I think it’s about time we start showcasing some heavy ordnance on Weird Gun Wednesday, don’t you? After all, nothing matches the sheer awe and mystique of a heavy machine gun from yesteryear. The MG08 has both in spades; it looks like a patchwork of car parts held together by industrial revolution-style welding and riveting.
Where you’ve seen it:
The MG08 has been showcased in dozens of films dating back to the 1950s, but its most recent portrayal was in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (right).
Often referred to as the “Maxim” MG08, this weapon was a direct copy of the archetypal machine gun, the Maxim gun. Introduced to the German military in 1908, the MG08 was produced just in time for use in World War I. As I’ve said before, one of the reasons the turn of the 19th century is so fascinating is because it proved to be the juncture between archaic weapons and battlefield tactics, and incredibly advanced and destructive technology. The MG08 falls into the latter category. Though heavy and clumsy (it required a 4-man team to operate effectively and weighed 150 pounds), the chattering bark of a few of these bad boys had a powerful psychological effect on an enemy and could cut a charging cavalry unit to ribbons in short order. During its time in service (it wasn’t retired from frontline use until after World War II), the MG08 was even reconfigured to an air-cooled variant added to German Fokker biplanes.
The MG08 operated on a short-barrel recoil and a toggle-lock system where, once cocked and fired, the weapon spewed rounds until the trigger was released or the 250-round belt was consumed. Sometimes equipped with telescopic sights, the MG08 had a functional range of between 2,200 and 3,900 yards, and if used with a separate-attachment sight and range calculator, the weapon could be operated from cover. With a rate of fire of 400 rounds per minute, the MG08 was a bit slow compared to the 1200 rounds per minute of its replacement, “Hitler’s Zipper”—the MG42. But steady fire, even at such a rate, can burn an air-cooled barrel out quickly. The tubular barrel shroud that gives the MG08 its distinct appearance functions as a coolant reservoir, holding a gallon of water (or urine when a crew was in a pinch) to dissipate the barrel’s heat.
A rimless, bottlenecked cartridge, the 8mm Mauser was adopted for use in 1905 and shares the distinction of being one of the few calibers used by both Allied and Axis powers during World War II. (The Brits used it in their Besa machine gun.) The 8mm Mauser round delivers approximately 3000 ft/lbs of energy using a 196-grain bullet.
If I were an American doughboy in 1917, clutching my M1903 Springfield to my chest as I hid in the muddied trenches, the notion of charging toward a Kraut MG08 nest might just be my worst nightmare come to life. It was certainly a fearsome weapon for the time, and an unusual, interesting one for us to admire, now.