One of the strangest sights of the Russo-Ukraine War is the image of Ukrainian soldiers fighting with World War I-era machine guns. This Ukrainian machine gun, the M1910, entered service in the Russian Imperial Army in the first decade of the 20th century, and was intended to be the Russian version of the famous British Maxim Gun. Ukraine possesses about 35,000 of these ancient guns, none manufactured later than 1950, yet has deployed a number of them to the front lines. These guns, however, show their age. Although the M1910 has similar firepower to the far more advanced Russian PK Machine Gun, it weighs about 140 pounds, five times as much as its newer counterpart.
How can Ukraine get away with using obsolete machine guns in a conventional war against a top-tier military power? This is not an act of desperation. Instead it is a sensible choice with a considerable amount of precedent. Today, I’m going to discuss the phenomenon of modern (1700-present) armies using “obsolete” weapons. There is a long history of individuals using obsolete weapons in modern conflicts. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the Soviet Union used the Spanish Republican forces as a dumping ground for all the outdated and obsolete weapons they could find in the Tsar’s armories. These included thousands of Italian rifles captured from the Ottomans in 1877 and American Winchesters produced in the 1860s, as well as the very same M1910s now being used in Ukraine.
Other instances are even stranger. “Mad Jack” Churchill famously fought with a longbow and Scottish broadsword in World War II. After the Battle of New Ross in 1798, British soldiers found one dead Irishman holding a sword from the Bronze Age –– 3000 years old. Yet the uses of obsolete weapons go far beyond these eccentric individuals.
It is widely known, of course, that irregular armies can use archaic weapons, spike pits and the like to great effect during guerrilla wars. Just think of the Vietcong. What is more intriguing, however, is that even well-funded national armies use antique weaponry.
Consider the example of the Brown Bess Musket. This flintlock was the primary weapon used by the British armed forces for more than a century, from 1722 until 1838. Keep in mind that this was the most technologically advanced country in the world during one of the greatest periods of scientific innovation in world history. Between 1722 and 1838, the population of London tripled in size to about two million. The country as a whole transitioned from an age of firewood, horses, and sail to an era of coal, railways, and steam. Yet as British forces fought in countless wars across the globe, the design of the Brown Bess Musket remained virtually unchanged.
Such long-term use of weapons is also present in the modern world. The United States military has used the M2 Browning Machine Gun, a weapon not dissimilar from the M1910, since its introduction in 1933 to the present day. The US military used the same main infantry rifle (the M16 and offshoots) between 1964 and 2022. The fact that the world’s most advanced militaries can use essentially the same main weapon for a lifetime may seem strange at first glance, but a closer examination reveals the logic of the decision.
First of all, there are some obvious reasons why an old weapon system might be preferable to a newer one. Developing a brand new rifle or machine gun and replacing all your older models is expensive and time consuming. It’s also a big risk. Inevitably, new systems will have problems, and the people using them will be unfamiliar with the new equipment. Introducing new equipment often leads to a short term dip in effectiveness. But there is another, more interesting reason why countries can use seemingly ancient weapons with great success.
Paradoxically, technological change in warfare can set the stage for technological continuity. Consider the case of Ukraine. Because of its immense weight, the M1910 machine gun is really only useful for defending static positions. In the lead-up to the Invasion of Ukraine, many theorists assumed that modern armies such as Russia’s can make short work of fixed defenses through their air superiority, mobile battle groups, and superior firepower. However, more recent technological advancements have undercut these advantages. The proliferation of MANPADS (such as Stinger Missiles) and portable anti-tank weapons (such as the famous Javelin), as well as the impressively effective UAVs (like the even-more famous Bayraktar TB2), means that Ukraine has reliable and cheap tools to destroy Russian armor and planes. Russia has been reluctant to use much of its air force over Ukraine for that very reason, and when Russia does deploy its tank forces, they tend to suffer horrendous losses (more than 700 tanks as of this writing).
The net result of all this is that the Ukraine war has devolved into a slow and brutal conventional war, full of trenches and other fixed defensive positions. In some ways, it resembles the WW1 landscape where the M1910 cut its teeth. However, this tactical devolution is only possible because cutting-edge technology has partly neutralized the modern technology that had in turn neutralized the M1910. In a modern battlefield, sometimes an ancient weapon is more effective than an old one.
If you look at modern history, virtually ever period of weapon continuity was also a period of rapid development for other military technology. Rapid development in one field permitted other technologies to remain the same. Take the Brown Bess Musket. Although the musket changed very little between 1722 and 1838, improvements in other technology created new uses for the Brown Bess. For example, British maritime transportation improved dramatically in the period. The time it took to cross the Atlantic went from about six weeks to as little as fourteen days. Improved transportation meant that British armies could travel the world and easily access India, China, Africa, and other places were the Brown Bess was already far superior to the local weaponry. British soldiers could move around at breathtaking speed, a huge tactical advantage that made designing a new musket an unnecessary expense.
I would be remiss not to mention the most important technological advancement in military history: nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have lengthened the lifespan of many weapons that might have otherwise become obsolete. Consider the M16, the weapon used by the US military for the better part of a century. The United States Armed Forces at this time was not designed to fight a world war against a peer competitor. American planners knew that if a war with the Soviet Union broke out, it would likely be a nuclear war, and conventional weapons would play a secondary role. As a result, the military’s tactics and equipment remained focused around fighting smaller countries with inferior technology. The M16 was deemed sufficient for that kind of conflict.
Now, however, the situation may be changing. The number of nuclear warheads in the world has plummeted since the end of the Cold War, and, as Ukraine demonstrates, conventional warfare between states has returned as a tool of great power policy. With nuclear weapons being less strategically important, the effect nukes had on military weaponry has eroded. Just this year, the United States officially switched from the M16 to the SIG MCX, a weapon that experts feel is more suited to fighting against other powerful countries because of its larger caliber and compatibility with other NATO weaponry. If historical patterns hold, we might well see the new SIG MCX for the remainder of our lifetimes.
All in all, the whole phenomenon of modern armies using obsolete weaponry gives new meaning to one famously inane expression: The more things change, the more they stay the same.