The Killers of 1914, Part 3
Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Machine Guns
By David Hughes
It was inevitable that the Austro-Hungarian Empire, charming yet with a tinge of obsolescence, would follow a different path in choosing machine guns for its armies, as it did in so many other ways. It was often remarked that any machine gunner on the Eastern Front (and for that matter any British gunner) could have operated any captured guns. After all they were all variations on the Maxim, with only minor adjustments to its basic system.
But Austria-Hungary’s Schwarzlose was different. It was designed by a German, Andreas Schwarzlose, who took his patent to Austria, where it was bought by Steyr Werke. At the time this was the largest small arms maker in the Empire, better known for the Mannlicher rifle, designed by an Austrian and the basic firearm of the Common Army. This contributed to the selection of their machine-gun by the Empire in 1907 over several competing Maxim designs, although one should note that due to its design the Schwarzlose cost about half as much as its rivals. The gun went into production, not just by the Austrian Steyr, but also from 1914 on at Femaru Fegyveres Gepgyer (FGGY) in Budapest.
The Maxim and Vickers guns used the “short recoil” system of achieving automatic fire — the idea being that the recoil generated by the escaping gas and the bullet drive the barrel back, releasing the bolt, extracting the spent cartridge and advancing the next cartridge. This was then chambered and fired by the returning bolt. It is an elegant system also employed by the Browning family of machine guns.
The Schwarzlose in contrast used what is known as the “retarded blowback” system. It is much simpler (and hence cheaper to make), using a strong spring to hold the bolt in place. When fired the expansion of the charge blew this and the spent cartridge, while another spring was timed to insert the next cartridge just before the bolt drove forward again. The only trouble is that one has to make sure that the cartridge is fired before the bolt drives back very far; otherwise the bullet was likely to lose all velocity and drop gracefully out of the bullet. Hence the “retarded” part of the system, in which the blowback was delayed at the start of the cycle.
The result was the Schwarzlose MachinenGewehr M07, (or as the rigid language requirements of the Dual Monarchy also had it, the Schwarzlose Geppuska M07), a cheap and sturdy weapon that was, above all, easy to make. There were, however, some problems. Because the cartridge was blown out, not extracted, it was essential to ensure that bits of metal did not stick in the chamber. The solution was to fit a device that carefully squirted a drop of oil on each new cartridge. Fortunately the gun did not need to be used in the desert, unlike the Italian Breda and FIAT guns, which used the same system.
The other weakness gave the Schwarzlose its distinctive appearance. The basic design called for a short barrel so ensuring that the bullet would emerge before the chamber opened and the gas pressure fell, only 527mm long compared with the 720mm of the Russian and German machine guns. It also meant that the muzzle flash was that much greater which made an elaborate cone to hide it an essential.
Despite all this the Schwarzlose was a good gun, also used among others by the Turkish, Swedish and Greek armies. The principal weakness, the reduction in maximum range caused by the short barrel, did not matter too much as its users did not practice the long-range indirect fire barrages used by machine gunners on the Western Front.
In contrast to the weapons themselves, the Austro-Hungarian distribution of guns was conventional. They adopted the same system as Britain — that is, attaching a pair of guns to each battalion rather than to the parent regiment or brigade. The new gun was adopted by the “Common Army,” the regular kaiserlich und königlich infantry and cavalry in 1907, when mass-production at the Austrian site started. However, the rest of the military, the Imperial Royal Austrian Landwehr and the Royal Hungarian Landwehr (the latter usually called the Honved) did not even authorize its use until 1912, but many battalions did not actually receive their weapons until the war started in 1914.
The major problem was the supply of guns. In the Common Army there were about 450 battalions that alone required 900 guns. There were also nine Common Army cavalry divisions (the other two were Honved) of four regiments each, equipped with a divisional detachment of four guns. Although all these were fully equipped with machine-guns in 1914, the relatively slow production rate from a single factory meant that there were few reserves to replace those lost in Galicia. The Hungarian factory (in the Dual Monarchy, equality between Austria and Hungary was the prime rule!) went into production in 1914, but obviously it had no serious impact until the following year.
Their deployment was entirely conventional. However, because troops were on the attack initially they were of little use. What is surprising in the retreats that followed is that there seems to have been little attempt to use machine gun teams in the same manner as the Germans, as when they imposed costly delays on advancing Allied troops on the Western Front, both in the retreat to the Hindenburg Line in 1917 and in the general retreat in late 1918. However, gamers are not so limited and they will undoubtedly use the Schwarlose in a more effective manner when playing the upcoming Fall of Empires.
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