Hiram Maxim’s Self-Loading Rifle Came Right Before His Famous Machine Gun
Springs in the rifle's butt captured the weapon's recoil
In 1883 Hiram Maxim designed a unique system that harnessed the recoil of a rifle. Maxim filed a patent for this system which, when the U.S. government granted it in April 1884, became his first firearm design patent — a year before his now-famous machine-gun concept patent.
To prove his ideas about using recoil to operate a firearm, Maxim modified a Winchester 1866 lever action rifle. He removed the rifle’s lever and installed a floating butt plate attached to a spring buffer system that in turn linked to a proprietary trigger guard and operating rod, which then operated the action through a series of jointed levers in the receiver.
Maxim explained that he meant for the system to feature in “heavy-loaded rifles such as are used for military purposes” that “rebound with great force and often do injury to the shoulder of the person firing.”
When the rifle fired, it would recoil back into the butt plate, compressing the two springs in the stock that act on the trigger guard, pushing it forward and acting on a lever that then worked the rifle’s bolt. This extracted the spent case and loaded another, readying the rifle to fire again.
Maxim believed that his system would allow rifles to be “fired with great accuracy and rapidity.” In his patent, Maxim also hinted at the possibility of rapid automatic fire, which would become a reality with his later machine-gun designs. If the shooter presses “steadily upon the trigger,” Maxim wrote, “the full contents of the magazine will be rapidly discharged.”
Maxim’s “Mechanism for Operating Gun-locks by Recoil” was little more than a proof-of-concept and the design he included in his patent — although ingenious — was far from practical or ergonomic.
Still, Maxim had high hopes for recoil operation, proclaiming in the patent that the system could “operate equally well on any arm of the kind, or upon a revolver.” This proved to be prophetic, as over the next decade other designers would harness the power of recoil to cycle the actions of both rifles and pistols.
In the meantime Maxim continued work on the design that would soon make him famous — the Maxim machine gun.