MERCHANTS OF DEATH

CHAPTER VII
AUTOMATIC DEATH—THE STORY OF
MAXIM’S MACHINE GUN



Maxim, it is all right and highly commendable for a man to be very patriotic and do all he can for his country, but you are one of the directors of an English company.  We are neutral ;  we cannot take sides.
—A fellow director to Hiram Maxim.


WHEN Hiram Maxim, world famous as the inventor of a wholesale killing machine, turned his inventive genius to perfecting a medical inhaler, he was told “ that he had ruined his reputation absolutely ” and a scientific friend deplored that he should descend to “ prostituting his talents on quack nostrums.”  This caused the Yankee from Maine to philosophise :  “ From the foregoing it will be seen that it is a very creditable thing to invent a killing machine, and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering.”  Curiously enough, Maxim’s life seems to show that he accepted his ironic reflection as literally true, and he spent far more time on his “ killing machine ” than on anything else.

There are three Maxims whose names loom large in the history of guns and ammunition :  Hiram, the inventor of the Maxim machine gun ;  his brother Hudson, the inventor of smokeless cannon powder ;  and Hiram’s son, Hiram Percy, the inventor of the Maxim Silencer.1  The greatest of these was Hiram.

Hiram Maxim’s autobiography, My Life, is one of the liveliest and most revealing self-histories ever written.  For sheer gusto, for pride in achievement, and as a record of human activity, it recalls Benvenuto Cellini.  It is, to a great extent, the history of the invention and sale of the Maxim machine gun.

Maxim was an incorrigible inventor and a vivid personality.  He loved nothing better than to sit over some intricate problem of mechanics with compass and rule, and invariably he emerged with a solution.  His inventions run into scores, ranging all the way from improvements in the curling iron, riveting machines, and locomotive headlights, to fire extinguishers, gas and electric lights, flying machines, machine guns and cartridges.  He was proud of his physical prowess and was adept in the use of his fists and in wrestling.  He moved at ease among kings and shahs, generals and admirals, ordnance experts and mechanics.  He dealt freely with English and Germans, Russians and Chinese.  He was pugnaciously agnostic and wrote himself down as a Protestant in religion, “ because I protest against the whole thing.”  If he was proud of one achievement above all others, it was his invention of the machine gun.

Machine guns existed before Maxim.  There were the Gardner gun, the Gatling gun, and the Nordenfeldt gun, among others.  All of these operated on the principle of a turning crank.  The gunner revolved a handle and hundreds of shots could be fired in a minute.  But there was one drawback.  These guns jammed very readily.  A gunner who saw the enemy approaching might easily grow nervous and turn the handle too rapidly.  Then the machine jammed through over-rapid feeding and the gunners were helpless.  This happened often enough to cause a lively distrust of all machine guns.

Hiram Maxim applied himself to this problem in 1883, and in 1884 he patented a gun based on an entirely different principle.  He used the recoil of the gun to move the cartridge belt and was thus able to produce a machine which fired 666 shots a minute.  There was no handle to turn, hence no nervous gunner could jam it.  As a mechanical invention it was a stroke of genius, as a slaughtering machine it was unspeakably effective.  Very shortly Maxim became allied with Vickers, and his gun was part of the Vickers’ armoury on sale to the rest of the world.

Maxim was an American who had adopted British citizenship.  He had invented his machine gun in England.  The English were first to see it.  Many distinguished visitors appeared at the demonstrations, especially royalty and the nobility.  Lord Wolseley was greatly impressed.  The officials of the War Office came to inspect and stayed to praise.  The Prince of Wales was given an opportunity to operate the gun and the photographers had a busy day taking pictures.  England had been conquered.

Maxim’s next thought was of America.  He wrote to all the principal gun and pistol manufacturers in the United States, informing them that the automatic system, as invented by him, would soon be applied to all small arms.  He further advised them to use this system, which had been patented in the States.  But the American manufacturers in this instance belied their reputation for progressive methods.  Maxim did not receive a single favourable reply ;  indeed some of the correspondents ridiculed the invention.2  Apart from this sad experience there were no further rebuffs.  Other countries were far more open to persuasion.  And Maxim set out at once to win them.

Before accompanying Maxim on his Odyssey, another incident must be related.  The Germans had a slow burning cocoa powder which was highly valued as an explosive because it was comparatively safe.  The British were eager to get it.  The German manufacturer had no scruples about selling it, but he wanted 35,000 for the secret.  The British were about to pay this sum, but fortunately they presented the problem to Maxim first.  It is easy to analyse any gunpowder chemically, and the British chemists knew exactly the composition of the German powder, but they could not reproduce it.  Maxim was given some of the powder and by means of the microscope he immediately uncovered its secret and duplicated the German invention.

Among the first to buy the Maxim gun were the Boers of South Africa.  Maxim (and Vickers) probably knew that South Africa would soon be the scene of British conflict, but that did not prevent them from selling these guns.  The Boers bought powerful guns which the African natives later named the Pom-poms from the sound they made.  The name stuck.  In the Boer War the British troops encountered stout resistance from the Dutch farmers armed with the Pompoms.  With a sense of pride Maxim records :  “ One Pom-pom manned by four Boers . . . would put a whole battery of British artillery out of action in a very short time.”3

The march of triumph led next to France.  Trials were held at Versailles and the Maxim gun emerged victoriously.  Then came Switzerland.  Here a competitive trial was arranged with the Gatling, the Gardner, and the Nordenfeldt guns.  The Maxim gun proved superior.  On this occasion a great compliment was paid to the gun.  A Swiss officer said enthusiastically :  “ No gun has ever been made in the world that could kill so many men and horses in so short a time.”  The Swiss gave an order.

Next on the list was Italy.  Trials were held at Spezzia with the usual results.  Here Maxim made an interesting connection.  The Russian consul at Spezzia, Nicholas de Kabath, became an agent for the gun.4  Maxim was satisfied with the Italian expedition.  Everything passed off splendidly and he received a large order from the Italian government.

The next to see the light was Germany.  Something must have closed the German mind to the excellencies of the Maxim gun, because it required a visit from the Prince of Wales and his recommendation of the gun to induce the Kaiser to inspect it.  The trials were held at Spandau and the Kaiser was at once converted.  He exclaimed :  “ That is the gun.  There is no other.”  Since that time vast numbers of Maxim guns have been acquired by the German Military and Naval Services.5  It was probably about this time that Krupp also saw the gun, and his admiration for his fellow craftsman was spontaneous and generous.  He said to Maxim :  “ I do not believe any of your associates appreciate the great value of that invention.”  When, however, the Maxim-Nordenfeldt Company was formed the Maxim gun patents for the world were put in at 900,000, and the shares were subscribed for many times over in a few hours.6

Maxim’s missionary labours next took him to Russia.  This country amused him with its “ superstitions.”  He was almost expelled because the Russians thought he was a foreign Jew.  In Moscow he visited the “ holiest shrine in the holiest city in the holiest country in the world.”  But his chief concern was the sale of his machine gun.

When he first exhibited it, the Russian military men ridiculed it.  Russian officers, accustomed to any and all exaggerations, scouted the idea that it fired 666 rounds a minute.  But he arranged for trials and he proved the efficiency of his gun.  His performance was a great surprise to the Russians.  Few of them were familiar with the new mechanism, and when they saw the bull’s eye shot away they were most enthusiastic.  From that time on, the Russian army used a number of Maxim guns, particularly in the war with Japan.7  “ It has been asserted by those who ought to know that more than half of the Japanese killed in the late war were killed with the little Maxim gun.”  With such achievements to its credit, no wonder Maxim was proud of his brain-child !  His fame became so great in Russia that the Czar invited him to visit him, which he did.  He was also decorated with Russian orders.

Other countries could not long ignore the Maxim gun.  China heard of it, and Li Hung Chang at once set out for England to inspect it.  His first words as he stepped off the ship on English soil were :  “ I should like to see Hiram Maxim.”  He saw and Maxim conquered.  The machine gun was demonstrated to the Chinese at Eynsford.  The Chinese were impressed.

Then the Danes decided to see the gun.  The king himself watched the trials and after an inquiry as to its cost and maintenance, he declared :  “ That gun would bankrupt my little kingdom in about two hours.”

Inquiries were then received from the Shah of Persia.  Persia would not be counted among the “ backward ” nations which did not appreciate the great advances being made in the Western world.  A full description of the gun was sent, but Maxim was apparently too busy or the Persian market seemed too unpromising to repay a visit.  Some time later the Shah visited England and saw the gun in action.  But England knew her Shahs.

“ In the meantime the Prince of Wales had sent word that the Shah would certainly ask me to make him a present of the gun, and this is exactly what happened ;  but I was ready for him, and explained that the gun was not my property, but belonged to the company, and that I had no right to give it away.”

Spain and Portugal had previously been visited, and a factory was established in Spain.  Turkey was next to experience the blessings of civilisation.  Maxim took ship for Constantinople, despite the fact that cholera was raging in the city.  In Turkey he was constantly taken for a missionary or a teacher.  His gun again won the hearts of the military, and the Sultan was so pleased that he gave much thought concerning the best way to honour this great benefactor of his country.  Maxim was decorated with a Turkish order, and as a special sign of Sultanic pleasure he was to receive “ one of the rare gems ” from the Sultan’s harem.  Somehow this honour was evaded and Maxim again returned to his adopted country, one conquest more to his credit.

But the triumphs of Maxim were not yet ended.  In the early ’80s the British were having a lot of trouble with the Arabs of the Sudan.  These fierce tribes frequently checked the British troops who were armed with the Gardner machine gun, which was operated by turning a crank.  When the machine gunner saw the enemy approaching he frequently turned the crank so fast that the cartridges did not have time to fall into position ;  the gun jammed, and the British often suffered a cruel death from the sharp swords of the Arabs.

After this disastrous jamming had occurred several times, the Gardner gun was displaced by the Maxim.  In the greatest battle of this colonial fighting, Omdurman, there was no jamming, and the newspapers reported that when the Maxim gun was turned on the Arabs, “ a visible wave of death swept over the advancing host.”  Maxim was so proud of the work of his machine gun at Omdurman that he quoted Sir Edwin Arnold who wrote :  “ In most of our wars it has been the dash, the skill, and the bravery of our officers and men that have won the day, but in this case the battle was won by a quiet scientific gentleman living down in Kent.”  The German Kaiser said practically the same thing, and the American accounts of the death-dealing qualities of the Maxim gun were so lurid that Maxim recorded that “ the English reports were not in it.”8

Maxim’s account of Omdurman is not an exaggeration.  There is corroboration from many sources as to the terrifying effects of the Maxim gun in British colonial and imperialist wars.  The significant thing is Maxim’s pride in this fact.

Another interesting episode is recorded from the Spanish-American War.  Some wild rumours had been circulated in America that Hiram Maxim would supply to the U.S. navy a gun of such tremendous power that the Spanish navy would be wiped out instanter.  That was bad news for Spain, and the Spaniards immediately remembered that Vickers-Maxim had a factory in Spain.  Threatening moves were made against this British factory and great excitement prevailed because it seemed as though the factory might be destroyed.  A telegram was immediately dispatched to Vickers in England informing the company of the threatening state of affairs.  One of the Vickers’ directors rushed right out into the night and roused Maxim from a peaceful sleep at two o’clock in the morning.

“ Maxim,” he said, “ what in the world have you been doing ?  It is all right and highly commendable for a man to be very patriotic and do all he can for his country, but you are one of the directors of an English company ;  we are neutral ;  we cannot take sides.”

Maxim was able to assure his fellow director that the whole story arose from a wild and baseless rumour, for no such gun existed as was described in the American papers, and that he had had no dealings with America these many years.  A telegram was hurriedly dispatched to Spain explaining the situation, and the Vickers’ works in Spain were not interferred with.9

But the most momentous adventure in Maxim’s career took place in Vienna in the ’80s.  The Austrian government had expressed a desire to see the famous machine gun, and Maxim appeared on the testing ground in the Austrian capital before a large and distinguished audience.  The Archduke William was greatly impressed and declared :  “ It is the most dreadful instrument that I have ever seen or imagined.”  Thus encouraged, Maxim arranged a little circus stunt at a second trial.  The Emperor himself was present, and Maxim cut out the letters F.J. (Francis Joseph) on a new target at a shorter range.  The monarch and many high officials were delighted, and a comic paper had an illustration representing Maxim firing a gun in the shape of a coffin making out the initials F.J. on a target with Death standing at his back holding a crown over his head.

But in spite of this feat and some help he gave the Austrian ordnance department in lightening the recoil of their big guns, he was not entirely successful.  There was another and very famous salesman present whose glib tongue influenced the army officials against a whole-hearted acceptance of Maxim’s product—Basil Zaharoff.  When Maxim triumphantly called on the Minister after the trials, he got a rather cool reception, and received only a small order.  In truth, the clever Yankee peddler had met his match in a man who has since become equally famous.




1 Clifton Johnson, The Rise of an American Inventor.  (New York, 1927.)

2 My Life, p. 238.

3 My Life, p. 185.

4 My Life, p. 196-198.

5 My Life, p. 210.

6 Op. cit., p. 268.

7 The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

8 My Life, p. 258s.

9 My Life, p. 265s.