The term machine gun refers to a fully automatic firearm that is either mounted or portable and specifically designed to fire rifle cartridges from magazine or ammunition belt in rapid succession.
It is a common misnomer that all fully automatic firearms are firearms. This is not the case. Whereas rifles, assault rifles, battle rifles, sub-machine guns, pistols and shotguns may be fully automatic, they are, critically, not designed for rapidly-sustained fire. Most machine guns designed for rapidly-sustained firing are engineered for military purposes and as support weapons for general use in these contexts when fixed to a mount or fired from the ground on some form of stabilization, such as a tripod. Many machine guns utilize belt feeding and “open bolt operation,” which are also not characteristics of rifles, even if they are capable of fully automatic fire.
There are so many fine and diverse examples of machine guns that it is difficult to put together anything more than a short list of some of most well-known and important models throughout history. Many of the most famous were invented to meet the requirements of war and battle and it clear to see how they demonstratively impacted engagements from the Civil War (with the 1862 Gatling Gun) straight through to World War I and World War II and onward. Here’s a peek at just a few of them:
The earliest machine gun designs that passed muster date back to the middle part of the 19th century. By far the distinguishing characteristics of what can be called modern machine guns are the capabilities to fire at a high rate and facilitate mechanical loading, which first made it on the scene as a feature of the Model 1862 Gatling gun. The 1862 Gatling was an important weapon and used widely by the U.S. Navy. At this point, machine guns were still hand-powered, that is until the introduction of a game-changing innovation by Hiram Maxim, who designed a concept around the idea of harnessing recoil energy to power the reloading of what would become the Maxim machine gun.
Machine gun technology continued to advance throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Major periods of military engagement, most especially World Wars I and II, as well as the Cold War, drove forward innovations that were critical to meet the very real needs and requirements of the military. The increased power, accuracy and ability to sustain targeted rapid fire meant that machine guns and comparable weaponry provided distinct advantages to the side that was equipped with the most “firepower.”