In 1882 Hiram Maxim, an American inventor living in London, was told If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others' throats with greater facility." Although maxim was not a gunmaker, he spent the nest two years developing a machine gun in his workshop at 87b Hatton Garden, London.
The latter port of the 19th Century was an ear of improving technology, which led to, amongst other things, better quality steels and more efficient engineering methods. These, together with the development of smokeless propellants in rifle calibre cartridges, assisted Maxim's work. The new propellants produced higher pressures in the bore of a gun and Maxim sought to harness this power so that a firearm could fire, eject the spent cartridge case and reload without any action by the firer.
His invention proved a success and distinguished visitors began coming to Hatton Garden for demonstrations. The influential ones included the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) the Duke of Cambridge and Lord Wolesely. By July 1998 Maxim had amalgamated with the armament manufacturers Vickers to form Vickers Sons & Maxim Ltd. However, before this amalgamation, he had licensed his weapon to a German weapons firm. They developed their own Maxim gun, which later evolved into the Model 1908 or Spandau (after the town where a government arms factory was situated). Thus, by Century a quirk of 19th commercialism, both Britain and Germany fought the First World War with similar machine guns, which were both developments of Maxim's idea.
The first British Maxim gun came into service in 1891, chambered for the .45" Martini-Henry round, and this was followed in 1893 by the .303" Maxim Gun. These early designs were modified and improved by Vickers until the .303" Vickers Machine Gun, Mark 1, was introduced in late 1912. This was a tripod mounted, water-cooled gun, fed by a canvas belt holding 250 rounds. It fired the standard military .303" Mark VII cartridge at an approximate rote of 550 rounds per minute.
The gun was 43" in overall length and was physically heavy - 33 lbs. The tripod weighed a further 51 lbs. Water, for cooling, added another 7 lbs. or so. The barrel, which was 28.4 inches long, was rifled with S grooves on a left-hand twist, giving one turn in 10 inches (exactly the same as in the Lee-Enfield rifle).
At the beginning of the First World War, it is understood that Britain had a mere 109 Vickers Mark I machine guns in the Army, and 2 in the Royal Navy. These were augmented by 1,846 old Maxim guns. Germany at this stage had over 50,000 Maxims. Orders were hurriedly placed with Vickers for machine guns - weekly deliveries early in the War amounted to 50, but by July 1916 this had reached 634. The production cost per gun in May 1918 was £66-15s-0d.
The Mark I Vickers was an extremely successful and efficient design. Although various subsequent Marks were produced, these were for aircraft or armoured fighting vehicles. The basic gun continued, largely unmodified, throughout both World Wars and was finally retired in 1967. That represents 55 years of hard military service, something that cannot be matched by any other similar weapon.
There is a story that, when the Vickers was declared obsolete, a farewell ceremony took place at the Small arms School at Hythe. While a gun was fired on the range, a band played '0 God our Help in Ages Past". A fitting tribute to a remarkable weapon.