The first successful machine gun, the Gatling Gun, was patented by Dr. Richard J. Gatling on November 4, 1862. Though Gatling wrote that he made his gun to reduce the size of armies, thereby reducing the number of combat casualties, his gun had the exact opposite effect. Prior to the Gatling Gun, the only weapons available to military forces that could fire many projectiles in a short span of time were volley weapons, which fired multiple shots all at once. Unlike the Gatling Gun, these weapons need to be reloaded after each discharge, which was cumbersome and time-consuming. Comparatively, the Gatling Gun offered a rapid and continuous rate of fire.
The Gatling Gun used multiple rotating barrels turned by a hand crank that fired loose ammunition using a gravity feed system from a hopper (gravity feed just meaning that the feed system operated by using the Earth’s gravity to feed into the Gun). Each of the barrels was affixed to a solid metal plate that revolved around a central shaft, mounted on an oblong frame. The innovative features of the Gatling gun were its independent barrel firing mechanisms and the simultaneous action of its locks, barrels, carrier, and breech.
The next update to the machine gun was the Maxim Gun, from 1884. The Maxim Gun was the first recoil-operated machine gun to enter production, meaning that energy from recoil acting on the breech block is used to eject each spent cartridge and insert the next. The Maxim Gun elided the need for a hand-operate mechanism, making it one of the first automatic weapons. The Maxim gun was provided with water cooling, which gave it the ability to maintain its rate of fire for far longer than air-cooled weapons. Trials demonstrated that the Maxim Gun could fire six hundred rounds per minute. Though a lone soldier could fire the weapons, it was usually operated by a team of four to six men—a gunner, and team members who streamlined the loading and targeting processes, and team members who carried ready ammunition and water. Several men were also required to move and mount the heavy weapon.
Another famous machine gun produced thirty-five years after the Maxim Gun, was John Browning’s M1919. This gun was widely used throughout the twentieth century, especially during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. An air-cooled improvement upon a previous John Browning design, the M1919 was a light and efficient machine gun that could be moved and assembled far quicker than the Gatling or Maxim Guns. The M1919 was the gold standard for automatic weapons until the advent of the M60 (introduced in 1957) pushed the M1919 into a secondary role.
A belt-fed machine gun, the M60 is generally used as a crew-served weapon operated by a team of two to three individuals, which consists of a gunner, assistant gunner, and an ammunition bearer. The weight of the gun, as well as the amount of ammunition it can consume, makes it difficult for any single soldier to carry and operate the weapon. While it is generally fired from bipod or tripod mounts, the M60 can be accurately fired at short ranges from the shoulder. A gas-operated, air-cooled, automatic machine gun, the M60 has a cyclic fire rate of around five hundred to six hundred and fifty rounds per minute.
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