A Million Rounds in Half a Day: The Remarkable British Vickers Machinegun

Change is invariably hard. Whether it is entering a new school or fielding a radical new weapon, such transitions are typically rocky.

Periods of transition are inevitably awkward. Matriculating from Kindergarten into First Grade is reliably trying. Marriage, divorce, graduation, and retirement can all be challenging for their own unique reasons as well. Periods of transition in military history, however, are invariably bloody.

The major combatant nations entered WW1 with substantial numbers of horse cavalry. These mounted soldiers did not fare well on the modern 20th-century battlefield.

For all of its unique capabilities and extraordinary toys, the military mind can be extraordinarily inflexible. Billy Mitchell sacrificed his career to birth airpower, and the equine cavalry was not retired until their horses were mowed down by the hundreds on the industrial battlefield. The absorption of the machinegun into martial doctrine represented another convulsive evolution in military tactics.

The British leadership adapted their organization to maximize the effectiveness of new belt-fed machineguns during WW1.

It really all comes down to turf. Whoever runs the Army will invariably be reticent to embrace new technologies that might threaten their position as apex predators in the military hierarchy. In 1915, however, English military planners leapt outside their comfort zones to fold the revolutionary capabilities of the belt-fed, water-cooled, sustained-fire machinegun into the British order of battle.

An Entirely New Beastie

The British Machinegun Corps was a radical new military formation. Their insignia prominently featured the water-cooled Vickers machinegun.

When the First World War kicked off in July of 1914 British military planners satisfied themselves with a single two-gun machinegun section per infantry battalion or cavalry regiment. Untold thousands of Limey corpses later the English formed the Machinegun Corps (MGC). The MGC was envisioned as being its own branch of the British military on par with the infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The first machinegun training center was established at Belton Park in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. A forward machinegun depot operated at Camiers, France.

Posting to the MGC was an exceptionally hazardous duty. The chattering belt-fed machineguns inevitably drew enemy fire.

The MGC saw service from France to Palestine in all major theaters of the war. The newfound capabilities of the belt-fed machinegun were tested and refined throughout. Along the way British Tommies assigned to the MGC showed remarkable grit. Of the 170,500 troops that served in the MGC during WW1 more than 62,000 became casualties. Almost 12,500 were killed. Early on the MGC was known as “The Suicide Club.”

Exploring the Science

There is a definite art to the long-range employment of sustained-fire machineguns. The British in WW1 were acknowledged masters.

Machine gunnery in the British Army during the First World War bore little similarity to what we might consider the employment of machineguns today. The tactics and tools of the MGC seemed more akin to tube artillery than to infantry fire and maneuver. Relatively immobile sustained-fire guns were employed en mass as well as over and across terrain features in an indirect fire role. The results were utterly devastating.

Belt-fed machineguns are capable of much more than just hosing down a nearby target. This Vickers gun is employed in an antiaircraft role.

The maximum effective range of the British Vickers gun was considered to be 4,500 yards. At these extreme ranges, the guns employed plunging fire wherein rounds were discharged at a high arc to drop onto a target from a sharp angle. Such devastating fires could be pre-registered and unleashed remotely day or night in any weather. The downrange saturation effects of such a sustained treatment would be difficult for the modern mind to comprehend.

The Mission

This shot of a Vickers gun in action was taken during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. That sure looks miserable.

These new and untried tactics received their ultimate test on the 24th of August, 1916, at a place called High Wood during the Battle of the Somme. A single company of the MGC fielded ten tripod-mounted Vickers guns based in the Savoy Trench. British infantry organized for an attack. Realizing that a German counterattack would have to be canalized through a certain area, commanders unlimbered all ten of the 100th Company Vickers guns upon a target some 2,000 yards distant.

Massed infantry attacks characterized the bitter fighting during WW1. Artillery, armor, and machinegun support frequently spelled the difference between success and failure.

The specific mission during this engagement was to disrupt the inevitable German counterattack that would ensue once the Tommies went over the top. At a coordinated moment these ten Vickers guns opened up and then kept right on firing for a full twelve hours. So long as the British maintained this prodigious volume of fire the Germans were helpless to reinforce their beleaguered troops. The end result was an unprecedented feat of arms.

Simply Breathtaking Numbers

The Vickers machinegun, shown here in action with Australian troops in Korea, was capable of some simply breathtaking sustained fire performance.

This single sustained machinegun barrage focused on the known approaches to the battle area. These ten machineguns burned through fully one hundred new barrels. Every drop of water available to the company was consumed in the cooling jackets of these ten guns.

The metal box connected to the barrel jacket received the efflux from the condenser hose that kept the barrels cool during extended firing. This shot was taken during WW2.

The MGC troops emptied their canteens and then used up all of their available drinking water. The latrine buckets were transferred into the smoking barrel jackets, and everybody who was able urinated into these reservoirs. All of this liquid both vile and otherwise was burned off as steam to keep the barrels in these ten guns from catastrophically overheating.

The .303 British round features an exposed rim and is fairly archaic by today’s standards. Through the rugged Vickers gun, however, it was undeniably effective.

This steady and unrelenting volume of fire went on for a full half day. During the course of this single engagement, the 100th Company consumed 999,750 rounds of belted .303 British ammunition. A single gun commanded by a SGT Dean fired 120,000 rounds. According to the after action report, these ten guns did not have a single noteworthy stoppage. Captured German prisoners described being on the receiving end as “annihilating.” This deep into the Information Age modern belt-fed guns could not nearly rival such a feat. The key was the extraordinary Vickers gun.

The Weapon

The Vickers gun served as the backbone of the WW1-era Machinegun Corps.

The Vickers machinegun was first introduced in 1912 and soldiered on through 1968. Massively heavy at 51 pounds with its substantial tripod and traverse and elevation gear, the Vickers owed its parentage to one Hiram Stevens Maxim.

Hiram Maxim, shown on the left, was the father of the belt-fed machinegun.

Maxim was born in America but lived in Britain as an Englishman. His remarkable gas-boosted recoil action drove the belt-fed guns of both the Germans and the Russians during WW1. The British Vickers Company bought the Maxim Company outright in 1896 and subsequently gained access to the associated intellectual property.

The basic Maxim action drove all the major belt-fed machineguns used during WW1.

Using the Maxim design as a starting point Vickers engineers inverted the mechanism and lightened the overall system through the use of advanced alloys and a simplified action. Serving alongside the more portable Lewis machinegun, the Vickers was the scourge of no-man’s land for the Boche. Firing at a cyclic rate of 450 to 500 rounds per minute, the Vickers gun fed from 250-round canvas belts. The gun was typically serviced and supported by a six to eight-man machinegun team.

The Vickers gun was designed to be serviced by a team. This Vickers is shown in action during the 1916 Battle of the Somme.

One soldier served as the gunner, while another kept the ammunition flowing smoothly. The rest of the team was tasked with humping the gun, ammunition, support gear, and spare parts. British machinegun troops were legendarily well trained and effective.

Most all British combat aircraft of WW1 employed the Vickers gun. This example is shown mounted on a Bristol scout.

Vickers guns saw widespread use on early combat aircraft as well as rudimentary British tanks.

Quad Vickers mounts like this one provided antiaircraft defense for English naval vessels.

Fitted in massive quad mounts Vickers guns filled an antiaircraft role on Royal Navy combat vessels.

The British Long Range Desert Group operated throughout the North African deserts in support of units like the British SAS during WW2. Vickers guns onboard their vehicles provided reliable sustained firepower.

Vickers guns saw widespread use with the early SAS and the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa during WW2. The last operational use of the Vickers by the British was in the Radfan Hills in Yemen during the Aden Emergency.

The Rest of the Story

The Vickers gun saw action in a variety of roles during the First World War. This example is mounted on a WW1-era motorcycle sidecar.

The employment of the 100th Company of the MGC during the attack on High Wood was an intense but small part of the overall Battle of the Somme. During the High Wood fight, there were more than 13,000 British casualties as well as another 9,500 among the defending Germans. The overall casualties for the Battle of the Somme numbered more than 1.7 million killed and wounded on both sides over the course of this horrible four-and-one-half-month battle.

Military technology advanced convulsively during WW1. This British Mk I Male tank was armed with cannon. The same vehicle armed with machineguns was called the Female.

Much changed about warfare during the course of World War 1. Combatant nations began the war with horse cavalry and balloons and ended the conflict with tanks and combat aircraft. Around 18 million people perished.

The British Vickers gun was one of the most influential weapons of the war.

During the course of the war, the British formed the Machinegun Corps and later folded the tank arm into the MGC. Tanks ultimately got their own branch titled the Tank Corps, while the MGC was formally disbanded in 1922, four years after the armistice. Along the way, the belt-fed Vickers gun exacted a simply breathtaking butcher’s bill across the Western Front.

Modern armies are dirty with machineguns nowadays. Back in early WW1, however, these were radical unproven weapon systems.

Sustained fire machineguns were used in WW1 as strategic assets against such vital targets as enemy crossroads, assembly areas, and trench systems. Such coordinated fires were carefully planned and meticulously executed. Nowadays, by contrast, every infantry soldier carries a handheld automatic weapon, and air-cooled, belt-fed guns sprout from the top of almost every combat vehicle.

Modern militaries rightfully expect their machineguns to move right along with the typical infantry squad.

Advances in metallurgy, engineering, and materials science have produced belt-fed machineguns sufficiently light and rugged to travel along with the infantry squad on the move. Such tools afford ground commanders the luxury of on-demand fire support that is critical for both offensive and defensive combat operations on the modern non-linear battlefield.

Modern machineguns all hearken from such contrivances as the 19th century Gatling gun.

Heavy machineguns capable of providing sustained fire from fixed positions themselves evolved from the multi-barrel Gatling guns of the 19th century.

Water-cooled, belt-fed machineguns like this German MG08 Maxim configured on a sled mount dominated combat during WW1.

While it took some time and a lot of blood for tactics to catch up to these remarkable new tools, the automatic machinegun was ultimately the most influential weapon on the WW1 battlefield. Whether it was mounted in the nose of an SE5A fighter, in a barbette on an Mk IV Female tank, or on the deck of a British destroyer, the Vickers gun served as the strong long arm of the British Empire.

The Vickers gun, shown here in action during WW2, was radically advanced for its day.
The Vickers was a formidable sustained fire platform.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Ej harbet October 10, 2020, 9:55 pm

    If I could only have one belted it’d be a pm1910 snow cap on a sokolov
    Mount. Maxims rule.

  • John September 28, 2020, 3:42 pm

    Very good article! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Hank Booher September 28, 2020, 1:35 pm

    My father was a Pfc in the horse cavalry, Troop G of the 12th US Cavalry, at Fort Bliss, Texas, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Anticipating war in Europe, plans were already being made for their switch to mechanized Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons. It was in this capacity that they fought through France and Germany in 1944-45.

  • Mike in a Truck September 28, 2020, 1:23 pm

    Suicidal! In a war that seems as we look back built on apparent suicide tactics,to me riding in a machinegun equipped motorcycle sidecar,bouncing and jostling across rough terrain with just that small armor plate for protection has to rate right up there with inflight artillery round repairman.

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