Everyone needs to shoot a WW1 Water Cooled Belt Fed

This post is part of two others, about a recent range outing with some very historically interesting small arms, the DeLisle commando carbine, the M50 Reising submachine gun, and the Russian PM1910 Maxim heavy machine gun. All of these are NFA items (either Class III or suppressed) and the owner was extremely kind enough to take me out and blow over a thousand rounds through his small arms.

I am by no means a knowledgeable person on World War One and Two belt fed water cooled machine guns. However, from a historical and firearms interest point of view, I can absolutely appreciate them, and shooting one was the bees knees.


The Russians adopted the Maxim design in 1910. Something to understand about Hiram Maxims machine gun inventions is that they were adopted everywhere. Essentially if a country in the early 1900s didn’t have a Maxim variant of some sort, then they would have had a Vickers, a Hotchkiss, or a Madsen in some form or another. The machine guns were just so prevalent. Thus, Russia adopted the Maxim in 1910, and continued using it into the Second World War, wherein it was replaced by the air cooled SG43.

Put yourself in the early 1900s as some sort of high ranking officer or tactician. Machine guns aren’t entirely understood at all, so essentially you’ve either got Infantry or artillery on the battlefield. No tanks, no planes, no mortars as of yet. So along come the heavy belt fed, water cooled machine guns, and what do you do with them? Well to the countries back then, these machine guns were treated as light artillery. They required a crew of soldiers to operate, they could be used to hit area targets at long ranges, and could be used as an indirect fire asset as well. Today of course, machine gun employment is very different from what it was back then. But we have to understand this concept if we want to look at how these heavy belt feds were employed.

And when I say heavy, I mean heavy. Like 140 pounds heavy. The gun, the armored gunners plate, the carriage, the ammunition. Setting up the whole thing required a well trained crew of soldiers, in addition to keeping it running with all the water, ammunition, and spare parts required. Often these teams would have horse or vehicle drawn carriages that carried everything they needed to maintain the machine gun. Because the guns were so intricate at times, the crews also had to carry boxes of spare parts. Look at the videos I have here, you’ll see an oddly shaped metal box welded to the mount. That box contained a spare bolt. A good gunner could swap out a broken bolt with a working one within seconds should the need arise. In addition, you’ll notice the operating toggle moving back and forth during the cycle of operations. A well trained gun crew could diagnose exactly what malfunction or jam would have occurred to the machine gun based on the position of that toggle.

This is an excellent animated video of the cycle of operations of the Maxim.

There are some interesting tidbits about the Russian Maxim that differentiate it from other Maxims. For one, the Russians borrowed an idea from the Finns with incorporating a large water opening on the top of the water jacket. This was to allow gun crews to pack snow into the water jacket should there not be any water available with the standard hose. Bear in mind that as long as there was water in the jacket, the gun could keep firing at a rapid rate of fire. Of course, barrels could get burnt out, but a water cooled machine gun could out match any air cooled machine gun of its era. The Russian mount was specially made so that once the two front legs were disconnected, the gun could be carried by the crew, but then once connected, it was set up for action. Originally these Maxims took cloth belts, but they can also take non-disintegrating PKM linked belts (which were probably originally for the SG43). The camouflage scheme on this one was done in the United States to mimic what it would have looked like on the Eastern Front during the winter months. The Maxim used in this range trip was actually built during World War Two.

Shooting the Maxim just felt like time travel to World War One. Getting behind the heavy gun and just laying down walls of lead, one can easily see how so many head on attacks in that war were just doomed from the outset. It almost seemed like the spade grips were the original Playstation controllers of death. While we had issues shooting the DeLisle, and maybe a couple malfunctions with the M50 Reising, there was literally not a single issue with the Russian Maxim, every single round of the 750 that we fired went downrange and cycled through the machine gun.

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I personally think everyone should get a chance to shoot a water cooled belt fed heavy machine gun. It really was an event to remember!


Infantry Marine, based in the Midwest. Specifically interested in small arms history, development, and usage within the MENA region and Central Asia. To that end, I run Silah Report, a website dedicated to analyzing small arms history and news out of MENA and Central Asia.

Please feel free to get in touch with me about something I can add to a post, an error I’ve made, or if you just want to talk guns. I can be reached at miles@tfb.tv


  • yodamiles

    In comparison to modern day air-cooled machine guns, are water cooled machine guns still able to provide longer sustain fire without over heating? Or modern day barrel metallurgy is much better?

    • Darren Hruska

      The Maxim design was so ingenious and revolutionary that I do believe even modern air-cooled machine guns don’t even come close to being able to sustain fire for nearly as long.

      Water-cooled machine guns are quite a burden, though, and they aren’t quite practical in a very dry environment where water is pretty scarce. Although, I do have to wonder why they really aren’t still used on light watercraft/patrol boats.

      • pbla4024

        What about L94A1?

        • Ken

          The L94A1 has a system that forces air past the barrel to cool it. It’s also a chain gun, so it requires an external power source.

    • Aklover

      Water cooled guns can literally fire just about indefinitely, provided something in the action doesn’t break and you keep water in the jacket. It’s basically impossible to overheat them; there were tests done with maxim and bickers guns where rounds expended went into five and six digits.

      • Wolf Baginski

        The usual story is that a company of the Machine Gun Corps, with ten Vickers guns, fired a million rounds on the 24th August 1916.

        It gets argued about. The unit’s War Diary says different, but people who know this stuff say that War Diaries do contain mistakes.

        The back of my envelope suggests that the guns would have fired around 140 rounds per minute, and the way a Vickers was used makes that a very high rate. Fire a burst, thump the gun on the side to traverse it slightly (the traverse was clamped for firing, and the gunner knew the trick of how hard to tighten the clamp and how hard to thump to get a consistent change), and fire another burst. The barrels would wear out, and the changes took time.

        I’d like the story to be true, but it looks exaggerated. It was a high enough ammunition expenditure that the answers to “How did you do that?” would have been recorded.

        Some of the usual story is certainly consistent with other experience of firing the guns, such as 100 spare barrels being used. But the War Diary only mentions the one barrel change. Somebody might just have conjured the number from typical barrel-like.

        Incidentally, the Vickers gun was a modified Maxim design. The obvious change was inverting the toggle link, but there were a lot of improvements to reduce weight.

    • Martin Grønsdal

      I guess if you had a fortified position, with a water tap working, an endless supply of ammo, and a neverending attack to repel, then it would be better to have a maxim.

      Although, these situations only occur in games, don’t they 😉

      • Ken

        I read there was an MG42 emplacement on Omaha beach which fired over 12k rounds. In a fixed emplacement, they would have had the Lafette tripod to keep it steady, as well as many spare barrels they could cycle through like chain smoking cigarettes. The Lafette tripod is quite good for keeping the machine gun steady during bursts. The barrels have to be switched out every 200 rounds though. I’m sure there were MG42’s which had similar round counts during WWII, especially on the Eastern Front.

        • jcitizen

          Not all bunkers had the Lafette mount, some were even easier to use – the MG42 has one of the easiest barrel changing methods I’ve ever used. I think that is why the MG3 is still in use today.

    • Ken

      During the tests of the M1917 machine gun, they fired over 21k rounds continuously for 48 minutes and 12 seconds. I guess the only pauses were to reload with 250 round belts.

    • Bill

      I wonder if there are fluids other than water that would provide cooling without the boiling and dissipation? I imagine pressure comes into play also. But maybe something like automotive antifreeze?

      • EgregiousCharles

        No, the heat energy absorbed to boil the water is what provides most of the cooling. It takes a little more than five times as much energy to turn water to steam as it does to heat it from just above freezing to the boiling point. Which is why it takes so much longer to boil a pot of water dry than it does to get it to start boiling, and the water in the pot never gets any hotter once it’s boiling. BTW, it also takes a good bit of heat energy to melt ice, too.

        • Bill

          Thanks, I did not know that.

  • gunsandrockets

    The VC and NVA invented and used a lot of interesting dual-purpose wheeled mounts for machine-guns.

    The Japanese Army also had an interesting stretcher-pole method of hand carrying their Type 92 heavy machine-gun.

    • Gary Kirk

      Yeah, would you wanna be the guy in the front??

  • gunsandrockets

    I read where the Finns during the Winter War would used massed numbers of Maxim guns during offensive operations because of the Lack of adequate artillery support!

  • gunsandrockets

    Okay, that steam venting from the Maxim barrel jacket was really neat. Talk about steam-punk!

  • Iggy

    While they are definitely outclassed in terms of maneuverability, I reckon there could be some interesting things done nowadays using a modernized water cooled machine gun. I can’t help thinking a Vickers using modern metallurgy for even further strength and lightening, modernized sighting system and maybe an electric pump to keep water (or specially formulated coolant) cycling through the barrel jacket would be terrifying for anything within it’s range (and don’t forget plunging fire). And would only have to stop firing to change out the barrel. Mount that on a light armored vehicle and blaze away.
    Yes there are more practical solutions, but fun solutions?

  • Phil Hsueh

    I wonder if the British versions of the Vickers and/or Maxims had a spigot mounted in them so that you could dispense hot water from the jackets to make tea. Yeah, I know it’s a silly question and you really wouldn’t want to pour out any of the water that helps keep your gun cool but considering that their tanks were often, if not always, equipped with a small stove just for heating water for tea it wouldn’t surprise me if the Brits at least thought of incorporating a spigot on their MGs.

    • Iggy

      There are stories of soldiers firing off random bursts to boil water and then draining the jacket to make tea, except it has been pointed out that the water would be fairly oily. There have been further assertions that they didn’t care.
      So it’s plausible that it could be done, but it should be noted you wouldn’t get a particularly nice cup of tea out it.

      • jcitizen

        It would taste funny when the gun was brand new, but the seals on the barrel didn’t need much oil really, the water was just as good for lubrication in those designs.

  • Isaac Newton

    Great machine gun design, however the thought of time travel back to be a WWI conscript on the other side of it is frightening as you describe.

  • Joe

    I don’t see any reason not to apply a water jacket to any stationary M240 or M2, perimeter defense as well as mounted ops. Well, I don’t know about the 240, given the gas system resides underneath most of the barrel, but perhaps an engineer could figure out a way to do it.