For a while now I’ve been following the rabbit hole of machine gun use in the second half of the 19th century – the days of the manually-operated machine gun (Gatling, Gardner, Nordenfelt, etc) and the early days of the Maxim. The persistent question is, why didn’t anyone seem to recognize the military potential of these new weapons? Why, after literally 50 years of exposure to automated firepower, did Europe send a whole generation of young men walking into masses of them?
Well, David Armstrong does an exemplary job answering this question for the United States in Bullets and Bureaucrats: The Machine Gun and the United States Army, 1861-1916. Drawn heavily from period reports, official correspondence, and other primary sources, Armstrong shows how and why the US Army failed to understand how to make use of these new arms. The writing is dry in places (though not nearly as much as one would expect given the subject matter) but overall engaging, and refreshingly free from hyperbole – except when quoting some of the colorful personalities involved in the story, like Captain John Henry Parker.
The two dominant factors that lay in the path of sensible machine gun doctrine for the US were a small mostly-peacetime military budget and a lack of interest in finding the useful role of the guns. With the gift of hindsight we can clearly see today how machine guns can be used in all manner of military maneuvers, but in the latter half of the 1800s those roles were completely novel. The early manual guns like the Gatling were heavy and bulky, and thus mounted on artillery carriages – and this led to them being treated like artillery. They were considered poor performs because they were compared to large-bore guns firing canister shot, and tended to be deployed to forts where they were carefully stored to prevent wear or damage – virtually no ammunition was supplied for training with them, so nobody was able to learn how to use them effectively.
By the time the Army finally started to open up its collective mind to the tactical possibilities in the first decade of the 20th century, the whole process hit a wall with the adoption of the Benet-Mercie. It was adopted after a brief trial because it was far more portable and faster into action than the 1904 Maxim. Only later once the decision was made was it realized that the Benet-Mercie was severely limited in effective accuracy and rate of fire compared to the Maxim. The Army went from the mistake of using machine guns as artillery to the mistake of using an automatic rifle as a heavy machine gun. By the time this was corrected and the Army adopted the Vickers, it had become impossible to get them from England because of the ongoing World War. And thus American troops arrived in France with a few Benet-Mercie guns, no experience, and practically no training with them.
Anyway, this is the story which Armstrong tells in superb detail, from the days of Ordnance Chief Ripley (who said “no” even more than Calvin Coolidge) to the War Department’s inability to even find out the details of machine gun usage in the Great War until it was too late to do anything about it. For anyone interested in the history of US military small arms, this is definitely a book you should have in your library.
Predictably, it is out of print – but there are lots of copies available used. As I’m writing this, Amazon has one for less than $6, and then a half dozen more in the $25 range. Whoever gets there first can snag the cheap copy. 🙂