Elephant mounted with a M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun, WWI; ca. 1914-18.
A corporal aims a Colt M1895 atop a Sri Lankan Elephant. The M1895 was developed by John Browning during the 1890s, it was a belt-fed, air cooled, gas operated machine gun. As the weapon was air cooled it did not require the water cooling system used by the Maxim Gun, as a result it was much lighter weighing just 35 lbs.
The M1895 was lever actuated which meant that the gun was cocked by retracting the lever and once the first round was fired the propellant gas was tapped from a gas port several inches from the muzzle this gas pushed the lever down and swung it back towards the receiver to cock the gun for the next round. If the gun’s tripod was set too low, or impeded by cover, then the lever would catch any obstruction, as a result it quickly became known as the ‘potato digger’ by troops. There looks to be more than enough clearance on top of the elephant.
While there is historical precedent for the use of elephants in warfare for over 1000 years, used by the Persians, Alexander the Great, Indian Sultans, Siamese warriors who mounted Jingals (small guns often mounted on walls) on elephants well into the 1880s, and later by the British Army in India as pack animals capable of carrying mountain guns and supplies over difficult terrain. Why the corporal is atop the elephant is a mystery but it was never a weapons platform adopted by the US Army.
M1895 Colt-Browning Machine Gun (aka the “Potato Digger”).
The Maxim Machine Gun, operates by harnessing the power of recoil to chamber and fire the next round. One day firearms genius John Browning was out shooting with some friends, gas from a shooters muzzle moved the bushes and Browning wondered if said power could be harnessed. He went, drilled a hole in the barrel of a lever action rifle, attached a flap over the hole and ran a spring to the lever, when he fired the gas pulled the lever and reloaded the rifle. The first gas operated firearm, but not the last.
He put the concept to work designing a crude prototype machine gun which he showed off to the Colt company. After firing a few belts through for the company and army it was put into production as the Colt-Browning M1895. One of the first guns to compete with Maxim in the market. It was adopted by the Navy and Marine Corps but not by the Army, at least not officially, a number were purchased. It was also sold to Mexico, Canada and Uruguay.
The Colt-Browning M1895 differed from the Maxim in several ways. It was a lighter gun weighing only 30-35lbs with a 50lb tripod compared to Maxim’s which weighed 40-60lbs before water often with heavier mounts. It was air cooled with a finned barrel to absorb heat. It loaded by way of a swinging lever (shown here) that would be hit by the gas and then sent back on a spring firing the gun until interrupted or there were no more cartridges to power it. It was fed by belt and the rate fired varied 400rds per minute and 650. The gun used a simpler pistol grip instead of the more common spade grip. The gun had some minor problems as well. If you set the tripod to low the gun would dig into the ground, earning the nickname potato digger. If the barrel heats up to much after firing and you leave ammo in there, it had a tendency to go off. To manually eject rounds you had to reach around to the front of the gun and pull the lever.
Sales of the Colt-Browning were slim, a couple thousand at most, then the First World War started and every army realized Machine Guns were a big thing. Canada made heavy use of gun early in the war before switching to the Vickers. Italy ordered some in 6.5mm to replace domestic supplies lost after a retreat, they actually converted them to water cooling. Thanks to guns light weight and small size, a popular variant by Marlin served in tanks and aircraft. The US ordered thousands more in WW1 as well but used them mostly for training. In WW2 Britain ordered thousands of the guns now out of service in the US to beef up their home guard after the fall of France.
The biggest user Russia was in a particular lurch being more agrarian than industrial at the time while having its WW1 army grow in magnitudes, they ordered around 15,000 in their standard caliber. After the war these guns didn’t just disappear. They were used by the Russians in the Civil War and the Soviets wars that followed their rise, sometimes by both sides. They even went on into WW2 in limited numbers.
One could say this gun, revolutionary in nature, while not met with the same level success of the Maxim, it was certainly well served and while Browning went on to make a very successful water cooled gun, it helped helped pave the way for lighter air cooled guns.