Classic Full Automatics

Osprey Publishing ( has an entire line of technical books covering firearms, military history, board and card games, models, and fiction from every era. Various fully-automatic weapons are a popular topic. Despite sharing characteristics like self-loading mechanisms and cyclic rates of fire, full autos are intended for and best used in specific roles.

One important example of fully-automatic weapon is the machine gun, of which Hiram Maxim’s design is among the most important. While rapid-firing weapons such as the mitrailleuse (designed by Belgian Army Captain Toussaint-Henry-Joseph Fafchamps with gunsmith Joseph Montigny and used in the Crimean War) followed a decade later by the Gatling were designed and used first, the Maxim was the first self-acting rapid fire weapon. Hiram Maxim was an American inventor that had brought to market curling irons, mills, engines, and electric devices before designing the gun that would make him famous. The “Devil’s Paintbrush” proved so reliable and effective it became a “World Standard” and was used by nearly every military in various forms during World War I.

German Machine Guns Of World War I by Stephen Bull is a history of Germany’s use and modifications of Maxim’s design. The MG08 and MG08/15 were mainstays of the German military through WWI and highlighted here, along with their variants. Equally important is the chapter “Impact, The Beaten Zone” which overviews concepts important to understanding gunnery with machine guns.

Not every full auto is a machine gun. As cyclic-rate became common through WWI, designers sought ways to make volume of fire more portable. Submachine guns—full autos firing pistol cartridges—fulfill a role different from machine guns. They were most useful when typical issue rifles were manual repeaters by adding a rapid rate of fire handheld at close targets. First generation designs, exemplified by Thompson’s M1 “Tommy Gun”, were well made but required a fair amount of material and machining to build. Second generation SMGs focused on making the cheapest, easiest, self-loading pistol-caliber firing weapons possible. In this regard, fully-automatic designs are easier to build than semi-automatics. Various designs were tried with varying results, but the winner in the U.S. was the M3. Chronicled in The M3 “Grease Gun” by Leroy Thompson, these were stamped out (literally) for about $20 a copy. Despite the “cheap” look garnering creative nicknames such as “Cake Decorator” and “Grease Gun”, some U.S. units in WWII issued these almost exclusively. The M3 proved reliable enough to see service beyond Viet Nam.

Read more in the February 2017 issue.

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