Captain Herbert W. McBride of the 21st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote in his excellent book A Rifleman Went to War the following concerning the use of the Colt Automatic Gun Model 1895. “We Canadians of the Second Division were originally equipped with Colt guns… I imagine I can hear some sniffles and horse-laughs. You think that the Colt is a poor weapon, eh? Well, just let me tell you something for your information and instruction… Never have I seen any machine gun that is as safe for shooting over the heads of advancing infantry as the Colt. In other words, it has less dispersion, vertically, than any gun I have seen… That old Colt sure would hold elevations. I have often shot and see fired by other bursts of as many as ten shots at the thousand-yard target, where not a single bullet struck outside the limits of the bull’s eye… Often we used our Colts for firing single shots – sniping – and that is practically impossible with any of the other and faster kinds.”
“And, by the way,” continues McBride, “lest we forget, there is another good argument for the Colt gun, and that is that it is air cooled. Say what you want to, the business of getting water where there ain’t any and keeping that old condenser and its hoses and everything right with you and ready to hook up, when you are crawling through all the litter of a battlefield, is not so easy. And how that water does boil away! In spite of the most careful use of the condenser, it evaporates at a rapid rate and then the problem is how to replenish it. Even though the action may be literally on the bank of a river it may be an impossible task to go the few feet and back; and, often, on the soggy, rain-drenched fields of Flanders, where everything was simply soaked, not enough real water could be procured to fill the jacket. More than a few times, the members of the gun crew have been called upon to ‘make water,’ and there is a sort of grim humor in the fact that on such occasions few, if any, could produce the goods: no, not a drop.”
Such was the praise for the Colt Automatic Gun Model 1895 as written by Captain McBride. Truly, he was an original “Emma Gee” as they called all machine gunners in the British service during World War I.
The Colt Automatic Gun Model 1895 was the world’s first practical gas-actuated machine gun invented and designed by the firearms genius John Moses Browning. Being an avid shooter and hunter as well as a great inventor, Browning, in the fall of 1889, went on a hunt in the marshes near Great Salt Lake. Lore has it that while shooting in the bulrushes he was intrigued by the reaction of the marsh grass to the muzzle blast of his gun. Recognizing this blast as a viable energy source, he set about to harness this energy as an alternate yet efficient means of operating a firearm. (Hiram Maxim had invented the short-recoil system four years earlier.)
Initially testing his concept on a rifle and then moving forward to a fully automatic gun, by March, 1890, Browning had improved his concept gun to the point where he offered a prototype to the Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Company. The gas-impingement system that he invented was created by drilling a small gas port on the underside of the barrel about seven inches from the muzzle. As the bullet travels down the barrel past the gas port, but before exiting the muzzle, a small portion of the expanding powder gas is bled through the gas port and impinges against the head of the gas lever located under the barrel and held against the gas port. This causes the gas lever, hinged at the rear, to rotate downward and backward in a 170 degree arc underneath the gun. This lever actuates the working parts of the gun by unlocking and pushing back the bolt, withdrawing and ejecting the spent cartridge case and cocking the hammer while simultaneously the shell extractor draws a new round out of the belt and places it on the carrier. As the gas propelled lever expends its rearward energy, retracting springs return the gas lever forward and upward through its return arc to its original position.
As the gas lever returns to its forward position, it causes the front end of the carrier to rise and place a new cartridge on the carrier in front of the bolt. The bolt then travels forward, places a new round in the chamber and locks in place. At the same time the feed wheel rotates and advances the belt with a fresh cartridge to be engaged by the extractor, which is also traveling forward.
This cycle of extraction, ejection, loading, locking, cocking and firing will continue as long as the trigger remains pressed. It was this gas lever, which traveled fore and aft in an arc under the gun, that gave this weapon the nickname of “Potato Digger” because if the weapon was mounted too close to the ground, a small pit had to be dug to accommodate the swinging gas lever or else the lever would strike the ground and cause a stoppage. As “inconvenient” as this may be (tactical machine gun battlefield use had not been conceived of at this time), when mounted on its tripod or on the Light Landing Carriage, the mechanical operation of the movements resulted in a very smooth, precise and dependable operation.
The United States Navy tested the gun as early as 1893. By 1895 it had been refined to where it would handle the 6mm Lee (Navy) and the caliber .30-40 Krag (Army) cartridges and was officially named by Colt as the Colt Automatic Gun Model 1895. The nomenclature of “Model of” was normally reserved for use by the military upon official acceptance of the type by the Army. However, Colt was confident that the gun would be ultimately accepted by the Army and named it Model 1895 (without the “of”) in anticipation of that approval. Ironically, though the gun was used in due course by the Navy and the Army, it was never officially adopted by the Army.
The Navy ordered 50 of the Colt guns, which were delivered in 1897. This was the first time the United States Government purchased an automatic machine gun. In 1898, the Navy purchased another 150 of the Colts. These guns were used as secondary armament on ships and, with wheeled Light Landing Carriages and tripod mounts, by Naval landing parties and the U.S. Marines.
The U.S. Navy used the Colt with some degree of success during the Spanish-American War in 1898 when the Colt first saw combat. In the battle of Santiago de Cuba, Navy landing parties went into action alongside Lt. John H. “Gatling Gun” Parker and his Army Gatling gun under the command of Colonel Teddy Roosevelt. Two privately purchased 1895s chambered in 7.57mm Mauser (the same cartridge used by the Spanish in their Modelo 1893 Mauser rifles) were used by the 1st Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders) at Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. However, due to the great success of the Gatling guns at the battle of San Juan Hill, the Army delayed for another decade its decision to replace the older manually operated Gatling guns with the newer automatic guns.