U KRAINIAN FORCES are fighting off Russian invaders with types of machineguns which entered service when Ukraine was part of a Russian Empire ruled by a tsar. The Maxim M1910 has a steampunk aesthetic: it weighs 68kg and has an armoured gun shield on a distinctive two-wheeled mount allowing it to be towed behind a vehicle or manoeuvred by the gun crew. Russian media mock these antiques and say the Ukrainians use them because they lack modern weapons. The truth is more complex.
As the name suggests, the weapon was introduced in 1910. It is a Russian-made version of the first truly automatic machinegun, which was patented by Hiram Maxim, an American-British inventor, in 1883. Earlier Gatling guns had six barrels which needed to be cranked by hand. In Maxim’s design, the expanding gases from firing a bullet work the action and load the next round. One finger on the trigger unleashes a succession of bullets. A water-cooled barrel allows it to keep firing for extended periods. Versions of Maxim’s gun proved lethally effective in the trenches of the first world war.
Modern medium machineguns firing the same 7.62mm ammunition as the M1910 are much lighter and more portable—the current Russian PKM weighs less than a fifth as much. However they lack water cooling. Firing continuously even for a minute can cause the barrel to deform, or the weapon to “cook off”, when bullets fire without the trigger being pulled.