for the use of rifle men to support the light machine gun, which was to do the heavy lifting on the offense–a reversal of British doctrine, which called for the Lewis gun to support the main attack, led by riflemen. A machine gun Gruppe (section) consisted of two Truppen (squads). The first Trupp included one MG 08/15, two trained machine gunners and two ammunition carriers. It was supported by a second Trupp comprising a squad leader and seven riflemen, who were assigned to protect the machine gun from counterattacks. The introduction of Strosstruppen (shock troops), who were assigned the task of punching holes in enemy lines, brought about an increasing reliance upon the light machine gun as the basis of the squadron attack.
The large-scale deployment of the MG 08/15 did not, however, compensate entirely for the qualitative advantage of the Lewis gun. “The light automatic [Lewis gun],” one British officer wrote, “was the weapon of the future and the heavy machine gun, to which the Germans were faithful, ceased to intimidate us.”
When General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force arrived in France in 1917, the troops were equipped with Chauchats that were redesigned to accept the U.S. .30-06-caliber round (French Chauchats fired an 8mm Lebel round). But the combination of the .30 caliber cartridge and the problem-plagued automatic rifle proved a marriage made in hell. Near the end of the war, the AEF’s Automatic Arms Section commented that the .30-caliber Chauchat “has proved to be not at all satisfactory, the cartridges sticking in the chamber after the gun becomes slightly hot.” Fortunately for the Americans, approximately 18,000 Model 1917 Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) arrived in France in July 1918. However, Pershing’s reluctance to arm units piecemeal pushed back the weapon’s combat debut to September 22, 1918–the start of the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
The BAR, one of many excellent ideas of firearms genius John Browning, was arguably the best light machine gun of World War I. Equipped with a 20-round box magazine, its 500-rounds-per minute rate of fire and light weight (19.5 pounds loaded) made it an ideal weapon in a non-sustained fire support role. Unfortunately the weapon arrived too late to see much action or to influence infantry tac tics during the Great War.
After World War I, some of the light machine guns used by the great powers evolved, while others were relegated to second-line status or were discarded in favor of newer, more effective killing machines. And in some cases the same weapon models would remain in service for decades. The MG 08/15, always too heavy for a mobile fire role, was kept in frontline service until 1936, when it was replaced by the legendary MG 34, which unleashed the full potential of mobile machine guns supported by rifle teams. The Lewis gun soldiered on in both the U.S. and British armies well into World War II, seeing action at Pearl Harbor and during the defense of the Philippines and the 1940-41 defense of Great Britain. The revolutionary machine gun, however, was superseded as a squad automatic weapon in Britain by the Bren light machine gun in 1934, while the American Browning 1919A6 .30-caliber machine gun served a similar role throughout World War II. The Chauchat was discarded by the French in the 1920s in favor of the Chatellerault Model 24/29. The BAR outlived all of its contemporaries, serving U.S. forces into the early days of the Vietnam War.
By placing massive firepower in the hands of ordinary infantry squadrons, the light machine guns of World War I revolutionized infantry tactics by giving squad leaders the ability to bring sustained fire to bear without calling on brigade or divisional headquarters. Perhaps the greatest testament to Chauchats, Lewises, Maxims, and BARs is that the successors of these ungainly weapons can be seen playing prominent roles in most if not all of the mobile wars that have dominated human conflict since the static days of the Great War. MHQ
JONATHAN W. JORDAN writes from Marietta, Georgia.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2004 issue (Vol. 17, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: From ‘Belgian Rattlesnakes’ to BARs
Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!