Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun — and they have not…
— Hilaire Belloc
On October 25, 1893, a huge impi of the Matabele Nation attacked a small British South Africa Company paramilitary force in what would become Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Under the auspices of British tycoon and imperialist Cecil Rhodes, settlers had moved across southern Africa’s Limpopo River into Mashonaland in 1890. Relations with the Matabele, a powerful warrior nation related to the Zulu, had grown tense. The Matabele traditionally raided the Mashona people for slaves and bloodsport, a practice the new, mostly British, settlers of Mashonaland would not tolerate. A brutal massacre of Mashona by King Lobengula’s Matabele sparked war — and the invasion of Matableleland by Rhodes’ paramilitaries, who brought a long five brand-new Maxim machine guns, mounted on horse-drawn wagons.
The invaders forted up in a laager — very much like the classic “circle the wagons” scenario seen in old Western movies. The Matabele, armed primarily with assegai stabbing spears, though also with single-shot Martini-Henry rifles, charged the wagons at night, hoping to overwhelm the laagered force by sheer numbers and ferocity.
The laager defenders worked the Maxims, hammering out streams of lead. The result was devastating carnage. Some 2,500 Matabele went down in windrows — the flower of the nation. The laager defenders suffered four killed and a handful of wounded. Another similar attack against a pioneer fort met the same fate, and the Matabele were broken, their lands thrown open for Rhodes’ Company to settle and develop for mining and agriculture. The First Matabele War of 1893 marked the debut deployment of a true machine gun in combat.
The Maxim gun gave the European imperialists of the late Victorian Age an unassailable advantage over adversaries that in most cases could field only Iron Age technology supplemented by a few trade rifles. The Maxim gun, field artillery and the railroad allowed Euro-American civilization to plant the flag in the deepest back-of-beyond, where the nations and empires of the West could exploit even the most remote hinterlands for minerals, furs, timber and other resources and commodities.
Then, in 1914, the nations and empires of the West used the same gun to attempt suicide.
Battle becomes a very different thing when your adversary is armed not with spears and trade rifles, but with the same lethal technology that you possess. Evenly matched in firepower as they went to war in August 1914, the European powers were soon locked in a grotesque war of attrition, where machine gun fire and fast-firing artillery swept the battlefield in with such a lethal storm of steel that it was nearly impossible to advance over open ground.
Men died in their thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands — falling in windrows before the roaring guns of their enemies. On August 22, 1914, 27,000 French soldiers died charging into German fire in the Battle of the Frontiers. On July 1, 1916, 20,000 British soldiers fell on a single day at The Somme, in a slaughter that forever traumatized the British Empire. Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Russians, Turks all experienced the horror of advancing directly into the arc of the Grim Reaper’s scythe.
The industrial-scale killing of the Great War permanently scarred Western Civilization. It swung open the gates of hell and the twin scourges of Bolshevism and Fascism vomited forth into the world. The war and its violent aftermath eroded and collapsed whatever moral authority the West could claim in its dominion over the peoples of the world. Indeed, it sowed the seeds of nationalism that would undermine Western dominance for all time.
One hundred years later, we still live in the long shadow of the Great War. Eastern Europe faces a resurgent Russia that seeks to regain the power and prestige that it lost, won, and lost again in a century of fallout from the war. The Middle East continues to convulse in the aftershocks from the earthquake of 1918 that toppled the Ottoman Empire, which had dominated the region for 400 years.
And nations continue to seek to arm themselves with the most advanced and lethal technology they can access in order to defend themselves in a world that is once again as dangerous as it was in the immediate wake of the First World War.
Last week, Craig Rullman and I attended the Bushmaster User’s Conference at the Big Sandy Range in north-central Arizona, which Craig was covering on a magazine assignment. On display there were the latest in fighting vehicles, computerized targeting systems, and firepower — the most advanced iterations of an arms race that began with carriage-mounted Maxims in the Victorian Age.
The showpiece of the event, which brought military personnel and procurement agents from 21 countries to the middle of the Arizona desert, was the Bushmaster chain gun. The chain gun is designed to be mounted on vehicles — ranging from Navy ships to big fighting vehicles on down to a Toyota truck. It is an electric-powered weapon that uses a chain rather than recoil or gas to cycle rounds. The guns — ranging in caliber from the NATO standard 7.62 rifle cartridge on up to 40mm cannon rounds — are extremely fast, accurate and reliable. And with advances in munitions, targeting systems and vehicles, they can be fired with astounding range, accuracy and lethality while on the move.
Critically, no longer is a gunner exposed in a turret to operate his weapon — a powerful automatic cannon can be fired rapidly and accurately by a gunner safely ensconced in the crew cabin of his vehicle.
The goal, as it has always been, is to be able to reach out and strike an enemy at a distance and with enough accuracy and lethality that the enemy cannot effectively strike back. The gunner inside an LAV (Light Armored Vehicle) is operating on the same principle that the British South Africa Company gunner operated on from inside the laager along the Shangani River in 1893: Hit the enemy with overwhelming firepower before he can get close enough to deploy his inferior weaponry.
Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun — and they have not…
Of course, “they” will eventually acquire the Maxim gun, as they must. Which means you’d best have the finest engineers in the world developing upgrades — or a whole new generation of weapons — to keep your edge with the gun that shook the world and in many respects made the world in which we live.