The Vickers Machine Gun: 11 Facts That You May Not Know

The British Army was one of the first to see the merits of a new weapon that had been developed by the American-born Hiram Maxim. His machine gun revolutionized warfare and helped the British Empire reach its zenith. It was used in the First Matabele War in Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), where 700 soldiers and five Maxim machine guns helped fend off a force of some 5,000 warriors. The weapon was soon adopted by nations across Europe.

The British actually not only saw the potential of the Maxim, but they also went on to refine it and the result was the Vickers Machine Gun. Here are some lesser-known facts about the weapon.

1. Original Maxim Design, Refined

The British may have been among the first to see the merits of the Maxim, but the British-based Vickers Limited also saw the weapon’s limitations. The firm proceeded to buy the Maxim Company outright in 1896, and it took Hiram Maxim’s design and greatly improved upon it. That included inverting the mechanism, which made it more reliable and less prone to jamming. In addition, it reduced the weight by lightening and simplifying the action.

Hiram Maxim designed a great weapon, but never really figured out how to best deploy it. Vickers Limited solved the issue by developing a compact tripod that utilized folding legs. This made it easier to transport, but also made allowed the Vickers machine gun to be used in tighter defensive positions.

Rear view of Vickers machine gun
The Vickers was originally chambered for the British .303 round. It was water-cooled and fed from a cloth ammo belt and was well-suited to a defensive position.

2. Development of a Muzzle Booster

One of the other notable improvements was the development of a muzzle booster, which helped transmit some of the escaping gas back into the barrel than letting it expand outwards. This essentially acted as an auxiliary gas-operating system, with the barrel acting as the operating rod. This helped the operator keep up a steady rate of fire.

Vickers machine gun profile view
The muzzle booster of the Vickers essentially acted as an auxiliary gas-operating system. The Vickers machine gun was produced in a number of variations. It was produced both with a ribbed and smooth water jacket.

3. Model 1906 — Precursor to World War I Firearms

The Model 1906 “New Light” gun was the first of the Vickers family, and it led to the development of the 1908 Light Pattern Series, which was the basis of the firearms employed during the First World War.

4. WWI Rate of Production

Vickers Limited was actually accused of war profiteering when the First World War broke out, and the company increased the price of the weapon. The company responded by slashing prices and ramping up production! By 1916, the total output from its two plants was 1,000 guns monthly, which was still barely equal to the demand.

5. Chambered for Both Sides of the Atlantic

During the First World War, the Vickers machine gun was chambered for the .303 British cartridge that was employed in the Lee Enfield bolt action rifles. When the United States entered the war in 1917, a variation was produced in .30-06 Springfield so that American units would also have standard ammunition for their rifles and machine guns.

Vickers machine gun used by british soldiers in left image and American soldiers in right image
Left: British troops at the Battle of Passchendaele in September 1917 armed with a Vickers machine gun. Right: The Vickers was also employed as an early anti-aircraft gun during the First World War. (Photos: Private collection)

6. Symbolic Use

It was also during the war that the British Army formed the Machine Gun Corps (MGC), and its cap badge consisted of a pair of crossed Vickers machine guns.

Machine Gun Corps cap badge
A cap badge to the British Army’s Machine Gun Corps.

7. Vickers in Aircraft

Like the Maxim, the Vickers was a water-cooled machine gun, but an aircraft version was developed that featured slotted jackets. As the Vickers machine gun fired from a closed bolt, it became the standard weapon used on British and French military aircraft during the First World War as it could be used with an interrupter gear on an airplane—which allowed the weapon to fire through the propeller.

The heavy machine gun was still in use on the antiquated Fairey Swordfish—the type of fighter bomber that helped sink the Bismarck, Nazi Germany’s infamous battleship—during World War II.

World War I bi-plane with pilot in cockpit
The cockpit of a Bristol Scout biplane in 1916, showing a Vickers machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller by an early Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear.

8. Vickers in Armored Cars

The Vickers was used as the main armament in the Rolls-Royce armored cars introduced during the First World War. While the cars saw very limited use on the Western Front, they proved ideal for use in the Middle East. The armored cars remained in use after the war, and saw service in the Anglo-Irish War.

Rolls Royce Armored Car in museum
A British Rolls Royce 1920 Mk1 Armoured Car at Bovington Tank Museum

9. British Army Service

The Vickers was also the main armament on the British Army’s “Female” tanks, where a pair of the machine guns were mounted in the large sponsons on each side of the vehicle.


The Vickers machine gun remained the British Army’s heavy machine gun it was finally retired in March 1968—and was last used in an operational role during the Aden Emergency.

10. The Vickers Legacy

It has an enduring legacy, as it saw use in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1947, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Korean War and the Congo Crisis. A few have even reportedly been used in the 21st century, most recently in the Syrian Civil War.

Vickers were widely sold commercially and as a result, were produced in a variety of calibers, including 6.5x52mm Mannlicher-Carcano, 6.5x50mmSR Arisaka, 6.5x53mmR, 7x57mm Mauser, .280 British, 7.5x55mm Swiss, 7.62x51mm NATO, .30-06 Springfield, 7.62x54mmR, 7.65x53mm Argentine, and 8mm Lebel.

11. Vickers in Film

The Vickers has also appeared in dozens of films including

  • “Sergeant York”
  • “The Desert Rats”
  • “The Bridge on the River Kwai”
  • “Lawrence of Arabia”
  • “A Bridge Too Far”
  • “The Wild Geese”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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