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Deadliest machine guns in the world

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Remember the spaghetti Western ‘Django’ starring Franco Nero as the mysterious gunslinger? The most memorable parts of the film are the scenes where a grim-faced, “tough as a nail” Franco Nero is seen dragging a coffin through the muddy streets of a border town. Wearing a black cloak with his saddle on his shoulder, he is one cowboy who, for a change, is not riding a horse! Both the viewers and the characters in the film are left to wonder, why he is dragging a coffin. What is there in the coffin? Whose dead body it could be, and why is he dragging it instead of disposing of it? Or, is he planning to put some dead body in it? Nobody dares to ask. Obviously, you don’t mess around with dour-looking people who drag coffins, isn’t it?

He is a man with a mission, and the mission is ‘revenge; red hot revenge’ for the murder of his wife in the Civil War by a Confederate Major Jackson! When he goes to fight, people ask him whether he needs help and he replies with supreme contempt, “I got all the help I need!” And, he whips out a machine gun from the coffin to mow down scores of Jackson’s men.

From the business end, his machine gun looks like a Montigny Mitrailleuse (1851). This Belgian monstrosity (some 900 kg in weight) was, however, a volley-gun that fired all shots at once as grapeshot and was not a machine gun that could fire consecutively. Moreover, Django’s gun is light enough to be lifted in hands and is shown to have a belt feed too. Belt-fed machine guns were, incidentally, yet to be invented in that era immediately after the Civil War shown in the film! But, never mind, we love Westerns for the sheer romance of the place, the times, and the cowboys’ reckless approach to life; not for logic.

Even if Django was firing from a fake machine gun in the film, what he said about his gun is true nevertheless. With a machine gun in hand, you don’t need any help on the battlefield!

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The Real Workhorses of the Battlefields

The real firepower of the infantry lies in weapons like machine guns. They do the real killing. Once in Rhodesia in 1893, about 50 British soldiers fended off an attack by about 5000 Matabele Zulus with just four Maxim machine guns and spread mayhem in their ranks by killing nearly 3000 of them in just 90 minutes. The Maxim was used to great effect in the Chitral campaign in Afghanistan and during the Boer War too.

On the battlefield, everyone respects a machine gun. When machine guns open up, enemy soldiers with rifles hide. The central concept of the tactical doctrine of the US infantry and Marine Corps is that as soon as the combat starts, the squad, platoon or company must emplace their machine guns safely before anything else.

Firing a machine gun with some lusty yelling, whether in offence or in defence, is the most orgasmic experience on a battlefield and soldiers love it precisely for this reason. There is nothing which imbues you with that exhilarating feeling of power than firing a machine gun.

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Maxim, the First True Machine Gun

The first “true” machine gun was invented by Hiram Percy Maxim in 1885. Maxim was a prolific inventor and even as a young man in America, he had invented numerous things like an Automatic Re-setting Mousetrap. Later he acquired patents for gas appliances and electric lamps. He became Chief Engineer of the First Electric Lighting Company in his late thirties. In 1881, Maxim visited the Paris Electrical Exhibition. In that era, the US was averse to wars whereas the European nations fought incessantly. At the exhibition, he met a man who told him, “If you want to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility”. Apparently, this set him on the path of inventing the machine gun. He moved to London and by 1885 the machine gun was invented! The very first model was able to give a rate of fire of 666 rounds per minute, that is, equivalent to nearly two hundred rifles!  Like a true patriot, he tried to sell it to the American army first but they did not evince any interest! The British, however, adopted it in 1889 and the following year the Austrian, German, Italian, Swiss and Russian armies also purchased Maxim guns.

Bren Gun, the Most Dependable of Them All

The Bren is a historic gun. This was the mainstay of the British forces in World War II and was loved greatly by the troops who would not have swapped it for anything else. Many considered it to be the finest machine gun made till then. Incidentally, the gun that became almost synonymous with the British Empire was not originally British in design. The principal designer was a Czech and two Polish expatriates designed it in 1924 for the 7.92×57 mm Mauser round. The Czech army adopted it as the ZB-26 and it was manufactured in a place called Brno. In 1935, the British sought a license to manufacture it and modified it slightly to fire the British .303 round. In Britain, it was manufactured at Enfield and thus it got its name Bren (Brno+Enfield). After World War II, when NATO standardized the 7.62×51 mm round, the Bren was reworked as the L4 to take this round and survived until the 1980s!

The Bren is instantly recognizable by its famous curved box magazine on top, the flaring flash hider and the quick change barrel replacement with the handle. Its greatest feature is the speed with which an overheated barrel can be changed in seconds to keep up the sustained fire.

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Bren was used in India for a long time until it was replaced by the 7.62x51mm Ordinance Factory Board’s LMG based on it and later the 5.56x45mm INSAS LMG. Now, of course, we have FN Minimi (Belgium) and IMI Negev NG7 (Israel) 5.56x45mm LMGs also.  Machine guns can also be fired both from the hip and the shoulder in an emergency.

Deadliest machine guns in the world

The author Dr N. C. Asthana (then IG Ops, CRPF, Kashmir) fired the OFB 7.62x51mm LMG from the shoulder in the operation against terrorists holed up in the Punjab Hotel, Lal Chowk, Srinagar (January 7, 2010—two Pakistani terrorists killed with no loss to our side) from a fourth storey room window—there being no place to mount a bipod.

Novelties That Are the German MG-42 and MG-3 Machine Guns

What the Bren was to the British Empire, the MG-42 was to the Germans. Designed in 1942, and one of the very few successful machine guns that are not gas operated but recoil operated, it was their signature machine gun in World War II. Along with the Bren, it must rank as one of the finest machine guns of its era. The basic design of the gun survives even now as the MG-3 with modifications to take the NATO 7.62 mm round.

The MG-42 has a very distinctive and sleek look. The perforated barrel cover, the muzzle booster and the unique butt are a visual delight. It delivered a very high rate of fire, 1200 rounds per minute, which was more than twice the rate of fire of its contemporary machine guns. Interestingly, the high rate of fire also meant that the muzzle report was not heard as a rattle as found in other machine guns; individual shot sounds merged into each other and together they sounded rather like a giant cloth being ripped. Allied troops called it Hitler’s Buzzsaw.

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An LMG for the Masses, the Soviet RPD

The Ruchnoi Pulomet Degtyareva (Degtrayev Hand-Held Machine Gun, designed in 1944) has the distinction of being the lightest (in terms of weight) LMG in the world. In fact, all RPDs were issued with carrying slings and could be fired from the hip. The Russians were great supporters of huge magazines and this too came with a full 100 rounds belt-drum magazine. It takes a loose belt feed too. It was used in abundance by the Viet Cong and is still found with the Taliban and others of their ilk.

The PKM Machine Guns

The Pulomet Kalashnikova Modernized Machine Guns marked Kalashnikov’s entry into the world of machine guns. They fire the 7.62×54 mm cartridge instead of the intermediate 7.62×39 mm cartridge, which AK series rifles and the RPD LMG fire. Mounted on its integral bipod with an attached 100-round belt box it becomes an LMG; mounted on a tripod with a 250-round belt box it becomes PKMS (S for Stepanova) MMG, and mounted on a tank with an electrical solenoid firing mechanism it becomes the PKMT.

The Venerable M60 Machine Gun

Ever seen any movies about the Vietnam War? Then you could not have missed the M60 machine gun. Rambo used this machine gun with loads of belted ammunition in the First Blood Part II, firing from the hip. That image of sheer machismo is enough to immortalize this machine gun. It figured in dozens of movies.

In the most difficult and historic Battle of La Drang Valley, Vietnam (November 17, 1965) where the Vietnamese ambushed an American battalion, the beleaguered American troops on the ground fought with great heart, relying heavily on their M60 machine guns. The enemy was so close that the classic American technique of air mobility, accurate artillery fire and close air support could not be employed. In the end, they killed a minimum of 1037 Vietnamese soldiers by body count and 1745 by estimates, at the cost of 237 of their own killed and 258 injured. The historic film ‘We Were Soldiers’ starring Mel Gibson as then Lt. Col. Hal Moore (retired as Lt. Gen.) is based on this battle.

M60’s firepower in Vietnam

The M240 Machine Gun

The M240 replaced the M60. Though it is several pounds heavier than the M60 and uses a more complex gas system, the troops still like it because of its high reliability.

Pic: Insider

It is a Belgian design of the famous Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal. The M240 is fed using disintegrating link steel belts of various lengths. The rate of fire can be selected between ‘low’ (~650 rpm) and ‘high; (~950 rpm), depending on the tactical situation—a novel feature.

The Gatling or Rotary Guns

Richard Gatling took the patent on what he called the “Battery Gun” in 1865. Today we call it the Gatling gun in his honour. The Gatling gun was the first multi-barrel gun, though not a true machine gun because it did not make use of the explosive power of the propellant for its functioning. When a crank at the back of the gun was rotated by hand, the ‘bundle’ of barrels rotated too. The Gatling gun was able to achieve a rate of fire in excess of 200 rounds per minute. This was quite remarkable in that era of single-shot or even magazine-fed rifles. A hundred years later, the idea was revived in the 1960s with the barrel assembly rotated by an electric motor, giving extremely high rates of fire.

The gun is nearly twice as heavy as other machine guns and it does not have any recoil-absorbing mechanism. Hence, had they been firing real ammunition in the film, the recoil force generated by such a tremendous rate of fire would be so high that the firer would simply be blown back with broken bones besides the torque wrenching the gun from his hands. But, once again, viewers like American heroes to take on the world all alone! It is therefore generally mounted on vehicles and gunships. A gun pod introduced in 2013 comes with 3000 rounds, meaning that the gun can be fired for one full minute to create a wall of lead, basically as a point defence system or simply to obliterate a target.

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.

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