The Vickers Mk1 Machine Gun Used By Canadians During The First World War.

Firing several hundred bullets per minute, machine-guns were devastating weapons, especially when used against enemy troops on open ground.

Machine-guns pre-dated the First World War by half a century and were in widespread use by 1914, but doubts abut their role and effectiveness limited the use of machine-guns in most pre-war armies. Most early war machine-guns were heavy and relatively immobile, requiring a team of soldiers to use.


Cleaning armoured cars, Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. April, 1918.

Cleaning armoured cars, Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. April, 1918.


The Canadians went overseas with only four Colt machine-guns in each infantry battalion. The Colt was a good weapon, but it tended to jam after rapid-fire. It was replaced in 1916 with the Vickers, a heavier and more dependable weapon. The German equivalent was the MG 08 Maxim, crewed by five soldiers. Heavy machine-guns were later removed from the infantry battalions and grouped into machine-gun units to centralize firepower. They often fired indirect barrages onto enemy lines or fixed positions such as crossroads or supply trenches. Infantry units received growing numbers of the Lewis light machine-gun, which could be carried by a single soldier and fired a 47-round drum magazine. The ammunition was carried by a second member, although in a battle there could be another two or three members of the team to ensure there was sufficient ammunition. The Lewis gun substantially increased the infantry’s firepower during an attack, which could also be supported by the massed fire of heavier weapons.

In the Canadian Corps and in all armies, more and better machine-guns were employed throughout the war, and more sophisticated techniques were developed for their use. The machine-gun remained a dominant battlefield weapon.


George Metcalf Archival Collection: Canadian machine gun squad at Vimy Ridge.

George Metcalf Archival Collection: Canadian machine gun squad at Vimy Ridge.


The water-cooled Vickers weighed about 20 kg and invariably had to be used with a tripod. Therefore, it was not the easiest weapon to transport around a battlefield. A Vickers gun team could be as many as six men. However, used in a defensive and static position, it proved to be a deadly weapon of war accounting for many German casualties. Fired the standard .303- inch bullet (as did the Lee-Enfield rifle) from 250-round cloth ammunition belts. The Vickers could fire between 450 to 500 rounds per minute to a maximum range of 4,500 metres. It was an effective, reliable weapon but heavy and difficult to transport forward during a battle.

The Vickers Mk.1 water-cooled machine-gun was the primary heavy machine-gun of the Canadian Corps after July 1916. The belt-fed Vickers fired the same .303 calibre cartridge as the infantry’s Lee-Enfield rifle. The Vickers’ weight made it more suitable for a defensive role, but it could also be used in the attack. By 1916, the Canadians had begun to experiment with indirect machine-gun barrages in which, similar to the artillery, machine-guns fired on unseen targets, often using only map references to determine their targets. The Vickers could also be moved forward in the attack, but because its team of five needed to drag it forward along with sufficient ammunition and water, it was generally part of the second or third assault wave.

Source: Canadian War Museum…ne-guns-e.aspx



Vickers machinegun Mk1.

1. Muzzle recoil booster.
2. Plug for cooling jacket.
3. Tripod clamp.
4. Elevating and transversing gear 5.
5. Spade grips.
6. Cocking handle.
7. Firing and safety catches.
8. Dial sight for indirect firing role.
9. Fore sight.
10. Water pipe to condenser.
11. Water cooling jacket.
12. 2S0-round fabric ammunition belt.


Few aspects of the history of the First World War are so hedged about with myth and misconception as the use of machine guns, particularly their employment by British and Empire forces. The popular image of the British High Command as being so removed from the realities of the war as to be dismissive of the need for machine gunnery, while eager to send men to their deaths at the hands of expert German machine gunners, is a pervasive one. It is also very far from the truth. The question of military attitudes to the procurement and issue of Vickers guns has long been a subject of controversy, the origins of which lie largely in the very subjective opinions advanced in various political and military memoirs published in the 1930s.

It was the Imperial German Army that had developed the most advanced ideas on the use of machine guns by 1914. The key to their superiority in the field lay not so much in the scale on which machine guns were issued, but in the way in which they were organized. Unlike the British Army, where machine guns were an organic part of each battalion, the German Army had machine gun companies attached to each of its three-battalion regiments. Machine guns could therefore be dispersed among the constituent battalions of the regiment, or concentrated – according to tactical requirements.


Canadian Troops Testing a Vickers machine gun. September, 1916.

Canadian Troops Testing a Vickers machine gun. September, 1916.


In August 1915 machine guns were grouped together at brigade level. This move was a recognition of the advantages of concentrating machine guns, and of the differing capabilities of the ‘medium’ machine gun (Vickers) and the light machine gun (Lewis). It was this de-facto separation of the Vickers gunners from other infantrymen which proved to be the major step towards the creation of the Machine Gun Corps, which took place in October 1915. Henceforward each of the three brigades in a division was to have a Machine Gun Corps company of 16 Vickers guns attached. The guns of these companies were organized into four sections, each with four guns.

The organization of this new corps was not actually completed until the spring of the following year, and involved no little heartache for the infantry, who perceived themselves to be losing control of a substantial part of their firepower. It did however signal the beginning of the end of German dominance in machine gunnery. Not only did the creation of the Machine Gun Corps offer the British army increased flexibility in the deployment of its machine guns; it also speeded the pace of tactical innovation. The Somme battle also witnessed increasing use of indirect fire. This tactic had already been employed on a limited scale during 1915, both in the British and Canadian Expeditionary Forces. To conduct such fire the proposed target would be located on a map, and the position of the machine gun relative to it would be determined with ruler and protractor. Calculations, using a graph or slide-rule, would then be made to determine the gun’s potential cone of fire and the trajectory of its bullets (an important consideration if firing over the head of friendly troops). A clinometer would be employed to set the gun to the correct elevation, after which a stop on the tripod would be put in place to prevent the weapon from being depressed beyond the lowest point commensurate with the safety of intervening friendly troops.




Armourer Sergeant and Staff of the Canadian Motor. Machine Gun Brigade repairing guns. April, 1918.

Armourer Sergeant and Staff of the Canadian Motor. Machine Gun Brigade repairing guns. April, 1918.

Repairing Guns: Members of the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade clean and repair an assortment of machine-guns: a captured Maxim MG-08 (centre); Vickers Mk 1 (left); Lewis Mk 2 aircraft machine-gun (right). Machine-gun crews were equipped with a cleaning kit, tool kit, and spare parts wallet for each machine-gun that they were issued, and it was the crew that was responsible for minor repairs to worn or broken parts and the daily cleaning of the gun. Despite this cleaning and repair, the average lifespan of a water-cooled barrel in a Vickers machine-gun was between 15,000 and 20,000 rounds. If more rounds were fired than this, the gun would steadily loose accuracy and effectiveness.








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