Manufacture of machine guns by the thousands, 1917



In 1917, modern armies needed modern weapons, and many of them. The outcome of American scientist 100 years ago celebrates the foresight of a group of businessmen to profit from Europe’s desperate need for arms.

“The story of a group of American businessmen, appreciating the importance of the machine gun in modern warfare and foreseeing the strong coming demand for this class of weapons, conceived a giant industry devoted entirely to the manufacture of machine guns. Not to be discouraged by the many industrial problems involved, which have been made all the more difficult by the abnormal industrial conditions reigning over the past year, these men have drawn up their plans for remarkably consumption. successful in less than a year with the accompaniment of the choir ‘That cannot be done’, from all sides. Towards the end of 1915, a group of men, led by Mr. [Albert] F. Rockwell of Bristol, Connecticut, a well-known New England industry leader, announced his plans for organizing a machine gun industry on an unprecedented scale. Looking for a type of pistol they could make, the decision was made in favor of the Colt Automatic Pistol, which has been the weapon of the United States Army and Navy for years. Arrangements were soon made with the owners of the Colt automatic weapons patents, whereby the new organization was allowed to manufacture this type of weapon under royalty.

“Despite a delay of two and a half to three months, due to the indecisiveness of the Russians in charge of the first machine gun contracts signed with the new organization, on April 29, the factory had finished ten guns. The most critical demands and the strict inspection of the Russians have been successfully met. Then, the methods of volume production were implemented, with the most advanced machinery and with top-level personnel engendered by high wages, bonuses, good fellowship and social work. In leaps and bounds, production rose to 160 guns per day, followed shortly thereafter by the current production of 200 complete and perfect guns per day.

Loading ammunition belts to test the 1917 Colt-Marlin machine gun. Credit: American scientist, January 13, 1917

The Colt Model 1895 “potato” machine gun was considered obsolete as an infantry weapon in 1917, and had been replaced by the water-cooled Vickers heavy machine gun or the lighter and more versatile Lewis machine gun. Colt sold the manufacturing rights to this gun to a union led by Albert F. Rockwell who had just bought the Marlin Firearms company. The company produced a large number of machine guns during the war, including those for the export trade to Russia and Italy. The Colt-Marlin version of 1917 incorporated improvements to the design; the new improved model was widely used on airplanes and tanks.

A larger moral and political question arose during the war and remained thereafter: Did arms manufacturers help push the United States to join the Great War as a fighter because of a desire? to profit from war production? It was a lingering question; 16 years after the end of the war, the United States Senate established the Special Committee of Inquiry into the Ammunition Industry, chaired by Senator Gerald Nye (Republican of North Dakota). The committee worked from 1934 to 1936; their report did not present evidence that the arms manufacturers had plotted to drag the country into war, but it did echo growing public sentiment against the “death merchants” (an epithet that originates in a title of book from 1934).

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of American scientist.

Our comprehensive war archive, entitled Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, contains numerous articles from 1914 to 1918 on industrialism during the First World War. It is available for purchase here


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