eli5 Why weren’t machine guns possible to make in the past?

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What stopped 18-19th century armies with guns from being able to create automatic weapons like AK-47s and Uzis?
Since they don’t use electricity I feel like they’re made with materials and technology that was already available in the 1750s, surely they could’ve put their heads together to create a machine gun and just annihilate any ops…


In: Engineering

35 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Precision machining ain’t the easiest thing man. You’d have to hammer out the parts over an anvil. Hell, even modern machine guns jam. Can you imagine the situation where the metal was more warped or uneven?

Anonymous 0 Comments

~~The earliest repeating firearm was I believe the puckle gun made in the 18th century.~~ *Apparently not quite– there were flintlock repeaters as early as 1630. Then came the Gatling gun in the 19th. The biggest obstacle to making those more portable was most likely manufacturing tech, and they just couldn’t figure out a way to make them portable enough for a single person to carry and wield.

But what held firearms back for the longest time in general was setting up the shot: you needed powder, the projectile, a way to spark it, keep it all under pressure so it actually went bang instead of just burning ineffectively, and strong enough not to explode and hurt the soldier. Once we figured out how to do that with metallic cartridges which could be stored in magazines and manipulated by mechanisms inside the gun, machine guns followed shortly after.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Once bullets and powder were combined into one piece, machine guns weren’t far behind that.

Prior to that, each projectile needed its own powder to be added (per shot) to create propulsion. Once they were combined into an all-in-one package, it opened up the door to a whole new world of firearms.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Manufacturing at scale and advancements in material technology.

Could some smart guy make a machine gun in 1750 if they realized the knowledge? Probably. Would it last more than a few dozen rounds? Unlikely. Manufacturing good steel springs ain’t easy.

They didn’t even have cartridges until the 1800s (first was 1808) and they didn’t have smokeless powder until almost the 20th century (1889).

The answer is they didn’t have the technology.

Another hurdle was perceived need. While an M16 is viewed as better for soldiers than previous guns, adoption of even semi auto rifles was slow and only accepted as armies with them dominated. It takes actual application to realize the flaws in your plans.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Lack of precision manufacturing at scale basically. A common blacksmith couldn’t make one but a watchmaker probably could. But those are highly specialized and would have to produce both the firearms and the ammunition. Cased ammunition alone took a long time (relative to firearms) to be developed and it would be a requirement for pretty much any autoloading design. If your ammo is out of spec the gun is either ineffective, jams, or blows up so the man hours to produce actually useable ammo would be insane.

Anonymous 0 Comments

they did, full auto was the goal, it took years to as you said “put their heads together” research takes time, some one smarter (more imaginative) then every one else, luck, money. things don’t just appear over night

do you even know how much engineering and moving parts go in to a semi or full auto gun?

1911 semi auto pistol


ar-15 full auto rifle


Anonymous 0 Comments

Because people in the old days were more loving, gentle, and kind-hearted. Everybody just wanted peace and love until John Browning came along and singlehandedly ruined the world.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Firearms had existed since the 13th century, and were imported to Europe in the 14th. (You can argue before in both cases, it depends on your definition of what a firearm is)

These were limited primarily by the poor metallurgy of the time, lack of precision machining to make consistent bullets and barrels, and the fact that you had to load the bullet, powder, and wadding separately.

Cartridges is the real answer.

As soon as the technology existed to make cartridges with the bullet and powder encased together, fully automatic weapons weren’t that far behind.

The technology and precision machining needed to make both are hand-in-hand.

Anonymous 0 Comments

You’re missing a few things in 1750.

First, mechanical precision. The kind of machining needed to repeatedly make weapons that work well without jamming required innovations that would come later in the Industrial Revolution.

Next, cartridges. Automatic weapons load premade cases with consistent dimensions. You can get away with a lot more variation in cartridges in muzzle loaders, cranked guns or lever guns than an automatic loading system. You do see weapons like that in the 19th century before brass cartridges. Those cartridges wouldn’t be perfected until the mid 19th century.

Finally, the powder available. Black powder fouls guns very rapidly to the point that ~~musketeers would be equipped with a set of shot that got smaller each shot~~ musket balls were made smaller than the barrel to ensure soldiers could quickly get it down the barrel. Automatic weapons usually capture some of the explosive gases to work the mechanism and these fine, thin tubes would be fouled almost immediately by black powder. Smokeless powders would only be developed in the late 19th century.

Edit: correcting per /u/BoingBoingBooty

Anonymous 0 Comments

All guns are one malfunction away from being an improvised explosive device. Automatic weapons are at a higher risk because they tend to get very hot very quickly.

You need consistent quality in the material and construction of both the gun and the ammunition to minimize catastrophic malfunction.

Just about anyone could go down to the hardware store and jury rig a gatling gun with time and tools. The chances of it blowing up in their face (literally) is significant.

Even modern firearms malfunction and blow up. With modern designs and materials it’s rare, but it happens. I’ve seen a few interesting malfunctions over the past few decades first hand.

The most ‘common’ ones were from people that reloaded their own ammo. After that it was using old/improperly stored ammo. Weapon malfunction covered the rest.