Vickers machine gun

Not to be confused with Vickers light machine gun.
Vickers Medium Machine Gun

A Vickers machine gun crew in action at the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, September 1917
Type Medium machine gun
Place of origin United Kingdom
Service history
In service 1912–1968
Used by Widely used, see Users
Wars World War I
Chaco War
World War II
Indo-Pakistan War of 1947
1948 Arab–Israeli War
Korean War
Congo Crisis
South African Border War
Production history
Designed 1912
Manufacturer Vickers
Produced 1912–1968
Weight 33–51 lb (15–23 kg) all-up
Length 3 ft 8 in (1.12 m)
Barrel length 28 in (720 mm)
Crew three man crew

Cartridge .303 British
.30-06 Springfield
Action recoil with gas boost
Rate of fire 450 to 500 round/min
Muzzle velocity 2440 ft/s (744 m/s)
Effective firing range 2,187 yd (2,000 m)
Maximum firing range 4,500 yd (4,100 m) indirect fire
Feed system 250-round canvas belt

The Vickers machine gun or Vickers gun is a name primarily used to refer to the water-cooled .303 British (7.7 mm) machine gun produced by Vickers Limited, originally for the British Army. The machine gun typically required a six to eight-man team to operate: one fired, one fed the ammunition, the rest helped to carry the weapon, its ammunition and spare parts.[1] It was in service from before the First World War until the 1960s, with air-cooled versions of it on many Allied World War I fighter aircraft.

The weapon had a reputation for great solidity and reliability. Ian V. Hogg, in Weapons & War Machines, describes an action that took place in August 1916, during which the British 100th Company of the Machine Gun Corps fired their ten Vickers guns continuously for twelve hours. Using 100 barrels, they fired a million rounds without a failure. "It was this absolute foolproof reliability which endeared the Vickers to every British soldier who ever fired one."[2]


The Vickers machine gun was based on the successful Maxim gun of the late 19th century. After purchasing the Maxim company outright in 1896, Vickers took the design of the Maxim gun and improved it, reducing its weight by lightening and simplifying the action and substituting components made with high strength alloys. A muzzle booster was also added.

The British Army formally adopted the Vickers gun as its standard machine gun on 26 November 1912, using it alongside their Maxims. There were still great shortages when the First World War began, and the British Expeditionary Force was still equipped with Maxims when sent to France in 1914. Vickers was, in fact, threatened with prosecution for war profiteering, due to the exorbitant price it was demanding for each gun. As a result, the price was slashed. As the war progressed, and numbers increased, it became the British Army's primary machine gun, and served on all fronts during the conflict. When the Lewis Gun was adopted as a light machine gun and issued to infantry units, the Vickers guns were redefined as heavy machine guns, withdrawn from infantry units, and grouped in the hands of the new Machine Gun Corps (when heavier 0.5 in/12.7 mm calibre machine guns appeared, the tripod-mounted, rifle-calibre machine guns like the Vickers became medium machine guns). After the First World War, the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) was disbanded and the Vickers returned to infantry units. Before the Second World War, there were plans to replace the Vickers gun; one of the contenders was the 7.92 mm (.312 in) Besa machine gun (a Czech design), which eventually became the British Army's standard tank-mounted machine gun. However, the Vickers remained in service with the British Army until 30 March 1968. Its last operational use was in the Radfan during the Aden Emergency. Its successor in UK service is the L7 GPMG.

Use in aircraft

The cockpit of a Bristol Scout biplane in 1916, showing a Vickers machine gun synchronised to fire through the propeller by an early Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear.

In 1913, a Vickers machine gun was mounted on the experimental Vickers E.F.B.1 biplane, which was probably the world's first purpose-built combat aeroplane. However, by the time the production version, the Vickers F.B.5, had entered service the following year, the armament had been changed to a Lewis gun.[3]

During World War I, the Vickers gun became a standard weapon on British and French military aircraft, especially after 1916. Although heavier than the Lewis, its closed bolt firing cycle made it much easier to synchronize to allow it to fire through aircraft propellers. The belt feed was enclosed right up to the gun's feed-way to inhibit effects from wind. Steel disintegrating-link ammunition belts were perfected in the UK by William de Courcy Prideaux in mid-war and became standard for aircraft guns thereafter.[4] The famous Sopwith Camel and the SPAD XIII types used twin synchronized Vickers, as did most British and French fighters between 1918 and the mid-1930s. In the air, the weighty water cooling system was rendered redundant by the chilly temperatures at high altitude and the constant stream of air passing over the gun as the plane flew; but because the weapon relied on barrel recoil, the (empty) water-holding barrel jacket or casing needed to be retained. Several sets of louvred slots were cut into the barrel jacket to aid air cooling, a better solution than what had initially been attempted with the 1915-vintage lMG 08 German aircraft ordnance.

As the machine gun armament of fighter aircraft moved from the fuselage to the wings in the years before the Second World War, the Vickers was generally replaced by the faster-firing Browning Model 1919 using metal-linked cartridges. The Gloster Gladiator was the last RAF fighter to be armed with the Vickers, although they were later replaced by Brownings.[5] The Fairey Swordfish continued to be fitted with the weapon until production ended in August 1944.[6]

Several British bombers and attack aircraft of the Second World War mounted the Vickers K machine gun or VGO, a completely different design, resembling the Lewis gun in external appearance.


A .5-inch Mk. III, four-gun anti-aircraft mount and its crew on the cruiser HMS London in 1941

The larger calibre (half-inch) version of the Vickers was used on armoured fighting vehicles and naval vessels.

The Gun, Machine, Vickers, .5-inch, Mk. II was used in tanks, the earlier Mark I having been the development model. This entered service in 1933 and was obsolete in 1944. Firing either single shot or automatic it had a pistol type trigger grip rather than the spades of the 0.303 in (7.7 mm) cartridge.

The Gun, Machine, Vickers, .5-inch, Mk. III was used as an anti-aircraft gun on British ships.[7] This variation was typically four guns mounted on a 360° rotating and (+80° to −10°) elevating housing. The belts were rolled into a spiral and placed in hoppers beside each gun. The heavy plain bullet weighed 1.3 oz (37 g) and was good for 1,500 yd (1,400 m) range. Maximum rate of fire for the Mark III was about 700 rpm from a 200-round belt carried in a drum. They were fitted from the 1920s onwards, but in practical terms, proved of little use. During the Second World War, the naval 0.5 in (12.7 mm) version was also mounted on power-operated turrets in smaller watercraft, such as Motor Gun Boats and Motor Torpedo Boats.

The Mark IV and V guns were improvements on the Mark II. Intended for British light tanks, some were used during the war on mounts on trucks by the Long Range Desert Group in the North Africa Campaign.[7]

The Vickers machine gun was produced, between the wars, as the vz.09 machine gun.

Foreign service

The Vickers was widely sold commercially and saw service with many nations and their own particular ammunition. It was also modified for each country and served as a base for many other weapons. For example:

The Vickers MG remains in service with the Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese armed forces, as a reserve weapon, intended for emergency use in the event of a major conflict.

Colt–Vickers M1915

By the early 1900s, the U.S. military had a mixed collection of automatic machine guns in use that included M1895 "potato diggers", 287 M1904 Maxims, 670 M1909 Benét–Mercié guns, and 353 Lewis machine guns. In 1913, the U.S. began to search for a superior automatic weapon. One of the weapons considered was the British Vickers machine gun.

The Board of Ordnance & Fortifications held a meeting on March 15, 1913 to consider the adoption of a new type of machine gun… The Board convened for the competitive test of automatic machine guns at Springfield Armory on September 15, 1913. Seven makes of automatic machine guns were considered and tried out. The Lewis gun during the endurance test had 206 jams and malfunctions, 35 broken parts, 15 parts not broken but requiring replacement as against respectively 23, 0, 0, for the Vickers gun and 59, 7, 0 for the Automatic Machine Rifle .30, Model of 1909, Benét–Mercié. The Board is of the opinion that, with the exception of the Vickers gun, none of the other guns submitted showed sufficiently marked superiority for the military service, in comparison with the service Automatic Machine Rifle to warrant further consideration of them in the field test. The Board is of the unanimous opinion that the Vickers rifle caliber gun, light model, stood the most satisfactory test. As to the merits of the Vickers gun there is no question – it stood in a class by itself. Not a single part was broken nor replaced. Nor was there a jam worthy of the name during the entire series of tests. A better performance could not be desired.
Captain John S. Butler, Office of the Chief of Ordnance[8]

Field tests were conducted of the Vickers in 1914, and the gun was unanimously approved by the board for the army under the designation "Vickers Machine Gun Model of 1915, Caliber .30, Water-Cooled". One hundred twenty-five guns were ordered from Colt's Manufacturing Company in 1915, with an additional 4,000 ordered the next year, all chambered for .30-06. Design complexities, design modifications, and focus on producing previously ordered weapons meant that when the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, Colt had not manufactured a single M1915.[8]

Production began in late 1917 with shipments to the Western Front in mid-1918. The first twelve divisions to reach France were given French Hotchkiss M1914 machine guns, and the next ten had M1915s. The next twelve divisions were to have Browning M1917 machine guns, but there was a shortage of parts. By August 1918, thirteen U.S. divisions were armed with the Colt–Vickers machine gun. Seven thousand six hundred fifty-three guns were issued during the war out of 12,125 produced in total. War damage losses reduced the number of M1915s in the U.S. inventory to about 8,000 total.[8]

After World War I, the Colt–Vickers machine guns were kept in reserve until World War II. Several hundred were sent to the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines, and were all eventually lost to enemy action. Seven thousand guns were sent to Britain under Lend-Lease to re-equip their forces after the Dunkirk evacuation, which depleted the weapon from the U.S. inventory before their entry into the war. Because the M1915 Colt–Vickers was not chambered for the standard British .303, it was painted to differentiate it and relegated to Home Guard use. After the end of the war, the British had enough domestic Vickers guns to retire the M1915 from the Home Guard, after which they were disposed of.[8]


Rimmed, centrefire Mk 7 .303 inch cartridge from World War II. The type of ammunition is denoted by the colour of the annulus, the narrow ring shown here surrounding the percussion cap

The weight of the gun itself varied based on the gear attached, but was generally 25 to 30 pounds (11 to 14 kg) with a 40-to-50-pound (18 to 23 kg) tripod. The ammunition boxes for the 250-round ammunition belts weighed 22 pounds (10.0 kg) each. In addition, it required about 7.5 imperial pints (4.3 l) of water in its evaporative cooling system to prevent overheating. The heat of the barrel boiled the water in the jacket surrounding it. The resulting steam was taken off by a flexible tube to a condenser container—this had the dual benefits of avoiding giving away the gun's location, and also enabling re-use of the water, which was very important in arid environments.

In British service, the Vickers gun fired the standard .303 inch cartridges used in the Lee–Enfield rifle, which generally had to be hand-loaded into the cloth ammunition belts. There was also a 0.5 in calibre version used as an anti-aircraft weapon and various other calibres produced for foreign buyers.

The gun was 3 feet 8 inches (112 cm) long and its cyclic rate of fire was between 450 and 600 rounds per minute. In practice, it was expected that 10,000 rounds would be fired per hour, and that the barrel would be changed every hour—a two-minute job for a trained team. The Vickers gun could sustain fire for long durations of time exceeding the recommended 10,000 rounds an hour due to the water-cooled barrel and hourly barrel swaps. One account states a Vickers fired just under 5 million rounds in a week as a test in 1963 at Strensall Barracks and was still operable.[9] The Mark 8 cartridge, which had a boat-tailed bullet, could be used against targets at a range of approximately 4,500 yards (4,100 m). The muzzle-velocity for Vickers rounds were generally 2440 ±40 feet per second with a 150- to 175-grain bullet. The shell was generally made of an alloy of cupro-nickel, and gilding metal. Ammunition for the Vickers used colour-coded annuli. Tracer ammunition was marked with a red annulus; armouring-piercing ammunition a green annulus, and incendiary ammunition was marked with a blue annulus. Lastly, explosive ammunition was marked with an orange annulus before the Second World War and was changed to black.


The gun and its tripod were carried separately and both were heavy. The Vickers Mk I was 30 lb (13.6 kg) without the water and tripod, and weighed 40 lb (18.1 kg) with the water. The original design did not anticipate it being carried up jungle-covered mountains on men's backs, but such was the weapon's popularity that men were generally content to pack it to all manner of difficult locations. The tripod would be set up to make a firm base, often dug into the ground a little and perhaps with the feet weighted down with sandbags. The water jacket would be filled with about four litres of water from a small hole at the rear end, sealed by a cap. The evaporative cooling system, though heavy, was very effective and enabled the gun to keep firing far longer than its air-cooled rival weapons. If water was unavailable, soldiers were known to resort to using their urine.[10] It was sometimes claimed that crews would fire off a few rounds simply to heat their gun's cooling water to make tea, despite the resulting brew tasting of machine-oil.[11]

The loader sat to the gunner's right, and fed in belts of cloth, into which the rounds had been placed. The weapon would draw in the belt from right to left, pull the next round out of the belt and into the chamber, fire it, then send the fired brass cartridge down and out of the receiver while the cloth belt would continue out the left side. During sustained fire, the barrel would heat up which heated the water in the jacket until hot enough for the water to evaporate or boil thereby cooling the barrel releasing the heat through steam. It took the Mk I 600 rounds of continuous fire to boil the water in the jacket, evaporating at a rate of 1.5 pints (0.852 L) per 1,000 rounds.[7] The steam would reach the top of the jacket and enter a steam tube which led to a port that was situated under the jacket near the muzzle. A hose was connected to this, which released the steam into a metal water can allowing it to be vented away from the rest of the gun hiding the steam cloud and the gun's position. This also allowed any condensate to be reclaimed from the steam. Before the can got too full, it would be emptied back into the jacket to replenish the water level which would have fallen as the water evaporated and boiled away. If the water jacket needed to be emptied, a plug under the jacket could be unscrewed to drain the entire jacket.

Clinometer for Vickers .303 machine gun

The Vickers was used for indirect fire against enemy positions at ranges up to 4,500 yards (4,100 m). This plunging fire was used to great effect against road junctions, trench systems, forming up points, and other locations that might be observed by a forward observer, or zeroed in at one time for future attacks, or guessed at by men using maps and experience. Sometimes a location might be zeroed in during the day, and then attacked at night, much to the surprise and confusion of the enemy. New Zealand units were especially fond of this use. A white disc would be set up on a pole near the MMG, and the gunner would aim at a mark on it, knowing that this corresponded to aiming at the distant target. There was a special back-sight with a tall extension on it for this purpose. The only similar weapon of the time to use indirect fire was the German MG 08, which had a separate attachment sight with range calculator.

A British, World War 2, Vickers medium machine gun platoon typically had one officer in command of four guns, in two sections of two, each with a crew and a small team of riflemen whose job was to protect the gun and keep it supplied with ammunition.


See also

Weapons of comparable role, performance and era


  1. Archived April 1, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  2. Hogg, Ian V.; Batchelor, John (1976). Weapons & War Machines. London: Phoebus. p. 62. ISBN 0-7026-0008-3.
    “The Vickers gun accompanied the BEF to France in 1914, and in the years that followed, proved itself to be the most reliable weapon on the battlefield...”
  3. Driver, Hugh (1997). The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-86193-234-4. Retrieved 27 November 2014.
  4. "Metal Belt Links For WW1 U.S. M1915 Vickers Aircraft Gun, Phosphate Finish". International Military Antiques. 2015. Retrieved 20 February 2015.
  5. Rickard, J. (21 March 2007). "Gloster Gladiator". Military History Encyclopedia on the Web. Retrieved 20 February 2015.
  6. Bishop, Chris (2002). The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II. Metrobooks. p. 403. ISBN 1-58663-762-2.
  7. 1 2 3 Fisher, Richard E. "The Vickers Machine Gun". Vickers Machine Gun Collection & Research Association. Retrieved 27 November 2014.
  8. 1 2 3 4 "U.S. Colt Vickers Model of 1915". Small Arms Defense Journal. 2015. Retrieved 20 February 2015.
  9. Goldsmith, Dolph L. (1994). The Grand Old Lady of No Man's Land. Collector Grade Publications. p. Part III, Chapter Seven, pp 188. ISBN 978-0889351479.
  10. "Vickers Mk.I machine gun". Royal Armouries. Retrieved 26 September 2012.
  11. Weeks, Alan (2009). Tea, rum & fags: sustaining Tommy, 1914-18. History Press. p. 19. ISBN 075245000X.
  12. di Difilippo, Max (2006). "Le mitragliatrici italiane della Grande Guerra" [Italian machine guns of the Great War]. Peaks and Trenches Historical Association (in Italian). Retrieved 20 February 2015.

Further reading

Plates showing the mechanism of the forerunner of the Vickers gun, the Vickers Maxim gun as well as numerous plates of the factories in which they and other arms were made.
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