Metro

Automatic weapons fire dangers have been known for more than a century

A SIG MPx assault rifle.

Max Whittaker/The New York Times

A SIG MPx assault rifle.

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, the devastating effect of an automatic weapon — which fires a spray of bullets when the trigger is held down — should be no surprise. The destructive power of automatic fire has been known on the battlefield for more than 100 years.

In its early days, before military tactics changed, the machine gun was responsible for stunning carnage.

Advertisement

Inventor Richard J. Gatling developed the first modern machine gun during the Civil War. It saw little use during that war, but military use of his gun and successors such as the Maxim gun grew through the following years.

By 1916, the stage was set for the most-cited example of the death such guns wreak, the World War I Battle of the Somme.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The Allies decided to launch an offensive in the countryside near the River Somme. German machine gunners were equipped with highly effective machine guns — and were amazed to see the attackers marching forward in neat lines.

By the end of the day on July 1, 1916, 21,000 British soldiers were dead and 35,000 were wounded, according to “The Gun” by C.J. Chivers. One German machine gun team had fired at least 25,000 rounds.

“What happened in World War I was basically the tactics were not catching up with the technology. What works in the Franco-Prussian War is not going to work in World War I because you’ve got Maxim machine guns. It’s like a scythe through wheat,” said James H. Willbanks, a military historian who wrote “Machine Guns: An Illustrated History of Their Impact.”

Advertisement

Because of machine guns, tactics changed by late in World War I, Chivers wrote, “moving away from inflexible formations and frontal attacks to approaching the enemy via infiltration and with precision supporting fires. . . . Drab clothing and camouflage became the necessary standard.”

The World War I machine guns were bulky pieces of equipment that had to be operated by several people. By 1918, Chivers wrote, a new question had moved to the forefront: how to make automatic weapons smaller and more portable.

A technological race began that led to the smaller automatic rifles of today that allow a single person to spew a flurry of rounds at a high rate of speed.

Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock fired a swarm of bullets at a rapid pace into a concert crowd in his attack, the worst mass shooting in modern American history. Law enforcement officials say he possessed a number of devices that allow semiautomatic rifles to fire as if they are fully automatic weapons, suggesting that he relied on a workaround rather than automatic rifles, which are more difficult to obtain.

No matter how he did it, the effect was the same. Fifty-eight were killed and hundreds wounded or trampled as they tried to escape — in a one-sided attack recalling the slaughters of the early years of machine guns.

French troops manned a captured German Maxim MG 08 machine gun (mounted on a sledge) at Fort Douaumont, Verdun in 1916.

Imperial War Museum via The New York Times

French troops manned a captured German Maxim MG 08 machine gun (mounted on a sledge) at Fort Douaumont, Verdun in 1916.

Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.