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Vickers MkI Machine Gun: The Grand Old Lady of No Man’s Land

Photos by Kenda Lenseigne

The Vickers MkI machine gun entered British service in 1912 and was retired in 1968, having served in two world wars and a list of conflicts as long as your arm. To reduce its legacy to just a couple of dates in a history book would be an extreme disservice, as it was one of the most important pieces of small arms history of the 20th century, with an impact far beyond what could be originally envisioned by its maker.

The Vickers company was the General Dynamics of the British empire’s twilight years. Capable of producing everything from battleships to locomotives to cars and small arms, it was one of the first truly vertically integrated conglomerates, owning not only the factories to produce war materiel, but the foundries that supplied them also. 

As a result of purchasing a shipbuilding operation in 1896 (which even today produces nuclear submarines), they also acquired its subsidiary, the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company. Sir Hiram Maxim, the American citizen responsible for the design of the first viable machine gun, came as part of the deal, and the company changed its name to Vickers Sons, and Maxim, to reflect this. Maxim quickly got to work improving his wildly successful brainchild, already in service in the UK, U.S., Russia, Japan, and Germany. 

Through some smart redesign and the use of Vickers-made high-strength alloys, the MkI gained a reputation as one of the most bulletproof designs ever made, despite shedding almost 25 pounds in weight compared to the Maxim it was based on.

OPERATION

The Vickers MkI is a water-cooled, recoil-operated gun, firing from a closed bolt and fed from cloth or metal belts. The bolt mechanism resembles that of the Luger pistol in that, on firing, the barrel and breech are locked together and recoil for a short distance, before a toggle mechanism unlocks, leaving the bolt to continue rearward, ejecting the empty case through the bottom of the receiver and pulling the next cartridge out of the belt as it does so. 

The Vickers is full of old-school attention to detail and meticulous machining. Its basic iron sight setup is graduated to 2,900 yards and compensates for spin drift at this distance, while each of its grips is hollow and contains an oil brush and lube to minimize downtime.

To ensure reliability, the muzzle is threaded to accept a booster cup, which butts up against the rear of the flash hider and employs the escaping propellant gases to increase thrust against the operating mechanism.

In comparison to a modern, air-cooled MG, the Vickers’ barrel has a very light profile due to it being water cooled. Its jacket contains about a gallon of water, which after about 350 rounds of continuous fire begins to boil. The steam produced gets collected by a hose and condensed in a can at the gunner’s feet, where it can be recycled.

 As a result, the barrel never gets much hotter than 212 degrees, which means that barrel life is over 10,000 rounds, firing balls to the wall. Barrel changes take about 2 minutes with a well-trained crew, as the water jacket must be drained and refilled. 

HISTORICAL CONTEXT 

The Vickers MkI is heavy, obsolete, and expensive to maintain, but in its day there was nothing to compare in terms of reliability. Even now, its ability to keep firing when every other weapon system is a puddle of melted slag is legendary, even if some of the legends, such as the 100th MG Brigade’s 1916 “million round barrage” are somewhat dubious. What’s not in question, however, is the pile of brass created by one of the last Vickers armorer’s courses at Strensall Barracks in 1963. 

As the weapon and its .303 MkVII ammo had been declared obsolete, the directing staff decided to do something a little different. After gauging a freshly rebuilt gun, it was placed on the line and fed a steady diet of almost 5 million rounds, in the course of seven days and nights continuous firing. It was gauged again at the end of the week and found to be in good order.

It’s not often RECOIL features guns from our staffers’ collections, but in this case we’re breaking from the norm. For both historical and personal reasons, the MkI shown here is one of the firearms I’ll never get rid of, as it has an intimate connection to my regiment and family. 

On August 23, 1914, the German 1st Army advanced on the city of Mons in Belgium, having already taken that nation’s capital the week before. In order to achieve their objective, they first had to cross the Mons-Conde canal, which looped around the town, creating a salient that enabled it to be attacked on three sides. Holding the bridges across the canal were officers and men of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, who had endured a long, forced march the previous day, before digging in through the night as the heavens opened. 

Lt. Maurice Dease commanded a machine gun section equipped with a pair of Vickers MkI’s that covered the Nimy railway bridge across the canal, and at 0800 hours, they received their first contact with the enemy. 

At 0930, Dease was wounded below the knee by rifle fire from one of the approximately 6,000 Mausers facing his detachment. At around midday, and after constant German attacks had killed or wounded his men, some of whom he personally evacuated, Dease was hit in the neck as he manned the machine gun. 

Soon after, he was again wounded in the side by a fragment from an artillery round, which rendered him unconscious. At this point, Private Sidney Godley ran to the gun emplacement and manned the weapon, firing continuously for two hours to cover the withdrawal of his vastly outnumbered comrades until, with the gun overheating due to damage to its water jacket from shrapnel and with ammo almost exhausted, Godley pulled the breechbolt out of the gun and threw it into the canal. 

Hobbling toward Mons to seek medical attention for his wounds, Godley was aided by two Belgians who helped him to hospital, where he was captured by the Germans. 

Dease died of his wounds as he was being evacuated. Both men were awarded the Victoria Cross, the first of World War I.

The Vickers soldiered on throughout the “war to end all wars,” put a pile of Nazis in the dirt a couple of decades later, then lived out its golden years in various African Bush Wars. Despite being officially retired for over half a century, like a battered old warrior it still pops up in conflicts here and there, chambered in whatever random ammo is locally available.

I’ve not seen one on the ground in Ukraine yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time. 

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