How a Maxim Works

The Maxim gun was a weapon invented by American-born British inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884: it was the first recoil-operated machine gun in production. It has been called "the weapon most associated with the British imperial conquest", and likewise was used in colonial wars by other countries between 1886 and 1914.

The mechanism of the Maxim gun employed one of the earliest recoil-operated firing systems in history. The idea is that the energy from recoil acting on the breech block is used to eject each spent cartridge and insert the next one, instead of a hand-operated mechanism. Maxim's earliest designs used a 360-degree rotating cam to reverse the movement of the block, but this was later simplified to a toggle lock. This made it vastly more efficient and less labor-intensive than previous rapid-firing guns, such as the Mitrailleuse, Gatling, Gardner, or Nordenfelt, that relied on actual mechanical cranking. The Maxim gun design was provided with water cooling, giving it the ability to maintain its rate of fire for far longer than air-cooled guns. The disadvantage of this was that it made the gun less flexible in attack than the lighter air-cooled weapons, being heavier and more complex, and requiring a supply of water.

Trials demonstrated that the Maxim could fire 600 rounds per minute. Compared to modern machine guns, the Maxim was heavy, bulky, and awkward. A lone soldier could fire the weapon, but it was usually operated by a team of men, usually 4 to 6. Apart from the gunner, other crew were needed to speed reload, spot targets, and carry and ready ammunition and water. Several men were needed to move or mount the heavy weapon.