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What weighs a lot but isn’t Heavy?

Answer:  A Vickers Machine Gun.

There’s been some posts recently that have made me think about writing this post on nomenclature surrounding the Vickers Machine Gun.  It’s worth emphasising that this is all the post is about.  I’ll try and explain what the Vickers was called and when.  This is from a British and Commonwealth perspective but also with a flavour of the marketing that Vickers Ltd added to it as well.

It might help with the study of other weapons but I can’t guarantee that as I can only be confident in how the Vickers was named because of the sources I have.

There have been many different interpretations and I’m going to quote some of those here.  They might cover more than just the Vickers so I’ll include the images of the pages from the sources as well.

Textbook of Small Arms, 1929

This is scientific analysis of small arms and was the War Office’s attempt at documenting all relevant information into a single reference volume.  As well as the details of the balistics and characteristics of weapons, it also provides some definitions:

The dividing lines cannot be considered inviolable, but generally the following four groups will suffice to include them all:-

  1. Heavy machine guns – of a calibre above the average normal calibre for a rifle, say, 0.5 inch and upwards, and of necessity used with a stable mounting.
  2. Machine guns proper – of normal rifle calibre and by reason of their tactical employment primarily designed for use with a stable mounting, such as the Mark IV tripod of the British Service.
  3. Light machine guns – of normal rifle calibre, primarily designed for use with some form of light tripod or rest, and easily portable with the tripod of rest by a single man.
  4. Automatic rifles – of normal rifle calibre or less, and primarily designed for use without any form of mounting or rest.

Within these definitions, the Vickers in .303-inch falls into the ‘Machine guns proper’ category whilst the .5-inch falls into the ‘Heavy machine guns’ category.

Small Arms Committee

The definition comes up a couple of times in the Small Arms Committee (SAC) Minutes during the 1930s when ‘new’ weapons were coming along and somebody needed to decide what things would be called and where weapons fitted in.  Given the absence of anybody else to do it, the SAC stepped in and, somewhat reluctantly it would appear, decided the following.

Minute 1446, 27 March 1935.

Small Arms Committee Minute 1446
Small Arms Committee Minute 1446

3. A light machine gun is a continuous fire weapon which is normally fired from the shoulder with the aid of a rest. Owing to its weight it cannot fulful all the requirements of a personal arm. For this reason, and because of the amount of ammunition required fore its functioning, an extra man or men are required for protection and supply.

4. A heavy machine gun is a weapon capable of prolonged continuous fire which by the aid of a suitable mounting and instruments give sustained accuracy.

NOTE.- The calibre charge and bullet used vary according to the purpose for which the weapon is designed.

No mention of a Medium Machine Gun! Therefore, the Vickers must fall into the Heavy category here.

Minute 1742, 9 February 1938

Small Arms Committee Meeting, Minute 1742
Small Arms Committee Minute 1742

(g) A Light Machine Gun is an automatic fire weapon, normally fired from the shoulder with the aid of a rest.

(h) A Medium Machine Gun is an automatic fire weapon which is capable of producing a large volume of fire for long periods. It is fired from a mounting.

(i) A Heavy Machine Gun is an automatic fire weapon specially designed to fire ammunition for the penetration of armour or for use against aircraft.

In this case, the introduction of the term Medium would now encompass the Vickers in .303-inch but the .5-inch variants would be Heavy.

Academic texts

As well as the official texts, there are ‘academic’ texts on small arms that help.

Low, A.M (1953) Musket to Machine-Gun, London: Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd.

We now come to the medium and heavy machine-guns, which differ only in respect of their calibre or weight, the heavy machine-gun being one using ammunition larger than that of a rifle; in the case of the British machine-guns this is of .50 calibre or more.  Some of the light machine-guns can be fired from the shoulder or with an improvised rest. The essence of a medium or heavy machine-gun is a fixed mounting.

Hobart, F.W.A (1971) Pictorial History of the Machine Gun. London: Ian Allan.

The Medium Machine Gun is a Company of Battalion support weapon and the main requirement is accurate sustained fire…

The General Purpose Machine Gun is a compromise…

The Heavy Machine Gun is a weapon of .5in calibre up to 30mm. It is used as an anti-aircraft gun, anti-armoured personnel carrier gun and in many armoured fighting vehicles.

Barker, A. (1952) Principles of Small Arms. Aldershot: Gale & Polden Limited

5. Medium Machine Guns

Modern medium machine guns are automatic weapons capable of uninterrupted fire for a long time with long bursts. Due to the presence of a stable mount, the accuracy of fire is good even at long ranges.

6. Heavy Machine Guns

With the development of armour and protections, the need arose for an increase in the power and penetrative effects of machine guns. One of the most natural and simple methods of attaining this was the adoption of larger calibre weapons.

These first appears as anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. In construction they differ little from the machine guns of ordinary small-arms calibre, except for weight and dimensions.

Allen, W G B (1953) Pistols Rifles and Machine Guns. Liverpool: English Universities Press Ltd.

Heavy machine guns are considered as having calibres of 1/2 inch or more.

These texts all support the notion that it is the calibre of the weapon that determines whether it is a medium- or heavy-machine gun.

Manuals and training material

Alongside the introduction of the Vickers, various commercial and official publications have existed and they must identify the weapons to which they refer.

Interestingly, this includes references to the Vickers as the Light Model in contrast to the Maxim and a reference to it’s weight.

But for most of its service, the Vickers was merely referred to as the .303-inch Vickers Gun or .303-inch Machine Gun.  The ‘capability’ was referred to as ‘Medium Machine Guns’ during the Second World War and then on the machine gun manuals themselves from 1951.


Considering the official use of the Vickers, and the definitions that exist, it would appear that the .303-inch Vickers has been referred to as a light, medium and heavy machine gun during its service; however, the ‘heavy’ reference appear for only three years from 1935 to 1938 and seems to have been in the absence of a medium category.  It does not appear in any other literature that was printed either side of this period, when the Vickers is merely referred to as the .303-inch Machine Gun.

It’s my conclusion that the .303-inch Vickers is a medium machine gun and the .5-inch is a heavy machine gun, following the classification based on calibres and use rather than actual weight.

1 thought on “What weighs a lot but isn’t Heavy?

  1. […] article isn’t an extension of my previous blog article about light, medium and heavy machine guns, although it’s something I could rant about quite […]

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