On the front, when a machine gun broke down, it had to be repaired. The MG 08, the most common automatic gun in WWI, was cumbersome. The gun weighed 60lbs, and its sledge mount weighed 80lbs. Although it was deemed “portable” and “light,” four soldiers were needed to lug this gun around. German engineers tinkered with the design to make it more mobile. The result was the MG 08/15, the Devil’s Paintbrush. The MG 08/15 was short recoil operated, water-cooled, full automatic, and belt-fed. To repair the gun while holed up in trenches, German soldiers were issued a MG 08/15 toolkit that had a steel wrench, screwdriver, and hammer. One of these toolkits hangs on the walls of our museum.

Hiram S. Maxim invented the gun’s predecessor in 1884. Tinkering was in Maxim’s nature. As a teenager, he designed automatically resetting mousetraps for local mills. He patented curling irons and carbon filaments. But, inventing wasn’t enough. He wanted fortune. He wanted fame. In 1882, an acquaintance advised him to invent “something that will enable Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.” Maxim heeded the words. Within two years, he harnessed the recoil of a bullet, invented cleaner ammunition, and designed a gun that automatically fired all its bullets from one barrel. (All rapid firing weapons before had required manual intervention.)

Maxim offered the gun to the British army, but the British army said that it could see no real use for the gun. Besides, they said, such a weapon was “improper” warfare. The Germans had no such qualms. They produced a version of Maxim’s gun at a Spandau arsenal. When war broke out in August 1914, the German army had 12,000 of these automatics at their disposal. By the end of the war, their number had increased to more than 100,000.

The MG 08/15 brought industrial-strength killing to the battlefield, and it changed warfare forever. The allied troops called for bayonet charges, but their men stood no chance against the rapid firing bullets. On July 1, 1916, the British fell like wheat when they charged across the battlefield. Around 21,000 men were lost to the MG 08/15 that single day. So, legions hunkered down, creating networks of trenches. The land between the trenches was no man’s land, and it was death to be between them. The MG 08 is responsible for more causalities than any other weapon, including the automatic bomb.