The World Standard Maxim Gun

From 1887 onward, the gun Hiram Maxim was producing was what he called the World Standard. He had finally perfected the machine gun design to his satisfaction in 1887 and with this design in hand he began to aggressively market it to the world’s militaries. One immediate complication was the ongoing shift from large caliber (typically 11mm) black powder cartridges to the new smaller-caliber smokeless rounds. Because of the significant difference in recoil characteristics between the two, adapting the gun to this new cutting-edge ammunition took more than the minor changes which had been involved in using different black powder rounds.

"World Standard" Maxim
“World Standard” Maxim on a wheeled carriage

Mainly, the issue was that the smaller and lighter bullets produced less recoil, and to the working parts of the gun had to be lightened – changes like reducing barrel diameter. With this worked out, however, Maxim was in a good position to put guns into real production – in 1888 he had formally merged his company with that of Thorsten Nordenfelt. Nordenfelt had a large factory and a well-recognized name, but his manually-operated gun was becoming obsolete. The merger between the two was actually orchestrated by Basil Zaharoff, who had been sales agent for Nordenfelt but recognized the superiority of the Maxim gun.

At any rate, the new Maxim-Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company began filling orders all over the world. The sales books from 1888 and 1889 include these contracts:

  • Austria – 131 guns
  • Imperial East Africa – 2 guns
  • British War Office – 120 guns (plus additional smaller contracts)
  • France – 32 guns
  • British North Borneo Company – 1 gun
  • British Admiralty – 5 guns
  • Netherlands – 1 gun
  • Congo – 3 guns
  • Italy – 26 guns
  • Spain – 1 gun
  • Argentina – 1 gun
  • Natal (South Africa) – 2 guns
  • Singapore – 4 guns

The price of the guns at this time varied depending on features and accessories (they were all made to order), but was typically around £200-£300, depending on volume. In 2015 US dollars, that would be approximately $30,000-$45,000 per gun. This was not cheap hardware! These small orders were enough to keep the company afloat, especially in combination with continued production of Nordenfelt guns.

This “World Standard” gun had a number of distinctive features, the most obvious being its brilliantly polished brass water jacket – as well as a number of other brass parts. Brass was easier to cast and machine, and so for complex shapes that did not have to withstand high pressure, it made a much more appealing material than steel. For this reason, the early guns used brass for the grip assembly, feed block, water jacket, and more. As the World Standard gave way to more modern versions of the gun in later years the brass would slowly disappear piece by piece.

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These early Maxims also had a wooden roller built into the feed block to keep the belt running smoothly. This was later dropped as being unnecessary.

The World Standard also used a different style of crank handle than we are used to seeing today, in which two flat plates slammed together when the rearward recoil of the bolt assembly was translated into rotational movement to unlock and cycle.

Note the flat-faced crank handle.
Note the flat-faced crank handle.

I had an opportunity to get a bunch of photos of an 1896-made example of the World Standard. Note that its wheeled mount was made by Vickers, Sons, & Maxim which dates it to 1897 or later – but it is the same pattern of carriage that was being made previously by Maxim-Nordenfelt.