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Could light machine guns such as the Madsen be made during the 14th century? And since materials may be scarce only a few would be produced for use by a single soldier in a unit. Lets say their understanding of metallurgy back then was already advanced, can they create cartridges for the guns?

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    $\begingroup$ Let's say their understanding of metallurgy ... was already advanced Give them enough of a headstart, and the answer is obviously yes. Given the facts of history and no change, the answer is obviously no. What are you actually trying to do? It might be better to abandon this question and ask it again in a different way: "what are the minimal changes necessary to allow the manufacture of a Madsen machine gun in 14th century Location?" (Location is really important, tech levels varied radically at that time.) $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 27 '18 at 7:19
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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure we already have a question about the ability to replicate a modern machine gun based on having one and the design schematics, but I can't seem to find that question right now. If someone else finds it, this just might be a duplicate of that... $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 27 '18 at 8:17
  • $\begingroup$ Guns, no, but there were repeating crossbows. Google for chukonu. $\endgroup$ – Renan Nov 27 '18 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ As always when this question comes up, the real problem is not making a machine gun, it's mass-producing the ammunition for it. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 27 '18 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ I think you're asking the wrong question. I think the better, more interesting question is "What technological advances are necessary to produce a machine gun?" and then sketching the path to machine guns from a typical medieval environment. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Nov 27 '18 at 19:34

13 Answers 13

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  • 14th century is a time, not a place. 14th century China, 14th century Ottoman empire, 14th century Muscovy, 14th century France and 14th century Inca empire are not at all the same thing.

  • Let's see what they didn't have in the 14th century anywhere. No steel in quantity, and no capability of making steel with consistent properties. No reliable steel springs. No propellant suitable for machine guns. No reliable primers. No notion of mass production -- a Madsen machine gun fires 450 rounds per minute.

  • Most importantly, they did not have the capability of expressing the dimensions of the parts and ammunition with anything near the required accuracy. I'm not speaking of making them; they literally could not express them. The size of an inch varied greatly from place to place, and from generation to generation.

  • So you want a (presumably Western European) 14th century with the capability to make steel in quantity, with machine tools suitable for machining steel, with advanced chemistry to make propellants and primers, with uniform units of measurement, and with an industrial base capable of mass production. All right, but then what has this fantasy in common with the 14th century? How do you intend to reconcile late 19th century industrial base with a Late Middle Ages social structure?

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    $\begingroup$ The precision is the real showstopper. You could handwave most of the rest, but getting a bunch of individual craftsmen to create interchangeable rounds is simply not going to happen. (You'd also need very, very consistent powder by the standards of the day, or it might explode on any given shot.) $\endgroup$ – Cadence Nov 27 '18 at 5:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence: That's even assuming that black powder works in recoil- or gas-operated machine guns. Doesn't it produce too much soot for this? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 27 '18 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ And even thinking "but they had gun powder" is misleading. A machine gun won't work with black powder because there's too much reside buildup so they would very quickly jam. They've got to invent smokeless powder. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Nov 27 '18 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Deolater there's a huge difference between being able to fire one, or even a handful of rounds without cleaning, and hundreds or thousands without cleaning as would be needed for a machinegun with a usefully long rate of fire. $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely Nov 27 '18 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelW.: The machine gun does not have to be mass-produced, true. But the ammunition absolutely must: it's a machine-gun, it fires hundreds of rounds per minute. And each every one of those thousands upon thousands of rounds needs to have very precise dimensions with very tight tolerances. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 28 '18 at 0:41
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No.

Not in the way that you're looking for, at least.

Put simply, cartridge fed weapons aren't products of metallurgy, they're products of precision and mass manufacturing. In something like an AR15 (or any rotating-bolt action, really), if the round is slightly out of tolerance and doesn't fit in the chamber properly, the weapon can explode. For a less catastrophic example, if the feed lips on a metal magazine are slightly bent out of shape, the weapon will constantly misfeed and jam - not something suited for a machine gun.

Any firearm built in the last hundred years operates on the following assumption: Every round fed to it is exactly the same. They're wholly reliant upon mass and precise manufacturing of ammunition. A few thousandths of an inch here, or slightly more or less powder there, and the weapon will lock up, stovepipe, squib, double feed, detonate, or otherwise fail in its intended purpose.

The level of precision to mass-manufacture cartridges is simply not possible with dark-ages craftsmanship.

You're gonna have to figure out something else

Here's an idea - what about some kind of gatling-flintlock? A hand-cranked mess of gears and pulleys that loads ball and powder into a barrel before passing it over a candle to fire. Not exactly an infantry weapon, but I could see something like it atop a horse drawn carriage.

You could also dream up a breech-loaded musket, fed with a lead ball and pre-measured bags of powder. By no means a modern rifle, but it'd still be significantly quicker to load than firearms of the day. Draw inspiration from a modern bolt-action, perhaps.

Look at modern guns and ask yourself "How would I load marbles and sand into this?" That should help you design your medieval wonder-weapon.

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  • $\begingroup$ Breachloading rifles were actually around in 13th century Europe. They were absurdly complex and, of course, expensive. This means they were things like hunting weapons of royalty. Interestinly, they also had re-usable iron casings in some instances. $\endgroup$ – Andon Nov 28 '18 at 7:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Andon Can you provide a link? I found 13th century breech-loading cannons, but they were about as simple as can be (3 parts, not counting the stand.) $\endgroup$ – UIDAlexD Nov 28 '18 at 16:01
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Depending on the needs of your story, you might consider...

Volley Guns

The volley gun: A bunch of single-shot guns joined together. According to HyperWar designs like this appeared as early as 1339, and that drawing is by Leonardo da Vinci. You can see a modern reproduction of such a gun being fired here.

Historically, volley guns would fire all their rounds at once, but there's no reason you shouldn't have a handle you turn or a special fuse to fire them one after another.

The advantage of this is you can take real historical gun technology from the era you like, and just say a bunch were joined together.

The downsides are probably obvious: Weight and reload time. You're not going to see soldiers carrying around a 20-barrel gun any time soon! But if you only need short bursts of fire and don't mind needing a horse and road to transport it around, it could be an option.

There's also a design of gun where multiple bullets are loaded into the barrel at once, then fired in succession, like a roman candle - a so called 'superposed load' which Wikipedia says was first described in 1558. Never really caught on as it's difficult to make it work at all, let alone make it easy to reload in the field, but if your plot calls for occasional hails of bullets and you don't mind applying some artistic license, you could claim the problems were resolved because your fictional world has different powder chemistry or something.

Alternately, if all you want is battlefield weapons that will give a squad of men a chance of being wiped out in seconds by a handheld weapon, you might consider the hand grenade (震天雷, 1044 AD) or the flamethrower ('greek fire', 672 AD) (although I don't know how easily portable the latter was in pressurised form)

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    $\begingroup$ The mitrailleuse was a 19th-century volley gun that, indeed, fired successively rather than all at once. The bullets and powder were contained in a block that would be removed and replaced with another full one, allowing a high rate of fire. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Nov 27 '18 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence, the mitrailleuse requires percussion-cap technology, which would be a bit difficult in the 1300s (alchemists could certainly make mercury fulminate, but they'd tend to blow themselves up while doing so). You could probably come up with a flintlock design that doesn't fire off adjacent barrels too often, but you're probably better off with one of the older volley gun designs. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 27 '18 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark But, it DOES show that the successive volley gun idea works. And while the block for bullets/powder might not work in the same manner, I could see a load system that you put the bullets/powder into a block, then put the block on the end of the barrels and reloaded quickly that way. Then have someone reload the block while other things are going on. All possible with 13th century european tech with only minimal handwaving. $\endgroup$ – Andon Nov 28 '18 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Andon, with 13th-century technology, you're not going to get a good seal between the loading block and the barrels. You're guaranteed to get a chain-fire situation where most or all of the barrels fire off at once. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 28 '18 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark I wasn't thinking of anything that would need a seal or be a permanent part of the gun. Just a piece of wood that the shot and powder would be put in, then held up to the end of the barrel and shoved down. Remove block to fire, repeat $\endgroup$ – Andon Nov 28 '18 at 19:44
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To make a machine gun you need to have already developer breech-loading.

Although breech-loading firearms were developed as far back as the late 14th century in Burgundy, breech-loading became more successful with improvements in precision engineering and machining in the 19th century.

The main challenge for developers of breech-loading firearms was sealing the breech. This was eventually solved for smaller firearms by the development of the self-contained metallic cartridge. For firearms too large to use cartridges, the problem was solved by the development of the interrupted screw.

Also in the 14th century you would hardly have the manufacturing control capabilities to ensure narrow enough production tolerances, needed for producing the bullets and the mechanical parts. And you would also lack the needed good quality materials.

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  • $\begingroup$ the interrupted screw I've suffered a few of those in my time, I don't mind telling you . . . $\endgroup$ – Binary Worrier Nov 27 '18 at 8:31
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This all depends on what you mean by a machine gun. The heart of a light machine gun is its ability to use recoil energy to load the next bullet from a collection of bullets. However, there are other ways to achieve that rapid firing effect. A 19th century double action revolver handgun can be fired rapidly by using the non-aiming hand to fan the hammer into the cocked position. An expert can shoot that revolver faster than a modern semi-automatic handgun. Also, the auto-loading feature relies on a certain range of pressure, so a revolver can actually be chambered for more powerful (i.e. faster and more lethal) hand-made rounds than a semi-automatic handgun.

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  • $\begingroup$ You say it depends on the definition of "machine gun", but fail to provide evidence that it's possible with any definition of "machine gun". $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Nov 27 '18 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ Factually inaccurate, at best. Competition shooters using semi autos can attain obscene rates of fire while maintaining high accuracy, and it's possible to reliably bump-fire a pistol with a small amount of practice. Also while it's true that any given feed mechanism can only handle a certain range of cartridges, that's because it's been designed to handle those cartridges. I would not characterize a Coonan .357 as "slow" or "weak." Nor would I say that of an M2 Hurling .50 BMG at nearly a kilometer per second. $\endgroup$ – UIDAlexD Nov 27 '18 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ I think the first 'machine' guns where operated with a handle you'd turn to fire the gun with out the need for recoil energy to load the next bullet. But it still requires low tolerances outside of 14th century technology. $\endgroup$ – BentNielsen Nov 27 '18 at 17:30
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The real problem is the ammo, machine guns in general are relatively simple and people were able to make them out of some pipes in their back yards, so any society that can make metal springs and tubes theoretically can make a machine gun.

However, it would never occur to anyone as a practical idea unless there is an industrial scale production of cartridges, as they have to be exactly the same size-wise to load properly, so making them by hand is highly unlikely to be practical. Even if you have a large group of very precise workers there is still the issue of propellant. Smokeless powder was only invented in late 1800s and required a number of other chemical advancements to become possible. Before that black powder was used. Black powder is pretty unusable for automatic weapon, as it will gunk up your weapon real quick, and fill the area with so much smoke you wont see anything after a few shots.

So the ammunition is the limiting factor not the weapon itself

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  • $\begingroup$ That's an apt user name for this question. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Nov 28 '18 at 2:33
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no, machine guns were invented in 1884. If you want to learn more about the machine gun I highly suggest https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/firearms or http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/technique/gun-timeline/ it is about the history of firearms. Although machine guns weren't invented gunpowder was available. 1364 is when the first use of a fire arm was recorded 1380 is when handguns were available across europe 1400 matchlock gun 1498 rifling principle is discovered 1509 invention of wheel lock

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No, but.

There were guns built in the 17th century, which would have been (barely) with the capability of 14th century (Western European) handgonne makers, that approximated a short burst from an automatic weapon.

I speak, of course, of the "volley gun". These consisted of a number of gun barrels mounted parallel to one another (in what amounted to a sturdy rack, generally on a wheeled cart due to weight) -- anywhere from six to thirty-two barrels that I know of, though there may have been guns with more. The barrels were all loaded with powder and shot (either a single ball or small shot), and a powder train in a trough was used to ignited the barrels in rapid sequence. This amounted to nearly an hour of loading time for a single burst of fire that took anywhere from two to perhaps ten seconds (depending how fast your powder train burned).

Volley guns were effective, but limited -- they laid down a withering fire, similar in effect to grape shot from a cannon or a canister round, but with less spread. Tactically, they'd be treated as a very heavy shotgun. The limitation was, they were very much a "fire and forget" weapon unless used in specific applications, like defending a wall, where the enemy couldn't just overrun the gun after it fired. They didn't catch on because grape shot, canister, and shrapnel were at least as good and much faster to load once cannon were common.

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  • $\begingroup$ The volley gun was certainly within the capabilities of of 14th-century gunsmiths: back then, it was known as the "Ribauldequin". $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 27 '18 at 22:35
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All questions about "could they have had X in medieval time". Nicely forgets one important bit of secret sauce.

Before the enlightement, we had not discovered that we didnt know most of the things. Simply in the worldwiew was that everything important was known. While some uninportant things were left unknown, the big picture was more or less there. They didnt have the mindset needed for R&D, they didnt have the social structure for it either.

It took us a very long time to come to diseminate the attitude that we can do things better if we try. Even today the social fabric is more in the way of changes than the actual changes themselves.

So no they could not have done it. They hadnt invented standardisation, tolerances, interchangeability and the modern metal lathe. With those inventions the might have been able to but then interchangeable parts was a Huge invention.

Its not that they could only maintain a few guns they couldnt supply the gunner with ammo since they would need thousands of peoples yearly output to make the ammo for a single battle.

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The question title states 'could machine guns be produced in the 14th century' it then goes on to confound itself in the body of text. A modern weapon could not be made by a 14th century nation.

Casting (and thus relative uniformity of production) existed well before the Industrial Revolution though, certainly using different moulds would produce different results, but ammunition could be sorted by hand post-production readily enough, it wouldn't even require any expertise.

One does not need exact measurements nor modern reliability to create a 'machine gun.'

Steel is not required to produce good springs.

Steel is not required to make cartridges.

Steel is not required to produce guns.

Perfectly reliable charges are not required to make good weaponry.

Automation was a known concept, numerous examples exist of it, from clockwork mechanisms to spring powered saws.

From Wikipedia - "Up to the 15th century, clockwork was driven by water, weights, or other roundabout, relatively primitive means, but in 1430 a clock was presented to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, that was driven by a spring."

That is not to say the metal spring was not invented until the 1430

From Wikipedia Torsion springs consisting of twisted ropes or sinew, were used to store potential energy to power several types of ancient weapons; including the Greek ballista and the Roman scorpio and catapults like the onager.

https://www.ideaconnection.com/right-brain-workouts/00346-who-invented-the-toothed-gear.html

1836 Colt and his revolver. Such a miraculous invention.. with the use of a spring and a ratchet..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiFGKWPSaas

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ycyj76VPOtc

The mechanical concepts (and even the parts) required to build a machine gun had already been demonstrated long before the creation of what people recognise as the first automated weaponry.

I think the only part of a machine gun that could not have been readily be designed by a 14th century artificer is ammunition of any reliability, but that needn't kill the project if a part of the automation process expelled failed or partially failed cartridges without relying on the power provided by a spent round.

there is no need for an automatic weapon to fire quickly in order for it to be classed as a machine gun, nor is a rof of 400 or more rounds a minute in any way feasible imo.

A 1300s machine gun would probably make use of a secondary, manually empowered spring prior to contact to act as a guarantor of motion, any failure to fire being catastrophic(which is likely a primary reason why the gatling gun wasn't automatic)

Something like a maxim, but instead of striking a cap a fuse is lit in the rear of the casing with a delay charge, arranged such that perhaps cartridges are lit with a fuse of ~1s.

That is, the fuse is lit prior to the the rotational point of chambering and firing, the last 3 rotational points are inside a secondary (ignition) chamber aligned on the ammunition's arc such that debris from the fuse's ignition can be cleaned out in a separate, external part. This 'external' arc is open to the air forwards, allowing any accidental explosion or pre-ignition due to dust build-up that may occur to be directed away from the user and his allies(if not quite constituting a second barrel)

Depending on the design, the automatic motion normally chambering a round could be aligned to, say, every fourth or fifth (or less or more depending upon tolerances) fire a spring loaded wad instead of a bullet. There is after all no reason why a gun need be cleaned from the muzzle end of a breach-loaded weapon. (And the wad does not need so much strength as to hit the enemy, just to leave the barrel)

Don't really know how light such a contraption would be.

More from wikipedia -"The grouped barrel concept had been explored by inventors since the 18th century, but poor engineering and the lack of a unitary cartridge made previous designs unsuccessful. The initial Gatling gun design used self-contained, reloadable steel cylinders with a chamber holding a ball and black-powder charge, and a percussion cap on one end. As the barrels rotated, these steel cylinders dropped into place, were fired, and were then ejected from the gun. The innovative features of the Gatling gun were its independent firing mechanism for each barrel and the simultaneous action of the locks, barrels, carrier and breech.

The ammunition that Gatling eventually implemented was a paper cartridge style round charged with black powder and primed with a percussion cap. because self-contained brass cartridges were not yet fully developed and available. The shells were gravity-fed into the breech through a hopper or simple box "magazine" with an unsprung gravity follower on top of the gun. Each barrel had its own firing mechanism."

So we have here an existing weapon that uses things that were available in the 14th century, paper, brass, gunpowder, ratchets, springs, primers, multi-phase automation.

Mass production, precision engineering, chemical uniformity and quality assurance processes do not make a machine gun, they just make good machine guns.

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There is a webnovel about that, entirely. The synopsis is all about bringing modern weapons tech to middle-age-like civ. For doing that there were some pre-requisites:

  • The protagonist has memories of the present day, also, he is a mechanical engineer that also is weapon-addicted.
  • He is a prince, not the first one in the sucession line
  • He uses his knowledge of chemistry, and the local alchemists to start researching black powder and a way to mass produce it
  • He start by making muskeeters (start small)
  • Since he is a prince, he chose the measurement units as measures of his own body, and they were accepted
  • He also start to change the mindset of people and educate them so that he can use them in factories
  • Mostly, with his previous knowledge, he researches most of things that is missing
  • He does all of this in some years
  • The setting is in a fantasy world pretty similar to ours, so there are witches, and he uses their power to countermeasure some tech problems, such as precision in steelmaking

The webnovel is called Release that Witch, and there is a lot of technical terms in this webnovel, everything is well explained and there are entire chapters about the technological development.

Sorry about my bad english/mispelling, I hope this helps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Using black powder for machine gun is a recipe for failure. black powder solid deposits are known to obstruct the weapon. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Nov 28 '18 at 1:45
  • $\begingroup$ Moreover, "travel back in time" is not exactly a science-based answer. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Nov 28 '18 at 1:46
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You specifically mention cartridges

Paper cartridges have been in use for nearly as long as hand-held firearms, with a number of sources dating their use back to the late 14th century. Historians note their use by soldiers of Christian I in 1586, while the Dresden museum has evidence dating their use to 1591, and Capo Bianco writes in 1597 that paper cartridges had long been in use by Neapolitan soldiers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_cartridge

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  • $\begingroup$ Paper cartridges sped up loading a muzzle loader by combining ball, wadding, and premeasured powder in a convenient package -- but they cut loading time from most of a minute to fifteen or twenty seconds for a musket (multiply both by five or so for a rifle). And while paper cartridges appeared in the 14th century, loading as fast as three shots in a minute was for the tail end of the flintlock period, early 19th century -- 14th century guns were cannon locks, matchlocks or, rarely, wheellocks. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Nov 27 '18 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ One of the main functions of a brass cartridge is to seal the breech, which was difficult to do until about the 19th Century. Paper isn't going to work that way. $\endgroup$ – David Thornley Nov 27 '18 at 20:52
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No. Manufacturing precision and consistency as well as metallurgy were not up to scratch. I could also see problems with raw materials and quality control.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Kaiser. Answers on this forum need more detail in them to get strong votes - perhaps you could tell us specifically why metallurgy (for example) wasn't up to scratch? Also, the problems you see with raw materials and product control aren't identified, making the answer seem incomplete. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Nov 28 '18 at 4:45

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