Maxims In The Third Dimension

WWI aerial gunnery reaches new heights

Britain’s Vickers machinegun was the Allies’ most-used aircraft weapon of the Great War,
usually in .303 but also in 10mm for destroying observation balloons.

If you do an internet search for “chattering Spandaus,” you only get 95 hits but the stock phrase has become synonymous with World War I aviation. Generations of moviegoers have seen the image: the leering Teutonic ace, hard eyes gleaming behind squared-off goggles above the blazing muzzles.

The fact is, there is no such thing as a Spandau machine gun — or Maschinengewehr in German. Nearly all German fighters of the Great War were armed with Maxim designs and the fact many were produced in the Spandau arsenal led to the misnomer.

Of far greater import — the weapon was designed by an American-turned-Briton, Sir Hiram Maxim.

America’s first mating of airplane and machine gun occurred in 1912 when three army
pilots took aloft a Lewis Gun for three days of tests in a Wright Flyer.

Crossing The Pond

Maxim was a passionate inventor, best known for his electric lights as a rival of Thomas Edison. Maxim’s business took him from Massachusetts to London so often he permanently moved in 1900, becoming a citizen of the United Kingdom. He was knighted the following year.

By then, the former Yankee had revolutionized warfare. In the Victorian era of hand-cranked Gatling guns, the recoil-operated, belt-fed Maxim gun represented a huge technological advance. The basic design, patented in 1883, was demonstrated in Maxim’s garden the next year, churning out 500 rounds of .303 ammunition per minute. The heat produced by the high rate of fire was dissipated via a water jacket surrounding the barrel.

Nearly a decade passed before the wonder weapon was used in combat, deployed against Rhodesian tribesmen in 1893. Thereafter, Maxims became a standard tool in Britain’s colonial feuds. A bit of doggerel declared, “Fear not for we have got the Maxim gun … and they have not.”

Leading American ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker in his Nieuport 28 with two Vickers. 
The narrow fuselage required offsetting the second gun.

Aerial War

A more-or-less copy of the Maxim gun appeared in Germany in 1908, designated the MG-08, chambered in the 7.92mm rifle cartridge. The “aught eight” became one of Germany’s iconic weapons.

When Europe immolated itself in 1914, every army had machine guns, mostly Maxim designs, but war elevated them to the third dimension. Observation aircraft often carried machine guns but the front-mounted propeller got in the way.

Legend claims Dutch designer Anthony Fokker designed an interrupter gear composed of cams and levers, permitting a Maxim to fire through the prop arc. However, Swiss inventor Franz Schneider actually patented the concept in 1913.

By early 1915 the German Air Service succeeded in bolting MG-08s to Fokker Eindecker monoplanes. The weight of a heavy cooling jacket and water was avoided by holing the jacket to enhance airflow across the barrel. Fed by a 500-round belt, the gun made the E-I and later models into the first “system aircraft” because the weapon was more significant than the platform.

The spring and summer of 1915 was the era of “The Fokker Scourge.” With the advantage of aiming the entire aircraft rather than swiveling the guns, the first German Jagdflieger (fighter pilots) cut a wide swath through Allied formations. The Eindecker control system limited maneuverability but the synchronized gun made a huge difference.
A generation of German airmen earned the coveted Pour le Merite on Maxim-armed fighters. The first two, Lieutenants Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann, became internationally known. Boelcke was even interviewed by the New York Times almost a year before the United States entered the war.

Immelmann died in a confused combat in June 1916, either the victim of synchronizer failure or a British gunner. Boelcke ran his score to 40 before being killed in a crash.
With better aircraft — especially the French-built Nieuport — the Allies regained air superiority over the Western Front for a time. Germany countered with the lethal Albatros series of biplane fighters, featuring twin “Spandaus” which led to the “Bloody April” of 1917.

Francesco Baracca, Italy’s top fighter ace of WWI, scored the first Italian victory of the war
in his Nieuport 11 fighter equipped with a remote-firing Lewis gun.

British Accent

In the meantime, French and British pilots struggled with the drum-fed Lewis Guns mounted on the top wings of their biplanes in order to clear the prop. The American-designed Lewis fired from an open bolt so it wouldn’t work with a timing mechanism, though back-seat aerial observers employed Lewis guns on swivel mounts. However, help was on the way. The Vickers Company had bought out Maxim in 1896 and developed an improved model but a long gestation ensued and the British Army did not adopt the Vickers until 1912.

Like the Maxim, the Vickers was well suited to aircraft use because it fired from a closed bolt, permitting consistent timing for synchronization with the aircraft’s propeller. The first British planes armed with a synchronized gun were two 1916 Sopwiths — the two-seat “Strutter” and the delightful little “Pup.” Eventually, two-gun fighters emerged, the famous Sopwith Camel and SPAD XIII.

One significant Vickers improvement was the disintegrating ammunition belt. The steel links securing each cartridge automatically dropped away when the round was chambered. Available from 1917, the disintegrating belts largely avoided cloth belts’ tendency to ice up or warp from repeated use.

Twin 8mm Maxims, usually with 500 rounds each, became the standard
German fighter armament in World War I. 

The War To End All Others …

When Maxim died in November 1916 he had seen his invention proven in a form of combat unique to the 20th century.

The Vickers eventually was employed by at least nine other nations, usually chambered in the 6.5 to 7.6mm realm but a century later, aerophiles still respond to the notion of “chattering Spandaus.”

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