Maxim “Prototype”: The First Practical Machine Gun

Hiram Maxim was the first person to create a truly practical and functional machine gun, based on a patent he filed in 1883. He pioneered the recoil operating system – the concept of harnessing the recoil generated by a firearm to perform the actions of reloading that firearm. His patent was based on a lever action rifle, but his intent was to create a machine gun, complete with belt feed and water cooling. After a testbed “forerunner” gun, he built this model which he called the “Prototype”. It was meant as a proof of concept, and used in many public exhibitions and demonstrations.

The Prototype used a hydraulic rate of fire control system which could be set as high as 500 rounds/minute (interestingly, the USMC example goes up to 600 rpm) and as low as just one round per minute. The gun did not have a trigger as we would recognize it today, but rather a single lever like a vehicle accelerator which acted as both trigger and fire rate control. Only three of these Prototypes exist today, with one belonging to the USMC, one on public display at the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds, and this one in the NFC reserve collection at Leeds.

For a fantastic exploded view of all this guns working parts, check out this work by YouTube channel vbbsmyt:

Many thanks to the Royal Armouries for allowing me to film this tremendously important artifact! The NFC collection there – perhaps the best military small arms collection in Western Europe – is available by appointment to researchers, but you can also browse the various Armouries collections online.


  1. Excellent introduction by Ian! He is first class Maxim’s salesman 🙂
    Cursory search shows it took Maxim gun mere 10 years form inception to first (bloody) use.

    “The Maxim Machine-Gun was adopted by the British Army in 1889. The following year the Austrian, German, Italian, Swiss and Russian armies also purchased Maxim’s gun. The gun was first used by Britain`s colonial forces in the Matabele war in 1893-94.”

    • I am tempted to say half of the machine gun induced massacres made by European colonialism (along with American expansion and the rise of Imperial Japan) were economically motivated evil as opposed to the usual post-modern anti-textbook interpretations of purely malicious genocide committed just for some psychopath’s fun. Why waste ammo unless there’s farm land or mineral resources to be gained? Just kidding!

      • For a contemporary view might I recommend Hilaire Belloc’s satirical narrative poem “The Modern Traveller” – origin of “Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim Gun and they have not.” The view of Empire and Empire builders wasn’t a simple one, even back then.
        PS The armouries also have the beautiful “Miniature Maxim gun” in 7.63 Mauser (PR7163) that he used when touting his wares around the world. The first SMG?

        • “(…)Belloc(…)”
          I would say attitude toward machine guns in general audience changed after experiences of Great War, as E. Hemingway wrote (around 1923) about MACHINEGUN:

          The mills of the gods grind slowly;
          But this mill
          Chatters in mechanical staccato.
          Ugly short infantry of the mind,
          Advancing over difficult terrain,
          Make this Corona
          Their mitrailleuse.

      • “(…)purely malicious genocide committed just for some psychopath’s fun(…)”
        What if… presence of Maxim machine gun actually prevented bloodshed? Like we do not attack, because we have not chances to win?
        Richard Jordan Gatling noted:
        It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.
        Anyway, Maxim’s machine gun was one of many his inventions, among other Captive Flying Machines amusement ride:
        But Maxim become associated with most lethal one – such was price of success.

        • He was a talented man, definitely not a “bad” guy in true sense of the word. He just wanted people to have more fun.

          • He was, in fact, a “bad man.” Not a bigamist, but a *trigamist!* Clever? Yes. Inventive? Yes. Innovative? Yes and yes.

            “In 1882 I was in Vienna, where I met an American whom I had known in the States. He said: ‘Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.'”

            And so they did! First came ample practice in many tropical lands abroad… That ol’ empire on which the sun never sets… Now deep in darkness.

      • Let’s call it “imperial ambitions” for short. Sure, there was massive loss of life in process. That’s nature of the beast.
        What is most amusing (if that is right choice of word) is that “human” kind is, with some minor bitching, ready for it again.

    • “first class Maxim’s salesman”
      Well, in fact Hiram Maxim was once sales rep of United States Electric Lighting Company for Europe. Why? Before he seriously went into machine gun, he was interesting in developing (back then new-fangled) electricity and usage of it (electrification). T.A.Edison-backing lobby was not happy about rise of competitor, so they arranged that.

      • One funny story about promoters of electricity. City counsel of Prague received offer to replace gas lights by electric ones. The type of current produced for that purpose was direct current. After some time another guy showed up and offered to change it for alternate current, since it was more efficient.
        Gentlemen in counsel were puzzled: are you telling us that you will supply a current, which goes one way and immediately goes back? And you are so cheeky to pay you for it? 🙂

    • There is hardly a man ho invented particular device single-handed from ground up. He typically built on preceding inventions, if they were not explicitly protected by patents.

      I think you are getting to more intriguing point and that is awareness of novelties to general public or individual inventors. That is the juiciest part. It is also possible they arrived to results independently.

      • “There is hardly a man ho invented particular device single-handed from ground up.”

        Oh, hold on Denny – how about Michelangelo with his helicopter. Oh yeah I read of someone, who saw him nailing some boards together on his backyard. Never took off, but anyhow, he did nail those boards 🙂

        • I think you meant Leonardo Da Vinci. He also designed lots of clockwork weapons which could have worked well if properly crafted. His siege ladder-bridge device was tested in a paintball fight (on the Discovery Channel) and allowed the attacking team to storm the fortress walls without the attackers getting splattered in paint…

          • “(…)Leonardo Da Vinci(…)”
            Well, there is known drawing of Da Vinci “Aerial Screw”:
            but it is very unlikely that it would fly. Note that it was supposed to be human-powered so using modern terminology – muscle-chopper:
            Note that first confirmed free flight (at whooping altitude of 20 cm) of such type of machine was accomplished in… 1989. And the they have access to materials about which Da Vinci might only dream.
            Lack of power source with high power-to-mass was serious obstacle to all early aviation pioneers and when suitable power source appeared (internal combustion engines) meant that heavier-than-air machine would sooner or later fly:

            For another mechanical-powered flying apparatus see Aerodynamic:
            it certainly did generated some lift, but it is unclear if it was able to ascend. Interestingly, this design was also unmanned which make it UAV. Screamingly clock-punk, but anyway UAV.

  2. Correction, Ian. First AUTOMATIC Machine Gun. Machine guns back then were considered manual like the Gatling, Nordenfelt, and the Gardner and the term Automatic Machine Gun was corect back in those days.

    • Just a few social and mechanical details:

      Maxim made his gun for the sole purpose of making money, on the advice of a friend who, if I remember correctly, told him, “If you want to make a pile, invent a device that will allow these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” Neither idealism nor patriotism nor higher purpose did he have in mind. From the start he invented a slaughter machine for armies to use on each other, at his own profit, and if those armies happened to impose colonialism on the natives, impose tyrannies on societies, impose democracy on tyrannies, or allowed tyrants to slaughter each other, he cared not. He did not even imagine, as Gatling and Nobel did, that perhaps his device might make war obsolete. Of course if he hadn’t come along the field would be dominated by Browning and Hotchkiss, so we can’t condemn him totally.

      On the other hand he was a mechanical genius and look at which ideas he bequeathed: short recoil to just about everybody, the toggle-lock ten years before Borchardt, the raising/dropping barrel-to-breech lock 13 years before the Mauser Broomhandle and 15 before Schmeisser/Bergmann, the breechblock-accelerator decades before Browning. I am told he invented but failed to patent the classic spring-loaded mousetrap, a product perfect from the start and barely improved by modern materials.

      I should like to see the Maxim-Silverman pistol manufactured today in .22 blowback — it would be nice to see a Maxim product used for peaceable civilian hunting or competition target shooting.

      • It is correct what you mention in first paragraph and well in line with the quote I picked up elsewhere at start; it was all for profit. These guns were soon sold to any- and everyone who felt it would boost their ‘defensive’ objectives. And yes, of course to opposing sides.

        On technical side it is short of amazing, how quickly this original and cumbersome design was refined into familiar forms of Vickers and Spandau. Even Parabellum MG14 was basically Maxim.

        As for toggle coupled with recoiling barrel, it offers itself as simple and logical solution. The only potential hang-up was barrel seal to keep water in jacket. Just imagine those thousands of man-hours spent on that. Simply fascinating!

        • From 1892 onwards, Ludwig Loewe & Co (later DWM) was a licensee of the Maxim Nordenfelt Company. Ludwig’s brother Sigmund Loewe became a British subject and a mananger of Maxim Nordenfelt.

        • Hunting the most dangerous game, are we? Two legged quarry and four legged quarry alike don’t seem to relish the experience of standing in front of any automatic weapon, especially the belt-fed kind!

    • “(…)AUTOMATIC Machine Gun(…)”
      The Romance of Modern Invention, by Archibald Williams from 1907
      use term machine-gun for both hand-powered weapons and that do not required hand-cracking, with giving adjective automatic to latter.
      Intermediate between hand-borne weapons and artillery, and partaking of the nature of both, come the machine-guns firing small projectiles with extraordinary rapidity.
      and that the most modern machine-gun is a marvel of ingenuity and effectiveness.
      then it described following systems: Gatling, Gardner, Nordenfelt, Hotchkiss, Maxim, Colt.

      In my understanding, today term Automatic Machine Gun is pleonasm as every Machine Gun is Automatic, which mean that Automatic Machine Gun is correct from logic point-of-view.

    • Yes, when he was setting up to demonstrate the gun in Russia, Russian ordnance officers were convinced he was lying about the rate of fire, because there was NO way a human could crank the handle back and forth (talking about the cocking handle) fast enough.

      “Machine Gun” they got — but they assumed it meant a manually operated one. They didn’t even think of a true automatic weapon.

    • Okay, agreed. Let me refine my statement: The toggle-lock applied to an automatic action ten years before Borchardt. Thank you for demanding precision.

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