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August 7, 2014

Centennial of the Great War

By Joel R Kolander

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"I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.”
-Tsar Nicholas of Russia writing to his cousin
Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany in 1914,
one hundred years and one week ago.
A composite image of the Battle of Zonnebeke created by Australian famed Great War photographer Frank Hurley.

This year marks the centennial of the Great War. July 28 marked the exact start date of one of the largest wars in all of history that would eventually claim more than 9.8 million lives, leave over 20 million wounded, and 7.7 million missing. Those numbers are incomprehensible as is the vast scale and tragedy of this world wide conflict. Short of a dedicated encyclopedia or incredibly thorough webpage, there is no way to appropriately document this event. It is with this in mind that Rock Island Auction Company will take a small glimpse into the First World War in the way it best knows how – by examining a sample of the historical weapons used in this terrible struggle, all of which have come courtesy of consignors whose collectible firearms will be appearing in the September 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction.

DWM German 1908 Maxim Heavy Machine Gun

First and foremost will be one of the most influential weapons of the 20th century: the Maxim machine gun. This particular example is an original DWM manufactured World War I German Maxim heavy machine gun manufactured in late 1918, just before the war’s end in November that same year.

The designation MG 08 can be rather confusing. The Germans are said to have manufactured almost direct copies of the original 1884 Maxim machine gun as early as 1899 and with Maxim’s original patent expiring in 1900, officially adopted the license made MG 01, which earned its name from the year of its adoption – 1901. As with most new technologies, it underwent many variations, adaptations, and improvements over the years. The MG 08 was developed from the MG 01 and was officially adopted in (you’ll never guess) 1908. It is because the original variants were developed at the turn of the century that many sources say the MG 08 was officially adopted in 1899 (or 1901). By the end of 1908, it is said that “every German regiment of three battalions had its own six-gun battery.” Long story short, both the British and the Germans had used machine guns in various colonial wars, but the Germans more seriously considered the weapon’s potential and already possessed an estimated 12,000 – 13,000 of them, made by DWM, at the beginning of the Great War. After seeing their devastating effect early on, Germany would ramp up production significantly by also contracting arms manufacturer Spandau.

The guns were fed with cloth belts that held 250 7.92mm cartridges and had a rate of fire near 400 rounds/minute, relatively slow compared to the 650 rounds/minute of the original Maxim M1885. Prone to overheating, the MG 08 utilized a water-filled jacket around the barrel, that would hold anywhere from 7 pints to a gallon. This amount of water would boil after 500 rounds of continuous fire and would boil off completely and need to be refilled after around 2,000. Transportation in the Great War being poor at best made water a scarce commodity and it was not a rare occurrence for soldiers on both sides of the conflict to urinate in the water coolers to maintain their functionality.

This weapon would earn the name, “the Devil’s Paintbrush” for the way it swept across the landscape similar to how a paintbrush wold sweep across a canvas. It was thought that only the Devil himself could have the invented such a deadly device.

Model 1914 Lewis Light Machine Gun

While most commonly associated with the British thanks to their widespread use of the gun, the Lewis gun was actually invented by US Army Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911 (a very good year for guns). In 1912 it was rejected by the U.S. Army, who was already using the Maxim M1885 and, to a lesser extent, the Colt-Browning Model 1895 (a.k.a. the “potato digger”). Angered by the rejections, Lewis set up his own shop in Belgium and before long he had licensed the manufacturing rights to the British arms manufacturer Birmingham Small Arms Company. Almost immediately he was making a large amount of money since both Belgium and the British had officially adopted the gun and it would be less than a year before both were at war with the Central Powers.

The Lewis gun with its distinctive air-cooling barrel shroud and “pancake” drum magazine, was most commonly found in .303 caliber, although those made by Savage were generally produced in .30-06. Its cam-driven (not spring wound) magazines were made in two sizes: 47 and 97 round capacity, which the guns would empty rather quickly with their cyclic rate of 500-600 rounds per minute. They would make their way to the Western Front in early 1916, replacing the heavy, reliable, slower to manufacture, and more expensive Vickers machine guns. At 28 lbs it may not seem like a “light” machine gun, but relative to other machine guns at the time, a machine gun that could be carried by one man was quite an improvement. Perhaps it was that weight that gave the Lewis gun the honor of being the first machine gun fired from an airplane, driving the famous and oft-romanticized dogfights of World War I.

Browning Automatic Rifle

Ah yes, the venerable BAR. Despite seeing relatively little use in World War I, barely three months in total, the time they were put into service found them to be very effective and accurate. Lighter than stationary machine guns, but heavier than a standard rifle, at 16 lbs the BAR was designed to be fired from the hip in another attempt to implement the fruitless “walking fire” concept, a theory that involved troops firing indiscriminately while advancing in order to keep enemy troops in cover. In fact, many BARs came with a cupped steel buttplate holder to both support the gun and help contain the recoil when firing from the hip. That theory, despite giving rise to the BAR and the Pedersen Device, was never realized and instead the BAR was more often used with its bipod as a light machine gun. After the Great War, Colt obtained the previously unavailable Browning patents and made the BAR available for commercial sale under the name the Colt Automatic Machine Rifle Model 1919. Despite its many variations through the years the BAR would not be adopted until 1938 when the threat of World War II forced the Army to adopt the M1918A2. The model shown was manufactured by Winchester and is accompanied by many of the accessories that soldiers would have received with the firearm such as magazines, web belts, and even one of the aforementioned steel cups to assist in “walking fire.”

M1911 Semi-Automatic Pistol

While the history and variations of M1911/A1 have been more thoroughly covered in previous articles, this was the first chance for the United States to test out their newly adopted pistols on a large scale. Sure the fighting in the Philippines and the Pancho Villa Expedition were good tests, but this was the big leagues. Also designed by the renowned John Moses Browning, these legendary pistols would serve from their adoption in 1911 over seven decades until 1985. They would also enjoy much success in the civilian market serving as reliable handguns and a readily modified platform for many performance target shooters. The pistol’s most noted use is almost certainly by that of Sgt. Alvin York, whose heroics involving his M1911 resulted in 28 dead Germans, 32 captured machine guns, and 132 surrendered.

This is a relatively short section on the M1911 compared to some of the other firearms examined, but for more information on the rich history of this indefatigable sidearm, please read the stories linked in the first sentence of this section. The example in the photo above is Colt M1911 Serial No. 147, likely made in January 1912 during the first full month of production. It was shipped to the Commanding Officer of Springfield Armory on February 3, 1912 in a shipment of 200 pistols.

Mauser Model 1918 Tankgewehr

New technology begat more new technology in the Great War. Airplanes were used in combat for the first time and so were ways to bring them down. Widespread poison gas use brought about better gas masks and new filters. The prolific rise of machine guns long stymied each side trying to mobilize their troops, but would eventually prod the development of modern tanks. The presence of tanks, in turn, brought about the development of anti-tank weapons. One of these weapons was the anti-tank rifle. While not well-known as many of the other rifles and pistols to come out of the First World War, this tankgewehr is an especially rare item to find today as nearly all were destroyed in accordance with the Versailles Treaty. Similar to an overgrown GEW bolt action rifle, these 37 lb behemoths were single shot weapons developed in 1916 with a 16 inch long, solid steel receiver that fired a 13.2mm round capable of penetrating the thin and primitive armor on early British tanks. The officially designated Tankgewehr 18 was known by German troops as the “Elefant-Buechse” or “elephant gun.” Roughly 15,800 were manufactured in 1918. The example shown is all original and unaltered.

Obviously we can’t show all the World War I era weapons that appear in our September 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction, but this is a pretty good start. The catastrophe of the Great War cannot be understated. However, it is of course possible to look back on those events with fascination and awe without trivializing them. The weapons that came as a result of World War I provide intriguing insights into the technology of the time, advances in engineering, and human ingenuity. Not only did the war force people to make better planes, engines, firearms, armor, and so on, it also resulted in such inventions as air traffic control, mobile x-ray machines, sanitary napkins, Kleenex, sun lamp treatments, tea bags, the popularity of the wrist watch, the zipper, stainless steel, and industrial fertilizer. Nonetheless, it is inventions such as flamethrowers, interrupter gears, new poison gases, tanks, tracer rounds, and aircraft carriers that contributed to the tremendous loss of life for which World War I will be, and should be, forever remembered.

Canadian troops go “over the top” during the Battle of Vimy Ridge

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