The Lethal Munitions of World War I

In an editorial published in the New York Times of May 27, 1915 following the tragic sinking of the RMS Lusitania, the British social critic H. G. Wells wrote “if the human intelligence is applied continuously to the mechanism of war it will steadily develop destructive powers, but that it will fail to develop any corresponding power of decision and settlement, because the development of the former is easy and obvious in comparison with the development of the latter.” The World War, already underway for nine months did nothing to dispel his admonition. New technology in the form of high explosives, rapid fire guns, submarines, and aircraft had radically altered the battlefield and the scope of war and provided a lethality magnitudes greater than the wars of the previous century. On the battlefield itself, two major changes in tactics were generated by the rapid-fire machine gun and the prodigious use of artillery, primed with high explosives that could shatter projectiles into hundreds of spinning, streaking fragments of metal any one of which could tear the human frame apart.

The inventor Hiram Maxim (1840-1916) might have been acknowledged as the discoverer of the electric light were it not for several patent disputes with the now famous Thomas Edison. However, Maxim’s method of hardening carbon filaments allowed “fully twice as much light for the power consumed as Edison’s original lamps”[1]. In the meantime, a fascination with guns drew him away from electricity and into the realm of rapid-fire weapons. By using the recoil energy of a round, he was able to devise a mechanism for loading another round in the chamber and “automatically” firing it. His first model fired 666 rounds per minute at a range of 1000 meters.  He was encouraged to focus on his gun rather than electricity. In Vienna, a comrade told him “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s’ throats with greater facility.”[2]  Before the turn of the century, Maxim’s gun had become immensely popular in Britain, France, Germany, and Austria. At the start of the Great War in 1914 all combatants were equipped with Maxim’s machine gun.

The Great War also saw a dramatic change in the technology of artillery. Rifled, breech loading guns allowed for more precise and faster delivery of shells. More importantly, the fillers (“bursters”) of the projectiles changed from gunpowder to high explosives such as picric acid and subsequently trinitrotoluene (easier handling properties) with a detonation velocity of 6900 m/sec. The impact of this amount of energy and dissemination of shrapnel or fragmentation of casing could produce devastating human damage meters from impact. Bodies were literally ripped apart. In survivors, traumatic amputations, deep-seated soft tissue tearing, avulsion, and contusion, and comminuted (fragmented) bony injuries provided vast niduses for anaerobic bacterial infection from manured battlefields that, unless widely cleaned, often led to life-threatening gangrenous infections.[3]


[1] Hiram S. Maxim, My Life (London: Methuen & Co., 1915), 141

[2] Malcolm W. Browne, “100 Years of Maxim’s Killing Machine” New York Times, November 26, 1985, 1

[3] See Brown, D.K. “Ammunition Explosions in World War I” Warship International 38 (2001): 58-69