Weapons Law Encyclopedia

Light machine gun

Light machine guns were invented following the invention of repeat fire, then automatic fire, and finally the miniaturisation of the first machine guns.

The development of more powerful guns was always a concern, but initial technological advances during the Renaissance sought to increase the volume of each gun's discharge rather than increasing a gun’s rate of fire.J. Ellis, The social history of the machine gun, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1975, pp. 10–20. Multi-barrel guns or ‘organ guns’ are mentioned as early as the fourteenth century. Some had as many as fifty barrels. The disadvantage, of course, was the time it took to muzzle-load each individual barrel before the gun could be fired. It was therefore a rather unwieldy and impractical engine.

The first functioning machine gun was produced by Gatling in 1862, at the time of the American civil war. Cranked by hand, it was fairly reliable and could produce a steady 200 rounds per minute, but it could hardly be described a ‘small arm’: the initial Gatling gun weighed, more or less, a ton; had no more mobility than an artillery piece; and required a crew of men to fire.Chivers, The Gun, p. 8. Nevertheless the innovation was a true product of the industrial revolution, with its view that machines were the answer to every problem. The technology responded to a huge demand for guns in America, which had few gunsmiths of its own, but also to the characteristics of this war of a new era. For the first time, both sides pitted as many men as they could muster against each other. Winning a battle was not enough: one had to win battle after battle after battle, by killing as many men as possible in the opposing army. The machine gun could fulfil this need.

In 1884, Hiran Maxim invented a machine gun that used the force of recoil to fire continuously after the initial pulling of the trigger.Ellis, The social history of the machine gun, pp. 16 and 33. In 1892, William Browning invented a gas-operated automatic weapon, marketed as the Colt Model 1895, which used the excess gas of each shot, captured via a port into a tube above the barrel and then captured by a piston to eject the spent shell casing and begin the next cycle of fire. But the American inventors of the machine gun found that European governments and militaries remained unconvinced of its usefulness. European military officers largely came from the landowning class which had effectively been left behind by the industrial revolution. Despite aggressive commercial practices of machine gun producers, they remained largely oblivious to the new ideas, so that by 1914, the standard rifle with bayonet was still seen as the ultimate weapon.

The colonized world was an exception. There, European soldiers and settlers were massively outnumbered by the native population. In such a situation, the machine gun brought welcome firepower. In fact, it was crucial in allowing the colonisation to proceed and take hold. Still, the military élite in Europe were not prepared to admit this. Small wars against ‘uncivilized’ nations were seen as irrelevant and slightly distasteful. There was nothing to learn from them.Ibid., p. 57.

It would take World War I to demonstrate the centrality of the machine gun. The dense sheet of fire both sides were able to produce effectively stopped all advances and forced the opposing armies to dig themselves into the ground. Over the course of four years, its production rate had grown exponentially. Profits skyrocketed.Ibid., pp. 39–40. Yet the military would still refuse to acknowledge the changes the machine gun had caused to warfare, and would send wave after wave of soldiers to their death in futile charges. The machine gun was responsible for the slaughter of a generation of Europeans.

Last updated on: 06 February 2014

Common types
 Country  Company  Main types
Russia State factories 7.62mm RPK
Belgium FN Herstal 7.62mm FN MAG (also FN Minimi)
Germany Rheinmetall 7.62mm MG1/2/3 series
Germany Heckler & Koch 7.62mm HK21
US Saco Defense Browning M2
US   M60 (general purpose machine gun), M240B, M249

Table sourcesSmall Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2001: Profiling the problem, Cambridge University Press, p. 20.

Last updated on: 06 February 2014

This section details the intended effects of light and general-purpose machine guns. Their humanitarian impact is addressed in the entry dealing with small arms ammunition (health impact of penetrating trauma), as well as in the general entry on small arms (aggregate humanitarian impact).

Light machine guns are required to produce high volume of fire at relatively short ranges, often where the exact location of the target is not known.Marchant Smith and Haslan, Small Arms & Cannons, p. 70. They are readily portable by one man, are often magazine fed, and capable of providing a high volume of accurate fire out to 800 to 1000m for the light version, and 2000m for the medium version.

Their limitation is the heat generated by automatic fire, which can damage the weapon if it builds up too much. They are therefore used in three main scenarios: for suppressive fire, to hinder enemy movement and discourage an enemy from interfering with the actions of friendly troops, at a rate of 50-60 rounds per minute for 30 minutes or more; to prevent the enemy from returning fire or moving in any way, at a rate of 100 rounds per minute for 2 minutes; or for ‘winning the firefight’ at the maximum practical firing rate (about 150 rounds per minute) for short periods of time.Ibid., pp. 71–2.

Light machine guns do not have legitimate civilian uses. See Intended effects of small arms for a general discussion of civilian uses of firearms.

Machine guns were used to devastating effects during World War I. Since then, they have been somewhat overshadowed by other classes of weapons.

See entries on small arms ammunition for the health impact of penetrating trauma, and on small arms for the aggregate humanitarian impact.

Last updated on: 06 February 2014

Applicable international, regional & national law

2001 Firearms Protocol

The UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (2001 Firearms Protocol) was the first global, legally binding instrument on small arms control. It contains important provisions on manufacturing, marking and tracing, record-keeping, and international transfers of firearms. It supplements the 2001 UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), also known as the Palermo Convention.

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2013 Arms Trade Treaty

The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first global, legally binding instrument regulating international transfers of most conventional weapons, as well as some ammunition / munitions, and parts and components.

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