How did machine guns change the way battles were fought?
The first automatic machine gun was invented by the American, Hiram S. Maxim, in 1884. The ability to fire hundreds of rounds per minute had a profound effect on the way that battles were fought. Here are some examples:
- In World War One, specialized machine gun corps were introduced and they developed new technologies to maximize the power of these weapons. Clinometers, for example, were introduced to find the angle of sloping ground. Range-finders also enabled better accuracy.
- Machine gun corps developed new methods of firing. Enfilade firing, for instance, involved positioning a machine gun on either flank of the battlefield to create a "killing zone" in which short bursts of ammunition were fired at the enemy.
- The British Army used a technique called barrage fire in which they fired above the heads of their own soldiers, usually in response to an SOS call from their infantry.
Machine guns made their debut in WWI. During that war, they forced a change to trench warfare. In later wars, they helped change armies' tactics, moving the armies away from massed formations and into looser battle orders.
Before and during WWI, military commanders thought that battles were won by massed charges of men. This had been fairly effective in the past because there were no rapid fire weapons. But then machine guns were invented, giving tremendous rates of fire and longer ranges than rifles had. This made mass charges suicidal. Sadly, commanders in WWI kept trying them, even after they moved to trench warfare.
In WWII, for example, commanders learned from WWI and no longer committed troops to mass charges. Tactics centered around things like staggered rushes by small groups of men under covering fire from those behind them. Infantry stopped massing and charging and started to be more dispersed to avoid giving the machine guns huge targets to simply mow down.