Know your weapon: the Vickers gun


Maxim-um firepower

World War One saw the implementation of new technologies that revolutionised the nature of warfare. The deadliness of the machine gun contributed much to the impasse of the trench warfare, turning the swift charges of yesteryear into suicidal ‘over the top’ advances across no-mans land. 

With its distinctive ridged cooling jacket, the British Vickers gun has become the iconic machine gun of the conflict, although it saw use by many forces besides the British in many different theatres of war. In 1884 American-born Hiram Maxim developed the Maxim gun, the first ever recoil-operated machine gun to go into mass production. It was adopted by the British army in the early 1880s, and saw service during the 1893 Matabele War. In the early 1900s Vickers Ltd. developed a lighter, simpler, improved version of the Maxim that the British adopted in November 1912.

As one of the earliest medium machine guns, the Vickers suffered from one notable drawback; it’s weight. Weighing 40lbs (18.1kg) unloaded, the gun required a team of four to carry its ammunition, tripod and water canister. Nonetheless, the gun became a favourite of the infantry for its legendary reliability. During the Battle of the Somme, for example, Vickers of the 100thMachine Gun Company at High Wood fired a staggering 100,000 rounds over the course of twelve hours. It was a mark of its effectiveness that the Vickers was only taken out service in1968. 

In World War Two, the Vickers was the infantry company’s main source of fire support. It was capable of producing a high rate of fire – up to 500 rounds per minute – and for prolonged periods of time the Vickers could reach out and pour fire onto targets up to 4,5000 yards way using a technique called plunging fire. Essentially, this barrage technique employed the machine gun like an artillery piece, firing high and letting projectiles rain down on targets a great distance away. This proved especially useful during the North Africa campaign, where the terrain was flat, open desert.