Ukraine’s army still uses a 100-year-old machine gun: Here’s why

In the heart of the Ukrainian warzone, a blast from the past echoes across the battlefield – the rhythmic hammering of Maxim machine guns. These relics of World War I, over a century old, have found new life in a conflict defined by modern weaponry. It’s a surprising sight, one that speaks to the ingenuity, desperation, and complex realities of war.

The Maxim gun, with its distinctive water-cooling jacket and canvas ammunition belts, seems like a museum piece. Developed in the 1880s, it saw widespread use in the great wars of the early 20th century, its relentless fire mowing down soldiers in the trenches.

Yet, here it is, defying expectations and serving alongside drones, precision missiles, and the latest in battlefield technology.

Ukraine is still using old Maxim machine guns
Ukrainian Territorial forces in Zaporizhzhia with WWII-era guns on a LuAZ-969M (2022). Image credit: Суспільне Запоріжжя via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Why are Ukrainian forces dusting off these vintage weapons? There’s no single answer, but a combination of factors:

The Maxim’s Strength: Water Cooling

As a water-cooled machine gun, the Maxim boasts one key advantage: it doesn’t easily overheat like modern air-cooled machine guns.

This allows for sustained bursts of fire, invaluable in defensive positions or when suppressing enemy advances. Soldiers don’t have to worry about their barrels warping or their weapons jamming mid-battle, making the Maxim surprisingly reliable for its age.

Simplicity is King

While modern firearms technology can be mind-bogglingly complex, the Maxim’s design is relatively straightforward.

With fewer intricate parts, it’s easier to repair and maintain in the field. Battlefield conditions aren’t kind to sensitive electronics and precision engineering. Sometimes, old-fashioned and robust wins the day.

Not Just Out of Necessity

Reports suggest that Ukraine may be utilizing Maxim guns deliberately, not simply due to a lack of modern machine guns.

Their sustained fire capability fits certain defensive strategies well. While not a frontline wonder-weapon, the Maxim has its place.

It’s important to avoid falling for a romanticized narrative painted by some news outlets. The appearance of Maxim guns doesn’t automatically imply a dire situation for the Ukrainian military. Armies are complex machines and utilize the tools that best suit the task.

Furthermore, Ukraine isn’t simply fielding unmodified museum pieces. There have been reports of modernized Maxim guns. Gunsmiths and resourceful soldiers are mounting these weapons on vehicles, retrofitting them with optics, and finding ways to overcome the original design’s limitations. This shows a spirit of adaptability in the face of war.

More Than an Oddity

The Maxim’s reappearance is more than a historical curiosity. It highlights several truths about modern conflict:

  • Desperation breeds innovation: War forces nations to stretch their resources and find creative solutions. Sometimes, that means reaching back in time to find weapons that are overlooked but still effective.
  • Not all wars follow the same script: While technology is a crucial element in modern warfare, simpler weapons still retain value. It’s a reminder that low-tech and high-tech can coexist on the battlefield.
  • Symbolism of the underdog: Imagery of Ukrainian soldiers manning a century-old machine gun against a seemingly technologically superior force has powerful propaganda value. The Maxim becomes a symbol of Ukrainian defiance and tenacity.

The story of the Maxim machine gun in Ukraine isn’t just about the weapon itself. It’s about the unexpected turns war can take, the human capacity for finding solutions in the most challenging circumstances, and the reality that military power isn’t solely measured by the latest technology.

The echoing gunfire of the Maxim gun is an unlikely soundtrack in a 21st-century war. Yet, it reminds us that even in an age of advanced weaponry, sometimes the old ways still have something to teach us.


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