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History of the Automatic Weapon

Updated on March 21, 2012

An automatic weapon is a gun, rifle, or pistol that fires continuously without any external aid such as hand cranking (or even electric power) for as long as the trigger is pressed. Early designs were hand cranked in one way or another, but they laid the framework for the first true automatic weapons.

The best known early mechanical weapon was the Gatling gun, developed by the American inventor Richard Gatling (1818-1903) and first demonstrated in 1863.

This used six barrels rotated by a hand crank; for 50 years the design was sold and copied throughout the world using a wide variety of calibers (barrel sizes). Later, true automatic weapons used electric motors or gas pressure taken from the barrel. In the blowback action, pan of the explosive force propelling the bullet ejects the spent cartridge and re-cocks the firing mechanism. In a gas-operated weapon hot gases, led from the barrel, force back a piston that works the ejection and re-cocking mechanisms.

Another American design was the Lowell gun, produced in 1875. This was also a hand-cranked weapon, but one that overcame the heating problem affecting all machine guns after 300 or 400 rounds (bullets) have been fired, when the barrel becomes too hot for further use. It had four barrels, one of which was used at a time. When this became too hot a new barrel was rotated into position.

The next development came from another American, Hiram Maxim (1840-1916). He designed an automatic weapon in London, by first modifying a Winchester rifle. He used a hook fixed to the barrel to lock the bolt in place for firing. The recoil drove both hook and bolt back until the hook was lifted by passing under a bridge.

The bolt continued back, driving around a crank to extract and reload the cartridge, and was then forced back by a spring. Ammunition was fed into the gun by means of a belt, which could be joined to successive belts to provide long continuous firing.

Satisfied with the success of this design, Maxim simplified it and set up a company to produce the gun with Vickers, the shipbuilding firm . Demonstrations in Europe impressed everybody who saw the gun in action. Vickers eventually took over the company and developed an improved version of the Maxim, which became the standard machine gun for many years.

As designs proliferated, three main mechanisms came into use: blowback, recoil (as in the Maxim), and gas operation.

With the recoil method , the breech is locked to the barrel and they move back as one to start the cycle of extraction, ejection, cocking, chambering, locking, and firing.


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    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, Weaponology! This is a good topic for a Hub, considering your Hub history. I voted up, useful and interesting. I myself have some interest in weapons, acquired over the years and due to various life experiences. I see you do not restrict your interest to modern weapons, as in this particular Hub; you have also written about weapons over the ages.

      I have some suggestions, which I hope will contribute to improving your Hub experience: I think your profile could be improved with more details about yourself and how you do research, etc. on weapons. I would also suggest you take advantage of the lay outs provided by Hubpages, such as capsules, links, maybe even videos, always accentig the weapons and not the deaths. I missed seeing more subtitles as I read your Hub. You could make it more lively, counteracting the rather grim nature of the topic. Also by including some personal references to your stand on human values. Your passion for the weapons themselves comes through, but you could do more!

      Wow! This comment has turned into a lecture! My "teaching" nature will come through! I will be reading some more of your work, especially the more historical ones. Happy Hubbing!