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Machine guns

July 11, 2000

A public radio commentary

Yesterday my wife and I were sitting at our computers each sending out e-mail when, in mid-message, by wife stopped, looked at me and asked how do you spell Kalashnikov? I hadn't a clue how to spell the name of this Russian machine gun. I respected her privacy and didn't ask why she wanted this for an e-mail message, although if I'm missing, you know where to start.

This talk of Kalashnikovs got me to thinking about machine guns. They are, of course, a ghastly thing, but like all technology they reflect directly our own human nature, our prejudices and world views.

The idea of a machine gun is very old - a man named Palmer described one in 1663 - but the first fully automatic gun, designed by Hiram Maxim, appeared in 1884. Maxim was travelling in Vienna, when a fellow American, told him "if you want to make a pile of money," he said, "invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other's throats with greater facility." This resonated with Maxim, who returned to London and spent two years designing a gun.

Maxim's gun used the gases of the bullet's explosion to move a piston under the barrel, which worked the bolt, expelled the cartidage and reloaded the gun. You would think such a weapon of death would be widely adopted, but Maxim found great resistance to his weapon.

In European most officers came from the land owning classes, and left behind by the Industrial Revolution they still thought in terms of the bayonet push and the calvary charge. They clung to the belief "of the centrality of man and the decisivness of personal courage and individaul endeavor" - after all you can't pin a medal on a gun.

Although these officers felt it uncivil to use machine guns in European battle, Maxim found he could play on their prejuduces in the colonies. He sold many guns in Africa, which European soliders and settlers used against unarmed natives. Oddly these colonial slaughters tainted the machine gun, making it even less palable for European Warfare.

In fact fresh recruits to World War One once asked their commandering officer what to do with their newly issued machine guns. He said "take the damned things to a flank and hide them." Although in the World War One each side began with only a few machine guns, these few showed its tremendous powder, and by the end of the war the machine gun was an essential tool.

Siegfried Sassoon, one of the great solider-poets of the War, captured this in an ode to a machine gun: "To these I turn, in these I trust - / Brother Lead and Sister Steel. / To his blind power I make appeal, / I guard her beauty clean from rust." Another great war poet, Robert Graves, captured how the machine gun changed war forever: "And we recall the merry ways of guns / Like a child, dandelions with a switch! / Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill, / Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall."

So simple is war, says Graves, now even a child can do it. The machine gun ushered in, perhaps forever, an age of horrible mechanized war, making it clear that a solider could no longer depend on personal courage or strength for victory or even survival; machine guns destroyed forever the illusion of courage, hope, and a sense of the heroic possibilities in war.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises