February 2002:

German Imperial War Ensign
German Imperial War Ensign

During the First World War, the Imperial German forces fielded vast numbers of Maxim machine guns.  The majority of these were chambered for the standard 7.9x57mm rifle cartridge, but there were also a number of other Maxims including a 37mm machine cannon firing explosive shells , and, toward the end of the war, a 13mm version was developed to serve as a dual purpose (anti-tank and anti-aircraft) weapon.  The expertise and tactical foresight with which the German military used the Maxim guns during the war can easily lead one to believe that Germany was instrumental in the development of the machine gun.  This was hardly the case, as the gun had been developed by an American, Hiram Stevens Maxim, living in Britain.  Maxim, who had bee told by an acquaintance that the way to riches was to invent a device that would "make it easier and quicker for these Europeans to cut each others' throats," was not shy about advertising his invention.

In 1888 Maxim took to the road, and found himself demonstrating his guns before the imperial general staff, and the Kaiser, in Berlin.  The demonstration was evidently a success, because between late 1889 and early 1890 a series of sample guns were sent from England to Germany to be used for firing tests.  The tests were as successful as the demonstration, and in 1892 the firm of Ludwig Loewe & Co. of  Berlin successfully negotiated a licensing agreement with the Maxim-Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company, Ltd., by which it was permitted to manufacture Maxim guns in Germany.  This license was subject to a prior license or option granted to the giant Krupp weapons conglomerate of Essen in 1888.  Despite this, while Krupp manufactured some of the 37mm Maxim guns, it never manufactured rifle caliber machine guns.

The first of these license produced  Maxims was delivered to the German Navy by Loewe in 1894.  The first ground mount Maxims were delivered to the German Army in 1899.  Prior to and after the 1899 deliveries, the German Army conducted extensive tests with the Maxim and other machine guns.  Guns tested in addition to the Maxim included the Hotchkiss, Skoda, Madsen, Colt, Bergmann and Schwarzlose.  The purpose of the tests was to accumulate a body of technical knowledge on machine gun design rather than to select a type suitable for adoption.

One of the strongest forces militating toward adoption of the machine gun in German service was the Kaiser himself.  Well know as a technophile with an strong interest in modern weapons.  Throughout the testing period, Kaiser Wilhelm II exerted his influence to overcome the hidebound indifference to automatic weapons within the Prussian Army's command levels.  (Note:  During the period of the Second Empire (1871 - 1918), Germany was composed of quasi independent states, each of which, while having an overall fielty to the Kaiser, fielded its own armed forces.  As a result, the German forces in World War One actually consisted of the armies of the various states, including those of Prussia, Bavaria, Wurttemburg and Saxony.  Of these, the Prussian Army was by far the largest, and in wartime the armies of the smaller states were subordinated to the Prussian General Staff.)  Kaiser Wilhelm II had long championed the Maxim gun as the best available automatic weapon.  Despite this royal patronage, things moved very slowly.  The Imperial General Staff of the 1890's was heavy with officers who had fought the Franco -Prussian War of 1870.  Both the French and the Prussians had fielded limited numbers of manually operated machine guns in that conflict, with very limited success on both sides' part.  The guns' lackluster performance was due more to commanders'  lack of understanding with respect to the gun's technical characteristics, and consequential improper tactical employment, than any mechanical failures.  In any event, these experiences led the General Staff to a collective belief that the machine gun was of use only within certain narrow tactical parameters (such as fortification defense or colonial warfare against poorly armed and led native hordes).  Making matters worse for the machine gun proponents, in the 1880's and 1890's phenomenal technical advances had been made in both the infantry rifle and the field gun.  As the roles of these traditional weapons were very clearly understood, it was much easier for the staff to take an interest in them.

Basic Maxim Mechanism
When introduced, the Maxim gun introduced several new features to rapid firing guns.  The action was wholly automatic, the operator only being required to keep the trigger depressed to continue firing.  The barrel and breech were locked together upon firing, and recoiled together to the rear. After they had moved to the rear a short distance, they were unlocked by a toggle mechanism.  The barrel ceased rearward movement, while the breech block continued to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent case, actuating the belt feed mechanism, and, upon forward motion, fed, locked and fired a new cartridge.  The Maxim also had a single barrel which was surrounded by a jacket filled with water so as to lessen the effects of heating caused by sustained firing.

The following sequence of photographs illustrates the Maxim firing cycle.  These photographs are extremely unusual in that they were taken prior to the installation of the gun's right sideplate (the registered part according to the BATF), thus allowing an excellent view of the mechanism in action (normally the sideplate is permanently riveted in place).  The particular gun is a Finnish Maxim, chambered for the 7.62x54mmR cartridge, which differs only in detail from the Imperial German Maxim machine guns discussed in this article.  Special thanks to Frank's Gun Shop and P3, LLC, for making these photos possible.
Maxim action at rest
Maxim action at rest
Maxim action loading
Maxim action loading.  Note feed pawl and cartridge holder pulling round from belt
Maxim action initial rearward movement
Maxim action as it initially opens upon firing
Maxim action opening
Maxim action loading fresh cartridge into chamber
Maxim action at recoil and extracting case
Maxim action at full recoil.  Note spent case beneath barrel to rear of ejection tube.


Maxim action closed and ejecting case
On forward movement of action, spent case is thrust into the ejector tube, where it will stay until pushed out by the next case.  The ejector tube prevents cases from entering the action body to jam the mechanism.
Closed Maxim action
Maxim action close and ready to fire again


German Naval Maxim
German Naval Maxim, analogous to Army MG99
In 1896, the Ludwig Loewe & Co. was merged into a new concern called Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (German Weapons and Ammunition Factory), or DWM.  Loewe's licenses with Maxim-Nordenfelt were transferred to the new company, and Maxim guns continued to be manufactured in the old Loewe facility on Berlin's Hollmanstrasse.  As noted above, the very first guns were 
issued to the German Navy in 1894, but machine gun production proceeded at a comparatively leisurely pace.  Navy gun number 343 was delivered in 1897, and number 345 was delivered in 1898.  While the navy was outfitting its ships with brand new Maxims, the army effort to evaluate the Maxim was going nowhere fast.  Indeed, the recalcitrance of the General Staff might have caused the entire matter to stagnate had not the Kaiser been so insistent.  So enamored was Wilhelm of the Maxim that he purchased one for each Guards Dragoon regiment out of his own funds.  Due in no small part to the Kaiser's efforts the Army made its first official purchase of Maxims in 1899, which were designated MG99.  These guns were used in maneuvers as early as late 1899, but there was a great deal of indecision as to their proper tactical role which resulted in a deadlock as to how they fit into the Army's table of organization and equipment.

The MG99 was basically an English Maxim with a few minor modifications.  The German Army developed a unique sled type mount for the MG99.  The sled mount can be dragged along the ground, if needed, once the front legs are folded.  The idea was to provide a mount that could be moved short distances by the crew without a need to dismount the gun.  Indeed, the early sled mounts were provided with removable wheels.  All of the German sled mounts are designed so that they can be carried like a litter by two or more men.  There exist German documents which refer to the sled mount as the Schlitten 01.  Other sources make reference to a Schlitten 99, which likely refers to a prototype mount.  Total quantities of MG99 mounts are small as the MG99 was rapidly superseded and relegated to fortress duty.

The differences between the early German Maxims, the Navy guns, and the MG99's were unremarkable.  All of the guns were manufactured by DWM, and had the same operating components.  (The same, but not interchangeable; a large degree of fitting was done to individual parts upon final assembly.  This fitting was also done to spare parts, which were serial numbered to the gun as were the parts installed upon manufacture.)  However, the German Navy nomenclature for its Maxims was "8mm Maschinengewehr," despite the fact that it used the same cartridge that the Army called the 7,9mm Patrone 88.  In this case, the 8mm figure referred to the outside diameter of the bullet, while the 7.9mm figure referred to the inside diameter of the barrel lands.  Truly two sides of the same coin!  The only significant difference between the Army and Navy guns was the mounting configuration.  The MG99 had top and bottom lugs on the massive brass water jacket to engage a gimbal on the sled mount.  The Navy gun had a transverse hole for a mounting pin at the lower front of the receiver.  Both guns had a bracket at the bottom rear of the receiver to engage an elevation mechanism, but the brackets were in different locations on the Army and Navy guns.

The next Maxim to be adopted by the Imperial forces was the MG01, and its mount, the Schlitten 03.  The MG01's top and bottom mounting lugs were located at the rear of the water jacket, and the sled's gimbal was adjusted accordingly.  The traverse and elevation mechanism was improved, but there was little change in the gun itself, which remained cumbersome and ill adapted for mass production.  The MG01 served into the First World War, where it was considered an important, but second line weapon.  It used the typical Maxim canvas belts and fired the standard 7.9x57mm rifle ammunition.  The MG01 service as a front line weapon was limited to the independent machine gun detachments, the number of which totaled sixteen prior to the war.  Each detachment consisted of six guns plus a spare, and it is estimated that only a few hundred MG01's were manufactured.


Maxim MG08
Imperial German Maxim MG08 on Schlitten 08
The MG01's successor, the MG08, was the first German Maxim to be produced in large numbers prior to the war.  The hidebound attitude of the General Staff to machine guns had been dramatically changed by the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.  German observers present at the fighting reported on the extensive, and effective, use of machine guns by both sides.  In response, the German Army adopted the improved Maxim in 1908.
The MG08 was a dramatic improvement, and lightening, of the earlier Maxims.  Indeed, even the philosophy behind its mounting had changed.  While the earlier schlitten were 
designed to be dragged along the ground, the schlitten 08 downplayed this feature.  It was not provided with wheels, and was expected to be carried in stretcher fashion by members of the gun crew.  There is a variant of the MG08 called the MG09.  This is not an entirely different gun as the name might suggest, but rather a sobriquet applied by DWM to an export variant of the Maxim that had been marketed immediately prior to World War One.  The MG09 was never adopted by the German Army.  In essence, the MG09 was a slightly lightened MG08 offered with a tripod mount.  It is speculated that the MG09 was produced to compete with the products of Vickers, Ltd. of England, which had begun to offer a lightened Maxim at around the same time.  It is worth noting that the buyers of the MG09 did not necessarily follow DWM's naming convention.  For example, Romanian MG09's are marked "Mod 1910" on the receiver top.
Once accepted for government service, the MG08 was manufactured at all the state arsenals in addition to DWM.  These included Spandau, Danzig, and Erfurt.  By the outbreak of the First World War, the German Army could field almost 5,000 machine guns, but this included guns in the hands of fortress troops and guns in war reserve depots.  This turned out to be woefully inadequate.  So dire was the need for 
Maxim MG09
Maxim MG09
machine guns that an entire cottage industry sprang up in Germany producing machine guns and their component parts.  Moreover, as the war dragged on, it became painfully apparent that a portable machine gun was urgently needed.  The Allies had adopted several light automatic weapons, including the Lewis, Hotchkiss and Chauchat, and the troops were clamoring for something with which to respond.


Imperial German MG08/15
Imperial German Maxim MG08/15
The new, portable automatic weapon that emerged was christened the MG08/15.  Developed under the direction of Colonel von Merkatz, the MG08/15  was an adaptation of the MG08.  This design paradigm, by which the standard heavy machine gun was adapted so as to provide a portable version was in marked contrast to the path taken by the Allies.  The Allied armies adopted a number of light automatic weapons that were not at all adaptations of their heavy types.  In doing so they undoubtedly managed to adopt much more efficient designs, but at the cost of overall production efficiency.  The German decision to stay with the Maxim design simplified both production and training.  The MG08/15
had a number of key differences from the standard 08: Unloaded (but with a full water jacket) the MG08/15 weighed in at a healthy 19 kg (42 lbs).  The gun was designed to use either the standard 250 round MG08 belt or a shorter 100 round belt.  The short belt could be carried in a drum attached to the side of the receiver.


Imperial German MG08/18
Imperial German Maxim MG08/18
The MG08/18 appeared in the last year of the war, and was an air cooled version of the MG08/15.  The actual weight of the gun was only reduced by about one kilogram (2.2lbs), but to this must be added the weight of the water and the steam condensation tube.  However, the real impetus for the development of an air cooled variant was not the weight of the water so much as it was the fact that there were environments in which water was not readily available and others in which it might freeze.  The MG08/18 was issued to cavalry, mountain and bicycle troops.  Plans were in place for eventual issue to infantry formations, but the war ended
before they could be realized.

The MG08/18's perforated barrel jacket had an exterior diameter of 37mm, which required a high front sight to make up for the difference in diameter between it and the water jacket.  A carry handle was affixed to the top of the barrel jacket a short distance forward of the receiver.  Other details were identical to the MG08/15.  The MG08/18 had the same cyclic rate as the MG08/18, but being air cooled, it was much less capable of fulfilling the sustained fire role, requiring a good deal of time for the barrel to cool.  Further hampering the MG08/18's effective rate of fire was the lack of a quick change barrel.  Like all Maxims, removal of the MG08/18's barrel required prior removal of the stock and interior parts, which was often inconvenient during combat.


Imperial German MG16
Imperial German Maxim MG16
The Army's failure to put light machine guns into general service was in part due to a high level dispute as to the nature of the weapon required by the troops.  One part of the general staff contended that a compromise weapon, somewhere between the light and heavy machine gun should be developed as an all-purpose gun.  The concept was known as the Einheitsmaschinengewehr, or universal machine gun.  The MG16 was an experimental, universal version of the Maxim.  A very few were manufactured, only enough for test purposes, and it is unlikely that any actually saw combat.  It used the same type of mounting lug as the MG08/15 and could therefore use the same bipod.  It was more commonly seen with a dual purpose tripod that could be used against both ground and aerial targets.  A slightly modified version of the tripod was later issued as the dreifuss 16 (literally "three foot" or tripod), an alternate standard mount for the MG08.  The MG08 had a slightly different mounting system than the MG16, and therefore required an adapter to be used on the tripod.  In the event, Germany did not field a 
universal machine gun during the war.  To do so would have meant lowering production rates of the tried and true MG08 and MG08/15 for an untested weapon, the idea of which was viewed with justifiable jaundice by the Army.

Wartime Production Difficulties
During the war, each factory producing machine guns in Germany had its own set of master drawings.  Each set of drawings was unique and reflected updates and fixes devised by each factory over the course of production.  As a result the same part made by different factories would possibly not interchange.  The Imperial Rifle Examining Commission, in cooperation with the Spandau Arsenal, prepared a draft set of master drawings, including required tolerances for all significant dimensions for both the MG08 and the MG08/15.  A meeting was called, and representatives of all commercial and government facilities producing machine guns attended.  During the meeting it was proposed that the use of the new set of master drawings be made mandatory for machine gun production.  The manufacturers' representatives then asked whether the machine guns produced under the master drawings would be required to pass a function test for acceptance, or if conformance to the master drawings would suffice.  The implications were clear.  The military could have its master drawings but only at the cost of a loss of production while they were put into effect and the bugs worked out of the system.  The proposal for master drawings was shelved in light of wartime exigencies.  It should be noted that master drawings were implemented in the postwar Reichswehr.

Despite the number of other designs in use by the German forces, the basic Maxim mechanism was the predominant German automatic small arm of the war, and it was considered the point of departure from which machine guns for specialized roles were developed.  However, when it became necessary to modify operating components, great care was taken so as not to upset production schedules and deliveries of standard guns.  The situation was markedly different for accessories.  The MG08 and MG08/15 were liberally provided with all manner of accessories.  Some of these accessories were tools for maintaining and repairing the gun.  Others were designed to enhance the gun's capabilities, such as devices to permit night firing, indirect fire, antiaircraft fire, firing over the heads of friendly troops, and firing during severe weather.  While the number of accessory items was very large, their production did not affect production of any part of the basic mechanism.

Aircraft Machine Guns
In early 1915, the German Air Service began to mount machine guns on reconnaissance and bombing aircraft.  These were flexible mounts, and did not permit fire in the direction of flight save for certain multiengined aircraft.  Ultimately it was the Parabellum and not the Maxim that was chosen for standardization as the Air Service's flexibly mounted gun.  However, the Air Service wanted more than just reconnaissance and bombing aircraft.  It wanted an armed single seat fighter with a fixed forward firing machine gun.  A number of efforts were made, but the first practical result was obtained only after the invention of a synchronization mechanism by Anthony Fokker that permitted firing through the propeller arc without hitting the propeller blades.  The first standard synchronized gun was the LMG08, which entered service in 1915.  This was essentially a conversion of the MG08 to an air cooled configuration, which saved considerable weight.  The gun tipped the scales at 15.5kg, or 34 pounds.  The modification of the MG08 to LMG08 configuration was done by the Fokker works at Schwerin, where the synchronization gear was manufactured.  Fokker also supplied the gearing mechanism to other aircraft manufacturers in Germany.

The original synchronization mechanism was of the push-rod variety, and was somewhat unreliable.  There were a number of instances of loss of synchronization, resulting in damage to the aircraft's propeller.  The problem was particularly acute at low engine speeds and during periods of extremely low temperature.  To overcome this difficulty, a design team at the Fokker works consisting of Messrs. Lubbe, Heber, and Leimberger devised a system that operated via a flexible shaft.  In December 1916 the synchronization project was handed off to a wholly owned subsidiary of the Fokker works called Flugzeug Waffenfabrik GmbH, located at Reinickendorf near Berlin.  It was operated by Herr Lubbe, and became the primary source of synchronization equipment and aircraft armament accessories for the German Air Service.

Imperial German LMG08/15
Imperial German Maxim LMG08/15
The LMG08/15 came into service in mid-1916, and was a conversion of the MG08/15 to an air cooled aircraft machine gun.  Care was taken to strip the gun of all parts not needed for a fixed aircraft machine gun, lowering the system weight to 27 pounds.  The appearance of the LMG08/15 effectively obsoleted the LMG08.  In addition to the fixed mount, an experimental flexible mount was also devised for the LMG08/15.  When so mounted, the ground gun's pistol grip, as well as a modified stock were fitted.   The only known manufacturer of the LMG08/15 was the Spandau Arsenal, and thus these guns are often referred to as "Spandaus."  Early Spandaus were conversions of ground MG08/15's, while the later guns were purpose built as aircraft machine guns.

Heavy Maxims

Imperial German 37mm Naval Maxim
Imperial German Naval 37mm Maxim

13mm Maxim Tank und Flieger
13mm Maxim Tank und Flieger "TuF"
A 37mm Maxim machine cannon was adopted by the German Navy in the 1890's, and some of these heavy naval Maxims saw service during the Boxer Rebellion.  During the First World War, the Maxim machine cannon saw service on the Western Front as an antiaircraft gun.  However, it was little more than a stopgap antiaircraft piece, being heavy and ill suited for engaging aerial targets.  However, by the close of the war, Germany had devised another weapon which would have been ideally suited for antiaircraft use.  This weapon was christened the "TuF' or Tank und Flieger machine gun, and unfortunately for the Germans, came into being too late to see service in the war.  It was a scaled up version of the MG08 and fired a 13mm cartridge developed by the Polte ammunition factory in Magdeburg.  The decision to develop the TuF had been taken in 1917 when the British tank threat was recognized as credible.  While TuF development was ongoing, the Germans fielded the Mauser Model 1918 antitank rifle, a simple single shot bolt action rifle chambered for the same 13mm cartridge.

TuF parts were made by a variety of subcontractors, and final assembly was to be done by one of the MG08/15 contractors, Machinenfabrik Augsburg-Nurnberg.  In the event, only a few guns were produced by the war's end, and the project was scrapped.  Interestingly, when Germany began to clandestinely rearm in 1927, a new 20mm machine cannon was adopted to fill the role proposed for the TuF.

In the postwar period, the MG08, MG08/15 and MG08/18 were the standard machine guns of the German armed forces.  With the introduction of new types in the 1930's, these veterans were reassigned to fortifications, police, or paramilitary organizations.  The Maxims remaining in German hands after the war were rebuilt and upgraded.  One such upgrade consisted of a belt feeding mechanism that could use either canvas or metal belts by means of changing a selector on the left side.  A forward bipod position was added on the MG08/15.  Other improvements were proposed, but tabled with the advent of the MG34 program.  The old warhorses were once again brought out during the Second World War when Germany was desperate for automatic weapons.


Musgrave, Daniel D., German Machineguns, (Ironside International Publishers, Alexandria, Virginia: 1992)

German Machineguns is available from IDSA Books.  Click on the image to order:
German Machineguns

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