Military history


Hiram Maxim Changes War

That Patent Music Box for Perforating Men1

HIRAM MAXIM WORKED A CARTRIDGE INTO THE ACTION OF HIS prototype gun. It was an unusual-looking device: a narrow and dull metal box with a single protruding rifled barrel. For a trigger it had a small metal bar at the back end of the gun, and on its right side was a lever, resembling a switch, that could be used to adjust the rate of fire. Maxim had obtained the necessary Royal Laboratory machine-gun cartridges, the sort fired by a Gardner gun, and he intended to use them in his creation’s first firing test.

Powerfully built and dark-eyed at forty-four, Maxim had started his career in industry in rural New England. He was a picture of supreme confidence. As a young man he had earned his living as a maker of bedposts, wheelbarrows, wagons, and rakes, and as a decorative carriage painter. But his mind outpaced both the lifestyle and products the local mills offered, and he had become a prolific inventor and successful businessman in the electric and gas industries in New York. A few years earlier he claimed to have beaten Thomas Edison in the race to invent the light bulb, only to have Edison submit the necessary patent papers first. Had Maxim won that race, everything might have been different. He might have remained in the United States and enjoyed a life of fame and wealth, as Edison did. Instead he had moved to Europe, and in a professional lull in London had begun to work on machine guns that would not need a man to do more than depress a trigger to produce continuous fire. His weapon had no hand crank to turn. It did not need one.

He had the six cartridges in place,2 and he gave it a try. In roughly half a second, all of the cartridges were gone. The bullets had been fired in a little more than a blink. This was a new kind of gunfire, automatic fire, the manifestation of the vision Gatling had had almost a quarter-century before. Everything was about to change.

Hiram Maxim was a designer with a story, and an ego, like almost no other. He was born in 1840 on a small farm in central Maine, an isolated and impoverished region. By his own long and often unverifiable account of his life, his excellence had begun with birth. “For many years there has been a tradition that there was always one very strong member in the Maxim family,” he said. “And I think I am entitled to be recognized as the strong member of the generation in which I was born.” His attraction to labor started early, as did his sense of mischief. At the age of eight, he said, he felled a gigantic fir tree with a butcher’s knife, chipping at a groove around its base all day for a week. The tree toppled and fell. The little Maxim watched with awe. A farmer soon complained to him that he had robbed his cows of their pasture’s only shade. Maxim was unmoved. “This was the proudest moment of my long and eventful life,” he wrote shortly before he died. “Nothing since has equaled it.” After he became famous in Europe he was remembered back in Maine as “the worst boy for miles around.”3

His confidence, which veered into arrogance, was beyond measure. By the time he was a teenager, Maxim considered himself an “expert in geography” and “a natural all-round mechanic.” He claimed to be so handy that he could do all the work of the experienced craftsmen in the workshops of Maine, and in less time. And he was growing into the strongest man in town. Accounts of his strength were Bunyanesque. As a young man, he singlehandedly moved a row of enormous pork barrels from a sled, lifting barrel after barrel. Each barrel, he said, weighed six hundred pounds. His strength became such a curiosity that townsmen urged him to fight, examining him the way a buyer examines a horse. “All agreed that I had the make-up of a successful boxer,” he wrote. “I had already thought of taking up the art, feeling convinced that I could very soon become a champion.”4The local men arranged a match on Independence Day between Maxim and the town’s best boxer. Within minutes, he had beaten the reigning champion senseless and was fighting the next-most-feared man. Maxim claimed he punched his second opponent into unconsciousness, too.

Maxim and his son’s memoirs are busy with accounts of fights. Between descriptions of his inventions and his travels, they are an inventory of brawls and beatings worthy of a Victorian-era comic hero, invincible but reluctant, who always defeats those who provoked his peaceful genius to feats of strength. In one episode Maxim laughed into the face of a man who menaced him with a pistol. In another he hoisted a robber who tried to waylay him. Maxim casually tossed the criminal over a fence. He insisted fighting was a distraction that was beneath him, yet he reveled in telling of it smugly, and saw himself as the best man at it he ever met.

Maxim never attended university. But he educated himself by reading scientific literature and books, from which he taught himself chemistry, physics, and mathematics—complements to the tool-handling and design skills he was learning in his father’s shop. His mind was undistracted by most vices: at the end of his life, he claimed never once to have smoked tobacco, tasted alcohol, or consumed caffeine. (Women were another matter. He was hounded with allegations of deceiving and abandoning women as he moved in search of work. As he neared the age of sixty, three different women claimed to have been married to him—at the same time. In the end, he left three separate families.)5 He held himself above the common man and ordinary pursuits. While he was at the mill in Maine, the Civil War began. The young men organized into a company, which marched on the streets. Maxim briefly joined them, but he loathed the marching and found the military mentality of his peers grating (he later compared them to the Boy Scouts). Contemptuous of soldiering, he returned to the mill. A local doctor told him he had made the right decision. Military service, by Maxim’s account, was beneath a man of Maxim’s gifts.

He thought that I was altogether the most promising young man in Dexter; that I was a very hard worker, without any bad habits; that it might be all right for those less gifted than myself to go to the war, but it was my duty to stay at home and work; also that I would find soldiering a very hard job indeed. So I made up my mind to give it up and refused to go on.6

Early in the war, Maxim left the United States for Huntingdon, Quebec, and he found jobs as a mill worker, sign painter, and briefly as bartender at a small hotel, where he delighted in serving diluted whiskey to customers and in watching the patrons fight.7 Next he moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and took a position in an uncle’s metal works, learning the machinist’s trade. Later he became a draftsman in Boston, making precision drawings of gas machines. He was collecting modern skills, and an insider’s knowledge and appreciation of business and of leading industries of the day. “I left no stone unturned,” he said, “to become expert at everything I had to do.”8

When he was not engaged by his bosses, he was inventing products and widgets of every sort. He had begun tinkering as a boy. As a teenager, he designed a mousetrap that reset itself automatically. From then on, he said, he was “a chronic inventor.” And so it went: first mousetraps, then tricycle wheels and silicate blackboard for a schoolhouse, later pumps and guns and curling irons and an early model airplane. He moved to Brooklyn for a machinist’s job at the Novelty Iron Works, and made his home near Carroll Park.9 He opened a side business as a gas fitter and then invented a gas-distributing machine. Its promise enabled him to form a company with an office on Broadway, across from City Hall, that manufactured and installed his gas-distributing machines in buildings, bringing them a new means of having light and heat. His inventing continued, to his success and dismay. After Maxim claimed to have beaten Edison in the race to design the electric light, Edison’s fame and wealth filled him with jealousy and pique. When he displayed his own lamp, and people asked him if it was Edison’s, he grew angry enough that he told a business partner that “the next time anyone said, ‘Is it Edison’s?’ I would kill him on the spot.” He nearly had the chance. One day, while Maxim was traveling, a New Jersey farmer saw him carrying a lamp.

He sat down on the opposite side of the ferry-boat and stared at me. Finally, he came over and said, “Excuse me sir, but what is that ’ere machine—what is it for?” I looked at the fellow and made up my mind that he had a wife and family at home, so I replied, “It is only a sausage stuffer,” and thus saved the poor fellow’s life.10

Practical jokes and Maxim went together. Some of his antics were little more than mischief. In Brooklyn, he enlisted the help of his young son, Hiram Percy, to harry a police officer who was paying Sunday visits to a housemaid who worked for a family across the street. The officer and the maid met behind an entryway gate. Maxim was suspicious. He told his son that the two of them were “sparking” over there, and that this would have to stop. “If they spark on Sundays, how do we know that they will not spark on other days,” he said. “We cannot have this policeman spending his time sparking when he should be watching for bad people.” He unfolded his plans before the boy. When the policeman returned the following Sunday, hidden in the umbrella basket of the Maxims’ home was a long brass tube, similar to a blowgun, which Maxim had made. Maxim took a position behind the curtain of an open window, loaded a dried white bean into the pipe, aimed, and expelled the little missile high into the air, banking it off the upper facade of a three-story building directly above the suspected dalliance. After a half-dozen shots, the policeman stepped from behind the gate and looked up at the windows of the three-story building. He thought someone was dropping beans from above. Seeing no one, the officer returned to the pleasures behind the gate. The bean blower opened fire anew. The officer reappeared and walked about the sidewalk purposefully, staring at the windows with his back to Maxim’s window. The police officer saw nothing and went back to his business with the maid. Maxim fired a third time. As the officer ran out the gate, Maxim was “rolling around in gales of merriment.”11

Maxim’s foxing of the police officer and the maid was tricky, and it had risks. But it was not cruel. His household staff suffered worse. Maxim churned through employees and was frequently annoyed “by the stupidity of the average cook or housemaid.” He gave them nicknames, including a series of people he assigned the name Stupid. “I remember Stupid the Fifth very distinctly,” his son recalled. “I thought this was her real name.” Maxim had read an item claiming that the skin perceives contact with very cold objects and very hot objects in the same way. One weekend at their home, he decided to test the theory on one of the Stupids, an Irish woman in his employ. He heated a metal poker above an oven grate until it glowed red and placed a duplicate poker in a container of alcohol and snow, chilling it to a temperature below freezing. As his intended victim worked nearby, he paced about the kitchen with the glowing poker, testing it on firewood, which produced smoke. In a voice the maid could not miss, he told his son that such irons were used to burn brands into the necks of cattle, and how painful that would be. He put the poker back on the burner, left the room, and returned, having hidden the chilled poker in his coat. Everything had been prepared for the maid’s confusion. Maxim lifted the heated poker from the stove again, and suddenly acted as if it were too hot to hold. He waved it about and stepped toward the maid, bringing it close enough for her to see its glow and feel its heat. He backed up. When the maid looked away from her employer’s odd spectacle, he withdrew the cold poker from under his jacket, slapped it against her neck, and gave a shout—“Look out!” Then he hissed, as if she had been seared. The cook screamed, bunched her apron where the poker had touched, and collapsed. Maxim’s wife rushed into the room. The cook shrieked. She thought he had branded her. She shrieked again. Maxim, with his two pokers, was laughing.

After a great amount of effort my mother succeeded in getting the woman’s hand down from her neck, and the surprising fact was disclosed that there was not even a mark visible, which threw my mother into complete confusion. She was very excitable and for some time she and my father and the cook shouted at cross purposes at one another, nobody listening to anybody else and nobody being able to make head or tail of what the others were talking about. My father saw that he must have gone too far, and did his best to explain that it was an experiment he had been conducting, that nobody had been hurt, and that it was all very funny if only the others would see it in that light; and besides, things had come to a pretty pass if a man could not experiment in his own house.12

The cook quit on the spot.

This is the man who would give the world automatic weapons, those most efficient killing tools. Not surprisingly, disputes followed Maxim wherever he went. One of his brothers loathed him so much that there was talk in London of arranging a duel. His son, or rather, the one son he acknowledged in public, labeled him a bad father. Maxim weathered court cases that accused him of misdeeds ranging from patent infringement to trigamy. He was accused of having evaded Civil War service, an embarrassing charge for an arms designer and salesman. (The history is unclear here and the dispute remains unsettled. Maxim claimed that because two of his brothers served, he, as the last remaining son, was exempt. But available census records in Maine show that Maxim had more than two brothers, and one, Leander, who was four years old in 1850, would have been too young to serve as the war began and Maxim decamped for Quebec. This does not prove that Hiram evaded military service, but it suggests that his explanations for not serving, aside from seeing military service as beneath him, do not square with facts.)13 Later, after his automatic weapons were in mass production, he quarreled with Alfred Nobel, just as Richard Gatling had. Maxim and Nobel both claimed to have been the first to patent smokeless gunpowder, which, as it allowed gunners to remain concealed when they fired upon an enemy from a distance, became an essential military product after it was introduced. (British courts ruled that Maxim had settled upon the chemical formula first.)

For all of the arguments and struggles that surrounded him, no credible counterclaim about the invention of the automatic weapon ever emerged. The claim was Hiram Maxim’s alone, and he cherished it.

This is not to say that Hiram Maxim necessarily told the truth.

Maxim gave different accounts about the origins of his interest in automatic weapons. In the more commonly cited account, machine-gun design became his personal project while he was on assignment in Europe. His employer, the United States Electric Lighting Company, had transferred him to an affiliate in London but asked him first to visit Paris and Brussels. There he was to undertake the tedious task of reviewing copies of European patents related to electricity. The work required many months. At an industry exposition in Vienna, Maxim met an American who offered bizarre advice. The electric business was getting crowded; the man recommended that the inventor open another line of work. “Maxim, hang your electrical machines!” he said. “If you wish to make your everlasting fortune and pile up gold by the ton, invent a killing machine, something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility—that is what they want.” In another account, he identified the American who made the suggestion as a “Jew” he knew previously from the United States.14

Whether the account is true remains anyone’s guess. Maxim was comfortable with embellishment, and in published accounts of the exchange he did not share the other man’s name. He did say that the man was not serious. That did not matter. Maxim was serious enough.

At the time, all of the weapons sold in the machine-gun class were manually operated. The Gardner, the Gatling, the Nordenfelt—with each of these weapons, continuous fire was realized by continuous turning of a hand crank or movement of a mechanical arm. The effect was like that of a manual pump. As long as the gunner’s arm kept cranking, and cartridges were in the feed system, bullets would be fired. If the gunner’s arm stopped working, so did everything else. By 1884, these technologies were mature, well machined, and impressive for what they were. Maxim had a different approach. He had fired a rifle before, and felt its kick. The recoil was enough to bruise a shoulder. It was also evidence of wasted energy: Only a portion of the powder’s energy was used to force a bullet down the barrel and out the muzzle. Could not some of this unused energy be harnessed, cartridge by cartridge, blast by blast, to do the tasks performed by the crank?

Returning to Paris, Maxim sketched out the concept of the automatic rifle, modeling an early draft on an existing pattern: the Winchester rifle.15 He was too busy to pursue it. His assignment to review patents on the Continent was ending, and he had commitments awaiting him in England. Maxim had been told that the electrical office there would pay half his salary, with the balance underwritten by the American firm. He arrived in London and found the lighting concern’s director unwilling to disburse the wages. Maxim asked the director how much he would be willing to pay. The director replied, “One guinea a year.” Hiram Maxim and electricity were all but done. He remembered his Paris drawings and the idea of harnessing recoil to make an automatic gun. “It occurred to me,” he said, “that this would be a very good opportunity for me to commence experiments.”16

Over the years Maxim offered a range of stories about when he first undertook such work. He told one interviewer that he made his first designs in 1873, but did not have time to test them for a decade.17 In a third version, he said his interest reached to 1854 when his father conceived of a hand-cranked, single-barrel machine gun. He hoped it would fire one hundred rounds a minute. Maxim would have been fourteen years old then; he claimed he made drawings and models of his father’s ideas over the next two years at the family wood shop in Maine. His uncle, who owned a metal works in Massachusetts, examined the plans and announced they would cost one hundred dollars to manufacture but not be worth one hundred cents.18 The three accounts are not mutually exclusive, though the third description, if true, would have placed Maxim’s involvement in hand-powered machine guns neatly ahead of Richard Gatling’s. Maxim liked to be first.

Whether Maxim was a reliable correspondent on matters related to the development of the Maxim gun is another question. Ian V. Hogg, one of the most objective researchers of firearms and their origins, suggested that Maxim did not act nearly as independently as he made it seem. Citing records of the 1880s from the British military’s director of artillery, Hogg wrote that the first time the British military heard of the Maxim gun, word of the weapon came from Albert Vickers of Vickers, Sons & Company, a metallurgical concern. In September 1884, it seemed, Mr. Vickers told the British military that he had “several machine guns ready for inspection” and identified himself as “one of the part owners of the patents.” Within a week, the British military had decided to provide cartridges for demonstration trials, and by early October the superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory had visited Maxim’s workshop. A demonstration shooting was held in late January 1885 for several British military officials, who were impressed. From the records, Hogg deduced that Maxim had entered an early partnership with Vickers, and perhaps had his financial backing.19 The available records also show that by early November 1884, the Maxim Gun Company had incorporated, and that Albert Vickers and Robert R. Symon each had 417 shares with an initial value of twenty pounds each. Maxim was a minority shareholder, with 416 shares.20

Whatever the precise nature of his earliest backing, two things are clear. First, Maxim had more support—financial, technical, and social, the third being important to penetrate the business world in a foreign country—than he publicly acknowledged. Second, as Maxim turned his attention to firearms full-time in London, he was well placed to open a new business. He was in his early forties and had experience in manufacturing, engineering, design, sales, and patents. He had made ample money in the early utility industries, and he possessed a rich mix of theoretical and practical skills. He opened an experimental workshop in Hatton Garden, hired assistants, and worked out his drawings. He focused on the guts of an automatic weapon, wasting no time on elements already well-known. The barrels came from the London office of the Henry Rifled Barrel Company, where the company’s superintendent tried to dissuade the American inventor. “Many engineers and clever men imagine that they can make a gun, but they never succeed,” he said. “They are all failures. So you better drop it, and not spend a single penny on it. You don’t stand a ghost of a chance.”21

He ignored the warning. Maxim knew his problems were not in the marketplace—he would be offering something different from all machine guns then available. His problems were in the industrial climate of his new home. The Industrial Revolution had not blossomed as fully in England as it had in the United States. Maxim found London technologically backward. The workers were unfamiliar with modern tools then in common use in American mills. And as he procured those tools, he discovered that many were unwilling to work with them. Others followed schemes to slow work and deceive their bosses, extending the time taken to complete a task, so as to maximize wages.

Maxim claimed he often worked alone, pursuing a design for which there were no models. “When tools were required for the various machines I forged them out and tempered them myself,” he said.22 One apparatus allowed him to measure the force and other characteristics of recoil, and with this data he built the interrelated components for model guns that he hoped would perform the chores of all firearms—loading, firing, removing the empty case, and reloading. He made several prototypes. Finally, he settled on a concept whereby when a gunner fired the first shot, the force of the recoil would slide the barrel backward about three-fourths of an inch. After the bullet left the muzzle, this backward motion would unlock the chamber where the spent shell casing was seated and begin the empty casing’s extraction. Simultaneously the force of the barrel’s rearward travel would knock a heavy metal rod toward the rear of the weapon, where it would meet a thick and powerful spring that would throw it forward again. As the bolt was rushed forward by the spring, it would catch a new cartridge and lock it in the chamber, where the firing pin would strike the cartridge’s primer and fire the gun again. The blast that propelled the second bullet down the barrel knocked the bolt backward again, beginning the cycle once more, and so on, a cycle at a time, each lasting as little as one-tenth of a second, until the trigger was released or all the ammunition gone.23

By early 1884, after testing several designs, Maxim had a working model based on these principles, which fired at adjustable rates as fast as six hundred rounds per minute. The invention was reported in London newspapers. Maxim was almost immediately visited by England’s upper crust. The Duke of Cambridge, who at the time was the head of the British army, was an early visitor. Maxim became so busy with guests, he said, that he could work productively only at night and on weekends. “It was a veritable nine-day wonder,” he said.

As the new weapon was receiving its inaugural praise in Maxim’s shop, England was consumed by a long-running difficulty in eastern Africa. The Egyptian province of Sudan had been swept by Islamic rebellion in 1881, and in 1883 Britain had decided to evacuate its citizens and the Egyptian military presence from the capital, Khartoum. A popular officer and former administrator of the province, Major General Charles Gordon, was dispatched to organize the city’s defense and coordinate the exit. He arrived to discover the situation desperate. By midspring 1884 the Islamic forces controlled the approaches to the city, trapping the Egyptian contingent and General Gordon in a siege.

Britain, pressured by public demands for a rescue, ordered General Wolseley, who had brought the first Gatling gun to Africa during the Ashanti War, to go to Gordon’s assistance. Khartoum rests at the juncture of the White and Blue Nile rivers, and General Wolseley initially chose to ascend the river with all of his forces. But as his relief expedition bogged down, he ordered Colonel Herbert Stewart and more than eleven hundred men to break off and attempt an overland route. The foot column set out with a camel train toward the beleaguered capital. Colonel Stewart’s detachment became known as the Desert Column. They were the forerunners of the special forces; many had been selected from top English families and for their fitness for the difficulties ahead. Theirs was a colonial misadventure of the first order. On January 16, 1885, while moving between wells on arid terrain, the column encountered near Abu Klea a large Arab force blocking the route to the next watering point. The Arabs, carrying shimmering green banners, outnumbered the British column by as much as ten to one. Night fell before the two sides clashed in force.

At dawn the Arabs began a war dance, and an exchange of distant fire ensued. The Arab shooting was intermittent and not especially accurate, but bullets occasionally slammed into Colonel Stewart’s men. The wounded soldiers were loaded onto camels. The colonel understood that the math did not work; the column could not withstand a prolonged contest of attrition. He ordered a square formed and marched toward the green banners at about 10:00 A.M., hoping to provoke the Arabs into a fight in the open, where the Europeans’ superior weapons and their battle-drill training might give them an advantage. A naval contingent, led by Lord Charles Beresford, pulled a five-barreled Gardner gun along with the stumbling square. Lord Beresford was peculiar and excitable. He opted to ride a white donkey instead of a camel. But he was devoted to his Gardner and wanted to see what it might do.

The two sides skirmished as the square moved over the broken ground. The Arab units swerved and probed, seeking weakness in the lines. At last they selected the rear of the square, which was having trouble maintaining formation, for their full attack. They closed the distance in phalanxes led by flag-carrying sheiks. “After them came the fighting men, armed with javelins and hatchets, knobkerries and knives,” a survivor would later write. “These were not the sharpshooters who had been firing Remingtons, but warriors chosen to exterminate the infidel.”24

The British riflemen fired into the flanks of the phalanxes as the Arabs moved for the weakest point. The shrieking attackers momentarily wavered, but their numbers were great; they rushed on. Lord Beresford’s eagerness to use the Gardner overcame his tactical good sense. The naval contingent broke ranks, rolled the gun and carriage outside the formation, and prepared to meet the charge and cut it down. Lord Beresford, ready at the crank, would test his gun at last.

They were tearing down upon us with a roar like the roar of the sea, an immense surging wave of white-slashed black forms brandishing bright spears and long flashing swords; and all were chanting, as they leaped and ran, the war-song of their faith, “La ilaha ill’ Allah Mohammedu rasul Allah!”; and the terrible rain of bullets poured into them by the Mounted Infantry and the Guards stayed them not. They wore the loose white robe of the Mahdi’s uniform, looped over the left shoulder, and the straw skull-cap. These things we heard and saw in a flash, as the formidable wave swept steadily nearer.

I laid the Gardner gun myself to make sure. As I fired, I saw the enemy mown down in rows, dropping like nine-pins; but as the men killed were killed in rear of the front rank, after firing about forty rounds (eight turns of the lever), I lowered the elevation. I was putting in most effective work on the leading ranks and had fired about thirty rounds when the gun jammed.25

The moment that machine guns’ critics had long warned about had arrived. Outside the exhausted and bloodied square, Lord Beresford and his little naval detachment stood exposed. They were alone, facing a charge, and with a silent gun.

To clear it the feed-plate had to be unscrewed, and Beresford and a chief boatswain’s mate named Rhodes began to do this. Within minutes the enemy were on top of them. Rhodes was speared and killed instantly, and so was the naval armourer beside the gun. Beresford was luckier. He was saved momentarily by the feed-plate dropping on his head and knocking him under the gun, and was then hit by the handle of an axe, the blade of which missed him. He caught a spear blade that was being thrust at him, got to his feet, and was then borne backward by the rush into the front rank of Number 4 Company.26

The fighting went to hand to hand on the line, with British soldiers thrusting bayonets while the Arabs hacked with axes and stabbed with spears. The Gardner was briefly in enemy possession, but the British made a rush and reclaimed it, even though it was jammed. By now there were other problems. The attackers had flowed into a gap that had opened in the square. There were so many British camels within—more than one hundred—that the Arabs could not capitalize at the moment they might have broken down the British formation and commenced its slaughter. Their confusion among the animals allowed time for Colonel Stewart to recover. The opposite line of the square, following a drill no infantryman would ever wish to execute, faced about and fired into the square’s center, striking some British soldiers on the far ranks but breaking the Arab attack. An Arab retreat began. Nine British officers and sixty-five soldiers were killed, including everyone who had tended to the Gardner gun, except Lord Beresford, the officer who had put it to use in foolish fashion and was spared the fate of the unlucky men he had led. A count of the Arab dead found eleven hundred corpses.27

The hand-cranked Gardner gun, for all its potential, had failed. The brief sequence told less about the potential of rapid-fire arms as devices for mass killing than it did about the enduring pitfalls of cumbersome machine guns, low-quality ammunition, and early design. Once Lord Beresford had found the proper range and engaged the lead of the approaching charge, he had managed only six turns of the crank before it seized up.28 He had made eight more turns before adjusting the elevation. After the battle, he walked among the Arab dead and confirmed the awful power of the big weapon: “I observed that the rows of bullets from the Gardner gun, which was rifle calibre .45 inch, with five barrels, had cut off heads and tops of heads, as though sliced horizontally with a knife.”29 Lord Beresford liked that. But it lasted only fourteen turns—seventy bullets against thousands of attacking men. A machine gun good only for a moment’s work was not much good at all.

The Desert Column fought another engagement en route but Colonel Stewart was wounded and he ceded command. His unit arrived at Khartoum one day late. The city had fallen. General Gordon had been beheaded. His killers displayed their grisly prize by wedging it in the branches of a tree. Colonel Stewart later succumbed to his wounds. London was crestfallen.

What was bad for Britain was good for Maxim. Episodes when manual machine guns failed could only aid his cause. And then it happened again. Two years later an Italian column roughly half the size of Colonel Stewart’s expedition was caught by an Ethiopian force making an overland movement in what is now Eritrea. In late January 1887, the Italians set out after one of their garrisons, in Sahati, was attacked by Ras Alula, a renegade Ethiopian commander. The reinforcements, 524 men led by a lieutenant colonel, had two Gatling guns. As they walked toward the hills near the town of Dogali, the enemy was alerted of their movement. Ras Alula was a skilled commander and, by contemporary accounts, had ten thousand warriors under his control. He began maneuvering his forces early in the morning to cut Sahati’s reinforcements off. The Italians had little wartime experience with their Gatlings. But they had brought them into exactly the sort of tactical situation that the Gatling Gun Company’s surreptitiously paid lecturer, Captain Ebenezer Rogers, had proposed at the Royal United Services Institution a dozen years before. A small force on colonial duty, facing a much larger force, the captain had said, would find a Gatling most useful for turning back primitive subjects. Unless the Gatling did not work.

As Ras Alula constricted his hold on the Italians’ route, Lieutenant Colonel Tomasso De Cristoforis, the Italian commander, ordered his troops to higher ground. The fighting began. Within a half hour, both Gatling guns were jammed. The Italian soldiers could not revive them. The colonel managed to send out a messenger with a note saying the machine guns were down and help would be welcome. But there was not enough time. This fight would be determined by older rules.

At one o’clock Ras Alula, having completed two concentric circles around them and closed inwards to within a short distance, gave the order to charge. Then the hand-to-hand fighting began; the Italians having opened fire at the longer ranges had by this time exhausted their ammunition, but each man defended his life with bayonet and sword. To the last man they struggled against an enemy twenty times their number, falling one by one on the position they were holding; 23 officers killed and one wounded; 407 men killed and 81 wounded. Such is the death roll of that sad and glorious day.30

When a patrol from the main garrison arrived the next day, it found the Italian wounded hiding under the Italian dead.

Maxim had not made his weapon merely to satisfy his curiosity, or out of patriotism. A sense of concern for soldiers’ fates seemed to interest him not at all. He was in the gun business for fame and money. He sought sales. After his gun was unveiled, it was quickly examined for its fitness for military service, and Maxim incorporated suggestions from British officers to transform it from a technical marvel to an instrument more suitable for combat use. Chief among his tasks was simplification, so the gun could be broken down, cleaned, and reassembled with no tools beyond a soldier’s hands. Belts of 333 cartridges were made, which could be fed into the gun easily, one after the other, to keep the Maxim firing. The feed system was simplified so that component parts could be removed and replaced in as little as six seconds.31 Maxim also reduced the weapon’s weight. His machine gun would not be like the big Gatlings or Gardners when they entered the market. It would be a fraction of the size, a full system under 150 pounds. The other guns were still large enough to be confused with artillery.

A newly formed concern, the Maxim Gun Company, was ready to market his product, and it quickly became evident that there were advantages to not being first: The sales groundwork laid by Gatling and Gardner had made his path easier. So had the uneven performance of the Gatling gun at Ulundi, and the failures of the Gardner at Abu Klea, and then the massacre at Dogali. In 1885, Maxim’s gun was fired for the public at an inventors’ exhibition in South Kensington, and next were a series of trials in England and France, and in Italy, where the gun was submerged in the sea for three days and put to tests without cleaning. Upon watching a test in Vienna, Archduke William called it “the most dreadful instrument I have ever seen or imagined.” And placed orders with its inventor.

No matter the Maxim’s superior performance, it faced clever interference. At one shooting trial between Maxim’s guns and those of his competitors, a sales agent for the Nordenfelt gun lingered among the reporters waiting outside the test-range gates. The Maxim beat the hand-cranked Nordenfelt handily, but could not defeat the agent’s guile. The competitor’s agent addressed the reporters in a hasty news conference. “The Nordenfelt—it has beaten all others,” he told them, and so the stories read the next day.32 Maxim also could not attract attention across the Atlantic; his competitors and potential partners in America barely replied to his mail. “I wrote to all the prominent gun and pistol makers in the States telling them that the automatic system would soon be applied to firearms of all sizes from pocket-pistols up, and advising them to work my system, which had been broadly patented in the States,” he said. “I did not receive a single favourable reply.”33

The American army was similarly unimpressed, in part because it was in a period where it was under orders to buy American-made arms, but also because early tests raised concerns about reliability and durability.34 Nonetheless, a few officers were scolding the others for not paying developments in machine gunnery adequate mind. “There can be no question that these guns will prove an all-important factor in deciding war, and the nation which best employs them, and fully understands their working and organization, will come off the victor,” one artillery colonel wrote in an article in a leading tactical journal. The colonel, Edward B. Williston, pilloried the ignorance permeating the American officer corps. “Generally speaking, not one officer in a hundred has any special knowledge of the subject of machine guns, and very little is known of their construction, capabilities or proper uses,” he wrote. “The guns issued to the Army are either used to ornament posts ... or they are carefully housed and greased to prevent rusting.” A terrible tool had appeared, to snickers. “It has been the fashion,” he said, “to decry the guns.”35

In 1887 Maxim submitted guns to the British for naval trials, and the navy bought three. Royal enthusiasm for the gun ran so high that Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, recommended it to his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the emperor of Germany, who requested a demonstration competition between a Gatling, a Nordenfelt, and a Maxim. The Germans already had tested machine guns, but were not satisfied with them; they had yet to design ammunition casings sturdy enough to bear the strain of rapid fire. The Maxim worked flawlessly, firing 333 rounds in less than thirty seconds. The kaiser approached the gun and placed his finger on it.

“That is the gun,” he said, “there is no other.”

At that moment, Hiram Maxim had effectively achieved what he would be most remembered for. The companies he was affiliated with would sell more guns to many buyers, and he would continue his inventing, and would try to design an airplane. With uncanny martial prescience, he would predict aerial bombing before airplanes had even been made. But the demonstration for the kaiser was his moment. Once the kaiser had seen the efficiency and ease of use of the automatic machine gun, Maxim had offered his weapons for sale to the powers that would become the central military actors in World War I.

While Europeans placed their initial orders, the most important test results were trickling back—from battle. A Maxim gun was first used in 1887 in the jungles along Africa’s western coast, about sixty miles inland from Freetown, against a small, recalcitrant tribe. As colonial episodes went, the uprising was minor. But it proved to anyone watching closely what a Maxim could do. The insurgent tribesmen, whom the British called the Yonnies, occupied a network of crude forts in the jungle, from which they had been raiding neighboring towns and threatening the area’s trade. The colonial administration sent to London for help. Sir Francis de Winton was dispatched from England, and arrived to marshal a small force: four hundred men from the First West India Regiment, a hundred local Sierre Leone police officers, and a few dozen sailors from the sloop HMS Acorn.The sailors had brought along a small artillery piece and a Maxim, which they carried ashore.

The force marched for Robari, the insurgents’ stronghold. When they arrived, they found a tiny fortress, less than eighty yards across, ringed by a deep ditch and a mud wall. Eleven watchtowers looked down over the approaches. The Yonnies were confidently inside. Against enemies with primitive equipment, the Robari defenses might have proved sturdy. But the fort’s builders had never seen the type of weapons the British dragged down the trail. The invading force stopped on the opposite bank of a stream, took stock of the defenses, and went to work. From a distance of less than five hundred yards, they leveled the artillery piece and fired into the buildings and walls. The tribesmen scrambled to the roofs to remove the thatch and contain the risk of fire, and unwittingly presented themselves as targets to a weapon they had not known existed. The result was reported by MacMillan’s magazine.

The Maxim, which here administered rather than received its baptism of fire, was turned on them, and they dropped off the roofs by dozens. ... When the leading troops entered the gate on the Mafenbeh side there was not a living Yonnie left in the town, although there was no lack of their dead.

The British saw the rout for what it had been: “a complete, if not particularly glorious, victory.” Then they ransacked Robari. Three days later, de Winton began to move on the tribe’s smaller forts, where he repeated the slaughter. The destruction of Ronietto made for a particularly ugly account. A Yonnie waved a white flag of surrender, and yet the tribe fought on. The British reply was so overpowering that MacMillan’s compared it to cleaning out a nest of wasps. This was a new kind of war. Point a machine, and killing men was like killing bugs.

The gates were flung open, and the defenders came streaming out. The Maxim was planted opposite one gate at a distance of little over two hundred yards, and under the frightful rain of bullets that it poured upon that narrow entrance not one of the hapless wretches that came out escaped alive. The slaughter of the war-boys on this occasion was greater than at any of the other towns. It was necessary to give them a lesson to respect flags of truce, and in any case one severe example is with the savages the most merciful in the end.36

The growing interest from buyers, combined with the results of field tests and in West Africa, brought more interest from potential partners. It was obvious that the Maxim gun outperformed all the manual guns of the era, and one competitor realized it was better to join efforts with Maxim than to be pushed out of the field. In 1888 Maxim joined with Thorsten Nordenfelt, an arms dealer, financier, and steel producer from Sweden, to form the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company Limited. The firm manufactured his patterns from a factory in Crayford, a short drive to London’s east. Nordenfelt’s switch from Maxim rival to Maxim partner signaled the beginning of the end for sales of manual machine guns. With the association of his new partner, Maxim also picked up the sales support of Basil Zaharoff, a corrupt and mercurial arms salesman with an array of contacts in the war ministries of Europe. It had been Zaharoff, known in his time as the Merchant of Death, who had tricked the journalists after the firing trials in Vienna. Now he was on Maxim’s team. His black arts would be used on Maxim’s behalf.

As its inventor’s business prospects were brightening, the Maxim gun continued making the rounds in Africa. In 1893, in what became known as the Matabele War, the British South Africa Corporation moved to put down a rebellion by Ndebele people, an offshoot of the Zulu nation in the area that would become Rhodesia, and then Zimbabwe. The corporation had at its disposal fewer than one thousand police officers, soldiers, and mercenaries in all. The forces of the opposing king, Lobengula, outnumbered the whites by many times. While they were not as uninformed as the defenders of Robari and Ronietto—the Ndebele had knowledge of the power of the colonial columns’ other weapons—they began the war without the benefit of knowing about a Maxim gun.

As one of the British columns moved toward the capital, Bulawayo, the Ndebele picked at it along the way, trying to ambush or surround it. Each time the Maxim helped push them back. George Rattray, a British gunman who had traveled to Matabeleland in his late teens,37 had joined the expedition, and sent a detailed account of several skirmishes home to his mother in Surrey. By his description, the British with their Maxims were all but invincible. They moved across the countryside toward the capital, razing villages along the way.

We continued our march straight for Bulawayo capturing cattle as we went, burning every Kraal we came near and destroying the grain, the niggers having left everything behind. I suppose we have burned about some six thousand huts.

About twenty miles short of the capital, the column met resistance from two experienced Ndebele regiments. A skirmish became a larger clash as the regiments pressed near. This time the Maxim did more than hold the attackers off. The Ndebele, Rattray said, were “mown down just as if with a scythe.” The events showed how far machine-gun and ammunition technology had advanced since the 1879 Zulu War. Rattray’s long letter home described Ulundi in reverse. Rather than depending on the support of the infantry’s rifles to assist in battle between jams, the machine guns left little work for the infantry to do.

Our two foot regiments, the redoubtable foot sloggers, were ordered out with fixed bayonets to clear the bush. This they did in about twenty minutes, the firing on both sides being heavy but strange to say not a man of ours was hit while the Matabele dropped in all directions. The enemy then retired leaving over 1500 dead.38

Accounts of this sort accumulated, including the most lopsided tally perhaps ever recorded to that time—a claim that about four dozen policemen with four Maxims withstood repeated charges, killing more than three thousand African men in front of a police station. The round numbers are suspicious. But the larger point is unmistakable. A few hundred men with a few Maxims had subdued a king and his army, and destroyed the enemy’s ranks. Hiram Maxim’s business was secure.

This was obvious in the market as well, where the Maxim’s rise signaled the Gatling’s decline. In 1876, after weathering worries over debt and sales, the Gatling Gun Company had been solidly in the black. Its $31,000 in debt had been paid down,39 and the company had sales that year of seventy guns, signaling the start of a period of profit. Gross receipts for the fiscal year were $81,290. Profits were $47,495.40 Then came Maxim. By the end of its 1889 fiscal year, the Gatling Gun Company had grossed $13,006.48 on gun sales, and had only $1,794.55 in hand. It sold thirty-seven guns that year, a small fraction of what it had sold fifteen years before.41 The American army had tested the Maxim at least twice—in 1888 and 1890.42 In 1888 it had been intrigued, but the gun was withdrawn by the owners before follow-on tests were held. In 1890, the Maxim was found to be less reliable and more prone to rusting in endurance tests than the Gatling, which by then had been largely perfected. But by 1894, the U.S. Navy testing board had recommended the Maxim for acceptance for the fleet over the Gatling and several other weapons.43 With the prospect of obsolescence looming, the Gatling Gun Company was developing a means to relieve gunners of the chores and risk related to turning the crank.44 Its proposed solution was to attach an electric motor to keep the barrels spinning.

By this time, Gatling had refined the basic operations of his gun and embarked on the process of miniaturization. Gatlings of the time weighed 224 pounds, the carriage an additional 202 pounds, and the limber another 200.45 With a reasonable load of ammunition, the weapon, ready for movement about the battlefield, weighed more than a half ton. To expand markets, the Gatling Gun Company offered a smaller and more portable model, sold under the name Camel gun. The Camel gun was made not for forts or warships, but for overland patrols and expeditions. It fit into a case that could be lashed to the back of a pack animal. A portable tripod completed the kit, and allowed the gun to be set readily on the ground most anywhere required. These were essential developments. In the short term, they allowed Gatling guns, first created to ride on a timber between large wheels, to get off the roads and level ground and out into the infantry’s terrain. In the long term they marked the first step toward the shrinkage of rapid-fire arms, which would make them available to a much longer list of users.

By 1892, the Gatling gun was down to 74 pounds.46 In 1895, the Maxim Nordenfelt Company took miniaturization further, down to 40 pounds—25 pounds for the gun and 15 more for a tripod, the pair fitting together in a pack.47 These smaller guns were not mainstays in the fighting. But they established, change by change and pound by pound, that rapid-fire arms could be reduced in mass.

The Maxim’s success in the field, and the interest of many nations, helped the company’s prospects for raising capital or finding partners. Hiram Maxim’s actual state of affairs were not rosy. Maxim was a difficult man—cantankerous, arrogant, impulsive, rude—and he was a designer by personality, not a manager. His company’s affairs were sloppy, and by this time he was extremely deaf. One of his directors, to communicate with him, had to pull on Maxim’s earlobe, lean close, and bellow. The company had factories at Crayford, Erith, Dartford, Birmingham, and Stockholm, but Maxim was regarded as so disruptive that the company barred him from entering the assembly-room floors, and set aside a workshop for him where he might spend his time without wasting everyone else’s. The company itself had been a far-flung and overcapitalized concern, and equipment was often idle. A directors’ report in 1890 noted that one factory had three to four times the necessary capacity. The company had a product that was gaining reputation and generating enthusiasm. But it leaked money.48

Nonetheless, the product was good enough that the firm would survive mismanagement and all of the disruptions Maxim would muster. Vickers purchased the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company for 1.35 million British pounds in 1897, becoming Vickers, Son & Maxim, and helping the Vickers family to position itself against their rivals in the armaments trade, Armstrong.i By this time, Maxim’s patterns were being turned into guns in England, Germany, France, Spain, and Sweden, and Maxim expected them to be made in the United States. “The automatic system has now been adopted by nearly all nations, great and small,” he said proudly at a public lecture. “We are now giving employment to a large number of men. Our works are fully employed.”49

And this did not mention the manufacture of Maxims abroad, in Germany, where a firm had astutely arranged a licensing agreement that passed the full technical drawings of a Maxim gun to German possession. Step by step, the demonstration before the kaiser was leading to its result: trenches bristling with machines guns in World War I. The gun works at Spandau would provide the German armies with thousands of the Maschinengewehr 08, a Teutonic Maxim knock-off, for the start of the war.

Two battles at the close of the nineteenth century showed, once and for all, what machine guns could do when supplied with well-made ammunition and properly employed.

The first was in July 1898, when the American army landed in Cuba with intentions to oust the Spanish. Although the Maxim gun was supplanting all other machine guns in Europe, the American army had not purchased any. As war with Spain approached, its main rapid-fire arm remained the Gatling, which it had accepted for service thirty-two years before. The army gathered and provisioned itself in Tampa, where the man who was to show the army how to use its guns at last, Second Lieutenant John H. Parker, arrived with the Thirteenth Infantry. Machine guns had been invented by Americans. They were a quintessentially American product. But aside from limited use against the Native American populations in the western territories, the American guns had scarcely been put to a combat test. Lieutenant Parker had been studying machine guns and the available literature on them, and had spent his brief career working out theories for their use. He had been born in Missouri in 1866, the same year the Gatling gun was officially, and belatedly, accepted in the United States Army. He found it scandalous that decades had passed since the weapons’ introduction, to such little effect. The army’s tactical mind, he concluded, was moribund, beholden to nonsense it had heard from European circles. “The rules of war established by pen soldiers do not form the basis of actual operations in the field,” he wrote. “Deductions based on the drill-made automatons of European armies are not applicable.”50

Lieutenant Parker, at thirty-one, was sure-footed beyond his experience and years. Up to this point, his military record had been undistinguished. He had ranked forty-ninth of the sixty-two graduates of the United States Military Academy’s Class of 1892,51 and he had neither previous combat service nor connections in civilian circles or the army’s senior leadership, which he was given to deriding. Not much about him suggested he could bend the army to his will. “He was, apparently, a safe man to ignore or snub if occasion or bad temper made it desirable to ignore or snub somebody, and, above all, had no political friends who would be offended thereby.”52

Not much suggested that the army was any more ready for machine guns than it had been when General Ripley was thwarting Richard Gatling’s sales efforts during the Civil War. From 1872 through 1890, the American army had issued to its forces 253 Gatling guns in three different calibers, plus 32 other machine guns, including Gardner, Lowell, and Hotchkiss guns. On one level, this was impressive. The army had shrunk to fewer than thirty thousand men;53 considering its small size and the fact that it had been through decades without fighting a modern conventional foe, it was well equipped with rapid-fire arms. Yet almost no one knew how to use them effectively, and few people were interested in finding out. “Distributed, apparently according to no considered plan, to the various military establishments then existing throughout the continental United States, their maintenance was the duty of the local Ordnance officer,” an official historian of the subject found. “The post commander appears to have been without specific instructions as to their employment, and, unless he possessed a native curiosity concerning their characteristics (which was rarely the case), they remained wholly unused from the beginning of his tour of duty to the date of its termination.”54

Up to this time, the most intensive use of a machine gun on record had been at a territorial prison in the desert near Yuma, now in Arizona, where a Gatling had been mounted by the guards above the penitentiary walls. In 1887, a group of inmates, many incarcerated for stagecoach robberies and other violent frontier crimes, organized a prison break. Two prisoners overpowered the warden as he walked through the yard, breaking his skull and shooting him with one of his own pistols. Simultaneously, another twenty attacked the prison office, which fell under their control. Now equipped with the collection of rifles and pistols taken from the office, the inmates tried to fight their way out. A dozen managed to escape through the gate and into the desert. Their freedom lasted only as long as it took to get the Gatling aimed and cranked; three-quarters of the fleeing men were promptly knocked down.

No Gatling gun was ever worked more rapidly and unerringly than that on the penitentiary walls at that time, and the Winchesters in the hands of another guard on the walls fired a ball every three seconds. Nine of the fleeing convicts dropped wounded in their tracks. Three more threw up their hands as a sign of surrender and walked back to the prison yard.55

The United States did not have the problems with machine-gun cartridges that had plagued Europe; its Gatlings, though bulky, worked well. And by the start of the Spanish-American War, the army had smokeless powder, which made the guns harder for any enemy to spot when they fired. But still they had little support. Colonel Custer’s attitude toward the guns—that they were not worth their weight and hassle—remained a common view. A few voices did rise on behalf of the weapons, but they were mostly boosters in the local or scientific press. The Times of London had come to the not especially difficult conclusion that with a Gatling gun “a continuous shower of ounce bullets can be poured upon the spot where the enemy is the thickest, swept along the line of troops or scattered over the field like a jet of water from a fire hose.”56 Other newspapers noted similar Gatling gun properties, even if the analysis they derived from what they saw could be a stretch. “So destructive has its efficiency been made that it may almost be termed a peace preserver rather than a demolisher,” the Washington Post declared. The Indianapolis Sentinel went further, invoking deterrence with the certitude of those who would later embrace the security of mutual assured destruction in the nuclear age. “We believe the Gatling gun will change the whole aspect of war in due time,” its editors wrote. “When six guns can pour a steady stream of bullets at the rate of 3,000 a minute into the enemy, it is easy enough to see that 100 guns would make it prudent not to advance an inch; but on the contrary, retire as soon as possible. With a few hundred Gatlings on both sides, armies would melt away like dew before the sun, and men would soon learn to settle their disputes by arbitration, or some other means less destructive of life.” The London Broad Arrow took a position closer to reality, seeing not deterrence, but a full list of practical uses. “The new model Gatling is a terrible instrument, capable of awful doings on occasion, as for instance, when it is desired to sink a torpedo boat, or enter the embrasures of a fort, mow down a column, sweep the streets in a riot, clear a bridge or drive back a skirmisher swarm.”57

The army still had no experience with the weapons in a major battle. Gatling use had been limited to six skirmishes with Indians, the defense of forts and boats, and, by one account, the possible pot-shooting of a grizzly bear.58 The misapprehensions of the tactical potential and roles of rapid-fire arms fit neatly into the historical precedents. To produce and field these new weapons, a nation would need industrial capacity and a modern bureaucracy; this was because the costs of production were high, and maintaining a large and reliable supply of ammunition was demanding. But possessing these qualities, and distributing the new weapons to military commanders, did not mean that armies were ready for them. It was not merely that armies were often caretakers of tradition, and therefore fundamentally conservative institutions, or that they were led by the oldest members, whose battlefield experience was often dated and who might be the least likely officers to innovate. They were also fragmented within, prone to rivalries between services and competing ideas of how budgets should be spent.

Lieutenant Parker saw the army’s lack of vision as a waste. He was a seemingly fearless and hot-blooded young officer, and clever, too. Six months before the outbreak of war, before he was garrisoned to Tampa, he had written the War Department and proposed with characteristic self-promotion and confidence “the first correct tactical outline of the proper use of machine guns ever filed in any War Office in the world.” For good measure he had included drawings and specifications for a new machine-gun carriage, which would move the guns and their ammunition over varied terrain at the pace of the infantry. The War Department, he claimed, “did not even acknowledge receipt.”59

The war brought fresh chances to revisit the question. As the forces gathered in the damp heat, Parker lobbied to assemble a specialized machine-gun unit, an organization the United States had never previously sent to war. Yet he managed to prevail and was placed in charge of a section of Gatlings with thirty-seven men selected from multiple units. The result was a detachment that had the feel of a theoretical crusade; his was a personal project, conducted “without proper equipment, adequate instruction, or previous training, in the face of discouragements and sneers.”60 The lieutenant brought the guns ashore in Cuba in late June and began moving forward with the infantry and cavalry on the march toward Santiago. The force halted for four days just short of the Spanish trenches, and in the wait for battle Lieutenant Parker drilled his soldiers for several hours a day. They practiced loading and reloading so that they might make continuous fire over a long period of time, and they worked on clearing jams, so that any gun that malfunctioned could be brought quickly back into the fight.

The lieutenant had more ambitious ideas for his Gatling than defending held ground. He wanted to push the guns to the fore and pour bullets onto the enemy positions as the infantry and cavalry advanced. He believed that when the time came for a charge, the guns should be right there, providing covering fire. Machine guns were modern killing tools, and tools that spread fear. Why leave them behind at a decisive time, when heavy fire was needed? Thirty-five years had passed since General Butler bought a dozen Gatling guns in Baltimore and marched them onto Confederate soil. No one had tried what Lieutenant Parker proposed. He insisted his detachment was ready. On July 1, the Americans went into the attack.

The troops moved across the San Juan River in the sweltering summer heat toward the trenches outside Santiago, where the Spanish infantry had dug in. This was not a case of a modern army with modern weapons facing aboriginal rushes or a primitively equipped foe. One conventional force was moving against another on carefully prepared ground. And the lieutenant was pushing his soldiers and their bulky weapons forward as if they were any other infantrymen closing for an attack.

The bullets were singing by our ears, and some of the men had narrow escapes. One was struck on the ear, and another had a portion of the leather from the toe of his shoe shot away. Some of the men were unable to keep up with the guns, but continued to follow as fast as they could run. One was sunstruck, another ruptured himself badly. A short distance beyond the ford of the San Juan we found an open space from which the works of the enemy were visible at a distance of from 600 to 800 yards. We dashed on to the farther edge of this opening so as to take advantage of some foliage for cover. Mauser bullets were dropping all around us, and as we unlimbered a bullet chipped the pommel of a driver’s saddle. Another cut a mule’s ear, and again we heard his cheerful song.

It was but the work of an instant to indicate the range and point out the objectives. The guns began grinding instantly, and we could see the dirt fly and the straw hats of the Spaniards duck wherever we pointed a piece. The effect upon the enemy was for a moment that of paralysis. Then they caught sight of Sergeant Green’s gun, which was in the open, and concentrated a hideous fire upon the little battery. This was hard on us, but it relieved the firing line. The light screen of foliage immediately in front was no impediment to our own fire and no protection from that of the enemy. About one minute after we went into action all of Green’s men were knocked out except himself and Corporal Doyle. Sine, who was feeding, struck me as he fell, shot through the heart. Greene [sic] jumped off the gunner’s seat and ran for ammunition, leaving Doyle alone with the piece. I took the vacant place, and Greene [sic] began to pass all the ammunition for several minutes, until some of the men who had been left behind caught up and began to help.

Suddenly I perceived the Spaniards getting out of their trenches; at the same time I heard a yell from Sergeant Steigerwald at one of the other guns. It was like the ferocious cry of an infuriated lion. Doyle turned his head to look. At that I reached over, hit Doyle a jolt with my fist and pointed at the flying groups. He gave one glance and then the crank seemed to fairly fly.

By this time two men were feeding the gun, and we kept them busy. The other guns were turned up also to the highest rate. We ground out cartridges at the rate of 850, perhaps 950, per gun per minute during that last little spurt. It lasted only about two minutes, but it was here that our guns got in their most deadly work. When we got to those trenches the sights we saw were horrible. Where we had been aiming, there were masses of tangled writhing squirming wounded and dead Spaniards, and it was not until then that we fully realized the awful destructiveness of our work.61

A member of the burial detail for the Spanish soldiers later told Parker that forty-seven men appeared to have been killed by machine-gun fire. The figure sounds much more realistic than some of the earlier British accounts from Africa, with their round numbers. But body counts were not the issue. The effect in paralyzing the Spanish infantry and reducing their tactical options midfight—this was the observation that mattered most. It marked a shift in war. Machine guns were hereafter going to be a feature of almost every aspect of infantry battle, although not everyone yet realized it. After the war, Lieutenant Parker told all listeners, including many newspaper editors and correspondents, what had occurred. He wrote a book about the battle, in which he claimed he had proven his theory correct and turned the conventional wisdom upside down: Machine guns were immensely destructive, and thus effective, in offense and defense alike. “The infantry and cavalry had been pounding away for two hours on those positions,” he wrote. “In eight and one-half minutes after the Gatlings opened the works were ours.” His account was confirmed by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, the commander of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, known as the Rough Riders, whose charge had overrun Kettle Hill in the same battle for Santiago’s outskirts. In the foreword of Lieutenant Parker’s book, the colonel said that Gatling guns had been more effective in the fight than American artillery, and had boosted American morale.

On the morning of July 1st, the dismounted cavalry, including my regiment, stormed Kettle Hill, driving the Spaniards from their trenches. After taking the crest, I made the men under me turn and begin volley firing at the San Juan Blockhouse and intrenchments [sic] against which Hawkins’ and Kent’s Infantry were advancing. While thus firing, there suddenly smote on our ears a peculiar drumming sound. One or two of the men cried out, “The Spanish machine guns!” but, after listening a moment, I leaped to my feet and called, “It’s the Gatlings, men! It’s our Gatlings!” Immediately the men began to cheer lustily, for the sound was most inspiring. Whenever the drumming stopped, it was only to open again a little nearer the front. Our artillery, using black powder, had not been able to stand within range of the Spanish rifles, but it was perfectly evident that the Gatlings were troubled by no such consideration, for they were advancing all the while.62

Roosevelt hedged his endorsement of machine gunnery, but barely. He proposed creating permanent machine-gun units for the wars ahead.

I have had too little experience to make judgment final; but certainly, if I were to command either a regiment or a brigade, whether of cavalry or infantry, I would try to get a Gatling battery—under a good man—with me. I feel sure that the greatest possible assistance would be rendered, under almost all circumstances, by such a Gatling battery, if well handled; for I believe that it could be pushed fairly to the front of the firing line.63

Lieutenant Parker had four Gatling guns under his command. Several months later, in autumn 1898, the British military brought many more machine guns—of the newer Maxim variety—into battle in Sudan and put them to their most lethal use yet. The latest campaign along the Nile reached back to 1895, when the British government decided to reassert its influence over Sudan, hoping that a conquest of the Islamic forces in the desert would establish a firmer colonial presence from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope. A large expeditionary force, more than eight thousand British soldiers accompanied by nearly eighteen thousand Egyptian and African troops, was placed under the command of General Herbert Kitchener. It massed in Egypt and prepared for the arduous trek and river movement up the Nile to destroy the forces of the Khalifa, the Sudanese leader, and reclaim Khartoum. The campaign would serve a second purpose: to avenge the beheading of General Gordon in 1885. A feat of logistics and administration made the final clash possible. Kitchener built a railroad through the desert to keep his soldiers well supplied. An escort of gunboats accompanied them as they traveled upriver. The Maxims were brought overland wrapped in silk, to prevent them from collecting sand and grit.64

By late summer 1898, with the British columns nearing the capital at last, the Khalifa prepared to annihilate them outside Omdurman, on the Nile’s western bank and to Khartoum’s north. War drums beat in the city, and before dawn on September 2, General Kitchener’s soldiers formed into order near the village of Karari, anchoring one end along the river and the other at the end of an arc that swept across a plain. Thousands of Sudanese warriors, called Dervishes by the British troops, had spent the night in the field, readying to turn back the invaders. Winston Churchill, then twenty-three years old and a correspondent for the Morning Post, was with the British cavalry as the two sides closed the last distance between them. The battle unfolded around him in a series of unequal scenes, as the lightly armed and technologically unsophisticated Sudanese fighter moved toward an enemy equipped with repeating rifles, artillery, and batteries of Maxim’s guns. Some of the Sudanese men carried rifles, but they were a mixed collection of rusting older patterns. The fighters themselves lamented them. Roughly half of the Khalifa’s soldiers had no firearms at all.65

The indigenous army numbered into the tens of thousands. As many as eight thousand Sudanese men streamed forward for the first frontal attack. The Maxims had a longer range than their limited assortment of rifles. Even before bullets were fired, while the Sudanese formations were far off, the British artillery began dropping shells in the midst of the dense charge, stopping men in clusters. The opening minutes of fighting consumed a column led by Ibrahim al Khalil, and defined the day. Al Khalil went into battle with two horses, Aim and End, and after the artillery barrage, Aim had been killed. The commander pushed on.

The plain was filled with thousands of corpses. Yet they had had the enemy in sight for only half an hour. Aware of his acute disadvantage in the face of this massive firepower, Ibrahim decided, at a distance of 800 yards from the zariba, to veer to the right and enter one of the khursiiwhere he might pause, take stock, realign his forces and continue the attack. There he would be only 1,200 yards from the zariba. He motioned to his men to follow him to the right. Then at this moment, 0705, he was hit in the chest and head. He fell from his horse. End also fell, for he too had been hit. The Maxim machine-guns had opened fire, and one of their first victims was the commander of the Kara army. It was remarkable that he had survived so long, for throughout the long artillery bombardment he had been in the front line. Four horsemen dismounted and bore Ibrahim back amid a shower of bullets. The ferocity of the fire was such that the army’s pace was checked, preventing it from turning to the right to shelter in the khur. But even so the scattered survivors continued to advance. Shells exploded on all sides. Many men fell; few rose again. When they had the chance they fired their guns, but it was an unequal contest. Moreover, the twelve machine guns of the three steamers were all now firing at a range of about 1,000 yards. Shaykh Babikr Badri, who was a few miles away, described the regular volleys as being fired at intervals and the enemy fired on them with a sound like runnnn. The command now fell on the shoulders of Muhammad Ishaq who tried to rally the reduced force. He indicated the new direction with his hand, but was immediately and fatally struck by a whole volley of bullets. In the open space there was no cover for a warrior to concentrate his aim and direct his fire, apart from a few scattered bushes, and even when these were reached the machine-gun fire was directed at them, and men and trees were torn up without discrimination.66

By eight o’clock in the morning, the mismatch was obvious. Thousands of Sudanese soldiers had been wounded or killed, and not one had managed to come close enough to the British lines to throw a spear. Churchill watched the charges lose momentum, waver, and stop. The remaining Sudanese men tried to get away. There was little chance for that.

As the shells burst accurately above the Dervish skirmishers and spearmen who were taking refuge in the folds of the plain, they rose by hundreds and by fifties to fly. Instantly the hungry and attentive Maxims and the watchful infantry opened on them, sweeping them all to the ground—some in death, others in terror. Again the shells followed them to their new concealment. Again they rose, fewer than before, and ran. Again the Maxims and the rifles spluttered. Again they fell. And so on until the front of the zeriba was clear of unwounded men for at least half a mile.67

The British cavalry, the Twenty-first Lancers, organized for a sweep of the plain and pounded out from the lines and across the ground to exploit the enemy’s helplessness and confusion. Roughly four hundred horsemen strong, they rode unexpectedly to a large and deep depression, and met a Sudanese force in hiding. The horsemen were too close to stop, so instead they accelerated and collided with the wall of men in the trench. For ten seconds, both sides were stunned. They continued to fight while intermingled, slashing and stabbing and shooting into one another, sometimes with muzzles pressed almost to one another’s flesh. Then the British broke through, but not before having lost more than a quarter of their horses and suffering seventy wounded or dead men. Less than two minutes had passed since the two groups collided. The British survivors regrouped and wheeled back to prepare to repeat their charge, as riderless horses or horses carrying sagging, bloodied men wandered uselessly about. The Lancers had just completed the last effective British cavalry charge in history. It had been an anachronism in real time, and an example of older, outmoded ideas of tactics urging men to do what Maxim guns no longer required.

The cavalrymen galloped to the Sudanese flank, dismounted, and the two sides exchanged rifle fire as the Sudanese fighters retreated, allowing the British to recover their dead. General Kitchener in the meanwhile had directed his units to move forward and capture Omdurman, and his forces were attacked en route by a massive concentration of the Khalifa’s fighters. The British set their Maxim guns and shattered charge after charge. The battle passed with astonishing quickness. Churchill, a veteran of the seesaw skirmishes against Pashtun tribes on the Afghan and Pakistani frontier, was both astonished and horrified. A huge collection of drilled fighting men had been cut down, almost extinguished, by modern arms. The British force had suffered forty-eight dead, including those lost in the cavalry charge. Contemporaneous estimates of the Sudanese dead exceeded ten thousand, and sometimes were twice that. It was not yet noon. “Within the space of five hours,” Churchill wrote, “the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European power had been destroyed and dispersed with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors.”

Three days later Churchill accompanied a British horseback patrol that toured the plain, which was covered with the grisly remains of the local army’s dead, and a far smaller number of the wounded, some of whom were trying to crawl with their wrecked frames to the Nile, for a drink. His report of the ride is among the most chilling pieces of battlefield correspondence from the nineteenth century, and the most complete assessment in its time of the power of automatic fire.

A strong, hot wind blew from the west across the great plain and hurried foul and tainted to the river. Keeping to windward of the thickest clusters, we picked our way, and the story of the fight unfolded itself. Here was where the artillery had opened on the swarming masses. Men had fallen in little groups of five or six to each shell. Nearer to the zeriba—about 1,000 yards from it—the musketry had begun to tell, and the dead lay evenly scattered about—one every ten yards. Two hundred yards further the full force of the fire—artillery, Maxims and rifles—had burst on them. In places desperate rushes to get on at all costs had been made by devoted fearless men. In such places the bodies lay so thickly as to hide the ground. Occasionally there were double layers of this hideous covering. Once I saw them lying three deep. In a space not exceeding a hundred yards square more than 400 corpses lay festering.

Churchill was shaken. “I have tried to gild war,” he wrote, “and to solace myself for the loss of dear and gallant friends, with the thought that a soldier’s death for a cause that he believes in will count for much, whatever may be beyond this world.” But he was unable to square the sights before him, acre upon acre of the remains of soldiers on their own land, with his understanding of war waged by a “civilized Power.”

There was nothing dulce et decorum about the Dervish dead; nothing of the dignity of unconquerable manhood; all was filthy corruption. Yet these were as brave men as ever walked the earth. The conviction was born in me that their claim beyond the grave in respect of a valiant death was not less good than that which any of our countrymen could make.

The patrol continued on. Its members traced the outlines of the battle by following the lines and piles of corpses. Churchill had participated in the charge of the Twenty-first Lancers; he knew of its exhilaration and frantic terror, and had been within the rushing wall of four hundred horsemen crashing at high speed against a denser wall of dismounted men. As he roamed away from the location of the Lancers’ victory, out onto the plain near the Nile, he came to the spot where another cavalry charge—this one by the Baggara, who were aligned with the Khalifa—had been stopped by Maxims. The result had been utterly different. The area of the Baggara attack was marked by a sun-bloated collection of dead horses and men. Churchill saw immediately the distinction between the charges. It was as if two events from different eras had occurred side by side on the same field. The British cavalry had faced rifles, swords, and spears, and made it up to and through the Sudanese lines, just as their tacticians had imagined, and much like cavalrymen from another time. The collision eroded the will of the defenders, and as the British turned around, reorganized, and attacked again, the Sudanese men fled. The Baggara faced a line thick with machine guns. A few European men, peering down metal sights and pressing metal buttons with their thumbs, had filled them and their horses with bullets, bringing them to a not quite instantaneous stop.

Every man had galloped at full speed, and when he fell he shot many lengths in front of his horse, rolling over and over—destroyed, not conquered, by machinery. At such sights the triumph of victory faded on the mind, and a mournful feeling of disgust grew stronger.

Battle had changed. Modern weapons were no longer curiosities. The questions about their reliability had been put to rest. Sudan would fall back under British control. War had entered a new phase.

Now only the heaps of corruption on the plain, and the fugitives dispersed and scattered in the wilderness, remained. The terrible machinery of scientific war had done its work.

For this victory, General Kitchener would be named Kitchener of Khartoum and propelled to celebrity and ahead of other British officers in his career. And other movements were afoot. Adolf von Tiedemann, a German military attaché, had toured the right flank during the battle and taken notes of the work of the Maxim guns. He estimated that more than half of the Sudanese deaths were caused by them, and saw the ruinous effect of reliable and massed automatic fire used against soldiers who moved into it in traditional military style.68 While London celebrated, the attaché was sending back his reports. Germany would soon increase its production of Maxim guns.

Reaction to the sudden dominance of machine gunnery on the battle-field was mixed. By 1893, after British expeditions had gunned down the Yonnies and the Ndebele, the British Parliament was debating the merits and morality of machine gunnery. Several politicians found the startlingly lopsided killing unfair and suggested it was counterproductive. “Treaties with savage Chiefs were not of much value,” the parliamentarian A. C. Morton told his fellow members in 1893. “They were very often brought about by the aid of Maxim guns, aided not infrequently by the whisky bottle.” Hilaire Belloc, the deeply Catholic French writer who had taken residence in England, was also made uneasy by the ready application of machine gunnery in colonial governance and the callous attitudes that accompanied it. In 1898 he published The Modern Traveler, a narrative poem about a trio of Englishmen who traveled to Africa for profit and tried to exert their will. One of the characters, a feckless stockbroker named William Blood, relied on machine guns even to settle a wage dispute.

Blood thought he knew the native mind;

He said you must be firm, but kind.

A mutiny resulted.

I shall never forget the way

That Blood stood upon this awful day

Preserved us all from death.

He stood upon a little mound

Cast his lethargic eyes around,

And said beneath his breath:

“Whatever happens, we have got

The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

He marked them in their rude advance,

He hushed their rebel cheers;

With one extremely vulgar glance

He broke the Mutineers.

(I have a picture in my book

Of how he broke them with a look.)

We shot and hanged a few, and then

The rest became devoted men.

As General Kitchener was marching across the desert in 1897, Rudyard Kipling had already commandeered the word Maxim. He made it a verb, describing a British sergeant, a man “with a charm for making riflemen from mud,” training his colonial charges in the arts of military rule.

Said England unto Pharaoh, “I must make a man of you,

That will stand upon his feet and play the game;

That will Maxim his oppressor as a Christian ought to do.”69

In early 1899, Kipling followed with another poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” encouraging the United States to invade the Philippines. By now machine gunnery was a symbol with many meanings. Opponents of colonialism mocked Kipling’s poem for its racist undertone. Henry Labouchère, a parliamentarian who had used his office to condemn the activities of the British military and trading companies abroad, wrote a jeering retort, “The Brown Man’s Burden.” It was an anticolonial and anti–machine gun screed, summarized in verse.

Pile on the brown man’s burden:

And, if ye rouse his hate,

Meet his old-fashioned reasons

With Maxims up to date.

With shells and dumdum bullets

A hundred times made plain

The brown man’s loss must ever

Imply the white man’s gain.

Pile on the brown man’s burden,

compel him to be free;

Let all your manifestoes

Reek with philanthropy.

And if with heathen folly

He dares your will dispute,

Then, in the name of freedom,

Don’t hesitate to shoot.

What did Maxim think? He seemed never to express misgiving at the uneven killing taking place under his name. There were signs he approved of and encouraged it. As his fame rose, Maxim became friends with Lord Wolseley, who by then had led two campaigns during which hand-cranked weapons had jammed at crucial times. The general took an early and sustained interest in Maxim’s invention and saw it as a superior arm. Maxim in turn enjoyed Lord Wolseley’s company, even seeing him as an equal, which, given Maxim’s personality and sense of self, was a rare thing. “I sympathized with him deeply because he seemed to be afflicted with a very active imagination,” he wrote, adding that it was “a trouble that I had suffered from for many years.” When the two men discussed machine-gun use, Lord Wolseley asked Maxim to consider making a machine gun that would fire a larger cartridge, something that might pierce the side of ammunition carts from great distances. Maxim saw the request as a distraction from his gun’s main purpose: killing men, especially of the uncivilized sort. “I told him that such a gun would not be so effective as the smaller gun in stopping the mad rush of savages, because it would not fire so many rounds in a minute, and that there was no necessity to have anything larger than the service cartridge to kill a man.”70

The bloodletting that accompanied British colonialism, represented by the Maxim gun, disturbed liberal members of Parliament. After the initial reports of flattening native formations and shredding native defenses were circulated in London, some of the members decried machine gunnery, worrying even that Maxim guns undermined the cause of Christianity by having Christians associated with such a fearsome thing. Maxim showed little interest; his mind was insulated by a sturdy disgust for all talk of the Christian faith, which he saw as a retreat for the mentally weak and a corrosive on modern life. “The Biblical story of the world and man is, even on broad lines, as far as possible removed from the truth,” he wrote. The central narrative of the testaments, he said, “is indefensible.” He relished insulting it. “Our civilization,” he concluded, “has been retarded more than a thousand years by the introduction of Christianity.”71

His views on race were equally severe. “A black man,” he declared, “has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” Late in life, he described belittling blacks in the United States in the service of his early business interests. Before taking a trip to Atlanta in the early 1870s to oversee the installation of one of his automatic gas machines at the grand Kimball House hotel, he bought a photograph of “a New Guinea nigger; it was the niggerest-looking nigger I had ever seen.” Maxim thought the picture might charm his Southern hosts. At the time, Pinckney Pinchback, the son of a slave and the slave’s master, was serving as governor of Louisiana, to many a white Southerner’s dismay. Maxim wrote the words “Governor Pinchback” on the photograph and carried it in his pocket. At moments he deemed convenient, he produced his photograph for his white clients. It was a Maxim calling card. “Whenever we were discussing niggers and politics I used to take out this photograph and hand it to them,” he said. What are we coming to, some of the men would exclaim. Next we will have a gorilla. Maxim maintained his sense of racial superiority, and his disdain for blacks, throughout his life.72

There were signs that some of Maxim’s contemporaries understood the role Maxim and his guns had assumed, and were not positively impressed at the ease with which he accepted it. In 1900, Lord Salisbury, Britain’s prime minister, attended a banquet of the British Empire League, where Maxim was being feted. The inventor was sixty now, white-haired and with a thick, jutting goatee. He had amassed wealth as his guns had been taken into service by armies across Europe. When Lord Salisbury’s turn came to compliment him, the prime minister was ready with his toast.

“Well, gentlemen, do you know, I consider Mr. Maxim to be one of the greatest benefactors the world has ever known?” he said.

Maxim was curious. “And how?” he asked.

“Well,” said Salisbury. “I should say that you have prevented more men from dying of old age than any other man that ever lived.”73

If Maxim had a response, it was not reported by the newspaper correspondent in attendance. The premier’s subtly caustic remark did not reflect the official stance. Maxim guns had brought victory to England. Maxim’s place was secure. In victory was glory, and official gratitude. He was knighted the following year.

i Maxim’s difficult personality would not help him in his relations with Vickers. He would retire in February 1911. On a motion in March by Albert Vickers, one of Maxim’s earliest supporters, the firm would quickly strike the word Maxim from the company name and its correspondence, becoming Vickers, Ltd.

ii An estuary or creek; the Sudanese commander sought protection for his forces in a ditch.

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