The French Hotchkiss Model 1914 Heavy Machine Gun

Laurence Benét test fires the Hotchkiss Model 1897 mounted on a wheeled carriage.

The Hotchkiss Model 1914 was the standard French Army heavy machine gun during World War I.  It was also the primary heavy machine gun of the United States A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Force).  Heavy but rugged and dependable, the Hotchkiss Model 1914 saw continuous service along the entire line of the Western Front for the full duration of the war (1914-1918).  It continued in French service after the war in France’s Colonial endeavors and as a secondary armament role within Europe up to and including the Second World War.

Upon Hiram Maxim’s success in harnessing the energy of the recoiling forces in producing the world’s first truly automatic machine gun, inventors everywhere attempted to design firing mechanisms that replicated the full automatic function without infringing on Maxim’s patents.

One such inventor was a young Viennese nobleman and officer in the Austrian Army.  Captain Baron Adolph von Odkolek had successfully designed and constructed a prototype gas-operated machine gun and sought to market his invention.  In 1893, he traveled to the world famous Hotchkiss manufacturing facility in St. Denis, France, just outside the city limits of Paris, to see if they would be interested in building his gun.

Laurence Benét, head engineer and promotion manager, and his assistant Henri Mercié, were actively trying to come up with a new machine gun when Odkolek came to them in 1893.  They tested Odkolek’s prototype and were generally unimpressed with it due to overheating problems.  They did, however, recognize that there were certain mechanical features, particularly the simple operation of a gas piston housed underneath the barrel, that they saw as extremely promising.  Benét refused to manufacture Odkolek’s gun on a royalty basis, but instead offered to buy the patent rights outright so as to pursue and refine the development of the gas operating system.  Odkolek agreed and a lump sum payment was negotiated in return for assigning all manufacturing rights to Hotchkiss.

Left side of the Hotchkiss Model 1914 mounted on a Hotchkiss Model 1916 tripod. Note the feed strip inserted into the feed block.

Benét then started work on designing a new gun using Odkolek’s operating principles.  His new gun was chambered in 8mm Lebel and was gas-operated employing a simple reciprocating piston that did not infringe upon John Browning’s patent on a gas-operated gun that used a swinging lever as used on the Colt Automatic Gun.

The first model of the new gun was tested at the St. Denis factory by Laurence Benét in 1895.  In honor of Benjamin Hotchkiss, the founder of the company who died in 1885, the gun was named “the Hotchkiss.”  Instead of feeding ammunition from fabric belts the new gun used metal strips; each containing 30 rounds.  Shunning the use of a water jacket for cooling, the new gun was air cooled.  A brass shoulder piece, or stock, was permanently attached to the top cover of the gun.  While mechanically the new gun performed better than they had hoped, they found that the heavy barrel they used overheated too quickly destroying the rifling after a relatively small number of rounds had been fired.

Hotchkiss Model 1897
The solution to overheating that Benét came up with is a design feature that to this day defines the Hotchkiss machine gun – the large “doughnut rings” around the breech area.  Benét knew that more metal mass was needed around the breech area to absorb the heat generated at this point, but just adding solid metal would add tremendous weight to the gun.  Instead, he introduced brass circular doughnut-shaped fins at the critical area around the breech.  This provided ten times the surface area around the breech area and added little weight.  This was incorporated into a new model: the Hotchkiss Model 1897.  The French Army adopted this weapon and purchased a limited number of the Model 1897 as they were particularly keen on it being air-cooled and lighter in weight than the water-cooled Maxim.  Water source was a problem in the desert environment of the French colonies in Africa and the Hotchkiss solved a logistics problem.  The gun proved to be fairly reliable, but was still prone to overheating even with the massive brass cooling fins.  Though there were minor improvements in the next two models, the basic gun remained the same as a gas-operated, air-cooled, strip-fed machine gun.

U.S. soldiers fire their Hotchkiss Model 1914 from a position in France.

Hotchkiss Model 1900
The refinements that occurred in 1900 mostly centered on making adjustments to the original mount.  Since overheating was still a problem, the brass doughnut cooling rings were replaced with steel ones and the barrel was redesigned with a lower carbon content to help extend barrel life in a sustained fire mode.

The Hotchkiss Model 1900 achieved a great amount of success and was sold world wide with many going to Mexico and Japan.  The first conflict between major powers in which machine guns were employed by each participant was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and ’05.  The Russians were equipped with Maxims and Madsens, while the Japanese had the Hotchkiss.  The Japanese were very impressed with the Hotchkiss design and after the war obtained a license to produce them in Japan – ultimately adding some design features of their own resulting in the Japanese Type 3 and Type 92 heavy machine guns.

During the Russo-Japanese War new and old tactics were tried in the use and deployment of machine guns and thus began the learning curve of the capabilities of machine guns in actual warfare.  The French, British and Germans had observers taking notes during the war noting the use, deployment and tactics for use in their own applications.  The Germans learned quickly.  The British and French did not.

While the French Army had a few of the Hotchkiss Model 1900s, they embarked on a program to develop their own machine gun produced in their own government arsenals.  They felt they could do it better and did not like paying royalties to a commercial firm such as Hotchkiss for the use of a gun.  The result of their effort was the ignominious Puteaux Model 1905 and the St. Etienne Model 1907.

When World War I broke out across Europe in 1914, France found itself at a serious disadvantage due to a small stock of automatic arms consisting of the already outdated and complicated St. Etienne Model of 1907 and some Hotchkiss Model 1900s.  But France was fortunate in the sense that it had a domestic company with a proven machine gun that could tool up for large mass-scale production in a very sort period of time.  With a few more minor tweaks in production methods and materials, and the removal of the shoulder stock as part of the top cover and replacing it with a simple D-grip, the new weapon of war was the Hotchkiss Model 1914.  The reliable qualities of the Hotchkiss were quickly recognized by the entire army, and were issued as front-line equipment with a large number of brigade companies having been formed and equipped with this weapon.

LEFT: Front cover of Collier’s magazine from May 4, 1918 with artwork by famed illustrator Herbert Paus (1860-1944) depicting U.S. Marines attached to the 2nd Infantry Division in France firing their Hotchkiss Model 1914 machine gun in anti-aircraft operations mounted on an Omnibus Model 1915 mount. RIGHT: World War I bond poster by Lynch, 1918. Stirring image of a U.S. Doughboy with empty ammo boxes as his feet as he desperately pleads directly to the viewer for more ammunition while manning a smoking and empty Hotchkiss Model 1914 machine gun.

The best instance, among many, demonstrating the efficiency of the Hotchkiss was in the spring of 1916, during the heroic defense of Verdun, when a section armed with two Hotchkiss machine guns held its position near Hill 304 for ten consecutive days and nights.  Entrenched 150 yards behind the crest, which the Germans were endeavoring to seize, this unit repulsed unaided all assaults, mowing down the succeeding waves of attack as they reached the summit.  During these ten days the section, cut off from all supplies and communication, expended over 150,000 rounds of ammunition.  The original and normal supply of a section was 5,000 rounds.  Fortunately, a dump of infantry cartridges was near at hand and all hands, including officers, set about reloading the feed strips, thus enabling the section to carry on to the end.  When it was realized that each gun fired upwards of 75,000 rounds and still were serviceable, one must admire the robust nature of the Hotchkiss and its reliability.

The U.S. Army Arrives
When the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France in 1917 with no machine guns, the French provided enough Hotchkiss Model 1914s to equip the first 12 Divisions.  Ultimately, 5,255 Model 1914s were delivered to the U.S. troops with 224 per Infantry Division, with 16 per Infantry Regiment and 16 per Machine Gun Company.  Later Divisions were additionally equipped with Colt Vickers Model 1915 and lastly the Browning Model 1917, which saw only limited service.

The Hotchkiss proved as reliable and robust in the hands of the Americans as it was with the French; filling the role as an offensive, defensive and anti-aircraft weapon.  The hard learned lessons of use and tactics by the French were taught to the newly arrived U.S. forces during 1917 and 1918.  When U.S. troops finally entered combat in 1918, their use was employed with efficiency and accuracy.

Right side of the Hotchkiss Model 1914 mounted on a Hotchkiss Model 1916 tripod. Note ammunition box to hold loaded feed strips.

Description of the Hotchkiss M1914
The description of the Hotchkiss M1914 is best related in the Handbook of the Hotchkiss Machine Gun Model of 1914, as printed in the Ordnance Manual of January, 1918.

“The Hotchkiss machine gun, Model of 1914 (Mitrailleuse Automatique Hotchkiss), caliber 8mm, is chambered for the standard French rifle ammunition.  The gun is classified as heavy, air-cooled, gas operated, and fed from metallic strips or linked bands.

“In order to eliminate artificial cooling devices, air is utilized as a cooling agent.  The barrel is heavily made, which tends to retard overheating.  To assist in the natural cooling of the gun, a radiator having five large annular ribs is shrunk over the rear end of the barrel.

“Expanding gases furnish the energy for the operation of the gun.  After the gun is fired and the bullet has passed the gas port in the barrel, the live powder gases expand through the gas port into the cylinder and impinge against the head of the piston.  This throws the piston to the rear, compressing the recoil spring which furnishes energy for the counter-recoil.  The various lugs and cams of the piston actuate the feeding, firing, extracting and ejecting, and control the operation of the gun.

“The feed strips or bands are metallic stampings on which are formed three parallel rows of teeth for holding the cartridges in place.  The feed strips are flat and hold 24 cartridges in a single row.

“The feed is entirely mechanical, and is independent of the inclination of the gun.  The feed strip is ejected automatically.  By the employment of strips the consumption of ammunition is easily controlled, and a much better economy is feasible than with a long band.

“The gun is composed of only 30 pieces that are easily dismounted.  There are very few springs and screws, and only a few of the main parts are indispensable for the proper functioning of the gun.

“All parts of the gun are constructed in such a manner that it is impossible to assemble them improperly.  The ordinary dismounting and assembling of the gun can be accomplished without the aid of a single tool.  The dismounting of the barrel or gas cylinder necessitates a wrench which forms a part of the accessories of the arm.

“On account of its weight the Hotchkiss is fired from a tripod or other suitable mount.  The arm is especially adapted to defense work and to barrage fire or indirect fire.  When used for night firing it is fitted with a flash screen.”