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World War I: The Birth of the Modern Black Gun

The First World War is remembered for its mud-soaked trenches and the first use of airplanes and tanks in combat. What is often overlooked, even among history buffs, is that the conflict was truly the first modern war in terms of small arms.

In August 1914 when the soldiers marched off to war, bolt-action rifles were quit cutting edge and light-years more advanced than the single-shot muskets used by the armies that took to the field 100 years earlier in the Napoleonic Wars. Yet, technology was marching faster than the soldiers.

Germany's MP 18

It has been argued that the military planners didn't have a grasp on the potential killing power of the modern weapons, such as the machine gun, but in fact the German Army was already equipped with some 12,000 Maschinengewehr 08’s (MG 08) at the outbreak of the war. Instead of not understanding its potential the nations may have in some ways relied on the weapons to make short order of the enemy. The MG 08 was a German-made version of the Maxim machine gun that was made under license. Invented in 1884 the Maxim was the first self-powered machinegun and utilized the recoil power of the previously fired bullet to reload a new round into the chamber rather than being hand-powered. It was just one of several advanced machine guns of the era.

Browning Automatic Rifle

“Machine guns to cover and support infantry forays across long, wire-sown and shell-pocked stretches of no-man’s land between trenches were crucial, and both sides had fairly good ones available,” said Dale Dye, a retired Marine Corps captain and now a full-time military history consultant for movies and TV. “The German Maxim, the British Vickers, and the American Browning all served admirably and were proof of concept in the infantry assault tactics that developed on all World War I battlefields, but machine guns had been around for some time by the time the conflict began in 1914.”

These guns were effective as defensive weapons and were largely responsible for the men digging in; and thus the very trench warfare that the conflict is so remembered for today. To break the stalemate military planners devised and developed a variety of weapons – including the aforementioned tank.  Small arms took a major leap forward and, in many ways, the guns used in the trenches 100 years ago led directly to today’s modern black guns.

Lewis Gun

“As slow progress was made on European fronts, infantry needed and wanted fast-firing weapons that could keep up to support the advance or aid in sweeping enemy-packed trenches,” Dye said. “That requirement was the genesis of the assault rifle concept. There were two relatively good products that reached the infantry during WW I. The American Browning Automatic Rifle and the American/British Lewis light machinegun.”

The Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, was small enough that it could be carried by a single soldier yet it was still heavy at nearly 16 pounds and carried only a 20-round box magazine. As a support weapon it was reliable enough that it remained in use throughout World War II and Korea, and even seeing some service in Vietnam. It was not the first automatic rifle that could be defined as the original assault weapon, however — that distinction goes to a firearm that has mixed reputation today.

Chauchat and Lewis Gun

“The Chauchat was the first successful assault rifle,” noted A. Gustaf Bryngelson, advanced World War I weapons collector and military history author.  “The reason the definition for assault rifle was written the way it is was to exclude the Chauchat from the distinction because of the myth that it was a failure. The fact is the Chauchat was an assault weapon, and it was also a rifle, so it is logical to be able to label it an assault rifle.”

The weapon has a dubious reputation because it was prone to jamming due to mud and dirt, and as a result needed to be cleaned regularly. The same issues and response would be tied closely to the M-16 during the Vietnam War 50 years later.

The French Chauchat

The Chauchat was actually reasonably reliable but only if properly maintained and cleaned. Moreover the weapon's designs were quite advanced compared to the bolt-action rifles of the era. It featured a pistol grip, in-line stock, detachable magazine, and selective-fire capability. It weighed 20 pounds and could be fired from the hip while moving. Many of these features would be standard in the assault weapons that were developed only after the Second World War.

Just as the First World War also saw the birth of the submachine gun. Developed by the Germans as the “machine pistol,” or “maschinenpisole,” this class of weapon fired pistol cartridges rather than rifle cartridges — offering mobility and firepower to the infantryman in a way that was previously unknown.

While working for the Bergmann Waffenfabrik firm Hugo Schmeisser, along with Theodor Bergmann, developed a new type of weapon known as was the Maschinenpistole 18/I or MP 18. Schmeisser later went on to develop the StG 44 – a firearm largely accepted as the first true assault weapon, as it utilized a specially designed intermediate cartridge – but he should absolutely be remembered as the father of the submachine gun as well. This firearm, which featured open-bolt blowback action that would be the basis of many future similar SMGs, was originally designed to use the snail drum of the Luger Artillery model pistol, and this provided the soldier with 32 rounds of 9mm Parabellum. The downside to this magazine was that the shooter was required to have a special tool to reload the magazine.

Only after the war did the Germans develop the traditional “stick” magazine that is a staple of today's modern submachine guns. The MP 18 came too late to turn the tide in Germany's favor, but it was not the only small arm to be developed with rapid fire and quick mobility in mind.

The Thompson Submachine Gun

Another gun would have just as lasting of an impact in that regard: the Thompson submachine gun. Its namesake, General John T. Thompson, envisioned a semi-automatic rifle to replace the bolt-action rifles in use during the war and — along with Theodore H. Eickhoff, Oscar V. Payne, and George E. Goll — conceived the principles that would eventually become the first small arm to actually earn the moniker of submachine gun. Thompson believed in the idea of a “one-man, hand-held machine gun.” Together, these men developed a platform that fired the .45 ACP round. Though it was officially named the Thompson Submachine Gun, it was known by a number of colorful nicknames, including the Trench Broom and the Annihilator, and, of course, the Tommy Gun.

The Thompson never saw service in the trenches, as its prototype was only developed as the war in Europe ended. The actual weapon entered production in 1921and was marketed commercially. Its rapid rate of fire made it a favorite of criminals during the era of prohibition. One of its legacies was the adoption of the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposed a statutory excise tax on the manufacture and transfer of certain firearms and further mandated the registration of those firearms, namely automatic weapons.

These small arms would have a lasting legacy in terms of firearms development and paved the way for the weapons used in World War II and beyond.

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