At the outbreak of the First World War, most of the machine guns employed by the major powers were large and heavy. Ideally suited to defense, few were actually light enough to be used in an offensive advance.
The weight of such small arms, and the fact that many were water-cooled to keep the barrel from overheating, made these impractical in an assault.
However, military planners quickly considered ways to provide greater mobility along with sustained fire.
Germany: MG08/15 Machine Gun
The Germans saw the effectiveness of their MG08 machine gun and in 1915 developed a version for offensive use. The MG08/15 replaced the rear spade grips with a pistol grip and wooden buttstock. It also featured a short bipod rather than the heavy four-legged sled mount. However, it retained the bulky water jacket, which resulted in a weapon that weighed nearly 40 pounds and that was without water in the jacket or ammunition.
While it wouldn’t be considered “lightweight” it did provide far greater mobility than the MG08. It first saw widespread use during the Second Battle of Aisne in April 1917.
Despite its shortcomings, it was the most common German machine gun deployed during the war with more than four times the number of MG08/15s than the original MG08. An air-cooled version was tested during the final months of the war, but because the barrel couldn’t be quick-changed it overheated quickly.
Germany: Bergmann MP18
It took until the final months of the war for Germany to actually introduce a more compact weapon, but in the process the Germans also created a new category of small arm: the submachine gun. Designed by noted firearms pioneer Theodor Bergmann, the Maschinenpistole 18/I fired the 9x19mm Parabellum pistol round, originally from a 32 round Luger drum magazine. It had a rate of fire from 350-500 round per minute, making it an ideal weapon for trench assaults.
The weapon proved ideal for the Germany’s late war strategy, which sought to break the enemy lines. The MP18 was widely employed in the Kaiserschlacht offensive. More than 25,000 were produced and most were issued to the newly formed companies of “Sturmtruppen” (“Storm Troopers”), who were charged with smashing an enemy position to allow the regular infantry to then overwhelm the defenders.
Great Britain: Lewis Gun
The Lewis Gun has become an almost iconic British machine gun, which is actually a bit ironic as it was designed by the United States before the war broke out. It was passed over by the U.S. Army largely for political reasons, but the U.S. Army’s loss was a gain for the British, which saw the potential with the portable machine gun.
The gas-operated machine gun features the unique “pan” magazine mounted on the top, and was able to maintain a sustained rate of fire of 500-600 rounds per minute. The Lewis Gun had an effective range of up to 800 meters and a maximum range of 3,200 meters. At 28 pounds it was a bit lighter than the German MG08/15. One reason for the lighter weight is that didn’t feature a water jacket – rather the barrel-shroud was designed to draw in air while radial fins acted as a heat sink.
France: Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG – Chauchat
This weapon has earned the reputation of being “the worst machine gun ever made,” but its critics typically highlight the weapon’s shortcomings and overlook its innovative features. When it was introduced in 1915 it became the first successful squad automatic rifle, and provided a rate of fire of 240 rounds per minute while it weighed in at just over 20 pounds. It was among the first automatic weapons to utilize a pistol grip and forward grip – features now common in modern assault rifles. If anything the Chauchat was a bit ahead of its time, and a weapon that needed a bit more refinement.
Likewise, it is true the open magazine allowed dirt and grime to foul the action, but this was common with many belt-fed weapons. The assessment that it was a bad design may be owned to American soldiers who criticized the weapon, but this was due in part to the fact that the version adopted by the U.S. military was chambered for the.30-06 cartridge, which caused performance issues.
United States: M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle
In addition to designing the M1917 machine gun, which greatly improved upon the Maxim design, prolific firearms designer John Browning also created what was arguably the best automatic rifle of the era, the BAR or Browning Automatic Rifle.
It successfully provided an infantryman with walking fire during an assault and it was considered so revolutionary that the American military actually held back its use in fears that the Germans might capture one and copy it. For that reason, the BAR didn’t become standard issue until 1938 when it was issued as a portable light machine gun.
The gas operated automatic rifle could provide a rate of fire of 500-600 rounds per minute and had an effective range of 1,300 meters. Had the First World War dragged out into 1919 and beyond there is little doubt the U.S. military would have deemed it necessary to bring the BAR to the front in mass. There were almost 52,000 BARs on hand for the spring offensive that never came, but the BAR went on to serve in World War II, the Korean War and even the early stages of the war in Vietnam.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.