Machine guns will always be associated with Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the first portable, fully automatic machine gun, plus the wasteful slaughter of thousands of young men on the fields of Flanders in the First World War. Few people, however, know that a machine gun was built shortly before the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) by a young blacksmith named Evert van Niekerk in the rustic little town of Ficksburg on the eastern border of the Orange Free State.
The true Maxim machine gun was invented in 1883 by Maxim, an American who later became a naturalised Brit. According to Maxim, a friend told him, “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility”.
Ten years before Maxim’s design, a Swedish engineer patented a multi-barrelled, hand-cranked mechanical gun that was made and sold with great success as the “Nordenfelt” gun. Similarly, mechanical hand-cranked guns were designed by European and American inventors, such as Montigny, Reffye, Gatling, Hotchkiss and Gardner.
Such guns changed the face of war forever. From the African deserts to the tropical forests of South America, these machines of death wreaked their havoc. Battles such as Omdurman, Ulundi, San Juan, Abu Klea, Shangani and Port Arthur were all dress rehearsals for the wholesale slaughter that would follow at the Somme and other WW1 battlefields.
Maxim, Nordenfelt, Colt and Hotchkiss machine guns were used by both sides during the Anglo-Boer War, but did not really come into their own, due to the small numbers employed, the mobility of the warfare and the long distances over which many of the skirmishes were fought. In fact, after the war, many British officers reported that machine guns were useless in battle.
According to a 1969 article in Die Vaderland newspaper, Van Niekerk got the idea of building a machine gun during the 1893 Matabele War.
Read the full article in the June 2017 issue of Magnum.