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Selling the machine gun: Hiram Maxim and Basil Zaharoff




The interest of the various army headquarters was directed mainly to quick-firing guns. Since the French quickfiring mitrailleuses in the Franco-German War, though they had not procured a victory, had none the less performed valuable services, everyone was trying to manufacture weapons that would fire as swiftly as possible. The attempts long remained unsuccessful, but in the eighties the military technicians in different countries were producing serviceable weapons. Nordenfelt also took part in the race. His quick-firing gun was fairly small and mobile, though it needed four men to serve it. It had already been introduced into several armies. Then suddenly there appeared an entirely new kind of weapon in the international armament market, which knocked all others out of the field. An American engineer named Hiram Maxim had constructed a weapon which was not much larger than an ordinary rifle, though it was mounted on two wheels. With this remarkable instrument, it was said, several hundred shots could be fired in a minute. People at first believed that the Maxim gun was not much more than an ingenious toy, good enough to create a sensation for a couple of weeks. But there appeared to be more in it than that. The inventor, a smart engineer, who had already made a reputation in other fields, was himself travelling with his machine from country to country and introducing it to the military authorities. In the War Ministries the prevailing tone was at first very sceptical, but gradually the Maxim gun began to be a dangerous competitor to the Nordenfelt quick-firer.

Torsten Nordenfelt was seriously perturbed, but his agent Zaharoff offered to knock the Maxim gun out of the field in one way or another as far as the foreign military authorities were concerned. If he could only once succeed in catching Maxim at one of his demonstrations he would take good care that the result of the dress rehearsal should not be advantageous to the Maxim gun.

The long-hoped-for opportunity arrived finally in Vienna. Zaharoff had discovered that a trial shooting with a Maxim gun was to take place in the Viennese Arsenal. As quickly as he could he set out to put a spoke in his competitor's wheel. It was too late to prevent the demonstration of the Maxim gun. The Austrian Ministry of War was most keenly interested in the new invention, and the whole body of generals had arranged to be present at the trials. Even the Emperor had agreed to put in an appearance. The trial went off with military punctuality. Among the motley uniforms, among princes and archdukes who had turned up to witness this sensational event, there appeared a top hat. A gentleman in the forties, with a greying beard and wearing a ceremonious frockcoat, gave a few short explanations in English. Then he knelt, all by himself, in front of the gun, and the shots rattled off more quickly than the ticking of a clock. The military experts were astounded. There had never been anything like it. Certainly there were some sceptics, and the foreign inventor was asked a number of questions. But it was not easy to understand him, for he spoke nothing but English. One of the critics thought that speed alone was not sufficient. What about accuracy of aim? Maxim immediately declared himself ready to furnish a test. A target was set up fairly near to the machine-gun. The gentleman in the top hat again knelt down, the strange tic-tac noise was heard once more, and, to everybody's astonishment, there appeared on the target the letters F. J.-the initials of the Emperor Franz Josef-written with fine holes.

This shrewd and harmless jest decided the success of the new weapon. The Emperor and his retinue congratulated the inventor. The pressmen, who had followed the demonstration from behind a fence, broke out into applause, and the most enthusiastic was a tall slim gentleman who had taken his place among the journalists. "A wonderful performance," he cried. "Marvellous! Nobody can compete with this Nordenfelt gun!" "Nordenfelt?" asked one of the pressmen. "Isn't the inventor's name Maxim?" "No," replied the gentleman, who obviously knew all about the matter," that is the Nordenfelt gun, the finest weapon in the world." And, in order that the foreign journalists who were present should also understand, he repeated his paean in French and English. "The Nordenfelt model has beaten all the others."

The reporters hurried away to their editorial offices full of the great event, and of the information they had obtained from the well-informed gentleman. A few hours later it was possible to read in the Viennese newspapers, and shortly after in the foreign journals, that the Nordenfelt machine-gun had given a proof of its incomparable powers of performance in the presence of His Majesty the Emperor. The enthusiastic gentleman who had given the information in such an amiable manner was none other than Basil Zaharoff. While the royal suite was leaving the shooting-gallery, Zaharoff had mingled with the soldiers and respectfully greeted some of the members of the War Ministry. He begged the leading officers to ·listen to him for a minute. "An incomparable performance," he began again. "Nobody can compete with Mr. Maxim so far as this gun is concerned. But that is just the disadvantage of this great invention that nobody can copy it. It is therefore nothing but a conjuring trick, a circus attraction." The soldiers, who were still engrossed in the great scene they had witnessed, opened their ears. "Do you know who Mr. Maxim is, gentlemen?" continued Zaharoff. "I shall tell you. He is a Yankee, and to-day probably the most skillful engineer in the world. By profession he is a philosophising instrument-maker, the only man on this earth who can manufacture and work these machine-guns. Everything must be made with the greatest precision. A hundredth of a millimetre difference, here or there, and the thing does not function. All the springs must have a definite amount of tension. Suppose you want a large number of these guns, where are you going to get them from, since there is only one man in the whole world who can make them? Maxim goes into his workshop and actually builds his models with his own·hands. This naturally limits production considerably, and finally, even if you had a large number of them, do you think you could obtain an army of philosophising expert mechanics from Boston to work the things?" Zaharoff's objections did not fail to have their effect. When Hiram Maxim went to the War Ministry on the following day in the certain expectation of being overloaded with orders, he met with a surprisingly cool reception. He demanded the reason whether the Emperor perhaps had been dissatisfied with the demonstration? "Not at all," was the reply. "His Majesty expressed himself in a very laudatory manner, but ... " All the answers were evasive until an elderly officer finally told Hiram Maxim the truth, and repeated the criticism of Basil Zaharoff: "A colleague of yours from London, who witnessed the whole thing, thinks that nothing can be done with your invention-that it is a device for trick shots, but not for ordinary soldiers." Maxim saw himself deprived of half his success. He had great difficulty in convincing the experts in the War Ministry that his machine-gun could be manufactured in workshops just as conveniently and accurately as any other weapon. After tedious negotiations and discussions he finally received an order for 160 machine-guns for the Austrian army. But the incident of the crafty Nordenfelt agent stuck in his mind. He himself could make use of such a cunning and eloquent linguist; orders would certainly be obtained far more easily, and he would be free to do something more sensible than sitting about in War Offices. His experience in Vienna made a lasting impression on Zaharoff also. He reported to his chief in London his artfully contrived scheme, but he did not omit to emphasise the magnificent success that Maxim had won in Austria, thanks to his wonderful invention. They must succeed in possessing the patent; if they could construct such machine-guns, their orders would soon take on a very different aspect. A competitor like Hiram Maxim could not be beaten. There was only one way to draw his sting-by collaborating with him.

Zaharoff's train of thought was not received with any enthusiasm at first by the self-willed Nordenfelt. For an engineer who had so many successes of his own to show, and had achieved at any rate a certain amount of world fame with his inventions, it was not easy to admit that someone else had hit upon better and more profitable ideas. Nevertheless, after some resistance, Nordenfelt declared himself ready to put an end to the competitive war with Maxim, and, if there were still time, and so long as the partnership were on equal terms, to enter into an alliance with him.

The negotiations with Hiram Maxim took a surprisingly smooth course. The very first discussion between the two rivals convinced both of them that it would probably be to their advantage to join forces. Maxim was obviously concerned chiefly in obtaining a sound economic foundation for the exploitation of his patents. Nordenfelt had at his disposal a well-developed armament business, and possessed arms factories in England and Sweden, a munitions factory in Dartford, iron works in Bilbao in Spain, and all kinds of subsidiary concerns. In addition, his firm had Zaharoff, this resourceful, world-experienced salesman-a business asset which was surely not to be despised.

The decisive factor, however, was the bitter experience that both the negotiating parties had suffered in recent years-that the large firms always beat the small ones in the international armament market. The great old-established firms, like Krupp in Germany, Schneider-Creusot in France, and Armstrong in England, were in a position to give their customers credit. They had their best and surest propaganda in the military missions and instructors who were sent all over the world by the great military states. Even though the smaller countries tried to imitate the larger ones, inviting public tenders and organising competitive shoots with military pomp before they distributed orders for armaments-yet it was the foreign instructor of troops who decided the issue, and in nine cases out of ten, in favour, naturally, of the standard firm in his native country. Long before brands of soap and scent had become naturalised in different countries, guns and muskets had become international commodities. A nation shot with Krupp, or with Schneider-Creusot, if it wanted to have a first-class army.

The smaller and younger firms, on the other hand, had a difficult task. They might try by all the means in their power, dishonest ones not excepted, to obtain orders. Bribery and corruption, open or masked, were in any case the order of the day in the armament business and extended to the highest places, to Ministries and Parliaments; but even in chicanery the large firms could beat the small ones. The nature of the armament business compelled concentration, amalgamations, and the formation of a few, very large undertakings. It was the knowledge of this that made Torsten Vilhelm Nordenfelt and Hiram S. Maxim come to an understanding. The Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company Ltd. and the Maxim Gun Company were fused into one concern in the year 1888.



Lewisohn, Richard. The Man behind the Scenes. The Career of Sir Basil Zaharoff, 'The Mystery Man of Europe. London: Gollancz, 1929. 69-77.


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