Vickers Gun - RAF RE8

Vickers Machine Gun

british flag Great Britain  (1912)
Machine Gun
The Vickers Gun or Vickers Machine Gun as it is often called was one of the first armaments fitted to an airplane for combat in the early 1910s. The weapon, originally water cooled and based on the successful Maxim gun, was designed and manufactured by Vickers Limited of Britain and fitted to many early British and French fighter planes.

Origins

The origins of the Vickers gun can be traced back to Hiram S. Maxim’s original ‘Maxim Gun’ that came to prominence in the 1880s as a deadly armament of the British Empire. This machine gun was extremely efficient due to its novel recoil based feed operation, which utilized the recoil of the weapon to eject the spent cartridge and insert another one. The weapon was also water-cooled for maximum efficiency and due to this could be fired for long durations.

The Vickers Machine Gun Design

Vickers-Gun - Aircraft Version 1
The Vickers Aircraft Machine Gun – Fires British .303 (7.7 mm) rounds

Vickers improved on this design by lightening the overall weight of the weapon as well as simplifying and strengthening the parts of the internal mechanisms. Another significant improvement was the addition of a muzzle booster, which restricts the escaping high pressure gases from the barrel, forcing more energy to the backwards motion of the barrel without increasing recoil force.

The Vickers attained a solid reputation upon its introduction in 1912. Despite its bulk and weight of around 30 lbs (15 kg), not including water and ammunition, it was praised by crews for its dependability. Thanks to its water cooling it could be fired practically continuously, requiring only a barrel change for roughly every hour of operation.

Use in Aircraft

Vickers Gun - mounted on a Bristol ScoutThe first use of the Vickers Gun on an aircraft was on Vickers’ own experimental E.F.B.1 biplane prototype, the first British aircraft ever to be designed for military purposes. The gun recieved a few modifications for aircraft use. The water cooling system was deemed unnecessary due to the more than adequate flow of cool, fast-moving air over the barrel in flight. However the water jacket assembly had to be retained due to the barrel action mechanism, but several rows of aircooling slots were added.

Vickers Gun - RAF RE8An enclosure was added to cover the belt feed to prevent wind from kinking the incoming ammunition belt. The belt links were a disintegrating type which meant each belt link was ejected along with each spent cartridge as the weapon fired.

The closed bolt design of the Vickers Gun lent itself to forward firing use in aircraft due to its ease of integration with a synchronizer system. In a closed bolt type of firing mechanism there is virtually no delay between the trigger being pulled and the firing of the weapon, unlike the open bolt design utilized by the Lewis Gun. The introduction of the synchronizer gear system allowed for forward firing through a propeller’s field of rotation.

Colt was licensed to manufacture Vickers Machine Guns in the U.S. and had a large order for the guns from Russia in 1916. After the Russian revolution kicked off in early 1917, the Russian orders were cancelled. The thousands of guns that had been produced sat in storage until a need arose in Europe for a machine gun that could fire larger caliber incendiary rounds to destroy German hydrogen filled balloons. It was decided to use the 11 mm French gras round. All of the previously Russian sized 7.62s were altered to accept the 11mm round. Additionally they were modified for aircraft use, with the appropriate cooling slats cut into the water jacket assembly. These 11mm Vickers became known as “Balloon Busters.”

Vickers Gun - Colt Balloon Buster
The Vickers Machine Gun – 11mm “Balloon Buster” made under license in the U.S. by Colt

Legacy

The aircraft version of the Vickers Gun was by far the most used weapon on British and French fighter aircraft of World War I and the interwar period with some still in use towards the end of World War II. Most of the fighter planes developed in early WWI utilized a single .303 British (7.7mm) Vickers Gun such as the Sopwith Triplane. Later fighters like the Sopwith Camel were able to double their firepower with twin synchronized guns. Advances in aircraft design that took place through the 1930s saw the fixed armaments on aircraft shift towards the wings, allowing for larger, more powerful, and faster firing Browning 1919 machine guns to be fitted, thus signaling the end of the Vickers machine gun’s use in aircraft. The conventional infantry version of the weapon would continue to see service with British ground forces until 1968.

Vickers Machine Gun Specifications

Weight  15 kg / 33 lb
Length  1.12 m / 3 ft 8 in
Barrel Length  720 mm / 28 in
Cartridge  .303 British / 7.7 mm
Action  recoil with gas boost
Rate of Fire  450 to 500 rounds/min
Muzzle Velocity  744 m/s  /  2440 ft/s
Effective Firing Range  2,000 m / 2,187 yd
Maximum Firing Range  4,100 m / 4,500 yd (indirect fire)
Feed System  250 round canvas belt

Gallery

Sources

Vickers machine gun. (2016, April 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia., Segel R. (n.d.). THE U.S. COLT VICKERS MODEL OF 1915  WATER-COOLED MACHINE GUN, Small Arms Review.,  MG34. (2012, September 3). My 1918 US Colt/Australian/Turkish Vickers Mk.1 Medium Machine Gun. War Relics Forum.

 

About Ed Jackson

Ed Jackson is a U.S. Air Force veteran with an interest in historical aviation living in Okinawa, Japan where he teaches as well as pursues graduate studies. Ed is also a graphic artist specializing in antique autos and aviation related art. See his work at .

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