MG08: The Devil’s Paintbrush

The MG08 was the German Army standard Maxim gun in World War One. The Germany Navy adopted the Maxim first in 1894, followed by the Army in 1899, then a new pattern in 1901, and finally the MG08 in 1908. This was actually a somewhat old-fashioned pattenr of Maxim when it was adopted, as the Germans chose to use the 1889-style lock, which was neither headspace adjustable not field-strippable. Their decision was based on the idea that they could produce locked to perfect interchangeable headspace, and field stripping was not really necessary – and they were not wrong in these assumptions. MG08 guns were issued with two spare locks in each sled mount, and that handled any broken parts that might occasionally happen. During the war, about 106,000 MG08s were built by two main factories, the Spandau Arsenal and the DWM company. This remained the standard German Army heavy machine gun until the adoption of the MG34.


  1. It’s nice to see the tripod get some attention…

    All of the weapons we call “machine guns” that aren’t the Automatic Rifle/LMG class are properly a hell of a lot more than the gun component. They’re the key parts, but the inner workings of the gun crews and the so-called “accessories” have rather more to do with the efficacy of the overall system than many appreciate.

    German machinegun doctrine and practice acknowledged this fact, and that had one hell of a lot more to do with their oversized effect in WWI and WWII than we’d like to acknowledge.

    There was a very telling display I once saw, laid out by a re-enactor, wherein he had all the bits and bobs of the MG34/42 family laid out for its configuration as a heavy machinegun (tripod-mounted, sustained fire sense of the term…) compared to what the gun crews of an equivalent US or British weapon had. It was telling; the additional sights (periscopic, so to keep the heads of the gunners below the line of sight/fire…) and other things like rangefinders and spares was awe-inspiring. As well, the very well thought-out details like the spare parts/tool kit built into a standard ammo box… Yeah, there was a lot of gear for the German gun crew, but all of it had a purpose and went to enhance the lethality of the system and crew. I forget if the rangefinder was a crew or a platoon-level asset, but it was there, usually in periscopic form so as to keep the user below the line of sight.

    It’s rather annoying to realize that the German gun crew of WWII was rather better off for equipment than our own modern-day equivalent. Particularly when you also recognize that miniaturization and better optics could massively reduce the size/weight of things like the rangefinders…

    Swear to God, gimme a budget and some time to experiment, and I’m morally certain I could up the actual effect of our gun crews just by improving the training and buying/building better kit. I’d love to have the ability to play around with adding in synthetic situational awareness through drones and remote cameras slaved to an automated “sentry gun” tripod situation like the moviemakers showed us in Aliens. Something like that was technically feasible back in the 1990s, if only just barely. Today? It’s amazing that we haven’t implemented a unified system yet…

    • Maybe the Army is too busy using the doctrine “every man a perfect shot” to think about how to effectively neutralize the enemy. I don’t care about someone’s score at Camp Perry, I care about how well they keep themselves from getting killed and about how much they frustrate the opponent’s strategic objectives. A full machine gunner kit as you described would certainly make the enemy miserable once you got the MG crew into a good position, because without heavy fire support or a strategic height advantage (like the hilltops, perhaps), there’s no way can they take your crew out.

      • No way huh? How about a cheap Chinese drone with a grenade dangling underneath? Pretty sure this has been done lately….somewhere….

        • TBH, I see an awful lot of “missed opportunities” with the fighting I’m seeing and reading about in Ukraine.

          I think that just a couple of observation drones teamed with MG and mortar teams that were properly trained on delivering indirect fires would be incredibly lethal, and a lot less work than the FPV “solution”. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not seeing a lot of sophisticated work with either the mortars or MG teams: There ought to be pre-registered “range cards” coupled with the drones, where you’d go out and make some range marker equivalents for the drones to use as TRPs for adjusting fire… It may be that I’m just not seeing it done, but most of the MG and mortar work I’ve seen is very simplistic and not at all as sophisticated as I’d hope for after ten years of combat experience.

          Good God, but the things I could have done on a defense with drones for just observation, back in the day… Gimme a week to work on the battle area, and it’s going to take a regiment of dead to get through to just the first line of defenses.

        • A drone used as described would be considered fire support, just not a traditional form of such. Remember what happens when a horde of Russian conscripts is forced to charge uphill at a set of Ukranian machine gun nests without attack drones, artillery fire support, or vehicular support.

          • Uphill? Have you seen videos of Ukrainian terrain? There are no hills for most of the fighting. Do you have any clue beyond video games? Or Sergeant Fury comics?

    • Kirk, Regarding your improving the effectiveness of our modern troops just by improving their training. Well….. All good ideas, however, that’s already a thriving industry in the DoD world. Live/Virtual Constructive Reality has also been a part of the industry for quite a while. Linking real assets, i.e. tanks, aircraft, ships, etc. to multiple integrated simulators to achieve large force training has been around for quite a number of years.

    • Kirk:

      No, you need a new weapon system in a new calibre. Get with the programme. Don’t you care about Sig’s share price? What’s wrong with you?

      • What’s wrong with me…?


        I’m that guy who was saying “Hey, why are spending any money at all for front handguards and heatshields on the M240, when everyone else hasn’t, like, ya know… Bothered? We could just… Train the troops not to touch the hot barrels and gas tubes, maybe? Much cheaper, and it gives you a handy discriminator to see if you really want PFC Schmedlap the cretin to re-enlist… Dude burns his widdle handsies-wandsies on the barrels, he might not be the guy to keep on the active rolls, ya know…?”

        I’d last about five minutes in todays much touchier-feelier Army. I ran into a recruiter, the other day, and he was like “Hey, ya know… They’re taking in retirees, these days…”

        I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in his face. Poor guy meant well, I guess.

  2. Considering that astronomical figures that are sometimes quoted as the number of machine guns Germany had in 1914, it is very good to hear Ian using the actual number of about 4500 (he says 4411, the Reichsarchiv figure is 4502). And to be sure, there was no strategic reserve.
    FN of Belgium is mentioned as being stripped of machine tools. Belgium was a victim of German aggression, no doubt. But already before 1914, FN majority shareholder was German DWM. (Result of a conflict over rifle production rights.)

    • I don’t know that the stats about any of that stuff can be really relied on. Between the destruction of archives, the way the Germans hid stuff from the Allied disarmament commission, and outright deliberate obfuscation before, during, and after both wars?

      It’d be my estimation that while we can come close to knowing what the paperwork we have left says, the actual reality might be somewhat… Different.

      I’d love to be able to go back and spend time wandering through what archives have available, but… Man. When they’re scattered over most of two continents, and broken up by the victors as spoils? It’d be an amazing thing if you could really get down to the actual facts. The records are in worse shape than many realize; that gentleman I keep talking about who built his own German machinegun archive? He spent most of his 30-odd year career as a DA civilian in Germany looking for stuff and collecting it. Some of the obscure crap he had was bizarre, and I’m not sure it was duplicated anywhere. He had, for example, a record-book from one of the major German arsenals/depots that had every machinegun and machinegun-adjacent weapon that had been returned to it for repair or refurbishment, and you could see where they’d been logged in as to where they’d been and what was wrong with them, plus what was done with them. It was part of a multi-volume set that he’d picked up at a flea market somewhere in Berlin, and you could feel the history wafting up from it as you went through. If I remember rightly, it was from somewhere in the middle of 1943, and covered a couple of thousand entries. Fascinating stuff, and seriously esoteric. You could probably have gotten a lot of good data out of those records for what stood up to combat and what didn’t… As best I could tell, it also included info about gauging some of the weapons for whether or not it was even worth trying to refurbish them.

      Stuff like that is what we’re missing, and I rather doubt that we’ll ever really get the full story, despite the well-known German penchant for documenting everything.

  3. To the naysayers, there is nothing wrong with making every person a good shot. Machineguns are not the answer to everything. Training makes a weapon more than just a machine. A human well trained makes a weapon a killer/viable force. Yay for the accurate rifleman. Stay home if you can’t hit the target and he an armchair philosopher.

    • Yes, there is “something wrong with making everyone a good shot”, particularly when you take it past the point of fetish.

      The sad reality is that the infantryman with rifle has not been the “arm of decision” since about the 1890s. The cult of the individual rifleman has raised its anachronistic and obsolete head precisely the way that horse cavalry did; it’s a romantic image, one that everyone loves because they’ve been brainwashed into thinking that a bunch of individuals with uber-rifles are war-winning tools of victory. They are not.

      The reality is that training time and money is finite; if I have the choice between making my men National Match-level shooters out to 800m vice being happy with them being effective marksmen out to about 300m, and then spending the training time and money I didn’t spend on pointless marksmanship training doing things like teaching them to observe targets and pass that information on to the actually lethal weapons the squad carries? Teaching them the teamwork that actually matters? Spend the money on the ammo to actually build machinegun teams that can support dynamic offensive operations, instead of focusing on defense of fixed positions?

      Guess what? My squad of pragmatic realists is going to send your squad of uber-marksmen home in body bags, every goddamn time. Why? Because I’m doing what I need to do in order to ensure that we’re getting the best bang for our buck, time- and money-wise. The rifle has not been an “arm of decision” for a very, very long time. The sooner that the atavist romantics figure that out, the better off we’re all going to be. Your ilk lost us a lot of fights in Afghanistan because your ideas about combat simply do not work.

      Rifles are tools for local security and close combat. Period. Past the 300m mark? Their use actually precludes victory, because you’re only shooting at individual point targets that you can see, and not addressing the likely enemy forces around that one dumbass that skylined himself. You see an individual past 300m, you don’t shoot at him; you get the MG team to shoot at the entire area around him. That’s how you win the fight, and the romantic idea that you’re going to be capping onesies and twosies past 300m is how and why we keep losing battles since WWII. The Vietnam generation figured that out, and then the idjits we have running the Army and Marine Corps since then sorta forgot that whole series of ugly lessons.

      If you’re stupid enough to get into a small-arms centric fight in the first Goddamn place, you sure as hell don’t fight it with rifles past 300m. You fight that fight with the appropriate tools, which are machineguns, mortars, and grenade launchers. Along with the radio, which you use to call for fire from aviation and artillery…

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