World One War: Vicker's Machine Gun

Vickers Mark 1 Machine Gun - .303 British
Vickers Mark 1 Machine Gun - .303 British
Firing Lever of Vickers circled, the reason for holding the grip in such a way
Firing Lever of Vickers circled, the reason for holding the grip in such a way
Vickers Machine Gun team
Vickers Machine Gun team

The Vickers Machine Gun or ‘Vickers’ is one of the most well-known machine guns of the twentieth century and ultimately the First World War.  The name ‘Vickers’ refers to the water-cooled .303 machine gun produced by Vickers Limited between 1912 and 1968.

Its long service in war, peace and civil administration has made it recognisable throughout the world.  Its distinct shape has made it instantly recognisable in films such as Gandhi, Michael Collins and Lawrence of Arabia.

Following the purchase of the Maxim Company in 1896, Vickers redrew and improved the design by removing all unnecessary weight in parts and substituting components made from high strength alloys.

Vickers new machine gun was formally accepted by the Army as its main machine gun in November 1912.  Despite this, by the outbreak of war in 1914, there were shortages of Vickers machine guns; thus the BEF or British Expeditionary Force used both Vickers and Maxims in the early days of WW1.

When war was declared in August 1914, Vickers was producing 12 machine guns per week.  Demand was that high, that Vickers had to increase production.  Overall in 1915 Vickers supplied the British armed forces with 2,405 guns.  The production had more than doubled by the following year to 7,429. In total by 1918, 39,473 Vickers Machine guns were produced, seeing service in France, Russia, Palestine and East Africa.

The effectiveness of the Vickers was shown during the allied attack on High Wood on the 24th August 1916, as it is estimated that ten Vickers fired over one million rounds in the space of twelve hours!

Throughout the First World War, the Vickers was superseded by the Lewis Gun, and as the Lewis was adopted as a light machine gun and issued to Infantry units, the Vickers was redefined as a heavy machine gun, withdrawn from Infantry units and grouped into the new Machine Gun Corps.

The weight of the Vickers varied depending on what gear was attached, however the main gun weighed between 25-30lb and the tripod the gun was mounted on weighed between 40-50lb.  The 250 round ammunition boxes weighed 22lb each, and the gun required 7.5 imperial pints of water in its evaporative cooling system to stop it from overheating.  The resulting heat created when firing, boiled the water in the jacket surrounding it.  The result was that steam was taken by a flexible tube to a condenser container.  This system was beneficial because it avoided giving the location of the gun away and the water collected could be reused.

The standard round for most British weapons of the First World War was the .303 inch round.  This type of round was used in the Vickers, Lewis Gun and Lee-Enfield Rifle.  In terms of the Vickers, 250 rounds were hand loaded into canvas ammunition belts.  In particular there was also a 0.5inch calibre which was used as an anti-aircraft weapon.

Furthermore, as the Vickers was bought and used by other powers, Vickers produced various calibres to meet the demands of the buyer.

The gun was 3ft and 8 inches long (1.1m) and its rate of fire was between 450-600 rounds per minute.  With skilled crews and practice, it was expected that 100,000 rounds could be fired per hour, and the barrel changed every hour.  The muzzle velocity of the Vickers was 744m/sec and the effective range was 2,187yds (2,000m).  The maximum range was 4,500yds (4,100m)

The gun and tripod were carried separately, as both were heavy.  Although in its original design the gun was not designed to be manhandled by its crew, the weapon was so popular that the crew were more than willing to man-pack it through all terrain.  The tripod was placed to create a firm base, and its legs were weighed down to counter the recoil.  The water jacket would be filled with water and in some cases when water was not available, the crews would urinate into the jacket.  The downside of this was that as the urine became heated it gave off a pungent smell and it corroded the inner lining of the barrel.

The Vickers generally required a crew of six or eight to operate and carry all the equipment.

The loader sat to the gunners’ right and fed in the canvas belts.  The firing mechanism would draw in the belt, push each round out of the belt and into the breach, fire it, and then eject the brass cartridge out of the bottom.  The gunner was taught to place the two fingers of both hands on top of the firing grip and press the trigger with his thumbs.  The reason for this was the blowback lever (circled just in front of the gunners’ right hand) would swing back at a high rate as each round was fired through the gun.  If the gunner’s hands weren’t positioned properly, the lever would crack into his knuckles.

The Vickers was utilised for indirect fire against targets up to a range of 4,500 yards.  This so called ‘plunging’ fire was devastatingly used against trench systems, road junctions and formation points.  In some cases an enemy location was zeroed in on during the day and attacked at night.  A white disc would be set up on a pole near the MMG, and the gunner would aim for a mark on it, knowing that this corresponded to aiming at the distant target.  The Vickers had a back sight with a tall extension for this very purpose.  The Germans had a similar weapon, the MG 08, which had a separate attachment sight with a range calculator.

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Firing Vickers in North Arizona

Position 4 in Top 10 Guns

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Comments 1 comment

Tom Dokulil 14 months ago

A great "picture book" on this subject is Machine Guns of World War One by Robert Bruce

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