Thursday, April 5, 2012

Machine Guns

I doubt too many of us have a machine gun laying about our premises. But I wanted to discuss the tactical uses of firearms, and machine guns are an excellent place to start. We are going to start with the war where the machine gun really came into its own, and was used with the most thorough tactical flexibility: World War 1.

Hiram Stevens Maxim was an American inventor who had moved to England in 1181. Reportedly he was told by a fellow American, “hang your chemistry and electricity! If you wish to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.”

Working from London, in 1884, he patented the first modern machine gun. He was eventually to patent virtually every type of method that was to be eventually used in a continuous fire, self-loading firearm. In its original form, the recoil of the gun is directed to a spring which stores the energy to return the lock back into firing position. The weapons rounds are fed via a fabric belt. The belt is slid out of the way of the breach as the round is inserted. It is the gentle pulling of the spent belt that the assistant gunner is generally seen to be doing. The guns were either water or air cooled, but the water cooled guns (with the water jacket making the barrel look fat) can fire for longer periods of time without the barrel overheating. To see the German version of a water cooled Maxim (made at the Spandau factories under license) this video is pretty indicative.

The guns were not used in the fashion portrayed by Hollywood, They did swing the gun around from side to side spraying bullets everywhere at close range. In fact the traverse (side to side) motion of most of these guns were limited. Traversing fire was generally limited to a 20ยบ arc. The guns were often clamped down and the movement was accomplished by rapping the gun on the side, bumping it. These were machine guns. They were precision tools- adjustments were incremental.

We will start with their long range, often offensive usage.

Machine Guns and the Great War (p.41-42)
Paul Cornish, Pen & Sword Military, South Yorkshire, 2009

When fired at longer ranges, the machine gun develops new capabilities. Not all bullets leaving a machine gun follow the same flight path. There is sufficient variation in their trajectories to create what is known as a “cone of fire”. The area where the cone of fire intersects with the ground is known as the “beaten zone” – an area typically elliptical in shape…A British Vickers gun, firing at a range of 2,000 meters (2,187 yards or about 1-1/5th mile), onto flat terrain, produced a beaten zone 64 meters long by 6 meters wide.

This characteristic of machine gun fire is not part of the popular perception of machine guns firing directly, as short ranges, and on flat trajectories at advancing troops.

You could combine the guns into batteries with interlocking beaten zones, and use the gun to deny large areas of ground. They could be pre-sited during the day, and used to target avenues of night that the enemy might use at night. Using known weapon characteristics, they could be used to fire over hills and seek out unseen enemies. In battery, they acted a little bit like a continuous version of today’s cluster bombs.

But of course, in World War 1, the machine gun is known for its defensive capabilities (Same source p.38).

The firepower of machine guns is hugely more effective in enfilade (i.e. when fired from a flanking position) than when it is aimed directly into the enemy’s front line. It has been recorded (and oft-repeated) that a pre-war [British] machine gun officer, upon requesting orders for his guns, was told to “take the damned things to the flank and hide ‘em’” by his superiors. In fact, given the tactical precept of the time, there was no better position for these weapons than concealed on the flank of their parent formation.

The machine guns were often positioned so that they were not even able to fire directly toward the enemy battalions. What they covered was the area to the front of their formation. Firing along a narrow band, they would could with enough ammunition could literally put up a wall of steel. With interlocking zones of fire, and guns often paired (in case one jammed). You would have a multi-directional band of lead to cross. If the attackers turn toward the machine gun (which is hidden and a long ways away) they expose their backs to other flanking machine guns on the other flank, and of course are now not attacking the original position that they were trying to take.

It should be noted, that not all armies used their machine guns equally well in all applications.  The Germans were better at the use of interlocking flanking fire, and the allies at using the weapons for indirect fire purposes over the heads of their own troops.

By the time of World War 2, the linear defenses were out, and the Germans used multiple self-supporting strong points. But they still used the machine guns to cover across the front, and hit from the flanks. The fire just came from a lot more directions. Enough directions that the allies had a very hard time pulling apart German fortified zones. Every time they thought they were getting somewhere, someone would open up on them from some other unexpected direction.

And here is where we get to the purpose of this portion of our exercise.
In a lot of the fictional accounts of raving hordes, or motorcycle gangs attacking from the city, the defenders build strong points (sometime going so far as to make temporary berms

If you have the resources to build a fortified compound out of reinforced concrete, large enough to hold everyone in it, and supplies to last a good long time, I guess you can take your chances. One of Rawles’ characters, even had an exterior sprinkler system put on the roof of his house. I never understood how that was supposed to work in the winter. In the novel, it was never put to the test.

If your resources are a modern house, and some sand bags, or maybe even a cave and some sandbags, you might want to reconsider the idea of simply blasting it out with the bad guys.

Japan’s Battle of Okinawa April-June 1945
Thomas M. Huber Leavonworth Papers Number 18 (p. 71-73)

The Americans' method for reducing the caves, what they called Blowtorch and Corkscrew and the Japanese called "cavalry charge," was to bombard the cave, killing surface infantry or forcing them inside. This alone did not subdue the cave-protected infantry, so the Americans then approached with tanks and infantry teams. These together drove the remaining IJA infantry away from the cave entrances. Fire from the tanks' machine guns, main guns, or flamethrowers was used to push IJA gunners away from the cave fire ports long enough for U.S. infantry to get past their angles of fire into what the Japanese called the "dead angle."

Actually, to increase firepower, the IJA often had riflemen fire at angles off the machine gun or cannon in the fire port. They called this "sleeve" tactics.  In order to get into the dead spaces, the Americans had to first break through the Japanese infantry defense line. Once they had done that, though, the cave positions were completely helpless. The Japanese called this a "straddle" attack since American riflemen straddled the exits with their fire instead of standing directly in front of the exit openings where IJA soldiers could fire on them. The Americans could not fire in from these positions either, but they could shoot any Japanese trying to exit.

Many of the caves were situated under the dome of a hill, with exits on the sides and the rear of the dome, and a fire port facing the front. The Japanese especially dreaded the Americans' advance to the top of the dome. The summit was outside the fire port's fire angle and often covered every exit, so that one American standing there with a machine gun could prevent all egress from the cave, despite its multiple exits. Even if no dome existed, the American infantry would sweep to the far side of the hill where the cave was and cover the rear slope exits so that inmates had no choice but to surrender. Usually the Americans tried to find the air shaft above a cave and throw in a phosphorus grenade, a smoke bomb, or other explosives. Sometimes, they would pump in large amounts of gasoline, which they then ignited. These methods either killed the soldiers inside or forced them out.

It should be noted this is very similar to how the Japanese attempted to destroy American tanks.  Take out the protective screen of infantry, and then use blind spots to get close enough to take it out with hand held explosives.  It is a somewhat universal tactic.

So if Fred and Zippy, soulmates in the world of 1% post-apocalyptic biker mayhem are coming walking (out of gas) down the road toward your home/fortress, what are you going to do?
If you fire at them from the house, what is going to happen?  They will certainly seek cover.  They may even drag of the now deceased Zippy, and give him a proper burial.  But when they come back, where are they going to go?  Straight to your house.  And if they outgun you, you will be bottled up in there for some time.  So long as they can see the exits from cover (in other words -you don’t live out on a salt plane), they don’t even have to keep a continuous watch.  You won’t know when it is safe to go outside.

Now what happens if you fire at them from the flank.  They may leave to bury Zippy.  But when they come back they won’t know where your main base is.  If they don’t retreat, and press there attack, you can fall back as you have nothing behind you to protect.  At this point they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Even if Drake, the local meth-head has rated out the location of your home, until they clear out the flanking forces, they cannot safely envelope it.

It is not really very new.  It is Settlers and Indians:   scout and ambush.  We discussed it before, and people may be very well discussing it again.

You do occasionally see this in fiction.  In Apocalypse Law some unexpected help from a neighbor with a 22LR rifle causes all sorts of grief for the bad guys attacking a barricaded home.  In one of the novels American Apocalypse series (I forget which one) the supposed good guys go to attack a group of bandits at a remote farmstead.  They go barreling into the house, only to find it empty, and the bad guys, who were sleeping in the barn, firing on their rear.  It should have cut of the series there.

So while your lack of machine guns means that you probably won’t be able to put down a wall of lead, you will deny him safe access on the approaches to his target,  and force him to divide his focus.  You may not be the German Grand Army, but than they aren’t the Cold Stream Guards either.


Odysseus said...

I've wondered if a Slidefire Stock, combined with a heavy barrel and drum magazine could make give a prep group a "poor man's SAW".

Good thoughts on defensive tactics. Even later in the Great War static trench lines were being replaced with layers that funneled attackers into funnels between machine-gun nests.

russell1200 said...

O: You make a very good point in that WWW1 even on the “closed” Western Front was not the static, one tactic only war that many think. Part of the problem (in the English language) is that too much is focused on British/Americans versus Germans, when it was the French and Germans who were the big innovators in that war. Other than the book “Pyrrhic Victory”, very little can be found on the French experience.

I sort of have the suspicion that the SAW is a weapon looking for a purpose. It is too light too really work well in either of the roles noted above, and would appear to be best at spraying bullets around.

One of the biggest selling points of the use of the MG in defense, even very early on, was that it was the “nerveless” trigger. They found that light arms fire performance actually got worse within 100m because (go figure) people were nervous about the people who were getting real close to them being able to kill them. The preset, zeroed MG didn’t have this problem. It was a machine, and you pressed the trigger.

I am no expert on slidefire stocks, but they always seem to be on an AR-15. Closer to what they were doing is a .308 on a tripod locked down, and distant.

Of course even in the WW1 with all that interlocked firepower, they still needed the barbwire to finish the equation. Without the wire, someone eventually gets through.

Odysseus said...

I was talking about more what was available rather than what would be best in defense, though even in WWI light MGs that could support advances or counterattacks came into their own.

It was scarcity rather than tactics that kept them from issuing a light MG to each squad(tough the allies were coming to this point by the summer/fall of 1918).

russell1200 said...

Your right, I was thinking heavy or medium mg role. My mistake.

Hmmm....thinking out loud. Related to a planned post....

The Germans not only used their own SMGs, but also the Russian ones as well. They did this at the same time they were making semi-auto rifles, and using the captured Soviet Selbstladegewher 257 r. And their discussions of criteria on the semi-auto rifle were somewhat along the lines of the ones we have with weighting given to weight of bullet and distance. In other words they didn't try and turn them into carbine assualt rifles.

So why the smg?

I think it is because the ammo is so light (and in our case also super cheap) so you could carry lots of it.

The sound of the automatic fire brings people to the ground. They stop what they are doing and dive for cover.

Even a semi-auto smg is going have a lot of lead bouncing around out there. And they are very light and handy.

If you are going to fire off lots of bullets as a tactic (good idea in to my mind), the smg has to be looked at. The cartridge weight is about the same, but the price is about 1/2 for the 9mm versus the .233.

Is it what I would do if I had military type resources? No. But ammo price has to factor.

The 7.62x39 is equal in price to the 9mm ammo, but weighs about 28 rounds per pound versus 37 (.233) or 38 (9mm).

If you had access to .233 at 9mm or AK-round pricing, that would of course be the way to go.

As it is, you are back to balancing your criteria - not really a surprise there.

And FWIW, my preference is for the .308 - 7.62x51 NATO.

But I might not mind having a youngster off to the side staying low and making a racket with an smg.