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The Social History of the Machine Gun [Paperback]

John Ellis
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 1, 1986 0801833582 978-0801833588
Book by Ellis, John

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The Social History of the Machine Gun + Making of the West, Volume II: Since 1500: Peoples and Cultures
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Editorial Reviews


A classic study of the cultural implications of a lethal technology. Reissued with a foreword and an excellent bibliographic essay on automatic weapons by Edward Ezell, it remains provocative and persuasive.


Arguing that the history of technology is inseparable from social history in general, Mr. Ellis weighs the machine gun's impact on weaponry, warfare, and society.

(New York Times)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press (August 1, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801833582
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801833588
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 5.9 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #681,681 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An unusual perspective August 7, 1999
By A Customer
Mr. Ellis has written a most unusual book. His thesis contends that the invention of the machine gun and the failure of the military to recognize it significance in the decades leading up to WWI, considering it useful only against tribesmen and other "primitives", led directly to the horrific slaughter of WWI and the static warefare of the trenches. He looks in depth at the military subculture of Victorian England and how it was incapable of recognizing the significance of the machine gun-and those who attempted to place the weapon into the British Army's scheme of things were sanctioned and gagged. When we finally get to the chapter on WWI it is akin to reading one of Shakespear's tragedies. The inevitability of the butchery is made all that more terrible by the knowledge that the deliberite myopia of the British and French higher command ensured that their troops used outmoded tactics against emplaced German forces and their Maxim guns. The author gives one case where two German machine guns annihilated a six-hundred man British infantry battalion in the space of a couple of hours with no casulties sustained by the Germans. In other words six German soldiers killed and wounded hundreds. The final chapter covers the years following WWI as well as the role of the weapon in movies of all things. Some might disagree with Mr. Ellis, that the invention of one device could be responsible for such sweeping changes in both social and military circles is unrealistic, but Mr. Ellis presents a very skillfull work that states just that. If you are looking for a technical history of the machine gun then this book isn't for you, but if you are curious about the impact that the industrial revolution has made on humanity then this book will be a fascinating read.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The obsolescence of the soldier April 3, 2001
This is a unique book. John Ellis has written more than a technical history of the machine guns, a weapon which has really revolutionized the battlefields and the military world. Mr. Ellis tells us a story about the resilience of customs, practices and traditions, in spite of the fact that the material reality that once enabled these customs and practices to thrive have already gone away. The 19th Century's officers and commanders were accustomed to thinking in terms of human intrepidity and courage as the most important attributes to carry the day in the battlefields. Machine guns were the first specific application of the technique and logic of the industrial revolution in military combat. Firing an inordinate stream of bullets, machine guns came to be the definitive symbols of the machine age in military history, regardless of marksmanship or easy targets. Nevertheless, ingrained beliefs die hard. The militaries in all major powers continued to cling to the idea of the irreplaceability of the infantry and cavalry charges, with bayonets, swords and lances, as the final judge of victory or defeat in military matters. In this sad tale about the final triumph of the material conditions against an ideal and constructed world, there would not be any place for happy endings. Archaic tactics and a longing for offensives, on the one hand, plus the continued production of more powerful and improved machine guns, on the other, set the backdrop for the appalling bloodbaths of the First World War, like Gallipoli, Verdun and the Somme. This is a book that will please not only social scientists or scholars, but also anyone with an interest in this topic (First World War, military matters and gun history) with a sophisticated taste for reading and studying. It is important to mention also the dozens of wonderful pictures and drawings that illustrates all the book, which give the reader enhanced pleasure.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ellis had another tour de force March 22, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"The only thing harder than putting a new idea into a military mind is taking an old idea out." Liddell Hart

I consider myself exceptionally well read in military history and found most books deal with pre- conflict diplomacy, diplomatic failure, initiation of conflict, strategy, tactical considerations, campaigns, occupation, end of conflict results and the resultant impact on societies and nations. Once in a while I read a book that is so profound that I experience what I call an intellectual epiphany. The last time I had that was in 1990 when I read John Ellis's Brute Force. It studied WW II in a way I had never thought of and never seen in all the WW II books I have read. I looked forward to reading The History of the Machine Gun and was not disappointed, although I think it is not as much an intellectual tour de force as Brute Force. Ellis does not study the history of the machine gun in a Unitarian way, but weaves a story incorporating social, military and technological history into a smooth formula. He shows there is an absolute interplay between the zeitgeist of social [especially class], military and technological forces. He also shows that unless there are the proper changes and alignment of forces progress is retarded. Multiple factors created by the Civil War aided in the development of the machine gun. The author states that the American Civil War "was the first war in which both sides were able to effectively mobilize the potential, in terms of materiel and manpower" [pg 24] a point I am not sure I agree with [i.e. the Napoleonic and Crimean wars or were they an adumbration of the Civil War].
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