One of the relatively few successful competitors to the Maxim in the early days of the heavy machine gun was the Col Model 1895 (aka, the Potato Digger). When it was adopted by the US in 1895, one of the elements in its favor was its light weight – just 35 pounds (not including mount). The Colt was an air cooled gun, which is a large part of how it was able to be so much lighter than the Maxim. This, predictably, did not sit well with Hiram Maxim, and he proceeded to make an extra-light version of the Maxim.
This version weighed in at just 27.5 pounds (12.5kg) of gun, and 44.5 pounds (20.2kg) complete with its tripod mount. That was quite impressively light, and it impressed the US trials board. However, this weight reduction was accomplished in large part be eliminating the cooling water and reducing the diameter of the barrel jacket (a jacket was still required to provide a bearing surface at the end of the barrel for the recoil action). Four cooling holes were cut in the bottom of the jacket, but these were wildly insufficient to allow proper cooling of the barrel, and as a result he gun overheated quickly. Maxim himself suggested that firing more than 400 rounds continuously would be unsafe. Why a much more heavily perforated jacket was not tried (as would be used 20 years later for the aircraft Maxims used by several nations) is not clear – it may simply have not been an idea that was considered in time.
A quick-change barrel would have helped to ameliorate the gun’s cooling liability, but this was not really possible with the general Maxim action. As a result, the Extra-Light Maxim failed to attract any significant sales, with handfuls of examples being sold here and there for evaluation and little more (for example, the company’s attempt to market a two-man, two-gun tricycle failed to gain any buyers). It did serve to keep Maxim’s name in the minds of the US military, though, and this would finally pay dividends when the US adopted a more standard Maxim gun in 1904.
Mechanically, the Extra Light was not the dead end that its commercial failure would suggest. It incorporated several new ideas, most notably a fully internal mainspring. Rather than having the mainspring (fusee) attached to the outside of the receiver, in this model it was internal. This saved space and weight (no mainspring cover need, for example), but at the cost of not being readily adjustable. That adjustability was important to the Maxim’s reliability, and the internal spring would not see further use. The other new feature of the Extra Light would become standard for all Maxim guns, however.
Note the internal mainspring
This second new feature was the use of an elegantly curved crank handle in conjunction with a roller cam. This made the transition from rearward recoiling motion to rotational unlocking motion much smoother than in the earlier models (in which two flat surfaces slammed together) and reduced the potential for parts breakage. This improvement (along with 12 others) was patented by Maxim in 1894 British patent #16,260.
The curved crank handle and roller bearing introduced on the Extra Light which would become standard for all future Maxims.
Very few of these guns exist today, and I has the opportunity to take some photographs of one example complete with its tripod:
The curved crank handle introduced on the Extra Light which would become standard for all future Maxims.
The Grant Hammond .45 pistol is a gun which was too late to take part in the major 1907 US military pistol trials, and which was instead presented proactively to the military in hopes of supplementing or replacing the current issue pistol (the Remington M53 falls into this same category). Unfortunately for Mr. Hammond, his design just wasn’t good enough to pass muster (the Remington actually would have had a real shot at adoption had it been in the 1907 trials).
Hammond’s early patents were for an exceedingly complex design, which combined elements of blow-forward and long recoil operation (you can see my video on a Hammond .32 prototype), but by the time he was making the gun in .45 for trials he had simplified it considerably. As proposed to the military, it was a short-recoil mechanism with a vertically-sliding locking block. The first prototypes would actually eject their magazine automatically when it ran dry, but this feature was not like, and was removed from later production.
In total, only a handful of Hammond pistols were made. They underwent several military tests in 1917 and 1918, and proved quite accurate – but not durable or reliable enough for further consideration.
I initially figured these Q&A video would be a fun little side note, and I have been a bit taken aback by how popular they became…and so they keep getting longer. This one clocks in at nearly 50 minutes, and I think I got some particularly good questions. Let me know what you think!
Would we still have Browning pistols if the 1911 had not been adopted?
Gun designs from non-industrialized places
British .303 Conversions of the Martini
Weapons best left forgotten
What conflict led to weapons innovation besides the World Wars?
Reproductions I would like to see, and why we won’t see them
Want to get your question in for next month’s Q&A? Head over to my Patreon page and sign up for just a buck a month. It lets me continue bringing you Forgotten Weapons, and it makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside!
Note: I mentioned not having seen a photo of an MG-81 in ground use, and a viewer send me a link to this photo:
One of the universal misconceptions about World War One on the parts of its combatants was how long it was expected to last. When war broke out, the prevailing assumption on all sides was that the conflict would be short – troops would all be home by Christmas of 1914. The meat grinder of trench warfare stalemate was not anticipated, nor the horrific toll such warfare would take on the men and armies participating.
The euphemistic term for men and equipment being blown into unrecognizable pieces was “wastage” – and even as early as the autumn of 1914 wastage was consuming as many as 40,000 rifles per month. This led to a huge pressure to equip soldiers on the front lines, with a combination of a growing army as more troops were recruited and conscripted and the loss of rifles to combat. The primary rifle of the French army at this time was the M1886 R93 Lebel, which was a reasonably expensive and time-consuming weapon to produce. Not really a big deal during peacetime, but the sudden demand for rifles far outpaced production capacity. So while that production capacity was increased, other solutions had to be found.
One major solution was to take away the Lebel rifles from troops who didn’t really need the best weaponry (POW camp guards, drivers, some artillery crews, etc), give them a substitute rifle, and send their nice new Lebels to the front. Of course, you would ideally want those substitute rifles to use the same standard 8x50R ammunition as the Lebel. Two of the most common solutions were the Remington Rolling Block and the Mle 1874 Gras.
Mle 1914 Remington Rolling Block
France (along with dozens of other nations) had issued Remington Rolling Block rifles in the late 1800s, when the RRB was one of the most prolific military rifles on the planet. As a single-shot black powder rifle, they had few major competitors on the commercial market. Well, in 1914 the arms production capacity of the Remington company was available to anyone with money. The Rolling Block was obsolete by this time (Remington had ceased production of all but the rimfire models), but the tooling was still there and the design remained inexpensive, robust, and reliable. In November 1914 the French government placed an order for 100,000 of the rifles (including some carbines) in 8mm Lebel, with wooden upper handguards and bayonets.
These would prove to be the only single-shot rifles manufactured new for use in the Great War. The first deliveries began in March 1915, and by June of that year Remington was producing 500 per day. The entire contract was delivered on schedule by early 1916. These Remington rifles were marked a bit differently than typical French-production military arms. They were serial numbered on the stock and the barrel only (and this was done upon receipt in France, not by Remington), and some inspections like confirming parts interchangeability with other manufacturers was skipped (since Remington was the only manufacturer). The one identifying mark from Remington (aside from the patents marked on the tang) was “CAL 8MM” stamped on the barrels. These were the only smokeless-powder 8mm Rolling Blocks made, and thus are fairly easy to identify upon inspection.
The bayonets provided had 405mm blades per French requirement, but were otherwise basically identical to the bayonets Remington had manufactured for military Rolling Block contracts in past decades. After the end of WWI, the Rolling Blocks remained in inventory, and some – including the one photographed below – remained there at least into the 1930s, as evidenced by it’s “N” chamber conversion.
Mle 1914 Remington Rolling Block in 8mm Lebel:
Mle 1874 M14 Gras
Another major source of substitute standard rifles for the French early in the war was the conversion of 1874 Gras rifles. Originally chambered for the 11x59mm black powder cartridge, there were a lot of Gras rifles sitting in inventory in 1914. In order to modernize them for the 8mm Lebel cartridge, a somewhat unusual plan was devised. Rather than bore out and sleeve the existing barrels, brand new Lebel barrels and sights were fitted to the Gras receivers. Presumably the barrel production capacity for the Lebel exceeded the overall rifle capacity, and excess barrels could be siphoned off to projects like these conversions with impacting overall rifle production.
One consequence of using Lebel barrels, however, was that they had a significantly smaller outside diameter than the original 11mm barrels. This meant that pieces like the front barrel band would not fit without modification. The solution to this problem was to cut off the front few inches of the old 11mm barrels, bore them out, and fit them over the new Lebel barrel. This allowed the front band and the front end of the stock to fit as originally designed, and it also meant that the front sight and bayonet lug from the Gras could be reused, reducing production costs (and allowing the use of existing Gras bayonets rather than requiring additional new Lebel bayonets).
Some of the Gras rifles in inventory were in fact conversions from the even earlier Mle 1866 Chassepot needle rifle, and so 8mm conversions can be found marked both as Mle 1874 and as Mle 1866-74. Virtually all of these rifles would have been updated to the 1880 pattern (which improved gas venting, among other things), and will thus also be marked “M80” on the right side of the receiver. The 8mm conversions can be identified by an additional “M14” stamp on the left of the receiver as well as the use of the Lebel style rear sight and a wooden upper handguard.
As with the Rolling Blocks above, M14 Gras rifles were put into storage at the end of the war and some remained at least into the 1930s. The one pictured below has been converted to the “N” chamber in the 1930s, and also painted with black enamel (another 1930s practice).
It should be noted that while the Rolling Blocks were designed from specifically for smokeless powder modern cartridges, the Gras is a single locking lug design not intended to high pressure ammunition. It was deemed safe enough by the French, but present-day collectors and shooters would probably be well advised to inspect them carefully prior to fiting, and consider using only light handloads – or not shooting them at all. Definitely don’t use surplus Balle N machine gun ammunition.
The Scotti Model X (the X standing for the 10th year of the Italian Fascist era, or 1932) was one of several semiauto rifles tested by the Italian military during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Scotti entry into these competitions was chambered for the 6.5mm Carcano cartridge and used standard 6-round clips, identical to the Carcano bolt action rifles. It also used sights basically identical to Carcano rifle sights. Where it was rather unusual was its open-bolt action, a system typically found in machine guns.
Open bolt means that when the rifle is ready to fire, the bolt is locked all the way back. Upon pulling the trigger, the bolt moves forward, picking up a cartridge, chambering it, firing it by means of a fixed firing pin, and then extracting and ejecting the spent case and locking open again, ready for another shot. This system can be used with either locked or blowback actions, and the Scotti X uses a two-lug rotating bolt to lock during firing.
In total, just about 250 Scotti Model X rifles were manufactured, and the never progressed past initial field trials. A few later models were made in very small numbers as late as 1936, but these also failed to gain any acceptance. I made some slow motion videos of this rifle a little while back, and finally took the time to do a complete video on it, including disassembly:
When we last left Hiram Maxim, he had perfected his very first machine gun – the world’s first practical machine gun, really. However, while his gun worked well, it was not yet a design which was suitable for military acceptance. It was too large, too complex, and too expensive. If he wanted the gun to become popular, Maxim needed to make it quick and easy to assembly and disassemble.
One of the major hurdles to doing that was the feed system. Maxim’s first gun had a feed system with two separate spindles – it took a lot of space, and was too complicated. He also needed to simplify elements like the rate of fire control, to remove components like hydraulics from the gun. The first major step in this direction was detailed in Maxim’s patent #1307 of 1885. In this gun we can clearly see a gun halfway to becoming the classic Maxim which we are familiar with today.
The feed system of this gun was reduced to having only one spindle, and the lock was beginning to look like a proper Maxim lock. The moving parts were simplified to the barrel, sideplates, and lock, operating inside a fixed receiver box. The fusee spring made its first appearance, and the crank handle took a form which was starting to look like the final version. I do not know how many of these guns were ever made, but I suspect it could be as few as just one, as they were never marketed in any way, and served simply as an experimental stepping stone. As far as I know, none exist today. However, the same fellow who created the animation of the first Maxim has done a similarly exhaustive and outstanding job modeling this Patent #1307 design:
While this second prototype design was an important step forward, it was not enough. The gun had to be still simpler and more user-friendly. The result was what became known as the “Transitional” gun, and its main innovation was to make the feedblock and lock into self-contained and interchangeable components. This would become one of the fundamental strengths of the Maxim; that the gun would disassemble into discreet pieces, each easily removed and replaced. Thanks to our talented computer modeling benefactor, we have a great video showing the workings of the Transitional as well!
In addition, I had a chance to get a bunch of photos of a very rare surviving Transitional. I will leave you with those, and our next chapter in this story will be when Maxim finally breaks through with his World Standard gun and starts selling them in real numbers!
Best known as the first semiautomatic service rifle adopted by a mainstream military force, the 1908 Mondragon was designed by Mexican native Manuel Mondragon, manufactured by SIG in Switzerland, and adopted by the Mexican Army (Ejercito Mexicano). The adoption was short lived, however, as the guns proved unreliable with the low-quality 7mm Mauser ammunition made in Mexico at the time (although they ran fine with high-quality European ammo).
After a partial delivery, Mexico refused to pay for or accept delivery of more, and this left SIG in an awkward position. They would try to sell the rifles for several year, including an attempt to market them to Germany during WWI as aviators’ rifles, with detachable magazines and brass-catching bags. No significant purchases resulted, though.
In this video I will examine 4 different examples of the Mondragon:
A prototype 1900 model self-loader, which uses the 1908-style action but with en bloc clips instead of stripper clips
A Mexican-issue 1908, complete with bipod and spade bayonet
A 1908 rebarreled in 8mm Mauser and send to Germany during WWI
Aside from being one of the more unfortunately-named early repeating pistols, the Schlegelmilch is also one of the earliest and more unusual mechanically. It also the only example I am familiar with of a pistol made entirely with square-headed bolts rather than slotted screws, for what it’s worth.
Schlegelmilch, right side (click to enlarge)
The gun was designed in (or about) 1891 by Louis Schlegelmilch, who was at the time the chief armorer at the Spandau Arsenal in Germany. It is chambered for a proprietary 7.5mm cartridge, and was built for a series of trials in 1891/2 to find a replacement for the 1884 Reichsrevolver. The trials failed to find a gun worthy of adoption, and the Schlegelmilch was never manufactured again.
In total less than 20 examples were made, of two different variations. Only one of each variation is known to survive today (the other one in the collection of the Koblenz museum). I am not familiar with how the other variation differed form this example, but the mechanics of this one are quite interesting enough on their own.
The Schlegelmilch is not actually a semiautomatic pistol, really, but rather a mechanical repeater. The difference being that in a semiauto, the mechanism is operated by energy from the firing, in the form of either gas or recoil. Mechanical repeaters have no system for utilizing the energy of a fired cartridge and instead rely on the shooter to provide all the input to cycle the action. Other examples of mechanical repeaters include the Volcanic, the Berger, and the Schulhof (among many others).
Schlegelmilch left side (click to enlarge)
The Schlegelmilch can be used as a double action weapon by simply pulling the trigger or as a single action weapon by manually cocking the hammer and then releasing it with a shorter trigger pull. The James D Julia catalog entry from when this pistol sold a couple years ago has a good description of the mechanical action:
Bringing the hammer to half cock moves the bolt horizontally to the left, exposing the entire chamber, while simultaneously moving the extractor rearward to eject a fired cartridge case. The magazine is fed from above with a stripper clip. Continuing the hammer cock pushes a loading arm forward that feeds the next round into the chamber. Near the end of the hammer movement the bolt returns to the right into the closed position, aligning a freely moving pin in the frame with a concentric firing pin in the bolt. After pulling the trigger to drop the hammer, the trigger springs back to its original position during which time the loading arm retracts and the cycling arm repositions the bolt for the next operation phase. Mounted to the left frame is checkered safety lever that blocks the mechanism when moved up.
Schlegelmilch action open (click to enlarge)
In short, pulling the trigger causes the bolt to move left, an extractor to pull out the fired round, a loading arm to load a new cartridge, the bolt to return to the right, and the firing pin to fall and fire the chambered round. How’s that for complicated? As with many of the other early repeating and automatic pistols, this design was technologically advanced but complex and ungainly enough to not actually be more effective in use than a standard old-fashioned revolver.
Holy moley, is that the most dense and snooty post title ever? I think it might be. However, I think it’s a much more interesting subject than most folks might anticipate, and it’s something that came to my attention largely as a result of shooting 2-gun matches with a couple different French rifles. So, bear with me and I think you’ll find it worthwhile!
Here in the US, rifle sights have been designed for basically high power target shooting, for pretty much as long as the US military has used metallic cartridges. The Krag and 1903 Springfield are particularly good examples of this, with front sights that are paper-thin and equally tiny rear notches to fit them in. This allows for very precise shots when the shooter is slung up and looking at a nicely contrasting target…like a black bull on a white background. Here’s what these sort of sights look like from the shooter’s perspective:
1903 Springfield sight picture
Speaking from experience, when you put up a dirty target on a dirt-colored backdrop, it’s all hopeless. The front blade utterly disappears into the target. Now, the French had a pretty similar setup, although not quite so extreme on their pre-WWI rifles:
Berthier 1892 Carbine sight picture
That’s a little better, but not much. Now this is where things get interesting. At some point in 1914 or early 1915, someone with influence in the French ordnance service realized that in real combat you don’t get to take very many slow and deliberate shots at long range – and helpfully stationary – targets. Instead, you often get fleeting snapshots at enemies pretty darn close to you. For that sort of shooting, it’s much more helpful to have a front sight that is fast and easy to acquire, even at the cost of some potential precision.
This notion was (remarkably) acted upon, and in 1915 the French significantly changed the design of their rifle sights, in a way that would have horrified American military experts:
French Berthier sights (L) post-1915 style, (R) pre-1915 style
The new front sight was much wider – ridiculously so by American standards, and had a much wider square notch rear sight to match. It’s a bit hard to make out in this photo, but the top of the front post has a small groove cut in its center, which works as a precise aiming point for those shots where careful precision is possible. This new sight design is significantly easier to use in real-world field conditions, as opposed to formal target shooting.
Post-1915 French rifle sights
Both the US and the French would transition to aperture sights by WWII, but the basic design philosophy of the sights would remain the same in both countries. The US went to a slightly wider front post for the M1 Garand (although not for the 1903A3 aperture sight), but retained a fully-adjustable rear sight – as necessary for effective match shooting. The French went to an aperture on the MAS-36 bolt action and the MAS-40/44/49/56 series of semiautomatic rifles, and kept them bombproof and as soldier-proof as possible. They were adjustable for elevation only, in increments of 100 meters. For windage adjustment, the rear leaf itself would be completely replaced. A set of rear sights was produced with the sight hole drilled off-center by specific amounts (0.4mm and 0.8mm in all directions).
To zero a MAS-36 or semiauto, an armorer would strap the rifle to a rest, and fire on a target with the different sight settings marked. Hit the center bullseye? Great, no change required (the standard sight was marked with an “N”). Hit somewhere else? Swap the rear sight with the alternative one closest to where you were hitting.
French MAS-36 zeroing target (image from Patrick Hernandez)
Here, for example, is a rear sight in a MAS-44 which is off-center to the right to correct zero:
Off-center MAS-44 rear sight to correct zero
This does not allow a soldier to make precise adjustments to his zero to compensate for wind or fine elevation, true. However, with typical military forces, such adjustments will be accidentally messed up more often than they will be correctly utilized, and the French solution here is a quite practical one. It also has the side effect of making the rifles less expensive to make, by eliminating the many small parts required for minutely adjustable sights.
French MAS-36 front sight – fixed in place and virtually bombproof